Much ink has been spilled on examinations of The Ring of the Nibelung from many different perspectives, but it has very rarely been considered as a work of epic fantasy of the kind codified by Tolkien and surviving to this day in the works of George R. R. Martin, among many others. This is strange because, as a story of gods, kings, chosen heroes, magic swords, dwarves, and rings of power, it would seem to be a missing link in the genre's history. The Ring of the Nibelung is a cycle of four music dramas written and composed by Richard Wagner. They break with 19th century operatic tradition by eschewing the populist influence of Italian opera—instead of clearly defined sections with hummable tunes, they proceed without interruption except for act breaks. All told, the whole thing can be more than fourteen hours long (depending on tempo), spread out over four consecutive nights. Right there is an obvious commonality with epic fantasy: Wagner is constitutionally incapable of concision.
The four dramas are The Rhine Gold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried, and Twilight of the Gods (Götterdämmerung, a German translation of the Old Norse Ragnarök). They follow a magical ring, which grants power as long as its wearer swears to forgo love. As various actors plot to steal the ring for their own gain, it passes from hand to hand and eventually must be destroyed. Amid the chaos caused by the ring's disruptive influence, Odin seizes on the opportunity to bring about the end of the gods and pave the way for humankind.
There are a few minor points of contact between the Ring and epic fantasy. The enthusiastic incest of Siegmund and Sieglinde, for instance, calls to mind all the weird sexual stuff we've seen in Piers Anthony, John Norman, Terry Goodkind, and any number of other fantasists. The famous "Ride of the Valkyries" scene in Act 3 of The Valkyrie is positively Pratchettian in the way it considers the gruesome but comical difficulties involved in dragging slain heroes from the battlefield to Valhalla. Siegfried echoes Goodkind's Richard Rahl and countless other fantasy heroes by being an aggressive, arrogant bully and cold-blooded murderer.
But these are all little things. Wagner's masterwork contains the DNA of fantasy on a much deeper level.
Probably the first person to liken Wagner's Ring to Tolkien's was Åke Ohlmarks, in the introduction to his Swedish translation of The Lord of the Rings. He suggested that Tolkien's ring is "in a certain way 'der Nibelungen Ring'". Tolkien responded angrily to his publisher (Ohlmarks had taken some other liberties with the truth in the introduction, and Tolkien was not fond of the translation, either) and dismissed the comparison, saying "Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases." This is somewhat unfair. While it may be the case that Tolkien did not consciously copy or draw influence from Wagner, it is inconceivable that he was not aware of The Ring of the Nibelung, and there is certainly more in common between the two rings than their shape.
Both were discovered in rivers by disgusting underground creatures who were forced to give up a place in normal society in exchange for their respective rings' power. Both corrupt the wearer and, among other things, render them invisible. Both represent a power too great to be used responsibly, and both must be destroyed in the end. There are major differences in how the two stories play out, but they have too much in common for us to glibly dismiss the connection as Tolkien did. Unfortunately, Tolkien's own ring cycle inherited some unpleasant baggage from Wagner, and in setting the tone for the genre, Tolkien ensured that the baggage would be carried to this day.
In his essay "Epic Pooh," Michael Moorcock decried Tolkien's influence on the fantasy genre. The soporific prose of Tolkien (and Lewis, and Richard Adams) invested fantasy with a sort of sweater-vest conservatism and suspicion of social change. Their stories are about the triumph of tradition and middle-class Anglican values. The typical fantasy story begins with things being knocked out of their place by some exotic disruption, and ends with the disruptor defeated and the proper order restored. "If the bulk of American SF could be said to be written by robots, about robots, for robots," says Moorcock, "then the bulk of English fantasy seems to be written by rabbits, about rabbits, and for rabbits." He states outright that he does not believe the stories are fascist, but in a second essay he is harsher on both SF and fantasy. He calls many popular writers of both genres "crypto-fascists" and makes reference to Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream, in which an alternate universe Hitler writes a high-fantasy epic instead of taking over Europe: most fantasists are "failed Hitlers."
"Epic Pooh" is unfair to Tolkien at many points, but the central argument that there are noxious ideas lurking not far beneath the surface of his work, ideas that have been unwittingly copied by later, often inferior writers, is broadly correct. These ideas are to some extent baked into the cake—before Tolkien there was, yes, Wagner, and before Wagner was Snorri. Tolkien drew in part from Norse mythology, and this means writing about distinct races with universal characteristics, in constant conflict and so alien to each other that intermarriage between them is literally unthinkable (what would the offspring of a Nibelung and a fire giant look like?). Anyone writing post-Tolkien is in the uncomfortable situation of having to either blindly follow the leader or risk alienating readers by innovating. Most fantasy authors have shown us that they are not up to the challenge.
One of Wagner's most enthusiastic contemporary supporters was George Bernard Shaw. In his first career as a music critic, Shaw advocated tirelessly for a wider appreciation of Wagner both as a musical and dramatic genius. The composer, a political radical who sided with the revolutionaries in the uprisings of 1848-49, was a champion of the socialist ideas that Shaw also held. In "The Perfect Wagnerite," Shaw provides a commentary on The Ring of the Nibelung, the only one existing by a writer who was both socialist and musician.
It is worthwhile to go through Shaw's exposition of The Rhine Gold, which foreshadows his reading of the rest of the cycle. According to Shaw, Alberich is only too eager to forswear love and steal the Rhine gold because, after being taunted by the Rhine maidens, "he now knows that life will give him nothing that he cannot wrest from it by the Plutonic power." Having fashioned the gold into a ring, Alberich
is soon at work wielding the power of the gold. For his gain, hordes of his fellow-creatures are thenceforth condemned to slave miserably, overground and underground, lashed to their work by the invisible whip of starvation. They never see him, any more than the victims of our "dangerous trades" ever see the shareholders whose power is nevertheless everywhere, driving them to destruction. The very wealth they create with their labour becomes an additional force to impoverish them; for as fast as they make it it slips from their hands into the hands of the master, and makes him mightier than ever.
Meanwhile, the gods are in a bind. They are wise enough to live and govern well, but their subjects are not, and "Godhead, face to face with Stupidity, must compromise." Since their subjects are not capable of understanding it, they cannot impose a "pure law of thought," but must settle for commands to be obeyed on pain of punishment. But as their thoughts evolve, these laws quickly become out of date. The gods, unable to simply defy these laws and annihilate their authority, are thereby caught in a web of rules simultaneously of their own creation and contrary to their wills. Wagner's Odin sees a way out of this: manipulate other, less savvy actors into bringing about the end of the gods' rule and the beginning of something greater: the Wälsungs, a race of heroes.
The Ring of the Nibelung is a resounding statement of nineteenth-century socialist ideals and, through Shaw, it has had a tremendous influence that is still felt today. But like Shaw, Wagner had a seedy underside to his brand of leftism. For Shaw, it was supporting eugenics and some very strange ideas about human evolution. For Wagner, it was a fierce anti-semitism so nakedly small-minded and vicious it would make the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan blush.
In 1850, Wagner published an essay called "Das Judentum in der Musik," variously translated as "Judaism in Music" or "Jewishness in Music." This infamous article attacks the very idea that Jews are capable of being artists. Wagner claims that Jews, being unattached to any European culture, cannot grasp any but the most superficially appealing aspects of European music. He devotes the final pages to an attack on the then enormously popular Jewish composers Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer (which is made even more bitter by the fact that Mendelssohn had been his friend and Meyerbeer had been instrumental in securing the premiere of Rienzi). This unpleasant screed divulged Wagner's personal views, but what does it have to do with his music?
Wagnerians have traditionally defended the composer by two methods: faint praise (he had Jewish friends, he never called for anyone's death) and separating the man from the music, which, they claim, surely cannot be anti-semitic. Deryck Cooke argues that Wagner never introduced his racist theories into his art, and that Wotan is an anti-Hitlerian leader who refuses to rule by brute force. However, he admits that the dwarf Mime, brother of Alberich, might be a Jewish caricature, and thereby gives up half the game.
If some productions cast and direct Mime and Alberich as snivelling, crawling Fagins and Siegfried as a virile blond-haired Aryan Übermensch, they are only emphasizing what is already present in the text. At the beginning of Siegfried, Mime (Siegfried's adoptive father) is attempting to make a sword that Siegfried cannot break. When Siegfried returns home, he brings a bear with him to frighten Mime. He pushes Mime around, breaks the sword, ridicules his effort. This is the first scene in the entire drama. Mime has appeared only once before, as one of the oppressed Nibelungs under Alberich. We have no reason to wish him ill. Of course, Mime eventually schemes to bring about Siegfried's death, but this is only after Siegfried's cruelty to him. The implication of this scene is that Mime's Jewishness, in itself, is sufficient evidence of his debased character to justify the mistreatment he suffers. In the end, Siegfried kills the unarmed Mime after the dwarf's poisoning plot fails, and this is supposed to be understood as justice served rather than cold-blooded murder.
Long after his death, Wagner went on to become Hitler's favourite composer. Cooke speculates that this is simply a matter of Hitler's fondness for powerful brass chords. However, he was not fond of the same chords in the music of the Jewish Mahler: he may have been a fan of the late-nineteenth-century eight-horn school of composition, but only if it aligned with his racial ideas. The business with Mime outlined above, along with the preoccupation with the racial purity of the Wälsungs (leading to the incest of Siegmund and Sieglinde) and the constant background assumption that Jewishness is revolting and obviously depraved, must surely have endeared the Ring cycle to someone like Hitler.
So how culpable is Wagner? He never called for anyone's extermination. He never personally harmed anyone as a result of his anti-semitism. But he did provide a stirring work of art with anti-semitic themes, backed up by an article that helped to lay down the intellectual foundations (such as they are) of Nazism. While he died before Hitler was born and cannot be blamed for things that happened in a century that he never saw, ostracization, ethnic cleansing, and death camps were not distortions of his ideas, but extensions of them. He is culpable by exactly that much.
Now, to bring the topic back to epic fantasy: in recent years, there have been occasional instances of more sensitive handling of race in fantasy. For instance, China Miéville's Perdido Street Station explores the romance between a human man and a bug-person woman. He shows several different races that are often in conflict, but this conflict is carefully perpetuated by their oppressors to keep them from banding together. But on the whole, we're still stuck with fiction in which the idea of an "evil race" is considered tenable and in which everything must be restored to its proper place. Today's fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, has a warrior-race (dark-skinned, of course) that holds life cheap, treats women as property, and has murderous brawls for entertainment at weddings.
In short, fantasy has always had a problem with racist and quasi-fascist sentiments creeping in, whether by accident (as in Tolkien) or with the author's enthusiastic approval (as in Robert E. Howard). This problem is getting better as the field becomes more diverse, but it hasn't gone away and isn't likely to without concerted effort. So why drag up Wagner, then? Surely that just makes things worse. Well, first, there's the indisputable fact that, whatever its flaws, The Ring of the Nibelung is a fantasy of tremendous artistic weight. But even leaving that aside, there are two lessons we can learn from Wagner.
The Ring is a powerful statement of noble humanistic ideals. The work's fantastic nature is what makes this possible. Fantasy and SF are great vehicles for political drama because it is easy to imagine societies structured in ways radically different from our own without shocking the reader. The timeless trappings of fantasy can give these dramas a resonant, mythic feel. I believe, with Moorcock, that "a stirring image is a stirring image" and this power can be used for good or evil. In Wagner as in many cases, it's a bit of both, and the ambiguity is "capable of suggesting a wholly different meaning to certain readers." Fantasy matters, maybe even more than realism, and it can be a powerful tool to sway the hearts and minds of the people. This is Wagner's first lesson.
The second lesson is that fixing fantasy's Nazi problem, and owning up to it in older works, is a task of supreme urgency. It is scarcely possible anymore to talk of Wagner without dragging up Hitler. This is an indelible black mark on the Ring, forever lessening its impact as a work of humanistic grandeur. While I happen to think we're better off with Wagner than without, many people have given up on him, and it's hard to blame them. By publishing "Jewishness in Music," Wagner made it impossible to discuss his work without disclaiming whole swaths of it. This is surely not the fate we want for Tolkien, or even George R. R. Martin, should the world's next great psychopath happen to wear a neckbeard rather than a mustache.
Under no circumstances should we unreservedly embrace an artist as dangerous as Wagner is. But The Ring of the Nibelung is a part of our history. Like all history, parts of it are unpleasant and need to be disclaimed or reconciled with modern sensibilities. We cannot, however, afford to ignore it.
. J. R. R. Tolkien to Allen & Unwin, 23 February 1961, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 306.
. Selections from Shaw's music criticism, including a long section on Wagner, can be found in The Great Composers, ed. Louis Crompton.
. George Bernard Shaw, "The Perfect Wagnerite" in Major Critical Essays (London: Constable, 1948), 172-3.
. Shaw, "Wagnerite," 174.
. This paragraph is a summary of Shaw, 174-185.
. The latter are outlined in the preface to Back to Methuselah. While they are both bizarre and unscientific, attempting to think of them in terms of a "debate" about evolution versus creationism is futile.
. Richard Wagner, "Judaism in Music" in Richard Wagner: Stories and Essays, trans. Charles Osborne (London: Peter Owen, 1973), 27.
. Wagner, "Judaism," 31-2.
. Deryck Cooke, I Saw the World End (London: Oxford University Press, 1991), 265.
. Cooke, I Saw, 264n8. Interestingly, the esteemed Wagner conductor Gustav Mahler, a Jew who had converted to Christianity, saw Mime as an anti-semitic caricature, and liked the part all the more for it. Cooke quotes Mahler saying, "No doubt with Mime, Wagner intended to ridicule the Jews (with all their characteristic traits—petty intelligence and greed—the jargon is textually and musically so cleverly suggested) . . . I know of only one Mime, and that is myself."
. E.g., the Pierre Boulez production with the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, available on video from Deutsche Grammophon.
. This is only one example that barely scratches the surface. For a more detailed (and critical) reading of anti-semitism in the Ring, see Paul Lawrence Rose, Wagner: Race and Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992). The words of both Shaw and Wagner himself are also illuminating.
. I Saw, 263n7.
Cooke, Deryck. I Saw the World End: A Study of Wagner's Ring. London: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Moorcock, Michael. "Epic Pooh," revised for publication in Revolution SF.
Moorcock, Michael. "Starship Stormtroopers", as published by Cienfuegos Press Anarchist Review.
Shaw, George Bernard. "The Perfect Wagnerite" in Major Critical Essays, 151-279. London: Constable, 1948.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
Wagner, Richard. "Judaism in Music [Das Judentum in der Musik]" in Richard Wagner: Stories and Essays, 23-39. Translated and edited by Charles Osborne. London: Peter Owen, 1973.