How strong is the Ring’s hold? This question doesn’t have a clear answer, and it appears Tolkien worked on this very issue continuously throughout the writing of Lord of the Rings.
At times the Ring appears to be a sentient entity, capable of thought and planning. In the Hobbit, and later explained in Lord of the Rings, the Ring apparently chooses to leave Gollum. Somehow the Ring is able to sense the renewed rise of Sauron in the outside world and see that the only way to become reunited is to leave Gollum and the caves. But can this really be true? If this were so, wouldn’t the Ring have chosen anyone other than Bilbo? So the Ring’s power has set limits. This moment could even be interpreted as a moment of Eucatastrophe. By chance, Bilbo is knocked down the right tunnel and happens to place his hand directly on the Ring. Also by chance he figures out the workings of the Ring to escape Gollum. Now this second element could be the first touch of the Ring on Bilbo to ensure its own escape from Gollum and as a consequence also saving Bilbo.
However, the reader can still question the foresight and sentience of the Ring. In leaving Gollum, it sets up a whole chain of events which would have led to its recovery. Gollum, following Bilbo, eventually finds out his true name and where he comes from: Bilbo Baggins from the Shire. In time he finds himself drawn to Mordor, where he is captured and questioned. The Nazgul have returned to power and soon leave Minas Morgul to abduct Bilbo and retrieve the Ring. All this is set in motion solely by the Ring’s “choice” to leave Gollum. Is this just fate? Or, by some contrivance, is the Ring actually able to orchestrate these events? One has to remember that Sauron poured much of his own power and essence into the Ring. It isn’t that much of stretch to assume that the Ring, as a consequence, has its own agenda or is in some manner still controlled by Sauron.
And yet this plan is foiled. How? By the will of single Hobbit.
Bilbo is not a central figure in the Lord of the Rings. Yet, while always off stage, he is one of the truest heroes in the tale. Unlike Borromir, unlike Frodo, unlike Gollum, only he and Sam are able to escape the Ring’s hold. If he could not, if he had kept the Ring, if he had succumbed, the quest would have failed before it began. Sauron would have returned.
It is obvious upon reading “The Long Expected Party” that the Ring has a true and strong hold on Bilbo. It is an obvious struggle for him to relinquish it to Frodo. The whole purpose of the party and giving away so many and so lavish gifts was solely to make the giving of the Ring easier. This fails.
After Bilbo’s “joke,” Bilbo returns to Bag End, places the Ring in envelope and then puts it back in his pocket. No more is said. It appears to be an automatic, reflexive action. When asked about the Ring, at first Bilbo is confused by this act, then rationalizes it. The Ring should be mine, he thinks. Yet when we think about this action, it truly seems to be foreign; as if an outside force, without Bilbo’s awareness, molds his actions to its needs. Then, being confronted with this action, Bilbo makes it his own and proclaims his right to the Ring. Is this outburst his own true feelings against Gandalf, or a manifestation of the Ring’s hold? I would claim both. Remember the Ring of the drafts: the Ring gains power over Bilbo as a memento of his travels. He is now set on leaving the Shire and reliving those adventures. Why would he leave his most precious heirloom behind?
Consider Bilbo, he has none of the knowledge or superstition of Gandalf to make him fear the Ring. He is confused by Gandalf’s focus on it. This confusion grows into anger and jealousy. While this is a reasonable reaction, it is logical to see the Ring’s effect here as well, amplifying his feelings. It is also possible that this jealousy increases the power of the Ring’s hold on Bilbo.
Yet out of Bilbo’s trust for Gandalf, and his unflappable innocence and humor, Bilbo holds true to his original decision. He takes out the envelope and makes to put it on the mantel. The motion is jerky and forced, as if made against some will. He cannot complete the gesture, dropping the envelope on the floor. Gandalf immediately scoops it up and places it on the mantel. This sets off a moment of extreme anger in Bilbo, possibly the last vestiges of the Ring’s direct hold. Then, almost as suddenly, Bilbo returns to his carefree, happy state the reader remembers from the end of the Hobbit. He is free. While the Ring still has some hold over him, Bilbo will never be ruled by it again.
It almost never mentioned, but in this Bilbo becomes one of the most important figures in the Lord of the Rings. He is, in fact, a hero.