Sunday 27 February 2011

Richard Wagner and J.R.R. Tolkien - The Long Defeat, The Final Battle, and Glimpses of Victory

Here is the next part of my continuing thread exploring the works of Richard Wagner and J.R.R Tolkien - two of the greatest and most prolific sub-creators of their generation.

Wagner and Tolkien worked on the development of their legendariums over a course of many years and for each of them it was a great part of their lifework. The development of these works reflected their life experiences and changing attitudes. One series of related themes both Wagner and Tolkien explore throughout the development of each of their works are the concepts of the long defeat, the final battle and glimpses of victory.

For Wagner, these thoughts are illustrated in his changing ideas for the end of his great Ring-cycle which he rewrote six or seven times (an interesting personal comparison with Tolkien's habit of "niggling" over his works). In the original 1848 version, written in a time of revolutionary optimism, Siegfried and Brunnhilde rise out of the fire of the funeral pyre and ascend to the god's home of Valhalla. There Brunnhilde cleanses the gods of their guilt and prevents their fated destruction. This is the only version where the gods are saved from ultimate destruction. As Laurence Dreyfus says in his recent article Siegfried's Masculinity, in the early version of the Ring there is little that has to do with romantic love - instead of falling in love men force themselves on females, Grimhild, Gunther's mother is overpowered and Alberich does not forswear love to master the Rhinegold but simply abducts it. (Dreyfus, p. 5) This idea of love and healing begins to play a much more important part in the make up of the Ring in the next major version of the story Wagner penned in 1852 living as a poor political exile in Switzerland. For this version, Wagner re-wrote the ending which now saw the gods being destroyed and being replaced by a human society ruled by love. This version was very much influenced by the Philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) whose work Das Wesen des Christentums (The Essence of Christanity) argues that the ultimate essence of God is love (gross oversimplification of a very complex theory). This influenced Wagner to change the end to Brunnhilde proclaiming to the gods -

"The holiest hoard of my wisdom I bequeath to the world. Not wealth, not gold, nor godly splendour; not house, not court, nor overbearing pomp; not troubled treaties’ deceiving union, nor the dissembling custom of harsh law: Rapture in joy and sorrow comes from love alone."

In 1856 Wagner fell under two new influences: the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and a growing resurgence in Buddhist teachings. These influences caused him to revise the ending of the Ring again this time to to reflect the illusory nature of human existence (known in German as "wahn" as in Wagner's later home at Bayreuth - Wahnfried) and the negation of the will. In this version, Brunnhilde sees herself redeemed from an endless cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth – enlightened by love she achieves a state of non-being - her final lines to her horse Grane now are:

"Were I no more to fare to Valhalla's fortress, do you know whither I fare? I depart from the home of desire,
I flee forever the home of delusion; the open gates of eternal becoming I close behind me now: To the holiest chosen land, free from desire and delusion, the goal of the world's migration, redeemed from incarnation, the enlightened woman now goes. The blessed end of all things eternal, do you know how I attained it? Grieving love's profoundest suffering opened my eyes for me: I saw the world end."
The final final version of Brunnhilde's Immolation was not written to the very end of orchestral composition for the Ring in 1874 when Wagner now a famous composer fully funded by his patron King Ludwig of Bavaria (ah those were the days!) revisited the ending again. He still has the gods perish in the flames of Valhalla (the last stage direction he gives is “the gods completely hidden from view by flames, the curtain falls”). Now Wagner uses his “elvish craft” of highly complex musical composition - using the network of leading motives he developed to illustrate characters, items and thoughts throughout the Ring. You will hear this theme in the final moments of this clip from my still favorite production of the Ring at the Metropolitan Opera featuring the incomparible Wagnerian soprano Hildegard Behrens as Brunnhilde

In these last glorious moments we hear blasting out of the orchestra the leading motive of “Redemption through Love” This motive has been heard only once before when Sieglinde learns she will give birth to the hero Siegfried and Brunnhilde helps her escape the anger of Wotan.

It is in this final moment of the opera we glimpse a final victory against the downfall of the gods – a victory heralding the start of a new world of mankind. However, Wagner does not indicate what happens to the Lord of the Ring Alberich himself – the last time he is seen is telling his son to “be true” so in this new world Wagner hints that evil may persist.

In J.R.R. Tolkien's legendarium, within the context of his secondary world of Arda and its history there is also a long defeat - a series of historical episodes that move inexorably from the creation to the end of the world. Each age of Middle Earth has defeats and peoples who are the slaves to fate. The great hapless hero of the first age Turin Turambar's, like Wagner's ultimate hero, Brunnhilde, is ruled by fate. The etymological derivation of Turin's very name carries with it the idea of fate. In The Etymologies Tolkien outlines the linguistic roots of this name from the roots TUR (Mastery)and UMBAR/AMBAR (FATE) (History of Middle Earth, The Lost Road, p. 395) and the story of Turin ultimately turns this name against him - "Turin Turambar Master of Fate by Fate Mastered."

As in Wagner's world there is also a persistence of evil. We see a distant echo of this in Tolkien's The New Shadow Tolkien's late unfortunately unfinished sequel to the Lord of the Rings where there is evidence of orc and Morgoth worship in Fourth Age Gondor (Alberich knocking on the Door perhaps?). There is definitely a pessimism and a sense of elegy and fading (one thinks of the Two Trees, the passing of the Elves back to the West, etc.).

Tolkien like Wagner also gives evidence of glimpses of a final victory in the wreck of the "ragnarok" of the end of the world. Looking into the legendarium we see evidence of both aspects. In one of the earliest prose versions of the Turin story from the Book of Lost Tales - Turambar and the Foaloke we are told that after a ritual cleansing in the bath of flame both Turin and his sister Nienori will -

"dwelt as shining Valar among the blessed ones, and now the love of that brother and sister is very fair, "but Turambar indeed shall stand beside Fionwe in the Great Wrack, and Melkor and his drakes shall curse the sword of Mormakil" (History of Middle Earth, The Book of Lost Tales 2, p.116)

An interesting echo of the early version of the ending of the Ring with Siegfried and Brunnhilde ascending to Valhalla in glory?

Later in The Book of Last Tales this concept of the "Wrack of the Gods" is paired with "the Great End -

"The Elves'prophecy is that one day they will fare forth from Tol-Eressea and on arriving in the world they will gather all the fading kindred still live in the world and march towards Valinor - through the Southern lands. Then they will only do with the help of Men. If men, and them, the fairies will take Men to Valinor - those that wish to go - fight a great battle with Melko in Erumani and open Valinor. Laurelin and Silpion will be rekindled and the mountain wall being destroyed then soft radiance will spread over all the world, and the Sun and the Moon will be recalled." (The History of Middle Earth, The Book of Lost Tales 2, p.285)

But as Tolkien continued to develop his legendarium we can see the blending of another theme - the "Great End" starts to be referred to as "Arda Healded." In The Sketch of the Mythology (1926) the last battle is followed by a passage about Yavanna finding the lost Silmarils and using them to rekindle the light of the Two Trees.

"When the world is much older, and the Gods weary, Morgoth will come back through the Door, and the last battle of all will be fought. Fionwe will fight Morgoth on the plain of Valinor, and the spirit of Turin shall fight beside him, it shall be Turin who with his black sword will slay Morgoth, and thus the Children of Hurin will be avenged. In those days the Silmarils shall be recovered from sea and earth and aid, and Maidros shall break them and Belaurin (ed - Palurien/Yavanna) with their fire rekindle the Two Trees, and the great light shall come forth again, and the Mountains of Valinor shall be levelled so that it goes out over the world, and Gods and Elves and Men (Men was struck out according to the notes) shall grow young again and all their dead awake." (The History of Middle Earth, The Shaping of Middle Earth, p.41).

Tolkien continues to develop this theme throughout his later works with the idea that for all the suffering of the world there is an ultimate recovery or perhaps to go further redemption - and as we learn in some of Tolkien's later works - especially in the very interesting Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth" — A discussion between two characters, an Elven king (Felagund) and a mortal woman (Andreth), about the metaphysical differences between Elves and Men - there is indeed an "old hope" men possess about their ultimate fate -

"'What then was this hope, if you knew?" Finrod asked. 'They say,' answered Andreth 'they say that the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end. This they say, also, or they feign, is a rumour that has come down through years uncounted, from the days of our undoing." (Morgoth's Ring, p. 321).

So in Tolkien's legendarium there is a reason to fight another day (one thinks of the rousing Quenya war cry - Auta I lome - passing is the night!), there is a reason to suffer and strive - the hope of a final victory - an Arda restored - the ultimate movement from "elegy to eucatastrophe"

Thus in the development of their vast and shifting legendarium's both Wagner and Tolkien using their own versions of their "elvish craft" - each a form of "gesamtkunstwerk" - depicts stirring visions of the fall, recovery and glimpses of redemption - the world's ultimate hope.

Works/Sites Cited:

Dreyfus, Laurence - Siegfried's Masculinity in The Wagner Journal (Vol 4: 2011)

Tolkien, J.R.R. - The History of Middle Earth (Vol 1) - HarperCollins: 2002

Tolkien, J.R.R. - Morgoth's Ring - Harper Collins: 2002

Posted from Andrew Higgins IPAD


Troels said...

Once again I am grateful to you, Andy, for challenging my preconceptions :-)

We can always quibble about the level of these parallels / similarities, but if we accept that there are some non-trivial similarities in Wagner and Tolkien's ways of dealing with this ‘Long Defeat’, ‘Final Battle’ and healing, then I can't help but wonder what we may use that for?

We know from Carpenter's description of Tolkien as ‘a man of antitheses’ (also dealt with in some detail by Verlyn Flieger in Splintered Light where this phrase, taken from Carpenter's Biography is the title of the first chapter) that Tolkien early developed a personality mixing states of hope and despair, and he may have found some resonances with this in the Old Norse myths and legends, explaining a part of their attraction to him.

These Old Norse myths and legends are of coursa a point where Tolkien and Wagner meet, and I am wondering if the parallels you note can be used to say anything general about mythopoeic art that finds its inspiration in both the Old Norse legendarium and in Christian faith?

What I am aiming at here is to find a perspective on these similarities that might affect my appreciation of Tolkien's and/or Wagner's work. Do you have any suggestions regarding such a perspective?

The Wagnerian said...

It's a funny thing. As a child I was originally drawn to Wagner via Tolkien, having read The Lord Of The Rings at a very early age. Indeed, it is Tolkien that lead to a life time "obsession" with Wagner. Yet part from occasionally re-reading the books - and the odd visit to Sarehole Mill - it is Wagner that I have analysed and studied.

It was obvious from reading Tolkien that there was much here to study. However, I have remained in near ignorance to much of this.

Your interesting analysis here suggests that this is more than worth pursuing. Thank you

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