Tuesday 21 December 2010

Richard Wagner and J.R.R Tolkien The Forgers of their Rings

i have just finished an excellent online Tolkien course through the University of Wales in Cardiff: (Tolkien Myth and Middle Earth in Context) by Dr Dimitra Fimi -author of a key work of Tolkien Scholarship Tolkien, Race and Cultural History . I highly recommend this course to anyone interested in an in-depth exploration of Tolkien and his legendarium.

For this course I wrote a paper focusing on Richard Wagner (another one of my passions) as a sub-creator like Tolkien and tried to find some "common ground" between these two incredible artists of the 19th and 20th century. This is an attempt to move the dialogue beyond the oft-quoted remark by Tolkien (made in a fit of anger!) "both rings are round and that's where the comparison ends" (Letters, 237).

The original paper was over 6,000 words long (double the requirement!) and several sections had to be omitted from the final paper. I would like to get the final paper in shape for potential publication. I will be posting to this blog some excerpts from the paper focusing on several thematic areas of shared common ground. I welcome any thoughts and comments. I will also be adding to the paper as I discover new material. For example, the recent excellent book Middle Earth Minstrel had some new intriguing material on Wagner and Tolkien

We will start at looking at the very specific item at the centre of both legendarium's - THE RING itself

"solang er lebt,
sterb' er lechzend dahin,
des Ringes Herr
als des Ringes Knecht!"

"Ash nazg durbatuluk,
Ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatuluk agh burzum-ishi kimpatul"

"A specific shared item of evidence for common ground is found in the actual item of Wagner and Tolkien’s ring. In his prose sketch The Nibelungen Myth, Wagner outlines the earliest origin for his ring:

“Alberich stole the clear and noble Rhine Gold, carried it away from the depths of the waters and forged from it with great cunning and art a ring that gave him the highest power over the whole race, the Nibelungs: so he became their lord, forced them from that moment to work for him and collected the immeasurable hoard of the Nibelungs. “ (Edward Haymes, 2010, p. 44)

The ring as sketched here is an item that gives the owner power and dominion. Based on the primary Norse sources Wagner would have known, there are several stories about magic rings. There are two major magic rings mentioned in the Eddas: Odin's ring Draupnir and the dwarf Andvari's ring Andvarnaut. Regarding the later, in Volsunga Saga, Andvari is forced to ransom his ring to the god Loki and he sets a curse on it.” (Finch, 1965, p. 67) From these and perhaps other sources, Wagner forged his own ruling ring – a ring that grants world domination, unlimited power, wealth and is also cursed.

As T.A. Shippey states “none of the ancient sources give the Ring the central place that Wagner does....It was Wagner who, in very Tolkienian fashion, noted the gaps of the ancient tradition and wrote his version of the story determinedly into them.” (Shippey, 2006, p. 106)

Turning to Tolkien, how did he forge his Ruling Ring? It is important to remember that the role of the ring in Tolkien went through many changes from the time it was first found in the dark by Bilbo in The Hobbit to its later manifestation as the Ruling Ring- “For Bilbo's Ring is not the same as Frodo's in its nature nor its powers...Bilbo and Gollum's Ring is a simple ring of invisibility with rather limited power.” (Rateliff, 2007, pp. 174-5). Indeed, Tolkien’s early concept of the ring is much more like Wagner’s tarnhelm - the magical instrument (either a helmet or chain mail) which has the power, among several, to make you invisible. The other main characteristics of Wagner’s ring – greed, dominion and a curse are not evident in Bilbo’s ring. However, as Tolkien started to work on the much demanded sequel for The Hobbit, he did explore the idea of incorporating the slightly nefarious concepts of greed into the potential plot line for his new Hobbit. In the first sketches of the opening chapter, The Long Expected Party, Bilbo is to leave the Shire to look for more dragon-gold having spent his share of the treasure he received from his activities in The Hobbit. (Shadow, pp. 19-34) In a fourth version sketch Bilbo says, “Now I have spent all my money which once seemed to me too much and my own has gone after it. And I don't like being without…in fact I am bring lured.” (Shadow, p. 41) Later in the same sketch, he asks Elrond what he can do to heal his “money wish and unsettlement. “ (Shadow, p. 41) As Tolkien developed this idea he wrote “The Ring: whence its origin. Necromancer? Not very dangerous when used for good purpose. But it exacts a penalty. You must lose either it our yourself .” (Shadow, p. 42) Tolkien eventually connects these earlier ideas of greed and lust and the curse with the nefarious attributes of the Ruling Ring.

Thus, in the development of the ring it changes from a useful ring of invisibility (more akin to Wagner's Tarnhelm) to the One Ring (more akin to Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung). Now certainly Tolkien could have arrived at this through synthesis of the same type of sources that Wagner found in Old Norse works. Shippey states that if Tolkien did take anything from Wagner it was perhaps no more than the idea that something could be done with the idea of the Ring of Power, something more laden with significance, than anything in an ancient source but at the same time and very definitely not what Wagner had done with it.” (Shippey, 2006, p. 113). However, Michael Scott Rohan in his paper Was Tolkien the Real Ring Thief states that there is nowhere else Tolkien can have come by it; no dark passages in which his hand rested on an enigmatic Ring. (Rohan, 2005, p. 151 ). In his piece The Ring and the Rings, Alex Ross goes even further stating that it is clear that Tolkien used Wagner to develop his ring and accuses Tolkien of being a closet Wagnerian and brandishing his walking stick as Nothung Siegfried's reforged sword! (Ross, 2003).

One item which Ross focuses on in his analysis are the similarities in the actual curses put on the ring by Alberich and Sauron (both included above) In the final libretto for Das Rhinegold, Alberich curses the ring “Forfeit to death, faint with fear shall he be fettered; the length of his life he shall long to die, the lord of the Ring as the slave to the Ring.” (Wagner, 1876). Which is interesting to compare to Sauron's curse “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to Bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.” (FR, p. 49) Clearly, each ring carries a curse that is bound up with themes of slavery and dominion over all who dare to bear it. “Wagner's fundamental message is, in short, a warning against the curse of covetousness and hunger for power.” (Bjornsson, 2003, p.276)

The same could certainly be said of Tolkien's One Ring as well."

So that's the first instalment - Next time we will look at some evidence of shared ground in character and fates of Wagner and Tolkien's final Ring bearers.

Happy YuleFest to all!!!


Works Cited by J.R.R. Tolkien

The History of the Hobbit: Part One Mr. Baggins, edited by John D. Rateliff. (London: HarperCollins, 2007)
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981)
The Return of the Shadow: The History of The Lord of the Rings, Part One, edited by Christopher Tolkien. (London: Harper Collins, 2002)

Other Works Cited

Bjornsson A (2003) Wagner and the Volsungs: Icelandic Sources of Der Ring des Nibelungen. London: Viking Society for Northern Research
Finch, R.G (1965) The Saga of the Volsungs. London: Thomas Nelson
Hammond, Wayne G. & Scull, Christina (2008), J. R. R. Tolkien Companion and Guide vol. 2 Companion London: HarperCollins
Haymes, E (2010) Wagner's Ring in 1848: New Translations of The Nibelung Myth and Siegfried's Death. New York: Camden House
Rohan, M (2005) 'What Story I Wonder?” said Gandalf....” Was Tolkien the real Ring-Thief', in Sarah Wells (ed.) The Ring Goes Ever On Proceedings of theTolkien 2005 Conference vol. 2, Tolkien Society, Coventry England, pp. 147-155
Ross, A. (2003) The Ring and the Rings. Available at http://www.therestisnoise.com/2004/04/wagner_tolkien_1.html (Accessed on
4th December 2010)
Shippey, T (2003) The Road to Middle Earth. London: HarperCollins
Shippey, T (2006) Roots and Branches: Selected Papers on Tolkien. Walking Tree Press
Wagner, R (1898) 'A Communication to My Friends (Eine Mittheilung an meine Freunde)', in The Art-Work of the Future: Richard Wagner's Prose Works Vol 1, Translated by William Ashton Ellis. London: The Wagner Library, pp, 230-344.
Wagner, R (1876) Der Ring des Nibelungen. Librettos available at http://www.rwagner.net/libretti/rheingold/e-t-rhein.html (Accessed on 5th December 2010)

Posted from Andrew Higgins IPAD asthiggins@me.com


Troels said...

Courageous ;-)

I cannot say what, if any, inspiration Tolkien got from Wagner, but Mike Rohan's argument is certainly critically flawed. If he were right, we should never have had any of the Rings, because Wagner would have had nowhere to come by it. If Wagner could have come up with it independently based on the Germanic sources, then so could Tolkien.

There is in this discussion too many cases of otherwise intelligent people making the logical error of post hoc ergo propter hoc — but two people facing similar problems and basing themselves on similar sources may come up with the same solution independently: the independent discoveries of differentiation by Leibnitz and Newton also comes to mind.

This is not to say that Tolkien got no inspiration from Wagner's ring. It is possible that Tolkien was inspired — even strongly inspired — by Wagner, but I would encourage those who wish argue so to use more convincing arguments than the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc and the implication that Tolkien was unable to come up with the One Ring independently (of course Åke Ohlmarks ended up arguing that it was C.S. Lewis that had written The Lord of the Rings, but I don't see much basis for that claim either).

Apart from that, this is very interesting, congratulations! I really wish that I had had the money (and the time) to take the course.

There is, of course, a significant difference between the two curses: while one is essentially a curse of death (and misery until then), the other is a curse of non-death, and of eternal misery that would, however, not start immediately.

I will certainly be looking forward to see more from your paper, thank you!

Dr. Andrew Higgins said...

Troels thanks very much for your comments. I agree with your thoughts that both Tolken and Wagner could have come up with the idea of the ring from the same "soup" of Northern sources and trying to draw a direct connection is fraught with problems. We do know that Tolkien attended. The Ring at Covent Garden with CS Lewis (and according to his daughter Priscilla were the only two not dressed formally) and that Tolkien and Lewis spent an entire evening reading the libretto of Die Walkure. So Tolkien was certainly aware of Wagner's Ring but how much of this made it into his soup is up for debate Perhaps by looking at some of the possible narrative parallels I will explore this may become clearer or not!!!

Thanks again and Happy New Year!!

Troels said...

Actually, according to the note to 26 March 1934 in Hammond and Scull's Chronology (p. 788) ‘Tolkien and the Lewis brothers met regularly in early 1934 to read the four operas of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, in preparation for a planned attendance of the complete cycle at Covent Garden in London’. If he read through all four operas, his claim that there is no other connections than both rings being round becomes even more outrageous.

With that in mind, I think it can be easily shown that it is impossible that Tolkien was completely unaffected by Wagner's work when he was struggling with the beginning of The Lord of the Rings some four years later. However, it can just as easily, in my opinion, be shown that Tolkien's Master Ring is much more than just a copy of Wagner's Ruling Ring. This leaves a whole range between these two, as I see it equally outrageous positions, and my point is that we really have no way of narrowing it down any further.

Probability considerations would indicate somewhere in some generalized ‘middle’, and I am well aware that my respect for Tolkien is pulling me in the direction of greater independence on his part, but such are only idle meanderings of the mind — not even something I'd call speculation ;-)

Mike Scott Rohan said...

Troels claim that my argument is "comically flawed" might have been right if that were all I said. But of course it wasn't; that is just how it's quoted here, and IMHO misleadingly, since it has so much in common with the subject. Perhaps he should read it before commenting.But as a pointer, I maintained Tolkien's utter originality, yet traced a much greater fascination with Wagner than he would admit to, even from his childhood. I traced parallel themes -- the decline of elder powers in the face of humanity, for example -- though in no way suggested these were copied, let alone plagariarized. Except in one place. Both creators centre on a Ring -- not just a magical tool or symbol, but a conscious protagonist, conscious, semi-independent, not merely malevolent but directing that malevolence to doom all its holders and bring it back to the hand of its maker. That cannot be traced to any other source, real or partial; and Tolkien knew about it, in detail. Can we then believe that he never had it in mind while creating his own very different world? In a sense, he was recasting Wagner as he felt it ought to be, by a real expert who knew the sources. His deliberate downplaying of other quasi-Wagnerian material -- the reforging of Anduril,for one -- more than suggest a conscious effort to avoid Wagner. The opening of my talk said it was about "idiots", meaning those like Philip Pullman, who claimed Tolkien had stolen the whole thing from Wagner, who'd done it ten times better. My intention was to acknowledge and explain the surface resemblances, while squashing any question that Tolkien had "stolen" them. I would have done that with the Ring, if I could; but no amount of argument can honestly explain it away. But why should it? We know Tolkien drew on other sources, often very closely -- Beowulf, Rider Haggard, Morris, 'The Mysterious Land of Snergs" and whatever. It's what he did with them that matters, and is so totally different. And that is the case with the Ring, also; it belongs, now, to them both.

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