The ring at the center of The Lord of the Rings, the classic fantasy epic by J.R.R. Tolkien, may have been inspired by an ancient Roman artifact currently on display in a Tudor mansion in England.
The exhibition at the mansion, known as The Vyne, is jointly sponsored by Britain's National Trust and the Tolkien Society. Tolkien reportedly did some research on the ring in 1929, long before the publication of The Hobbit in 1937 and the first installment of The Lord of the Rings in 1954.
In 1929, Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, and was consulted by archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler on the ring's origins. It was believed to have been found in 1785 in a farmer's field in Silchester, an area that was abandoned after the Roman Empire withdrew from the British isles in the fifth century. According to Maev Kennedy at The Guardian:
It was a strikingly odd object, 12g of gold so large that it would only fit on a gloved thumb, ornamented with a peculiar spiky head wearing a diadem, and a Latin inscription reading: "Senicianus live well in God." [The Guardian]
The farmer who found the ring is thought to have sold it to the family at The Vyne. Later, it was connected to the discovery of a Roman site 100 miles away, which featured a tablet cursing the person who stole the ring. "Among those who bear the name of Senicianus to none grant health until he bring back the ring to the temple of Nodens," read the tablet.
Tolkien's work for Wheeler included tracing the etymology of the name Nodens, a Roman god. Tolkien also reportedly visited the site of the tablet frequently. The name of the site? Dwarf's Hill.
However, in a development Tolkien could have written himself, the story of the ring passed into the murk of history, before being rediscovered nearly by chance. "I walked right past the case with it," David Green, the manger of The Vyne, told The Guardian. "That's when I decided we really had to make more of this amazing thing."
So is this the real-life inspiration for the One Ring to Rule Them All, inscribed with the Black Speech of Mordor? The ring that is a source of unimaginable power, as well as a curse on its bearer, corrupting men's minds and bending their thoughts to its will?
It's important to remember that Tolkien began work on The Silmarillion, the ur-text that establishes the universe in which The Lord of the Rings is set, as far back as 1914, long before he came into contact with the ring. And his grand project to create an English mythology was largely based on Norse myths, not the world of the Roman gods.
An alternate, perhaps more plausible theory is that Tolkien was inspired by Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle, which is also partly based on Norse myths and also features a ring that grants its wearer the power to rule the world. As Alex Ross wrote in a 2003 article for The New Yorker:
The idea of the omnipotent ring must have come directly from Wagner; nothing quite like it appears in the old sagas. True, the Volsunga Saga features a ring from a cursed hoard, but it possesses no executive powers. In the "Nibelungenlied" saga, there is a magic rod that could be used to rule all, but it just sits around. Wagner combined these two objects into the awful amulet that is forged by Alberich from the gold of the Rhine. When Wotan steals the ring for his own godly purposes, Alberich places a curse upon it, and in so doing he speaks of "the lord of the ring as the slave of the ring." [New Yorker]
Tolkien, however, dismissed the frequent comparisons between the opera and his trilogy: "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased."