Discovery of Historical Inspiration for Tolkien’s One Ring has published the fascinating story of a golden ring from Roman Britain and of two Pembroke College, Oxford, professors who were part of the effort to trace its origins. What’s intriguing about it, at least for serious readers of fantasy fiction, is that these two professors were R. G. Collingwood, archaeologist and dean of metaphysics, and J. R. R. Tolkien, he-who-needs-no-introduction. From the article ‘The Inspiration for Tolkien’s 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.

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.

Do read the whole thing.  My only quibble is the authors’ assertion that the years 1928-1929 were the years in which the form of The Hobbit was taking final shape.” Tolkien doesn’t begin the composition of The Hobbit until 1930 according to the accepted history and writes more than half of it in the months just before publication in 1936 and 1937. That would be the year that he read Williams’ Place of the Lion, a ring composition, when his and CSL’s ideas of what was possible in modern day story telling was re-shaped (re-forged?). For more on that pivotal year, see Bruce Charlton’s notes online in ‘The Notion Club Papers.’

Still, this is a fascinating link, especially given the presence of Collingwood, about whom more after the jump!

I wrote several Tolkien scholars and friends for their thoughts on this link of a Roman Ring with the One Ring.

Tom Doran came first to mind because his book, Toward the Gleam, involves just such an archaeological discovery shapes Tolkien’s writing of The Lord of the Rings (see the HogwartsProfessor interview with him here).

T.M. Doran:

The article is a delight to me too, as I hadn’t seen it before either. Thank you for thinking of me and sending it along. I don’t know how far back Tolkien’s idea for the Silmarils went but I see similiarities between the rings of power and the Silmarils, both made by master “craftsmen”, both possessing super-natural power, both sources of great contention. Some differences too, of course.

I wrote sci-fi fiction and Tolkien scholar Sandra Miesel, who responded:

That’s an interesting connection but I rather doubt direct inspiration.

Chris Chalderon was familiar with Prof Collingwood and shared his thoughts:

<snip>  The only criticism I have for [the article] centers on a train of thought I’ve seen once before in John D. Rateliff’s The History of the Hobbit where critics and fans believe that the portrayal of the One Ring from one book to the next isn’t the same.  This sort of goes against Tolkien’s own Coleridgian influenced thinking that he uncovered the Ring’s nature as he wrote along.

The difference lies in the fact that Tolkien believed he was discovering a sort pre-existing archetype, whereas it’s only natural that modern scholarship has what amounts to a kind of disbelief in fiction, to give it a word.  This goes back to Tolkien and Lewis’s ideas about “Inspiration” and “invention”.  So while I’m willing to more or less believe the Lydney ring might have been a factor in Tolkien’s composition, I’d side more in Tolkien’s favor and call it simply a partial factor.

One of the things that’s sort of gratifying about the article however is the fact that Tolkien was familiar with the work of Collingwood, and that the two knew each other.

I first found out about Collingwood through Lewis’s brief mention of his book The Idea of Nature in a chapter of Miracles.  His work on the “History of Ideas” is rather fascinating, as it really amounts to a History of Beliefs.  As it happens, a posthumous work of Collingwood has been compiled under the title The Philosophy of Enchantment: Studies in Folktale, Cultural Criticism, & Anthropology.  It’s a collection of essays Collingwood either published or wrote on the topic of folklore; it’s history and beliefs.  It even includes two opening essays on Jane Austen.

If there is any major disagreement I have with Collingwood on the subject of fiction, it’s that I kind of wonder if he sometimes falls into that same creative fallacy that I mentioned above.  He views fiction as craftsmanship, yet I think his approach is more Renaissance Jesuitical and not Coleridgian, leaving more a focus on craft and less on a viable imaginative process (for lack of a better word).

Still, I highly recommend it.

Three quick thoughts on this subject of fact, influence, and fantasy:

(1) While it is certainly a great stretch to think of this event as a direct cause of Tolkien’s ring work, it is no great reach to recognize it as a possible and powerful influence on the Medievalist’s imagination. I think his work in the years prior to the inspiration he had for The Hobbit alongside Collingwood has to be entered now into that vast library of influences that brought the ruling ring to its place in Middle earth mythology.

(2) I want to note that less than a hundred years ago, one man could be the leading authority on archaeological digs at Roman excavation sites in Britain and simultaneously hold the chair of philosophy and metaphysics at Oxford. This speaks, methinks, to the breadth of minds before super-specialization took over the academy and to the relationship of the two fields of study before the idea of the Fall had been entirely eclipsed by the modernist Dogma and Myth of Progress.

(3) Last but not least, this is another marker of the reality of how little we know about creative genius in general, what causes the world-building imagination of particular persons to take flight as gloriously as this man’s did, and about the specific inspirations that fueled Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. As great as much of Inkling scholarship has been — Shippey, Ward, Caldecott, many others — I want to acknowledge the beauty, truth, and goodness in the fiction of these writers will almost certainly remain as mysterious as it is moving.

Your comments and corrections, please!


  1. Mr. Granger,

    You mention the “breadth of minds before super-specialization took over the academy “, and also the difference that exists between a time when “one man could be the leading authority on archaeological digs at Roman excavation sites in Britain and simultaneously hold the chair of philosophy and metaphysics at Oxford.”

    To speak in a slightly Barfieldian idiom, I think the much bigger picture it points to is the shift and turns in cultural beliefs from age to age. A good example of what I mean can be found in taking the case of an average blue collar working job as it exists now, and then contrasting it with how such professions were held back in the Renaissance.

    In “Theater of the World”, Frances Yates relates what could be thought of as several blue collar professions, such as building construction, with a much greater whole:

    “(Scientist and philosopher John Dee) points out that architecture, above all other arts, is based on the abstract sciences of number, and indeed, of all the arts and sciences…for the education of a true architect must include some acquaintance with every branch of the whole encyclopedia of knowledge (Yates, 25)”.

    She goes on to quote John Dee as laying out the following requirements for what today basically amounts to no more than simple brick-laying:

    “An architect (says Dee sic) ought to understand languages, to be skillful in Painting, well instructed in (Geometry), not ignorant of Perspective, furnished with (Arithmetic), (have) knowledge of many histories, and diligently (have) heard of the Philosophers, (have) skill of (Music), not ignorant of (Physics), know the answers of the Lawyers, (have Astronomy), and the courses (Celestial), in good knowledge. He (gives) Reason, orderly, wherefore all these (Arts), Doctrines, and Instructions, are requisite in an excellent (Architect) (ibid)”.

    Now, a fairly logical response from any blue collar worker in construction today reading that might go something like, “You gotta be kiddin’, right? I mean there’s no way one guy can know that much. Hell, I didn’t even get half of it, if ya want the truth. Also, FYI bro, in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s all I can do to keep a roof overhead while building others for a bunch of folk who might even be able to afford it. In case you didn’t know, the bottom fell outta housing in this country long ago!”

    To be fair, all those criticisms are valid. The point is what separates the thinking of someone like John Dee the average citizen of the 21st century is a much diminished belief in the purpose of the cosmos, and ipso ergo a much greater lack of knowledge and skill.

    What all this points to, for me, is that lack of literary as well as other skills ultimately depends on a point I made once before, that it is belief that determines whether anyone regards “anything” as being of value or not. In terms of literature, I’d say there has been an appreciable drop off in the value we assign to it, as well as with a lot of other more essential elements of living, such as democratic process and all that. That, at least, is one idea for the fragmentation and specialization of literary studies.

  2. @ John

    Sorry to rain on the parade! but to be honest I don’t think this is relevant to Tolkien’s inspiration – although of course it is hard to rule-out categorically.

    I just don’t think Tolkien’s mind worked in that way. He worked from language (i.e. philology – for example the hard to find short report he wrote on this excavation on The Name Nodens may have been important), and from his own personal experiences (including dreams).

    And he already knew about The Ring from Wagner’s operas and their ancient sources – this is examined in detail in Tom Shippey’s (brilliant) essay collection Roots and Branches – so the idea of a plot based on a ring would already have been familiar.

    On the other hand, I think the event of this archaeological collaboration, the evidence of a link with RG Collingwood, and Tolkien’s published report on The Name Nodens (which is a classic example of his imaginative and learned philological method – a type of poetic scholarship now utterly extinct) are extremely interesting and all worthy of greater consideration.

  3. jane yolen says

    The thing about writing novels is that more comes into play than an author is aware of. Family, the moment of history, personal preferences, overheard conversation, misread factoids, long forgotten bits that swim up into the mix. I remember being reviewed as having written something that was a direct descendent of The Faerie Queene. Only problem–I’d (gasp!) never read the poem. But I probably had read a lot around it.

    We can find threads that seem to stitch up bits of an author’s organizing principles, but even if the author himself (or herself) tells you what the motivation was for a story or a character or any bit in the piece, it’s always much more complicated than that. I was frequently caught up short when my husband told me what he thought a story of mine was about. And he actually understood their antecedents better than I did on the deepest levels.

    Jane Yolen

  4. Thank you, Jane Yolen, for joining the conversation! It is reassuring to hear from an author of your stature that it is not implausible, perhaps it is even likely, that a writer may be more the vehicle of her muse than the conscious creator of a story and its several levels of meaning.

    The thought that the person with pen is not the deliberate conductor of the various inspirations — especially, again, when this is noted by a writer of great accomplishment like yourself — rather explodes the myth in the various fandoms that definitive interpretation begins and ends with the author’s belief.

  5. Mrs. Yolen,

    First, let me say it really is an honor to get your input on perhaps “the” question of all fiction (and the one most writers are bound to be wary about): “where do you get your ideas”?

    Second, if your comment more or less sums up your thoughts on the nature of writing, is there anything you care to elaborate further on that score?

  6. jane yolen says

    Thanks, John.–

    And Chris, that would take an essay or a speech or a book. Try my TAKE JOY, essays on writing. Or my poems on writing in SISTER FOX’S FIELD GUIDE TO WRITING for a more expansive take on the entire process. But remember, all writers deal in metaphor, mystery, and deceit. So even when we are telling you the truth about what we have written, it is a partial lie. We are trying to convince you to read the book! But we have also hidden the truth from ourselves. Besides–it’s not so much about the writer’s motivation (though that might help you a bit on the tricky parts) but what you–the reader–bring to any piece of writing. Not just a lot of personal baggage, but carpet bags full of stuff.

  7. Mrs. Yolen,

    I really do have to smile when you say that “all writers deal in metaphor, mystery, and “deceit”.

    Not only are you more than 100% correct, but you also put me in mind of a famous (too bookworms, anyway) dialogue that took place between three writers, Peter Straub, Stephen King, and his son, Joe Hill. The basic essence of it is this:

    Hill (to Straub): Who do you think is the “greatest person who ever lived”?

    Straub: It’s a toss up. Either Louis Armstrong or Warren Spahn. You can hardly tell them apart anyhow.

    King (to Hill): Remember Joe – that man tells lies for a living.

    I also think you are right about a good book being an interplay between author and reader. I just worry about what seems to be an encroaching reluctance or inability of a lot of the audience to do the metaphorical legwork that’s needed to make any fiction truly effective. Instead, what I’ve noticed is a bunch of people who are content to stay in passive mode and then complain that nothing entertaining happened.

    It’s troubling, I’ll admit.

  8. jane yolen says

    Warren Spahn is taller.

    I used to ask this question at science fiction/fantasy conventions when on a panel about this sort of subject. “How many of you read a lot?” All hands up. “How many of you read 100% sf/fantasy? Half the hands. How many of you read at least 50% history, biography, and science books? About a quarter of the hands. “How many of you read about half the time: mythos, poetry, and folklore ? About a quarter.

    And then I would shake my head and say :How can you read the books of your favorite authors and understand them if all you read is sf and fantasy? Your authors are reading history and biography, science, mythic literature, landscape books, architecture books, books about medieval clothing and nineteenth century table manners, books on weapons and war, books of aberrant psychology, floor plans of castles and ghettos, memoirs, etc. All to make real what is unreal. And if you want to truly get the book, you should be reading some of this stuff, too!

  9. Mrs. Yolen,

    Bearing in mind what you just said, my basic thinking on audiences is that they can be more or less divided into three groups:

    The majority.
    These people are not the stereotype anti-intellectual. Indeed, the majority I’m talking about is in many ways too complex to pin down. Nor are they necessarily anti-book or that sort of thing. As a matter of fact, they are more puzzled and bemused, not just by books, but by the whole concept of fiction. Again, this doesn’t mean that they hate books or anything like that. Instead, I’d say it’s more that they never know where they are with fiction than they are, say, behind the wheel of a long-haul truck or that sort of thing.

    The kind of majority I’m thinking of may not understand books, but some of them may be experts at working with their hands. They would leave a place for fiction as a kind of diversion, something to kick back with after a long day of work. The thing to note is that the majority usually leave it there as far as fiction goes. They take a greater interest in life itself and other people stronger than they do books. If there’s any virtue that off-sets their lack of interest in fiction, it’s their fascination with real life.

    The minority.
    This is your basic standard bookworm/cinephile type. These are the people who don’t just read or watch, they absorb and try to understand what they read or watch. The reason the minority will go to so much trouble is simple. Unlike the great majority, the small minority of devotees to fictions just seem to possess naturally outsized imaginations. Hence their ability to take an outsize pleasure in the Art (and that is the correct word) of Make Believe. In short, through a training and building up of the Imagination (most of it probably done without giving much thought until later) the minority simply possess “a mind for this sort of thing”.

    The thing is, when you separate audiences into groups like this, then go back and study history, an interesting fact appears. It does seem that, by and large, reading, in the sense of close study of texts that the minority (and this includes authors), has mostly been a coterie affair, limited only to a handful of audience members at any given time in history. Therefore, a case could be made for the idea that fiction as a whole may have been, and continues to be, and sort of underground affair.

    Fan culture.
    Of al the groups you may lump an audience into, the third group of fan culture is the one I find the most, let’s say, problematic. Here I got to make myself clear. I “do” acknowledge that a lot of the members of various fan communities belong to the type of bookish minority listed above that takes a genuine interest in fiction, and I think that does include the kind of people you find on place like

    That said, I do think a distinction has to be made between knowledgeable fans and the basic culture of Fandom at large. The thing to keep in mind is that type of culture I’m talking about is a fairly recent phenomena in the history of fiction, distinct from the literate minority.

    If the minority has been around since, perhaps the classical and middle ages, Fandom I think can’t trace it’s roots further than, maybe the 1930s with the onset of comics and things like that. I don’t say that to knock comics per se, but the problem I have with Fandom, and which can in turn reflect back on the stories told for various “fan bases”, is how the majority of fan culture seems to more or less phone it in, paying more attention to style than the substance of any given work of art. Here is where I think your frustrations with the fans who admit to not reading much while liking your stories, or those of Rowling, Gaiman, Charles Schulze etc., without really giving the thought and attention it deserves.

    The thing about the type of Fandom I’m talking about is that there seems to be a kind of disaffected, apathetic laziness to a lot of it that is more harm than help to the stories they claim to rally around. The majority, as opposed to the minority, of modern Fandom seems to be more interested in someone making a loud noise than in hearing a well told tale. In fact, I think I could be argued that a well told tale is exactly the last thing this particular fandom is looking for.

    I don’t know how that must sound, but these are really the thoughts I’ve had from turning around and actually trying to “see” the audience most authors play for.

    The question all this puts in my mind is how do the other two halves think, not just in terms of stories, but of much more down to earth affairs. In other words, is their a difference in style, manner, and thought from the way a non-literary audience member would relate to life in the way a bookworm would?

    …I’ll go take my meds now. Thanks for the thoughts though, ma’am.

  10. That’s a great note about Academia at the end there, John. I have “The Abolition of Man” on my list of things to buy next, but I’m not there yet.

    I would push back a bit about the starting of the Hobbit with the ring. I think the argument from Coleridge is stronger, namely because of what Lewis called “the daily weather of a writer’s mind.” As you well know, at any given point a writer might have more than one idea swirling around in his head and it often will not come to an on-page consummation until it collides with another idea or image. If this ring event did influence Tolkien, it could very well have made up what you yourself have called the “compost” from which he drew inspiration.

    Likely the image and context surrounding the Roman ring was one part of the impetus and other ideas came along as he went, bolstering it into the much stronger MacGuffin and story symbol we know today.

Speak Your Mind