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Two rings to rule them all: a comparative study of Tolkien and Wagner

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday 27 October 2012 | 4:24:00 am

The following excellent and highly accessible paper acts as a comparative analysis (with a thesis we think highly original) of both Wagner and Tolkien's "Ring Cycles".  Originally published in the accredited fantasy journal Mythlore (which specialises in work on Tolkien, Lewis and other members of the Inklings -  in 2011. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and Mythlore. For further details about  Mythlore please visit their website here.

The author, Dr Jamie McGregor originally came to our attention when we located, and reprinted part of  his doctoral thesis Myth, music and modernism : the Wagnerian dimension in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway" and "The Waves" and James Joyce's "Finnegan's Wake last yearHaving spoken to him since and gained an understanding of his extensive knowledge of and enthusiasm for both Wagner and Tolkien we are more than pleased that we did. 

The first few paragraphs are reprinted here while the full paper - as it originally appeared in  Mythlore - can be read in the embed PDF below. Highly recommended. 

"Using this generic plot outline as a framework, I comment at each stage on the similarities and differences between the two versions with a view to suggesting that an important part of what Tolkien was trying to do in The Lord of the Rings was indeed to offer a correction of (and possibly a corrective to) Wagner's tetralogy."  Dr Jamie McGregor

About the Author
JAMIE MCGREGOR teaches in a variety of literature programmes, including an elective in Modern British Fantasy, at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. He has extensively researched Wagner's influence on 20th century fiction, including works by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. His article "The Sea, Music and Death: The Shadow of Wagner in Woolf's Mrs Dalloway" received the Thomas Pringle Award for 2008. He is currently working on a book, The Road to Monsalvat, about Wagner's "religion of art," and preparing a series of commemorative events to mark the composer's bicentenary celebrations in 2013.

Two rings to rule them all: a comparative study of Tolkien and Wagner

THE PARALLEL BETWEEN THE LORD OF THE RINGS and Der Ring des Nibelungen has been drawn many times and studied a few; in 1992 it was already described as having been "a matter of debate for many years" (Morgan 16), and the debate has shown no signs of abating since. Initially, the suggestion of "influence" was dealt a (seemingly decisive) blow by Tolkien himself when his (evidently incompetent) Swedish translator asserted that the One Ring was in effect identical with "der Nibelungen Ring"; with a brusque finality characteristic of him when nettled, he retorted "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases" (Letters 306). His biographer Humphrey Carpenter uses this example to support his claim that "comparison of his Ring with the Nibelungenlied and Wagner always annoyed Tolkien" (202); Carpenter also alludes to Tolkien, while still a schoolboy, making "a passing jibe at Wagner whose interpretation of the myths he held in contempt" (46). Some subsequent commentaries have taken this at face value; Giddings, for example, sees any Wagnerian associations with Tolkien as a "taint" derived from his mixing "with the rabid Wagnerite C.S. Lewis" (14).
The shift towards a more objective and informed appraisal really begins with Tom Shippey, who points out that Tolkien had an intense dislike for people noticing superficial resemblances between his works and others, especially when this tended to obscure what really mattered about them. Shippey is the first to directly challenge Tolkien's dismissal of any Wagnerian connection:

The motifs of the riddle-contest, the cleansing fire, the broken weapon preserved for an heir, all occur in both works, as of course does the theme of 'the lord of the Ring as the slave of the Ring', des Ringes Herr als des Ringes Knecht. (The Road to Middle-earth 343-4)

 Moreover, Shippey implies a reason why Tolkien might have responded to Wagner, albeit negatively: he was "one of several authors [including Shakespeare] with whom Tolkien had a relationship of intimate dislike" and who he believed "had got something very important not quite right" (344).

 A short article by K.C. Fraser, published in the Tolkien Society journal Mallorn in 1988, goes a step further. Here, despite several red herrings, one crucial idea emerges: that "the Ring, both in Tolkien and in Wagner, is not merely an essential part of the plot: it is, in fact, the pivot of the whole work" (13). What is more, this parallel, unlike almost all the others readers have noticed, is not found in any of the medieval sources common to both novel and music-drama; there, there are magical and cursed rings aplenty, but none of them are as yet the Ring. The same point is made more substantially in Arthur Morgan's "Medieval, Victorian and Modern: Tolkien, Wagner and The Ring" (1992), to the best of my knowledge the first sustained academic treatment of the question to date. Morgan emphasizes the difference in temper: that Tolkien does not, like Wagner, oppose power with Romantic love but with "the cold heroism of the old heroic North" (17). More importantly, he shows how Tolkien's conception of the Ring, while deriving much from the earlier sources that would have been opaque to an amateur like Wagner, is nonetheless almost certainly influenced by the composer's very modern "association of the Ring with machinery" (25)--as exemplified by the parallel images of Nibelheim and Isengard. Most importantly of all, Morgan pinpoints Alberich's curse in Das Rheingold as encapsulating, for the first time, "all the major features of Tolkien's Ring" and proceeds to summarize them as follows:

   There is one Ring only.
   The Ring came by a curse, which is now transferred.
   It confers unlimited power on its possessor.
   Its ownership will now bring no joy, only misery.
   It will gradually consume its possessor with anxiety.
   It will be sought by all who do not possess it, yet will bring its
   possessor no contentment.
   Its possessor is given the title of Lord of it [...]
   Possession will be living death and it will bind its possessor even
   in death: the Lord of the Ring will become its slave. (22-3)

 Finally, Morgan makes the telling suggestion that in 1939, when Tolkien was drafting his Hobbit sequel, "the influence of Wagner became stronger as Hitler's intentions became more obvious" (24).

 Much the same point is made in the less scholarly but handsomely packaged Tolkien's Ring by David Day. Despite somewhat misrepresenting Wagner's intentions, Day is undoubtedly right in pointing out that Hitler's perversion of "Germanic" mythology outraged Tolkien and may have even inspired him to write The Lord of the Rings as a deliberate challenge to Wagner (179). The advantage of this view is that it offers a thoroughly plausible explanation as to why Tolkien might have been influenced by Wagner and yet object to having it pointed out.

 Indeed, the gulf between composer and novelist is far greater than even this would suggest. Bradley Birzer is exactly right in saying that "It would be difficult to find some one who held views more different from Wagner than Tolkien" (3) and he characterises each as follows:

   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. (1)

 Tolkien's world-view was in fact profoundly reactionary, especially for an English intellectual of his generation, whereas Wagner's had been ultra-revolutionary; his megalomaniac urge to replace religion with his own art would have struck a man of Tolkien's orthodoxy (had he suspected it) as blasphemous in the extreme. (1)

 Other recent commentaries, such as those of online columnists Spengler and Ross, tend to support the same basic view: that there are similarities between Tolkien and Wagner that are not found in any of their mutual sources, that Tolkien's denial of this is therefore disingenuous and is almost certainly bound up with the "Nazification" to which Wagner's work all too easily lent itself, which was contemporary with the composition of The Lord of the Rings, and which its author would have felt strongly motivated to "correct." This essential position is one that I share, albeit subject to certain modifications.

 A discernable problem with most if not quite all enquiries in this area is that they tend to be conducted by Tolkien scholars (or at least enthusiasts), whose attention to Wagner is relatively limited (and sometimes flawed). Writers on Wagner, on the other hand, show a marked failure to appreciate Tolkien (on the few occasions they deign to mention him at all). Kitcher and Schacht, for example, while acknowledging his writings to be "immensely absorbing and entertaining," conclude that "they do not deserve the serious attention and reflection lavished on [Wagner's] Ring" (6). Hodgart, writing on Wagner and Joyce, is far more dismissive: "Wagner is Tolkien for grown-ups" (131). Part of the problem here is that, in most cases, Wagner and Tolkien appeal to different audiences--Tolkien's being appreciably larger, Wagner's (rightly or wrongly) more "elitist."

 What I now propose to do, in the hopes of redressing this balance, is to lay the two texts beside one another, according both the serious attention they deserve, in order to assess their relationship. Where many critics have pointed out parallels between the events of Tolkien's and Wagner's respective epics and some have even tabulated them, I offer instead the following plot outline (in italics), designed in such a way as to be more or less equally applicable to both works. Despite excluding relatively minor events (such as reforged swords and riddle contests) and concentrating solely on the history of the Ring itself, I hope to show that the parallel is a more intricate one than has hitherto been noticed. In order to clarify the complex narrative detail involved, I subdivide the outline into nine numbered stages (the first being the forging of the Ring and the remaining eight the occasions on which it subsequently changes hands). Using this generic plot outline as a framework, I comment at each stage on the similarities and differences between the two versions with a view to suggesting that an important part of what Tolkien was trying to do in The Lord of the Rings was indeed to offer a correction of (and possibly a corrective to) Wagner's tetralogy. (2)

Although embedded below, the reader may find reading easier at the following address where the document can be read in full screen: Two rings to rule them all: a comparative study of Tolkien and Wagner