Did this inspire Tolkien to write about The Precioussssss?

We have had a couple serious weeks around here, and so I am having a little fun with my blog today.

Therefore, please go to read this VERY COOL piece at the History blog.  HERE.

It has to do with ancient pagan gods, J.R.R. Tolkien, a lost and – centuries later found – cursed gold ring too big for a person’s finger, a lead curse-tablet with the name of the person who inscribed his name on the ring …

It may have been the inspiration for Tolkien to write about a certain other gold ring.

Just too cool.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Imrahil says:

    Tolkien wrote a lengthy comment in epic, novellous form (inventing my own humble person in the process) to a story about a certain Gyges, which Plato passed down onto us.

  2. Jack Regan says:

    You probably know this, Father, but there is a pub in Oxford called the Eagle and Child (just down from Blackfriars) with a note on the wall signed by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis…

  3. Jack Regan: I’ve been there and had … pints… I won’t say how many!

  4. Laura98 says:

    Too cool! Thank you so much for the information, Fr. Z!

  5. Scott W. says:

    I smell hype. Magic rings figure in all kinds of European mythology and Tolkien was thoroughly versed in all of it, so the idea that this ring specifically inspired him is a pretty shaky claim.

  6. chantgirl says:

    While I love to read Tolkien’s story about a ring, I love to listen to Wagner’s ring cycle. The opening of Das Rheingold is one of the most amazing pieces of music to me.

  7. Parasum says:

    Very interesting.

    Equally, his knowledge of Old Norse & Old English would be more than adequate to give him the idea. He took the names of the Dwarves & of Gandalf from the Edda; which is a possible source for the Ring as well. “Beowulf” has plenty to say about rings. Rings are even mentioned in Old Norse poetic “kennings”; he could not have been unaware of them. The Gyges story is an example of a folklore motif narrated as an historical event – as often happens. Archaeology may well have coloured his imagination, but was not necessary as a cause of anything in it.

    Literarily, Sauron’s possession of a ring is explicable by Morgoth’s possession of the Silmarils – the composition of the tales at the core of the Silmarillion was far advanced by 1937 when “The Hobbit” was written. Sauron – whose character owes some traits to several figures found earlier, in the “Book of Last Tales” which was the first form of Tolkien’s myth – can be accounted for as a Ring-Lord by the events of the Sil. For “The Necromancer” in “The Hobbit” – who is later ID’d as Sauron – to acquire the ring of Gollum, and become the Sauron who was present in the pre-1937 Sil, would be easy. Then, in “the new Hobbit” that was the first form of TLOTR, Gollum’s Precious was one of the elements that had not been fully exploited in “The Hobbit” – so the ID is made between “The Necromancer” & Sauron, and Sauron becomes the Ring-maker.

    That he is the Lord of many rings that are ruled by the One, looks like an echo of the faery-tale motif of the ring that produces other rings. It’s tempting to see “the One” in TLOTR as a blasphemous distortion by Sauron of references to Eru, “the One”, who is the Creator of all things in the Sil: Sauron becomes “a king and a god” to the Men of Middle Earth in the Second Age, during which Age he created the Rings. As for the Ring’s containing the strength of Sauron in a form detachable from him, that is a folklore motif: a giant (or similar character) hides his heart in some remote and (to ordinary mortals) inaccessible place, for safe-keeping; & is immortal & invulnerable until his heart is destroyed; which it finally is.

    Conclusion: possibly.

  8. AvantiBev says:

    My favorite part of the article was the description of Tessa Wheeler
    “Tessa Verney Wheeler (a pioneer in the field and a quietly fierce badass who deserves far more attention than she’s gotten…)”
    “Quietly fierce badass” sounds like something I shall aspire to!

  9. mike cliffson says:

    Yeees , but within context.
    One vanishing great divide between the States and the rest of the Anglosphere is WWI , which barelyimpinged on the States in the way that 4 years of nearstatic trench warfare did on the whole generation of volunteerers , the millions of them, – not just the millions dead, not just the millions wounded wounded , but all who went through it- and who had very much a shared experience. Perhaps 4 years’ solid of Iwo Jima for everybody might give a flavour? The primary sources are all dead, those who heard directly still afterr WWII grow old, though the memory is handed down…
    The horror and hell of living amongst the dead, of the diasappearance of whole villages or groups of “chums” say who had joined up together, over the top , and mown down instants later, for a few yards advance or retreat – there is more than this in say Tolkein’s dead marshes , but echoes, as itwere , or resonances, , of the churned charnel fields of Flanders mud, wherein I and most families have never-located relatives, are surely there ; on the many, many, many tense and dreadful nights of night duties Tolkein is understood, from himself, to have elaborated middle earth in his head, though “the hobbit “and the “Lord of the Rings” came later …
    It would be too easy, too pat, too explain away, to say ah yes , he was inspired by this to write…
    But it seems utterly reasonable to suppose that as he said of the whole realm of faery (stories) this particular Ring had “got into ” (his own personal stew)pot.

  10. tioedong says:

    they are looking for publicity, of course.

    Tolkien’s story grew out of Norse/Anglosaxon writings, and this ring was an example of Anglo Saxon beliefs, so the source of both is the same.

    The Hobbit grew out of Tolkien’s practice of making up stories for his young children and was in manuscript form by 1932. The magic ring making one invisible goes back to Plato (and Wagner), and only when he was asked to write a sequel did he decide the ring would be the link: and as he wrote it, it “grew” into a more serious story. But to know this one would have to read his letters and of course the 13 volume “History of Middle Earth”.

  11. Dr. Eric says:

    Very interesting article, thanks for posting it, Fr. Z!

  12. MouseTemplar says:

    Joseph Pearce said in his lecture series on the trilogy that the ring was a metaphor for original sin. When I consider that dark poem, I think he’s right…”One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

  13. NBW says:

    Very cool! Thank you Fr. Z.

  14. Hieronymus says:

    Imrahil is right here. The story of the ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic (Book2) sets up Tolkien’s response in the Lord of The Rings.

    Plato is debating whether it is best to actually be just, or simply to be thought to be just while you are in fact unjust. His interlocutor tells this tale of the ring found in a crag that makes its wearer invisible when turned toward himself. He uses it to seduce a queen, kill a king, and take over a kingdom. The argument is that nobody would be just if given the power to simply appear just while being unjust. Plato disagrees. (I’ll stop. Read the Republic.)

    Tolkien’s response in LOTR: only a humble soul like a hobbit will remain just (though it is a struggle), and save the entire world in the process.

  15. Choirgirl says:

    led curse-tablet = iCurse

  16. Parasum says:

    The Ring can’t be a metaphor for original sin – that idea, and the details of the story, don’t fit. Some people try to read metaphors and allegories into the book, and an incidental result is to convict Tolkien of being a grossly incompetent story-teller. Since he was nothing of the sort, their theory must be wrong. Their bright ideas about the Ring or other allegedly allegorised things don’t fit the whole book, or indeed the rest of Tolkien’s references to to those things in the Sil & the Hobbit. Sauron built the Dark Tower with the Ring – if the Ring is Original Sin, what is the Dark Tower ? Original Sin is not an artefact – unlike the Ring, which is something made by art and skill. If it is Original Sin, why is it not made at beginning of the history of Man in Middle Earth ? The analogy to OS, insofar as one can speak of one in Middle Earth, is brought about by Morgoth in the First Age, between 1300 & 1900 years before the Ring is made. At most, certain details about the Ring can be applied to Original Sin.

    Pearce seems to have the bad habit, that seems to afflict some Christian storytellers, especially in the US, of being unable to read a book without turning the wretched thing into religious propaganda in a flimsy disguise. He appears to imagine that a book can’t be Catholic unless it elbows the reader in the guts with unsubtle (and artistically tactless) references to the BVM, the Sacraments, & the Pope. Which makes it ironic that Saruman the White sounds remarkably Pope-like: he is “the White”, he is “the head of [Gandalf’s] order”, he possesses means to see things his enemies might like to hide, and it is not a good idea to tangle with him. Isengard/Orthanc must be the the Vatican. Identify orcs – who are black-skinned – as soutane-wearers, SJs, or the like, and there you are.

    Maybe Tolkien was a member of the Protestant Truth Society, cunningly composing anti-Catholic allegories to dupe unsuspecting US Catholics. Now that is a conspiracy theory :) !

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  18. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Parasum — You can’t blame it on any particular country! There are just some people who like everything laid out and explained, and either being a strict allegory or an essay in book form. (And to be fair, it’s not bad if it makes them feel more comfy about reading fantasy or adventure instead of something more “improving.”)

    However, Tolkien was not the guy to have things mean things, in a strict way. He was a storyteller and poet and deployer of motifs, and he had a real dislike of allegory. His ducks were lined up in entirely different kinds of rows, and that’s just the way he is. People did spend a long time persuading him into making Galadriel less morally torn (so as better to represent Mary, which frankly she didn’t much) or to reify elven afterlife with real eschatology, but frankly that was all pretty useless fiddling around.

    The most that can and should be said is that the Ring can help you think about the nature of sin, Galadriel can help you think about various valiant women of faith, etc., etc. It’s a storehouse of pictures and tales and characters, not exegesis or theology.

  19. dbwheeler says:

    Am I the only one who thinks this obsession with LOTR, the ring of power et al , is getting a little out of hand? Frankly, I think this trilogy inadvertantly led to the Dungeons and Dragons games, the New Age movement and a host of other ills…something I know was never intended, but has happened just the same. As a matter of fact, I can remember in the late sixties the ‘flowering of Renaissance Faires” (always remember to use that e on the end of olde English words, chuckle wheeze) the Society of Anachronism, and suddenly everyone is playing at being serfs and ‘Everyman’ in leather vests and homemade hats…coupled with lots of pot and soybeans. The LOTR movies have triggered another sort of on-line version and another wave of interest . I love the books myself, of course…but I do think they open a doorway to other passions if one’s heart is not grounded in a love of God. Anyway, just thought I’d just drop my little two cents worth. Also, someone mentioned the ‘Bird & the Baby’ (the pub where the inklings met) It reminded me why I love the English…they’re so low key about things. When you go to Hilltop Farm for example, there’s just a tiny little sign to designate Beatrix Potter’s house. In this country there’d be billboards twenty miles away in ten foot letters, ‘Come See the World Famous Home of Benjamin Bunny!!”

  20. An American Mother says:

    suburbanbanshee –

    Exactly. Tolkien’s work is not a plan or a chart . . . it’s more like a tree.

  21. JacobWall says:


    I suspect that all the silliness you mention would’ve happened even if the LOTR had never been written. I agree that to some extent all that stuff was definitely taken up by the same crowd, but I don’t think that justifies claiming that it was LOTR that caused of all the rest.

    You also have to remember that there are many, many different reactions to reading the books. In my own case, for example, reading the Hobbit as a young teen, and later LOTR, were small but early nudges – and perhaps even subtle turning points – in a long journey towards the Catholic Church. It was actually a careful reading of LOTR along with Tolkien’s own explanation of the genre in “Tree and Leaf” (I can’t remember the exact name of the essay) that cured me of an attraction to trash fantasy and medieval re-enactments.

    Reading more about Tolkien’s own faith and devotion to the Catholic Church, combined with a small study that I did on the images of darkness and light in the books (which is, of course, a reflection of the battle between good and evil), and how this reflected his own faith were small but important items in those early years. Among other things, it was also my first realization that Tolkien’s faith was strong *because* he was Catholic not *despite* the fact that he was Catholic. (I grew up in setting that was not particularly anti-Catholic, but it was generally assumed that if a Catholic had strong faith it was a pleasant accident.)

    Obviously, not everyone has reacted to the books in this way – I suppose we are few in number – but while we don’t want to put too much importance on them, there is good reason to be excited about them beyond simply a “good read.”

  22. JacobWall says:


    “The Ring can’t be a metaphor for original sin – that idea, and the details of the story, don’t fit. Some people try to read metaphors and allegories into the book …”

    Exactly. It must be remembered that Tolkien himself despised easy and superficial allegories of this sort. (This was part of the reason why he did not feel the same love for Narnia as C.S. Lewis did for LOTR. Another reason is that it was “hastily” written over a couple of years, compared to the decades that Tolkien dedicated to LOTR and related works.)

    A good place to start to see where Tolkien’s faith influenced his work is the imagery of light and dark – not so much the colour of people’s clothes, as in the white-hat, black-hat cowboy westerns, but the appearance of actual light and it’s struggle against darkness. It’s interesting that darkness is not the simple absence of light, but rather a force in itself that can overpower people and drive the light away. Notice the hopelessness of single, isolated lights shining in utter, thick darkness which tries to smoother them, and the unexpected victory of light seemingly against all odds. This is true both on the larger scale of the book as a whole and individual instances – think of the battle with Shelob and Frodo’s vial.

    It would be incorrect to take these instances as direct allegories for specific parts of the Church or history, but I do not doubt that his own faith, and belief that good and evil are both real and active, concrete and personal forces, in the context of Catholic faith, shaped these scenes in the story.

  23. chantgirl says:

    I remember reading at one point that Tolkien disliked using direct allegories, and that this was a point of difference between him and C.S. Lewis. Lewis used them for his Narnia stories especially for the benefit of the children reading them. Tolkien’s worldview and religious ideas informed his writings, but did not map them out.

    Anyway, the above article is interesting, even if just a part of Tolkien’s inspiration. Just as so many small details are interwoven and important in his writings, this experience might have played a part in synthesizing his tale.

  24. JacobWall says:

    It is also worth noting that darkness and light, while active as real forces, are not highly abstracted into some intangible concept as George Lucas’ “Force” and “Dark Side.” They are, on the contrary, very closely tied to the actions of persons (humans, hobbits, goblins, wizards, etc.) Frodo’s vial, which reflected the light of Eärendil, was given to him personally by Galadriel. The dark of Mordor spreads and rescinds with the victories and defeats of its army, etc.

    The Catholic Church knows that faith is passed personally from one person to another (as opposed to some other groups that seem to abstract it to something that falls out of the sky.) The Scriptures are likewise the work of human hands (albeit inspired work) and likewise did not fall from Heaven. On the other hand, we know that evil is the work of Satan, his angels and humans who choose to do his will. Spiritual warfare is a personal battle as opposed to some abstract conflict of ethereal forces.

    Again, without clumsily attaching specific allegories, I think it’s safe to say that Tolkien’s presentation of light and dark and the good and evil behind it was shaped by his Catholic faith.

  25. JacobWall says:


    “Tolkien’s worldview and religious ideas informed his writings, but did not map them out.” Very well said! Tolkien’s Catholic faith can be seen in his writings without forcing clumsy allegory on them.

    In any case, I guess this post is supposed to be “lighter fare.” So for lighter fare, then, a few months ago, my son’s godfather sent us a replica of it. (I don’t think “replica” is the right word, but you get my meaning.) We’ve been having a lot of fun with “our Precious.” I’ll have to show him the picture of this Roman ring.

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