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Posts Tagged ‘nibelung

Rings of Power: Wagner and Tolkien

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Siegfried Slaying the Dragon

Siegfried Slaying the Dragon

When the Swedish writer Ake Ohlmark suggested that the Ring of Power in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings bears a certain resemblance to Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, Tolkien impatiently replied that “Both rings are round, and there the resemblance ceases.” (1)

Within Tolkien’s correspondence and notes, this is the only direct reference to the Nibelungen Ring that I’ve been able to find. This is perplexing, given how obvious it is that Wagner exerted an immense influence over Tolkien’s creative work.

Perhaps this is a case of what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence; in which an artist goes to great lengths to disavow an obviously-influential predecessor, such as when Freud claimed that he never read Nietzsche. Or perhaps, as a friend of mine suggested recently, when it comes to an artist like Wagner, acknowledging influence is sometimes impossible, because their conception is too vast, and any artist would drown in it.

Whatever the case may be, many of the important characters, themes, and episodes in Tolkien’s trilogy have close counterparts in Wagner’s cycle. In what follows, I’d like to excavate some of these instances by comparing motifs from both works. There will be many spoilers.

The most obvious point of comparison between Lord of the Rings and the Nibelungen Ring is that both works feature magical rings, and, contrary to Tolkien’s objections, the two rings are identical in nearly every way.

Both rings are powerful magical artifacts associated with command and control, forged by demonic beings who renounce love in favor of hate, anger and dominion. Both excite an ungovernable lust in people to possess and wield the ring, which acts as a profoundly corrupting force that incites fratricide or its equivalent, bringing heroes to conflict and moral crisis. The struggle for possession of both rings sets in motion the central actions of the plots, leading to a titanic conflict and shift of the world-age.

It is sometimes pointed out by Tolkien’s defenders that he utilized many of the same sources as Wagner, and, as a philologist with a genuine command of the languages in question, he frequently knew them better than Wagner did. For example, both artists made extensive use of medieval German and Icelandic sagas and legends, such as the Eddas, the Volsung Saga, and the Nibelungenlied.

However, the Ring of Power is purely a creation of Wagner’s imagination. As Deryck Cooke wrote in I Saw the World End, a key work of Wagner scholarship:

The whole importance of gold in Wagner’s work, of course, is its potentiality for being made into a ring conferring absolute world-power; and again, this element is absent from the mythology…. [T]he power of Wagner’s ring is ultimately the power of the ring of the Scandinavian sources to multiply wealth; but in making this power an absolute dominion over the world, he added a crucial element of his own, which these sources do not contain. Nor do the German sources contain it: a ring of this kind is entirely absent from the Nibelung hoard. (2) [emphasis added]

Although various enchanted rings exist in the old mythology, the Ring of Power as a tool and symbol of dominion is Wagner’s invention.

Fafner and Fasolt

Fafner and Fasolt

In Scene 4 of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the brothers Fafner and Fasolt, under the spell of the ring’s corrupting power, abruptly turn on one another:

Fasolt: (hurls himself upon Fafner, who has been busily packing away.) Stand back, you robber! Mine is the ring; I won it for Freia’s glance! (He snatches hastily at the ring. They struggle)

Fafner: Off with your hands! The ring is mine! (Fasold wrests the ring from Fafner.)

Fasolt: I have it, I shall keep it!

Fafner: (striking out with his staff) Hold it fast, else it may fall! (He fells Fasolt with a single blow and then wrenches the ring from the dying giant.) (3)

Compare to Gandalf’s account in Fellowship of the Ring:

‘”Give us that [ring], Déagol, my love,” said Sméagol, over his friend’s shoulder.

‘”Why?’ said Déagol.

‘”Because it’s my birthday, my love, and I wants it,” said Sméagol.

‘”I don’t care,” said Déagol. “I have already given you a present already, more than I could afford. I found it, and I”m going to keep it.”

‘”Oh, are you indeed, my love,” said Sméagol, and caught Déagol by the throat, and strangled him, because the gold looked so bright and beautiful. (4)

Like Wagner’s cycle, Tolkien’s story depicts a ring that inflames lust for ownership. Once under its spell, owners of the ring will never willingly give it up, and, should they lose it, they become obsessed with its recovery. Like the dwarf Alberich, Gollum conspires secretly and treacherously to win it back from the hero who has taken it.

Like Biblo and Frodo Baggins, Siegfried is shielded from the dark power of the ring by his innocence. Alberich observes “But [Siegfried] that boldest of heroes is safe from my curse; for he knows not the might of the ring; he makes no use of its magical power.” [283]

Both rings were forged by sinister beings who renounce love in favor of mastery and dominion. Both stories end with the rings being unmade. The Ring of Power is cast into the lava of Mount Doom, where it was forged; the Nibelungen Ring is cast back into the Rhine, from whence its enchanted gold was stolen. The return of each ring to its source touches off a cataclysmic eruption.

There are too many additional points of similarity to be cataloged, so I will only briefly review some of the most obvious.

Smaug will remind any Wagner fan of Fafner, who takes the form of a dragon and sleeps in a cave atop his pile of magic treasure. The slaying of both dragons is tied to crucial advice given to the hero by a bird, whose song can be understood.



“As ‘Wanderer’ am I known to the world, wide have I fared, and far have I traveled over the earth’s broad back,” says Wotan in Siegfried. Gandalf’s “gray pilgrim” is exceedingly similar. Like Wotan, he is viewed warily by provincial folk, who may greet him as Mime greets Wotan, with the words “Ill fortune dwells with me already; why do you add to it?” We hear the echo of Grima Wormtongue: Wotan Stormcrow!

The line of Aragorn, heir of Isildur and Elendil, shows pervasive similarities with the family of Sigmund and Siegfried. Here, I grant, both authors probably worked under the strong influence of the Saga of the Volsungs, but I doubt anyone who knows their Tolkien will not be startled by the similarities as they experience the Ring Cycle.

Both stories feature heroes who are of kingly lineage, but who are forced into a life of obscurity, living in the forest as masters of woodcraft, performing heroic but unsung deeds to protect the innocent.

Aragorn’s ancestor Isildur fell in battle with Sauron, during which his blade was broken, and its pieces bequeathed to the lineage, to be kept against the day that it should be reforged and the line renewed. Siegmund fell in battle with Hunding, during which his blade was broken, being given into safekeeping against the day his son, Siegfried, would finally reforge it, and begin his own adventure.

To any reader who is armed with a familiarity of Hobbits but lacks acquaintance with Wagner’s great work, I urge you to check it out. Wagner’s Ring is a vastly entertaining work that Tolkien never equals. Wagner’s Ring is substantially more original, and also evidences psychological and political sophistication that dwarfs Tolkien’s vision.

The Lord of the Rings has been rightly criticized for its tone-deaf treatment of adult sexuality and politics. Tolkien’s races of swarthy, primitive, evil peoples living to the south and to the east have been criticized; likewise his mythopoetic glorification of the West, which represent civilization, art and beauty, and is contrasted to the dull, dumb, violent lands off toward the Turkey and North Africa. Er, I mean, toward Mordor.

Tolkien is also ham-fisted with his pre-modern treatment of women. His heroines are beautiful but aloof; they are enigmatic, otherworldly, and without personality. They are, indeed, frequently inhuman; the two great love stories of Middle Earth, Beren and Luthien, and Aragorn and Arwen, tell of the love of humans for elvish maids.

There is, no doubt, something of the Troubadour’s ideal at work here, and, more importantly, we detect the queens of the Tuatha Dé Danann, beloved by many an Irish hero. But this vision pales in comparison to the vibrant, brilliant, intense heroines of Wagner’s saga – not only Brünnhilde, who emerges as the great personality of the cycle, but Ficka and Erda as well.

And this treats only Wagner’s libretto, leaving aside the revolutionary music of Wagner’s gigantic cycle, which is by far the largest composition in the standard repertoire. Wagner’s work is simply of a different magnitude, belonging in the company of Shakespeare and Homer.

Addendum (Dec 29, 2012): I’ve had some discussions about this post with friends, and they’ve persuaded me to make a couple of disclaimers. First of all, the topic at hand is so vast that inevitably my consideration is cursory and a great many relevant points were left on the table. I would especially note that it may have been salient to note Wagner’s obvious and reprehensible antisemitism in the context of contrasting the politics of LOTR unfavorably with the Ring. The short response to this is that I was not intending to contrast Tolkien to Wagner, but rather compare these two specific works, and Wagner’s personal failings aside, his Ring contains little mark of antisemitism, if any, while his extremely progressive political attitudes are central themes (see George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite for a classic elucidation of this aspect of the work.)

The second point I want to make explicit is that I love Tolkien and his work. I’ve read Lord of the Rings and numerous other works of his many times, and will undoubtedly re-read it in the future. It was primarily my enthusiasm for encouraging readers to explore Wagner’s work, which I assume has a smaller audience, that led me to praise the former at the expense of the latter. While I do regard Wagner as the far greater artist – and indeed, one of the greatest composers who ever lived – I have no quarrel with Tolkien. That said, his limitations should, I think, be acknowledged, even by his fans.

1) Carpenter H. and Tolkein C. (ed.s) The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Company. 1981. p. 306.
2) Cooke D. I Saw the World End; A Study of Wagner’s Ring. Clarendon Paperbacks. Oxford University Press. 1979. p. 137.
3) Wagner R., trans. Andrew Porter. The Ring of the Nibelung. W. W. Norton. 1976. pp. 67-8.
4) Tolkien J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Ballantine Books. 1965. pp. 84-5.


Written by Mesocosm

December 23, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Creative Misinterpretations: SF Opera’s Ring Cycle

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The San Francisco Opera production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen gets many things right, and a few things very wrong.

Note: This post contains spoilers.

It is perhaps a quixotic gesture at this late date to criticize non-traditional productions of Wagner’s mighty Ring, but the San Francisco Opera’s current production illustrates the pitfalls of such an approach. The production is superb in many aspects. Under the commanding baton of Donald Runnicles the orchestra offers a dynamic and bracing interpretation, and a dazzling collection of vocal and acting talents includes not one but two superb Siegfrieds in Jay Hunter Morris and Ian Storey, as well as audience-favorite Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, and David Cangelosi in a surprisingly engaging turn as Mime, a character I never thought I could love.

So with all due respect, and much is due, let us turn to the staging.

Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez caused a scandal when they set the opening of Das Rheingold at a hydroelectric dam in their 1976 Bayreuth production. Today the action of The Ring is transposed to different times and places so often, it has become the norm. The LA Opera recently offered an abstract version with design elements suggesting a “Star Wars” influence (video here), and the New York Met is currently staging a version set around a large contraption of moving planks (video here). Seattle remains a holdout of traditional stagings and costumes.

Director Francesca Zambello has set the San Francisco Opera’s current production in a landscape evoking urban decay and ecological catastrophe. The corrupting influence of this Ring is measured by anthropogenic contamination that chokes the land with pollution, steadily worsening over the course of the four operas.

Das Rheingold sets the wheels in motion in the Industrial Revolution. Signs of trouble are clearly visible on the horizon when Walküre shows plutocratic gods in a corporate boardroom Valhalla. By the time Siegfried opens the world has been overrun. We find our hero living with Mime in a trailer parked in a squalid urban waste land strewn with rubbish. One wonders if Siegfried purloined his bear from a nearby zoo. By Act III of Götterdämmerung, the weary, land-bound Daughters of the Rhine heap bags of trash into piles.

The Industrial Revolution was well underway in Germany when The Ring was written, so it goes without saying that if Wagner had wished to tell a story about pollution and decay, he would have done so. Indeed, many of the core themes of Wagner’s musical drama are strikingly contemporary in resonance, such as his criticism of the exploitation of labor.

The interpolation of the environmental theme, then, is without question an addition to Wagner’s work. To get a sense of why The Ring is uniquely unsuited to the superimposition of extraneous themes, let us briefly review what Wagner had in mind when he wrote the work.

Wagner’s Theory of The Ring

Richard WagnerWagner wrote the music and the libretto for The Ring over a period of some twenty-six years, and no other work in the standard repertoire has been so thoroughly documented by its composer. Wagner left copious writings behind in which he clearly set out his compositional theory. One of the great miracles of The Ring is the degree to which he succeeded in reaching his stated goals.

Wagner’s central conception was to present an experience of music and drama united into a coherent statement that operates simultaneously on the levels of story, imagery, and music, with each level interacting with the others. In the service of this vision, he employed the leitmotif for which the work is famous — a device that he did not invent; but developed far beyond all precedent.

A leitmotif is a musical theme that is paired with a corresponding image, action, or idea. Wagner used leitmotifs to organizes and bind the musical structure of this colossal composition, and to constantly translate the the language of the libretto into the emotional and intuitive register of music. This interaction creates a synergy between the dramatic meaning of the opera and its expressive musical themes. The aggregate effect over the course of this long work is so powerful that certain motives become drenched with meaning, sometimes to such an extent that it seems impossible to remember a time when the motives did not clearly signify their particular resonance. They become as ingrained as the melody of “Happy Birthday.”

Wagner described The Ring as a unified art work, or Gasamtkunstwerk. He probably did not invent this concept, but raised it from a state of obscurity to a term in universal parlance by the success of The Ring.

In his influential essay “The Artwork of the Future” Wagner describes his conception of a unified art work:

Just as the joinery of my individual scenes excluded every alien and unnecessary detail, and led all interest to the dominant chief mood, so did the whole building of my drama join itself into one organic unity, whose easily surveyed members were made out by those fewer scenes and situations which set the passing mood: no mood could be permitted to be struck in any one of these scenes that did not stand in a weighty relation to the moods of all the other scenes, so that the development of the moods of all the other scenes, the constant obviousness of this development, should establish the unity of the drama in its very mode of expression. (1)

Wagner laboriously composed The Ring to produce a specific effect, based on the meticulously-designed concord of all of its various elements. We need not speculate, then, on how he would have felt about the interpolation of a foreign layer of symbolism on his work. Any extraneous element or theme a director adds to The Ring not only introduces new elements into a work that is already extremely dense with musical and dramatic ideas, but disrupts its carefully conceived unity.

This has a direct and predictable dramatic effect. Throughout the San Francisco production I found that when the scenes were set in a traditional vein, I was completely absorbed in what I was experiencing. When foreign design elements were at play, the spell was broken, and I was put into a intellectual relationship with the material. I would think about what was being shown and why, instead of feeling like a part of the world.

Image Confusion

Ring PosterLet us consider the San Francisco Opera’s program cover (pictured left). We have an image of a Valkyrie, possibly Brünnhilde, in silhouette, holding a spear. Around the base of the spear coils a sinewy vine, suggestive of the Ash Tree.

This image is an amalgamation of some of the important symbols in the drama, apparently chosen at random and assembled into an incoherent form. The spear belongs to Wotan; Brünnhilde does not wield it, nor can she be coherently associated with its many meanings. The spear, carved as it is from the wood of the cosmic Ash Tree, symbolizes the process by which spontaneous natural forms are perverted when harnessed, such as when the Rhine Gold is forged into a ring. That makes it an ill fit with the new growth suggested by the seedling, about which I’ll have more to say later.

These points are not important in themselves, but they are typical of the production. The creative team sometimes seems to either not know or not care what the images mean and how they function. But The Ring was designed as a unified work of art organized by ideas and meanings, so the symbols are integral to the structure.

Perhaps the most disturbing dissonance in the production is the contradiction that sometimes separates the lyrics from what we are seeing. When Siegfried travels through the forest, he sings about the forest setting, but those references are stricken from the supertitles. Likewise, when we we meet the Norns in the prelude to Götterdämmerung, they are laying cables instead of weaving threads. The lyrics describe weaving while the supertitle translations refer to “laying cable,” which is a jarring dissonance. Presenting the audience with a contradiction pushes them out of the scene, and arbitrarily falsifying the translation of the libretto strikes me as a cheap tactic.

But something deeper than dramatic effect is at stake. Wagner has something to say about the relationship between the human spirit and nature. In his Siegfried, we get to know a hero who is a spontaneous man of action, unburdened by the corrupting influences of political entanglements or social bonds. His qualities of character are rooted in his love of the forests in which he dwells. We travel with him through that landscape and pause together to hear beautiful motives that have been described by musicologists as the “song of the birds” and “forest murmurs.”

Das Rheingold - Seattle OperaIn Götterdämmerung Siegfried at last wakens from the dark spell that has made him forget who he is and has turned him into a monster. He returns to his true self when he returns to the woods, and remembers the song of the bird. It is a song to which he had ceased to listen, and a song that closely resembles that of the Rhine Daughters, the charming agents of uncorrupted nature. His memory of what the bird taught him reminds him of his own identify, his love, his passion, and his commitments, which had been displaced by the bargains and deceits of the Gibichung court.

This beautiful relationship between Siegfried’s character and nature is all but destroyed when he is moved to a junkyard, and when his references to the natural world are blocked from his dialog. Ironically, this is apparently in the service of an environmental message. Which environmental message will resonate more deeply with audience members: Wagner’s carefully interwoven themes of nature developed throughout The Ring in mutually-reinforcing dialog, music, character, and action, or Zambello’s image of the Rhine Daughters heaving sacks of rubbish?

Spoiler alert!

Zambello’s final revision in the last moments of The Ring is the great interpretive blunder of the cycle, one that shows her to be tone deaf to Wagner’s work and to tragedy as a whole. The apocalyptic image of the world-ending fire — a fire lit by the funeral pyre of the two principle characters — sets up a tepid scene of a child bearing a new sapling onto stage and planting a new World Tree as the drama’s final gesture.

Surely if there is one thing that any director of tragedy must know, it is Aristotle’s concept of catharsis. Tragedy functions by inviting the audience members to participate in the action on the stage through their identification with the the characters, and to undergo thereby a symbolic death of tremendous psychological power. Zambello’s sapling is a facile gesture that disrupts the climax of Wagner’s towering tragedy and robs the audience of catharsis.

In Wagner’s conception, a legendary love has led to dreadful death, and the feeling of these events is of such magnitude that it is mirrored in the destruction of the heavens. The world itself breaks apart under the strain of its own contradictions. All things are consumed in fire and are washed back into the great primordial waters of the overflowing Rhine, from which all things arose in the very beginning of Das Rheingold. We have a classical depiction of the human heart exploding past the bounds of limit, rupturing the very power of form to bind the world into shape. This puts us squarely in a line with Aeschylus and Aristotle, by way of Schopenhauer.

The cute little girl with the tree could not be more counter to that effect, and by capping the gargantuan climax with that moment, its force is compromised and its message rejected. It disrupts the catharsis of The Ring and robs the audience of the payoff to which the entire opera has built, replacing it with a gesture of that is merely sentimental.

The fact that re-interpretations of The Ring have become commonplace does not give directors license to use them without care. Directors should ask themselves if their changes will add more than they subtract, and with a work as carefully composed as The Ring, they rarely will.


1. Wagner, Richard. ed. by Goldman, Albert and Evert Sprinchorn. On Music and Drama. Da Capo Press. 1964. pp. 227-8.

Written by Mesocosm

June 6, 2011 at 10:20 pm