One day a few months back, I was scrolling through Tumblr, and I came across this delightful post by user simaethae:
so on the subject of stolen property, i’ve seen various arguments on this point but it is in fact true that inheriting something from a relative, when you know full well that it was stolen, does not make it yours.
this clearly goes doubly so for powerful magical artifacts, and especially for artifacts which are strongly implied to contain part of their creator’s soul!
you can talk about consequences – maybe the artifact in question has benefits for you, maybe you’re not convinced its rightful owners would use it responsibly – but talking about the consequences doesn’t erase the fact that whatever benefits you think you’re getting are achieved through wrongful means.
which is why i, too, think Frodo should have given the One Ring back to Sauron. thief.
Which prompted me, a law student and Lord of the Rings fanatic preparing for a Property exam, to ask myself…does Sauron even own that Ring anymore?
The short answer: No.
Here is my pedantic and completely unasked-for analysis (cross-posted from my Tumblr blog) —
So first of all, when Sauron fell from power back in the day, it was actually Isildur who took the ring as a “weregild” for the death of his father.
According to Ancient Germanic law™, a weregild was restitution payment for lost/stolen property OR the price of someone’s life. So, if some evil dark lord murders your brother and dad in some battle to the death, say, then you have right to demand and/or seize payment for the price of your brother’s & dad’s lives.
Which is exactly what Isildur did.
Isildur seized the One Ring as payment for the death of his bro Anarion and papa Elendil. So legal possession of the One Ring passed officially, by the laws of Middle Earth, from Sauron to Isildur.
In other words, Sauron lost all claim to the One Ring of Power.
But it is never that simple, my friends.
Isildur’s Will and Fee Simple Subject to Condition Subsequent
An excerpt from Isildur’s will concerning conveyance of the One Ring reads:
“The Great Ring shall go now to be an heirloom of the North Kingdom…”
Now, one would think that Isildur meant to convey the Ring to his ruling heirs in the North Kingdom (Arnor) – but that is not what the will’s actual language says. Parsing the words here, he specifically names “the North Kingdom” as the beneficiary, meaning the One Ring was to be held in a sort of public trust for the kingdom as a whole, reading the will on its face.
Only problem is: Arnor ceased to exist. So, uh, who holds title then?
Well, the will above has ambiguous language which probably means that it created one of the law’s many torturous complications called a Fee Simple Subject to Condition Subsequent, which is legal gobbledegook meaning that when the condition specified in the will – the existence of Arnor – ceased to exist, legal title to the One Ring could revert to the original possessor: Isildur, and his subsequent heirs.
But only if they try and take it back.
What I’m saying is Aragorn, as Isildur’s heir, could have rightful title to the Ring if he just took it.
Nobody Expects Adverse Possession!
HOWEVER! As we all know, the Ring never quite made it to Arnor – instead, Isildur & Co. were waylaid on their way north, and the Ring was lost until Smeagol (Gollum) found it and held it for five centuries.
Now, this is where the whole system is derailed.
You see, the law has this funny provision called “adverse possession” where if an individual takes your property as theirs, and you don’t do anything about it, and a certain amount of time (called the Statute of Limitations) passes, then that individual now owns your property.
But there are a number of factors that have to be met in order for the title to actually pass to the other person. While there can be more factors to consider, generally the law requires that the person’s possession of the property be:
- Actual (they actually have it, not just go about saying they own it)
- Open and Notorious (people know they have it)
- Exclusive (no one else has it)
- Continuous for the length of time required (it can’t be that they have it, then someone else takes it, and then they reobtain it. It has to be continuous through the time specified by the Statute of Limitations)
As far as Gollum’s claim goes, he had actual, exclusive and continuous possession for a freakishly long time. But was it open and notorious? Most would say holding a ring alone in a dark cave unbeknownst to the rest of the world would count as a no.
But then Bilbo had it! He too met conditions 1, 3, and 4 easy for a good 60+ years. Open and notorious though? Debatable. Gandalf knew he had a ring, but not that it was the One Ring. And most importantly, the one with the preeminent right of title – Aragorn – didn’t know about it.
And then there was dear, dear Frodo. Once Bilbo conveyed the ring to Frodo, it was in his actual, exclusive possession likewise for 60+ years (going by the book, guys). But open and Notorious?
For part of that time, yes. Gandalf discovered the truth of the Ring’s identity, and its origins, and clearly he spoke with Aragorn at some point. If nothing else, by the time Aragorn encountered Frodo et al. at the Prancing Pony, Frodo’s possession of the Ring became pretty open and notorious pretty fast (Please see: super embarrassing performance of “Hey Diddle Diddle” and disappearance in front of the whole bar).
So Frodo met all the requirements, right?!
Well….yes. Sort of. To have full, complete, rightful possession of the One Ring, he would have to have held the Ring according to all the above requirements for a certain period of time – the Statute of Limitations. I don’t know what the Statute of Limitations is in Middle Earth – in fact, the concept might not exist at all – but I am guessing it is longer than the year or so that we know Aragorn knew Frodo had the Ring.
All the same, Frodo’s claim to the Ring is pretty strong because Aragorn refuses to take it for himself.
So…who owns the ring?
In conclusion, we have determined that:
1. Sauron does NOT have any right to the Ring. (sucker!)
2. Aragorn could be rightful possessor of the Ring if he just took it.
3. Gollum does not have any right to claim the Ring as his (sorry dude).
4. Frodo has current possession of the Ring, and could be rightful possessor depending on the Statute of Limitations in Middle Earth.
5. Since Aragorn clearly rejects taking the One Ring as his own, it looks like Frodo has the most rightful possession out of anybody.
To sum up: No one has proper title to the One Ring. BUT Aragorn and Frodo are the best contenders:
- it would be rightfully Aragorn’s if he took it…
- or it could be rightfully Frodo’s if enough time passes
- (and since Aragorn rejects taking the Ring, it looks like that was the eventuality we were all facing).
But the big doozy – No one can sue anyone for damages on the Ring’s destruction.