Excerpts from the Red Book of Westmarch

with Overlap

Original text copyright 1954, 1965, 1966 by JRR Tolkien; 1965 ed. renewed 1993, 1994 by Christopher R Tolkien, John FR Tolkien and Priscilla MAR Tolkien. These excerpts appear in the spirit of fair use, as a demonstration of electronic encoding technologies, and are not for sale. Notes are in the public domain.

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Next morning after a late breakfast, the wizard was sitting with Frodo by the open window of the study. A bright fire was on the hearth, but the sun was warm, and the wind was in the South. Everything looked fresh, and the new green of Spring was shimmering in the fields and on the tips of the trees' fingers.

Gandalf was thinking of a spring, nearly eighty years before, when Bilbo had run out of Bag End without a handkerchief. His hair was perhaps whiter than it had been then, and his beard and eyebrows were perhaps longer, and his face more lined with care and wisdom; but his eyes were as bright as ever, and he smoked and blew smoke-rings with the same vigour and delight.

He was smoking now in silence, for Frodo was sitting still, deep in thought. Even in the light of morning he felt the dark shadow of the tidings that Gandalf had brought. At last he broke the silence.

“Last night you began to tell me strange things about my ring, Gandalf,” he said. “And then you stopped, because you said that such matters were best left until daylight. Don't you think you had better finish now? You say the ring is dangerous, far more dangerous than I guess. In what way?”

“In many ways,” answered the wizard. “It is far more powerful than I ever dared to think at first, so powerful that in the end it would utterly overcome anyone of mortal race who possessed it. It would possess him.

“In Eregion long ago many Elven-rings were made, magic rings as you call them, and they were, of course, of various kinds: some more potent and some less. The lesser rings were only essays in the craft before it was full-grown, and to the Elven-smiths they were but trifles​—​yet still to my mind dangerous for mortals. But the Great Rings, the Rings of Power, they were perilous.

“A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings[1], does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness.[2] And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings.[3][4] Yes, sooner or later​—​later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last​—​sooner or later the dark power will devour him.[5]

“How terrifying!” said Frodo. There was another long silence. The sound of Sam Gamgee cutting the lawn came in from the garden.

“How long have you known this?” asked Frodo at length. “And how much did Bilbo know?”

“Bilbo knew no more than he told you, I am sure,” said Gandalf. “He would certainly never have passed on to you anything that he thought would be a danger, even though I promised to look after you. He thought the ring was very beautiful, and very useful at need; and if anything was wrong or queer, it was himself. He said that it was growing on his mind, and he was always worrying about it; but he did not suspect that the ring itself was to blame. Though he had found out that the thing needed looking after; it did not seem always of the same size or weight; it shrank or expanded in an odd way, and might suddenly slip off a finger where it had been tight.[6]

“Yes, he warned me of that in his last letter,” said Frodo, “so I have always kept it on its chain.”

“Very wise,” said Gandalf. “But as for his long life, Bilbo never connected it with the ring at all. He took all the credit for that to himself, and he was very proud of it. Though he was getting restless and uneasy. Thin and stretched he said. A sign that the ring was getting control.”

“How long have you known all this?” asked Frodo again. “Known?” said Gandalf. “I have known much that only the Wise know, Frodo. But if you mean ‘known about this ring’, well, I still do not know, one might say. There is a last test to make. But I no longer doubt my guess.

“When did I first begin to guess?” he mused, searching back in memory. “Let me see​—​it was in the year that the White Council drove the dark power from Mirkwood, just before the Battle of Five Armies[7], that Bilbo found his ring. A shadow fell on my heart then, though I did not know yet what I feared. I wondered often how Gollum came by a Great Ring, as plainly it was​—​that at least was clear from the first. Then I heard Bilbo's strange story of how he had ‘won’ it, and I could not believe it. When I at last got the truth out of him, I saw at once that he had been trying to put his claim to the ring beyond doubt.[8] Much like Gollum with his ‘birthday present’. The lies were too much alike for my comfort. Clearly the ring had an unwholesome power that set to work on its keeper at once. That was the first real warning I had that all was not well. I told Bilbo often that such rings were better left unused; but he resented it, and soon got angry. There was little else that I could do. I could not take it from him without doing greater harm; and I had no right to do so anyway[9]. I could only watch and wait. I might perhaps have consulted Saruman the White, but something always held me back.”

“Who is he?” asked Frodo. “I have never heard of him before.” “Maybe not,” answered Gandalf. “Hobbits are, or were, no concern of his. Yet he is great among the Wise. He is the chief of my order and the head of the Council. His knowledge is deep, but his pride has grown with it, and he takes ill any meddling. The lore of the Elven-rings, great and small, is his province. He has long studied it, seeking the lost secrets of their making; but when the Rings were debated in the Council, all that he would reveal to us of his ring-lore told against my fears. So my doubt slept​—​but uneasily. Still I watched and I waited.

“And all seemed well with Bilbo. And the years passed. Yes, they passed, and they seemed not to touch him. He showed no signs of age. The shadow fell on me again. But I said to myself: After all he comes of a long-lived family on his mother's side. There is time yet. Wait!

“And I waited. Until that night when he left this house. He said and did things then that filled me with a fear that no words of Saruman could allay. I knew at last that something dark and deadly was at work. And I have spent most of the years since then in finding out the truth of it.”

“There wasn't any permanent harm done, was there?” asked Frodo anxiously. “He would get all right in time, wouldn't he? Be able to rest in peace, I mean?”

“He felt better at once,” said Gandalf. “But there is only one Power in this world that knows all about the Rings and their effects; and as far as I know there is no Power in the world that knows all about hobbits. Among the Wise I am the only one that goes in for hobbit-lore: an obscure branch of knowledge, but full of surprises. Soft as butter they can be, and yet sometimes as tough as old tree-roots. I think it likely that some would resist the Rings far longer than most of the Wise would believe. I don't think you need worry about Bilbo.

“Of course, he possessed the ring for many years, and used it, so it might take a long while for the influence to wear off​—​ before it was safe for him to see it again, for instance. Otherwise, he might live on for years, quite happily: just stop as he was when he parted with it. For he gave it up in the end of his own accord: an important point.[10] No, I was not troubled about dear Bilbo any more, once he had let the thing go. It is for you that I feel responsible.

“Ever since Bilbo left I have been deeply concerned about you, and about all these charming, absurd, helpless hobbits. It would be a grievous blow to the world, if the Dark Power overcame the Shire; if all your kind, jolly, stupid Bolgers, Hornblowers, Boffins, Bracegirdles, and the rest, not to mention the ridiculous Bagginses, became enslaved.”

Frodo shuddered. “But why should we be?” he asked. “And why should he want such slaves?”

“To tell you the truth,” replied Gandalf, “I believe that hitherto​—​hitherto, mark you​—​he has entirely overlooked the existence of hobbits. You should be thankful. But your safety has passed. He does not need you​—​he has many more useful servants​—​but he won't forget you again. And hobbits as miserable slaves would please him far more than hobbits happy and free. There is such a thing as malice and revenge.”

“Revenge?” said Frodo. “Revenge for what? I still don't understand what all this has to do with Bilbo and myself, and our ring.”

“It has everything to do with it,” said Gandalf. “You do not know the real peril yet; but you shall. I was not sure of it myself when I was last here; but the time has come to speak. Give me the ring for a moment.”


[1] A Great Ring has an effect even if it is not worn; keeping it is enough. And because it induces acquisitiveness and possessiveness (especially with respect to itself), it can be hard to get rid of.
[2] The ring has the power of suspending the rules of mortality and prolonging life. That is, it preserves (though not in the same way as the Elf-rings whose science it borrows). In this way, like any technology, it promises control over time and space.
[3] It seems that to claim or appropriate the ring (an intention that is implicit in wearing it) awakens or activates it: to do so is to engage in a contest of wills with it and its creator, and it is this contest, and this intimacy, that is corrupting. Thus the wearer is bound by the ring, as one is possessed by what one possesses.
[4] Invisibility amounts to the power to act without taking responsibility​—​without being seen or recognized, except by the ring's creator and true owner. Yet inasmuch as the Dark Lord also serves as a disembodied principle of malice​—​a subjectivity mixed with Frodo's own as (and just so far as) he takes the ring to be properly his own​—​Frodo's struggle comes to be personal and interior, between Frodo and himself. Thus the ring is an unnatural and super-normal means (a technology) by which Frodo can indulge his wish to hide, but only at the price of being implicated in (as it were, known by) the fear, shame and malevolence expressed in that hiding (whether these be identified as Frodo's own more selfish motives, or a motive ‘built in’ to the ring by its creator). To wear the ring (and even to bear it, to use the novel's word) is thus to take on a burden of guilt or knowledge of one's weakness and fallibility, as well as exposure and subservience to the greater power that made it and whose purpose is expressed in it. And more, to claim the ring will be to embrace, to one's own ultimate destruction, a fallen condition.
[5] From the very first, accounts of what happens with the ring are dismaying and demoralizing, while its attraction, and the temptation it represents, are described more than demonstrated. That is, while the ring is said to be as beautiful as it is simple, we are never in doubt as to its treacherous nature, or made to feel its attraction ourselves.
[6] In Gandalf's description of Bilbo's mixed subjectivity, he draws attention to the ring's independence and willfulness by noting how it grows and shrinks (a physical effect), leaving implicit its moral effects both of causing Bilbo to fret and of confusing him as to the source of his own feelings. Thus Gandalf is able to attribute volition and self-interest to the ring despite (and by way of observing) Bilbo's being deceived on that very point (about what's his own fault and what isn't).
[7] The sense of a deep, layered history is conveyed not only by generalized allusions to untold knowledge (“I have known much that only the Wise know, Frodo”) but by Gandalf's casual references, here as elsewhere, to events known to the characters but not, most likely, to us.
[8] Notice both Bilbo's proprietary attitude towards the ring, and his wish to keep the truth about it hidden.
[9] Gandalf has no right to take the ring because it isn't his. Nor would thinking he could use it for good make it his, a point on which other characters in the book are confused even if Gandalf is not.
[10] Bilbo and Sam are the only characters in the novel to give up the ring willingly; Gandalf, Galadriel, Aragorn and Faramir refuse it when offered, or when they have an opportunity to take it.