Welcome, dear readers, as always.
Looking back, I’m always interested in where the ideas for postings come from. Sometimes, it’s from something I’ve read, a line in a Tolkien letter, something CS Lewis wrote in an essay. Sometimes, it’s from something I’ve seen, a fantasy or science fiction film, or an illustration which really caught my attention. Sometimes it just seems to come out of the air.
This posting began with a surprise remark, a song , and a nursery rhyme.
The song is one that I’ve had in my head for years. It’s from 1909 and first appeared in an early musical, The Midnight Sons. Here’s a sheet music cover for it—
The song is called “I’ve Got Rings on My Fingers” and was popularized by a period entertainer named, appropriately enough, Blanche Ring (1871-1961).
In the song, an Irishman, Jim O’Shea, is shipwrecked on an “Indian isle” and proves so popular with the locals that he’s soon “the nabob of them all”. He explains this to his sweetheart from home, Rose McGee, in a letter and the chorus sums it up:
“Sure, I’ve got rings on my fingers,
Bells on my toes.
Elephants to ride upon,
My little Irish rose.
Come to your nabob
And on next Patrick’s Day
Be Mistress Mumbo Jumbo Jijiboo J. O’Shea.”
Warning: it’s a very catchy chorus and it’s no wonder that the song was originally a hit.
So that you can have it stuck in your head, here’s a modern performance (1974), by the American mezzo-soprano, Joan Morris (accompanied by the distinguished composer—and her husband—William Bolcolm)–
And here’s Blanche Ring’s original from 1909–
That “Rings on my fingers/bells on my toes” is obviously a link to something much earlier, a version of which you may know. It’s from a nursery rhyme, the lyrics of which have a certain number of variants. I learned it as:
“Ride a cock horse
To Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady
Upon a white horse.
Rings on her fingers,
Bells on her toes,
She shall have music
Wherever she goes.”
To see various variants, follow this LINK: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ride_a_cock_horse_to_Banbury_Cross
There has been scholarly discussion about the origins of this rhyme, as with so many nursery rhymes: why Banbury (a town about 30 miles north of Oxford)? It has a lovely statue of the lady, by the way, made in 2005—
Just who is the lady? And where/why is she riding?
Bells—on the horse, rather than the lady–made me think first of the description of the horse of the Green Knight in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in whose mane
195þer mony bellez ful bry3t of brende golde rungen
“where many very bright bells of refined gold rang”
(I took my text from the Representative Poetry Online—RPO—site at: https://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/content/sir-gawain-and-green-knight which has the Middle English text along with interspersed modern English translations. For the Tolkien/Gordon Middle English text, see: http://www.maldura.unipd.it/dllags/brunetti/ME/index_gaw.php?poe=gaw&lingua=eng )
And then of the elf lady who carries off Thomas Rhymer in Child Ballad #37:
At ilka tett of her horse’s mane
Hung fifty silver bells and nine.
“At every tuft of her horse’s mane
Hung fifty-nine silver bells.”
(For a number of texts with variant lines of this, see: https://sacred-texts.com/neu/eng/child/ch037.htm To hear one variant—a favorite of mine—sung by Ewan MacColl, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYyJ8pRdfYs )
And those bells, in turn, led to the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring, where Strider and the rest of the company freeze in place when they hear what they believe is an unwelcome sound: “the noise of hoofs behind them” , but:
“Then faintly, as if it was blown away from them by the breeze, they seemed to catch a dim ringing, as of small bells tinkling.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 12, “Flight to the Ford”)
Instead of the Nazgul they were fearing, however, it was the Elf-lord Glorfindel, sent to find them.
But it’s those rings, of course, which really caught my attention—after all, there were once:
“Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the dwarf-lords in their halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne,
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)
The use of those bells, from Sir Gawaine to “Thomas Rhymer” to Glorfindel, just like the slave’s theft of a golden cup from the unnamed dragon’s hoard in Beowulf,
which reappears in Bilbo’s theft of a similar cup from Smaug,
reminds us that JRRT’s mind was full of echoes from earlier literature, whether he actively borrowed, which must be the case with the cup, or simply had something float up. He could be quite defensive about this, if not downright prickly, as in the case of Moria and the fairy tale “Soria Moria Castle” (see the draft of a letter to a “Mr. Rang”, Letters, 384).
In the same draft, however, he has the very opposite reaction and this, to me, rather surprising statement formed part of the inspiration for this posting:
“nazg: the word for ‘ring’ in the Black Speech…Though actual congruences (of form + sense) occur in unrelated real languages, and it is impossible in constructing imaginary languages from a limited number of component sounds to avoid such resemblances (if one tries to—I do not), it remains remarkable that nasc is the word for ring in Gaelic (Irish: in Scottish usually written nasg)…I have no liking at all for Gaelic from Old Irish downwards…[but] I have at various times studied it…It is thus probable that nazg is actually derived from it…”
When I think of rings in Old Irish (“Irish” is now used for the Celtic language of Ireland and “Gaelic” is used for its Scots descendant) stories, that which stands out for me is the ordnasc, that is, “thumb ring”, in the Tain Bo Fraich (The Cattle Raid of Froech).
It is given to the hero, Froech, by Findabair, the daughter of the Queen of the province of Connacht, Medb, and her husband, Ailill. Although initially Medb (the real power in Connacht, Ailill being a bit like Menelaus in the Helen story) looks upon him with favor, she then changes her mind. Not wanting him to marry Findabair, at the first opportunity, Ailill steals the ring and tosses it into a river where a salmon swallows it. The salmon is eventually retrieved, opened, and the ring reappears. The story is actually much more complicated, full of vivid description which, with rhythmic and sound patterns in Irish, must have been a treat for the imagination and the ear. English translations will at least give you the plot, however, and here’s a 1905 one, by A.H. Leahy, with which to start: https://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/fraech.html
(This is from the second volume of Leahy’s Heroic Romances of Ireland and, if you’d like to read more, here’s a LINK to the book: https://archive.org/details/heroicromancesof02leah/page/n5/mode/2up )
A ring which disappears into water and a fish is involved? This is what is called, by folklorists, a “Tale Type” and this particular type, in the standard work by Aarne-Thompson-Uther, is catalogued as ATU736A, under the title “Polycrates’ Ring”. The pattern of the story is apparently common, but Polycrates himself was a real person, the ruler of the island of Samos in the 6th century BC. Much of what we know of him comes from the 5th-century historian, Herodotus.
Herodotus can sometimes employ what appear to be folk tales as if they were reality in his history and his story about the ring certainly sounds like it.
In brief, it goes like this:
1. Polycrates has a close friend, the Egyptian pharaoh, Ahmose II (reigned 570-526BC—called “Amasis” in the Greek text).
2. Ahmose is worried about Polycrates’ seeming constant good luck and advises him to choose the most valuable thing he owns and get rid of it for good (because the gods might become jealous—best never to be too fortunate!).
3. Polycrates decides that it’s a ring and he has himself rowed out into the sea, then throws it overboard, breathing a sigh of relief.
4. Then, one day, a fisherman brings him the biggest fish he’s ever caught.
5. I think that you can guess the rest: yes, the fish is cut open and, well, eventually Polycrates does not end well, being crucified by the Persians, who have already seized the mainland.
(If you’d like to read this story for yourself, here’s a LINK to Herodotus’ Histories, Book Three, Sections 40 and following: https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hh/hh3040.htm )
The title of this posting comes from a literary concept in which material somehow circles back on itself, making a ring, like the ouroboros, the snake biting its own tail (or, in this case, tale) in alchemy, among other sources.
So how will we circle back?
I said that Tolkien’s surprise remark, that Black Speech nazg was derived from Irish nasc , was part of the initial inspiration for this posting, and that nasc made me think of an Old Irish story in which such a nasc—and a fish—played an important role. There is another story with a ring and a fish, however:
“…but Deagol sat in the boat and fished. Suddenly a great fish took his hook, and before he knew where he was, he was dragged out and down into the water, to the bottom. Then he let go of his line, for he thought he saw something shining in the river-bed; and holding his breath he grabbed at it.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”)
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Beware of strange Rings: they may be fishy,
And know that, as always,