quinta-feira, 18 de dezembro de 2008
The Two Rings by Edward Haymes
Professor of German and Comparative Literature
Joined the CSU Faculty in 1987 after 14 years at the University of Houston and 3 years at Virginia Commonwealth University. Served from 1987-1994 as chair of the Department of Modern Language. Received B.A. in English from Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Virginia; the M.A. in English from the University of Virginia, and the Dr. Phil. in German from the Friedrich Alexander Universität in Erlangen, Germany.
Tolkien and Wagner (DC ==> Lecture by Edward R. Haymes, March 18, 2004: The Two Rings: J.R.R.Tolkien's and Richard Wagner's
Before I begin I would like to commend Peter Jackson on an amazing feat. He has managed to make a mass audience sit still longer than Richard Wagner did. If he were to film The Hobbit and add it to his trilogy, his cycle would probably run longer than Wagner’s Ring cycle. As it stands, each of his films is about as long as an opera of the Ring and they don’t have intermissions.
I’d like to begin by telling a little story.
A greedy, smaller-than-human creature finds a treasure in the depths of a river. He carries it to his underground retreat where he retains it until it is stolen by a visitor from the upper world. He swears eternal hate to the thief. The treasure is, of course, a ring of great power. The ring exerts strange influences on its owners including giving them the ability to disappear. The ring becomes the object of a fatal struggle between close friends or brothers, in fact it seems always to bring danger or death to its owners. A hero enters the fray armed with a reforged sword that had been broken. Various races of humanoid beings attempt to gain control of the ring by magic and by heroism until it is finally brought at great cost and sacrifice back to its origin where it is purified by fire. The last pursuer perishes along with the ring.
Is this the retelling of Richard Wagner’s four-part cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen or is it a summary of Tolkien’s prose epic The Lord of the Rings. Actually it’s both. I have arranged things carefully so that they fit either work, but the similarities and connections between the two “Ring Cycles” go far beyond the superficial plot summarized above. There are also important differences, beyond the obvious one of artistic form: prose narrative versus music drama. Here I would like to look at some of the similarities and differences in hopes of understanding the relationship.
When I first offered this talk, it was designed to introduce Wagner to Tolkienians. My first reaction to the invitation from the Wagner Society was that I would have to turn that around and introduce Tolkien to Wagnerians. But now I am told that many Tolkienians have joined our audience tonight so I guess I am left with both tasks. The disadvantage to all this is that I will be telling most of you things you already know at least half of the time. Please bear with me as I rehearse facts that you already know in the knowledge that some in the audience may not know them.
Before we can discuss the two Ring Cycles, I need to introduce our two authors.
Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig in 1813, almost eighty years before Tolkien, and he died in Venice in 1883. As most of you know, he was a largely self-taught composer and conductor. He was also a passionate student of certain kinds of literature. Almost from the beginning he was interested in medieval myth and legend, fairy-tales and other such forms that were held to be close to the “people” the “Volk”. He started reading Germanic mythology intensively in the early 1840s and began to form the idea of making an opera from medieval German and Icelandic sources sometime in the middle of that decade.
As an avid student of Germanic mythology and heroic legend Wagner read virtually all the primary and secondary texts in this area available at the mid-point of the nineteenth century but he lacked the academic discipline that would have allowed him to separate the wheat from the chaff, particularly in the secondary literature. He often accepted wildly speculative interpretations as the product of academic scholarship. Unlike Tolkien he lacked any real knowledge of the medieval languages in which his major primary sources were written. He was dependent on translations and these varied widely in quality. One advantage of this haphazard approach was that it frequently left his imagination free to invent connections where none can be found in the sources.
German nationalists of the early nineteenth century saw a Germanic equivalent of ancient Greek and Roman mythology in the so-called Nibelung legend. It was common at that time to refer to the Nibelungenlied as the “German Iliad.” Mendelssohn and others were urged by nationalist thinkers to write an opera on the Nibelung subject. The goal was to establish a cultural past that was equal to, if not superior to the Greek and Roman literature they had all grown up on and to make it a part of the popular consciousness. Wagner hoped that his use of Germanic myth would somehow tap into this racial memory and speak directly to the soul of the German people.
Parenthetically I might mention that Tolkien envisioned a very similar goal for his work. In a letter to a prospective publisher of the Silmarillion he wrote: “I was from the early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me) but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff.” Tolkien shared with Wagner the desire of providing a mythology for his own people. Where Wagner found medieval sources for his myths, Tolkien had to invent his.
Wagner saw many of his medieval sources, particularly the Middle High German epic Nibelungenlied, as products of a decadent and overly pious age. He found more congenial versions of the story in the Icelandic sources that seemed to him, and to most scholars of the nineteenth century, much closer to the more primitive, presumably pagan “originals.” These sources, the Saga of the Völsungs, the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, and the Norwegian Saga of Thidrek of Bern, were available to him in the romanticizing translations of men like Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagen, Ludwig Ettmüller, and Karl Simrock. In addition he read the historical and mythological interpretations of Franz Josef Mone, Wilhelm Grimm, and the great Deutsche Mythologie (German Mythology) of Jakob Grimm. Even with all of this material, he often invented stories, connections and characters so that his versions generally make more sense to us than their medieval ancestors. He maintained that his retelling somehow broke through the time-bound sources to an earlier “truer” form of the myths he used. Those curious about this process are referred to his essay “Die Wibelungen: Weltgeschichte aus der Sage” which can be translated as “The Wibelungs: World history extracted from legend.” In this essay he reconstructs millenia of lost history from his understanding of the original content of the Nibelung legend. I don’t recommend it to the faint-hearted.
Wagner originally set out to write a single Nibelung opera, which he called Siegfrieds Tod, (Siegfried’s Death). Out of the numerous and often contradictory medieval sources Wagner constructed a prose scenario with a complicated pre-history for the events, even though he planned to use only the concluding part of the story on the stage. While his completed draft libretto included a large amount of exposition in the form of a massive prologue and extensive references in the dialogue throughout the opera, he felt – almost certainly correctly – that the audience would never grasp the complex “back story.” For this reason he decided to expand the story backwards to include the youthful exploits of the dragon-slayer Siegfried and his winning of Brünnhilde. He called this drama Young Siegfried. When he finished writing this text, he was still plagued by the unwieldy mass of earlier events that needed to be known and – to make a long story a little less long – he added an additional full-length opera, Die Walküre, and finally a prelude in the form of the one-act, but complex Das Rheingold. He revised the Siegfried texts to fit with the new dramas, retitled them Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, and called the whole work Der Ring des Nibelungen, The Ring of the Nibelung. It is often claimed that Wagner wrote his Ring Cycle backwards. This is true, but it only applies to the text. The Nibelung of the title is, of course, Alberich, the original forger of the ring.
Siegfrieds Tod was sketched in 1848, while Wagner was still comfortably ensconced as music director at the royal opera house in Dresden. Between this sketch and the completion of the entire Ring text lay five of the most turbulent years in Wagner’s life. He took part in the 1849 uprising in Dresden and fled into exile in Switzerland with a price on his head. He wrote a number of prose essays, but no music. He completed the verse text to the Ring in 1853 (which incidentally followed the prose scenario he had drafted in 1848 quite closely) and soon thereafter began composition of Das Rheingold. The composition of the music proceeded from that point on through Die Walküre until he interrupted his work on Siegfried in 1856 and only returned to the composition in the late 1860s. Listeners with a good ear for style can hear the sharp break between the second and third acts of Siegfried. The final note of Götterdämmerung was penned in 1874. The first performance of the entire cycle took place in the theater Wagner designed and had built for the purpose in Bayreuth, a small town in Franconia, in the summer of 1876. The work attracted enormous attention and people flocked from all over the world – including the Emperor of Brazil – to hear and see this new marvel. It was given a mixed reception and has remained controversial ever since, although it is certainly the largest work of stage art regularly performed today. Most performances of the Ring continue to be sold out wherever they are given in the world.
John Ronald Ruel Tolkien was born in 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa to English parents. He died in Bournemouth on the English south coast in 1973. He was a professional student of ancient Germanic languages and literatures, a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and the author of a path-breaking essay on the Old English poem Beowulf. My first exposure to Tolkien came when I was a graduate student in English and read this essay. I had no idea that he was the author of what was to become one of the most popular books of the century.
Tolkien’s love of language carried him through his education, through what the English still sometimes call the Great War, and through several minor academic posts including a stint working on the gigantic project we know as the Oxford English Dictionary. It brought him finally to a Professorship in Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. There he was able to apply his linguistic passion to the study and teaching of Old and Middle English, Old Icelandic, and Gothic. At the same time – often after midnight - he developed his elvish languages and the stories they implied. He not only invented the languages, he invented a history for them so that his fictional languages would change over time the way English had in its progress from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf. These languages work almost as well as natural languages and a friend of mine in Cleveland has actually compiled a huge dictionary/thesaurus of Tolkien’s Elvish languages. It covers over seven hundred pages.
While both Wagner and Tolkien set out to mine the past for their message to the present and future, they had very different ways of doing it. Tolkien allowed his languages and his characters to generate their own “history” as he liked to call it. The reports from his workshop suggest that much of the work was done in the author’s unconscious. We hear of long periods in which virtually nothing was written and of twists and turns in the plot that the author had not clearly foreseen. The final plot that emerged was complex and, although we can occasionally recognize an echo from a medieval source – mainly in the names – it is impossible to find a medieval model for The Lord of the Rings as a whole. In many ways the closest model for a long story involving a curse on a ring is Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung.
Wagner reported a vision that occurred to him while staying in the Italian town of La Spezia in the fall of 1853, soon after completing the poem for the Ring. During an abortive attempt at an afternoon nap he fell into a half-sleeping half-waking state in which he experienced the effect of rushing water and the sound of a chord in E-flat. Upon awakening he realized that the problem of the instrumental opening of Das Rheingold, which had eluded him up to that moment, was solved. The veracity of this account has been questioned, but the Rheingold prelude represents enough of a musical breakthrough to justify a good story. In a similar vein, Tolkien said that his first published book from Middle Earth began when – lost in the mind-numbing stupor engendered by marking exams – he jotted on an empty page “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” This became the first sentence of The Hobbit and the germ of his huge project as, in his words “I had to find out what hobbits were.” Both artists had their seminal breakthrough moments in the half-waking state between thought and dreams. Wagner’s inspiration was musical; Tolkien’s was characteristically linguistic.
Although hobbits were new to Tolkien when he wrote that sentence in the early 1930s, the idea of a primeval world populated by elves, dwarves, orcs, dragons and men was not. He had begun writing verse and prose about a mythical pre-history, a process that included a complex process of language invention, already in the trenches of World War I. He later designed maps of this world, the most important continent of which was named Middle Earth in imitation of the Old English term for the known world, Middangeard. He often referred to his fictional products as “history” rather than use any of the standard terms for prose fiction.
The languages he invented implied speakers and their stories. Over the decades Tolkien wrote down these stories in a somewhat haphazard fashion. He was chronically unable to finish projects, whether they had to do with his profession of philology or his writing of fiction. He left behind dozens of unrealized stories in various stages of completion at his death. His son Christopher has made a life’s work of collecting, editing and controlling the materials his father left behind. The best known of these works is the Silmarillion, but even it is bogged down by a mythology that requires an expert guide to get through.
The beginnings of Tolkien’s career as a commercially viable writer came when a friend more or less forced him to submit The Hobbit for publication as a children’s book. After a laudatory evaluation by the publisher’s ten-year-old son the book appeared in 1937 and was successful enough that the publisher asked for a sequel. The sequel soon broke out of its children’s story bounds and became a giant work aimed at an adult audience, The Lord of the Rings. It took more than seventeen years for this work to reach the shelves of bookstores in 1954 and 1955, but it soon attracted a loyal following and, with its publication in an unauthorized and later an authorized paperback edition in the United States, it became – as the saying goes – a runaway best-seller and it has never looked back.
Tolkien was hypersensitive to any suggestion that his ring might have something to do with Wagner’s ring. When the writer of the foreword for the Swedish translation dared to suggest such a connection in his introduction, he fired back an angry letter to his publisher with the often-quoted sentence: “Both rings are round and there the resemblance ceases.” In the following I would like to explore parallels that are too numerous to be coincidental and the possibility that the resemblance does not cease there. Since Tolkien’s biographers have been complicit in covering up any real connection, I will be arguing a bit like a lawyer building up a circumstantial case.
I am going to hope that most of you have at least an Anna Russell knowledge of the story of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and hang our discussion of Tolkien on that. (According to the Anna Russell shrine on the web she is doing fine and just celebrated her 91st birthday in December.) I certainly am not expecting a Jim Holman knowledge of the cycle. For that you’ll have to turn to his book.
The first we see of the ring in Tolkien’s world is in The Hobbit. We are in a cave where the unlikely hobbit-hero Bilbo Baggins is trying to escape from goblins. He encounters a strange creature named Gollum who seems to have gained more from Wagner’s Mime than from Alberich. He is the owner of the ring, but Bilbo finds it by accident in the dark and carries it away with him, earning Gollum’s enmity. We learn much later that Gollum had been a hobbit-like creature named Smeagol and he had murdered his friend Deagol to gain the ring many years before – 478 years to be precise –Bilbo’s accidental “theft” narrated in The Hobbit. This sequence of events combines elements of the theft of the ring from Alberich by the gods Wotan and Loge, the killing of one brother by another to gain the ring (Fasolt and Fafner), and the storage of the ring for generations in an underground cavern (Fafner). The exchange of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum may also owe something to the Wanderer’s riddling contest with Mime in the first act of Siegfried, although both contests may be derived more directly from the riddling poems of the Poetic Edda.
When Bilbo finds the ring, it is pretty clear that Tolkien had no idea how important it would become. It has one power here: it allows the wearer to become invisible. Bilbo uses the ring at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings to make a dramatic exit by disappearing from his eleventy-first birthday party. Soon after this we find that the ring is far more than a magical trinket that makes people invisible. It is a ring of power forged by the evil genius Sauron to gain power over the nineteen other rings distributed among the races of Middle Earth. Having lost this ring long before the story begins, he has now put his entire resources to work to regain it. The wizard Gandalf reads the inscription on the ring:
One Ring to rule them all, one Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
Sauron will be able to rule all of Middle Earth from his dark throne if he is able to recover the one ring.
Now that Tolkien’s ring has been introduced, let us recall the curse placed on the Nibelung’s ring by its creator and first owner, Alberich. I’ll let him speak for himself:
[Play video – Alberich’s curse]
I rather like my translation of one couplet in the curse better than the subtitles:
Solang er lebt, sterb' er lechzend dahin,
Des Ringes Herr als des Ringes Knecht.
As long as he lives, let him waste away,
The lord of the ring as the the ring’s slave.
It certainly makes the connection clearer, in addition to being closer to the original.
Tolkien’s ring has a similar effect on the characters of his epic. If Gollum does not pronounce Alberich’s curse when Bilbo steals the ring, it is only because he lacks the eloquence to do so. He is limited to hissing: “Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it for ever.” (p.134) The curse, however, is already on the ring.
Tolkien crafts telling details that remind one of Wagner’s use of orchestral leitmotifs to bring home a point. He shows the effect the ring has on those who possess it. Bilbo finds it difficult to pass the ring on to Frodo. When Frodo has to pass the ring over to Gandalf so that the wizard can determine whether it is indeed Sauron’s ring of power, the ring begins to work on him: “He unfastened it and handed it slowly to the wizard. It felt suddenly very heavy, as if either it or Frodo himself was in some way reluctant for Gandalf to touch it.” (p. 54) An element of the Tolkienian Leitmotif is this heaviness of the ring. Throughout the latter part of the trilogy Frodo perceives the ring as growing heavier as they approach Mordor, Sauron’s hellish land. Much later when he encounters Bilbo at Rivcndell, Bilbo asks to see the ring again. Frodo brings it out, but immediately pulls it back. “To his distress and amazement he found that he was no longer looking at Bilbo; a shadow seemed to have fallen between them, and through it he found himself eyeing a little wrinkled creature with a hungry face and bony groping hands. He felt a desire to strike him.” (p. 260) Bilbo here takes on the features of Gollum, the earlier possessor of the ring. We don’t know here whether this takes place in Frodo’s mind, in Bilbo’s actual appearance, or in some third world belonging to the ring.
Perhaps the clearest description of the ring’s powers comes in a speech by the elf Elrond addressed to Boromir, a member of the fellowship who had wanted to make use of it for his own agenda:
We cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we now know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone, and is altogether evil. Its strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only for those who have already a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart. Consider Saruman. If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron’s throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear. And that is another reason why the Ring should be destroyed: as long as it is in the world it will be a danger even to the Wise. (p. 300)
Later Boromir, forgetting Elrond’s warning, tries to take the ring by force from Frodo, thinking he can use it to gain military advantage for his people. The episode ends in his death rather than Frodo’s, but it also ends in the breaking of the original fellowship into several groups.
In Wagner’s cycle the ring itself often disappears for long periods of time. It is not seen at all in Die Walküre, although it is mentioned. Let’s follow the actual progress of the ring as it passes through the story. Alberich is able to steal the gold from the depths of the Rhine and forge a ring from it by foreswearing love. Wotan and Loge steal the gold, the Tarnhelm and the ring from Alberich in order to pay the giants for building Valhalla. Like Frodo, Wotan wishes to keep the ring, but he is forced to turn it over to the giants. One of them, Fafner, promptly strikes his brother dead in a struggle over the ring. Fafner uses the Tarnhelm to change himself into a dragon, in whose form he sleeps on the gold for two generations. Siegfried has no idea of the ring’s significance as he carries it away from Fafner’s cave after killing the dragon. He gives it freely to Brünnhilde in the last act of Siegfried. I might mention that some critics have suggested that the ring causes him to desire physical possession of Brünnhilde. I think a heroic version of youthful hormones would be quite sufficient to that task. In the last scene of the first act of Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde’s Valkyrie sister, Waltraute, attempts to convince Brünnhilde to return the ring to the Rhine daughters on her own, thus ending the curse. Brünnhilde refuses, saying that it is Siegfried’s pledge of love. We find out what that is worth a few minutes later when Siegfried appears disguised as Gunther, wrests the ring from her, and takes her to be Gunther’s bride.
When Brünnhilde discovers Siegfried at Gunther’s court wearing the ring, she realizes she has been deceived and turns toward vengeance on Siegfried. Gunther’s half-brother Hagen is the son of the dwarf Alberich and he plans to gain the ring for himself. After Siegfried’s murder, he tries to take the ring from the corpse, but Siegfried raises his arm to prevent it, causing terror among those present. At that moment Brünnhilde appears and orders the final events. She will join Siegfried on the funeral pyre; the ring – which she now takes – will be purified by the fire and return to the Rhine daughters.
As the funeral pyre consumes the bodies and the ring is returned to the Rhine, Hagen make one last desperate attempt to grab the ring. The rhine-daughters drag him into the depths where he drowns. The fire spreads to Walhalla, which is seen in the distance, and the castle burns with all the gods. The music for the final moments of the great cycle portrays a utopian magnificence cleansed of the evil represented by the ring.
[Audio: Final pages of Götterdämmerung]
Alberich, however, is presumably still alive and so evil has not left the world completely.
Frodo carries Sauron’s ring through many adventures and hundreds of pages to the crack of the volcano Mt. Doom, where it had been originally forged using the infernal heat of the mountain’s fire. Gollum, like Alberich, follows the ring and its bearer on this trip. At the last moment the ring’s power overtakes Frodo and he is unable to cast it into the fire below. Gollum makes a last desperate attempt to wrest the ring from Frodo, biting off the finger on which he is wearing it. Gollum, the finger and the ring fall into the depths of the fire and the power of the ring is broken. Here we can see a clear echo of Hagen’s final attempt to grasp the ring at the end of Götterdämmerung.
Both cycles concern themselves with the corruption of noble designs by greed and the will to power. Both rings offer the temptation of power, that the good characters supposedly will use toward good ends, but only those characters who are untouched by ambition are truly immune to its power to corrupt. Siegfried scarcely knows that he has it and gives it freely to Brünnhilde. After recovering it he offers to give it to the Rhine daughters, but holds back when they impugn his courage. Alberich, on the other hand, uses it to terrorize and enslave his fellow Nibelungs (dwarves). Wotan sees it as a further enhancement of his divine power. Fafner sees it only as the chief object of his treasure and something that he wants to keep away from the Nibelungs. Brünnhilde sees it innocently as Siegfried’s pledge of love and then – on Siegfried’s hand – as evidence of Siegfried’s betrayal of that love. Hagen desires the ring initially for his father, Alberich, but as the drama progresses, it becomes clear that he desires it for himself. Brünnhilde is able in the last scene to purify the ring on her own funeral pyre. The susceptibility of the individual possessors of the ring is directly proportional to their greed and lust for power. Alberich, Hagen and Wotan are the most susceptible and Siegfried the least.
One can say almost the same about Tolkien’s ring. Tom Bombadil is least susceptible to the power of Sauron’s ring. Initially Bilbo and Frodo are also relatively free of its influence, but as their self-awareness and strength of character grow, so does their susceptibility to the ring until Frodo is unable to release it at the critical moment at Mount Doom. In both cycles, the destruction of the ring and those who desire it most brings about the end of an age in the history of the world.
Tolkienians are fond of saying that the similarities between the two cycles can be explained by their use of the same medieval sources. Let’s examine this notion. Wagner found sources for the idea of a cursed ring in at least three of his Icelandic sources: the “Reginsmál”, a poem contained in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, and the Saga of the Volsungs. The story told in all those sources has the gods Oðinn and Loki (Wotan and Loge) wandering through the world. They see an otter gnawing on a salmon. They throw a stone and hit the otter in the head, killing him. They rejoice in having bagged both an otter and a salmon with one toss of a stone. After flaying the otter and taking the animal’s skin, they seek lodging with a farmer named Hreiðmar. It turns out that the otter was the farmer’s son, appropriately named Otr, who spent the day in the shape of an otter so that he could catch fish. Hreiðmar insists that the gods repay him for his loss. Loki goes back to the waterfall and catches a pike there named Andvari – who was really a dwarf – there is a lot of shape-shifting in this story. Andvari had a large amount of gold. Loki demands the gold, which the dwarf gladly pays, but then he demands the ring Andvari is wearing. Andvari resists, saying he could recover his treasure with that ring. Loki insists on the ring and Andvari places a curse on it, saying that it would bring the death of anyone who had it. Loki returns to Hreiðmar’s farm where he places the gold on the otter skin. It covers the whole skin, but he eventually has to use the ring to cover a single whisker that was not covered by the remaining gold. Hreiðmar’s other sons demand their part of the settlement and are refused, whereupon they kill their father. The one son, Fáfnir, takes the entire treasure and turns himself into a dragon to guard it. There is no further mention of the ring in any of the sources, although its possessors all meet with a violent death.
The special powers of the ring were developed by Wagner who saw in the ring a symbol of the power of wealth. Tolkien adopted many aspects of Wagner’s ring without associating it specifically with wealth. In the event, the ring brought Tolkien more wealth than it did Wagner. The composer died in debt while Tolkien died a modestly wealthy man as the result of the inordinate success of his books.
I maintain that Tolkien must have absorbed Wagner’s notion of the ring even though he probably knew the Icelandic sources Wagner had used better than the composer himself. After all he had read them in the Old Norse original. There are too many aspects of Wagner’s specific adaptation of the ring motif that show up in Tolkien for this to be an accident. The Icelandic versions of the story do not provide any characteristics of the ring besides its ability to create riches for Andvari and the curse he places on it. The curse is extraordinarily effective, leading to the deaths of Hreiðmar, Fáfnir, Reginn, and Sigurðr, but there is no specific association of these events with the curse on the ring in the sources. The curse is never mentioned again. The original thief of the ring, the god Loki is not affected by his deed. No one seeks to gain the ring. It does not have any mysterious effect on anyone. In Wagner and Tolkien the ring has virtually the same mysterious effect. It draws men and women to desire the ring, even at the cost of their own lives. It affects everyone who touches it in some way, although some more than others. Wagner has his entire brass section blare out the curse motif every time someone dies in possession of the ring.
[Audio – the curse]
Between the two repetitions of the motif, we heard Wotan’s shocked reaction: “Terrible I now find the curse’s power.”
Every turn of Tolkien’s story involving the ring brings out its curse and its power over its possessors. Tolkien doesn’t have the brass section, but he has a linguistic equivalent that reminds us of the ring’s power at every juncture. We have already seen several instances of this at work. Nowhere is the power of the ring clearer than in the description of Sam’s brief period as ring-bearer. The ring begins to take over his consciousness: “As it drew near the great furnaces, where, in the deeps of time, it had been shaped and forged, the Ring’s power grew, and it became more fell, untameable save by some mighty will. … Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason.” And so on. Sam is able to overcome the temptation represented by the ring only by his devotion to Frodo and his Hobbit/British subbornness.
The points of contact between the two Ring Cycles do not cease with the ring itself. There is a strong Wagnerian echo in the assumption of the “sword that was broken” by Aragorn, the man fated to reclaim the kingship of Gondor. Unlike Siegfried, Aragorn does not reforge the sword himself – it is forged anew “by elvish smiths” but its reforging and use by a hero fulfills expectations and prophecy much as Siegfried’s reforging had done.
Another shared concern between the two works is their rejection of modern industrial society. The clattering anvils of Nibelheim could just as well be used to describe the industry going on under Saruman’s control in Isengard. Wagner’s music fits very well to the film version of this scene.
I didn’t have to change a thing.
In his production of Wagner’s Ring at the Staatsoper in Berlin, Harry Kupfer violates the mysterious opening of Das Rheingold by showing Wotan breaking off a limb of the World Ash before a note is played. This wounding of the tree leads to its demise and with it the decline of all nature. Kupfer’s production has the action weave around the fallen limbs of the great tree until in the final scene of Götterdämmerung Valhalla is set alight using the wood of the tree as kindling. The concluding ecstatic ending I played a few minutes ago accompanies the planting of a new tree by two children, a boy and a girl. The release from evil points humanity and nature toward a new birth. This was Harry Kupfer’s answer to the meaning of those enigmatic, gleaming measures.
In Tolkien the defeat of Sauron also leads to a triumphal denoument of the story as Aragorn assumes the kingship of Gondor and all the many threads of the story are played out. But this victory does not stop the forces of industrialization as Saruman, now known as Sharkey, attempts to industrialize the Shire. (Peter Jackson chose to leave this out of his film version, which was already very long.) We are left with the distinct impression that the protection of nature – a dwindling resource throughout The Lord of the Rings – is a rear-guard action against an inexorably advancing civilization. This was certainly Tolkien’s own view as he visited the haunts of his childhood only to find them eradicated by urban development and industrialization. In many ways Tolkien’s conclusion is far darker than Wagner’s. After driving Sharkey’s forces out of the Shire, the hobbit heroes settle down, but Frodo is troubled by the wounds he has received and is never able to find peace. Eventually he joins Bilbo as they travel to the Grey Havens and embark for an unkown world that may or may not be death. The strait-laced Catholic Tolkien was unwilling and probably unable to depict a true redemption of his pre-Christian world without the coming of Christ himself.
The many points of contact between these two students of Germanic antiquity, Wagner the amateur and Tolkien the professional, should not blind us to the many points of difference. Unlike Tolkien, Wagner associates the power of the ring with the treasure of the Nibelungs and with plutocratic power in general. Money was obviously much more important to Wagner than it was to Tolkien, something that is reflected in their lives as well. Wagner always spent money he didn’t have, while Tolkien lived the frugal life of an English academic, even after becoming wealthy. We are told that his one extravagance was a taste for brightly colored weskits.
Some of the differences are associated with the different genres involved. Even a drama cycle of four days cannot really encompass the kind of quest Tolkien depicts. Bound by his dramatic form, Wagner also has to eschew the giant battle scenes Tolkien puts in his narratives. The thousands of anonymous victims of battle make a good background to a heroic story and at least one of Wagner’s sources, the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, also has massive battle scenes at its conclusion. The Icelandic sources Wagner preferred are, however, smaller in scale, usually restricted to a few individuals on the stage at any one time. Wagner does have massed voices for the Gibichung vassals in Götterdämmerung, but most of the Ring cycle involves only two or three characters at a time on the stage. Tolkien also built his human drama around small scenes with only a few players – one can cite the long and complex relationship involving Frodo, Sam and Gollum – but these alternate with gigantic scenes that would never fit on an operatic stage.
Both epics end with the destruction of the ring. Brünnhilde realizes at the last moment that this is the only solution, while Tolkien builds his entire plot around the quest to destroy the ring, something that can only be accomplished by penetrating deep into the land of the enemy. The quest is long, arduous and very dangerous. The heroes seem good and the villains seem evil, but the borderline is often paper-thin. Characters waver between the good and the evil worlds or fall prey to evil: Saruman, the great wizard who becomes a pawn of Sauron; Theoden, the king who allows himself to be dragged down to premature senility by the evil Wormtongue; Denethor, the Steward of Gondor who despairs and commits suicide; Denethor’s son Boromir, who tries to take the ring from Frodo and is shortly thereafter killed by orcs. Even Frodo spends much of the last half of the narrative in a losing battle against the power of the ring. All the figures of Tolkien’s world are very close to the temptation to give in to Sauron and the temptation to power represented by the ring. Virtue is held upright in The Lord of the Rings by continuous exertion and the temptation is always there to give in, to relax and let events take their course. One would have to read very superficially to maintain that the characters in The Lord of the Rings are two-dimensional and lack complexity. The depiction of Sam’s struggle with the power of the ring mentioned above should illustrate this.
Wagner’s characters seem most virtuous when they are following their inner nature – and least so when their behavior is determined by what Wagner called “politics.” In Die Walküre. Wotan is following his natural instinct until Fricka forces him to realize the political consequences of his all-too-natural actions. Political considerations cause him to condemn his son Siegmund to death and to eject his favorite daughter Brünnhilde from the circle of the immortals. Siegfried does everything right as long as he follows nature – represented by the forest bird – but he ends up doing everything wrong when human power politics takes over in Götterdämmerung.
To be more precise, virtue is represented in Wagner largely by love – including sexual love – and vice is anything that violates that: Alberich’s original curse, Wotan’s sacrifice of his two dearest children, Siegfried’s seduction by the memory potion and so on. We might point out that the two brightest moments in the Ring are when the heroes are about to make love to close relatives.
A musicologist I know, who loves Wagner, is currently reading The Lord of the Rings and he had two complaints: “There is no sex and everyone is always stopping for tea.” He said this to contrast it with his positive response to Wagner. Like money, sex clearly played a larger role in Wagner’s life than in Tolkien’s. In fact, if it weren’t for the very sexy English sitcom Coupling, I might simply see Tolkien as an example of the often-cited show title “No sex please, we’re British.” Virtue and vice reside in other areas for Tolkien, as we have seen.
On the other hand, I think we can all see the virtue of a leisurely cup of tea or a glass of beer together with good company and good conversation. These were definitely virtues for Tolkien.
Tom Shippey, an Anglo-Saxonist who came to the defense of his older colleague, calls Tolkien an “Author of the Century,” referring to the twentieth. He speaks of the many authors scarred by the wars and man-made catastrophes of the century and their inability to deal with them directly. Most of them needed many years, sometimes decades to come to terms with their experiences. Shippey cites the examples of Orwell, Golding and Vonnegut, all of whom were combat veterans, who in their works of fiction – 1984, The Lord of the Flies, Slaughterhouse 5 – moved into the fantastic to express the horrors of their times. Shippey sees Tolkien as a representative of such “damaged authors” of the century. His giant works are his attempt to come to terms with the monstrosities of his time.
Wagner, for his part, set out to shape his own time and was in many ways the pivotal figure of his century, the nineteenth. He revolutionized music. He invented a whole new kind of mythical art. He embodied the nationalism of the century in his focus on matters German. He portrayed the corruption of a plutocracy arising in his time while at the same time demonstrating his own entrepreneurial spirit in his festival project in Bayreuth.
In the intellectual and artistic world of Europe and America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – the time when Tolkien was growing up – Wagner was one of the central artistic touchstones. French Wagnerites like Baudelaire virtually worshipped him and his works. George Bernard Shaw, a generation older than Tolkien, was the intellectual leader of Wagnerians in England. Aubrey Beardsley produced a rich sequence of illustrations to Wagner’s Ring that played a decisive role in C.S.Lewis’s early infatuation. Wagner and his music became a prime mover in the rise of both opera and symphonic music in the eastern metropolitan centers of America. In Tolkien’s generation we find Wagner’s positive and negative influence everywhere. T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land opens with a quote from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini wrote Wagnerian operas while Stravinsky and his school violently rejected Wagner’s influence and were thus shaped negatively by the same forces.
The bridge between the world of Wagnerianism and Tolkien’s circle in Oxford was C.S.Lewis, an ardent Wagnerian. Lewis was a lecturer in English at Oxford during most of Tolkien’s career and the two men became close friends. Lewis is famous for his works of popular theology, his interplanetary trilogy, and – probably most of all – for his Chronicles of Narnia. I have read – but been unable to confirm in primary sources – that Lewis and Tolkien regularly attended performances of the Ring in London, a fact that Tolkien and his biographers generally “forget.” Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien’s official biographer, wrote a history of the “Inklings,” the informal group in Oxford that included both Lewis and Tolkien, which mentions Wagner only twice, but both instances are telling. The first involves a dramatic reading of Die Walküre undertaken in 1934 by Lewis, Tolkien and Lewis’s brother Warnie, who is the source for this episode. Both Lewis and Tolkien wanted to read the work in the original German, but Warnie’s inability to keep up with them in that language forced them to read it in the English translation. Reportedly the three continued their discussion of the opera until very late. Carpenter also cites Tolkien’s daughter Priscilla as his source for an incident in which Lewis and Tolkien attended a performance of a Ring opera in London without the requisite evening dress and were the only men in the audience committing this faux pas.
If Tolkien had never heard of Wagner; if the Ring of the Nibelung had not been a part of every young man’s education in the first quarter of the twentieth century; if his best friend had not been a powerful Wagnerian; then we might believe that Tolkien had derived some, if not all these aspects from other sources, but the evidence is overwhelming. Tolkien stands convicted of being a closet Wagnerian.
How do we explain Tolkien’s virulent rejection of Wagner as a source? Let me draw a last parallel.
In the early 1840s Wagner was a virtually unknown composer and conductor who was seeking his fortune in Paris, the opera capital of Europe. An older, more established – and financially successful – figure in the field helped him with introductions, found him work to keep bread on the table, and eventually arranged for the production of Rienzi in Dresden which was Wagner’s first real success as a composer. That production led to his being appointed conductor in Dresden with a comfortable, if not lavish income. Wagner also learned a great deal from the operas of the older composer. Wagner’s strong sense of indebtedness led to his total rejection of the older composer, Giacomo Meyerbeer. His resentment at owing his career to another was a component of his violent anti-Semitism and led to his use of Meyerbeer to represent all that was wrong with opera and with European culture as a whole. Wagner also conveniently forgot that Heinrich Heine, another German Jew, was the major source for his Flying Dutchman. With the exception of Franz Liszt and King Ludwig of Bavaria, virtually everyone who really helped Wagner along the way was treated in the same shabby way.
Tolkien was certainly not as petty a man as Wagner, but I sense in his rejection of Wagner a similar refusal to accept the fact that he had learned much from Wagner’s mythopoeiesis and from his art as a whole. This refusal may not have been conscious, but it was powerful. Although Tolkien and Wagner may have had different attitudes toward religion, politics and many other things, they shared a notion of a grand mythic design drawn from the Germanic past and expressed in an old-fashioned version of the language of their own day as a means of exploring the nature of evil and the struggle against it. The resemblance between the two great ring cycles certainly does not end with the shape of their central symbols.