Monday 3 January 2011

Wagner and Tolkien Thread: Strange Ring Fellows

Happy New Year!! In honor of Professor Tolkien's birthday today I am publishing the next posting in my thread of looking for evidence of shared common ground between the two great sub-creators of the 19th and 20th century - Richard Wagner and J.R.R. Tolkien.

In the course of my ongoing investigations I have identified several narrative parallels in Wagner and Tolkien's works especially in each of their great Ring cycles. This posting focuses on the last two people who possess Alberich's and Sauron's Ring - the unlikely duo of the demi-god turned mortal Brunnhilde and the fallen Hobbit Gollum

In his 1849 prose sketch for his Ring cycle, The Nibelungen Myth, Wagner describes Wotan's dilemma with the cursed ring after he was forced to give it to the giants as part of the ransom for the goddess Freia.

“Wotan can not erase the the injustices without committing a new one; only a free will, independent of the gods, which is willing to take all the guilt on itself and to suffer for it, can break the spell.” (Haymes, P.47).

In the libretto for Die Walkure, Wagner dramatiizes this idea in the following admonition from Wotan to his jealous wife Fricka:

"Eines höre!
Not tut ein Held,
der, ledig göttlichen Schutzes,
sich löse vom Göttergesetz.
So nur taugt er
zu wirken die Tat,
die, wie not sie den Göttern,
dem Gott doch zu wirken verwehrt."

"Listen this once! The crisis calls for a hero 
who, free from divine protection, will be released from divine law.
 So alone he will be fit to do the deed 
which, much as the gods need it, a god is nevertheless prevented from doing. (Wagner, 1876)

Throughout the cycle Wotan tries to force the creation of this hero (first with Siegmund and then his son Siegfried) but ultimately fails. The true hero is Brunnhilde who after the death of Siegfried (who fails to end the curse of Ring) puts it on and selflessly immolates herself in the bridal fire with Siegfried - thus ending the curse. Brunnhilde starts the cycle as a valykrie – a demi-goddess with god like powers. Then she disobeys Wotan her father by protecting Siegmund in battle and is banished from the order of the valkyries and turned into a human. So Brunnhilde has very much a dual nature of goddess and human. She is also fated by her father Wotan to play a great part in the final action of the legendarium as he tells Brunnhilde's mother Erda in the final act of Siegfried:

Die du mir gebarst,
weckt sich hold der Held:
wachend wirkt
dein wissendes Kind
erlösende Weltentat. -

"Brünnhilde, whom you bore me,
will awaken to the hero: on waking,
the child of your wisdom 
will do the deed that will redeem the world. " (Wagner, 1876)

In Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, it is the character of Gollum who ultimately is responsible for the destruction of the Ring in the fires of Mount Doom. He too has a dual nature, albeit different in aspect than Brunnhilde. He is also fated by Gandalf (arguably a Wotan-like character) to perform a great act

“I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many - yours not the least (Fellowship, p. 58)

Ultimately it is Gollum, after the hero Frodo fails in his quest to destroy the Ring, who leaps Into the fire with the ring

“But Gollum dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle. It shone now as if verily it was wrought of living fire. Precious! Precious! Precious! Gollum cried “My Precious! Oh My Precious And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell.” (Return, p. 925)

Here of course we see a major contrast in the characters of the final Ringbearers. Brunnhilde makes a conscious decision to destroy the Ring “For I shall now return this ring to you, wise sisters of the depths. The fire that burns me will also purify the evil jewel.” (Haymes, P 59) whereas Gollum slips and falls. Brunnhilde's selfless act is replaced by Tolkien's use of eucatastrophy - the sudden joyous turn - that destroys the ring.

As Brunnhilde had to go through a series of actions and events to become the final character to perform this act of redemption so too did a series of acts and events have to occur to have Gollum arrive on that precipice to perhaps be the agent of this final act – despite many characters throughout the course of the story (Frodo, Sam, Faramir) wanting to kill him as Frodo finally says

“But do you remember Gandalf's words “Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam I could not have destroyed the Ring – The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end” (Return, p. 926)

So perhaps what we are seeing in the roles of both Brunnhilde and Gollum - the final ring bearers - is that each of them had to go on a long journey to reach the point of where they each needed to be to perform that final act that destroys the ring and heralds the start of a new (redeemed?) world.

For Brunnhilde this was very much an active journey of metaphoric death and rebirth, betrayal and finally complete self awareness in her final moments declaring

'Alles, alles,
alles weiss ich, -
alles ward mir nun frei"

"Everything, everything,
everything I know,
all is now clear to me!" (Wagner, 1876)

For Gollum there is a similar journey but it is more focused on how people react to him (an awareness of Gollum's ultimate role by not killing him) that gets him to that precipice to be an agent of whatever powers were at work in Tolkien's ultimate eucatatastrophic turn.

Strange ring fellows to be sure following two different pathways but with rather similar results!

Tolkien Sources

(Fellowship) The Fellowship of the Ring in The Lord of the Rings (London:HarperCollins,1993)

(Return) The Return of the King in the Lord of the Rings (London: HarperCollins, 1993)

Other Sources

Haymes, E (2010) Wagner's Ring in 1848: New Translations of The Nibelung Myth and Siegfried's Death. New York: Camden House

Wagner, R (1876) Der Ring des Nibelungen. Librettos available at

Posted from Andrew Higgins IPAD

1 comment:

Troels said...

Hi Andrew

I am following your investigations into similarities between Wagner and Tolkien with great interest and, I admit, also with some scepticism, though I do try to keep an open mind (personally I dislike Wagner, but I try to keep that from interfering).

I am going to challenge you a bit here: beyond noticing some vague similarities, what is the point? Is there any way in which knowing Wagner's story about Brünnhild can inform our reading of Gollum? Or a way in which the character and story of Gollum may inform our understanding of Tolkien's opinion on Wagner?

At a more pedantic level, I am a bit unhappy with your statement that Gollum ‘is also fated by Gandalf’ - Gandalf foretells, but he does certainly not decide, nor attempt to change, the fate of any character: Gollum, Bilbo, Frodo or others (he does, however, try to get them to fulfil the fate that he perceives is set for them, but that is not quite the same thing, in my opinion).

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