In our chapter on the ring in our recently released book The Hobbit Party, we bring in everything from Plato and the Panopticon to Orwell, Wells, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in order to situate Tolkien’s exploration of totalitarian power and rings of power. Here space suffices only to consider what many consider the most striking parallel to Tolkien’s ring of power: the magical ring at the center of Wagner’s magisterial nineteenth-century opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Since both Tolkien and Wagner were influenced by the Norse sagas and the Middle High German epic poem the Nibelungenlied, you might suppose Tolkien had a fondness for Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but you’d suppose wrong. Tolkien apparently loathed the Ring Cycle, so much so that he downplayed the obvious similarities, insisting at one point, “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased.”
The family resemblance remains, however. Edward R. Haymes ably summarized the points of overlap in a speech to the Wagner Society of New York:
I’d like to begin by telling a little story.
A greedy, smaller-than-human creature finds a treasure in the depths of a river. He carries it to his underground retreat where he retains it until it is stolen by a visitor from the upper world. He swears eternal hate to the thief. The treasure is, of course, a ring of great power. The ring exerts strange influences on its owners including giving them the ability to disappear. The ring becomes the object of a fatal struggle between close friends or brothers, in fact it seems always to bring danger or death to its owners. A hero enters the fray armed with a reforged sword that had been broken. Various races of humanoid beings attempt to gain control of the ring by magic and by heroism until it is finally brought at great cost and sacrifice back to its origin where it is purified by fire. The last pursuer perishes along with the ring.
Is this the retelling of Richard Wagner’s four-part cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen or is it a summary of Tolkien’s prose epic The Lord of the Rings. Actually it’s both.
Mr. Haymes, as he concedes, has deftly worded things to magnify the similarities and downplay the differences. For example, Wagner’s ring finder is a dwarf rather than a hobbit, and the dwarf actually forges the ring, whereas Gollum merely finds the ring that the evil and larger-than-life Sauron forged long ago. Haymes also does not mention other ancient, medieval, and modern sources that may have influenced Tolkien (as well as Wagner in the case of the pre-modern instances).
From Plato to Frodo
These include the invisibility ring used for evil purposes in Plato’s Republic, the invisibility ring in Chrétien de Troyes’ medieval Arthurian romance “The Knight of the Lion,” and various magical rings that grant protection or invulnerability in several medieval romances (for example, the rings in Sir Perceval of Galles, Sir Eglamour of Artois, Le Morte d’Arthur, and arguably the ring offered to, and declined by, the hero in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ).
Besides these, a couple of early twentieth-century novels also may have influenced the “one ring to rule them all.” These include English author E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle (1907), which features a magic ring that bears whatever magical properties its owner declares it to have (and that turns characters invisible), and the 1931 novel Many Dimensions by Tolkien’s friend and fellow Inkling Charles Williams.
At the center of Charles Williams’ novel is a magic stone that grants extraordinary powers, powers that tend to corrupt and spin out of control, threatening the world. Another element of the novel that anticipates The Lord of the Rings is talk of casting the dangerous object into the ocean, an idea that in both novels is rejected as failing to provide a permanent solution.
Clearly, then, Tolkien had a rich mine of sources for the Ring of Power at the center of The Lord of the Rings, some of those sources older than Wagner and some much closer to Tolkien. The interesting question is not whether Wagner’s Ring Cycle asserted some influence on Tolkien. It almost certainly did, at least at an unconscious level. The more interesting line of inquiry is why Tolkien disliked Wagner’s Ring Cycle and in what meaningful ways their treatments differed. The answer to the second may also answer the first, since the main differences involve the two things most likely to get a person in trouble at a party—religion and politics.
Wagner hovered between atheism and pantheism, an outlook embodied in the opera cycle’s older and wiser earth goddess. In the cycle, she stands over against the other gods who are doomed to perish in order to make way for an age without religion, or at least for an age free of everything but nature religion.
Mr. Haymes suggests that in Wagner the good characters are at their best when following nature, while in Tolkien the heroic characters are often at their best when exerting their wills against the ring and against the inclination to do the easy or natural thing. Actually, it is a bit more complex than this, since some of Wagner’s characters resist keeping the ring, a good Tolkien character errs by ignoring what we might think of as instinct, and Sauron and Saruman’s contempt for the natural world contrasts negatively with the appreciation for nature and the natural world epitomized in the good elves and hobbits.
All the same, Mr. Haymes’ suggested contrast is an illuminating one—the pantheistic follow-your-bliss Wagner vs. the Catholic Tolkien with a high regard for humility, moral discipline, and transcendent morality, and a well-developed suspicion of fallen human impulses.
The Ring of Power Corrupts Absolutely
In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the invisibility ring that the hobbit hero Bilbo Baggins finds in the goblin caves is initially a device for elevating the bourgeois Mr. Baggins to the status of master burglar. In The Lord of the Rings, it becomes much more—a ring of extraordinary power that Tolkien employs to explore themes of domination, deception, and death. This much sounds quite Wagnerian.
But Tolkien’s ring is also used to sound a warning against any grand political plan that depends on unchecked power to get things done. The novel is about many other things, of course, but it is no overstatement to say the temptation posed by the ring conveys the novel’s central political theme—that, as Lord Acton put it, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So dangerous do the wise leaders among the free peoples of Middle-Earth consider this ring of power that they determine to risk everything in a desperate gambit to destroy the ring rather than using it against their enemy, the evil Sauron. This much sounds anything but Wagnerian. Wagner, after all, was revered by the Nazis for a reason.
Sex and Single Hobbit
An essay by Alex Ross in The New Yorker highlights other differences between Tolkien and Wagner. Ross charges Tolkien with discarding “the most significant property” of Wagner’s ring, “that it can be forged only by one who has forsworn love.” He then characterizes Tolkien’s novel as sexually opaque and suggests the treatment of the ring’s allure is psychologically impoverished:
It is the little ring that brings out the lust in men and in hobbits. And what, honestly, do people want in it? Are they envious of Sauron’s bling-bling life style up on top of Barad-dûr? Tolkien mutes the romance of medieval stories and puts us out in self-abnegating, Anglican-modernist, T. S. Eliot territory. The ring is a never-ending nightmare to which people are drawn for no obvious reason. It generates lust and yet gives no satisfaction.
Undoubtedly the Catholic Tolkien would have been surprised to learn that a psychological landscape of self-abnegation and self-destructive, irrational desire is uniquely a feature of Anglican-modernist literature. The Russian Orthodox Fyodor Dostoyevsky and The Inferno, by the Italian Catholic poet Dante Alighieri come to mind as counterexamples. But the more pertinent point is that Mr. Ross finds the allure of power for power’s sake baffling and uninteresting, preferring instead Wagner’s use of the ring “to shine a light on various intense, confused, all-too-human relationships.” The implication is that the allure of power for power’s sake is foreign to human experience, or at least relatively insignificant.
Alex Ross much prefers Wagner’s theme: “Alberich forges the ring only after the Rhine maidens turn away his advances. Wotan becomes obsessed with it as a consequence of his loveless marriage; he buries himself in his work.” Ah, so Tolkien’s sin is that The Lord of the Rings is not a soap opera centered around the star-crossed love lives of men, elves, dwarves, hobbits, wizards, orcs, ents, and whatnot. It is not that the common grist of sexually-charged afternoon soap operas cannot also be the grist for great art. It can. But is this really the only proper focus of great art? Those with an idolatrous view of human sexuality may feel so, but it is an impoverished outlook Tolkien did not share.
Mr. Ross moves from here into a summary and gloss of the Ring Cycle’s denouement: “The apparatus of myth itself—the belief in higher and lower powers, hierarchies, orders—crumbles with the walls of Valhalla. Perhaps what angered Tolkien most was that Wagner wrote a sixteen-hour mythic opera and then, at the end, blew up the foundations of myth.”
True, the aesthetic incoherence of such a project may have bothered Tolkien—not specifically that Wagner “blew up the foundations of myth” but that Wagner’s sublimity was an ersatz sublimity, emptied as it was of the transcendent. Tolkien, through faith in the transcendent God, understood the source of true sublimity. He also understood the source of the thirst for power for power’s sake: the desire to make of oneself a god in the place of God.
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1. Humphrey Carpenter, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977; repr., New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000). Carpenter writes that Tolkien “delighted his friends with recitations from Beowulf, the Pearl, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and recounted horrific episodes from the Norse Völsungasaga, with a passing jibe at Wagner whose interpretation of the myths he held in contempt.” (P. 54.)
2. Tolkien to Allen & Unwin, 23 February 1961 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), p. 306. In his biography of Tolkien, Carpenter comments, “The comparison of his Ring with the Nibelungenlied and Wagner always annoyed Tolkien” J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, p. 206.
3. Edward R. Haymes, “The Two Rings: The Lord of the Rings; The Ring of the Nibelung,” speech given to the Wagner Society of New York, New York, January 4, 2004.
4. For an argument that the ring offered to Gawain possessed powerful protective properties, see Jessica Cooke, “The Lady’s ‘Blushing’ Ring in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Review of English Studies 49, no. 193 (1998): pp. 1-8.
5. At one point Sam fails to follow his right inclination to stick by Frodo even when Frodo is seemingly dead. However, Sam’s inclination is one developed through long and loyal service—a virtuous habit, in other words, rather than a natural instinct.
6. Tom Shippey argues that it is unlikely that something like hobbits, celebrated for their humility, could “possibly ever find a place in Wagner’s conception.” Shippey also touches on the controversial matter of Wagner’s alleged anti-semitism and the uses made of Wagner by the Nazis: “It might or might not be possible to excuse Wagner for the uses made of his work by the Nazis after he was dead, but from Tolkien’s perspective, perhaps even more than from ours, the seeds of horror were there in Siegfried’s casual and uncondemned brutality [particularly toward a vulnerable dwarf character], in the picture of a divine/heroic world constantly threatened by cunning, sneaking dwarf-shapes, so easily converted ideologically into Untermenschen, sub-humans. The least one can say of this is that Wagner and Tolkien were on opposite sides of a great divide created by two world wars and all that went with them … If Tolkien did take anything from Wagner, it was perhaps no more than the idea that something could be done with the idea of the Ring of Power, something more, and more laden with significance, than anything in an ancient source, but at the same time and very definitely not what Wagner had done with it.” (Tom Shippey, “The Problem of the Rings: Tolkien and Wagner,” Roots and Branches: Selected Papers on Tolkien by Tom Shippey [Zollikofen, Switzerland: Walking Tree Publishers, 2007], p. 113).
7. Come to think of it, the ents are star-crossed. There is also Eowyn’s attraction to Aragorn, Wormtongue’s lustful designs on Eowyn, and the romantic relationships between Aragorn and Arwen, Eowyn and Faramir, and Sam Gamgee and Rosie Cotton. None of these end in illicit love affairs, however. For that, one must turn to The Silmarillion, where one may be further surprised to encounter evidence that an author who married his beloved after a forced separation of several years, and had four children with her, actually knew a little something about eros.