The meaning of Tolkien’s iconic symbol

Norse sources had particular meaning for Tolkien and his contemporaries, Khuri suggests. “The often-bleak heroism, dynastic tragedy, and the apocalyptic imagination of Norse myth and legend resonated with Tolkien and many of his contemporaries, especially at a time when empires and kingdoms were swiftly collapsing during, and immediately after, World War One.” Their influence extends, too, far beyond the ring symbol. Gandalf, with his long white beard and wide-brimmed hat, his staff and cloak, recalls Odin, another spreader of wisdom and knowledge. His name is taken from a list of dwarf monikers in the mythological poem, Vǫluspá, as are several of the dwarves’ names in The Hobbit: Durin, Thorin, Fili, Kili, Oakenshield.

And then there’s Frodo. “The name derives from the Old Norse fróðr and Old English Frōda (‘wise’), and Tolkien chooses the Old Frisian spelling of the name,” Khuri explains. “Ironically, the Danish king, Fróði, is quite the opposite of Tolkien’s humble hero, as in one legend (told in Grottasöngr), he enslaves two giantesses out of greed (so they can grind out wealth from a magic grindstone). In some ways, Frodo’s eventual (magic-induced) compulsion to keep the One Ring is a dim echo of this greed, which is induced in his case by the Ring’s own power rather than any innate failing (and he is able to resist this magic until very late in the story).”

One of the underappreciated aspects of Tolkien’s genius, Garth believes, is that he was a “master synthesist”. As he goes on, “People tend to think simultaneously that he got all his ideas from Northern myth and that he made everything up out of nowhere. In fact, he found his inspirations in many places”. Or from all four points of the compass, as Garth sets about explaining in latest book, The Worlds of JRR Tolkien: The Places that Inspired Middle-earth. From the East, for instance, came medieval legends of Alexander the Great and the Egyptian infatuation with mortuary architecture that continues in the Middle-earth kingdom of Gondor. Among the least explored are those that came from the South, the classical influences that were so dominant in Tolkien’s own cultural era. The author was explicit in the role that the Atlantis legend played in shaping his Númenor, for instance, and as Garth explains, his account of its downfall – a key element of the Amazon series – builds from Plato’s account of the powerful Western sea-empire destroyed by hubris.

Plato’s Republic also mentions a ring, the Ring of Gyges, and like Tolkien’s, it bestows invisibility on its wearer. We certainly know that Tolkien was familiar with the site of a Romano-Celtic temple to Nodens, a Celtic healing god. Named Dwarf’s Hill and located in the Lydney Park in the UK’s Forest of Dean, it was first excavated by archaeologists Tessa and Mortimer Wheeler from 1928 to 1929. Tolkien himself worked on the dig and became fascinated by the hill’s folklore. In particular, he investigated Latin inscriptions, one of which brought down a curse on the thief of a ring.

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