Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age
When Morgoth was overthrown, Sauron repented to Eonwë, but since a Maia could not pardon another Maia, Eonwë sent him to Valinor to receive the judgment of Manwë. Having been Morgoth’s most powerful servant—able to assume a guise of beauty—Sauron feared the loss of his power and hid instead in Middle-earth, where Morgoth’s hold on him caused him to revert to evil.
During the War of Wrath, Beleriand was broken and mostly flooded, and some of the Noldor, led by High King Gil-galad, lived in the area called Lindon, which they built into the Grey Havens. Many of the Teleri who had lived in Doriath and Ossiriand established realms in the forests of the Silvan Elves. Others of the Noldor moved to Eregion (Hollin) alongside the Misty Mountains and the Dwarf realm of Moria. There, a friendship between Elves and Dwarves led to the betterment of both, and the Gwaith-i-Mírdain (People of the Jewel-smiths) led by Celebrimbor exceeded the skill of all Elven craftspeople before them except for Fëanor.
Hating the Elves and coveting to control their power, Sauron set out to sway them. In Lindon, he was mistrusted and driven away by Gil-galad and Elrond, but elsewhere he went and claimed to desire to make Middle-earth as mighty and beautiful and Valinor. Gil-galad and Elrond, he said, did not wish for his help because they feared other realms becoming as mighty as their own. He was best received in Eregion, where the Elves sought to increase their skill and also dually felt a love for Middle-earth and a longing for the bliss of Valinor. In Eregion, the Elves began to make rings of power, but Sauron knew all that they did and guided them, desiring to bring them under his control.
Sauron made in secret One Ring to rule all of the lesser rings; their power was bound with it, and they lasted only so long as it did. Because the Elven rings were artifacts of great power, the One Ring was greater still, and with it, Sauron could both see what was done with the other rings and govern the thoughts of those who wore them.
The Elves perceived immediately what had happened and took off their rings. Sauron came against them then in open war, demanding the return of the rings that had been made with his help, but the Elves fled from him and took with them three of their rings. These three were the last forged and had been made by Celebrimbor alone without Sauron’s help, and they were the most powerful and could forestall the decays of weariness that came with the passage of time, leading Sauron to covet them the most. They were called Narya, Nenya, and Vilya—the Rings of Fire, Water, and Air—and though they had never been touched by Sauron, they were still under the control of the One Ring.
War did not end after between Sauron and the Elves, and Eregion was destroyed and Celebrimbor killed, and the doors to Moria were shut. Imladris (Rivendell) was established at this time by Elrond. Sauron took the remaining rings and sought to control the other peoples of Middle-earth by pandering to their secret desires. To the Dwarves, he gave seven rings, but the Dwarves were hard to master and used their rings mostly for gathering wealth, although greed led them to bitter ends, and some of their rings were lost to dragons. Men proved the easiest to persuade, and he gave nine rings to them, using their desire for unending life to enslave them to his will, giving them immortality that was unbearable and making them invisible to all save he who wore the One Ring. These nine Men became the nazgûl.
Sauron became a Dark Lord then and was hated and feared but very powerful. Only against Gil-galad in Lindon did he dare not fight, and Gil-galad was aided by the Númenóreans. At this time, the Númenóreans openly challenged Sauron, and he returned to Númenor and led to their downfall. When Númenor was flooded, his fair form was at last destroyed, and he returned to Middle-earth, where he found that Gil-galad’s influence had grown, and his people had spread across the land. Elendil, Anárion, and Isildur arrived then in Middle-earth, borne on a stormy sea. Elendil landed in Lindon and was befriended by Gil-galad, and his people established themselves in the north in the kingdom that would later be called Arnor. Anárion and Isildur landed in the south and sailed up the river Anduin and established the realm that would later be called Gondor, the chief city of which was then Osgiliath. They established also two cities—Minas Ithil and Minas Anor—and the brothers ruled side-by-side in Osgiliath.
The Númenóreans had brought powerful items with them from Númenor. The White Tree that was descended from Nimloth was planted in Minas Ithil, since Isildur had saved it. They also brought seven seeing-stones: Three were given to Elendil and two each to Anárion and Isildur. The stones revealed what was near to another stone, but those of strong will could direct their thoughts to see anything they chose, and little that the enemy did in those days escaped the notice of the Númenóreans.
Sauron prepared for war against the Elves and the Elf-friends of Númenor and eventually attacked Isildur in Minas Ithil, destroying the White Tree. Isildur escaped, however, with his family and a seedling of the tree, sailing from the Anduin to seek Elendil. Anárion held Osgiliath against Sauron but would not withstand further attacks.
Seeing that Sauron would overtake one by one the kingdoms of Middle-earth, Gil-galad and Elendil formed the Last Alliance and marched into war against Sauron on Dagorlad, and all living creatures were divided between one host or another. Gil-galad and Elendil won that day and held Mordor for seven years, amid great loss—including Anárion—against the enemy, until Sauron at last marched forth. Gil-galad and Elendil were killed, and Elendil’s sword Narsil broken. With a shard of the broken sword, however, Isildur cut the One Ring from Sauron’s hand and took it, and Sauron was forced to forsake his body and hid for many years.
This was the beginning of the Third Age. The servants of Sauron were mostly destroyed, and Isildur planted the White Tree in Minas Anor in memory of his brother. The fear and memory of Sauron remained in the hearts of many.
Isildur refused the counsel of Elrond and Círdan that the One Ring be destroyed in the fires in which it had been made. He took it as an heirloom for his kingdom and set out for the realm that had been his father’s, far from Mordor. On the way, though, he was ambushed by Orcs, and nearly all of his people were slain, including his three eldest sons. Isildur became invisible when he wore the ring, and he used it to escape, but the Orcs hunted him by scent and tracking. He jumped into a river, and the One Ring betrayed him and slipped from his finger, revealing him and leading to his death. Only three of his people returned, one of whom had been entrusted with keeping the shards of Narsil.
Isildur’s youngest son Valandil had remained in Rivendell during the war, and to him, the shards of Narsil went, where Elrond foretold that the sword would not be remade until the One Ring was found and Sauron would return. Valandil returned to the northern realm, but it slowly lost its might over the centuries, and its legacy was forgotten. In the south, Gondor remained and grew in splendor, but the might of the Númenóreans was weakened when their blood mixed with that of other Men, and the watch about Mordor lessened. The twenty-third king and his family was killed by a plague, as were many of the people of Gondor, and the watch on Gondor was deserted. Unseen by anyone, Mordor stirred again and the nazgûl returned to prepare the way for their lord.
When Eärnil was king, Mordor attacked and Minas Ithil was taken by them and became known as Minas Morgul. Osgiliath had been deserted, and Minas Anor—called Minas Tirith—was ever at war with Minas Morgul. When Eärnur son of Eärnil was king, he rode forth for single combat with the lord of Minas Morgul, and he was taken alive by the nazgûl and never seen again. The line of the kings ended with him, and the first steward of Gondor was Mardil the Faithful. The Rohirrim came from the north and aided Gondor in their wars, and the nazgûl did not dare to come forth again until Sauron had returned.
In the meantime, Rivendell was a safe place and a refuge for those weakened by evil, and the heirs of Isildur lived there in childhood and in old age. Elrond kept the shards of Narsil there also. The other Elven dwelling was the Grey Havens, the lord of whom was Círdan. The three rings were still hidden, and where they were, all was fair and unsullied, and the Elves perceived that Elrond and Galadriel kept two, for their realms were fairest; where the the third (Narya) dwelt, only Elrond, Galadriel, and Círdan knew. But in the lucky instance that the One Ring was found and destroyed before Sauron reclaimed it, the three rings would fail, as would their realms. Already, the Elves’ dominion was ending and the age of Men was beginning.
Around this time, Sauron arose in the Mirkwood forest, formerly known as Greenwood the Great. The entrance of darkness into the forest was insidious, and the wise were long in detecting its source as a hill called Dol Guldur where Sauron had made his stronghold. Only the north of the forest, where the Elves of Thranduil’s realm dwelt, was the evil and darkness banished. When these shadows first appeared, the Istari arrived from the west, messengers from the Valar to move the people of Middle-earth to valiant deeds against Sauron, should the need arise. They came in the guise of old men and were very wise; chief among them were Saruman and Gandalf. Although Saruman was the most skilled, Gandalf was the most vigilant, and he detected the evil in Mirkwood and it fled from him. A council of Elrond, Galadriel, Círdan, Gandalf, and Saruman was called, and Saruman was named chief of the Istari and began to study the Rings of Power. As the darkness deepened, amid great peril, Gandalf went to Dol Guldur and discovered the truth that the shadow was none other than Sauron returned, gathering the rings and seeking news of the heirs of Isildur.
The counsel gathered again, and Gandalf wanted to make swift war while Sauron was still weak, but Saruman spoke against it, believing that the One Ring had been lost to the sea. Elrond, however, foreboded finding the One Ring and an age ending in war. Nothing was done, though many were troubled.
Saruman had turned to dark thoughts, having studied too long the works of Sauron and beginning to think of him as a rival rather than an enemy. He desired the One Ring for its power to order the world to his liking, and he believed that by allowing Sauron to linger, the One Ring would reveal itself. If Sauron was driven out, it would never be found, and so he took the chance in demanding them to wait before making war against Sauron. The servants of Sauron—having heard of Isildur’s end—were also searching the river, and Saruman retreated to Isengard and continued to study the rings, hoping that the One Ring would reveal itself.
As the darkness grew, Gandalf again urged war before Sauron grew too strong. At last, Saruman agreed, fearing that Sauron had begun searching the river, and Sauron was cast out of Dol Guldur. But they were too late, for Mordor had already been prepared for his arrival, and he raised Barad-dûr again. Saruman retreated to Isengard and would meet no more with the White Council.
None knew that the One Ring had indeed been found and passed to the Halflings in the north. Fortunately, Gandalf learned of it first, but rumor came to Sauron and the nazgûl were unleashed, and the Third Age ended in war, as Elrond had portended. Aragorn, the thirty-ninth in Isildur’s line, led the people of Gondor against Sauron and certain defeat. Saruman was thrown down. But as Gandalf had foreseen, where the strong should have faltered, there came aid from the weak, and the Halfling Frodo, with the help of his servant Sam, had taken on the task alone to cast the One Ring into Mount Doom and was successful. Sauron passed away then, a shadow of malice, and the kingdom of Gondor thrived once more.
It was then that the keeper of the third ring was revealed to be Gandalf. It had been given to him by Círdan at his arrival in Middle-earth, for it was the Ring of Fire, and Círdan had hoped that it would kindle hearts to action. Círdan guarded the Grey Havens, and when power passed onto Men, he set sail the last ships that carried the last of the Eldar into the west.