Friday, September 6, 2013

Wagner's Influence on: J.R.R. Tolkien

This is another guest post from my wonderful wife, Leslie.  We are still in travel mode, so she had the post in the can for this week for me.  Isn't she great?  - Robin

In the fall of 1962, while living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, my father started reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings aloud to our family every evening. Dad was on sabbatical, and we were spending the year traveling around South America. Isolated as they were—separated from family and friends—and in such a foreign environment, I can well imagine that being nightly swept away by the heroics of Frodo and Gandalf and Aragorn was a great comfort to my folks. Being only six-years old, I neither noticed the isolation nor fully appreciated the nuances of the story, but since that year the Tolkien universe has been a solid fixture in our family. 

For a tenth grade English paper I researched the sources of The Lord of the Rings, and was fascinated to learn about the Scandinavian and Germanic sagas that inspired the work.

[web photo—source]

I no longer have the paper, but I’m pretty sure it made no mention of Richard Wagner, no doubt because the few articles and books on the subject I managed to locate in that pre-Internet time also failed to credit the composer with having any influence on Tolkien.

Once I discovered Wagner and his ring, I of course immediately saw the similarity in the stories. Learning that Wagner and Tolkien had drawn from many of the same mythological sources, I asked Robin, my go-to gal for all questions Wagnerian, “Was there a ring in the original sagas?”

“Not an all-powerful ring like in the Ring cycle and The Lord of the Rings,” she said. “Though I’m sure there are rings, as in most mythologies.” She was right. As explained by Edward R. Haymes in a 2004 lecture (transcribed here),
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.... 
… 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.
Nevertheless, Tolkien went to his grave denying he was influenced by Wagner: “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased,” he famously asserted.

Much as I love Tolkien, this statement is just plain hogwash. Take a look at what the dwarf Alberich sings about the Ring in Das Rheingold:
Jeder giere nach seinem Gut,
doch keiner geniesse mit Nutzen sein!
Ohne Wucher hüt' ihn sein Herr;
doch den Würger zieh' er ihm zu!
Dem Tode verfallen, fessle den Feigen die Furcht:
solang er lebt, sterb' er lechzend dahin,
des Ringes Herr als des Ringes Knecht 

All shall lust to possess it,
but none shall delight in its use!
Without gain, its lord shall guard it;
it will draw his executioner to him!
Destined to die, let fear fetter the coward:
so long as he lives he shall pine for death,
the lord of the ring as the slave of the ring
Compare this to what Elrond tells Boromir in Tolkien’s Ring:
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.
But it’s not just the ring that is similar. As noted by Rebecca Brown in a recent article about this summer’s Ring cycle at the Seattle opera,
[l]ike Wagner’s, Tolkien’s Ring is a story of good and evil, redemption and faith—and it contains a river at the start; a corrupting and powerful ring; a short, dark, creepy creature who possesses it; a magical sword; an invisibility garment; distinct and warring “races”; a tall, skinny, wandering wise man; an intense relationship between landscape and people; an innocent redeemer; people wearing awesome headgear; and flying animals.
And she doesn’t even mention numerous other similarities: a dragon guarding a hoard of treasure; a city in a pit filled with creatures pounding metal; a riddle-contest; dead soldiers reanimated to fight again; a woman warrior who rides into battle against her father’s orders; a character who builds his/her own funeral pyre; an all-cleansing fire; and a castle that crumbles at the end.

I get why Tolkien would have been unhappy with comparisons between him and Wagner, for they were about as different as two people could be. Bradley J. Birzer explained in a lecture he gave about Wagner and Tolkien:
In their own personal lives, the two had little in common. Wagner was a nineteenth-century German socialist, a believer in the apotheosis of man. Tolkien was a twentieth-century English unconstitutional monarchist, a devout Roman Catholic, and a strong believer in the limitations placed upon humans by Adam’s original sin.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
[web photo—source]

But no one can seriously dispute that Tolkien was influenced by Wagner. Not only was Wagner the biggest thing around in the early part of the 20th century when Tolkien was a young man, but one of Tolkien’s closest friends, the writer C.S. Lewis, was an ardent Wagnerite. Lewis and Tolkien are known to have had passionate, late-night discussions about Die Walküre, and to have attended at least one Ring cycle in London together. (See Birzer lecture link above.)

Wagner and Tolkien had similar aims with their Ring works. For example, both strove to create a mythology for their own cultures, where one had been previously lacking:
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.   
… 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.  
[See Haymes lecture, above.]

Moreover, both men were aghast at the industrialization of modern society—with its concurrent destruction of nature—and the themes of nature vs. industry are strong in both Rings.

one of Tolkien’s own illustrations
[web photo—source]

Witness, for example, what Alberich does to Nibelheim in Wagner’s Ring, and Saruman’s ruin of Isengard and the Shire in Tolkien’s.

Perhaps the most important theme the two stories share is that of redemption. But here, too, lies their biggest difference. Tolkien’s idea of redemption was based on a Christian model. As noted by Professor Birzer (see above),
Tolkien viewed a sanctified northern, pagan myth as a means to return the modernist, heretical West to Christendom. The greatness I meant was that of a great instrument in Gods hands—a mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things,” Tolkien wrote from the trenches in France in 1916. The 24-year old hoped, he continued “to rekindle an old light in the world,” to carry on the Old Truths in the ravaged, post-war world.
Thus, Frodo is ultimately flawed, and unable to destroy the ring by himself. It takes an outside force, the hand of God, if you will (Gollum, in a sort of Judas role), to finally get the deed done. It should be noted as well that it is only because of Bilbo’s original act of mercy in sparing Gollum (“It was Pity that stayed his hand”) and Frodo’s subsequent similar actions, that Gollum is around at the end to be the catalyst for the ring’s demise. These themes of mercy and forgiveness, of course, have a distinct Christian tone to them.

In Wagner’s Ring universe, conversely, it is the mortals—not the gods (Brünnhilde has lost her godhead at this point)—who are able to save the world. And more importantly, it is romantic love that brings about their redemptive acts: first Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love for one another, and then Brünnhilde’s love for Siegfried, which finally brings about the return of the ring to its rightful place in the Rhine, and the downfall of the gods.

Deborah Voigt as Brünnhilde and Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried
in the Met’s 2012 Götterdämmerung
[web photo—source]

Contrast this with The Lord of the Rings, where what few love stories do exist (e.g., Aragorn and Arwen) happen offstage and are not what you’d call passionate. (The most compelling love story in Tolkien’s Ring, to my mind, is that of Sam’s love for Frodo—but that could be a whole separate post.)

If you want to read more about Wagner’s influence on Tolkien, the web is chock full of articles on the subject. The links provided above are all worth checking out. In addition, this is an interesting comparative study of the two Ring works.


  1. Wouldn't some of the similarities just be due to them building on the same source material? There is a dragon (or snake) guarding a gold treasure in the Poetic Edda, a riddle-contest, dwarves etc.