As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien could not help but be inspired by the language and literature he studied and taught. As a result, his fictional world is infused with cultural material of the Middle Ages, particularly Old English language and literature. In this post, I focus on the Rings of Power used by Sauron to gain dominion over those who would wear them…
“hringa fengel” (Beowulf, l. 2345): the original ‘Lord of the Rings‘
Why does Sauron give rings to the elves, men and dwarves he wants to control rather than any other object? The answer may be found in the Old English poem Beowulf, one of the texts Tolkien studied closely.
In Beowulf, kings are often described with metaphorical phrases such as “sincgyfan” [giver of treasure] (l. 1012a), “sinces bryttan” [distributor of treasure] (l. 1922b) and “goldgyfan” [giver of gold] (l. 2652). Rulers were thus associated with the dispensing of treasure and, more specifically, rings, as suggested by the use of the term “beaga bryttan” [distributor of rings] (ll. 35a, 352a) in the same poem (incidentally, the Old English word beag ‘ring’ is related to present-day English bagel). Other Anglo-Saxon poems, too, attest to the idea that kings were supposed to hand out rings: the wisdom poem Maxims II, for instance, holds ” Cyning sceal on healle / beagas dælan” [a king must share out rings in the hall]. Rulers handed out treasure to their followers as a way of establishing a bond of reciprocal loyalty: the king would give treasure in return for loyalty and service. What Sauron aims to do with the Rings of Power, then, is a perverted version of this medieval idea of treasure-for-loyalty.
The title The Lord of the Rings may also find its origins in the terms used for rulers in Beowulf. The eponymous character of the poem – King Beowulf himself – is called the “hringa fengel”, a phrase which neatly translates to ‘lord of the rings’:
Oferhogode ða hringa fengel
þæt he þone widflogan weorode gesohte,
sidan herge; no he him þa sæcce ondred
[The lord of the rings (Beowulf) then disdained that he should seek the wide-flyer (the dragon) with a troop, a large army; he did not fear the battle for himself.]
An inscribed ring from Anglo-Saxon England: The Kingmoor Ring
The One Ring, inscribed in Tengwar with part of the Ring verse (“One ring to rule them, etc.”), bears some resemblance to a group of early medieval, Anglo-Saxon rings with runic inscriptions. One of these is the ninth-century Kingmoor Ring, currently in the British Museum. This runic ring is inscribed with what has been interpreted as a magical spell: “ærkriufltkriuriþonglæstæpon” on the outer rim and “tol” on the inside. The text is, for the most part, magical gobbledegook, but shows some similarities to a charm found in an Old English medical text that deals with stopping the flow of blood. As such, scholars have assumed that the ring may have functioned as a medical amulet (see, e.g., Page 1999, pp. 112-113). Interestingly, the Kingmoor Ring is linked to various other Anglo-Saxon runic rings bearing a similar inscription: the Bramham Moor Ring and the Linstock Castle Ring. Could this group of magical rings be the source of inspiration for Tolkien’s Rings of Power?
Why doesn’t Isildur destroy the ring when he has the chance?
A last point concerning the Rings of Power that has a decidedly medieval ring to it is Isildur’s stated reason for refusing to throw the ring in Mount Doom. Elrond tells the fellowship in Rivendel that he and others had tried to persuade Isildur to destroy the Ring, but the latter ignored their pleas:
But Isildur would not listen to our counsel. ‘This I will have as weregild for my father, and my brother’ (J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings, book 2, chapter 2)
Here, Isildur refers to the early medieval legal principle of weregild. The term is Old English for ‘man-price, man-money’ (Old English wer is still there in werewolf, man-wolf). Weregild was the compensation for a murder (or some other mischief) in order to avoid a bloodfeud. Tolkien himself gives the following explanation of this principle that is found in many early Germanic law codes:
the offending party could ‘settle the feud’ by payment, and various elaborate scales of value were drawn up. this payment was called wergild: each man according to his status had a price. (J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf, pp. 165-6)
So, there you have it: Isildur uses a medieval reason not to dispose of a ring (itself possibly inspired by a group of medieval rings), which had been used by Sauron in a manner not unlike medieval kings. And all that in a book which may take its name from a phrase in a medieval poem. There is more medieval in Middle-Earth than you might think!
The information in this post is expanded from material I published in the Tolkien journal Lembas (available here). In 2016, I will be teaching a course on Tolkien and the Anglo-Saxon World (more info here) and I am also involved in the organisation of an international conference on the theme ‘Tolkien among Scholars’, in association with the Dutch Tolkien Society Unquendor (more info here). If you liked this post, you may also be interested in The Medieval in Middle-Earth: Thror’s Map
Works referred to:
- Page, R.I., Introduction to English Runes (Woodbridge, 1999)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary (London, 2014)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)