I was recently reading The Republic, by Plato, and when we came to the section about the ring of Gyges, my teacher claimed that this was the inspiration for the One Ring. I doubt he had any real evidence for this, but the story, or at least some aspects of it, are remarkably similar, so I get where he got the idea. Here's Plato's story:

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result-when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared. Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; where as soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom.

The story is being told by a character who is trying to prove that people are naturally evil, and given the opportunity (a magic ring that allows one to do whatever they like without being caught) people will act evil. To put that another way: power makes people evil.

We see that both rings are invisibility rings, seem to have evil origins, and both cause evil.

I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Tolkien had read The Republic, probably in the original Greek, knowing him.

However, I also know that, at least, this wasn't Tolkien's original inspiration. The ring wasn't even faintly evil in the first version of The Hobbit, published in 1937. In 1951 he changed it so that it worked better with The Lord of the Rings, which he was working on at the time.

So the question is: Was Tolkien inspired by the Ring of Gyges, or did he come up with a similar artifact on his own?

Disclaimer: I know that I'm generalizing a bit about the nature of the One Ring, and this is a loose analysis, so don't cite me as some sort of Plato expert. Also, please do not insult my teacher.

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    (On a lighter note, I bet it was his wife. Put a ring on a woman and she rules 'em all)
    – Oak
    Mar 10, 2015 at 6:52
  • Can't stop from writing this but I can't get away from thought that Bilbo is Oedipus and the ring is Oedipal Complex which he gives to Frodo(being his father figure) - you can draw a lot of parallels - Aragorn with his anxiety over the broken sword for example, the ring that turn ring-bearers to narcissists. Sauron and its "eye" is an ultimate father figure -yang, while the mountain is yin. Mar 10, 2015 at 13:09
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    Oedipal... Complex... some mental yoga there...
    – Smithers
    Mar 10, 2015 at 17:41
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    @Boris: Doesn't compute. Oedipus was the son, not the father. Mar 11, 2015 at 1:23
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    I must have read a different version of Ring of Gyges then. Because in my version he uses the ring to find out who steals sheep, then beats some bandits and then uncovers who killed the king as part of the conspiracy. Basically he was the good guy.
    – Zikato
    Jun 12, 2015 at 6:01

5 Answers 5


In order to understand this, it's first necessary to strip back what was added to the Ring later on, and focus on it as originally presented in The Hobbit; in particular the First Edition of The Hobbit.

As you've correctly observed, the sinister associations that we attribute to the Ring are just not there. It's not even "the Ring", it's "the ring". In particular, two mentions of "the master who ruled them" and "a last trick of the ring before it took a new master" - obvious references to Sauron - were not in the text of the First Edition.

The ring of The Hobbit is just a plain-old magical ring, it makes the wearer invisible but has no corrupting power and no evil origin.

That allows us to discount the ring of Gyges.

As for the Ring of the Nibelungs, Tolkien himself rejected that (Letter 229):

Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.

This answer makes the case that Tolkien wasn't being entirely honest about this, but - and once again - if we go back to examine the ring as it was originally written, we have to admit that Tolkien does have a point.

In The History of the Hobbit John D. Rateliff devotes an entire section of his commentary (Second Phase, Chapter V, commentary section (iii)) to examining sources for the ring, opening with the warning (emphasis is mine):

Tolkien's source for the ring has been much debated. His exact source will probably never be known for the simple reason that he probably didn't have one...

He then goes on to discuss magical rings and items that confer invisibility, before noting that the specific combination - rings that confer invisibility - is quite rare (also observing that the Ring of the Nibelungs does not confer invisibility, thereby supporting Tolkien's own comment given above).

His conclusion is worth excerpting:

...the one likeliest to have influenced Tolkien in the Hobbit is Owein's ring in 'The Lady of the Fountain' ... it seems very likely, however, that both Plato's account and perhaps Fénelon's contributed something to the One Ring as Tolkien developed it in the Lord of the Rings - never forgetting, however, that the primary influence on Frodo's ring is in fact the Hobbit itself: here, as so often, Tolkien is his own main source. Doubtless other rings of invisibility exist which have eluded my researches, but no ring exactly like Bilbo's has surfaced and it seems likely that this is because it was Tolkien's own invention...

The obvious conclusion Rateliff is making here is that one shouldn't assume that everything has an external inspiration; there are some original works.

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    I'm not sure if we can totally discount the Ring of Gyges so easily, for the simple reason that the ring itself is not evil. The invisibility granted by the ring simply allows Gyges to act out his own evil impulses. For the ring to directly cause corruption would defeat the purpose of the story.
    – KSmarts
    Mar 10, 2015 at 14:04
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    KSmarts is correct. The attempted debunking of the Gyges theory doesn't work. The main characteristic of Gyges' ring is that it conveys invisibility, not that it is evil. The purpose of the ring in Plato's story is to show what happens when a bad person gets power, not to show that power corrupts. Mar 10, 2015 at 14:35
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    Also, the fact that an earlier version of the Ring (the one in The Hobbit) functioned differently is interesting, but slightly off-topic: if Tolkien re-imagined the nature of the Ring between TH and LOTR, then the question naturally becomes "What was Tolkien's inspiration for the One Ring in LOTR?" Inspirations can come in at any point in the creative process, so a first draft with differences doesn't preclude a later draft with other inspirations.
    – Nerrolken
    Mar 10, 2015 at 16:39
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    I assume the main reason the ring gives invisibility is the allow Bilbo to become in truth the burglar he was purported to be by Gandalf. Totally plot driven.
    – Oldcat
    Mar 10, 2015 at 18:30
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    @All - I believe the end of my answer deals with much of this, (1) quoting a source that accepts the Ring of Gyges as a possible source for subsequent development, and (2) acknowledging that subsequent development did happen.
    – user8719
    Mar 10, 2015 at 19:04

Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen:

Germany 1876

Wagner's title is most literally rendered in English as The Ring of the Nibelung. The Nibelung of the title is the dwarf Alberich, and the ring in question is the one he fashions from the Rhine Gold.

The scale and scope of the story is epic. It follows the struggles of gods, heroes, and several mythical creatures over the eponymous magic ring that grants domination over the entire world. The drama and intrigue continue through three generations of protagonists, until the final cataclysm at the end of Götterdämmerung.

Pretty sure this was a bit of an inspiration.

  • That makes sense. I know he liked those sort of stories.
    – Mary ML
    Mar 10, 2015 at 6:28
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    Well, to be precise, Tolkien's inspiration was the folk stories that also inspired Wagner. He didn't take inspiration directly from Wagner. Mar 10, 2015 at 7:42
  • Tolkien himself supposedly said, in reference to the similarities between his work and Wagner's, “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased” apparently in a letter cited here (Tolkien to Allen & Unwin, 23 February 1961 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien). Though others have suggested there's more to it than that.
    – shim
    Mar 18 at 16:10
  • The full transcribed letter can be found on page 324 of this PDF. Tolkien was clearly adamantly opposed to the suggestion.
    – shim
    Mar 18 at 16:19

It's likely Tolkien drew on several inspirations for the Ring, and also for the Silmarils, the other great magical artifacts of Middle-earth. It's entirely possible the Ring of Gyges is one of them. Another that's highly likely is the Sampo, the great magical artifact that is a source of much strife in the Kalevala. We know that the Kalevala was highly influential on Tolkien. He wrote:

The germ of my attempt to write legends of my own to fit my private languages was the tragic tale of the hapless Kullervo in the Finnish Kalevala. It remains a major matter in the legends of the First Age (which I hope to publish as The Silmarillion)

― J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 257

So a direct line of influence would lead from the Kalevala to the Silmarils, but that doesn't mean the are the same thing. He wasn't literally just re-writing the Kalevala. However thematically the concept of a great artisan that creates a wondrous magical artifact over which many wars are fought clearly influenced both The Silmarillion and by extension The Lord of the Rings.

  • What is the Kelevala?
    – Mary ML
    Mar 13, 2015 at 0:19
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    It's the foundational Finnish legend. It has a similar place in Finland to the Arthurian Cycle in Britain, or the Sagas in Iceland. Mar 13, 2015 at 9:56

One main inspiration for Tolkien was the Christian Bible. Valinor is a parallelism relating to the likes of Heaven and the Elves who have a very strong resemblance likened to the chosen ones, etc.... All of the books have the prototypical evil vs good story background as does the Bible (as do many other literary sources). Men are corrupted and easily influenced by power and live in the Middle-earth. Sauron was banished, but he returned as Satan was to according to scripture. Sauron, the dark overlord and his minions and Mordor are all highly resembling of Hell, Satan and Demons.

Although Tolkien was a devout Christian, he obviously was trying to create a unique story and had an awesome imagination. I don't believe his intentions were to mask the concepts in the Bible as opposed to creating an awesome and truly unique literary work of science fiction. Some other/additional possible influences with the detailed aspects of the races possibly come from Northern Mythology.

The Ring exhibits a general object of desire. One that is sought after so much that it ultimately and permanently corrupts a soul who is then tortured and tormented at the loss of a material object. Objects of desire in the recorded history of the world tend to lead to wars, murder, etc. I believe this is his main use of the ring as a illustrative tool. Another corollary comes when Gandalf states (Around 1:24 in The Fellowship of the Ring):

There is only one Lord of the Ring, there is only one who can bend it to his will and he does not share power.

Obviously that's a reference to Sauron and is illustrative of the concept of Jesus and/or God and how they are not subject to the desires of normal man. And just as Jesus carried the burden of man and relieved him of his sin - Frodo does the same (at least in concept) for all the races of Middle-earth. I'm not aware of any prior works that have a similar concept of a single ring aside from what's already been mentioned in the other answers.

Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia page for Tolkien's influences:

Tolkien once described The Lord of the Rings to his friend, the English Jesuit Father Robert Murray, as "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision." Many theological themes underlie the narrative, including the battle of good versus evil, the triumph of humility over pride, and the activity of grace, as seen with Frodo's pity toward Gollum. In addition the epic includes the themes of death and immortality, mercy and pity, resurrection, salvation, repentance, self-sacrifice, free will, justice, fellowship, authority and healing. Tolkien mentions the Lord's Prayer, especially the line "And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil" in connection with Frodo's struggles against the power of the One Ring. Tolkien has also said “Of course God is in The Lord of the Rings. The period was pre-Christian, but it was a monotheistic world” and when questioned who was the One God of Middle-earth, Tolkien replied “The one, of course! The book is about the world that God created – the actual world of this planet.”

  • 2
    You said "There is only one Lord of the Ring, there is only one who can bend it to his will and he does not share power." Obviously that's a reference to Frodo..." But I always thought that this "one Lord" person was Sauron. After all, Frodo didn't "bend it to his will"; for most of the series he was struggling with /it/ controlling him.
    – Mary ML
    Mar 12, 2015 at 6:01
  • Sorry, typo - will correct the Frodo ref with Sauron. My bad, I was a bit tired :) Mar 13, 2015 at 2:57

The "will" created by Sauron in the ring itself is His desire to possess the will of the possessor of the all the rings he helped to forge with the Silmaril light. In this, it is a reflection of how evil can corrupt free will in the choosing of selfish desire over good. (Good in the Christian understanding being an absolute.) In Tolkien's creation it is not one thing. It is a combination of the stories of the ancients, his faith and the originality of his mind. But ultimately it is that evil is a choice, not in a ring, but in our own making.

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    Welcome to SciFi.SE! Do you have any evidence (i.e. statements from Tolkien) that the One Ring took inspiration from the Bible, or is this just your assumption?
    – F1Krazy
    Nov 29, 2018 at 6:31

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