Tolkien 'Curse' Ring at The VynePosted: 2013-04-03
What inspired JRR Tolkien's classic fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings? Literary historians have always assumed it was simply Tolkien's exposure to ancient myths and legends that he encountered in his role as a professor of linguistics at Oxford University. But could he have been inspired by an actual ring?
A pure gold Roman ring has gone on display at The Vyne, an atmospheric Tudor mansion in northern Hampshire, and it is thought that this ring may have inspired Tolkien's magical tale of elves and hobbits, orcs and sorcerors.
The ring was uncovered in 1785 in a field near Silchester Roman town in Hampshire, a few miles north of The Vyne. Simple in design, the ring weighs 12 grams and is inscribed with Latin text that translates roughly as 'Senicianus lives well in God'. A raised square is carved with a likeness of the goddess Venus. The ring probably dates to the 4th century.
Now, a pure gold Roman ring would be fascinating in its own right, but the story does not end there. A curse tablet was found in a Roman temple near Lydney, in Gloucestershire, appealing to the God Nodens to return a stolen golden ring to its owner. According to the tablet, a man named Silvanius had lost a ring, and believed that it had been stolen by another man named ... yes, you guessed it ... Senicianus.
The Romans were rather fond of these 'curse' tablets and frequently called on their favourite gods to cause harm to their enemies.
We don't know for certain that the ring with Senicianus's name on it is the same one lost by Silvanius, but it does seem quite a coincidence.
But what of Tolkien?
The owner of the land at Lydney where the tablet was found was intrigued by the reference to the god Nodens. In 1929 he called in a Oxford linguist and Anglo-Saxon scholar named JRR Tolkien to tell him more about this god and the origins of the name. Tolkien visited the Lydney site on several occasions and it seems very likely that he would have learned the story of the ring before he began to write The Hobbit.
Now the National Trust and the Tolkien Society has put the ring and the curse tablet on display at The Vyne, south-west of Reading, in a special exhibit entitled Vyne Ring: Curse, Legend, and Inspiration that tells the history of the ring and Tolkien's involvement with it.
I visited the exhibit on its opening day and was impressed. The ring is displayed in a glass case, set on a turntable that revolves slowly so that you can make out the inscription. It certainly does bear a resemblance to my own fantasy imaginings of what Bilbo Baggins picked up in the Mines of Moria in The Hobbit! The curse tablet is interesting as well, more for what it says about Roman Britain than anything else, for it is small and rather plain.
The exhibition has multiple information panels describing the background to the ring's finding and the curse, and speculating on just how much the story influenced Tolkein's writing. The Tolkien Society has donated a book signed by Tolkien himself - of course, younger visitors might be more interested in trying on wizard clothes or dwarf outfits!