Review of Tolkien and Wagner: The Ring and Der Ring

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The following review appeared in the August 2012 edition of Beyond Bree on pages 1-3, and is reproduced here with kind permission.

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Tolkien and Wagner

Review by Jim Allan

Christopher MacLachlan, Tolkien and Wagner: The Ring and Der Ring. Walking Tree Publishers, Feb. 25, 2012. 234 pages. £15.00/$24.30 US.

Christopher MacLachlan begins with:

Famously, when it was suggested that The Lord of the Rings is like Der Ring der Nibelungen Tolkien snapped back "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases" (Letters, page 306).

MacLachlan neglects to note that Tolkien's correspondent was his Swedish translator Âke Ohlmarks and that Tolkien's quick answer was one of a number of responses by Tolkien to statements by Ohlmarks that otherwise Tolkien quite rightly called "nonsense". Tolkien's answer is here, however, uniquely wrong. Both rings were also gold and in the Icelandic version (which Ohlmarks in his other comments follows badly) both rings were cursed. And there are other similarities in the early history of the ring. Ohlmarks may intend that the reader understand that the ring he is talking about is also a ring that gives supreme power to the wearer, as is uniquely true of Wagner's ring and Tolkien's ring, but Ohlmarks does not say so and the history of the ring that Ohlmarks provides is definitely not Wagner's unique history.

MacLachlan quotes this passage from Letters elsewhere in his essay taking it as referring to Wagner's ring. But Tolkien (and apparently Ohlmarks) is referring to the Old Norse legend, not Wagner's version. Tolkien writes explicitly:

Those who know something about the Old Norse side of the "Nibelung" traditions (mainly referred to since the name-forms used are Norse) will think this a farrago of nonsense; those who do not will hardly be interested.

Tolkien quotes Ohlmarks as stating that the ring:

... which was originally forged by Volund the master-smith, and then by way of Vittke-Andvare passed through the hands of the mighty aser [Æsir] into the possession of Hreidemar and the dragon, after the dragon's fall coming to Sigurd the dragonslayer, after his murder by treacherous conspirators, coming to the Burgundians, after their death's in Atle's snake-pit coming to the Huns, then to the sons of Jonaker, to the Gothic tyrant Ermanrik, etc.

But in the medieval Norse tales Volund is in no way connected to the ring. Rings appear in two tales of Volund, but in neither tale are those rings forged by him. Volund's son Vittke is a hero connected with Thidrek the Goth, is not a dwarf and is not connected in any way with the dwarf Andvari who is the earliest possessor of the ring in Norse tales. From Andvare (Andvari) to Sigurd Ohlmarks tells the Norse tale, but in both the Norse version and German versions the ring is never mentioned again after the wife of Sigurd (Siegfried) reveals to Brynhildr (Brünhilde) that she now owns the ring. The rest of Ohlmarks' account lists important characters who are connected to the story of Sigurd in the Norse accounts but are unconnected to the ring although Ohlmarks falsely maintains that these characters owned the ring. Wagner mentions none of these persons. In Wagner's version the "treacherous conspirators" uniquely perish after Siegfried's death and the ring returns to the Rhinemaidens.

Whatever Ohlmarks meant by his inane babblings, Tolkien took him to refer to mainly the medieval Norse versions of the tales, which have more to tell than the medieval German versions, and not to Wagner's comparatively modern operatic Ring Cycle. MacLachlan seems to wrongly imagine that Tolkien meant Wagner's ring.

Then MacLachlan goes on and on about the commentary on Tolkien written by a certain Bradley J. Birzer who seems to have his own agenda to push. MacLachlan quotes from Birzer (10):

Birzer, as mentioned above, records that Tolkien "hoped that his legendarium would serve as a mythology for England", but he does not have room to explain what he means.

MacLachlan is then honest enough to quote in part Birzer's source which actually says something quite different (10):

But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of the romantic fairy-story [...] which I could dedicate simply to England; to my country [...]

Tolkien intended to dedicate this body of apparent legend to England. It is only sloppy commentators who falsely attribute to Tolkien the idea that his legendarium would serve as a mythology for England. MacLachlan does not point out this very important difference. And on page 77 he jumps back to the inaccurate statement as though it were the true statement.

MacLachlan does establish that Tolkien did know Wagner's Ring Cycle, which is hardly a surprise, and at least occasionally attended performances. He indicates that the adoption of Wagner's Ring Cycle by the Nazis and by Hitler (although a critical viewing should have made it clear that Wagner was not, in the end, glorifying the pagan Germanic legends) made it difficult for some Wagner-lovers to defend those works and makes it clear why Tolkien might have avoided discussing Wagner.

But MacLachlan also makes the false claim:

In general Tolkien liked to leave the impression that he had little use for literature after Chaucer, ...

MacLachlan then lists seventeen parallels between Wagner and Tolkien as given by David P. Goldman, but he admits that some of these parallels are not very convincing and some are not convincing at all. The supposed parallels are discussed fully and reasonably well. MacLachlan has the usually difficulties with Wagner's plot but omits to mention that Wagner's plot does not make sense. Commentators usually either add idiosyncratic explanations or stress that one should not be looking too closely at the plot.

Then MacLachlan turns to The Lord of the Rings and points out (65):

Thus the dominant mode of exegesis has become allegorizing, and the line of most confident writing about The Lord of the Rings is that of Christian interpreters who take Tolkien's own religion as fundamental ...

Although MacLachlan does not mention it clearly, this is a common to criticism of fantasy and science-fictional works. If a robot appears in a story, it must be allegorical since robots do not exist. Therefore Isaac Asimov's very popular robot stories, which are not allegorical, must be trivial at their base, being liked only by those who can enjoy speculative tales of what robots might be like if they did exist. Similarly it is a given that intelligent readers cannot really be interested in Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Wizards for their own sake.

MacLachlan then provides an excellently complex discussion of the roles of Gandalf and Bilbo in The Hobbit followed by the odd statement (106):

Later Tolkien would try to identify this Necromancer with Sauron himself, thus trying to connect the plots of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, although in fact problems of chronology would in the end defeat him.

MacLachlan is altogether wrong here. In The Lord of the Rings The Necromancer is just another name for Sauron. I have no idea why MacLachlan imagines problems with the chronology.

MacLachlan then presents his main thesis. Tolkien's Gandalf is really Wagner's Wotan. From this point MacLachlan has little sensible to say. MacLachlan leads into this by a long passage in which he puts forward the common argument that an author's comments on his work should not be especially privileged over those of any other commentator. What this comes down to is at attempt to claim that MacLachlan is right and Tolkien is wrong whenever MacLachlan wants him to be. MacLachlan does look into why the reader should believe MacLachlan.

MacLachlan wants to seem to be a fair and impartial judge on the matter of the sources of The Lord of the Rings, but his sole explanation of a source for Gandalf is that Tolkien's Gandalf comes from Wagner's Wotan, entirely ignoring other possibilities. MacLachlan may be excused for not mentioning the Hindu Vasistha or Visshvamitra as Tolkien is not obviously influenced by Hindu tales. The Greek Teiresias is arguably even less related to Gandalf. More comparable are the Biblical Elijah and Elisha. Maugis of Aigremont of the Charlemagne stories is perhaps too young. But then there is the pre-Wagner Óðin/Wotan. Most of all there is Merlin.

Merlin is gifted with magical powers and appears as an old man. In modern iconography he is commonly shown to wear a pointed hat, like Gandalf. There are two wizards with this name in the matter of Britain, Merlinus Ambrosius who is the one connected to King Arthur and Merlin the Wild or Merlin of Caledon who is a wonder-working madman who flourishes after Arthur's time.

The first of these is the closest to Gandalf and his story is well represented in Middle English texts. This Merlin first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regem Britanniae as a councillor of the three kings preceding Arthur, but also an independent worker of magic not dependent on any king. Geoffrey's account was expanded into French by the poet Wace, and Wace's tale was expanded still further in the Middle English romance known as the Brut written by the poet Layamon. This immense poem is usually considered to be one of the best of the surviving Middle English poems.

The next work concentrating on Merlin is the Merlin, a late 12th or early 13th century prose work usually thought to be a prose version of a lost poem by the Burgundian Robert de Boron. This work concentrates on the Merlin material from Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia with much added Merlin material and ends with Arthur's coronation following the oldest surviving version of the story of the sword in the stone. A later author added much further material telling of Merlin's deeds during Arthur's early reign intended to link up with the so-called Prose Lancelot. This expanded work is now generally known as the Vulgate Merlin, the word Vulgate here meaning 'Common', recognizing that this is the most normal medieval Merlin romance.

An incomplete verse adaptation of the Vulgate Merlin into Middle English under the title Arthour and Merlin was written in the middle or third quarter of the thirteenth century. It combines material following Geoffrey of Monmouth and the later Vulgate Merlin relating the tale from the death of King Constans, Arthur's grandfather, up to Arthur's defeat of King Rion (Rience) immediately after Arthur's betrothal to Guenevere. Henry Lovelich, arguably the most clumsy and tedious poet of the 15th century, translated the first half of the Vulgate Merlin into Middle English verse. Around 1450 a Middle English prose translation of the Vulgate Merlin was produced, now lacking only the last page. In 1469 Sir Thomas Malory completed his English adaptation of Arthurian tales known now as Le Morte d'Arthur. Malory's version of the first part of his work follows an odd version of the Vulgate Merlin which runs up to Arthur's first war with King Rion (Rience) (of which it gives a severely abridged version) and then jumps to an alternate account of Arthur's relation to Merlin generally now known as the Post-Vulgate Merlin.

In his essay "On Fairy-Stories" Tolkien writes of his childhood reading:

But the land of Merlin and Arthur were better than these, and best of all the nameless North of Sigurd of the Völsungs, and the prince of dragons.

Tolkien does not mention where he first encountered Merlin, Arthur, and Sigurd. It would have probably been in retellings in children's books. What is important is that Tolkien already knew and loved these tales long before he began to professionally study them in their original languages. And Merlin was the subject of a reasonable number of medieval English texts which became Tolkien's speciality.

How can MacLachlan ignore Merlin? MacLachlan is following in the path he blames some other critics of following: "the prior beliefs are used to explicate the work, not the other way around."

One may well see the kings whom Merlin counsels as his puppets, but no more so than Bilbo and Frodo and Aragorn may be seen as Gandalf's puppets. One can find indications that show Merlin to be less moral than Gandalf. One can also find indications that Wagner's Wotan is less moral than either.

MacLachlan says of Gandalf (113):

Although he unquestionably takes the lead when he is present, he is content to leave the operation to others if he has to, or can, and they can have the credit for success.

The same is mostly true of Merlin, who is quite willing that the kings and knights that he advises have the credit for the deeds that they perform. Merlin is often disguised when he gives his advice so that the king or knights may be seen not to take Merlin's advice because they know from whom it comes, but because they consider the advice to be good. I don't have space to make detailed comparisons between Gandalf and Merlin here but will have to trust that most readers already know enough about him to see that he is the obvious principal source for Tolkien's Gandalf, although other sources are also likely.

MacLachlan also says of Gandalf (116):

We suppose he has magic powers to control and compel people, as indeed his opponents, Saruman and Sauron, do, but he never uses them as such.

MacLachlan says we although he is a single person. Perhaps he means I and you. By what right does he tell me what I suppose. I try not to suppose. When Gandalf heals Théoden such powers appear to be operational. The hearth fades to embers. Wormtongue physically falls. It appears that Gandalf is even controlling the weather. I admit the Tolkien does not make it explicit.

Tolkien says of Gandalf in The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 4, "The Siege of Gondor":

Whenever he came men's hearts would lift again, and the winged shadows pass from memory.

Is this only coincidence, or some power of Gandalf's?

From the "Valaquenta" in The Silmarillion:

But of Olórin [Gandalf] that tale does not speak; for although he loved the Elves, he walked among them unseen, or in form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts. In later days he was the friend of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and took pity on their sorrows; and those who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.

Wagner's Wotan discovers that the pretense that Siegmund is free is only an obvious and false pretense. Yet Wagner provides no obvious reason why Wotan should wish Siegmund to have carnal relations with his sister Siegelinde. Wotan's supposed goal is to create a free hero who will destroy the dragon Fafner and therefore win back the ring. What is Siegelinde to this? Wagner never even bothers to explain the details of Wotan's plan.

Wotan, on realizing that anything that Siegmund does can be laid to his will, decides that Siegmund must die because Siegmund lusts for his sister. Fricka's divine rules of wedlock must prevail, perhaps being written down somewhere on Wotan's spear. Presumably the Biblical Abraham who married his half-sister would also have been taken by a Valkyrie in Wagner's world, perhaps in Abraham's battles against King Chedorlaomer and his fellow monarchs. Sexual activity outside of marriage is allowed—at least Wotan fathers daughters outside of marriage—but incest is punished by the powers that be.

Wotan, upon realizing that everything must end, is determined that the power of the ring will at least end. But his answer is to do nothing at all. It is as though Gandalf decided to sit out the War of the Ring because, after all, Eru is the one who is ultimately in charge. And it works in a way, because Wotan's human son and daughter, his human grandson, and his Valkyrie daughter are all killed, as are all the other gods including himself. Gunther and Hagen also die. And the Wotan's spear and the ring are both destroyed.

We are now in the glorious reign of Man who at last lives in freedom from the gods. (Although there is nothing to prevent Alberich or someone else from again stealing the Rhinegold and reforging the ring. It has already been established that the three Rhinemaidens are useless as guardians.) At least incest is now allowed, presumably as long as the perpetrators are not too obvious about it.

MacLachlan conveniently is ready to imagine anything that is in conflict with what he imagines as incorrect. He imagines that Aragorn is a social outcast, which is true only in Breeland and its vicinity, not among the other Rangers or in places such as Rivendell. That Aragorn is a social outcast in Breeland is equally true of all Rangers, not just Aragorn. MacLachlan tries to make Siegfried the same, but a famous hero who is tricked into a royal marriage is definitely not an outcast, despite his wild origins. MacLachlan's special pleading is undisguised.

MacLachlan equates Wagner's Hagen with Tolkien's Grima Wormtongue. But the evil counselor is a common stock figure in folktales, appearing as the evil seneschal in French tales and as the evil grand vizier in Muslim tales. In Morgoth's Ring, page 392, Tolkien writes:

The rest of the story, with Melkor's release, and permission to attend the Council sitting at the feet of Manwë (after the pattern of evil counsellors in later tales, which it could be said derive from this primeval model?), can then proceed more or less as already told.

The counselor Unferth ('Unfaith') son of Ecglaf in Beowulf is commonly suspected of being an evil counselor in later unpreserved events in King Hrothgar's storied life.

MacLachlan claims (128): "Like Gutrune, Éowyn is a figure of female temptation for the hero." Only so if any sexual interested is to be interpreted as temptation. Tolkien wrote on page 448 of The Treason of Isengard, looking ahead:

Aragorn weds Eowyn sister of Eomer (who becomes Lord of Rohan) and becomes King of Gondor.

In the finished work Aragorn is not tempted at all by Éowyn, to her disappointment. MacLachlan desperately wants Éowyn to be partially based on Gutrune, or on Brünhilde, or on anything that will connect her to Wagner's Ring Cycle. MacLachlan then goes blathering on about Peter Jackson's film as though that could prove anything and introduces other supposed parallels too weak to demonstrate anything except MacLachlan's desperation. Everything is somehow connected to everything and no-one has ever noticed until now when MacLachlan is showing the hidden truth. Or maybe not. MacLachlan almost only makes sense only when he discusses relations between The Lord of the Rings and Wagner's Ring Cycle which have already been noticed.

Even Tolkien's reworking of the Icelandic stories of Sigurd and Gudrún (132) is looked at as "challenging comparison with Der Ring des Nibelungen". MacLachlan claims that "It is harder to deny this now" but of doesn't bother to explain why a "challenging comparison" should ever have been denied. The denial is imaginary.

MacLachlan then tries to relate the musical beginning of Wagner's Ring Cycle to Tolkien's "Ainulindale", although admitting (151):

There is no evidence that Tolkien had heard, or heard of, the opening of Das Rheingold before this time, although it is not inconceivable.

Somehow this is connected with Philip Kitcher and Richard Schacht's book Finding an Ending: Reflections on Wagner's Ring. This in turns leads into a discussion that Tolkien made Frodo into Bilbo's sort-of nephew, not because he had decided that he would not rewrite The Hobbit which ended with Bilbo still unmarried and he did not want to introduce a very late marriage, but because Frodo corresponds to Siegfried and therefore must be independent of Bilbo and Gandalf, not like Siegfried who was son of Siegmund by his sister Siegelinde. That doesn't make sense to me either. I find no sense in this chapter at all.

In his final chapter MacLachlan suggests that Tolkien was greatly in debt to Wagner's Ring Cycle, was very conscious that he was in debt to it, and by not mentioning it and putting down other literature he was purposely attempting to avoid the matter. This is usually called the argument from silence.

MacLachlan compares letters to different correspondents as though Tolkien were attempting to set up a screen for a foreseen volume of collected letters. He does not consider that Tolkien was a very critical reader who did not usually read a book more than once, quite unlike Lewis in that respect. MacLachlan attempts to extract subtext which probably isn't there. Tolkien was likely to be stating certain opinions because they were his opinions not for any other reason.

This book is not without value in places, but one learns more about MacLachlan's idiosyncratic beliefs than about Tolkien.

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