The Ring of Rings

The similarities are really too close for co-incidence. They are both epics, have convoluted plots and an array of characters and command a devoted following. Yet JRR Tolkien denied any connection between his Lord of the Rings and Wagner’s four opera epic the Ring. When the Swedish version of Lord of Ring’s was published the translator Åke Ohlmark wrote in the introduction that Tolkiens ring was similar to Wagner’s. A furious Tolkien wrote to the publisher claiming, “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ends”.

Of course with release of the film trilogy there is another similarity: a huge fan base that doesn’t mind spending hours of their life at performances of their precious tale. A cult grew around Wagner after the 1876 premiere of the Ring cycle, King Ludwig II of Bavaria literally fell in love with the composer and built him the Bayreuth Festival, to which the elite of Europe repaired in homage. A similar cult – mainly teenage boys – developed around Lord of the Rings, particularly in the late 1960’s.

Tolkien’s hatred of Wagner wasn’t just petty jealousy over a ring. Always compared unfavorably, one famous English poet referred to Lord of the Rings as “a combination of Wagner and Winnie-the-Pooh”. More particularly Tolkien, the devout Roman-Catholic monarchist couldn’t abide Wagner’s German socialist ideals. According to his official biographer and family friend Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien “held in contempt” Wagner’s interpretation of the Norse and German versions of the Niebelungen saga. Tolkien believes in the forces of good defeating evil, whereas for Wagner redemption can only come through love.

Yet the idea of a ring must have come directly from Wagner as nothing like it appears in the old sagas. Although the Volsuna Saga features a ring from a cursed hoard, it has no magic powers and in the Nibelunglied Saga there is a magic rod that can be used to rule all. Wagner obviously combined these two to come up with his Ring of Niebelung, and when the god Wotan steals the ring, Alberich places a curse on it, and in doing so speaks of “the lord of the ring as a slave of the ring”. These details make it difficult to believe Tolkien’s disavowals.

The two are also drawn together on film through Howard Shore’s music. When in the hobbits’ habitat the score has a pseudo-English pastoral air, but as soon as the ring begins to do it’s work a bit of Wagnerian dread creeps in. (Some anoraks have studied both scores and discovered that Wagner’s technique of pairing of two minor triads separated by four semitones, for example C major and E minor, are used extensively by Shore.) When the hobbits escape Mt. Doom in “The Return of the King” Renée Fleming sings in Elvish and with other minor to major moments and clichés it is easy to agree with The New Yorker’s Alex Ross in thinking that “such pseudo-Wagnerian material would have gone out of fashion, but there is life in the fat lady yet”.

As if to nail the argument the Asia Times columnist Spengler trawled web sites and compiled a fairly definite list of similarities between Wagner and Tolkien. He also claims:“No better guide exists to the mood and morals of the United States [than the film Lord of the Rings]. The rapturous response among popular audiences to the first two installments of the trilogy should alert us that something important is at work. Richard Wagner’s 19th-century tetralogy of music dramas, The Ring of the Nibelungs , gave resonance to National Socialism during the inter-war years of the last century. Tolkien does the same for Anglo-Saxon democracy.”

 

Alberich forges a Ring of Power Sauron forges a Ring of Power
Wotan needs the giants to build Valhalla The Elves need Sauron to forge their Rings of Power
The Ring gives the bearer world domination The Ring gives the bearer world domination
Wotan uses the Ring to pay the giants Sauron betrays the Elves
The Ring is cursed and betrays its bearer The Ring is evil and betrays its bearer
Fafner kills brother Fasolt to get the Ring Smeagol kills friend Deagol for the Ring
Fafner hides in a cave for centuries Smeagol-Gollum hides in a cave for centuries
Siegfried inherits the shards of his father’s sword Aragorn inherits the shards his fathers’ sword
Brunnhilde gives up immortality for Siegfried Arwen gives up immortality for Aragorn
Wotan plays “riddles” for the life of Mime Gollum plays “riddles” for the life of Bilbo
A dragon guards the Nibelungs’ hoard A dragon guards the dwarves’ hoard
The gods renounce the world and await the end The Elves renounce the world and prepare to depart