J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, responding to comparisons between The Lord of the Rings and Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, that: ‘Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased.’ Clearly the comparison irked him, the inventor of a truly unique work of creative genius, but his response seems overly dismissive and simplistic at best. This essay aims not simply to draw parallels between these two works (though they are sure to arise) but to examine the artistic aims of their respective creators; Tolkien and Wagner, and to understand their philosophical foundations.
It is significant that both artists strove to breathe new life into myth – a term which in modern times has regrettably come to be associated with dead cultures and antique civilisations. In fact this disconnect between the present (the modern world) and the wisdom of ancient peoples, more religious and more open to spiritual truths which came to be expressed best through story, is, for Tolkien and Wagner, a serious problem. Both artists are concerned with looking back – For Tolkien, this stems from awareness of Man’s decline from a golden age, a lost Eden in which he sincerely believed. For Wagner, it was to the past that man had to look in order to build a future; he characterised his art as, precisely; ‘The artwork of the future’, enshrining new spiritual values to fill the void of an age in which men were less spiritual than ever.
Wagner: A man of his time?
Wagner’s world, of the mid to late 19 century, was one in the midst of great upheavals. It was the crucible in which the modern world was created, after the French Revolution, yet before European society had fully broken with its past. Industrialisation, which in Tolkien’s time had already fully taken over and polluted the countryside he held dear, was in Wagner’s day not yet a forgone conclusion. Germany was not a country as such, but a collection of states and principalities – Kings still held onto some political power and the aristocracy was only slowly giving way to the rise of the bourgeois, peasantry to the proletariat.
In this turbulent time, Wagner took part in the revolutions of 1848 in Dresden, rising up for the cause of democracy. In this he was in a sense biting the hand that fed him, for prior to the revolution he had a well-respected post as a conductor in the Royal Saxon Court – one of the aristocratic institutions he sought to divest of power. The revolution, however, failed, and Wagner went into exile, unable to return to his homeland for many years. This development above all perhaps determined the course of his art. The failure of revolution, of activism, to effect real political change drove him towards the philosophy of pessimism, in Arnold Schopenhauer’s terms. For Schopenhauer, the world itself was mere ‘will and idea’, as it was in strands of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. Under Wagner, this pessimism, coupled with a nostalgic longing for his homeland, might have led to his “flight” into myth and epic literature. Only myth was capable of expressing the human condition, for unlike the realism or naturalism of say, the 19th century novel, it did not imitate or reflect a transitory state of ‘society’, but elucidated eternal, universal truths of a higher order.
This withdrawal from a world which Wagner deemed corrupted by petty politics and greed, has much in common with Tolkien’s idea of myth as escapism for when the modern world itself resembles a prison. It is not a flight from the real concerns of man’s existence (which are spiritual; concerning virtue and the inner struggles against vice), but from the hypocrisy and superficiality of modern society. With the Ring cycle, Wagner nevertheless does tackle some of the most pressing issues of his time, albeit rather obliquely and in mythical terms. In Tolkien’s terminology, there is some “applicability” of the Ring cycle towards capitalism and the modern social order.
Plot Summary: Das Rheingold (Prologue of the Ring cycle)
Deep in the heart of the river Rhein lies the Rheingold, a most precious substance. The Rhine-maidens, feminine spirits of the river Rhein, representing the purity, beauty and charms of the natural world, are playing, when they are disturbed by the arrival of Alberich the dwarf. Beholding their beauty, he lusts after them, but is scorned for his unattractiveness and lechery. Furious, he asks about the gold, learning from the maidens that it is magical, and can be crafted into a ring of power (capable of ruling the whole world) by one who is willing to renounce love. Not only does he take up this challenge and renounce love to forge the ring, but he puts a curse on it, that anyone who should wield it except him should come to woe.
Scene change: the gods, or powers (akin to the Valar in Tolkien) are holding counsel. They have just commissioned giants Fasolt and Fafnir to construct a mansion for them, called Valhalla. Wotan (Odin), the king of the gods, cannot afford to pay the giants, who threaten to take his sister as payment. Caught in a bind, he calls his friend Loge, the god of fire and a cunning trickster. Loge tells Wotan about the ring Alberich has made, seeing in it an answer to their conundrum.
The two of them descend underground to Alberich’s lair – a kind of underworld of slavery and industry, where Alberich has put his fellow dwarves to forced labour, mining precious ores and minerals. They have a chat with Alberich (not unlike Bilbo and Gollum’s conversation in the caves of the misty mountains) to try and trick him out of the ring. Alberich is very vain and prone to boasting, so he shows off an invention of his; the Tarnhelm, a magical helmet that allows him to transform into anything he likes.
Wotan siezes upon this weakness of his, and challenges him to turn first into a dragon, then into a frog; trapping him in a cage when he is thus no longer a threat. He steals the ring, and he and Loge take as much gold as they can carry to Valhalla to pay off the giants. This is still not enough, however, and Wotan is forced to part with the ring in order to win his sister back from them. Immediately on giving the giants the ring, they fight over it, and Fafnir kills his brother Fasolt (remind you of anything?). Wotan receives a visit from the goddess Erda, who warns him that evil is to come, and hints that he is not immune to the curse of the ring.
These are the events of the prologue, which set the story in motion, and what follows is full of great drama and adventure, with a brave hero (Siegfried) who slays a dragon, rescues a beautiful warrior-maiden (Brunnhilde) and finds the ring, presenting it to her as an engagement ring(!), for he is not corrupted by its power. When Siegfried suffers betrayal and death, however, it is Brunnhilde who brings the drama to its conclusion, throwing herself, ring in hand, onto his funeral pyre in an act of love and self sacrifice by which the evil tool of domination is destroyed, along with Valhalla and the gods. In this climactic immolation scene, all is restored to nature; the ring melts in the magical fire and returns to the waters of the Rhein, which rise up to extinguish the flames. At last we hear the song of the Rhein-maidens once more, as the cycle reaches is end (and its beginning).
Now that we’ve had a chance to look at the story of the Ring cycle, albeit in a very short summary, we might start to notice some similarities between Wagner’s music drama and Tolkien’s book. It is worth point out, however, that many of these links are not direct but indirect – by which I mean that Tolkien, if he took inspiration from anywhere, did not draw from Wagner, but from the same sources as him. It is the Nibelunglied and the elder Edda, genuine mythological, literary works which are the source of these stories concerning Siegfried, Brunnhilde et alia. That said, what Wagner sought to achieve by reviving these myths and refashioning them for the modern world (without losing their mythic, universal power) was unique in his time, and to my mind formed a significant precedent to Tolkien. As much as he might have poured scorn on Richard Wagner’s derivative myth-making, Tolkien initial sought much the same thing; to create a mythology for his country and his people. The biggest rift or division to be found between their works is perhaps their genre. Tolkien had little sympathy for drama, considering it too ‘anthropocentric’; he focused instead on world-building, creating a deep and rich universe populated with diverse races, flora and fauna. Wagner, on the other hand, is a composer and a dramatist, very much in the tradition of Greek tragedy. His world essentially operates on a flat, vertical plane; the gods in the heavens, the mortals on earth, and the Nibelungen in Nibelheim. After all, the stage can only provide an illusion of real depth, despite Bayreuth’s (Wagner’s own opera house) being one of the biggest in the world.
One final distinction I would like to draw between these two artists, and a significant one, is that whereas Tolkien’s life’s work bears (at least in retrospect) a very strong sense of continuity and wholeness; the early myths and his very last drafts all belong to essentially the same mythos; Wagner’s work bears surprisingly little continuity of outlook. I think this is due to their differences of outlook; Tolkien remained a Catholic with a solid foundation of faith for most of his life; a man of strong convictions. Wagner was a great deal more restless, and never seems to fully settle on one philosophy over another; he had only one god, one source of truth: himself. There are strong links between his earlier operas and his last “Music Dramas”, namely their mythical themes and content, but following the Ring he turned away from paganism towards a version of Christianity that, while far from orthodox, was something of a departure from his earlier ideas.
This change bore fruit in his last work: Parsifal. It has superficial links with Tannhäuser, a middle-period work about a knight renouncing the eros of Venus herself for the pure love of a virginal lady. Yet Parsifal is not simply a trite melodrama about choosing sober, purified love over excessive eros (Apollo over Dionysus) – its meaning runs deeper, or at least it aspires to. Here there is renunciation, but it is directed towards a kind of deification of its hero, not simply a restoration of the social order that characterises so many operas’ endings. Parsifal is powerful myth concerning the real ascetical struggles of the Christian life, and as such it aims at something loftier than any tale of gods and goddesses ruling the fate of men. It may be the work wherein Wagner, egotist and showman though he may be, comes closest to Tolkien’s own vision, of myth illuminating the Way with a refracted beauty, stemming from the source of all Truth: God.
The heart of man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship one he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
man, sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with elves and goblins, though we dared to build
gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sow the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia, September 1931