A magic ring is a ring, usually a finger ring, that has magical properties. It appears frequently in fantasy and fairy tales. Magic rings are found in the folklore of every country where rings are worn, and they endow the wearer with a variety of abilities, including invisibility, the granting of wishes, and immortality. Sometimes, they can be cursed, as in the fictional ring that was recovered by Sigurd from the hoard of the dragon Fafnir in Norse mythology or the fictional ring that features in J R R Tolkien's modern saga The Lord of the Rings. More often, however, they are featured as forces for good, or as a neutral tool whose value is dependent upon the wearer.
A finger ring is a convenient choice for a magic item: it is ornamental, distinctive and often unique, a commonly worn item, of a shape that is often endowed with mystical properties (circular), can carry an enchanted stone, and is usually worn on a finger, which can be easily pointed at a target.
Early stories of magical rings date to classical antiquity. Plato, in the second book of The Republic, tells a story about the Ring of Gyges, which conferred invisibility on its wearer. The shepherd Gyges, who found it in a cave, used its power to seduce the queen, kill the king and take his place. Earlier accounts of Gyges, however, who was king of Lydia, make no mention of a magic ring. Rings are not generally attributed with magic powers in ancient Greek legend, although many other magical objects are listed, particularly in the Perseus myth. Josephus (8.2) has an anecdote of one Eleazar who used a magic ring to exorcise demons in the presence of Vespasian.
J G Frazer, in his study of magic and superstition in The Golden Bough, has speculated to the effect that rings can serve, in the "primitive mind", as devices to prevent the soul from leaving the body and to prevent demons from gaining entry. A magic ring, therefore, might confer immortality by preventing the soul's departure and thwart the penetration of any harmful magic that might be directed against the wearer. These magical properties inhibiting access to the soul may explain "an ancient Greek maxim, attributed to [the ancient philosopher and mystic] Pythagoras, which forbade people to wear rings" in ancient Greece.
Medieval demonology and alchemy
In the medieval demonology, in both Arabic and Hebraic tradition, this gave rise to the legend of the Ring of Solomon used for such purposes, which by the Renaissance era also entered Western magic, occultism and alchemy. Magic rings feature in Arabian Nights, where Aladdin summons a second djinn from a finger ring.
Magic rings are known in medieval Jewish esoteric tradition; they are mentioned in the Talmud and Midrash. Solomon's magical ring had many properties in legend: making him all-knowing, conferring him with the ability to speak with animals and bearing the special sigil that sealed genies into bottles. A story about King Solomon and a ring is found in the Babylonian Talmud, but rings are more fully discussed in Jewish mystical literature. The power of a ring is in the divine name with which it is inscribed; such rings are used to invoke and command various guardians of heavenly palaces and to gain entrance to those heavens. In the Zohar, God is thought to own and use a signet ring, or, at least, a signet.
In the medieval collection of Welsh tales called the Mabinogion one of the romances – Geraint ab Erbin – has the eponymous character find a ring that grants him the powers of invisibility when worn.
An early magical ring in European mythology is the arm ring named Draupnir worn by the Norse god Odin. Because its only reported function was to create more gold arm bands every nine days, Draupnir may have been a religious symbol which represented the increasing of wealth. The ring was placed onto Baldr's funeral pyre, but Baldr gave Draupnir back to Hermod when he came looking for him in Hel and so the ring was returned to Odin from the land of death, with its new-found ability to replicate. Another Norse ring was called Andvarinaut. Andvarinaut is the famous Ring of the Niebelung from The Volsunga Saga and The Nibelungenlied, which eventually becomes the property of the hero Siegfried or Sigurd. How it came to be cursed is explained in detail in The Volsunga Saga, Andvarinaut's use is never specifically given in the story: its curse is simply a source of disaster for every person who owns it; its principal characteristic is that nearly everyone wants to get it, except Sigurd, who has got it, but does not know what it is.
Sir Yvain is given a magic ring by a maiden in Chrétien de Troyes' 12th-century Arthurian romance The Knight of the Lion. This finger ring can be worn with the stone on the inside, facing the palm, and then it will make the wearer invisible. The Scottish ballads Hind Horn and Bonny Bee Hom both include a magic ring that turns pale when the person who received it has lost the person who gave it.
The 14th-century Middle English Arthurian romance Sir Perceval of Galles has the hero, Perceval, take a ring from the finger of a sleeping maiden in exchange for his own, and he then goes off on a series of adventures that includes defeating an entire Saracen army single-handedly, in a Land of Maidens. Only near the end of this romance does he learn that the ring he was wearing is a magic ring and that its wearer cannot be killed. Similar rings feature in the fourteenth century medieval romance Sir Eglamour of Artois and the twelfth century Floris and Blancheflour, and in Sir Thomas Malory's tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney, in his fifteenth century epic Le Morte d'Arthur, in which Sir Gareth is given a ring by a damsel who lives in Avalon that will render him invulnerable to losing any blood at a tournament.
In the medieval collection of Welsh tales called the Mabinogion, one of the romances - 'Geraint ab Erbin' has the eponymous character find a ring that grants him the powers of invisibility when worn.
Like other magical objects in stories, magic rings can act as a plot device, but in two distinct ways. They may give magical abilities to a person who is otherwise lacking in them, or enhance the power of a wizard. Or alternatively, they may function as nothing more than MacGuffins, that is, objects for which it is the characters' desire to obtain them, rather than any innate power that they possess, that moves the story along.
J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, for example, involves a magical ring which allows Bilbo Baggins to be instrumental in a quest, matching the abilities of the dwarves. In the Volsunga Saga, on the other hand, the magic ring that Sigurd takes from the dragon Fafnir is a symbolic item, cursed by the dwarf Andvari from whom it was stolen by Loki; the ring is a plot device that creates a sense of inevitable disaster as the story unfolds.
William Makepeace Thackeray's satirical novel The Rose and the Ring features a ring that has the power to make whoever owns it beautiful; its passage from person to person in the novel is an important element of the story.
The composer Richard Wagner wrote a series of four operas titled Der Ring des Nibelungen which present his version of the story told in The Nibelungenlied and in Volsunga Saga, as well as the Prose Edda. The operas are more often called The Wagner Ring Cycle in English. In this cycle, the ring of the Nibelungen ultimately brings about the downfall of the old gods as Brünnhilde returns the ring, which confers power, back to the Rhinemaidens from whom its gold was stolen in the first place,
Magic rings occur in a myriad of modern fantasy stories as incidental objects, but many novels feature a ring as a central part of the plot. In Andre Norton's novel The Zero Stone, the title comes from a ring that has advanced properties. H. Warner Munn has written an award winning fantasy novel titled Merlin's Ring. Stephen R. Donaldson has written a long series of fantasy novels about a magic ring of white gold owned by a fictional Thomas Covenant. Poul Anderson, in his novel A Midsummer Tempest, has Oberon and Titania give two characters magical rings that will aid them as long as they are true to each other. The author Piers Anthony has written Castle Roogna which includes, as an important part of its plot, a ring which claims – convincingly as it turns out – to be able to grant wishes. The ring of Solomon appears in Charles Williams's novel Many Dimensions. The protagonist of the Jack Vance story Liane the Wayfarer finds a ring which is not a finger ring: it first appears as the size of a bracelet, and can be stretched in size to serve as a magical portal.
In C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician's Nephew, two magic rings, which take people to the Wood between the Worlds, a linking room between parallel universes, are central to the story; a yellow ring, when touched, sends a person to the Wood Between the Worlds, while a green ring is used from there to bring that person into a world of their choosing. These rings were created by the magician "Uncle Andrew" by the use of magical dust from Atlantis.
The Harry Potter series, by author J. K. Rowling, features a magic ring bearing a coat of arms linked to the Peverell brothers, Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort's ancestors. It becomes one of the most important objects in Harry Potter's world because it contains a fragment of Voldemort's soul and formerly held one of the three Deathly Hallows: the Resurrection Stone which can summon the deceased.
In the Tanya Grotter book series, a Russian parody of Harry Potter, the heroine uses a magic ring that bears the voice of her great-grandfather in order to perform spells. Additionally, the other magicians in the series also use rings to perform magic.
J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy novel The Hobbit was written as children's fiction, but as the story grew into The Lord of the Rings the matter expanded, borrowing from Germanic and Norse mythology for many of its themes, creatures, and names. Of twenty magical Rings of Power, four are described in some detail: the extremely powerful and dangerous "One Ring" around which the plot revolves; and three rings worn by Gandalf the wizard and the elves Elrond and Galadriel. Seven Rings of Power were given to the dwarves in an only slightly successful attempt to corrupt them. Humans prove to be more susceptible; each of the nine Nazgûl were once great lords of men who were turned to terrifying wraiths and servants of Sauron by their respective rings. The sixteen rings ultimately given to dwarves and men were created in a joint effort by the elves and the Dark Lord Sauron. The three rings kept by the elves were forged by the elves alone, and Sauron had no direct hand in their creation. Sauron forged the One Ring in secret, with the intention that it would be a "master ring" and give him control over all the other rings, but was not completely successful in this aim. Only the One Ring makes any appearance in The Hobbit, and then it is only known as a magic ring which makes the wearer invisible; its much larger and darker significance is not revealed until The Lord of the Rings. The history of the Rings of Power is described in its known entirety in The Silmarillion', in "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age".
In Doctor Who's 20th anniversary story The Five Doctors the ring of Rassilon, the legendary founder of Time Lord society, is said to confer immortality. Apparently this is how Rassilon has remained alive. However when the renegade Time Lord Borusa puts the ring on he is turned to stone, as were others before him. This was a trap by Rassilon for renegade Time Lords.
- Josepha Sherman, Once upon a Galaxy p 129 ISBN 0-87483-387-6
- Byock, Jesse L, 1990, reprinted 1999. The Saga of the Volsungs: the Norse Epic of Sugurd the Dragon Slayer. Translated from Old Norse with an introduction. Penguin Books Limited.
- John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Rings", p 813 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
- Grube, G M A and Reeve, rev C D C. 1997. Republic: Book II. In: Cooper, John M (Ed). Plato: Complete Works. Hackett Publishing Company. p 1000.
- Frazer, James, 1922. The Golden Bough. Published by Penguin Books Limited with an introduction by George Stocking Jr., 1996 (Frazer's abridged version).
- Frazer, James, 1922. The Golden Bough. Published by Penguin Books Limited with an introduction by George Stocking Jr., 1996 (Frazer's abridged version). p 293.
- Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Gittin Folio 68a.
- For the use of such rings in halakhic literature see Mark Verman's "The Books of Contemplation" chapter two, note 200.
- Zohar 1:29a, although this is certainly metaphorical.
- Byock, Jesse L, 2005. Snorri Sturluson: The Prose Edda. Norse Mythology, translated from Old Norse with an introduction. Penguin Books Limited. 49. The Death of Baldr and Hermod's ride to Hel. pp 65–69.
- Byock, Jesse L, 1990, reprinted 1999. The Saga of the Volsungs: the Norse Epic of Sugurd the Dragon Slayer. Translated from Old Norse with an introduction. Penguin Books Limited. 14. The Otter's Ransom, pp 57–59.
- Kibler, William W., and Carroll, Carleton W., 1991. Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances. Translated from Old French with an introduction. Penguin Books Limited. p 307.
- Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 2, p 317, Dover Publications, New York 1965. Child ballads 18 and 92.
- Brasswell, Mary Flowers (Ed), 1995. Sir Perceval of Galles and Yvain and Gawain. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University for TEAMS. Introduction to the TEAMS medieval text
- Hudson, Harriet. 1996. Four Middle English Romances. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications. Introduction to TEAMS Middle English text Sir Eglamour of Artois.
- Kooper, Erik (Ed). 2006. Sentimental and Humorous Romances. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications. Introduction to TEAMS Middle English text Floris and Blancheflour.
- Vinaver, Eugene, 1971, reprinted in paperback, 1977. Malory: Works. Oxford University Press. The Book of Sir Gareth of Orkney, that was called Bewmaynes by Sir Kay, pp 213–214. This ring also confers upon Sir Gareth the ability to disguise himself, the damsel explains, since "the vertu of my rynge is this: that that is grene woll turne to rede [red] , and that that is rede woll turne in lyknesse to grene, and that that is blewe woll turne to whyghte and that that is whyght woll turne in lyknesse to blew; and so hit woll do of all maner of coloures; also who that beryth this rynge shall lose no bloode."
- Tom Shippley, The Road to Middle-earth, p 77, ISBN 0-618-25760-8
- Byock, Jesse L. (1990, reprinted 1999). The Saga of the Volsungs: the Norse Epic of Sugurd the Dragon Slayer. Translated from Old Norse with an introduction. Penguin Books Limited.
- Stephen Prickett, Victorian Fantasy p 69 ISBN 0-253-17461-9
- von Westerman, Gerhart.1964, reprinted 1973. Opera Guide. Richard Wagner. pp 200–253.
- Stephen Prickett, Victorian Fantasy p 233 ISBN 0-253-17461-9