by David Day
Illustrated by Alan Lee
Originally: HarperCollinsPublishers (UK) Hardback £17.99
Various other editions have appeared in softcover
184 pages, 12 colour plates, many pencil illustrations.
Review by Andrew Wells with additional comments by Helen Armstrong
When this book first came out in 1994, it was £17.99. Since then, various softcover editions have appeared at a lower price. In 1999 it was £9.99, and contained among other things in-one-volume references to the better known Germanic versions of the "Nibelung" tales, some world folk tales, and the excellent illustrations by Alan Lee. As a reference to the tales, it needs some qualifying. This follows Andrew Wells's review, which originally appeared in Amon Hen 129, in the year of first publication.
In the author's own words,
Tolkien's Ring is a kind of literary detective casebook that amounts
to an investigation of the imagination of JRR Tolkien. The author may have set out to write
such a book; however, if so, he signally failed to complete his task.
The author goes on to say that,
In this investigation, the symbol of the Ring is of primary importance.
Through understanding its meaning and significance we can begin to understand how Tolkien's The
Lord of the Rings is the result of an ancient story-telling tradition that dates back to the dawn
of Western culture. The one ring may indeed by of major importance in the story. However, one
could hardly say that the ring as a symbol is of primary importance to the story; it is, therefore,
hard to believe that it is of primary importance to the investigation.
The book contains sixteen chapters. The first and last concentrate on the ring in Tolkien's works; the remainder, on various aspects of the ring in mythology (and, occasionally, in history). The author makes periodic attempts to connect these two. While this may be a laudable aim, it is hardly one around which a book can successfully be written, nor does it seem right that one should concentrate solely on this aspect of the professor's writing.
The different chapters examine different areas of myth; for example, there are chapters on "Norse Mythology", "The Volsunga Saga" and "Arthurian Legends". The author summarises the legends involved with some accuracy, and examines them in reasonable detail. However, he relates some of the legends in a curious manner, and the commentaries do not appear to give full weight to all aspects of the tales.
The divisions between the chapters are curious and, at the least, poorly drawn up. For example, the chapters "Norse Mythology" and "The God of the Ring" cover much the same ground as each other, as do the chapters "The Volsunga Saga", "German Romance" and "The Nibelungenlied".
The author's worst failing, however, is his seeming lack of familiarity with Tolkien's works; this
despite three earlier books based on them. For instance, he believes that,
characters did not quite worship the Valarian gods, their beliefs were very much closer to the pantheism
of the pagan Teutons, Celts and Greeks than they were to the fierce monotheism of the Old Testament
Hebrews. This, although three pages later, he quotes from one of Tolkien's letters:
Numenoreans of Gondor] resemble 'Egyptians' . . . But not of course in 'theology': in which respect
they were Hebraic and even more puritan.
I have not yet commented on Alan Lee's artwork. This is as good as we have come to expect from this artist, and includes the dust jacket and twelve plates (all in colour) and many pencil sketches. It is, though, disappointing that none of the pictures are titled, and some of the sketches seem to be included as much to fill up space as to add substance to the book. Besides the lack of titles, the author does not give references for any of the quotations he includes, nor does he give sources for any of his more general material, which is frustrating and detracts further from the credibility of the book.
The format of this work makes it very much a coffee-table book; its content ensures that the coffee table is where it will stay.
Further comment: for Tolkien readers looking for an introduction to Tolkien's possible associations with world folk story and mythology, this book has some if limited uses as a jumping-off point, particularly with reference to the Nibelung stories and more briefly to the "classical" Arthurian and Celtic (here, Irish) traditions. As with all books that rely on summary and re-wording (having myself returned a Day volume to the bookshop shelf as a young Tolkien reader, finding even then what appeared to be unsatisfactory inconsistencies on first inspection), care must be exercised when placing reliance on the contents. There is much re-wording where the stories are told at some length: an example in the section on the 'Volsunga Saga':
The next morning he climbs that ridge called the Hindfell where he sees a stone tower in the midst of the ring of flames. Sigurd does not hesitate. He urges Grani into the ring of fire. Nor does Grani flinch. His leap is as high as it is long, and though his tail and mane are scorched, he stands quietly once they are through. There is an inner circle next: an overlapping ring of massive war shields, their bases fixed in the mountain rock. Sigurd draws Gram [his sword] and shears a path through the iron wall of shields. Beyond this is a stone tower, and within it is the body of a warrior on a bier. Or so it seems. When Sigurd takes the helmet from the warrior's head, he sees that this is a woman and that she is not dead, but sleeping.
And from a close translation by Jesse L. Byock (California U. Press) The Saga of the Volsungs:
Sigurd now rode a long way, until he came up on Hindarfell; then he turned south toward Frakkland. Ahead of him on the mountain he saw a great light, as if a fire were burning and the brightness reached up to the heavens. And when he came to it, there stood before him a rampart of shields with a banner above it. Sigurd went into the rampart and saw a man lying there asleep, dressed in full armour. First he removed the helmet from the man's head and saw that it was a woman.
In the close translation, there is no Grani jumping the flames (this happens much later in the saga), no Sigurd cutting his way through shields (this doesn't occur at all), and no stone towers. Day's story has more detail, but the detail does not tell the same story (particularly for anyone interested in Grani). This is not just a matter of embroidering with detail. He omits the entertaining spat between Sigurd and Grani about the chests of gold (the horse refuses to move until he is fully laden with chests and master) which is one of the more charming vignettes in the saga, and merely relates that the horse bears the load with no apparent effort. William Morris and Eirikur Magnusson, whose translation was still well known in Tolkien's young day, embroider the same passage lightly enough to add form to it - ". . . lo, a shield-hung castle before him, and a banner on the topmost thereof: into the castle went Sigurd, and saw one lying there asleep . . . " but no more. Those who don't mind (well-informed) imitation-medieval text will find that translation on the web at
You might imagine that Sigurd's horse,
as quicksilver' according to Day, could have inspired Shadowfax,
'does not he shine
like silver?' The Grani
of the Volsunga Saga has many links with Shadowfax
- he is a requested gift, he has not been ridden before, he forms a particular
bond with his master, he is grey, and exceptional, and he has some real, if
tenuous, connection with the old world of the gods. But in the matter of silverness,
no. The saga just says
he was grey in colour.
It can only be compromising to offer a story as an "influence"
on a later writer and to introduce into that story terms which not only do
not exist in the original, but are suggestively similar to those used by the
later writer. Likewise Day calls Grani "greycoat",
which is a fair translation of two names in The Lord of the Rings,
"Grayhame", a name of Gandalf, and "Hasufel", a horse
of Rohan (more literally "hoar-pelt"). But Grani
does not mean "greycoat". It means
(a) grey (horse or some other
thing). (If he were black, we would call him "Blacky". Grey
in English is more difficult.) Pedantic? Yes, but the alternative is to be
led to think that this is a direct influence, where it is not.
These various degrees of slack in the summary of the story cast doubt on the extent of its usefulness
to any serious student. In the section on the Nibelungenlied, Day says
The Lord of the Rings the world Tolkien defines has a closer affinity with the world of the
medieval German knight Siegfried . . . than that of the heroic warrior Sigurd.
In the Volsunga Saga gods and dragons mix comfortably with moral heroes; while
in the courtly world of the Nibelungen epic, gods and dragons have no real
place . . . This is equally true of Aragorn's courtly kingdom of Gondor in the Lord of the
This is true in a broad-brush fashion, but it has minimal significance. The setting of LotR has little in common with either epic, but rather more, nonetheless, with the mysterious "old world" of the Volsunga Saga than the medieval world almost - but not quite - stripped of any wonders other than magic objects and overblown strength in the Nibelung Lay. (As a footnote, the expression "shield maiden", usually synonymous with "valkyrie", appears most often in the Norse tales surrounding the Volsunga Saga.)
If this sounds as if the conclusion might be "this book is misleading but possibly useful" (normally the elves would say "no and yes". In this case they might say "skip it". However, elves have better memories than most students), that is the case, so long as it is used only as a rough-reckoner for the plots of these stories and a starting point for a more exacting interest in their contents and their relation (where it exists, which is only at points) to Tolkien's writings. The book offers no further help on the latter, because, as Andrew Wells points out, it has no bibliography and no references. However, delving into early medieval literature and legend is not a straightforward process, and any reasonably coherent step-up for the general reader has its uses. It IS useful having some kind of summary of the Volsunga Saga, the Nibelung Lay and Wagner's "Ring' cycle (which is reasonably accurate as far as I can tell) in one volume. I intend to look further into the Solomon tales, of which I have only the sketchiest notion, when I have time. References would have been useful, but there are none in this book. It has pictures, though.