Review of Wagner and Tolkien: Mythmakers

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The following review appeared in the January 2013 edition of Beyond Bree on pages 7-9, and is reproduced here with kind permission.

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Wagner and Tolkien: Mythmakers

Review by Jim Allan

Wagner and Tolkien: Mythmakers by Renée Vink; Walking Tree Publishers, Switzerland, 2012. 322 pages; £ 15.00/$24.30 from

Renee Vink indicates

...the ending of the Ring cycle is by no means purely tragic as one would think at first sight. (xvi)

But who is the one who supposedly might think this? Why does it matter if one is so ignorant as to think this at first sight when apparently most people do not think so, at least on re-reading?

This is almost the only point I find against this superb study. This book is amazing.

Vink, like Christopher Maclachlan in Tolkien and Wagner: The Ring and Der Ring [reviewed "Beyond Bree" Aug'12], begins with Tolkien's famous statement: "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases", citing the version given in Humphrey Carpenter's Tolkien: A Biography. (202) But then Vink includes in full the entire Tolkien statement (The Letters of JRR Tolkien #229), showing clearly that Tolkien was not referring to Wagner at all but to Åke Ohlmarks' "pseudo-scholarly rubbish". (9) She blames the mention of this comment by Humphrey Carpenter from a then unpublished letter for the incorrect belief among many Tolkien fans that Tolkien was referring to Wagner, which Carpenter incorrectly indicates. Carpenter, she believes, apparently knew of Wagner's Ring but was not sufficiently aware of the Norse sources to understand that Tolkien's hasty comment referred to Ohlmarks' garbled and inaccurate summary of the Old Norse texts, not at all to Wagner.

Vink claims that since this letter was first published as far as she is aware only John Ellison and David Bratman among Tolkien scholars have ever mentioned that Tolkien was not referring to Wagner in that letter, which, if true, indicates a gross lack of reading ability among many Tolkien fans. (I have a memory of a web account which was correct and believe it was in Wikipedia, but cannot find it now. Perhaps I misremember or perhaps the account has been miscorrected as original research.)

This book is divided into the text, a 16-page bibliography, a 5-page "Index of fiction", and a six-page "General Index" which oddly omits most writers mentioned in the text. Notes are printed as genuine footnotes at the bottom of pages. The text begins with a one-page "About the Author". Then follows the main text consisting of a short introduction, three "Parts", followed by a short "Conclusion", followed by a short "Afterword".

In "About the Author" the reader learns that Renee Vink works as a translator of other Scandinavian languages into Dutch and of particular pertinence translated Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún into Dutch. She has published various articles in Tolkien fanzines for 1982 onward and her other main interest is in the work of Richard Wagner.

The book begins with the "Introduction: The Master and the Professor - Wagner and Tolkien" which notes that some have considered that Tolkien borrowing from Wagner would make Tolkien a plagiarist and that many Tolkien fans react by denying that Wagner had any impact on Tolkien, especially since the real Wagner was an "opportunistic anti-Semite with ... dubious morality". Also Wagner's work, especially his Ring Cycle, was extremely popular among the Nazis which reminds people that Tolkien has also been accused of racism and pushing "Nordic" ideals. Wagnerian commentators tend to ignore Tolkien or mention him only as "Wagner light".

The main text begins with "Part One: Two Round Rings", which contains five chapters. It indicates similarities between the works of Wagner and Tolkien and summarizes comments by a large number of Tolkienists and a smaller number of Wagnerians.

First Vink includes twenty-eight similarities between Tolkien and Wagner's works, pointing out that she has omitted some that appear too weak and giving some examples and also omitting some that appear to be merely personal interpretation. She then omits those that Tolkien might well have got from other sources than Wagner, leaving about a dozen which Tolkien must have got from Wagner, too many for them all to be coincidental invention. Rather unfortunately Vink only lists the omitted similarities here, leaving it to the reader to find those similarities that Vink believes to be valid by picking them out of the original list of twenty-eight.

Vink then includes material or summarizes writing by Gloriana St. Clair, Bradley Birzer, Alex Ross, Edward Haymes, John Ellison, David Bratman, Tom Shippey, Michael Scott Rohan, Lin Carter, David Harvey, John Spear, Anja Muller, Michael Ridpath, Steve Hillard, Christine Chism, Hartmut Kaspar, Guido Schwarz, Stefan Arvidsson, James P Pinkerton, Robert Hall, Heather O'Donoghue, "Spengler" (David P Goldman), David Werner, Helen Luke, Fleming Rutledge, Christopher Maclachlan, Verlyn Flieger, and others. David Day, oddly, is not mentioned. Wagnerians include Philip Kitcher and Richard Schacht, Philip Haymes, and others.

For most of them Vink indicates why she sees their arguments on Wagner and Tolkien as inadequate or a total failure and includes much material on Wagner's and Tolkien's lives and works along the way. Vink is obviously having great fun in showing up the blunders, indicating that a little learning is a dangerous thing. Vink is extraordinarily learned. She often summarizes a writer's position so that it seems reasonable and then in a few words indicates what the writer is ignoring. In particular Vink discusses Tolkien' s early English nationalism and how it waned. She notes that Wagner's life followed a similar course.

On the other hand, some readers will probably complain that Vink is not being entirely fair to some writers. Of course in such brief summaries it is often impossible to be entirely fair. Vink's discussion of possible hidden references to Wagner in Tolkien's revision of the riddle game in The Hobbit (76 ff.) seems to be only barely possible.

But on the whole, this is an extraordinarily rich book and I only begin to indicate the breadth of Vink's many discussions.

The second part of the book is named "Part Two: Myths, Fairy Tales and Endings". This also has five chapters. Vink here treats Wagner and Tolkien as very similar figures. Beginning on page 116 she compares and contrasts in great detail how Tolkien originally got into mythology and what came of it and in great detail how Wagner originally got into mythology and what came of it. She compares Tolkien fandom with Wagner fandom. She notes that both Wagner's Ring Cycle and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings end with no promises for the future. What the future holds depends on the audience (and Tolkien would say Eru).

Both Wagner and Tolkien have much to say about the defilement of nature. Wagner has the Rhinemaidens, the goddess Erda, the speaking Forest Bird, Loge who was originally wildfire, the giants living on the earth's back, and the World-Ash which decays after Wotan steals a branch from it. Tolkien has Tom Bombadil, Goldberry, the Ents, the Eagles Old Man Willow, the Watcher in the Water, the Huorns, Shelob, and Mount Caradhras. Vink notes that Jackson's film betrays Tolkien in making the snowstorm at Caradhras an enchantment of Saruman and making the Ents' intervention depend on Pippin's ruse.

Vink sees Wagner and Tolkien as revivifiers of mythology, and of largely the same type, although Wagner worked mainly through his music and Tolkien mainly through words; Wagner thought of his work not as opera but as music drama. Yet the Ring Cycle contains many dramatic happenings which simply could not be adequately presented on the stage and still can not. Tolkien, in part of this reason, was very skeptical of attempts to turn fantasy into drama. However he was not so averse to a possible animated film, despite the horror of a storyline that had been made from his book. Wagner similarly was not very happy with how his imaginings turned out when performed by real people and clumsy stagecraft.

I have not space here to do justice to all Vink's discussions or even to represent them.

The third section is "Part Three: The Amateur and the Professional". This has only three chapters and compares Wagner's Ring Cycle primarily with Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. Here it is Wagner who is the amateur and Tolkien who is the professional, because Vink is here discussing their knowledge of philology and old Germanic texts. She points out that Wagner was far more knowledgeable about hIS source texts than many of his followers believe. It was originally the Icelandic texts in translation that set Wagner's imagination afire as they seemed to him rawer and more authentic than the more courtly, formal, and Christian Nibelungenlied.

Whether Wagner actually learned Old Norse in his enthusiasm is unknown but he certainly knew a lot about it. The style of his librettos for the Ring Cycle were linguistically unlike anything Wagner had written before and was obviously inspired by the Icelandic texts, even if he only knew them from translations and from commentaries by those who could read Old Norse.

Vink points out what is not obvious to English readers who read Wagner in translation, that Wagner's librettos are written in a form of German very archaic in Wagner's day and replete with alliteration, an attempt to get the supposed effect of what he got from the Old Norse into the German of his own day. Wagner was often laughed at for this in his own time and sometimes still is. Similarly Tolkien's archaic language invites laughter from those who lack the ability to appreciate that the archaic, even the pseudo-archaic, may be wondrously effective.

Wagner did not care but used his archaic language, and kennings, and alliteration despite those who mocked, as did Tolkien. Wagner's use of alliteration mostly follows closely the very complex rules of Old Norse usage as then understood. Vink gives a large number of examples of when Wagner follows them and when he does not. She also discusses how Wagner in his Ring Cycle and Tolkien in The Hobbit and later used many proverbs. She comes to the conclusion that Wagner was the less knowledgeable of the two, but still very knowledgeable. She points out places where Wagner is sometimes blamed for his ignorance and points out the Wagner can be shown to have known correct version but chose to ignore it for aesthetic reasons.

Then Vink turns to Tolkien's use of Sigurd in "The New Lay of the Völsungs" and discusses interpretations of the character in earlier writers that may have influenced Tolkien's unique idea that Sigurd was the promised one who would eventually slay the great World-serpent and compares this with Wagner's earlier plan for the Ring Cycle in which Siegfried and Brunnhilde go together to Valhalla after their deaths. She then compares Wagner's Ring Cycle with Tolkien's "The New Lay of the Völsungs" in some detail. These and later discussions reveal a fluid understanding of the German sources of the Siegfried/Sigurd tales and stories related to them.

Vink's final discussion is long and complex, concerned with if and when Siegfried/Sigurd lay with Brunnhilde/Brynhild and whether Tom Shippey's claim that Tolkien's version in "The New Lay of the Völsungs" is a more coherent account then Wagner's is true. I confess myself almost lost in the complexities of this long and confusing discussion. Vink clearly establishes that neither Tolkien nor Wagner completely created a fully coherent account and that Shippey's discussion is in part incorrect and itself incoherent.

In her "Conclusion" Vink admits that Tolkien once uttered his contempt for Wagner's Ring Cycle, but that was when he was a teenager and Tolkien quite possibly modified his opinion later. Wagner greatly modified his Norse sources but Tolkien did the same more subtly in his "The New Lay of the Viilsungs".

In a short "Afterword" Vink suggests that despite obvious differences Wagner and Tolkien were also much alike and that Tolkien might well have realized that Wagner was acting quite legitimately in freely reworking the story of Siegfried/Sigurd but that unfortunately the public at large took this reworking as genuine Germanic mythology, whence possibly one of Tolkien' s reasons for writing his The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún to provide an alternative. (This seems to me to be more dubious than it does to Vink.) Wagner was often a revolutionary and was an atheist for most of his life while Tolkien was a strict Roman Catholic. Both became intensely interested German mythology. Both were arguably the greatest popular mythmakers of their times and both inveterate enemies of absolute power and oppression.

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