Skip to comments.The 'Ring' and the remnants of the West
Posted on 01/13/2003 11:58:14 AM PST by Enemy Of The State
The 'Ring' and the remnants of the West
The most important cultural event of the past decade is the ongoing release of the film version of J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. No better guide exists to the mood and morals of the United States. The rapturous response among popular audiences to the first two installments of the trilogy should alert us that something important is at work. Richard Wagner's 19th-century tetralogy of music dramas, The Ring of the Nibelungs, gave resonance to National Socialism during the inter-war years of the last century. Tolkien does the same for Anglo-Saxon democracy.
Tolkien well may have written his epic as an "anti-Ring" to repair the damage that Wagner had inflicted upon Western culture. Consciously or not, the Oxford philologist who invented Hobbits has ruined Wagner before the popular audience. It recalls the terrible moment in Thomas Mann's great novel Doktor Faustus when the composer Adrian Leverkuhn, finishing his Faust cantata in the throes of syphilitic dementia, announces: "I want to take it back!" His amanuensis asks, "What do you want to take back?" "Beethoven's 9th Symphony!" cries Leverkuhn. Leverkuhn (on the strength of a bargain with the Devil) has written a work whose objective is to ruin the ability of musical audiences to hear Beethoven.
Tolkien has taken back Wagner's Ring. That may be his greatest accomplishment, and a literary accomplishment without clear precedent. To be sure, The Lord of the Rings is not a great work of literature to be compared to Cervantes or Dostoyevsky. But it is a great landmark of culture nonetheless. Its revival in a reasonably faithful cinematic version has far-reaching effects on the popular mind.
Wagner had done as much to Beethoven. "People don't like music; they just like the way it sounds," quipped the English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. Beethoven's musical devices are stations along a journey which has a goal. Wagner turned these musical devices into the haunted caves and dells of a world in which the listener wanders capriciously, abandoning all sense of time and direction. Audiences never liked Wagner's music, but they loved the way it sounded. Musical effects in Beethoven, however eccentric, are subordinate to the long-range musical goal. In Wagner, musical effects are capricious events. That well suits the introduction of Wagner's Uebermensch, the hero Siegfried, for reasons I will make clear in a moment.
It is hard for us today to imagine what a cult raised itself around Wagner after the 1876 premiere of his Ring cycle. Compared to it the combined fervor for Elvis, the Beatles, Madonna and Michael Jackson seems like a band concert in the park. Perfectly sensible people attended a Wagner opera and declared that their lives had changed. Bavaria's eccentric King Ludwig II literally fell in love with the composer and built him the Bayreuth Festival, to which the elite of Europe repaired in homage. It was something like the mood that swept the youth of the West in the late 1960s, but an order of magnitude more powerful.
In 1848, Wagner was a disgruntled emulator of French grand opera who stockpiled hand grenades for revolutionaries, a fugitive from justice after that year's uprising. A quarter-century later he stood at the pinnacle of European culture. What precisely did he do?
Wagner announced the death of the old order of aristocracy and Church, of order and rules. Not only was the old order dying, but also it deserved to die, the victim of its inherent flaws. As the old order died a New Man would replace the servile creatures of the old laws, and a New Art would become the New Man's religion. The New Man would be fearless, sensual, unconstrained, and could make the world according to his will. Wagner's dictum that the sources of Western civilization had failed was not only entirely correct, but also numbingly obvious to anyone who lived through the upheavals of 1848. But how should one respond to this? Wagner had a seductive answer: become your own god!
Using elements of old Norse sagas and medieval epic, Wagner cobbled together a new myth. The Norse god Wotan personifies the old order: he rules by the laws engraved on his spear, by which he himself is bound. To build his fortress Valhalla he requires the labor of the giants, and to pay the giants, he steals the treasure of the Nibelung dwarf Alberich. Alberich won the treasure with a magic ring he fashioned from the stolen Gold of the Rhine River. Wotan covets this ring, which gives its bearer world mastery, but is compelled to give it to the giants.
Wagner's audience had no trouble recognizing in Wotan and the other immortal gods the ancient aristocracy of Empire and Church, who made a fatal compromise with capital (the Ring of world domination) and thus sealed their own doom. Siegfried (Wotan's grandson) takes the Ring back from the giant Fafner, and then shatters the god's spear and wins as his bride the immortal Valkyrie Brunnhilde. Through the rest of a silly plot full of love potions and magic disguises, Siegfried is betrayed and stabbed in the back. Brunnhilde immolates herself on Siegfried's funeral pyre and the flames burn down Valhalla as well, gods and all. A New World Order emerges on the basis of heroic will. It is not hard to see how appetizing this stew was for Hitler.
Tolkien himself despised Wagner (whom he knew thoroughly) and rejected comparisons between his Ring and Wagner's cycle ("Both rings are round," is the extent of his published comment). But the parallels between the two works are so extensive as to raise the question as to Tolkien's intent. The Ring of Power itself is Wagner's invention (probably derived from the German Romantic de la Motte Fouque). Also to be found in both works are an immortal woman who renounces immortality for the love of a human, a broken sword reforged, a life-and-death game of riddles, and other elements which one doesn't encounter every day. Here is a compilation derived from sundry websites, along with a few of my own observations. For those who don't know the details of the Tolkien Ring - well, you will before long, because it is a story that everyone will learn.
Alberich forges a Ring of Power
Sauron forges a Ring of Power
Wotan needs the giants to build Valhalla
The Elves need Sauron to forge their Rings of Power
The Ring gives the bearer world domination
The Ring gives the bearer world domination
Wotan uses the Ring to pay the giants
Sauron betrays the Elves
The Ring is cursed and betrays its bearer
The Ring is evil and betrays its bearer
Fafner kills brother Fasolt to get the Ring
Smeagol kills friend Deagol for the Ring
Fafner hides in a cave for centuries
Smeagol-Gollum hides in a cave for centuries
Siegfried inherits the shards of his father's sword
Aragorn inherits the shards his fathers' sword
Brunnhilde gives up immortality for Siegfried
Arwen gives up immortality for Aragorn
Wotan plays "riddles" for the life of Mime
Gollum plays "riddles" for the life of Bilbo
A dragon guards the Nibelungs' hoard
A dragon guards the dwarves' hoard
The gods renounce the world and await the end
The Elves renounce the world and prepare to depart
The Ring is returned to its origin, the River Rhine
The Ring is returned to its origin, Mount Doom
Hagen falls into the river
Gollum falls into the volcano
The immortals burn in Valhalla
The immortals leave Middle-earth
A new era emerges in the world
A new era emerges in the
Men are left to their own devices
Men are left to their own
The details are far less important than the common starting point: the crisis of the immortals. Wagner's immortal gods must fall as a result of the corrupt bargain they have made with the giants who built Valhalla. Tolkien's immortal Elves must leave Middle-earth because of the fatal assistance they took from Sauron. The Elves' power to create a paradise on Middle-earth depends upon the power of the three Elven Rings which they forged with Sauron's help. Thus the virtue of the Elven Rings is inseparably bound up with the one Ring of Sauron. When it is destroyed, the power of the Elves must fade. More than anything else, The Lord of the Rings is the tragedy of the Elves and the story of their renunciation.
What Tolkien has in mind is nothing more than the familiar observation that the high culture of the West arose and fell with the aristocracy, which had the time and inclination to cultivate it. With the high culture came the abuse of power associated with the aristocracy; when this disappears, the great beauties of Western civilization and much of its best thought disappear with it. That is far too simple, and in some ways misleading, but it makes a grand premise for a roman-a-clef about Western civilization.
Tolkien enthusiasts emphasize his differences with Wagner, as if to ward off the disparagement that The Lord of the Rings is a derivative work. As Bradley Birzer, David Harvey, and other commentators observe, Tolkien detested Wagner's neo-paganism. He was a devout Roman Catholic, and explicitly philo-Semitic where Wagner was anti-Semitic. But this defense of Tolkien obscures a great accomplishment. He did not emulate Wagner's Ring, but he recast the materials into an entirely new form. "Recast" is an appropriate expression. A memorable scene in Wagner shows Siegfried filing the shards of his father's sword into dust, and casting a new sword out of the filings. That, more or less, is what Tolkien accomplished with the elements of Wagner's story. Wagner will still haunt the stages of opera houses, but audiences will see him through Tolkien's eyes.
What does one do when the immortals depart? One acts with simple English decency and tenacity, says Tolkien, and accepts one's fate. The Lord of the Rings is an anti-epic (as Norman Cantor puts it), whose protagonist is a weak, vulnerable and reluctant Hobbit, as opposed to the strong, wound-proof and fearless Siegfried. The Hobbit Frodo Baggins does his duty because he must. "I wish the Ring had never come to me! I wish none of this had happened!" he exclaims to the wizard Gandalf, who replies: "So do all that come to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." No utopian is Gandalf; what one must do is to muddle through.
"I will remain Galadriel, and I will diminish," decides the Elf-Queen of Lothlorien, rejecting the chance to take possession of the One Ring and preserve her powers. The Elves choose between vanishing and accepting a taint of evil, and choose the former.
Modesty, forbearance, and renunciation are the virtues that Tolkien sets against Wagner's existential act of despair. The high culture of the West is gone. The world that remains after the Elves board their gray ships and sail into the West is devoid of beauty and wonder. The kingdom of Men that emerges from The Lord of the Rings is a humdrum affair, in which the best men can do is to get on with their lives. Even the anti-heroes of this anti-epic, the Hobbits who bear the evil Ring to its ultimate destruction, cannot remain in Middle-earth; they sail off along with the Elves.
Those who hold America in contempt for its lack of refinement (this writer always has held the term "American culture" to be an oxymoron) should think carefully about this conclusion. From their founding on Christmas Day 800 AD, when Charlemagne accepted the crown of the revived Roman Empire, the institutions of the West have been formed in response to external threat. The Holy Roman Empire of the High Middle Ages, Tolkien's conscious model for the Kingdom of Gondor, arose in response to the incursions of Arabs in the south, Vikings in the north, and Magyars in the West. Boorish and gruff as the new American Empire might seem, it is an anti-empire populated by reluctant heroes who want nothing more than to till their fields and mind their homes, much like Tolkien's Hobbits. Under pressure, though, it will respond with a fierceness and cohesion that will surprise its adversaries.
Orcs of the world: Take note and beware.
1) "Lord of the Rings" fans
2) Uncultured swine.
It is very interesting to me how the wr on terror is often referenced to literature and mythology. It is almost like people know that this is an epic struggle, but they are afraid to say it directly. I find it fortunate that the Ring movies have been released at this time.
communism, socialism, fascism, mind-body duality, the inquisition, etc. Just some highlights, here; the actual list is long and distinguished.
These professor-types really have a problem with art that is popular. The two great novels of the 20th century are 1984 and The Lord of the Rings. They were both popular works and they both dealt with the central issue of the 20th century, which was the battle between people who would be free and the totalitarians who would enslave them.
One day, archeologists will stuggle to decypher the meaning of "Life,liberty and pursuit of happiness".
I highly recommend reading T.H. White's "The Once and Future King" which is an epic re-telling of the Arthurian legend. Disney's "Sword in the Stone" is taken from the first part of the book, and the musical "Camelot" from the ending, but neither does the book justice. If you want to get a real feel for the grandeur and tragedy of the Arthurian legend, I cannot think of a better way to do so.
My favorite non-PC moment was when Aragorn compliments Eowyn on her skill with a sword, and she explains, "The women of Rohan long ago learned that those who do not carry swords can still die upon them."
Take that, Sarah Brady...
Nietzsche thought Wagner's Parzifal set those values against Wagner's more heroic and apocalyptic Ring.
Right! There were several times during the movies when I thought, "they sure could use a fuel-air bomb here, or a full stack from a B-52."
The uncultured swine made "Just Married" the #1 movie this past weekend.
I beg to disagree. The message of the movie is that "an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm." We can choose to align our lives with this influence in the world, or we can beat our heads against a wall. The choice is ours.
It would be expected that Tolkien would feel this way being that LOTR was released shortly after WW2 and the horror of Nazism and anti-semitism was still fresh in everybody's minds. If Tolkien is this familiar with Wagner's work (Wagner died in 1883 so Tolkien could not have known him personally), it is likely that he was a fan of Wagner's work.
That is not to cast any aspersions upon Tolkien. I have no doubt that Tolkien despised the man himself and what he stood for. Wagner was a rabid anti-semite and his works were supposedly embraced by Adolph Hitler and the Nazi party - though the extent to which that association is valid is a matter of debate. Frankly, I don't think Hitler and his Brownshirts spent a lot of time going to opera. It could simply be that Hitler admired Wagner for his beliefs and his music was secondary.
The author of this article points out a whole slew of similarities between Tolkien's LOTR and Wagner's Ring Cycle (an opera that takes three very long nights to perform). Though familiar with both, I had never before realized how similar the two works were (I mainly listen to the music and don't pay much attention to the librettos of Wagner's operas).
Orcs of the world: Take note and beware.
Right on! An excellent post. Thank you.
Orcs=Nazi troops, Battle of Helms Deep=Bombardment of London
Plato uses the story to make the case that man is tempted to do evil when consequences are absent and nothing is to stop them from doing so. The ring of Gyges functions in this manner as a device of temptation to do wrong. In short, it facilitates and encourages evil by its bearer.
In the same manner, Tolkien's ring constantly tempts its bearer toward evil. This functions well with Tolkien's overall philosophy in the book, which is strong in Augustinian platonism. Sauron essentially represents sin, evil, and a devil-like figure whose presence corrupts the world by alienating it from the good (evil for this purpose is defined as the absence of good or removal from the good). In contrast, various positive figures such as Aragorn, Gandalf, and the elves represent elements of the City of God - that which is good. The rest represent the worldly existence in between, with various degrees of alienation from the City of God and continual temptation from evil. They include the City of Man, which is tempted toward evil. Some within this realm have succumbed to the temptation of power toward that which is evil, such as Saruman and his armies. Others are tempted to the ring by their weaknesses, though they are disposed on the side of the good in the overriding conflict of the books. Many of the humans in Gondor exhibit this tendency. As for the ring, it tempts its bearer, no matter how strong, toward evil just as the ring of Gyges incited its bearer to comit acts of evil.
I love it too!
Yes! I agree entirely. Excalibur deserves multiple watchings.
As far as Wagner goes, this writer gives me a bunion whining on about what a Nazi Wagner was (even though Nazis came decades after his death.) Wagner's music is *fantastic* - he is the father of modern motion picture soundtrack music, even if he didn't intend it.
No. Pay close attention to the character of Sam - not literally, but what he symbolizes. Frodo's situation is often intertwined with concepts of destiny and the tasks thrust upon him. Sam's situation is different though. Pay close attention to the element of choice within it and you will see what I am talking about.
What does this mean "the damage that Wagner had inflicted upon Western culture"??!?!
He means the anti-rational, anti-enlightenment, and anti-Western philosophy that inspired it.
You know, the anti-individualist, anti-capitalist, collectivist evil that was responsible for the deaths of 165 million people at the hands of their own governments.
Socialism, fascism, communism, anarchism, totalitarianism, etc.
1) As Arthur is riding out for his fateful duel with the shining knight (who turns out to be Lancelot), Merlin is struggling to catch a fish by hand in a near-by stream. As Arthur rides by, Merlin grabs the fish and then falls backwards into the water as it gets away. He looks Arthur in the eye and says, "Its funny...no matter how smart you are, you always can find something greater than yourself."
2) The other is when Merlin walks into the Hall of the Round Table and looks at Lancelot (who he knows to be having an affair with Arthur's Queen), and asks "What is the most important quality in a knight?" The knights take turns saying things like "courage" and "strength". But then Merlin says "No...a knight's most important quality is truth. For without truth, everything else is a lie."
I often thought about that second lesson during the Clinton years when I heard people making lame excuses for his dishonesty by saying "the economy is going well", etc etc
I read LOTR in high school, then in college I read Das Nibelungenlied for an advanced German class, and at that point I realized that both Tolkien and Wagner based their works on the same Norse epic. Wagner was a ferocious anti-Semite, Tolkien was anything but.