The symbolism and power of the ring in epic fantasy
A ring is just a small piece of metal, but 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 represent?
in the fantasy series The Thomas Covenant Chronicles the main character (Thomas Covenant) wears a white gold wedding ring. He is thrust into a strange world where white gold is a rare mineral that possesses extraordinary magical power. But the ring means more than that to him. It also has the symbolic meaning of deep love and commitment to his ex-wife. It is in this internal/external dual nature that the true meaning of the gold ring is shown. But where does this symbolism come from?
The symbolic meaning of the gold ring is easy to see once we examine the physical process of how a ring is made. It starts with gold, which when picked up off the ground is nice and a bit shiny, but nothing too special. But if you put it through a forge, it comes out of the process as a beautiful, pure metal. If you then shape the universal symbol of eternity (the circle), then you have something special. It has been through the fire (literally) and came out pure and beautiful and in the form that it represents forever. So the end result is something that is pure and eternal. Is it any wonder that we use the gold ring as a symbol of marriage?
The jump from the attributes of something from the outside world applied to the inner world of a person is easy to do. The beauty and purity of the ring become something that a person fights for inside. And it is in this internal struggle that epic fantasy is at its best.
Few works show this struggle with the inner self more clearly than The Lord of the rings where the main character Frodo receives a ring of enormous power, but the struggle he has with this power is an internal struggle. Does he have the strength and the will to resist the temptations he brings? Will he forever keep his purity?
This struggle with inner desires and the theme of the gold ring as a symbol is not a new theme for fantasy. It appears more than two thousand years ago in the work of Plato. Republic. In this work we are told the story of the tale of The Ring of the Gyges. In it, a shepherd named Gyges stumbles upon a secret cavern and finds a corpse with a ring on it. When he places this ring on his finger, he 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 terrible things. The ring here symbolizes the thought that if you could go unnoticed in your actions, 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 gold ring have been transformed in the epic fantasy novel as a symbol of man’s effort to achieve these same characteristics within himself. This has been a staple of the genre for over two thousand years.