One Ring to Rule Them All

Don't believe everything you read on Facebook unless you've carefully researched it first.

Don’t believe everything you read on Facebook unless you’ve carefully researched it first.

Tolkien’s one ring has been striking fear into the hearts of Hobbits and Geeks everywhere for sixty years. But what are the origins of the ring? Is it an invention of Tolkien’s imagination? Or did he borrow it, as he borrowed so much else, from classic myth?

Meanwhile, this meme has been making the rounds, claiming a ring with unreadable descriptions has been discovered in Lithuania. A brief google search turns up the true story–that the ring is simply part of a very interesting archeological dig,one among many found, and that the inscription (as the more astute have noticed) is no more than decorative carvings. However, the same google search reveals the existence of a legitimately mysterious ring that may indeed have inspired Tolkien.

The History of the Ring

Before we can properly address Tolkien’s ring we must go back, once again, to Norse mythology. According to Nordic tradition, the ring was part of a hoard of gold belonging to a dwarf named Andavari. Loki, Hoenir and Odin are travelling one day when Loki sees an Otter sleeping on a rock and kills it. They proceed to a nearby cottage and ask for shelter, declaring they’ve brought dinner with them. Unfortunately, the otter turns out to be a member of the family, and they immediately seize the three gods and threaten their lives unless they pay a weregild, or blood price. The ransom is set at enough gold to fill the otter’s skin, and Loki is sent to retrieve it. Loki captures Andvari, who is disguised as a salmon, and demands his treasure hoard. Andvari gives all but a single ring, which Loki demands of him also. Furious with the thievery, Andvari curses whoever possesses the gold with ill-fortune.

Loki brings the gold back to the cottage, and it fills the otter skin. But the grieving family declares that one whisker is still showing, and Odin is forced to give up the ring, which he thought to keep for himself. Laughing, Loki tells the family that the gold is cursed, and they are pretty upset that he didn’t tell them this in advance. The fortune proceeds to change hands as brother murders brother and turns to dragon to be murdered by other people, until at last someone wisely throws the entire fortune into a river and refuses to divulge its location.

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Wagner famously adopted this story as the theme of his Der Ring des Nibelungen. Also known as the Ring Cycle, this is Wagner’s most well known work, consisting of four operas that take over twelve hours to perform. In this retelling, the gold belongs to four nymphs known as Rhine maidens, and the ring can only be forged by one who has renounced all love. A dwarf who’s affections they have played with and rejected teases the secret from them and forges the ring, setting off a similar chain of events in which Freya is sold to giants, Loki steals the gold through trickery, brother murders brother, and dragons are slain by heroes.

It must be said, however, that Tolkien had little regard for Wagner’s interpretation of the myth and when asked about the similarities of the rings declared that: “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.” But since both men drew inspiration from the same Nordic sources the similarity goes much deeper, and the concept of a cursed ring, or the corrupting influence of power, runs deeply through all the retellings.

The Ring of Silvianus

Vyne-one-ringDuring the Roman occupation of Britain, there was a general by the name of Silvianus. This general owned a gold seal ring bearing an image of the goddess Venus, large enough to wear over a glove, and inscribed with his name. This ring was then stolen from him by someone named Senicianus. Enraged, Silvianus cursed Senicianus by donating one-half the worth of the ring to the celtic god Nodens. The curse and contract were written on a lead plaque known as a curse tablet and left on the alter at Nodens’ temple in Gloucestershire.

The curse was rather general in nature, and requested that nobody named Senicianus be permitted good health until the ring was returned. We do not know whether Silvianus ever got his ring back, for it was found in a farm near Silchester 1785, and it became the property of the Chute family and put on display in their country home, the Vyne, where it remains on display to this very day.

In 1929, the archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler called upon Tolkien to help research the etymology of the name Nodens in connection with his research surrounding the ring and its associated curse tablet. It has been speculated that the cursed ring was an inspiration for Tolkien’s work, and the Tolkien Society has seized on this idea, and in 2013 they set up a “ring room” display at the Vyne, which includes the Ring of Silvianus in a rotating display case, a first edition of The Hobbit and a copy of the curse.

The Differences

While both of these stories and their associated rings are very interesting, we must conclude that Tolkien’s one ring remains unique. For one thing, it’s the only one to reveal secret writing when thrown into a fire. Not to mention the power to turn people invisible. And wishing someone ill-health is hardly as heart-stopping of a threat as the now-infamous inscription:

Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.


 

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