The Magic Ring
It's that time when all you can do is lie
beside the fire exhausted by too much food or playing with your Xmas
presents. One of my relatives gave me a giant glass jug. Are presents
coded comments on your character? If so, I am lying by the fire trying
to sort that one out.
But winter nights are for folk tales. Recently I had cause to remember
climbing Slieve Gullion during the summer, and I thought about the
legend of a magic ring that is associated with the mountain.
The Ring of Gullion is not a finger ring, but a ring of ancient
volcanos that have weathered to form part of the Mountains of Mourne.
Slieve Gullion is notable because it is quite easy to climb, as the
road runs quite high up its slopes. On the top is a passage tomb, three
thousand years old, and the highest of these monuments in Ireland.
Also on the top of the mountain is a small lake.
Now, I don't generally like lakes on top of mountains. In Ireland
mountain tops are boggy, and these lakes are often just bog pools. But
they have no bottom. If you put in a hiking pole, you can't find
anything under the water even a foot from the edge. The pool seems to
go straight to the centre of the earth. The water is dark, too, from
the peat, so you are looking into complete blackness.
There is also the uncomfortable fact that the ancient Irish regarded
these pools as gateways to the underworld, and threw offerings to the
gods into the water; swords, ritually bent, precious objects and
unwanted relatives. No way would I go swimming in one of those mountain
top pools, not for a civil servant's pension.
The pool on Gullion is quite big, a lake. And it has a legend
associated with it. It is said that the Irish hero Fionn McCool,
jogging along the mountaintops for his customary morning stroll one
day, was hailed by a woman standing on the edge of the pool.
Fionn went over to her and found that she was a beautiful young woman
in some distress. She explained that her gold ring had slipped off her
finger and fallen into the pool. She begged Fionn to retrieve it.
Now Fionn had no equal in sports, and after some hesitation, after all
it was a place of spirits, he dived in. There, gleaming in the dark
water, was the ring on the bottom of the deep pool. Fionn scooped it up
and swam to the surface.
But when Fionn stepped out on dry land, suddenly a great weight bore
down on his shoulders. The ring, only a tiny band of gold, suddenly
weighed more than the mountains. Every bit of Fionn's legendary
strength was drained from him. The beautiful young woman became a hag.
Fionn had to face many trials and gain the help of many sorcerers to
rid himself of the curse of the Ring. He eventually regained his
strength, but his golden hair was for all times henceforth white as
Now, JRR Tolkien went walking in Ireland, along with some of the other
Inklings. I know he walked in the Cooley mountains which are less than
ten miles from Gullion. His Irish hosts would have told him the legends
associated with the mountains, and especially the Ring of Gullion. (The
Irish tourist board helpfully has the story on a signpost at the foot
of the mountain). I wonder did he draw on Fionn's experience in
suddenly being bowed to the earth by the ring when he wrote the passage
where Sam takes the Ring from Frodo, thinking his master dead, and is
suddenly dragged down to the ground by its weight.
Like the Gullion ring, the Ring of Sauron weighs different weights at
different times. When Gandalf tests the ring in the fire at Bag End, he
tosses it to Frodo who catches and holds it without effort, saying it
is an unremarkable ring in every way, not heavy or anything.
Also, Bilbo carried it for years without noticing it was getting
heavier. It is only when Frodo bears it for a long time, and carries it
towards its destruction in Mordor that the ring begins to weigh him
down. Does it sense that Frodo is taking it to its end and is trying to
be as burdensome in the hope of being discarded? Tolkien says that the
Ring has a way of moving on when it wants to, 'leaving' Gollum as it
At the end, when Gollum at last attains the ring by biting off Frodo's
finger, he dances about holding it aloft, so to him it is light as air,
too light, as he overbalances while dancing with joy and falls into the
Perhaps the Ring weighs Sam down so dramatically because it senses that
Sam will take it on to its destruction, and it is trying to reject him.
Certainly, Sam's temporary possession of the Ring prevents it falling
into Sauron's hands. (well, he didn't have hands, whatever he used.....
) as all the other items found on Frodo, his mithril shirt etc, find
their way to the Dark Lord.
Fionn's white hair is a sign that he is marked by bearing this ring. In
the same way, Frodo is marked by his bearing of the Ring only not in so
visible a way. His strength too is broken, and even when the burden is
lifted, he is never the same.
It would be nice to think that while toiling up Slieve Gullion JRR got a few ideas for his own ring story.....
Thanks for listening, folks, and enjoy your holiday!