Tolkien, Wagner, Nationalism, Modernity & Anarchism"

Written By The Wagnerian on Friday, 26 April 2013 | 12:29:00 pm

Found at the ISI Lecture Archive . A lecture from 2001 given by Dr. Bradley J. Birzer, Professor of History at Hillsdale College. Its full title being:  "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance eases": Tolkien, Wagner, Nationalism, and Modernity" Only the first part is reproduced below. To read the entire paper it will be necessary to visit the direct link at ISI. Images and media here added by TW. 

It maybe worth noting before reading, that ISI describes itself as, "The educational pillar of the conservative movement and the leading source of information about a free society for the many students and teachers who reject the post-modernist zeitgeist." Nothing skeptical here then - if you'll forgive the pun.

"My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)-or to 'unconstitutional'
Monarchy," Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher.

When the Swedish translation of The Lord of the Rings appeared in 1961, its author was appalled. Fluent in Swedish, J.R.R. Tolkien found no problems with the translation. Indeed, Tolkien often considered the various Scandinavian languages as better mediums for his Middle-earth stories than English, as the medieval Norse and Icelandic myths had strongly influenced them. His disgust, instead, came from the presumption found within the introduction to the Swedish edition. The crime: translator Åke Ohlmark had compared Tolkien's ring to Wagner's ring. "The Ring is in a certain way 'der Niebelungen Ring,'" Ohlmark had written. Indignant, Tolkien complained to his publisher: "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases." The translator's commentary was simply "rubbish," according to Tolkien.


Ohlmark was not the only critic to make the comparison. A Canadian English professor, William Blissett, reviewing The Lord of the Rings for the prestigious South Atlantic Quarterly, found several parallels between the two legends but was unwilling to preclude "any direct Wagnerian influence." By the early 1960s, the comparison was becoming common. In his last interview before his death, Tolkien's closest friend C.S. Lewis claimed to have wanted to write a new prose version of Wagner's Ring Opera. Lewis feared, though, that "at the mention of the word Ring a lot of people might think it was something to do with Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings.'" Since the first comparisons in the 1950s, many critics have used Wagner's Ring against Tolkien. One famous English poet referred to The Lord of the Rings as "A combination of Wagner and Winnie-the-Pooh. "

The comparison to Wagner grated on Tolkien. In their own personal lives, the two had little in common. 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. 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. Still, he studied or listened to Wagner and his music frequently. One student of Lewis's, Derek Brewer claimed rumors circulated that Lewis and Tolkien annually attended the full ring opera in London. Tolkien's daughter Priscilla remembers one such visit to the opera where her father and Lewis had failed to wear formal evening attire—the only two in the entire audience who had forgotten to do so.

Additionally, Tolkien and Lewis studied Wagner's myths as a part of their exploration in their short-lived but deeply influential Kólbitar Club. Creating the academic club in 1926, Tolkien hoped to interest several Oxford dons in the significance of Norse mythology. Meaning "Coal Biters," Kólbitar was a derisive term for Norse men who refused to join in the hunt or fight, preferring instead the warmth of the fire. Tolkien's Kólbitars read several of the Norse myths, including the entire Volsunga Saga and the Elder Edda in the original Icelandic. It was in this club that Tolkien and Lewis realized how much they had in common and began their thirty-four year friendship. "One week I was up till 2.30 on Monday (talking to the Anglo Saxon professor Tolkien," Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves in 1929, "who came back with me to College from a society and sat discoursing on the gods & giants & Asgardfor three hours." Tolkien must have especially regarded the late-night discussion as important, for he lent to Lewis parts of The Silmarillion, a work he regarded as vital but intensely personal and private. Only his family and a research assistant knew anything about it. To what must have proved an immense sense of relief for Tolkien, Lewis responded enthusiastically to his colleague's private world. "I sat up late last night and have read the Geste as far as to where Beren and his gnomish allies defeat the patrol of orcs above the sources of the Narog and disguise themselves," Lewis wrote to Tolkien. "I can quite honestly say that it is ages since I have had an evening of such delight." According to a friend, Lewis "was aghast. This was the sort of writing which he would not have dared to believe could exist."

By the early 1930s, the Kólbitars had dissipated, and the remaining members, Tolkien and Lewis, continued the club under a different name, "The Inklings." The translations of Norse and Germanic legends continued though. By 1934, Warnie Lewis reported in his diary, that he, his brother, and Tolkien were translating the text of Wagner's second Ring Opera, the Valkyries, from the original German. "Arising out of the complexities of Wotan," Warnie recorded, "we had a long and interesting discussion on religion which lasted until about half past eleven when the car called for us." Agreeing with or disagreeing with Wagner's interpretations, it provided much food for thought.

Of the two major Inklings, Lewis was far more taken with Wagner than was Tolkien. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis wrote that when he first encountered Wagner in 1911, at the age of 13, "pure 'northernness' engulfed" him. Five years later, Lewis attended his first performance of Wagner's Ring and was disturbed by members of the audience who were so taken with the opera that they yelled directions to the conductor or stood up spontaneously, unable to control their excitement. The young Lewis even pulled one overly enthusiastic opera fan back into his seat. For Lewis, the Ring Opera proved to him that "all Italian opera is merely a passtime [sic] compared with the great music-drama of Wagner." Italian opera, he concluded, was mere "screaming and contortions." For the atheist and rationalist Lewis, northern paganism had served as a form of substitute Christianity. Wagner, he wrote after attending another Ring performance
in 1924, gave him a meaningful glimpse into divinity, "of seeing the very most ultimate things hammering it out." When feeling depressed, Lewis called upon his "small stock of Wagner" to lift his spirit. After his conversion to Christianity, Lewis admitted to loving "Balder before he loved Christ." To a group of Oxford  students, Lewis stated: "If Christianity is only a mythology, then I find that the mythology I believe in is not the mythology I like best. I like Greek mythology much better; Irish better still: Norse best of all." Lewis even wrote the climax of the second volume of his famous space trilogy, Perelandra, paralleling Wagner's Ring.

Though Tolkien never held Wagner in the same regard as did Lewis, one cannot completely dismiss the comparison between Tolkien and Wagner. At a superficial level, the two ring stories share several things in  common: dragons (with vulnerable spots) guarding treasures; important rings that cause evil, directly or indirectly; the broken sword remade; a wandering, grey deity, inspiring men; and the moral and physical stretching of the ring's original possessor. Perhaps most important, Wagner and Tolkien both greatly admired northern courage. "It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage," Tolkien wrote in his justly famous essay on Beowulf. The "northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times."

Even the comparisons, though, should not lead one to conclude that Tolkien borrowed from Wagner. Rather, Tolkien and Wagner each drew from the same sources. Namely, Wagner used the basic stories from the Austrian Nibelungenlied, the Icelandic Elder Edda and Völuspá, and the Norse Volsunga Saga. Tolkien, too, took from these sources. But, the Finnish Kalevala, various Anglo-Saxon poetry, George MacDonald, and G.K. Chesterton also served as influences on Tolkien, directly or indirectly. There were other important influences on him, not so immediately obvious. "Imagine that! You know, he used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky," Allen Barnett, a Kentuckian and former classmate at Oxford said. "He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that."

The manner in which Tolkien used the sources differed greatly from that of Wagner. For Wagner, the pagan northern myths served several purposes in his operas. First, they gave the German people a nationalist identity. It should be regarded as no accident that Wagner wrote and completed the Ring Opera as Germany and Bismarck struggled to unify and find a common voice. Second, Wagner promoted socialism, in what would in the twentieth century be seen in two varieties, national socialism and international socialism. Finally, Wagner desired to show that man could attain his own godhood. Wagner, English philosopher Roger Scruton explains, "proposed man as his own redeemer and art as the transfiguring rite of passage to a higher world." Certainly, the death of Siegfried leading to the fiery consumption of Valhalla suggests that.

1. Tolkien vs. nationalism

It would be difficult to find some one who held views more different from Wagner than Tolkien. First, Tolkien viewed a sanctified northern, pagan myth as a means to return the modernist, heretical West to Christendom. "The greatness I meant was that of a great instrument in God's hands-a mover, a doer, even an achiever of great things, a beginner at the very least of large things," Tolkien wrote from the trenches in France in 1916. The 24-year old hoped, he continued "to rekindle an old light in the world," to carry on the Old Truths in the ravaged, post-war world.

For Tolkien, Beowulf best exemplified the merging of pagan traditions and Christian thought. The
anonymous author of Beowulf lived as England was in the slow process of converting to Christianity. A Christian, the Beowulf author used the poem to demonstrate that not all pagan things should be dismissed by the new culture. Instead, the Christian should embrace and sanctify the most noble virtue to come out of the northern pagan mind: courage.

Tolkien's argument reflects St. Augustine's thinking as well. In his "On Christian Duty," St. Augustine wrote: if philosophers "have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it." Clement of Alexandria, living in the late second and early third centuries, presaged Augustine's argument. Pre-Christian faiths, he argued in Miscellanies, served as a "preparatory teaching for those who will later embrace the faith." God had given the Greeks philosophy as a gift awaiting the arrival of Christianity. Philosophy, Clement concluded, "acted as a schoolmaster to the Greeks, preparing them for Christ, as the laws of the Jews prepared them for Christ." Plato and Aristotle served as much as a preparation for Christianity, as did Abraham and Moses. History and legend, as Tolkien would say, fused with the incarnation of Christ, the True Myth.

The anonymous author of Beowulf had followed Clement's and Augustine's advice, appropriating the best of pagan culture and sanctifying it as Christian. For truth, the argument runs, belongs to God, whether codified in scripture or nature. With the creation of the world, the natural law reveals as much as direct revelation. And, by being the author of all society and the plethora of cults/cultures, God placed a part of His Truth in each. As each non-Christian culture encounters Christianity, it has some piece of the truth, allowing it to accept the full Truth. Lewis put it more succinctly than Tolkien: "Paganism does not merely survive but first really becomes itself in the [very] heart of Christianity." By writing his extensive, life-long mythology, Tolkien followed the same practice, appropriating northern myth and baptizing it, making it relevant to the heresies of the modern world.

Indeed, Tolkien often noted that Middle-earth represented Europe. The term, after all, was merely Anglo-Saxon for the land between the oceans, the land between Heaven and hell, the land between the spirit and the material: Christian Europe. "Rhun is the Elvish word for 'east.' Asia, China, Japan, and all the things which people in the west regard as far away," Tolkien noted in an interview in 1966. "And south of Harad is Africa, the hot countries." England, by such logic, would be the Shire. Tolkien admitted as much. Most specifically, the Hobbits represented the best of the English. Much of his feelings stemmed from his childhood move from South Africa to England. Tolkien's earliest memories are of Africa, but it was alien to me, and when I came home, therefore, I had for the countryside of England both the native feeling and the personal wonder of somebody who comes to it. I came to the English countryside when I was about 3 ½ or 4—it seemed to me wonderful. If you really want to know what Middle-earth is based on, it's my wonder and delight in the earth as it is, particularly with the natural earth.

Tolkien originally hoped that his legendarium would serve as a mythology for England, a land devoid of all but the Arthurian myth. Even Beowulf, written in Anglo-Saxon, dealt with the history of the Danes and the Geats as opposed to the Anglo-Saxons. But, from its original inception as a myth for England, the legendarium grew much larger in scope and significance. The story, especially The Lord of the Rings, became much more than a myth for any one people or nation. It, instead, became a myth for the restoration of Christendom. With the return of the king, Aragorn, to his rightful throne, Tolkien argued, the "progress of the tales ends in what is far more like the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome." Considering the intense religiosity of Tolkien and his belief that God led him to and through the mythology, it would be difficult for the devout Roman Catholic to conclude otherwise. His myth, he hoped, would help impede the rise of nationalism. Witnessing unification in the United States, Germany, and Italy, Whig historian Lord Acton stressed that the rise of nationalism would quickly mean the end of Christendom and western ideals regarding the sovereign person created in the image of God. "Christianity rejoices at the
mixture of races," he wrote in his famed essay "Nationalism." Paganism, however, "identifies itself with  their differences, because truth is universal, errors various and particular." Though writing in 1862, Acton seemingly understood that a Nietzsche would soon arise. "By making the State and the nation commensurate with each other in theory," Acton continued, those deemed inferior will be "exterminated, or reduced to  servitude, or outlawed, or put in a condition of dependence."

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