Why did Tolkien base the story upon RINGS?
I've heard references to Ring of the Nibelung thrown around as long as I've been in the LoTR-world--but does anyone know any more about what specifically inspired the Professor? Unfortunately I'm not as well versed on his actual life as I probably ought to be at this point.
Besides that, rings are commonly a symbol of power. Signet rings would be worn by rulers to sign documents and treaties, thereby validating them. In medieval cosmology, the circle is the perfect geometrical figure. In alchemy, the ouroboros (the snake that eats itself, forming a ring) is also an important symbol, a symbol of rebirth or renewal - immortality, in a sense (also something that alchemists strove after). And immortality is something the One Ring grants, albeit in a twisted form.
Tolkien didn't anticipate writing a sequel to The Hobbit, and the ring as originally conceived in that work was just a magic ring of invisibility with no additional malevolent powers associated with it. When Tolkien began work on a sequel at his publisher's request, he had no grand plan in mind, so he played around with a lot of different ideas for how to expand on the earlier story without undercutting Bilbo's happy ending. He decided fairly early on to "make return of ring a motive", and a whole lot else eventually followed from that decision. But if Bilbo's invisibility device had been something other than a ring, I think it's unlikely that rings would have featured in the story that ultimately became LOTR.
Tolkien scholars have dug into possible inspirations for the ring. Douglas A. Anderson mentions the Ring of Gyges in his editorial comments to The Annotated Hobbit, but he goes on to note that "talismans of invisibility are very common in fairy tales, and rings conferring invisibility can be found in two stories in the collections edited by Andrew Lang". Tolkien was familiar with Lang's work: he was born around the same time that Lang began publishing collections of fairy stories, and he participated in the Andrew Lang Lecture series at the University of St Andrews (his contribution later being published as the essay "On Fairy-Stories"). John D. Rateliff also mentions the Ring of Gyges in The History of The Hobbit, though he is skeptical that it influenced in Tolkien. He describes at length a number of other possible inspirations in folklore and medieval romance, but argues that Tolkien "probably didn't have ... a single direct model" for the ring.
Re: Signets, that also makes sense, although the distinction between a symbol of power and a source of power is interesting. I suppose if a ruler gave their ring to their steward for some reason, it would imbue them with the power that originated in the ruler (just as possession of the One imbues the Bearers with power, but it all tracks back to Sauron eventually). Interesting...
Also, yes @Eldy Dunami I suppose we cannot discount the significance of it... happening to be there in The Hobbit. Would you recommend reading either Anderson or Rateliff's books? I haven't read much secondary scholarship on Tolkien at all.
Think of the 9, the Ringwraiths, another twisted form of immortality. Sauron understood the minds of Men the most, and was able to use the 9 Rings to submit them to his will.
The 7 are a little trickier, because I don't recall much information about them. Sauron did not have the same success with dwarves as he had with men, for he did not understand them as much:
They are a tough, thrawn race for the most part, secretive, laborious, retentive of the memory of injuries (and of benefits), lovers of stone, of gems, of things that take shape under the hands of the craftsman rather than things that live by their own life. But they are not evil by nature, and few ever served the Enemy of free will, whatever the tales of Men may have alleged... - Appendix F: The Languages and the Peoples of the Third Age
I forget whether it was 3 or 4 of the dwarf rings Sauron possessed, and the others were consumed by dragon fire. I imagine their rings granted something like an eternal, immense amassing of wealth. However, their hearts and minds weren't known as well to Sauron and he was never able to control them as he controlled the 9.
Then the 3, Galadriel uses Nenya to preserve and play funky tricks with time in Lothlorien, to slow the decay of time in her land.
We are told the Elrond's ring, Vilya, protects Rivendell as seen with the flood. Also, Rivendell has always seemed to me like Middle-earth's library and Elrond a librarian (by the end of the Third Age). As Aragorn says only in Rivendell are all these ancient tales and songs known.
Narya is interesting and given to Gandalf. Cirdan says:
'Take this ring, Master,' he said 'for your labours will be heavy; but it will support you in the weariness that you have taken upon yourself. For this is the Ring of Fire, and with it you may rekindles hearts in a world that grows chill.' - Appendix B: Tale of the Years
Narya represents the 'eternal Fire,' the spirit, an ever-burning flame that can 'rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.'
@Eldy Dunami Thanks! I'll add them both to my list.
'This may prove the foundation of new fortune for you yet, though that seems unlikely. But it needs gold to breed gold.' (Appendix A: Durin's Folk)
After Smaug drives the dwarves out of Erebor, Thrain takes the survivors to the Blue Mountains. And there is mention of a lot of iron and in a fashion the dwarves were able to make a respectable living, but there was very little gold. This sparks Thrain to want to go back to Erebor (but unfortunately he gets captured by Sauron). So, the powers of the dwarven rings does have a connection to gold/wealth. Similar to what Gandalf tells the company he can't "melt snow" he needs a fuel source. The dwarven rings need gold to "breed gold."
It makes me curious to how this power works? Thror describes it as rather magical, like the dwarven rings can "create" gold. Almost like a "Midas touch" myth, but not quite as simple, because the rings need a source of gold to make more of it. Or I wonder if the rings act more as a way of finding a source? It's what draws them to Erebor, and it's what draws Thrain back. Erebor is a source for gold and it's what draws them there. That would seem less magical that Erebor simply has gold in abundance and it's not the dwarven rings "breeding gold?"
That's kind of just some random musings after coming across Thror's remark and it's not really on the thread topic. But, it does make me wonder if Tolkien is drawing from other myths where rings/a ring can "breed gold?" I'm unfamiliar with other tales about rings that may have been a source of inspiration for Tolkien's "Rings of Power," so anyone with more information I would welcome.
This is different from the Dwarven rings of power in ME, of course, especially as Draupnir does not require any external source of gold; it's basically an inflation machine. But it might have been the inspiration for Tolkien.
The phrase is repeated later on in Appendix A:
So the idea is that they are working with iron and the Ring isn't a help to them because they need gold to breed gold. But it also mentions any other precious metals. Now, the difference between working with iron and working with precious metals is that your products with iron are all practical. A sword is a sword. A plough is a plough. A nail is a nail. There are differences in quality and thus differences in prices, but all of them of plain iron have a plain purpose, and there's a limit to how much profit can be made, because there is a limit to price, because there is a limit to the use by the buyer. On the other hand, with precious metals, or gemstones, that largely disappears. If you want gold in your sword or your scabbard, it doesn't help the sword as a sword. Decorative aspects are status symbols. Jewelry is priced largely on the rarity and perceived worth, not in practical gains by owning and using it. In this, where higher skill in creation leads to significantly rarer and better products, where savviness in business deals has more room to push negotiation in your favor, that edge becomes far more imporatant.Appendix A: Durin's Folk wrote:So Thrain and Thorin with what remained of their following (among whom were Balin and Gloin) returned to Dunland, and soon afterwards they removed and wandered in Eriador, until at last they made a home in exile in the east of the Ered Luin beyond the Lune. Of iron were most of the things that they forged in those days, but they prospered after a fashion, and their numbers slowly increased. But, as Thror had said, the Ring needed gold to breed gold, and of that or any other precious metal they had little or none.
I'd argue that 'needs gold to breed gold' should be read as a poetic form of 'needs wealth to create wealth'. And that Thrain, not having the advantages to start with, was kept, despite his best efforts and high skill, out of the markets where he could begin to really throw his weight around.
This further eliminates the problem that otherwise appears of making the Ring special. Because if its a trait of the Ring that it actually creates new material in the form of gold, why? Why is that something the Elven smiths would have done? Since the Seven weren't made for the Dwarves, and seem largely indistinct from the Nine until Sauron gets his hands on them, why don't the Nine do this either?
I wondered that the Norse and Anglo-Saxon concept of ring-giving had not been raised. They idea that a lord, a dróttin, would ‘buy’ the loyalty of his hirð by giving rings was so strong that “ring-giver” was a common kenning for a lord.
And of course the idea of the ring as a sign of lordship is not unrelated. Unrelated to the discussion between @Elenhir and @halfir (where I tend to agree with Elenhir), Draupnir was also the ring of the ruler, of the king.
Regarding the Nibelung ring, Tolkien would of course have been familiar with both the Scandinavian and the German versions of the legends, but his personal engagement with the northern (Icelandic and Scandinavian) versions (see especially The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún) reveals a greater artistic engagement with the northern versions.
There are some developments to the concept of the ring that are unique to Wagner's version (which is different from the old German Niebelungenlied, and while some of this bears some similarities to Tolkien's Master Ring, there are also significant differences. This is not to say that Wagner's version of the ring is not one among many influences in the development of the simple ‘ring of invisibility’ in The Hobbit to the Master Ring in The Lord of the Rings, but rather to emphasise that it is that, but no more: one influence among many, and probably not the most important.
I loved such small objects and so much power inside them.
Can You immagine ? Have a small object at my finger and so much power to use ? Really a great thing. Eh...my little Frodo .....:)
And hello @Paracelio welcome to the Plaza! That is pretty much the thing about rings, or the symbolism of circles. Circles are simple and plain shapes; but also regarded as beautiful and strong. They have a variety of symbols, depending upon the culture, but generally symbolize infinity (a circle has no beginning or end) and strong (circles are the strongest shape if you want to contain a lot of pressure, think of pressure tanks. There's a reason pressure tanks have a circular shape, and not triangular or square). Ring-gifting has been touched upon in this thread, but the ring's symbolism of infinity is why, in many cultures, gifting wedding rings when two people are married.
I loved such small objects and so much power inside them.
I think it goes back to circles being a strong shape, they are able to contain and hold in a lot of pressure. If we think about the One Ring, it holds a lot of power that is "married" (or bonded if you prefer) to Sauron:
While he wore it, his power on earth was actually enhanced. But even if he did not wear it, that power existed and was in 'rapport' with himself: he was not 'diminished.' - Letter #131
Also circles are seen as beautiful shapes to the eye. Gandalf says that the Great Rings of power each had been set with their own proper gem, but not so with the One. The One Ring was a plain circle of gold, and is described as beautiful:
Frodo drew the Ring out of his pocket again and looked at it. It now appeared plain and smooth, without mark or device that he could see. The gold looked very fair and pure, and Frodo thought how rich and beautiful was its colour, how perfect was its roundness. - The Shadow of the Past
I'm also inclined to agree with @Eldy Dunami. The Ring and rings being a focal point of The Lord of the Rings is inspired most by Tolkien's own work in The Hobbit. As far as other potential sources of inspiration or similarity, we have (to name but a few): the Ring of Gyges in Plato's Republic; the ring in Yvain, or the Knight of the Lion; Angelica's ring in Orlando Furioso; the Fairy's ring in Lang's The Green Fairy Book; the ring in the Niebelunglied; the Andvarinaut in the Völsunga saga; the invisibility ring in Welsh Romance Geraint ac Enid; the ring in E. Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle (Nesbit being a friend of Tolkien); the magical stone in Charles Williams' Many Dimensions (a few distinct similarities, Williams also being a close friend of Tolkien); the Vyne Ring from the Temple of Nodens (though this is a tenuous one); the ring in Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain (a more likely inspiration, perhaps); or even the Bible (the Lord's Prayer to be precise, if we take the Ring to be simply an object of desire rather than focusing on it being a ring).
However, as compelling and satisfying as many of these interpretations and similarities may be, they are all suppositions rather than outright fact. We have a tendency to view everything through the lens of inspiration - where was that inspiration found - when in reality it is entirely possible and even plausible that the One Ring and the other Rings of Power were developed by original thought. As Rateliff says, "Tolkien is his own main source", and I'd be tempted to agree. Tolkien never explicitly stated where the concept of the Ring and Rings in The Lord of the Rings originated from, so we will never truly know.
I believe it was during the absolutely fantastic panel discussion about source criticism at The Return of the Ring (the Tolkien Society conference in Loughborough in 2012) that Tom Shippey suggested that Tolkien's contempt of Wagner's interpretation of the saga could be seen as a kind of negative inspiration. Not entirely unlike his discontent with Shakespeare's handling of Great Birnam Wood marching to Dunsinane Hill being one of the inspirations leading to the emergence of the Ents in The Lord of the Rings.
I do have this, entirely fictional, image of Tolkien with a determined look setting pen to paper to show them how a real ring of world mastery would work ...
In any case, the general view among critics does seem to be that Tolkien was somewhat disingenuous – or at the very least exaggerating – with his "both rings were round" comment (I think a very understandable reaction of exaggerated dismissiveness at the umpteenth suggestion that the Master Ring was "just Wagner's ring" ...).