“It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious.”Gollum
The strength of a book, sometimes even its worth, lies often in its resonances, like the echoes in a cavernous space rebounding back to the caller. It’s a poor work, I feel, that gives nothing back to its reader. In my immature youth I avoided much fiction in the mistaken belief that it would unduly cramp any creative impulses I aspired to; I now see that a great work of fiction frequently borrows freely from its predecessors while transforming and transfiguring the material, and that wider reading of fiction then may well have been to my advantage.
In my continuing read of The Lord of the Rings for my series Talking Tolkien I have been revisiting the Council of Elrond chapter in which the back history of the One Ring is openly shared and discussed. At one point Aragorn’s ancestor Isildur is quoted as unwittingly but significantly describing the Ring as “precious”, a description which we may recall was Gollum’s own name for his “birthday present,” taken violently from his cousin. Isildur wrote:
“But for my part I will risk no hurt to this thing: of all the works of Sauron the only fair. It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain.”Isildur, quoted in ‘The Council of Elrond’
And I recall some apparently unrelated reading I did some years ago and more recently which amplified the resonances set up during another of my rereads of LOTR, resonances which, with your usual kind indulgences, I’d now like to share.
The One Ring’s several attributes are brought out during the course of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: I estimate there are at least six of them.
- Extended life span.
- A will of its own.
The first three are very evident in The Hobbit, with Sméagol murdering Déagol to possess the Ring which the latter had found. Whilst in the depths of the Misty Mountains he uses the Ring’s ability to confer invisibility to sneak up on or past goblins; and in just such a wise Bilbo is himself later able to avoid capture or detection. But when Sméagol, now Gollum, believes Bilbo has in turn thieved his precious, his birthday present, he reveals just how possessive he remains: his despairing final cry of rage against Bilbo We hates it forever! hints at a third aspect of the One, that it has the power to confer curses on its bearer.
We know some of the narratives from where Tolkien borrowed the motif of the vice of possessiveness (though of course that vice was quite evident in his own world) — for example, as Wagner and others had done, he resorted to The Saga of the Volsungs (out of which he was later to fashion his unfinished poem Sigurd and Gúdrun) as a source to borrow from.
The skilled smith Regin, recounting the saga’s incident of the Otter’s Ransom, describes how his brother Otr in the guise of an otter “used to go into the waterfall and bring up fish in his mouth,” much as Gollum was to do in the trilogy. Here at the falls the trickster Loki finds and kills Otr, but Regin and his other brother Fafnir force the god to rustle up a huge ransom in gold as a blood price. In order to pay it Loki then proceeds to capture the dwarf Andvari son of Oin (in the guise of a pike) so as to barter Andvari’s life for the dwarf’s own gold, which Loki can see glinting in the water — along with a ring later called, ironically, Andvaranautr ‘Andvari’s gift’. The cheated dwarf utters a curse “that the gold ring would be the death of whoever owned it, and the same applied to all the gold,” expressing the same impotent rage as Gollum was to do.
Here is a fine instance of possessiveness bringing a curse down on itself: not only is Regin’s father — who had demanded the ransom — murdered by his son Fafnir, but also Fafnir, who becomes a dragon to sit on the gold hoard, is killed by Sigurd at Regin’s instigation, followed by Regin in his turn being murdered for harbouring treachery in his heart against Sigurd; and, in due course, Sigurd too meets his end.
The notion of a magic ring conferring invisibility is also an old one. In the Arthurian romance of The Lady of the Well a maiden called Luned rescues Owain from certain death: “Take this ring and place it on your finger, and put the stone in your hand, and close your fist around the stone, and as long as you hide it it will hide you.” The same incident occurs in its French analogue, Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain, or The Knight with the Lion, when the ring is said to have “the same property as the bark on wood, which covers it so that nothing of it is seen.” One of the oldest references to such an object is Plato’s Ring of Gyges; Gyges was a fabled king of Lydia whose ancestor found a golden ring of invisibility when an earthquake opens up a cavern to reveal the ring worn on the finger of a giant’s corpse.
Of course rings aren’t the only magic objects of invisibility: Tarnhelm in The Nibelungenlied has this same property, as does Jack the Giant-Killer’s Cap of Invisibility; and even Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility has a very long lineage, including Siegfried’s mantle in The Nibelungenlied.
Let us look at another of the many possible inspirations for the cursed aspect of the One Ring. When Tessa and Mortimer Wheeler were excavating the Roman temple of Nodens at Lydney they famously called on Tolkien for his expert advice concerning a 4th-century lead curse tablet. The text of this ran “Devo Nodenti Silvianus anilum perdedit demediam partem donavit Nodenti inter quibus nomen Seniciani nollis pe[r]mittas sanitatem donec perfera[t] usque templum [No]dentis. Rediviva.”
To the god Nodens: Silvianus has lost his ring and granted half (its worth) to Nodens. Among those who are named Senicianus don’t allow health until he brings it to the temple of Nodens.Roman Inscriptions of Britain, 306
Curse tablets or defixiones, in Greek katadesmoi or ‘binding spells’, are commonly found at Roman sacred sites like temples or springs (Roman Bath has produced several examples); how effective or not they may be in grabbing a deity’s attention or encouraging them to act may be gauged by Silvianus later having to add rediviva (‘renewed’) to the top of the defixio. Tolkien accordingly gave his advice on the deity’s name — Nodens is analogous to the Celtic divinities Nuada and Lludd — but popular opinion suggests he was also familiar with another object of possible relevance to not only the lead tablet but also The Hobbit, namely a gold signet ring.
Peter Salway informs us that owning gold rings was the “privilege of the equestrian class” of this period so what are we to make of a gold ring found at the periphery of Roman Silchester, now at the National Trust property The Vyne? This is a signet ring showing a female bust, her identity indicated by the reversed letters of the word VENVS surrounding the image. It suggests the original owner was of a traditional pagan persuasion and also an eques (‘knight’). But, when found, it had an additional inscription added: SENICIANE VIVAS IIN DE[O], or “Senicianus, may you live in God.” Whoever was responsible for making the inscription had messed up by including the letter ‘I’ twice which, despite the ‘N’ and the ‘D’ being ligatured, that is, joined together, left no room for the letter ‘O’. Furthermore, Vivas in Deo is commonly identified as a typically Christian formula in the 4th century, the ring being assigned a date range of 350 to 450 CE.
It’s possible to spin a narrative here, isn’t it: the Roman knight Silvianus ‘loses’ his signet ring but he’s almost sure that a certain Senicianus has nicked it; he has a lead sheet inscribed wishing ill-health on the thief and entrusts it to the temple of Nodens; meanwhile the not-so-pagan Senicianus in Silchester has had it inscribed in his favour as a charm against curses; Silvianus renews the curse, to unknown effect; a millennium and a half later Tolkien borrows the motifs of gold ring, a formulaic inscription in a foreign tongue, and a subsequent curse. Others have embroidered this narrative, noting that Lydney’s Roman lead workings and local name of Dwarfs Hill could seal the connections; but these are all mere speculations, however tempting, for the inscription could as easily been meant as Vivas in dea, referring to the goddess Venus; and anyway Senicianus is a not uncommon name, despite many of its mentions appearing on curse tablets of different dates and from different places.
In the chapter ‘The Council of Elrond’ we learn of a further potency: the Ring’s preternatural ability to extend its wearer’s life span, though not in a nice way. A changed physicality is evident in Gollum over the many lifetimes he has survived; Frodo is appalled to see, reflected momentarily in Bilbo when the latter asks to see the Ring, a hint of just such a change resulting from overuse of the Ring. Such deleterious effects will also manifest themselves on Frodo as he completes his arduous journey to Mount Doom, to Sam’s distress and ours too. This motif perhaps reflects a common suspicion of panaceas in the form of Elixirs of Life, Fountains of Youth, and Philosophers’ Stones: does living much beyond one’s assigned age not inevitably carry unforeseen side effects?
Related to immortality, as far as The Lord of the Rings is concerned anyway, is the notion of power, that is, the ability to control others as well as oneself. A passing mention in The Nibelungenlied alludes to “a tiny wand of gold” amongst the Nibelung treasures which allows the wielder magical power over others and which, though not itself a ring, will have provided some inspiration for Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Tolkien’s trilogy:
And now listen to some marvels concerning this [Nibelung] treasure! In among the rest lay the rarest gem of all, a tiny wand of gold, and if any had found its secret he could have been lord of all mankind!The Nibelungenlied: ‘How the Nibelung treasure was brought to Worms’
“Lord of all mankind.” That lure of absolute power which draws the likes of Sauron and Saruman, and which forms the subject of some of the concluding remarks at Elrond’s council, is a topic worth elaborating on, though perhaps not just now; but the notion of a ring of power is as old as the hills. To take just one example, from the addition to The Thousand and One Nights known as ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’, we hear of the attributes of the magic ring before those of the lamp:
Now, when the Moor finished giving his instructions to Aladdin, he drew a ring from his finger, placed it on one of Aladdin’s, and said, “My son, this ring will protect you from all harm and threat, but only on the condition that you bear in mind all that I’ve told you.” [Later, a]s Aladdin sat on the stairs in Utter misery and wept about his predicament, he began rubbing his hands together, as people who are in trouble generally do. […] While he was thus imploring the Lord and chafing his hands, his fingers chanced to rub the ring that the sorcerer had given him for protection. All at once, there was some smoke and an enormous jinnee appeared before him and said, “I’m at your service, master! Your slave has come.”Arabian Nights, ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’
Though the parallels aren’t exact, a few elements are common with the story of the One Ring: dubious beings seen through a haze, the power of the Ring to command, its association with a mighty sorcerer. The translator also calls the genie or djinn an ifrit, a demon from Islamic myth, a being which reminds us of the goblins and orcs of Middle-earth.
A will of its own is the final attribute I want to draw attention to. “A Ring of Power looks after itself, Frodo,” Gandalf tells the hobbit. “It may slip off treacherously, but its keeper never abandons it.” The Ring is held up here as a motivated character in its own right: “It was not Gollum, Frodo, but the Ring itself that decided things. The Ring left him.” The Ring’s very much a tricksy thing, as the wizard emphasises: “It had slipped from Isildur’s hand and betrayed him; then when a chance came it caught poor Déagol, and he was murdered; and after that Gollum, and it had devoured him.” It made use of seven ring bearers — after Sauron came Isildur, Gollum, Bilbo, Frodo and, though only briefly, Déagol and Sam — in its urge to return to its maker; only an unknown Providence, never made explicit, will ultimately be able to thwart it.
I’ve discussed the six attributes (as I see them) of the Ring and their antecedents in myth, legend and literature; the parallels I’ve quoted aren’t exhaustive and there are many others (such as the magic ring in Edith Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle) that could and should ideally be mentioned. One could also discuss the symbolism of the Ring, whether as a signifier of a betrothal or a position of authority, for instance. Psychological interpretations are legion: Robert Donington for example takes a Jungian approach, and in his discussion of Wagner’s Ring sees it as a symbol for the Self.
A ring is a circle, a continuous flow with neither beginning nor end. In mythology, theology, alchemy, dreams and even musical notation, the circle stands for perfection. Since no human is perfect, the perfection refers not to the ego or any other component, but to the totality which at the same time includes all aspects of the psyche and is its guiding principle […]. The significance of the ring which gives Wagner’s Ring its name is greatly complicated by the fact that it so obviously means different things at different times and to different characters in the drama.Robert Donington, Chapter V
Like the Nibelung Ring, the One Ring will mean “different things at different times and to different characters” over the course of The Lord of the Rings. I hope this essay has given some indication of those different things.
- Richard F Burton, translator, Jack Zipes, adapter. Arabian Nights: A Selection. Penguin Popular Classics, 1997: 139ff.
- Jesse L Byock, translator. The Saga of the Volsungs. Penguin Classics, 1999: 57-9, 65-6.
- R G Collingwood and Ian Richmond. The Archaeology of Roman Britain. Methuen 1969: 207.
- Sioned Davies, translator. The Mabinogion. Oxford University Press, 2007: 123.
- Robert Donington. Wagner’s ‘Ring’ and its Symbols. Faber, 1969: 78-9.
- A T Hatto, editor. The Nibelungenlied. Penguin Classics, 1969: 147.
- D D R Owen, translator. Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances. Dent, 1987: 294.
- Peter Salway. Roman Britain. Clarendon Press, 1981: 689.
- Lindsay Watson. ‘The Violence of Ancient Magic’. Classics for All, 1st January 2020. https://classicsforall.org.uk/reading-room/ad-familiares/violence-ancient-magic
- Peter Kruschwitz, ‘Once a thief…?’ The Petrified Muse, 29th November 2017. https://wp.me/p2cmE-2gV
- “RIB 306. Curse upon Senicianus.” Roman Inscriptions of Britain, 2014. https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/306, 13th September 2016.
A post in my Talking Tolkien series