When I teach Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, my students look forward rather than back. Although they’ve read the medieval Saga of the Volsungs just one week earlier, their response to Wagner is always the same: “This is so much like Tolkien!”
So I tell them what Tolkien’s biographer wrote: “The comparison of his Ring with the Nibelungenlied and Wagner always annoyed Tolkien; he once said: ‘Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased.'” And still my students read Wagner’s Ring and declare: “This is so much like Tolkien!”
So I show them that scholars have wrung only half a dozen articles or book chapters out of the similarities between The Lord of the Rings and Der Ring des Nibelungen, and that the recent Tolkien encyclopedia didn’t even include an entry on Wagner. Undaunted, they write papers on the subject and find the sources wanting. And still they point to Wagner’s libretti and insist: “This is so much like Tolkien!”
Last week, I laughed when I opened The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún and saw that Christopher Tolkien spends an entire page of his eight-page foreword declaring, rather counterproductively, “there is no reference in this book to the operas of Richard Wagner.” He notes that his father and Wagner used the same medieval sources but insists that
Wagner’s treatment of the Old Norse forms of the legend was less an “interpretation” of the ancient literature than a new and transformative impulse, taking up elements of the old Northern conception and placing them in new relations, adapting, altering and inventing on a grand scale, according to his own taste and creative intentions. Thus the libretti of Der Ring des Nibelungen, though raised indeed on old foundations, must be seen less as a continuation or development of the long-enduring heroic legend than as a new and independent work of art, to which in spirit and purposes [Tolkien's poems in Sigurd and Gudrún] bear little relation.
The Wagner-Tolkien question isn’t so easily dispelled. In a 2003 New Yorker article, Alex Ross waxed Wagnerian about the Lord of the Rings movies, and the subject still comes up on fan discussion boards, on neopagan Web sites, on Wikipedia, in conservative punditry, in Marxist punditry, in NPR’s opera reporting, and now in a new round of book reviews. In his perceptive review of Sigurd and Gudrún, Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey mentions Wagner three times; his piece even carries the headline “Tolkien out-Wagners Wagner.” Christopher Tolkien says that Sigurd and Gudrún was published because he finally found the “time and energy” to edit it, but the book’s defensive foreword suggests that its release was encouraged by recent Wagner-Tolkien comparisons.
The ad campaign for Sigurd and Gudrún hails Tolkien for unleashing “one of the most powerful legends of all time,” but the book is no easy read. Writing in English but imitating the meter of eddic poems, Tolkien reconciles inconsistencies in Nordic legend by composing two poems in hundreds of eight-line alliterative stanzas, many of them lovely, some of them too strange for modern ears. He assumes his reader knows the story, so these poems aren’t narratives; allusion supplants action, and stanzas jump from speech to speech. Some readers will praise Sigurd and Gudrún as a remarkable experiment in form; others will dismiss the book as a pointless antiquarian exercise. To the extent that the book prompts the old Wagner-Tolkien comparison, it shows that Tolkien was a professional medievalist who knew his sources intimately while Wagner was, in the best sense, an amateur. But who didn’t already know that?
What Sigurd and Gudrún doesn’t settle is the question of influence. We already know that Tolkien “disliked cordially” the plays of Shakespeare and yearned to revise Macbeth:
In later years he especially remembered “the bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane hill': I longed to devise a setting by which the trees might really march to war.”
Which, of course, he did. At 18, Tolkien also recited “horrific episodes from the Norse Völsungasaga, with a passing jibe at Wagner whose interpretations of the myths he held in contempt.” Contempt implies familiarity; if Tolkien felt so strongly that Shakespeare was blind to the power of one nifty image, it’s reasonable to imagine that Wagner’s misdeeds further drove him to set right the legend he already loved.
The Ring of the Nibelung offered much to make Tolkien cringe: It’s a preposterous work about destroying the world to build it anew as a righteous, perfect, gods-free creation—but Wagner also denounces avarice, exploitation, oaths betrayed, love renounced, and power abused. Whether Tolkien objected to Wagner’s radicalism or hated seeing Wagner hew down, Saruman-like, the dark, archaic forests of “the Great Story of the North,” Tolkien’s reputation is unharmed by the suggestion that Wagner gave him a bit of a push. Only one of them read Old Norse on its own terms, and only one of them still compels readers to turn back and peer at the eerie, murky, maddening past.