I have been going through Professor Corey Olsen’s series of Mythgard podcasts discussing The Lord of the Rings. In doing so, I’ve had some clarity with regards to something that has always sort of “bothered me” (for lack of a better term).
Mostly this surrounded the question (that many have seemingly shared, prompting Olsen to clarify on it): “How is it that nobody knew what was going on with the One Ring during the Third Age?” For this, people generally point to examples such as Gandalf’s absence from The Shire and research in Gondor, the “test” in Frodo’s small fire at Bag-end, the many questions and clarifications (and indeed dubiousness) at “The Council of Elrond”, etc.
For clarity, Olsen points to the simile of our own timeline. Think of our world 3,000 years ago…for that is the amount of time which has passed from the cutting of the ring from the finger of Sauron until Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party. For us, 3,000 years ago the iron age was getting underway in Europe. It was still a fairly new thing. The Celts were ruling Britain…the Roman invasion still being 1,000+ years off. In Greece we have repubic states with some of the first democracies in the world’s history beginning to form. Greek civilization will reach its height over the next few centuries.
We are talking pre-Christ by a long way.
Take this into consideration and how long ago that seems to us. And consider the absolute plethora of knowledge we have about the ancient Greeks, when compared to the knowledge present in Middle-earth during Frodo’s time. There was hardly any to speak of. Gandalf had to go to Gondor and search the archives for scraps of information about something that happened so long ago as to be equated to the ancient Greeks. It’s easy enough to understand the ignorance of hobbits…who live so far away and removed from any source of historical record, when the people who live in Gondor aren’t much more educated themselves. Boromir and Faramir didn’t fully know the history if the One, and had only hints at best. History had truly become legend.
The people of the Third Age had ample excuse of ignorance. Time alone is their argument. But this leads me to another question: what of Isildur? Did he truly know what he was cutting from Sauron’s hand? After all, it was nearly 2,000 years from its forging until Isildur claimed it for his own.
The elves, certainly, knew what The One Ring was.
For in the day that Sauron first put on the One, Celebrimbor, maker of the Three, was aware of him, and from afar he heard him speak these words, and so his evil purposes were revealed.
(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring)
Does this mean that Celebrimbor immediately became aware of how the One was crafted? Did he have awareness of the recipe and method, (to use a clumsy metaphor)? That is, does he know that Sauron put into the Ring itself a vast amount of his own power? Is this recipe something unique to Sauron and the One (we’ve no evidence it is more widespread) … or is the putting of your own power into a ring of power absolutely necessary regardless of whether it is the One or one of the lesser rings?
Arguably, Celebrimbor must have known of Sauron’s transfer of power. How else how would the Wise have learned such information? It is not as if Sauron wrote a booklet on the subject or gave an interview to “Middle-earth Weekly”.
Upon Sauron’s “revelation”, the Elves immediately removed their rings and put them into hiding. But did they tell anyone of the lesser rings, or more importantly, of the One? Do we think it likely that they discussed the matters of rings of power very openly with anyone? Even within the alliance? Granted, we are “pre-Isildur’s fall” at this point. But men are still easily corrupted. We already have the 9, and we have the entire sinking of Númenor fiasco. Men are corruptible and have shown this historically. Would the elves have trusted them with knowledge of the three? It’s questionable. Yet in order to convince anyone to destroy the One, you surely must give them reason to do so.
And whilst the battlefield is not exactly the right place to start schooling Isildur, yet they (the elves) clearly counselled Isildur to cast the One into the fires from which it came. Elrond says in his re-telling of the events of the Last Alliance:
I beheld the last combat on the slopes of Orodruin, where Gil-galad died, and Elendil fell, and Narsil broke beneath him; but Sauron himself was overthrown, and Isildur cut the Ring from his hand with the hilt-shard of his father’s sword, and took it for his own.
Isildur took it, as should not have been. It should have been cast then into Orodruin’s fire nigh at hand where it was made. But few marked what Isildur did. He alone stood by his father in that last mortal contest, and by Gil-galad only Cirdan stood, and I. But Isildur would not listen to our counsel.
(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring)
Is this as far as it goes? Did they tell him why it was so important to destroy it? Probably. You can’t just tell him to destroy it and expect him to obey. He’ll naturally ask why…especially if he plans to claim it as weregild. But in doing so — in explaining the danger of the One — do they open themselves up to greater risk with regards to the three lesser rings? You cannot expect to explain the power of the One and miss out its ability to control all the other rings, for therein lies its true threat. And yet if you wish for the three to remain secret, you should ideally speak of them as little as possible.
I’m going in circles on this one, and in reality there is probably no answer to any of this. But I think that it’s interesting to ponder.