A ring is just a tiny piece of metal yet it is one of the most powerful, and successful, symbols used in fantasy writing. Why is a ring so often used as a symbol and what does it really stand for?
In the fantasy series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the main character (Thomas Covenant) wears a white gold wedding band. He is thrust into a strange world where white gold is a rare ore that possesses extraordinary magical power. But the ring means more than that to him. It also holds the symbolic meaning of a deep love for and commitment to his ex-wife. It is in this internal/external dual nature that the real meaning of the golden ring is shown. But from where did this symbolism derive?
The symbolic meaning of the golden ring is easy to see once we examine the physical process of how a ring is made. It starts with gold, which when taken from the ground is nice, and a bit shiny, yet nothing super special. But if you put it through a forging it comes out of the process as a beautiful and pure metal. If you then shape it into the universal symbol of eternity (the circle) you then have something special. It has gone through the fire (literally) and come out pure and beautiful and it is in the shape that represents forever. So the end result is something that is pure and eternal. Is it no wonder that we use the golden ring as a symbol of marriage?
The leap from the attributes of something from the outside world applied to the inside world of a person is easy to make. The beauty and the purity of the ring become something that a person strives for on the inside. And it is this internal struggle that epic fantasy is at its best.
Few works display this struggle with the internal self more clearly than The Lord of the Rings where the main character Frodo is given a ring of enormous power yet the struggle he has with this power is an internal struggle. Does he have the strength and the will to resist the temptations that it brings? Will he forever maintain his purity?
This struggle with internal desires and the theme of the golden ring as a symbol is not a new theme to fantasy. It appears well over two thousand years ago in Plato’s Republic. In that work we are told the tale tale of The Ring of the Gyges. In it a shepherd named Gyges stumbles into a secret cavern and finds a corpse with a ring on it. When he places this ring on his finger it turns him invisible! So what does Gyges do? He succumbs to the power of the ring and seduces the Queen, murders the King, and does other dreadful things. The ring here symbolizes the thought that if you could be undetected in your deeds what would you do? Would you succumb to the evil side of yourself? Would you lose your purity?
The physical characteristics of purity and eternity in a golden ring have been transformed in the epic fantasy novel as a symbol of man’s striving to achieve these same characteristics within himself. This has been a staple of the genre for more than two thousand years.