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The Three Elven-Rings... in The Hobbit?

Updated on January 15, 2015

And the White Council's Assault on Sauron

Okay, Tolkien fans, time for a bit of Middle-earth lore: the Three Elven Rings of Power that Sauron never touched. You probably remember that Galadriel bore one of them, but do you recall who held the other two?

Here's a question which Tolkien himself never addresses: where were the Three Rings during the events of The Hobbit? The answer is less clear-cut than you might think.

Left: "Galadriel": my photomanip of this photo by Joe Szilagyi and this photo by Paul Stocker, Creative Commons.

The "White Wizards" in The Hobbit - What Tolkien had already invented...and what he hadn't

"Elrond wore a mantle of grey and had a star upon his forehead, and a silver harp was in his hand, and upon his finger was a ring of gold with a great blue stone, Vilya, mightiest of the Three." - The Return of The King

Image credit: Mark Somma, CC

Near the very end of The Hobbit, author J.R.R. Tolkien slipped in a handy excuse to explain why Gandalf wasn't around to save Bilbo, Thorin and friends from their worst perils. (Tolkien was continually stashing Gandalf somewhere, dropping him off bridges or the like so that the party could get into real trouble.) The following incidental quote became the seed upon which Tolkien would build his epic sequel, The Lord of the Rings.

"Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and... they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the south of Mirkwood."

That's all we get in The Hobbit, because that's all Tolkien had invented at the time. Tolkien had not settled who the "white wizards" were, nor who the "Necromancer" was.

Before and while writing The Hobbit, Tolkien had also been writing stories about a deeper, richer, more mythological world called Middle-earth. He casually borrowed a few names from this unpublished mythology for The Hobbit (Elrond, Gondolin), but he had not seriously connected his fairy tale hobbit-world to that ancient world of high epic and high tragedy.

During the course of writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien decided that Bilbo's world really was Middle-earth, that the Necromancer was Sauron -- an enemy in his Middle-earth writings -- that the Necromancer was NOT defeated for good by the "white wizards," and that the "white wizards" were actually the White Council: Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Saruman. (In The Lord of the Rings, Radagast the Brown is "one of [Gandalf's] order," i.e. a wizard, but it's actually not clear whether he ever participated in the White Council.)

Nowhere in Tolkien's writings does he ever describe exactly what happened when the White Council drove out the Necromancer from Mirkwood. That sentence quoted above is all there is in The Hobbit! Nonetheless, the cast list of the upcoming Hobbit film incudes Galadriel, Saruman, and Radagast, and I suspect that Jackson is going to invent that entire story.

That makes me ponder the full implications of the "White Council vs. Sauron" conflict, which Tolkien never fully explored. There is one very big factor in play which he had not yet conceived when he wrote The Hobbit: the Three Elven Rings.

Three Rings for Elven-Kings... - ...rhymes nicely, but actually these ringbearers were stewards

"On her finger was Nenya, the ring wrought of mithril, that bore a single white stone flickering like a frosty star." Return of the King

Image credit: gemteck1 @ Flickr, CC

(my photomanip)

While developing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien came up with the concept of the Rings of Power. He decided that Bilbo's ring was the One Ring, the ruling ring of Sauron (the Necromancer), which Sauron had created to control other rings held by the leaders of the various Free Peoples. The Elves avoided using the Three Rings until (they thought) Sauron was destroyed at the end of the Second Age. They then used the Three to protect and nurture their secret strongholds: the Grey Havens, Rivendell and Lórien.

The magic of these rings was subtle, not useful for dominion but for postponing decay and, to some extent, concealing Elf-havens from the rest of the world. Vilya and Nenya ensured that Rivendell and Lothlorien were difficult to find and enter. The rings had a strange effect on time, as well: "Time doesn't seem to pass here; it just is," as Bilbo told Frodo in Rivendell. In Lórien, the Fellowship lost track of time altogether -- they seemed to exist in a pristine bubble of time from the First Age while they dwelt within its borders. The Elven-rings wielded by Elrond and Galadriel did not stop time, but they made each hour richer, more magical, with very little sense of time passing, an echo of the way the immortal Elves experienced the world. Without the rings' blessing on Rivendell and the Golden Wood, the wondrous spell on these lands would fade, making them subject to entropy and threats from the outside world.

So it was no small matter for Elrond and Galadriel to leave their realms to do battle with the Necromancer in Mirkwood. They had a risky dilemma: either they must carry the Rings with them into Sauron's stronghold, which would remove the magical protection on their realms, or leave their Rings behind and face Sauron without their full power. They could not risk letting the Three fall into enemy hands, so perhaps the Ringbearers left them behind with lieutenants such as Glorfindel, Erestor or Celeborn.

The primary power of those Rings was not in battle. Yet they were powerful. With Vilya, Elrond was able to command the waters of the river outside Rivendell to rise against the Nazgul chasing Frodo. After the War of the Ring was over, Galadriel went to Sauron's fortress in Mirkwood and "threw down the walls and laid bare the pits, and the forest was cleansed." Did she use Nenya for that? Would she dare leave it at home, in Celeborn's care? Would he even accept it, considering the ambivalence he must have felt for the Noldor's rings of power? Would Galadriel have left Nenya with Arwen, instead?

Whether or not they carried the Rings with them in battle, they carried their perilous secret: a secret which had been concealed from Sauron for well over an Age. Very few people in Middle-earth knew who possessed the Three: only members of the White Council, probably. During the Council of Elrond in The Lord of the Rings, the topic of the Three Elven Rings came up, but it was forbidden to reveal where they were. What if Sauron had captured one of the Ringbearers during their campaign against his fortress in Mirkwood? In fact, he may actually have done so!

Taking the Ring of Fire into the Fire - Gandalf in the Necromancer's Stronghold

"Gandalf now wore openly on his hand the Third Ring, Narya the Great, and the stone upon it was red as fire." - Return of The King

Image credit: Different Seasons Jewelry, CC

Again, we must remember that Tolkien had not conceived of the Three Rings when he wrote The Hobbit. He certainly had not come up with the idea that Gandalf was carrying the Ring of Fire, a magical Elf-Ring given to him by its previous keeper, Cirdan of the Grey Havens, who realized that Gandalf would have a large part to play in the upcoming battle. This Ring did not give Gandalf overt powers, but it helped him kindle and restore the hearts and bodies of those around him, warming their spirits.

At the beginning of The Hobbit, Gandalf revealed to Bilbo and Thorin that he had entered the Necromancer's dungeons, where he met Thorin's dying father. Gandalf barely escaped alive. He had not known when he entered Dol Guldur that the Necromancer was really Sauron -- the White Council suspected a Nazgul -- but he knew it was terribly dangerous. Did he take Narya with him? Did Narya help him endure, or hide? What if he had been captured? Or was he? Gandalf does not make it clear exactly what happened to him.

In light of what we learn about Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, it's quite amazing that Gandalf escaped, and incredibly fortunate that Sauron did not discover and remove his ring. Then again, Saruman didn't take Narya when he captured Gandalf in Isengard, so perhaps the Elven-rings have some sort of camouflage. Galadriel says something of the sort in The Lord of the Rings: Frodo the Ringbearer can see her ring, but Sam cannot.

How Will Peter Jackson Handle the White Council?

And what will he do with the Three Elven Rings?

Obviously, we don't know exactly how the Three Rings figured into the White Council's assault on Dol Guldur during The Hobbit. Tolkien never pondered the question, so all we can do is speculate. But if, as I suspect, director Peter Jackson is going to dramatize this backstory event which Tolkien glossed over, it's going to be more of an issue, just as the death of Elves became rather more of an issue when Jackson elected to have a whole army of them come to Helm's Deep, where (apparently) every single one of them died.

Jackson plays fast and loose with key elements of Tolkien's saga. I'm curious to see what he intends to do with the White Council. And I can't help wondering about those Rings. Hopefully Jackson won't slip and "reveal" them, as he did when he inserted a scene in The Two Towers where Frodo showed the Nazgul he had the Ring. (That rather defeated the whole "Sauron doesn't know where the Ring is" secret which the entire quest depended on.)

© 2012 tinw

Guestbook - So, what do you think? Where were the Three Rings during The Hobbit?

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    • Fcuk Hub profile image

      Fcuk Hub 5 years ago

      The owners keep them?