The Inspiration for Tolkien's Ring

Did the story of a stolen Roman ring provide the basis for one of the 20th century’s most popular works of fiction? Mark Horton and Lynn Forest-Hill tell the story of the archaeological dig which  fuelled the fantasies of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Fit for a Lord: the gold ring now at The VyneSometime in the late fourth century a Roman by the name of Silvianus visited the Celtic temple dedicated to a healing god, Nodens, located on a hill above the River Severn at Lydney in Gloucestershire. During his visit (and possibly while Silvianus was bathing in the temple’s elaborate baths), his gold ring was stolen. We know this because two lead curses were excavated in the ruins of the temple in the early 19th century. According to these curses Silvianus believed that the thief was called Senicianus and he offered half the value of the ring to Nodens, who was asked in return to withdraw good health from the culprit.

The lead curses and numerous other artefacts found over the years at the temple languished in a private museum on the estate until 1928, when the young but ambitious archaeologists Mortimer Wheeler and his wife Tessa were invited by the owner, Lord Bledisloe, to clarify the history of the site. Over two summers the Wheelers worked at Lydney and asked various experts to assist in the research. Two of these were fellows of the same Oxford college, Pembroke: R.G. Collingwood, the archaeologist and philosopher, who worked on the epigraphy; and J.R.R. Tolkien, the professor of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic literature, who sought to explain the identity of the deities, including Nodens, which he equated with the Celtic god Nuadha.

So much is well known. But these years were also significant because 1928-29 was the period during which The Hobbit was taking its final shape. How much was Tolkien influenced in writing his fantasy by his exposure to the archaeological excavations, to the Wheelers and to Collingwood? Was it Collingwood who introduced Tolkien to the Lydney project and the story of the stolen ring?

Although Tolkien does not mention Collingwood in his published letters, the two men shared interests outside their academic specialities. These included the poet Francis Thompson and a scholarly enthusiasm for fairy tales, so there was every reason for them to have had more than a passing acquaintance. If Collingwood knew Tolkien as an outstanding etymologist and philologist, Tolkien would have known Collingwood as an authority on Roman inscriptions. Indeed in his Roman Britain and the English Settlements (1936) Collingwood credits Tolkien for his help in other matters: ‘My colleague Professor J.R.R. Tolkien has helped me untiringly with problems of Celtic philology.’ Later, in his discussion of the pre-Roman goddess of the hot springs at Bath, he again credits Tolkien for defining the grammatical form of the Celtic name ‘Sulis’.

Remarkably the stolen ring was actually discovered not in the lifetime of Silvianus but in 1786, in a field close to the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum, or Silchester, nine miles south of Reading and 100 miles east of Lydney. It is now on display at The Vyne, a National Trust property near the Hampshire town of Basingstoke.

Or at least Collingwood and most archaeologists believed it was the same ring, a magnificent ten-sided gold thumb-ring inscribed with the words Seniciane vivas i(i)n de(o) (‘Senicianus, may you live in God’). The ring is the same date as the lead curses from Lydney and its Latin inscription, alluding to its Christian owner, was somewhat crudely added to an earlier pagan ring, with a bezel showing the bust of Venus. So it seems that Senicianus was a Christian (and possibly from a well-known family of thieves), who stole the ring from a Celtic temple and re-inscribed it with its Christian message before losing it (or even discarding it) at Silchester. One can well imagine Collingwood and Tolkien discussing this remarkable find as they motored from Oxford across the Cotswolds to Lydney, on their visits to the excavations.

Curse of the ring

So how much did this story of a lost Roman gold ring influence Tolkien’s fiction? Silvianus loses his gold ring at Lydney, as Gollum lost his under the Misty Mountains. Silvianus believes his ring has been stolen by someone whose name he knows – Senicianus – just as Gollum thinks his ring has been stolen by Bilbo Baggins. Silvianus curses by name the person he suspects. Similarly, when Gollum works out that Bilbo has found and kept his ring, he cries out in rage: ‘Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!’ Both Gollum and Silvianus know the identity of the persons they regard as thieves who have stolen their gold rings and both declare these names with maledictions.

Recreating the past

However the relationship between Tolkien and Collingwood may have gone deeper. Collingwood’s developing approach to the philosophy of history may have appealed to Tolkien, who once declared that he much preferred history ‘true or feigned’. From 1926 onwards Collingwood was working on the theories that would become his book The Idea of History, in which he proposes the importance of objects as vectors for understanding and imaginatively recreating given historical events – pure gold ring territory.

A model for Middle Earth: Roman remains at LydneyIt is also likely that the ancient landscape around Lydney may have inspired Tolkien. The conjunction of Roman relics and Celtic deities would certainly have fitted into his earlier vision of a mythology for England. In manuscripts of some early versions of his mythology, dating from between 1918 and 1930, Tolkien refers to the Rúmhoth (Romans) as invaders of the Lonely Isle (England), who drove out the Elves. Added to this was a landscape riddled with tunnels and chambers from the Roman iron mines (some of which lie under the temple itself), the inspiration for medieval stories that the ruins of the temple were once inhabited by dwarfs and goblins. Lydney and the Forest of Dean, which surrounds the site, may have provided the inspiration for Middle Earth, at least in part.

It is nevertheless misleading to assume that the ring lost at Lydney and displayed at The Vyne was a straightforward source of inspiration for Tolkien. The Ring described in The Hobbit, first published in 1937, is a relatively simple creation, as befits a story originally intended for children. The ring inherited by Frodo in The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) is somewhat different. To assume that they are the same is to be swayed by Tolkien’s skill as a storyteller. Any attempt to forge a link between the lost Lydney ring, its curse, the Vyne ring and Tolkien’s creation cannot succeed without differentiating between the ring in The Hobbit and the ring in The Lord of the Rings.

The Lord of the Rings was written following a request from the publisher Stanley Unwin for a sequel to The Hobbit. In a letter to Unwin written in 1947 Tolkien acknowledged the difference between the rings. He maintains a fictional posture when he writes: ‘The only liberty … has been to make Bilbo’s Ring the One Ring: all rings had the same source, before ever he put his hand on it in the dark.’ There is no reference in Tolkien’s earlier writings to the history of the ring as he set it out in The Lord of the Rings.

The ring Bilbo finds under the Misty Mountains in The Hobbit conveys only invisibility on the wearer and is not an obvious corrupting influence offering special sight and longevity, as it is in The Lord of the Rings. The Vyne ring does not play any part in the creation of the ring in The Hobbit but, together with the Lydney curse tablet, it may well have influenced the pattern of loss or theft attributed by the former owner to a cursed finder and the idea of rediscovery. The Lydney curse on ‘all those bearing the name Senicianus’ may be the pattern for the continuation of Gollum’s malediction – ‘Baggins … we hates it forever!’ – which transfers from one Baggins, Bilbo, to his heir Frodo Baggins, who inherits the ring.

The pattern of loss and the transference of a curse becomes part of the back story of the One Ring as related by Gandalf to Frodo early in The Lord of the Rings. Its loss, as well as its rediscovery, is sequential. At the end of the Second Age it was taken from Sauron by Isildur, who then loses it in the Great River. There it is found centuries later by Gollum, who hides under the mountains with it; so it is lost again until Bilbo finds it after Gollum has lost it. The resemblance between this fantasy and the lost and found rings of Lydney and the Vyne is close. A gold ring was taken at Lydney during the Roman0-British period in the fourth century. Thirteen centuries later and many miles away in a former Roman town a gold ring, which had been lost in the earth, was discovered bearing the name that is cursed at Lydney. The temptation is to imagine that the rings must be the same. Just as in reality there is no absolute proof of a connection between the Lydney and Vyne rings, in the imaginative process by which Tolkien creates the back story of the One Ring there is similarly no initial, certain connection between the ring Bilbo leaves to Frodo and the malign ring Sauron lost to Isildur.

Scholarly research

Tolkien was a scholar: through his research he tried to untangle the etymology of the name, Nodens, invoked in the Lydney curse. He uses the same method to identify the One Ring in his epic story when Gandalf goes to the ancient city of Minas Tirith, where the archives contain accounts of Isildur taking and losing that ring. Gandalf then questions Gollum to learn more about its history. The final incontrovertible test of its identity is exposure to fire, which reveals the malign inscription on the inside. This process of research may be one of Tolkien’s many little scholarly in-jokes, signalling that he knew of the tantalising but contingent possibility that the Lydney lost ring and the Vyne ring were the same. The link between them remained to be established but, in his fantasy, loss and discovery of a ring could be confirmed through scholarly research.

There are many differences between the Roman gold ring at The Vyne and the rings Tolkien described. There are, on the other hand, significant patterns of resemblance between the loss of the Lydney ring and the curse and the discovery of the Vyne ring, which echo in the process by which Tolkien defines the back story and identity of the One Ring. These include, most significantly, the process of loss, malediction and discovery covering many centuries. To regard either the Lydney lost ring or the Vyne ring as a simple source would be to disregard Tolkien’s handling of other sources that influenced his development of the One Ring.

However, it seems likely that Tolkien’s practical experience at Lydney supported and consolidated his inspiration to create a genuine mythology on which he could base his stories and which have given The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings their enduring popularity.

Mark Horton is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Bristol. Lynn Forest-Hill is Education Officer for the Tolkien Society and fellow of the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Culture, University of Southampton.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email