Lord of the Rings an imitation of Wagner's 'Ring Cycle' ?

by phil on Tuesday Jan 6, 2004 3:53 AM

(from axeon (#) on plastic)

Speaking of LOTR references, there was an article in the New Yorker (I think) basically asking, Did anyone else notice how LOTR rips off Wagner's Ring Cycle? The book, not the movie. The idea being, everyone acts as if LOTR sprang full-blown from Tolkien's head, when it has an obvious (and mostly ignored) precursor in Wagner's Ring.

How strong are the similarities? There's the fundamental one: Wagner, too, is talking about an all-powerful ring everyone wants to capture. Then there's the incidental ones; the presence of the gods in the fighting, the departure from their old home at the end, even the power of the ring to turn its owner invisible (and, perhaps, the personification if evil in non-Aryan forms). Tolkien, naturally, claims not to have been influenced by Wagner's Ring cycle at all, but the article unearthed a couple of approving references from before the time of his authorship and wondered, with so many similarities, can it really be a complete coincidence?

One of the interesting points of similarity between the two works is, beneath the mythical dross, they're both talking about an essetially modern problem. Why didn't anyone worry about an all-powerful weapon in olden days? Because you were either born with power or you weren't; no 'ring' could make you into a king, much less some kind of world-dominating juggernaut. In Wagner's time, the writing was on the wall; it was already possible to imagine technology giving some lowly peon god-like amounts of power. The Ring has more in common with today's atom bomb, in other words, than it does with ancient swords and axes.

I've always thought opera gets a bad rap. It was the first art form to attempt the integration we all think of as exclusively modern -- music + prose + action is a reconizably movie-like dynamic, even down to the 2-3 hour running length. The fact that it's in a different language adds a barrier to our understanding, but of course in the original listeners this barrier did not exist. Opera, like movies, are also trying to create an total immersion experience, one that both works are famous for creating.

In this respect it's interesting to consider why Wagner's cycle today exists under a dark cloud. Like Tolkien, Wagner dreams of a time when the European gods existed and the people, by the power of the One Ring, fought them off. It also, like Tolkien, seems to set up a (perhaps unintentional) equation between evil and the dark-skinned races. If you think people worry too much in complaining about that, it's worth noting that this association is exactly what tainted Wagner's Ring, because the Ring Cycle was later embraced whole-heartedly by the Nazis and employed as a kind of national myth story, with lavish productions being put on at Nazi expense. In some ways I think the Cycle was a victim of its own success; Wagner's work was so powerful, and like all great art so malleable, that it made the perfect target for Nazi hate. In this sense the Ring Cycle is an interesting exception to the usually inviolable rule that we don't usually hold art accountable to later misappropriations.

As the article notes, the LOTR music even sounds kind of proto-Wagnerian, so in some ways the movie builds on those similarities. If you are a great lover of the LOTR books and movies, than the Ring Cycle story -- and its place in history, at the hands of the Nazis -- provide some interesting food for thought. Since, in some ways, Tolkien's Ring story is almost like an updated version of the Wagner Cycle, you have to wonder if a German-authored version of LOTR would not have undergone the same treatment.


Anonymous said on February 18, 2004 11:53 AM:

Both Wagner's Ring Cycle and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings are based on Norse Mythology, particularly "Saga of the Volsungs". So no, I wouldn't call it an imitation, but rather based their sources on the same thing.

colleen said on March 4, 2004 6:25 PM:

you seem to be insinuating that tolkien ripped off wagner's ring cycle. i think a more obvious explanation (and less incriminating) for the similarities in plot content between the two has more to do with the original source of both the works--norse mythology. wagner drew heavily from this pool in order to fashion the german mythological hero (and boost german nationalism in music, hurrah); tolkien was a medieval scholar well-versed in norse mythology and languages, so many of the lotr characters' & places' names (as well as plot content) are exactly the same as those in mythology. the plot element involving the all-powerful ring over which gods/men fight comes from the mythology of siegfried fighting and winning the treasure of the niebelungs (dwarf-people, their king is alberich)--the ring is part of this treasure.

michael said on March 26, 2004 5:44 PM:

"In some ways I think the Cycle was a victim of its own success; Wagner's work was so powerful, and like all great art so malleable, that it made the perfect target for Nazi hate. In this sense the Ring Cycle is an interesting exception to the usually inviolable rule that we don't usually hold art accountable to later misappropriations."

colleen has answered well the rest of the article, but concerning the infamy which surounds wagner, it may be worth noting that the reason we dont normally blame artists for "misappropriations" is that they are usually just that: misarpropriations." In wagner's case, his own hatred of jews may have had more to do with the stigma attached to his music than its popularity with the nazis. then again, for some reason its still ok to be a lutheran. i would say however that were tolkien a german, his work would not bear the same level of infamy as wagners by its own merit or by association alone.

boolio said on March 27, 2004 11:41 AM:

I'm surprised to hear that the New Yorker or much of anyone else has written an article with such a fatuous premise: of course Wagner and Tolkien shared common mythological roots, because Tolkien was an Oxford don and a packrat and had read absolutely everything and used it all in the construction of his work; he was a quilter, like Tarantino is today. There's a glossy coffee table book I saw one day in Barnes & Noble that discusses all of the mythologies that Tolkien drew from, and although some of them were probably a stretch (Far East was one, as I recall), its existence highlights the fact that Tolkien's works were a ripoff of the Ring Cycle the same way they were a ripoff of Beowulf, or the Arthurian legend.

The thing that Wagner has that Tolkien lacks is a mythic emotional complexity. That's not to say that Tolkien's world isn't complex: predictably, given his background, his work in languages is amazing. To me, everything that's good about the series flows back to how invested Tolkien was in language. But never, through the entire trilogy, _The Hobbit_ or _The Silmarillion_, do we see a human character suffering human difficulties: Tolkien's many demigods, man and elf, are inaccessible (imagine Aragorn or Elrond going to the bathroom), and his hobbits are either lesser demigods (Frodo) or caricatures out of Dickens (Sam). All of the hobbits undergo journeys, and get braver or less inept, but never seem to gain any wisdom or insight into their lives; everyone makes the same decisions at the beginning of their works as they do at the end (with the possible exception of Bilbo, whose journey makes _The Hobbit_ far and away the most human and accessible of Tolkien's works.) In fact, one of the most compelling and human characters in the work is the Ring itself: it's inaccessible and it uses its power deviously, a characteristic shared by none of Tolkien's other straightlaced heroes and villains.

In Wagner, on the other hand, in the first opera, first act, first scene, on comes Alberich, and at the beginning of the scene he's lusty (imagine someone being lusty in Tolkien!) and by the end of it he's foresworn and cursed love forever to enable personal wealth and fame. Not only is this a tremendous about-face of character, but it's a choice that has real human weight: Alberich's eventual sticky end argues that he chose poorly, but is his decision so unfathomable? If three beautiful nymphs spend twenty minutes telling you that no one will ever love you because you're too ugly, don't fame and power become more appealing when the price is merely something you're not going to be using anyway?

This is not to say that Wagner is a master storyteller, or any better than Tolkien, but the two artists had very different aims in mind with their works: Tolkien wanted to tell an interesting story, whereas Wagner wanted to translate old Norse mythology into a grand German opera. Since Wagner was so much more invested in being true to his source, his work achieves a lot more of the natural complexity of the original Norse myths, which were bawdy and fun but also used as instructive tales to the Norse citizenry, just like any other holy text, and so had to feature accessible characters or else run the risk of disconnecting from their constituency. (An interesting current-day illustration of this phenomenon is here in a story about the rise of the cult of Santa Muerte in inner-city Mexico.) In any case, the end result for me is that although Tolkien is engaging and a lot of fun, I find Wagner to be a more impressive work because of the complexity and depth inherited from its Nordic roots.

Graham Young said on April 8, 2004 7:51 PM:

I got to this post researching a relationship between Gibson's The Passion of Christ and The Lord of the Rings - both redemption stories.

Gibson's been accused of anti-semitism because of comments he has made; his adherence to a form of Catholicism which regards all Jews as Christ murderers; his father's admitted anti-semitism; and because the biblical account is definitely anti-Jewish.

The charge appears to me baseless, or at least meaningless. Gibson is retelling a story, and while he has some inventive and unique improvisations, sticks pretty closely to the story. As the Christian message shatters the idea that race is a significant defining characteristic of mankind, at least in God's eyes, ultimately it can't be anti-Semitic, even though the original authors of the story might have given the Jews a bad rap. What Gibson himself might believe plays only a minimal part in his cinematic treatment.

Lord of the Rings is different. It works from an established body of work - the myths of northern Europe, and also (much less obviously) parts of the Christian narrative - but improvises significantly so that what we have is essentially a new work. Nevertheless it carries some concepts within it that we today would see as essentially nasty - the idea that certain "races" are superior to others and the justness of Empire. These are key concepts that underlay not just Nazism but much of the history of human civilisation up until the present. They are a necessary, thought not sufficient, condition for anti-Semitism.

I hadn't thought much about the link to The Ring of the Nibelung and Wagner until I saw the water scene at the beginning of The Return of the King where Gollum and Smeagol fight over the ring. It's a really strong reference to the first scene of The Ring Cycle with the Rhine Maidens and their gold which leads ultimately to the fall of the Gods. Peter Jackson could not have been unconscious of this as he planned, directed and shot it.

For me, the interesting point isn't so much whether the Lord of the Rings copies the Ring of the Nibelung, but what power the source materials they rest on have to provide pattern (even a psychological one) for action, and what those actions might be. The concept of the Volk was central to Nazism, and German mythology was important in giving it shape - Wagner was important to the Nazie because he gave the mythology focus.

Lord of the Rings also gives focus to some of our mythologies. I'm sure George Bush sees himself just a little bit like Aragorn, and maybe Condoleeza Rice sees Galadriel when she looks in the mirror.

Andrew said on April 29, 2004 6:16 PM:

As I read through this article I was shaking my head so hard it almost fell off, but then was relieved to find that (appropriately) the author of this ignorance has been rightly blasted by all for his asinine views.

Ed said on May 10, 2004 5:47 PM:

I've heard Wagner's ring cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung (hope I spelled it right)on the classical music radio station I listen to. And I've seen the Lord of the Rings movies (all 3 of them), and I like the Lord of the Rings better.

I do have one question though. If they haven't already done it, or if someone is planning it, will there ever be a Lord of the Rings opera?

Peyton said on May 27, 2004 10:47 PM:

Lord of the Rings opera? Are you stupid?

Jason said on October 3, 2010 11:34 PM:

Actually, LOTR was an afterthought to a much larger (and earlier written) body of work from Tolkien regarding his construct of "Middle Earth", and is not a stand alone set of stories at all. Also, it's a common misconception that "the ring" in LOTR is a super-weapon (a comparison is made by the author of this article to it representing something like the atom bomb; this comparison is invalid) but actually the ring is not considered by Tolkien to be an end-all weapon. The giving of rings was a common practice of feudal lords in middle-age Europe, and while Tolkien and Wagner may have drawn from a similar mythology, the idea that Tolkien "ripped-off" the Ring Cycle asserts a real ignorance about Tolkien's writing. I'd guess the author of this article is likely very familiar with Wagner's work, but as for Tolkien knows only what he has seen in the LOTR movies and isn't familiar with the literature.

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