Literary Circles

28th January 2000 at 00:00
Wheels, circles and rings are potent symbols in legends and stories, and many of the associations are sinister, writes Dinah Starkey. When Henry III refurbished his palace at Clarendon, he commissioned a wall painting of a wheel of fortune to decorate his private chamber. It was a reminder that no one, however powerful, could escape the hand of fate.

The same image appeared on the walls of the medieval church, where kings and emperors were depicted riding the wheel up into glory and down into the depths of hell. In a caste-ridden society, worshippers could draw comfort from the knowledge that, though their lot was hard, worse still might lie in store for their betters. The wheel of fortune was an essentially pagan image that had been adopted by the Church and, like the spinning wheel, which spells trouble in so many stories, it was a symbol of danger.

The same is true of the circle. It can bind, or it can protect. When magicians summoned up demons, they confined them within a circle. Witches circled in their dances, moving widdershins, or anti clockwise, as they called on their master. The mysterious stone circles of Neolithic times were explained as the result of witchcraft or of the devil, and stories reflect their uncanny nature. Merlin himself is said to have conjured up Stonehenge in a single night of magic, while atStanton Drew in Somerset, the stones represent wedding guests who danced on a Sunday. When midnight struck on Saturday night, and their fiddler refused to play for them, they called up the devil instead. They danced all night long, but when the sun rose on the Sabbath, they were all turned to stone and they have remained so to this day. In some legends, the stones move about at night and ill fortune comes to anyone who enters the circle during the hours of darkness.

Equally dangerous were the magic rings which appear as dark patches on grazing land. Nowadays we know they are caused by fungus but in earlier times they were believed to be the haunt of fairies, and like the stone circles, were to be shunned once night had fallen. The ring, which has no beginning and no end, symbolises eternity, unity and perfection. This ancient idea continues to underlie the giving of rings during the wedding ceremony.

Magic rings could grant wishes or confer invisibility, but they could also bring great ill fortune, and the rings of power which feature in Germanic literature carried their own doom.

When Sigurd killed the dragon Fafnir and stole his magic ring, he set in motion a tragic chain of events. Tolkien used the same idea in his trilogy The Lord of the Rings and the ancient belief lent resonance to a modern fantasy.

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