The Three Rings were made by Celebrimbor after Sauron, in the guise of Annatar, had left Eregion. These were free of Sauron's influence, as he did not have a hand in their making. However, they were still forged by Celebrimbor with the arts taught to him by Sauron and thus were still bound to the One Ring. Upon perceiving Sauron's intent, the Elves hid the Three from him. They were taken from Middle-earth to the blessed realm of Valinor at the end of the Third Age, after the destruction of the One Ring.
Commentators have observed that the Three Rings enabled the Elves to halt the passage of time within their realms, especially in Lothlórien where Galadriel wielded Nenya. Others have noted that their power was benevolent, in sharp contrast to the One Ring, and could be used to protect and to heal; and that Tolkien uses the Three Rings to elaborate the angelic and sacrificial aspects of the Elves in the battle between good and evil in the War of the Ring.
Jason Fisher, writing in Tolkien Studies, notes that Tolkien developed the names, descriptions and powers of the Three Rings late and slowly through many drafts of his narratives. In Fisher's view, Tolkien found it difficult to work these Rings both into the existing story of the One Ring, and into the enormous but Ring-free Legendarium. Some of the descriptions, such as that Vilya was the mightiest of the Three, and that Narya was called "The Great", were added at the galley proof stage, just before printing. The Rings had earlier been named Kemen, Ëar, and Menel, meaning the Rings of Earth, Sea, and Heaven.
According to Johann Köberl, Tolkien struggled with the notion of a "special status" for the Elven-Rings, and considered having The Three set free when the One Ring was destroyed. In an unused draft by Tolkien, Galadriel counselled Celebrimbor to destroy all the Rings when Sauron's deception was revealed, but when he could not bear to ruin them, she suggested that the Three be hidden.[T 2][T 3] According to Unfinished Tales, at the start of the War of the Elves and Sauron, Celebrimbor gave both Narya and Vilya to Gil-galad, High King of the Noldor. Gil-galad later entrusted Vilya to his lieutenant Elrond, and Narya to Círdan the Shipwright, Lord of the Havens of Mithlond and leader of the Falathrim or "People of the Shore". Tolkien suggested that Sauron did not discover where the Three were hidden, though he guessed that they were given to Gil-galad and Galadriel.[T 3] In the published The Lord of the Rings, Gil-galad received only Vilya, while Círdan was the direct recipient of Narya from Celebrimbor.
Tolkien noted in his letters that the primary power of the Three was to "the prevention and slowing of decay", which appealed to the Elves in their pursuit of preserving what they loved in Middle-earth.[T 4] As changeless beings in a changing world, the Elves who remained in Middle-earth relied on the Three to delay the inevitable rise of the Dominion of Men.[T 5][T 6] Tolkien explained that the Elves can only be immortal as long as the world endures, leading them to be concerned to burdens of deathlessness in time and change. Wanting the bliss and perfect memory of Valinor, and yet to remain in Middle-earth with their prestige as the fairest, as opposed to being at the bottom of the hierarchy in the Undying Lands, they became obsessed with "fading".[T 7]
|Narya||Fire||Red||Ruby||unknown||Gil-galad, then Círdan, then Gandalf|
|Vilya||Air||Blue||Sapphire||Gold||Gil-galad, then Elrond|
The name is derived from the Quenya nár, "fire".[T 9] It was also called Narya the Great, the Ring of Fire, the Red Ring, and The Kindler. Unlike the other Elven Rings, it is not said what metal Narya was made of. It is described as giving its wielder resistance to the weariness of time, and the power to inspire others to resist tyranny, domination, and despair; in other words, evoking hope in others around the wielder.
Círdan kept Narya after Gil-galad's death. At some point during the Third Age, Círdan passed the Ring to the Wizard Gandalf to aid him in his labours, having recognised his true nature as one of the Maiar from Valinor. This is not revealed until the end of The Lord of the Rings, as Frodo reaches the quayside to leave Middle-earth, when "Gandalf now wore openly on his hand the Third Ring, Narya the Great". Gandalf's distinguishing skill is in the manipulation of fire; it is never made explicit that this power comes from Narya, but it appears that Tolkien intended this to be inferred.
The second Ring, Nenya, was made of mithril and adorned with a "white stone". The name is derived from the Quenya nén meaning water.[T 10] It is also called the Ring of Adamant, the Ring of Water, and the White Ring.[T 8]
The Ring was wielded by Galadriel of Lothlórien; its radiance matched that of the stars. Frodo Baggins could see it by virtue of being a Ring-bearer, whereas Sam Gamgee tells Galadriel he only "saw a star through your fingers".[a] It has been noted that "Adamant" means both a type of stone, usually a diamond, and "stubbornly resolute", a description that equally well suits the quality of Galadriel's resistance to Sauron.
Nenya's power gave preservation, protection, and possibly concealment from evil because "there is a secret power here that holds evil from the land". However, the facts that Orcs from Moria entered Lothlórien after The Fellowship of the Ring and Lothlórien itself had suffered previous attacks from Sauron's Orcs sent from Dol Guldur indicate that the power of the Ring did not constitute military prowess. It was said that, protected as it was by Nenya, Lothlórien would not have fallen unless Sauron had personally come to attack it. Galadriel used these powers to create and sustain Lothlórien, but the Ring also increased in her the longing for the Sea and her desire to return to the Undying Lands.
With the Ring's power gone, the magic and beauty of Lothlórien faded, along with the extraordinary mallorn trees (save the one that Samwise Gamgee grew in Hobbiton). Lothlórien was gradually depopulated, until by the time Arwen came there to die in the Fourth Age, it was deserted and in ruin.
The third Ring, Vilya, was made of gold and adorned with a "great blue stone", probably a sapphire. The name is derived from the Quenya vilya, "air".[T 11] It is also called the Ring of Air, the Ring of Firmament, or the Blue Ring.[T 8]
Vilya was the mightiest of these three Rings, as mentioned in the ending chapter in The Return of the King. The exact power of Vilya is not stated, though The Silmarillion states that Celebrimbor had forged the Three to heal and to preserve, rather than to enhance the strengths of each individual bearer as the Seven, Nine, and the lesser Rings did.[T 8]
When Sauron laid waste to Eregion, Vilya was sent to the Elven-king Gil-galad far away in Lindon, where it was later given to Elrond, who bore it through the later years of the Second Age and all of the Third. Vilya's power of healing may have been particularly strong; Elrond is recognised as the greatest healer in Middle-earth at the time of the Quest.[T 12] The Ring may have had the power to control minor elements, given that Elrond was able to summon a torrent of water as the Nazgûl attempted to capture Frodo and the One Ring.
Gwyneth Hood, writing in Mythlore, explores two Catholic elements in the story of the Three Rings: the angelic and sacrificial aspects of the elves in the War of the Ring. To the hobbits of the Fellowship of the Ring, the elven Ring-bearers appear as angelic messengers, offering wise counsel. To save Middle-earth, they have to accept the plan to destroy the One Ring, and with it, the power of the Three Rings, which embody much of their own power. Hood notes that while Gandalf as one of the supernatural Maiar sent from Valinor is "remarkably unlike an elf", out of the wielders of the Three Rings he is the character who most closely combines the angelic and the sacrificial. The poet W. H. Auden, an early supporter of Lord of the Rings, wrote in the Tolkien Journal that good triumphs over evil in the War of the Ring, but the Three Rings lose their power, as Galadriel had prophesied: "If you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlórien will fade, and the tide of time will sweep it away". Hood further writes that Tolkien was suggesting technology such as the making of Rings of Power is in itself neither good nor evil; both the Elves and Sauron (with his armies of orcs) use that technology, as they also both make and wear swords and mail armour, and shoot with bows.
Hood notes, too, that the elves use the power of their Rings benevolently, in sharp contrast to Sauron's domineering intentions for the One Ring. Galadriel uses her Ring to create a kind of Earthly Paradise in Lothlórien. Alexis Levitin, writing in the Tolkien Journal, adds that the power for good in the Three Rings is limited in scope, not being usable for war or for dominating others; it can be used for purposes such as to protect a place such as Rivendell or Lothlórien, or to heal.
Commentators such as Kevin Aldrich and David Brin have pointed out that the Elves made the Three Rings to try to halt the passage of time, or as Tolkien had Elrond say, "to preserve all things unstained". This was seen most clearly in Lothlórien, which was free of both evil and the passage of time.