"his magic ring that he had kept secret for so many years. As he stepped down he slipped it on his finger, and he was never seen by any hobbit in Hobbiton again."
The One Ring (3D model)
Public DomainThe One Ring (3D model) - Credit: Xander/Wikimedia Commons

There are many possible influences for Tolkien’s ring of power. The first and most obvious is the magical ring of the Norse Völsunga Saga and later Germanic Nibelungenlied. In these, a ring called Andvarinaut is cursed by the god Loki to bring tragedy to whoever possesses it. The ring is desired by everyone, causing much conflict, but it only brings unhappiness. In the same story there is also a broken sword that is re-forged, something that will appear later in Lord of the Rings.

Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, a cycle of four operas based on the Völsunga Saga and the Nibelungenlied, also features the magical, cursed ring. Some critics have seen major similarities between Wagner’s work and The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien himself denied this influence, saying that “both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.” Tolkien did not consider Wagner’s operas to be a particularly good interpretation of the Germanic mythology. However, this has not prevented some modern scholars and critics from concluding that Tolkien must have been influenced by Wagner, whether consciously or not, as many elements of their work are so similar. Others argue that this is a natural consequence of using the same source material.

Sigurd proofs his reforged sword, by Johannes Gehrts
Public DomainSigurd proofs his reforged sword, by Johannes Gehrts - Credit: wikimedia commons
Another possible influence is the Ring of Gyges, a story told by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in Book 2 of The Republic, as an example of how power corrupts. In it, the ring has the power to grant its wearer invisibility. The shepherd Gyges uses it to seduce the Queen and murder the King, taking the throne for himself. The point is that even the most moral man would use such an object if he knew that he could get what he liked with no fear of the consequences. However, in doing so he would lose his good character and moral beliefs, and become like Gollum in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, a miserable creature driven by desire and wracked by inner turmoil.

Magical rings can be found in many different stories and legends. Other items of power are very common too. The Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, tells of a magical artifact called the Sampo, which brings good fortune to its owner. The Sampo is fought over by good and evil, until it is eventually destroyed. Tolkien was very impressed with the Kalevala and has stated that it influenced him in the creation of Middle-earth.