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  • Three Rings for—Whom Exactly? And Why?Justifying the Disposition of the Three Elven Rings
  • Jason Fisher (bio)

As with many of the artifacts in The Lord of the Rings, the final names, descriptions, and putative functions of the "Three Rings for the Elven kings" were slow to emerge and changed many times. Indeed, the Elven Rings were originally to have been nine in number, with three for Mortal Men (Shadow 269). Later, these nine rings of the Elves became only three, associated first with "earth, air, and sky" (Shadow 260) and later with "earth, sea, and sky" (Shadow 319). During these early stages, Tolkien at one point also called the Three Rings "'Kemen, Ëar, and Menel, the Rings of Earth, Sea and Heaven'" (Hammond and Scull, Reader's Companion 671)1—logical, albeit later-abandoned, names which offer their own consistent etymologies (as glossed). And although the earliest form of the Ring-verse referred to nine Elven Rings, the earliest draft of the chapter "The Shadow of the Past" (one of the oldest parts of the manuscript, and then called "Ancient History") nevertheless referred to three Elven Rings from the outset (Shadow 260). Yet later, in the A manuscript for "The Grey Havens," there are no Elven Rings to be found; while in the B manuscript, the Rings are mentioned, but not named (Sauron 111 12). Furthermore, Galadriel's ring was initially to have been the Ring of Earth (Treason 252),2 and it was not until the astonishingly late date of the first galley proof that the three Elven Rings were finally christened Narya, Nenya, and Vilya (Sauron 111-12) and described as we now know them (Sauron 132).3

All of this variability would seem to be symptomatic of the difficulties involved in adapting the Three Rings to the legend of an overmastering One Ring, and of weaving all four into the backcloth of an already rich and well-developed legendarium that had no rings at all until a serendipitous narrative decision in The Hobbit. It is no wonder, then, that many readers have found themselves confused over the exact nature of the Three Rings and on whom each ring was bestowed. It is not uncommon, for example, to surmise mistakenly that Elrond, rather than Galadriel, possessed the Ring of Water, arguing that this might explain his command over the defensive waters of the Bruinen. Others mistakenly contend that since Gandalf was destined to become Gandalf the White, he was appointed caretaker of the White Ring instead of the Red. Such conclusions may be intuitive, but they are nevertheless missteps. To correct them, one must tease out the reasons for the disposition of each of the Three Rings. [End Page 99]

Narya / The Red Ring / The Ring of Fire

Narya is the easiest to trace, mainly because of its consistency with reader's intuition. Called the Red Ring and the Ring of Fire, Narya, like the other Elven Rings, was set with a jewel, a ruby (S 288), although we do not know of what metal the ring was fashioned. We do know that Celebrimbor conveyed both Narya and Vilya into the keeping of Gilgalad after his discovery of the scheming of Sauron. Subsequently, Gilgalad gave Narya to Círdan, Lord of Mithlond, though exactly when he did so is open to some question.4 But Círdan did not use the ring, claiming that "it was entrusted to me only to keep secret, and here upon the West-shores it is idle" (UT 389).5 Some time later, at Gandalf 's arrival in Middle earth, Círdan entrusted Narya to him, an act which would later stoke the fires of innate enmity between Gandalf and Saruman. Giving Narya to Gandalf, Círdan declared, "For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill" (RK, Appendix B, 366).

Some readers point triumphantly to the statement that "Gandalf had made a special study of bewitchments with fire and lights" (H, VI, 105); however, as Douglas Anderson has noted, "Quoting The Hobbit to discuss Narya and Gandalf 's use of fireworks seems to be posing a straw man only...


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