Why did Tolkien base the story upon RINGS?

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Ent Ancient
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Hey y'all, this post goes out as something of a Tribute to @KingODuckingham's excellent archive thread of the OldPlaza Lore forums. There was one thread which didn't load but which I would love to know the answer to...

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.
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The ring of the Nibelung is an obvious reference, but another possible inspiration would be the ring of Gyges. It turned the wearer invisible, and Plato uses the story to discuss how such a ring could be considered a corrupting influence - not because the ring itself is evil, but because invisibility could free you from the consequences of your actions, and the temptation to do as you please (at the expense of others) would be overwhelming.

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.

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Because there was a ring in The Hobbit. :V

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.
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Ent Ancient
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@Aduchil thanks for the reference to the ring of Gyges / the Platonic concerns about corrupting influence. Although obviously the ring itself is not the bringer of evil there, I can certainly see a through-line with the concern over the corrupting influence of power and, for instance, Galadriel and Gandalf's refusal of the rings.

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.
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Good points about rings symbolizing 'immortality.' Rings are circles, unbroken, and wedding rings symbolize an eternal bond. As Aduchil mentions, even if the One Ring grants a twisted form of immortality, I think it's something all the Great Rings of Power represent.

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.'
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@Androthelm, Anderson's and Rateliff's works are both indispensable references for Tolkien scholarship. Anderson's is considerably more accessible, since the bulk of the book is the standard text of The Hobbit that most readers are familiar with, though the annotations are both extensive and enlightening. Rateliff's is in the same model as The History of Middle-earth series, which can be a bit intimidating at first. Like HoMe, it includes a great deal of Tolkien's own writing--drafts of TH--but Rateliff's commentary is much more thorough than is possible in an annotated edition, since he wasn't confined to the margins of pages.
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Hm, @Boromir88 it is unfortunate that we know so little about the seven dwarven rings. That being said, I also think the perspective of signet rings is also very useful, particularly with the 9. Their rings give them power, but also prove their fealty to the Ring-giver.

@Eldy Dunami Thanks! I'll add them both to my list.
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@Androthelm I did find another reference to the powers of the dwarven rings. There's probably other references but it's been so long since I've read The Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales. But I think the comment Thror makes when giving his ring to Thrain is interesting.

'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. :smile:
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Thank you for pulling up the quote @Boromir88 -- off topic from the initial question, it's interesting to see the nuance of the power of that ring, at least, explained clearly. I wonder if each of the seven dwarven rings had different powers / specialties, like the Elf-rings? Something for the brainstorming.
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@Boromir88: One famous ring that Tolkien definitely would be familiar with, and which did create gold, was Draupnir. From Norse mythology, Draupner was a Dwarven-forged ring (arm ring, I believe, not a finger ring) of gold. Every ninth night, it would 'drip' eight copies of itself, also of gold.

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.

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Well @Aduchil, Draupnir does sort of need gold to make gold--it needs itself and makes more (well, copies anyway -- without power) of itself. So perhaps that is an inspiration, and is the way the dwarf rings work--you turn around every once in a while and your hoard has been doubled or trebled.
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halfir and I once had a disagreement on the needing gold to breed gold. he favored a more Draupnir-like arrangement, where the Ring was able to create gold, new material, that had not before existed. I argued, and still argue, that this is a poetic way of referring to an advantage that having the Ring gives the Dwarves in trade and craftsmanship.

The phrase is repeated later on in Appendix A:
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.
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.

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?

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oh, that is absolutely fascinating. You may honestly have me convinced. I think the real question, of course, is to what extent the dwarf-rings did magical things (like the One Ring turning some wearers invisible) and to what extent it enhanced ability (like the One Ring would, on a more powerful person than a Hobbit). In the end, I suspect, the real issue is that the Dwarves don't tend to get this kind of cosmological or metaphysical positioning -- we know far more about the three Elven rings than the seven dwarven ones, in part because Tolkien is more concerned with the fate of the Elves.
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Thank you, @Aduchil and @Elenhir for your interesting thoughts. I don't know nearly enough about the Rings of Power to speculate further. I can see merits to halfir's literal interpretation of the quote and Elenhir's poetic interpretation. Both are fascinating, thank you for sharing. :thumbs:
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Pray forgive me for resurrecting this long-dead thread ...

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.
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@Troelsfo I think Ring-giving is important, especially as it impacts not only the presence of rings in the story but their role. Tolkien's goal is not, i'm sure, political commentary -- but there's still something to be said for the sense in which tokens of prestige, like Rings in either the Anglo-Saxon or the Middle-Earth context, may seem to imbue their holders with power... to the detriment of those who forget that their power/prestige flows, in the end, from the giver of the Ring and is not theirs alone.
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Tha magic about rings is really a wonderfull image for myself. I have loved a lot of books and fantasy stories, and nearly many or all of them had as primary fantasy object always SWORDS. So when i first read LOTR I was astounisched and fascinated by such rings magic.
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 .....:)

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@Troelsfo @Androthelm, hey good to see you both around again! As much as I'm enjoying RP, it can't replace my interest in just talking about Tolkien and his stories. Welcome back. :smile:

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
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@Boromir88 Thanks a lot for entrance greetings. The thing that had attracted me was the fact that Tolkien described and created a really simple ring for the One. He didn t described or added special decorations or gems on it or peculiar forms . The One was simple. And probably due to this The One resulted in a more attractive and misterious item.

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@Boromir88 thanks for the welcome back! I'll be posting in the read-through soon -- just need to catch up!
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I'd be inclined to agree with @Troelsfo upon the inspiration or lack thereof taken from the Der Ring des Nibelungen. It's true that Tolkien had a greater connection with the Nordic versions of the legends than the German versions - Carpenter's biography of Tolkien tells that he held Wagner's interpretation of the myths "in contempt", and there is also the letter that Tolkien wrote to Allen & Unwin where he says: "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased."

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.

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Dunulf wrote: Tue Jan 12, 2021 4:45 pmCarpenter's biography of Tolkien tells that he held Wagner's interpretation of the myths "in contempt", and there is also the letter that Tolkien wrote to Allen & Unwin where he says: "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased."
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 ... :lol:

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" ...).
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