Every other Tuesday in StoriedK. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s beloved classic fantasy epic The Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf muses that some things feel destined to happen—for example, the hobbit Frodo possessing the Ring of Power. Destiny, the sense of all the right people and pieces falling into place for such a time as this. On January 29, the internet stars of destiny aligned when the police department in North Yorkshire, England, posted a call for help to their public Facebook page. They had some property that needed returning, recovered from a recent break-in, and they couldn’t find the owner. Here is an excerpt from their Facebook post: 

“Officers in York are trying to locate the owner of a distinctive silver ring… The ring was recovered with property which had been stolen in a house burglary in York in February 2019. Sadly despite their efforts, officers have been unable to trace the ring back to its rightful owner.

Detective Constable Pete Wilson, from York Investigation Hub, said:

“Unfortunately we haven’t been able to find the owner of the ring and return it to them. As it is such a distinctive piece of jewellery, we’re hoping that someone will recognise the markings and be able to tell us who it rightfully belongs to, as I’m sure someone, somewhere is missing it.”

This appeal to the public stretched credulity, however, once a quick glance at the pictures attached to the post revealed that the item the North Yorkshire police were seeking to return was a replica of the Ring of Power from The Lord of the Rings, one of the most easily recognizable pop culture artifacts of the modern era—even before filmmaker Peter Jackson adapted the trilogy to movies in the early 2000s. 

Not only that, but the wording of the Facebook post was almost too perfect to be true, given the nature of the plot of The Lord of the Rings. In the story, the dark lord Sauron has lost the One Ring, which will restore him to full power and give him dominion over all the forces of Middle Earth, so it is this One Ring that needs to be destroyed. The Ring has a mind of its own and corrupts all who bear it or spend too much time in its presence, including the creature Gollum, the human Boromir, and even the hobbit heroes Frodo and Sam who must take the Ring to Mordor to destroy it (against all odds). The Lord of the Rings is, essentially, a story of a lost ring that everyone is trying to either find or destroy while the ring itself is trying to be found and not be destroyed. 

Based on these facts, the Facebook post of the North Yorkshire police department reads almost like a ruse—like some sort of Lord of the Rings–themed internet quest where fantasy meets reality—absolutely destined for viral fame. One might guess someone in the North Yorkshire police department knew the plot of the story and generated the Facebook post in order to draw out Lord of the Rings fans in an attempt to gain internet notoriety. But the post was actually made in all earnest ignorance of Tolkien’s epic tale, and that makes the post—and the responses to it—absolutely worth their weight in literary gold as the people of the internet weighed in to school the North Yorkshire police in their cultural illiteracy. 

Part of what was so shocking—and shockingly funny—about the North Yorkshire police’s ignorance of the Ring of Power is that The Lord of the Rings is an artifact of the dominant literary culture of England. Not only that, but it’s a product of relatively recent pop culture fame. It is estimated that The Lord of the Rings has sold “150 million copies… worldwide, 50 million of those since Jackson’s films were released [beginning in] 2001, plus 50 million copies of other Tolkien works.” This is not a story that has faded from the cultural consciousness since its first publication in 1954. Far from it. 

And rather than just gently correcting the culturally clueless police, people of the Internet did what people of the internet do best, and hilarity ensued. Through the use of memes, gifs, quote responses from the books, and more—most of the responses containing contextual clues to the story itself—the Yorkshire police department was ruthlessly, yet not unkindly, trolled. 

The comments on the Facebook post ranged from simple, but funny, warnings to elaborate integrations of The Lord of the Rings with modern North Yorkshire life. Commenter Rhys Jones posted: “The last thing you want to do is return that ring to its owner,” and Dave Solomon wrote: “Always remember, the ring is trying to get back to its master. It wants to be found.” But several more commenters put some serious creative effort into their responses, generating hundreds, and even thousands, of likes. For example: 

Scott Snowden-James wrote: “And the Ring of Power perceived its time had now come. It abandoned Gollum. But something happened then the Ring did not intend. It was picked up by the most unlikely creature imaginable. A Police Officer, from the North of the (York)Shire.”

Dean Johnson wrote: “It is a gift. A gift to the foes of Mordor. Why not use this Ring? Long has my father, the MP for North Yorkshire kept the forces of Mordor at bay. By the blood of our people are your lands kept safe. Give Yorkshire the weapon of the enemy, let us use it against him!” 

Dale Martyn Chatwin wrote: “North Yorkshire Police you have no other choice: the Ring must be destroyed! I was there 3,000 years ago, when the owner took the ring. That day I saw the strength of Yorkshire fail. It must be cast back into the fiery chasm from whence it came! One of your officers must do this. Go now with the blessings of tea, pie and north free folk.” 

Even another police department got in on the fun. The official Facebook account for the Kingston police commented: “We can assist! We think (one of) the original owners was a Mr Smeagol. He used to live near Gladden Fields near the River Anduin. Hope that helps.” 

The classic stories that form and inform our culture are like Schrodinger’s Cat—both alive and dead at the same time.Over the course of about a week, the Facebook post generated around 55,000 comments and was shared around the globe over 75,000 times. The Lord of the Rings still dominates cultural awareness to such a degree that the post reached an estimated 12 million people. We can only guess at the laughs the North Yorkshire police were getting out of the whole affair, but based on such a viral—and virally positive—social media response, we know the people of the internet were having a good time. 

For those of us who are Lord of the Rings fans, we might scratch our heads over people’s ignorance of a beloved modern classic, but there is a particular joy in joining with thousands of strangers on the internet to revel in a moment of good-natured hilarity together. It’s in those moments that the internet feels like a good place to be—a place to reveal how a single story written by an English chap in the 1950s has touched and shaped thousands of lives for the better. 

What I took away from the One Ring of North Yorkshire is that the classic stories that form and inform our culture are like Schrodinger’s Cat—both alive and dead at the same time, depending on who you ask. At once totally familiar and completely foreign. They are both widely known enough to draw together strangers from across the globe in a unifying force of internet hilarity and niche enough to cause widespread confusion in a police department full of people apparently unaware of their very existence. Although I regularly run into people who haven’t read The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or who haven’t seen Star Wars, deep down I hold an underlying assumption that these cultural narratives still bear a mark on them, if not individually, then at least collectively. And while massive storytelling achievements do shape culture, they might do so while at the same time remaining utterly foreign to individuals within that society. 

The stories that move us, shape our thoughts, and inform our growth are not always the same stories that move, shape, and inform our immediate neighbors, and while that may feel strange to us, it is okay. Because in an age where so much of our lives takes place online, our communities are expanding to global proportions, our neighbors now existing around the world as well as next door. 

Tolkien’s impact as an English storyteller expanded beyond the borders of England a long time ago, but the community of people touched by his work continues to both grow and contract. And this is the way of storytelling in the age of the internet. Tolkien sought to write a mythology for England, and there’s no denying his achievements as an English storyteller. But the spread of his stories through globalization has invited so many more in to enjoy and share them with each other—to the point of gently schooling some English police officers about a bit of their own literary culture. 

As all good stories should, the story of the One Ring of North Yorkshire has a happy ending. A week after the initial posting, the police in North Yorkshire posted this follow-up on the thread: 

“We have had a lot of laughs thanks to you, our fabulous quick-witted followers — it’s been an unexpected but welcome relief from some of the more distressing things we deal with. We have been amazed at how far the story has travelled and have had lots of enquiries from members of the public who believe the ring could be theirs. Including five hobbits (two didn’t want it, they’d had enough of it and are chilling in the west) an elf and a couple of wizards. We are delighted to let you know that the ring has now been reunited with its rightful owner… Thank you for giving us a happy ending.” 

That is an ending Gandalf would be pleased with, I think. Property restored, and everyone—comfortably—in on the joke. These are the moments that remind us our stories have the power to bring us together, and maybe the internet isn’t such a bad place to be all the time after all.