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Tolkien vs. Wagner (and a paean to Mahler)

Well, there's a subject-line practically guaranteed to make kalimac shudder.

Whether or not Wagner's Ring Cycle had any direct influence on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, I've found some interesting analytical comparisons of the rings in the two works. The best thing I've read so far is Jamie McGregor's Two rings to rule them all: a comparative study of Tolkien and Wagner, which was originally published in the journal Mythlore. This piece goes through each work side-by-side identifying eight points, or stages, of comparison, and it's perhaps most enlightening in the way that it identifies various ways in which Tolkien's treatment of his Ring could be considered a critique of or response to Wagner's treatment of his. One fascinating point of comparison is how the two works view the attitudes of two innocents, Siegfried in Wagner and Tom Bombadil in Tolkien, toward the respective rings of power. Now there's a comparison I never would have thought to make! I was also struck by the point that the Ring Cycle ends on a utopian note of a fresh, clean world reborn from the ashes of the old, where in Tolkien it is still a fallen world, albeit one where evil has been defeated for the moment.

This point was restated in a way that jolted me when I read it yesterday: 'Where both works suggest that the world will continue going from bad to worse, and both locate final redemption beyond "the circles of the world" (LotR App.A.1035), Tolkien eschews Wagner's implied death-wish for an aching nostalgia for life reminiscent of late Mahler.' This comment is footnoted as follows: 'Arthur Morgan once suggested to me that a spiritual affinity can be sensed between Das Lied von der Erde, for example, and Bilbo's farewell song in Rivendell.' The jolt here comes because I've been listening to Mahler lately, and of the four major works I've listened to -- the Third Symphony, the Fourth Symphony, the Eighth Symphony, and the song cycle Das Lied von der Erde -- it is the wistful Das Lied von der Erde that I've fallen in love with. Although I should also say that having now heard some Wagner, it's opening up Mahler's symphonies to me as well. (Mahler was the director of the Court Opera in Vienna for a number of years and was noted for his interpretations of Wagner's operas.)

(BTW, there's plenty of crap written about Wagner vs. Tolkien too. For an example of something written by somebody who really doesn't get Tolkien -- although he does have interesting things to say about Howard Shore's Wagnerian music for the LotR movies -- I give you Alex Ross' "The Ring and the Rings".)



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(Deleted comment)
Aug. 14th, 2013 03:08 pm (UTC)
It's true that the world is flowering again at the end of LOTR, and old wounds are healing. I think the difference is that in Wagner, at least in the production of Gotterdammerung I saw, the world has returned to a state of innocence, whereas in Tolkien the scars are still there. The Scouring of the Shire is the result of hard lessons learned, not of a return to innocence. (For an example of innocence in Tolkien, see Tom Bombadil.)
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