History and myth: JRR Tolkien, a Roman temple and a ring

The last few days has seen a rash of media coverage for an exhibition at The Vyne in Hampshire which features a Roman ring said to have led Tolkien to incorporate a ring myth into the Middle Earth of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

I wrote about this – the story of the ring’s discovery and Tolkien’s relationship with it – in my 2004 book There and Back Again: In the Footsteps of JRR Tolkien, which explored Tolkien’s inspirations in the history, mythologies, language and landscape of England.

What follows is a edited version of my thoughts then, beginning with the temple where the ring properly belongs, at Lydney Park in Gloucestershire.

What brought me to Lydney was ultimately the same thing that brought Tolkien in 1928: a pagan Roman temple set on a hill above the last few acres of England before it cedes to the Celts, dense woodland falling away to the silver-grey strip of the Severn Estuary below.

It had been known for some time that the site was something out of the ordinary, certainly since the 18th century when it and the land around it, which constitute Lydney Park, was bought by the Bathurst family, in whose possession it remains. But in the late 1920s Sir Mortimer Wheeler and his wife Tessa, both eminent archaeologists, were commissioned to make a thorough examination of the site. Tolkien was invited here in a professional capacity, being at that point Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, and stayed on a number of occasions in the main house. He would contribute a chapter to the published report for the Society of Antiquaries on the origin and meaning of the name ‘Nodens’, the god to whom the temple complex is dedicated and of whom there is little other record.

Tolkien found a web of meanings and association that stretched across a wide range of early North European languages. But the Wheelers’ discoveries need to be examined first. The site they were working on expands over five flat acres on the top of Dwarf’s Hill – the historic, Anglo-Saxon, rather than contemporary name for it, I admit, since today it is known as Camp Hill. Mortimer Wheeler, though, was fond enough of the ancient name, which survived long into the second millennium, to use it in his report.

The hill stands some 200 feet above sea level, sandwiched between the Severn river to the south and the Forest of Dean to the north. As far as is known, it was first occupied in the first century BC as evidenced by the remains of a hill-fort, as well as by the innumerable shallow iron works dug, unusually, into the side of the hill, many of which are still visible  to this day. Although it would be misleading to call these mine shafts, they are clearly of a different order from the open-cast mining that typified iron age attempts to retrieve the precious ore, the remains of which are known as ‘scowls’ locally.

The Romans – or Romano-British – occupied the site sometime during the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD and continued to mine the rich hill. One such mine, sited towards the north of the complex, extends some 50 feet into the ground; it and the other Roman mines here are the only ones extant in Britain. The temple itself dates from around 364-367. It must have had a relatively brief heyday, since Rome withdrew its legions from England in 410. Although coins, for instance, have been found into the 5th century, the late 4th century saw a defensive wall built around the precinct and the strengthening of the iron age banks and ditches. Evidence of habitation dwindles after that; and the site seems to have been eventually abandoned. Whether that was because it became unsustainable or because it was attacked by the Saxons is open to question. There is suggestion of a fire, which might make the latter seem more likely, although Wheeler thought it simply fell into disuse.

Tolkien’s article, published in 1932, is an extraordinary testament to his skill and erudition. In just over five densely argued pages he runs through the known mythic figures whom he could plausibly associate with Nodens, including Lear and Lludd, and analyses the name itself in merciless detail to extract every last drop of meaning: it is as if he is struggling to recreate a desert from a single grain of sand. The degree of learning on display is astonishing. One paragraph runs through seven languages – Gothic, Old English, Old Saxon, Old High German, Old Norse, Lithuanian and Lettish – in search of an unrecorded but hypothesised Germanic root verb. Elsewhere he reaches back through vowel shifts – the way the pronunciations of words change when they are grafted onto one language from another – from the very distant to the prehistoric Indo-European family of tongues, feeling his way through to a source that might make sense of the evidence.

His conclusion is that Nodens is – or was – a snarer, catcher or hunter of some description. But he cannot – or does not – go further and explain what that implies. And it ties in with the number of votive offerings found at Lydney in the shape of dogs. He does note, though, an echo of one analogous figure in Celtic myth, Núada Argat-lam – Núada of the silver hand – a king whose power is bound up in the hand itself.

But it is Tolkien’s linguistic approach and technique that is most illuminating, the extent to which legend and language are used as mutually supportive tools in a bid to rescue meaning – and behind that the cultural legacy of a forgotten people – from the last remaining scraps of information left to us. Because this is not simply about the beliefs of those who built the temple and who worshipped here. It is about the ancestry of the gods and the cultures they graced, the legends they inhabited before the arrival of the Romans to assimilate or destroy them, before even the arrival of the Celtic tribes from mainland Europe, arguably as much as 1500 years earlier, when Nodens already served a remote and unknown people, whose monuments, mere stones, inspire both dread and awe.

It is a commonplace argument in critiques of Tolkien’s work that one of the great strengths of The Lord of the Rings is the depth (or, if you prefer, illusion of depth) provided by the background histories, the heroic – mostly tragic – tales of the First and Second Ages which Tolkien had in fact written first and which are referred to throughout. It was something that he was aware of himself and which made him wonder whether publication of The Simarillion would be a mistake. But it is not just the fall of Gondolin or the battles of Isildur and Elendil that contribute to that effect. It is also that sense of lost histories, of peoples whose very names have already been obliterated, or to whom the victories and defeats of the west are largely an irrelevance, which either way will spell a wider kind of defeat.

I am thinking in particular of the makers of the Púkel men, great primitive stone figures, their features all but erased save for the holes that were their eyes, who move Merry, seeing them for the first time as he rides with the men of Rohan, to a kind of sorrow. The same people built “dark Dunharrow, the work of long-forgotten men. Their name was lost and no song or legend remembered it. For what purpose they made this place… none in Rohan could say. Here they laboured in the Dark Years, before ever a ship came to the western shores… and now they had vanished”. They stand to Rohan as builders of Stonehenge or Wayland’s Smithy do to us. And it is a peculiarly Tolkienian sentiment, this: “the heart-racking sense of the vanished past [is] one that moves me supremely,” he wrote.

Some might dismiss Tolkien’s world, as Jonathan Miller has done, as being one of “remote, meaningless antiquity”, but that misses the point of Tolkien’s life’s work, which was precisely to restore to antiquity its meanings and identities. In Dunharrow – and later too in a different way with Ghan-buri-Ghan and the woses, the wild men of the woods – we see Tolkien making room within his work to articulate the very emotion that drove him to create it in the first place. Among other purposes, it serves to project the reader further into that created world, more aware of the layers of history and culture that underlie it, wondering more about its dark periphery, sharing Merry’s pity.

His work on Nodens was just such an act of rescue or recovery. But the site as a whole is a kind of microcosm of the lost England of his heart. If nothing else, its iron ore ensured that the area would attract attention and settlement. Lydney saw a succession of peoples struggling to escape oblivion, to escape the fate of those who, in Milton’s phrase, are “blotted out and rased from the books of life”. Simply, they were struggling to survive, fending off their own erasure while assuming into their own cultures and languages such traces of the defeated as they found valuable or expedient.

There is in fact the ruins of a Norman castle on the adjacent hill – now known as Little Camp Hill – which has yet to be properly excavated. It is a reminder of the loss that sorrowed Tolkien most of all, that of the Anglo Saxon language and culture that thrived in the centuries prior to 1066. The Normans, for good or ill, provided a stability to England, a continuity that has yet, really, to be broken. Their stamp is on the last 1,000 years of English history, where the 2,000 previous to their arrival is a tangle of invasions – which for whatever reason the inhabitants of the islands seemed incapable of repelling –  followed by assimilation before the next wave of migrants appears off the eastern coasts.

And the ring itself?

The story is this. One of the artefacts attached to temple at Lydney is a curse tablet, an invocation for revenge. It reads: “To the God Nodens. Silvanus has lost a ring. He has [vowed] half its value to Nodens. Amongst all who bear the name of Senicianus, refuse thou to grant health to exist, until he bring back the ring to the Temple of Nodens.” As curses go, this seems extreme, but then it was not uncommon for people to keep much of the wealth in jewelry like this, so it may have meant rather more to Silvanus than the loss of a beloved trinket. It seems extraordinary, but the ring has, in fact, also been found. But not here. It was dug up in a church in Silchester, which is now in Hampshire, in 1785.  Only Senicianus clearly had a new inscription placed on it: ‘Seniciane vivas in deo’ (Senicianus, may you live in God). Its home these days is the Vyne Museum at Basingstoke. Taking its lead from Senicianus, the Vyne has declined to return it to Lydney too.

I think there is still a vestigial power in the idea of curses, or more particularly of invoking a god to enforce a curse, which we feel despite our general disbelief. It is an act out of the remote past, almost but not quite unintelligible. Something we recognise, though, and would seek to avoid. It is not what we turn to God for now; in the Christian world at least we look to Him for his mercy rather more than his wrath.

The circularity of this curse in particular –  with the restitution of property being subordinate to the ring returning to the place where the curse was laid – also adds to its resonance, emphasising that the acts enmeshed in the story are reciprocal, mutually responsive. Which is why Paul’s comment about returning the ring to Lydney seems right: it is not about restoring it to the owner or some notional proxy thereof; it is about acknowledging the authority of the god. It would be like disturbing the pattern of history. Particularly so since the ring has been lost to Nodens and rededicated to the Christian God, which to me is as telling a symbol as any of a period in which belief systems and cultures were in flux, at war, even.

As Wheeler says of the temple builders: “In the 4th century the darkness was already closing rapidly upon them… The Lydney temple, with its partially transmuted pagan forms, represents the ultimate achievement of some one of these lost rivals to Christianity.” That it was Senicianus, it seems, who picked the winning side makes the apparent failure of Silvanus’ curse – to the extent that the ring never returned – doubly sad. A personal loss, but also in a wider sense, a loss for a pagan culture now barely known to us, heard only in the echo of place names, in small things dredged out of the earth.

Clearly, though, it is a long way from this to the magic ring – not yet even a Ring of Power  – that Bilbo wins in the darkness under the mountain. I don’t think you can say any more than that the story, which he would have certainly known, may have simply caught his imagination and been buried away somewhere in his unconscious. A ring is an unusual device, after all, certainly once you discount the Wagnerian train of thought, which Tolkien did, vehemently (“Both rings were round,” he fumed. “There the resemblance ceases.”) What you have here is a ring that bears a curse, that has a more than material significance, that needs to be returned to the place of the curse’s making if that curse is to be lifted.

You can’t make a causal link – and Middle Earth would be much duller if you could – but the parallels are certainly thought-provoking.