Lord of the Rings and Property Law

For those of you out there who are 1L (first year law students) you could do worse for boning up on your property law exam than by analyzing the chain of property claims on the One Ring.

See here.

An excerpt:

Consider the following facts:

  1. Sauron holds ownership in the Ring through accession, by working one thing (base metals) into a new thing (a ring of power)
  2. He is dispossessed by Isildur, who now holds possession in the Ring.
  3. Isildur loses the Ring (he has a manifest intent to exclude others but no physical control) when it slips off his finger as he was swimming in the Anduin river to escape from Orcs.
  4. Déagol finds the Ring.
  5. He is dispossessed by Sméagol (a.k.a. Gollum).
  6. Gollum loses the Ring and it is finally found by Bilbo.
  7. Bilbo gifts the Ring to Frodo. Later, Aragorn (the heir of Isildur) tells Frodo to carry the ring to Mordor, making Frodo his bailee.
  8. Sam, assuming that Frodo is dead, takes the Ring according to instructions to help Frodo with the Ring in grave circumstances. Sam is acting here as a (fictional) bailee and he returns possession to Frodo after finding him still alive.
  9. At the end of the book, Gollum restores his possession of the ring. Seconds later, he and the Ring are both destroyed. At this point all property held in the Ring disappears.

The Lord of the Rings story is that of a property hierarchy with one owner and a series of possessors.

Bilbo states,

[The Ring] is mine isn’t it? I found it.

He seems to be laying a claim of ownership through finding. But finding only lets a finder hold possession in a thing. It does not extinguish the rights of those higher up on the hierarchy.

In Anderson v. Gouldberg it was found that “possession is good title against all the world except those having better title.” It does not matter that several of the possessors of the Ring like Isildur and Sméagol obtained possession by violently dispossessing others. That circumstance does not change the dispossessor’s rights vis-à-vis a third party.

[…] Simpson v. Gowers defines abandonment as a “giving up, a total desertion, and absolute relinquishment.” Sauron did believe that the Ring was destroyed, which would support the idea that an abandonment occurred.

[…] Stewart v. Gustafson sets out four factors to further help determine if property has been abandoned:

  1. Passage of Time: As the years go by, the likelihood of abandonment increases. In this case 3000 years passed, which is a not insignificant lapse of time.
  2. Nature of Transaction: Certain transactions lend themselves more to assuming abandonment, having objects cut off your hand does not appear to be one of them.
  3. Property Holder’s Conduct: Abandonment can be inferred if a property holder does not try to require possession a reasonable time after receiving notice. After finding that the Ring still existed, not only is Sauron trying to retake possession but he is described as “seeking it, seeking it, and all his thoughts [are] bent on it.”
  4. Nature of the Thing: As the value of a chattel increases, the likelihood of inferring abandonment decreases. The extreme value of the Ring (it could be used to conquer all Middle Earth) cuts against an abandonment. The specific nature of the Ring also cuts against abandonment. Gandalf specifically states that “[the Ring’s] keeper never abandons it”.

It appears to be that the evidence points to no abandonment having occurred.


I would agree with the writer, and argue that violent dispossession of the Ring by Isildur does not act as abandonment in any sense of the word by Sauron. Sauron did not relinquish the Ring, it was cut from his finger.

However, there is one point the writer here may have overlooked. As best we mortals can tell, the great and fell spirit of Sauron died, or, at least, was reduced to a shadow, when he fell before Elendil and Gil-Galad. If being reduced to a shadow is considered, in the eyes of the law, to be the same as death (a point by no means clear in Anglo-American common law) then the passage of property to Sauron’s heirs obtains. If Sauron died intestate (and there is no evidence in the text that the Dark Lord wrote a will) and the Ring should pass to his natural heirs as defined by the controlling statute, or defined by common law.

It is not clear from the text who the Dark Lord’s next relative was. He had no wife, no children, and, aside from Eru, the One, no father. As best we can tell, Maiar neither marry nor are given in marriage. The five Istari were the only Maiar walking Middle Earth in the Third Age: we must assume they were cousins or second cousins or where clearly more closely related as heirs than members of mortal non-Maiar intelligent species. As the chief of the Istari, Saruman of the Many Colors, also called Curunir, probably has the best claim. The Ring was meant to be his: I am sure he would use it wisely.

Of course, in real life, the courts defer to political considerations, such as the outcome of battles. In the absence of a treaty, property disputes between sovereigns are settled by what is delicately called “the last argument of kings.” Oratio Ultima Regem.