39

In one sense, it might refer to "the lord of" the rings, as in the person or entity currently in possession of The One ring.

In another way, it could (IMO) mean that The One ring is "the lord" out of the rings. As in, it "owns" the lesser rings, and rules over them (and everything and everyone else, including the person who currently wears/carries it). The "lord" out of the rings.

In Swedish, it was translated into "Härskarringen", which also ambiguously could mean "the ring which rules" but also "the ring of/owned by the ruler". This is perhaps the main reason I'm asking about this, wondering if the same ambiguity really exists in English and whether or not it was intentional or just a coincidence.

Although Swedish translations are infamous for always/frequently getting things wrong and warping the meaning in idiotic ways, they could have easily called it "Ringhärskaren" = literally and unambiguously "The lord/owner of the rings". But they didn't. This suggests to me that the original title is meant to be ambiguous and that it doesn't necessarily refer to the person or entity currently in possession of the ring, but rather that the ring itself rules over those who wear/carry it.

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    That might depend on your view of the ring’s sentience. thetolkienforum.com/threads/new-debate.6322 – Spagirl Sep 15 at 14:30
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    Well, Ohlmarks' 1959 Swedish translation "Härskarringen" really isn't ambiguous in the same way that the English original is, as it unambiguously refers to a ring. Andersson's 2005 translation captures the ambiguity more appropriately with "Ringarnas herre" which could either be the "person who is the lord of the rings" or the "ring which is the lord of the rings". – Toivo Säwén Sep 16 at 7:18
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    Good question. But you seem to have forgotten a 3rd possibility : "The Lord of the Rings" refers to the creator of the One Ring, regardless of who currently holds it. – Eric Duminil Sep 16 at 7:34
  • Aside from the Swedish example from @ToivoSäwén, there are a number of other translations that have less ambiguous titles, often something along the lines of 'The tale of the ring'. – Austin Hemmelgarn Sep 16 at 14:01
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    As I understand it, the Ring can't really do much without a wearer. It allows the wearer control of the other Rings of Power, but the Ring itself doesn't exert any influence alone. Whether or not the Ring is sentient, it has very little agency, with its direct powers being limited to slipping off someone's finger or out of their hand, at best. The Ring itself is not a lord, but empowers its wearer to be one. This would seem like describing the deed to a manor as the lord, rather than the person who holds the deed. – Nuclear Wang Sep 16 at 16:18
97

The phrase “the Lord of the Rings” is ambiguous in the same way in English: it might, in theory, refer either to the One Ring, which rules the other rings, or to Sauron, who can use it to rule all the rings.

However, the text does not make use of this ambiguity. The phrase “the Lord of the Ring(s)” appears four times in the text, and three times it’s clear that Sauron is intended:

‘Yes, I knew of them. Indeed I spoke of them once to you; for the Black Riders are the Ringwraiths, the Nine Servants of the Lord of the Rings.’

J. R. R. Tolkien (1954). The Fellowship of the Ring, book II, chapter 1. London: Allen & Unwin.

‘But in any case,’ said Glorfindel, ‘to send the Ring to [Bombadil] would only postpone the day of evil. He is far away. We could not now take it back to him, unguessed, unmarked by any spy. And even if we could, soon or late the Lord of the Rings would learn of its hiding place and would bend all his power towards it.’ [II.2]

Here Bilbo’s hand ended and Frodo had written:

THE DOWNFALL
OF THE
LORD OF THE RINGS
AND THE
RETURN OF THE KING

J. R. R. Tolkien (1955). The Return of the King, book VI, chapter 9. London: Allen & Unwin.

In the fourth case Pippin uses the phrase as a joke, and Gandalf quickly corrects him:

‘Hurray!’ cried Pippin, springing up. ‘Here is our noble cousin! Make way for Frodo, Lord of the Ring!’

‘Hush!’ said Gandalf from the shadows at the back of the porch. ‘Evil things do not come into this valley; but all the same we should not name them. The Lord of the Ring is not Frodo, but the master of the Dark Tower of Mordor, whose power is again stretching out over the world!’ [II.1]

When the characters want to emphasize the role of the One Ring in controlling the other rings, they use the phrase “Ruling Ring” instead:

‘It has been said that dragon-fire could melt and consume the Rings of Power, but there is not now any dragon left on earth in which the old fire is hot enough; nor was there ever any dragon, not even Ancalagon the Black, who could have harmed the One Ring, the Ruling Ring, for that was made by Sauron himself.’ [I.2]

‘For in the days of Isildur the Ruling Ring passed out of all knowledge, and the Three were released from its dominion.’ [II.2]

‘[Saruman] came and laid his long hand on my arm. “And why not, Gandalf?” he whispered. “Why not? The Ruling Ring? If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us.”’ [II.2]

‘Alas, no,’ said Elrond. ‘We cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we now know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil.’ [II.2]

‘But what then would happen, if the Ruling Ring were destroyed as you counsel?’ asked Glóin. [II.2]

‘The Ringwraiths are deadly enemies, but they are only shadows yet of the power and terror they would possess if the Ruling Ring was on their master’s hand again.’ [II.4]

If Tolkien had chosen the title with an eye to its ambiguity, I would have expected him to make use of the ambiguity somewhere in the text, but he does not: he maintains a consistent distinction between “the Lord of the Rings” and “the Ruling Ring” to convey the two senses. This suggests that the title was not chosen on purpose to be ambiguous.

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1

For grammatical reasons it does not, in English, mean "The ring that is lord of the other rings"

"The Lord of the Rings" refers to a being who is lord over all the rings including the "One ring that rules them all".

"Lord of the Rings" would be ambiguous only as a title because some abbreviation is allowed in a title (such as omitting the definite article). However, in normal usage, "Lord of the Rings", without the initial definite article, would normally refer to a ring whose function or title was to be a lord of other rings. This would be even clearer if the phrase was "Lord of Rings".

So the answer, in my opinion, is No, there is no ambiguity.

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    There is nothing about English grammar that precludes the Ring itself from being the referent for "The Lord". – chepner Sep 17 at 17:04
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    It would be very unusual to use "Lord" to refer to an inanimate object in this way though. – Francis Davey Sep 17 at 21:07
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    @FrancisDavey: Inanimate yes, but perhaps not without agency. The ring itself is said to be responsible for lying dormant, or getting itself found. It is unusual phrasing, though, and I'd never considered or noticed this ambiguity until seeing this question. – Peter Cordes Sep 18 at 5:01
  • @PeterCordes I agree that the phrasing would be unusual to refer to the ring itself. The agency of the ring described refers to how it affects itself, not the other rings – Quasi_Stomach Sep 18 at 17:42
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    A useful point of information is that the ring does not itself control the other rings; it has to be wielded by someone with sufficient strength to do that. – Francis Davey Sep 21 at 13:49

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