The Ring in Indo-European literature

Illustration from a Mewar Ramayana manuscript – Wikimedia Commons

One criticism sometimes made against Prof. JRR Tolkien is that he somehow imitated the ring-based plot of Richard Wagner’s opera cycle ‘The Ring of the Nibelung’ in his own master work ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  Prof. Tolkien expressly disclaimed any similarity between his own work and that of Wagner, once comparing his Lord of the Rings with Wagner’s Ring Cycle by saying, “Both rings were round, but there the resemblance ceases.”

In fact, both Tolkien and Wagner independently drew on the earlier Norse literature for the idea that a ring could be an important device for plot development.  This article will survey the various examples of a ring as such a motif in literature, in those two authors, in the Norse sagas, and also in Indian literature and elsewhere.  The fact that the ring features as a plot device across Indo-European literature so widely perhaps suggests an original proto-Indo-European story tradition which features a ring in a similar way.

In the Þiðreks saga, as explained by Tom Shippey, a ring is exchanged by a couple in the consummation of a seduction of Brynhild by Sigurd.  Sigurd’s wife produces the ring given by Brynhild to Sigurd to show that it was he who seduced her, rather than her husband Gunnar, as she had thought and now claims to be the case.

[Grimhild speaks] “I refute that by this gold ring, which he [Sigurd] took from you when he had taken your virginity.  He took this same ring from your hand and gave it to me.”

[translated by Tom Shippey in ‘Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings’, p.76]

In this passage, the exchange of rings as a practice rather reminds us of the exchange of wedding rings, which in fact dates back to ancient Egypt and was then adopted by Greek and Roman civilizations, and then by Christianity.  In India, too, we see the exchange of rings take place in connection with romance and seduction.  Thus at least in Kālidāsa’s play, Abhijñāna-Śākuntalam, Duṣyanta gives a ring to Śakuntalā, which later plays an important role in the plot.  In Old English literature, similarly, we see rings being given out as gifts by a lord.  Thus in Beowulf, princes such as Scyld Scefing are described as ‘giver of rings’ [béaga bryttan].

Another idea present here is the idea that a ring can identify the original owner who gave or gifted it, in the case of Śakuntalā this being necessary because of a curse that Duṣyanta should at first forget her.  In the Rāmāyaṇa, likewise, Rāma gives his ring to Hanumān to show Sītā in order that she may identify him as a legitimate envoy from Rāma.  In the illustration above, we see Rāma give his ring to Hanumān as the entire monkey army is being dispatched in different directions by Sugrīva.

Contemplating that supremely determined monkey [Hanumān], the resplendent [Rāma] was pleased, and his mind and senses were delighted, as if he had already achieved his goal. 
Then, joyful, the foe-destroying [Rāma] gave him a ring inscribed with his own name, as a means for the princess [Sītā] to recognize and validate him. 
“Best of monkeys, through this sign, Janaka’s daughter [Sītā] will see that you have arrived directly from being with me and will be reassured.”

[Rāmāyaṇa Kiṣkindhākāṇḍa Canto 154, Verses 11-13]

We find this idea also in Shakespeare’s play ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, where the plot turns on an exchange of rings and the identities that are ultimately revealed by those rings.  Diana persuades Bertram to give her his ring, a precious family heirloom, and promises a ring in exchange.  However, she has arranged for Helena instead to appear wearing Bertram’s ring at a later time.  Here we see Diana prime Bertram for the setup –

“When midnight comes, knock at my chamber window.
I’ll order take my mother shall not hear.
Now will I charge you in the band of truth,
When you have conquered my yet maiden bed,
Remain there but an hour, nor speak to me.
My reasons are most strong, and you shall know them
When back again this ring shall be delivered.
And on your finger in the night I’ll put
Another ring, that what in time proceeds
May token to the future our past deeds.”

[All’s Well That Ends Well, Act IV Scene 2 lines 65-75]

The ring does indeed later ‘token to the future … past deeds’, in a very similar way that the ring in Śakuntalā’s possession, but in both cases the path to ultimate confirmation of identity is not straightforward.  In this case, it is Helena who later appears wearing Bertram’s ring that it would seem could only be in Diana’s possession, and is seduced by Bertram.  Helena now gives Bertram her own ring, which was a gift from the King of France.  This later serves to identify that it was her who was seduced by Bertram and not Diana, as Bertram had somehow thought. 

Likewise, in the Indian play, the ring which would break the curse and revive Duṣyanta’s memory is accidentally lost in a stream by Śakuntalā.  However, through a seemingly fortuitous but perhaps fated turn of events, it is swallowed by a fish which is later cut open, and the discovery of the ring is brought to the attention of the king.  As the fisherman who discovers the ring explains to the policemen who apprehend him –

“One day I was filleting a carp when I saw in its innards I saw this ring set with a bright jewel.  Later when I displayed it for sale, I was seized by you.”

[from Abhijñāna-Śākuntalam Act VI; my own translation]

In the traditional English story, ‘The Fish and the Ring’, we similarly read about a Baron who does not wish a poor girl to marry his son, and speaks to her as follows –

“Then the Baron took off his gold ring and threw it into the sea, saying: “Never let me see your face till you can show me that ring;” and he let her go.”

However, fate has it such that the ring is swallowed by a fish, and here it is the girl herself who later finds herself cleaning and serving the fish at the Baron’s table –

“Well, when the fish came on the table, the guests liked it so well that they asked the noble who cooked it. He said he didn’t know, but called to his servants: “Ho, there, send up the cook that cooked that fine fish.” So they went down to the kitchen and told the girl she was wanted in the hall. Then she washed and tidied herself and put the Baron’s gold ring on her thumb and went up into the hall.”

Here we see a very similar plot device to that of the story of Śakuntalā, where a ring is lost and later spectacularly found when a fish is cut open.   Again too there is a connection between a ring and the inscrutable workings of fate behind the scenes to bring about some foretold or predetermined, yet superficially implausible, outcome.  The idea that a ring may have special, magical powers, which may direct the course of events, or at least, the ring’s own situation, builds on the idea that a ring may be an instrument for the workings of fate, and is an idea closely connected with the idea of a cursed ring.  Such a ring is found in the Norse sagas.

The story of Brynhild that we considered earlier in fact has various alternative versions.  As per the Völsunga saga, the ring given to Brynhild is identified with the magical and cursed ring of Andvari, called Andvaranaut, that is, ‘Andvari’s gift’.  Here the name of Sigurd’s wife, who points out the truth, is rendered as Gudrun –

[Gudrun speaks] “I reckon that the one that went to bed with you was the one that gave me this gold ring, and that gold ring that you are wearing and that you received as morning gift, that is known as Andvari’s gift…”

[translated by Tom Shippey in ‘Laughing Shall I Die: Lives and Deaths of the Great Vikings’, p.73]

We may note too that, as in ‘All’s Well That Ends Well, Brynhild’s story is also a case of mistaken identity around seduction.  But in this version, the curse is part of a larger story, and the ring itself is dreadful and ominous.  In the telling of the Norse sagas, it is the dwarf Andvari who originally has the ring.  When it is taken from him, along with all his treasure, he curses it that it should destroy anyone who possesses it in the future.

It is this idea of a fateful ring, which may act on the bearer or direct the course of fate in some way, is an idea found very widely in literature and in folklore.  And it is specifically the idea of a cursed ring, a theme of the Norse sagas as described above, which is picked up on by JRR Tolkien in the Lord of the Rings.  When Gandalf explains the history and power of the ring to Frodo, some of these specific features are brought out.

‘A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness … sooner or later the dark power will devour him.’

[The Fellowship of the Ring, p.46]

We see the malevolent power of the ring at work in ensnaring first Déagol and then Sméagol

‘And behold! when he washed the mud away, there in his hand lay a beautiful golden ring; and it shoe and glittered in the sun, so that his heart was glad.  But Sméagol had been watching from behind a tree, and as Déagol gloated over the ring, Sméagol came softly up behind … he caught Déagol by the throat and strangled him, because the gold looked so bright and beautiful.  Then he put the ring on his finger … Sméagol returned alone; and he found that none of his family could see him, when he was wearing the ring … he used it to find out secrets, and he put his knowledge to crooked and malicious uses.’

[The Fellowship of the Ring, p.52]

It is Sméagol who gradually transforms under the power of the ring into Gollum, who is perhaps inspired by the dwarf Andvari, in a similar way to how Wagner based Alberich on this character.  However, Gandalf also hints that maybe more than one power may be at work, including perhaps some benevolent force that is deeper than the malevolent power of the ring –

‘There was more than one power at work, Frodo.  The Ring was trying to get back to its master.  It had slipped from Isildur’s hand and betrayed him; then when a chance came it caught poor Déagol, and he was murdered; and after that Gollum, and it had devoured him … Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker.  I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker.  In which case you were also meant to have it.  And that may be an encouraging thought.’

[The Fellowship of the Ring, p.54]

In ‘The Ring of the Nibelung’, which draws to some extent on the same Norse source material, we see similar themes to those discussed above in play, but in different ways.  Wagner’s unique creation of the three Rhinemaidens, beautiful and quasi-divine spirits of nature, remind us somehow of Śakuntalā and her two female companions.  However, unlike Śakuntalā, they cruelly spurn the advances of their suitor, the ugly dwarf Alberich.  This leads him to renounce love, which allows him to forge the magical gold that he steals from them into a ring with immense power.  When the ring is stolen from him, he curses it, so that it will cause all kinds of distress for its future owners.  Again we see the connection of a ring with a curse, with love, with beauty and ugliness, and with supernatural forces of good and evil.

This brief survey has shown that a ring features as a central element in mythology, literature and folklore across the world, and particularly within the Indo-European tradition.  The ring in such stories is typically connected with the mysterious power of fate, or a curse or malefic influence, and may even have some strange kind of agency of its own to act.  The ring is of course very often connected with romance and seduction, as rings are in our ordinary life.

According to recent scholarship, many stories currently circulating as fairy stories, children’s stories and so on, such as Jack & the Beanstalk, date back to the Bronze Age in their origins.  Based on the above considerations, we may speculate that some kind of story based on the above themes might also date back to this early period.

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