This week, we take a more serious turn for yet another look at the wonderful world of Tolkien. Our reader asks:
Why oh why does the One Ring turn people invisible in Lord of the Rings? It certainly didn’t turn Sauron invisible when he wore it, and the Nazgul don’t become invisible even though the movie tries to portray them as suffering from some similar effect as Frodo. In fact the whole point of the ring, being a locus for power and dominance seems like it would want to make you super fucking visible, visibly awesome. It seems the ring was originally conceived as one type of thing when Tolkien wrote the Hobbit, and then he had to turn it into another when he wanted it to serve as a linchpin for a larger story, and a reason to get Hobbits involved in a middle-earth war. So as someone who may be even more immersed in the Tolkien legendarium than I am, was there ever a sensible reason given for the whole invisible thing?
I had a similar question posed to me many months ago about the Eagles and their failure to fly Frodo into Mordor. In that post, I concluded that Tolkien had simply missed this gaping plot hole. So, the question is, did he miss these possible inconsistencies of the One Ring, or must we simply dig a bit deeper for the answers?
Tolkien does address part of this issue in the Silmarillion. He describes the Nazgul as having succumbed to their rings in much the same way that Frodo succumbs to the One Ring. In actuality, they did become forever invisible, and the only reason we see them is because of the robes they wear. Were they to have run around naked, we would have never seen them. When Frodo puts on the ring, he enters this “wraith” world, which is why he can see the Ringwraiths on Weathertop.
Sauron is an integral part of this wraith-world, and was created in the beginning of time as a God or Angel, or however you want to interpret it. As in Christian theology (upon which a lot of LotR was based), there is a rebellion and Sauron is among the rabble-rousers, eventually taking on a physical existence and attempting his conquest of Middle-Earth.
One can say that Sauron is more “Spirit” than anything else, being part of the divine realm. In the entire LotR trilogy, he is invisible, and doesn’t have a physical body yet. The implication behind this being that his body is something he fabricates, and therefore, may not actually become invisible as a result of donning the One Ring (like the Ringwraith’s cloaks). To my knowledge, this was never stated by Tolkien, but it seems like a plausible guess.
What we do know for sure is that Sauron added a bit of himself to the One Ring, which is why he needed it so badly. He wasn’t nearly as powerful unless he was wearing it. Perhaps it was that piece of himself that caused people to shift into the wraith-world that he existed in, and this could be the same reason he doesn’t shift. It’s reasonable to expect him to have ultimate power over a device that has a part of him in it.
Again though, this is all guesswork, as I’m no Tolkien “historian” and Tolkien didn’t always explicitly explain everything. The Silmarillion was published after Tolkien died, so who knows what he might have added to it after the editors picked it over. As much as his son Christopher might know about Middle-Earth, Tolkien certainly would have had a lot in his head that wasn’t written down.
Even for someone better versed in Tolkien’s mythology, there aren’t always clear-cut answers, because Tolkien created an entire world, a history and a mythology. There are bound to be inconsistencies with an undertaking of this magnitude. You are correct in assuming Tolkien created the ring as a plot device in The Hobbit, and then later decided to make it the connection between Frodo and The Lord of the Rings. When The Hobbit was written he had no reason to assume that the invisibility granted by the Ring would matter later. When it became important, he did his best to explain its effects in LotR and the Silmarillion. But even Tolkien can’t be perfect. He was an Englishman after all*.
*PS: I don’t actually hate Englishmen; they make the best brown ales and smoke the best pipe tobacco.
You can also see me in action in the webcomic, One Die Short.