Saturday, October 19, 2013
"One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them."
The dread Necromancer and Maia of Arda, Sauron, whose name is evocative of the Greek word for lizard, may have forged the One Ring to rule them all, but he certainly was not the first lord of the Rings. Neither was Isildur, king of Gondor who cut the Ring from Sauron's finger, nor indeed Gollum, the grotesque and murderous hobbit who killed his freand in order to obtain it. Finally, Bilbo Baggins and his blue eyed nephew Frodo, who displayed more than a passing interest in the affairs of his batman Samwise, last to possess the Ring are not to be considered true lords of the said item of ornamentation.
This is because the One Ring that renders the wearer invisible when worn is not native to Middle Earth, the imaginary realm of J.R.R Tolkien's legendarium. Instead, even before the whole Lord of the Rings series was but a mere twitch in Tolkiens pencil clutching fingers, Rings of power featured prominently in the mythology of, you guessed it, our ancient and venerable ancestors. Gyges, King of Lydia, was said to have possessed such a ring. Gyges, if the historian Herodotus is to be believed, achieved power by the undemocratic means of a coup. According to his account, said to have been gleaned from the poet Archilochus of Paros, Gyges was a bodyguard of Candaules, the Lydian King, who believed his wife to be the most beautiful woman on Earth. He insisted upon showing the reluctant Gyges his wife when unrobed in order to verify her good looks. When the outraged wife ascertained the existence of the pervs, she gave Gyges the choice of murdering her husband and making himself king, or of being put to death himself. Gyges naturally chose the former. As King, he plied the Oracle at Delphi with numerous gifts, notably six mixing bowls minted of gold extracted from the Pactolus river weighing thirty talents. The Oracle confirmed Gyges as the rightful Lydian King, gave moral support to the Lydians over the Asiatic Greeks, and also claimed that the dynasty of Gyges would be powerful, but due to his usurpation of the throne would fall in the fifth generation, as it did when Croesus succumbed to the Persians.
According to Nicholaos of Damascus, who lived in Augustan times, Gyges was a favourite of Candaules and was dispatched by him to fetch Tudo, the daughter of Arnossus of Mysia, whom the Lydian king wished to make his queen. On the way Gyges fell in love with Tudo, who complained to Sadyates of his conduct. Forewarned that the king intended to punish him with death, Gyges assassinated Candaules in the night and seized the throne. Despite Tudo's comeliness, Gyges became besotted with Magnes, a handsome youth from Smyrna noted for his elegant clothes and fancy korymbos hairstyle which he bound with a golden band. One day he was singing poetry to the local women, which outraged their male relatives, who grabbed Magnes, stripped him of his clothes and cut off his hair. This caused the lovesick Gyges great pain.
Gyges also appears on Plato's Republic and in particular, in the second book, where Socrates encounters a man named Glaucon who uses a mythological story to prove a point about human nature. In the Republic , a different version of Gyges' story is told, one that seems to have been told in Asia Minor for generations. According to this account, .Gyges was a shepherd for the king of Lydia. One day, while tending to his flock, there was an earthquake and Gyges noticed that a new cave had opened up in a rock face. When he went in to see what was there, he noticed a gold ring on the finger of a former king who had been buried in the cave. He took the ring away with him and soon discovered that it allowed the wearer to become invisible. The next time he went to the palace to give the king a report about his sheep, he put the ring on, and predictably seduced the queen, killed the king, and took control of the palace.
Plato used the story of the Ring as a metaphor for the corruption caused by power. In the Republic he has Glaucon argue that men are inherently unjust, and are only restrained from unjust behavior by the fetters of law and society. In the view postulated by Glaucon, unlimited power blurs the difference between just and unjust men. "Suppose there were two such magic rings," he tells Socrates, "and the just man put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market or go into houses and lie with anyone at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point."
The corruptive effects of possessing a ring of power as discussed in the Republic, featured prominently in Tolkien's work. The effect of the Ring and its physical and spiritual after-effects on Bilbo and Frodo are obsessions that have been compared with drug addiction. In his work, the Lady Galadriel, the most powerful woman in Middle Earth refuses to take possession of the Ring, knowing that it would corrupt her. Similarly, Gandalf the Grey, a supernatural being, refuses to bear the burden of the Ring, stating that while he would wield it initially to do good, the concept of unlimited power would soon erode him moral compass. In many ways then, Tolkien's work seems to be a commentary and a riposte to Glaucon, on the one hand stating that people can choose not to be corrupted by denying themselves ultimate power, while on the other hand, agreeing with Glaucon that no one who assumes ultimate power can emerge uncorrupted. In one of his letters, written in 1958, he takes this idea further, stating: "I should say that it was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or lesser degree, out of one's direct control."
While taking pains to state that The Lord of the Rings was not allegorical, Tolkien conceded "applicability" as being within the "freedom" of the reader, and the notion of a power too great for humans to safely possess as first evoked in the myth of Gyges and his Rings would have resonated powerfully in a post-atomic and subsequently nuclear age. Today, the legend of Gyges' Ring, as extrapolated and woven into an enduring table of the triumph of justice and courage over might, power and corruption by Tolkien offers a poignant commentary on the structure of global society, underlying that today's moral and political dilemmas are those that pre-occupied and challenged the ancients, who while temporally remote from our times, remain enduringly relevant. The last word of course, belongs to the defeated and rendered impotent Sauron, who divested of his Ring, laments, in the manner of all tyrants: «Μού 'φαγες όλα τα δαχτυλίδια, και κοιμάμαι τώρα, τώρα στα σανίδια.»
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 19 October 2013