5. Tolkien's Ring and Der Ring des Nibelungen

Tolkien did not like Wagner and his interpretations of the German myths. "He delighted his friends with recitations from Beowulf, the Pearl, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and recounted horrific episodes from the Norse Volsungasaga, with a passing jibe at Wagner whose interpretation of the myths he held in contempt" [193] and "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.' [194]

The origin of the Nibelung's Ring was different to start with. It derived from the sacred Rhinegold, kept and preserved by the Rhinemaidens. They have been charged by their father to guard the treasure so that no false thief should carry it from the waters.

They also reveal that if the Rhinegold is worked into a Ring, it will have inestimable power;

    Alberich: Is the Gold of value
    only for your diving play?
    Then it would be of little use to me.

    Woglinde: He would not abuse
    the golden ornament
    if he knew all its wonders.

    Wellgunde: Inheritance of the world
    would be won by the man
    who from the Rhinegold
    could fashion the Ring
    that would bestow limitless power on him. [195]

However, there is a price to be paid;

    Woglinde: Only he who has
    renounced love's sway,
    only he who has spurned
    the sweets of sensual enjoyment,
    that man alone may attain the necessary magic
    to turn the Gold into a ring.

    Wellgunde: We are safe indeed
    and free from worry:
    since all that lives would love
    and no one will shun love. [196]

The loathsome Nibelung Alberich, having been taunted by the Rhinemaidens, and having had his advances rejected, elects to take the Rhinegold and to forsake love.

    Alberich: If I might win inheritance
    of the world for myself through thee!
    Though I failed to win live,
    yet with cunning could I perhaps extort delight?
    Mock on, then!
    The Nibelung approaches your plaything....
    Then make love in darkness,
    watery brood!
    I extinguish your light,
    I snatch the Gold from the crag,
    I will forge the avenging Ring;
    for - let the waters hear me -
    thus do I curse love!" [197]

He then returns to Nibelheim where he creates the Ring.

The existence of the Ring is revealed to Wotan, chief of the Gods, by Loge. Wotan has to pay the giants Fafner and Fasolt for the construction of Valhalla. The original transaction was that Freia, Goddess of Youth, would be given to them as payment. However, the consideration is renegotiated, and it is agreed that enough gold to cover Freia will be paid instead. This gold must be obtained, and the only place where such an amount exists is Nibelheim. The cunning Loge, who negotiated the original transaction, puts the matter this way;

Loge:....I sought in vain,
and now can see full well
in the whole world
nothing is precious enough
to satisfy a man in substitute
for the delight and worth of a woman!
Wherever life does move,
in water, on land and in the air,
I sought diligently.
I have enquired of all,
wherever force does rouse
and buds do spring:
what do men deem
more potent
than delight and worth of woman?
But no matter where life stirs
my questioning guile
met only with derision.
In water, on earth and in the air
naught will forgo
love and woman.
Only one did I see
who had renounced love -
for red gold
he had forgone the favour of woman.
The pure daughters of the Rhine
lamented their woe to me.
The Nibelung
black Alberich
had courted the favour
of the swimmers in vain;
in revenge the thief
stole the Rhinegold there.
Now it seems the most
precious good to him,
more sublime than token of woman's love.
but should any man succeed in forging it
into a round hoop,
it would help that man to the highest power
and win him the whole world.

Wotan: Of the Rhinegold
I have heard it whispered
that runes of booty
lie hidden in its golden lustre;
a ring would provide
power and riches beyond all measure.

Frika: Would the bright ornamentation
of the golden trinket
be suitable, too,
for the adornment of women?

Loge: A husband's fidelity
would the woman exact
who wore
the bright and gleaming jewel
forged by dwarfs
toiling under the spell of the Ring....

Wotan: Methinks it would be wise
to command the Ring.
But how, Loge,
could I come by the skill?
How could I forge the trinket?

Loge: A magic rune
forces the Gold into a ring;
no one knows it.
But he who renounces blessed love
may easily practise it.
That does not appeal to you;
you have come too late, in any case -
Alberich did not hesitate.
Bravely he won
the magic power -
he has succeeded in forging the Ring!

Donner: The dwarf would make
slaves of us all,
if the Ring be not wrested from him.198

Alberich has compelled his brother and chief smith Mime to craft a Tarnhelm which will allow the wearer to change into anything he wishes. Alberich harasses Mime, and invokes the power of the Ring;

Alberich:....Nibelungs all
bow down now before Alberich!
Omnipresent now he lurks on every side
to keep his eye on you;
rest and repose
are gone;
you must work for him,
where you cannot see him;
there where you are least aware of him,
beware of him still:
you are his slaves for ever!199

Loge and Wotan go to the underground world seeking the Ring. They discover from Mime precisely what Alberich has done;

Mime: With wicked artifice
Alberich has made himself
a golden Ring
from the Rhinegold:
marvelling, we tremble
before its magic power;
with it he coerces us all -
dark legion of Nibelungs.
Carefree smiths,
once we used to make
jewellery for our women,
pretty ornaments,
neat Nibelungen trinkets;
we used to laugh gaily as we worked.
Now the wretch forces us
to slither into crevices;
for him alone
must we toil for evermore.
Through the Gold of the Ring
his cupidity divines
where new lustre
lies buried in the shafts:
there must we search,
trace and dig,
smelt the booty
and forge the molten ore,
without rest or repose
to pile up the hoard for our master.200

Alberich then appears and reveals his plans;

Alberich:...I plan to work wonders -
the whole world I win with it for my own....
You who laugh and love,
cradled in gentle breezes,
up above there where you dwell -
with my golden fist
I will capture all you godly folk!
As I have renounced love,
so all things living
shall renounce it:
lured by gold
you shall ever lust for gold alone.201

However he is tricked by the cunning Loge and captured. He is taken back to the upper world and there forced to disgorge his treasure. In addition, Wotan requires him to surrender the Ring202. This is accompanied by the hideous curse that Alberich lays upon the Ring.

Alberich:...As it came to me through a curse,
may this Ring be accursed!
Its Gold gave me
unmeasured power,
now its magic shall breed
death for him who wears it!
No joyful man
shall have joy of it,
on no happy man
shall its bright gleam smile!
Care shall consume
whoever possesses it,
and whoever possesses it not,
envy shall gnaw!
All shall lust
after its possession,
but none shall delight
in its use!
Its lord shall guard it without profit,
yet it shall attract his destroyer to him!
Predestined to die,
let fear fetter the craven;
while he lives
let the lord
of the Ring waste away
as the slave of the Ring,
until I hold it once more in my hand
that which has been stolen from me!
Thus, in
direst distress
the Nibelung blesses his Ring!
guard it well:
you shall not escape my curse!203

Thus Wotan, in taking the Ring, is doubly cursed. He has forsaken love, and he is subject to Alberich's curse of the Ring. His danger is presaged by Erda the Earth-mother;

Erda: Yield, Wotan, yield!
Fly from the Ring's curse!
Utter ruin
past salvation,
its gain will bring you....
A doom-laden day
is dawning for the gods:
I counsel you, shun the Ring!204

But Wotan does not hold the Ring for long. It passes to the giants as part of the fee for Valhalla, and in an argument that follows, Fafner kills Fasolt, and departs with the hoard, Tarnhelm, Ring and all. He uses the Tarnhelm to assume the shape of a hideous dragon, and re-appears in Siegfried.

The nature of the Ring is further revealed in Wotan's aria to Brunnhilde where he says;

Wotan: When the pleasure of youthful
love began to wane
my mettlesome spirit craved for power.
Spurred on by the fury
of sudden precipitate desires,
I won for myself the world.
Deceitful all unwitting,
I practised treachery,
and bound by treaties
that which harboured evil:
Loge tempted me craftily,
now he's vanished wandering.
But I could not
let loving go -
in my might I longed for love:
born of the night,
the fearful Nibelung,
Alberich, broke its chains;
he cursed love,
and won, through the curse,
the glittering Gold of the Rhine
and with it limitless power.
The ring he wrought
I wrested from him by cunning:
but I did not give it
back to the Rhine.
With it I paid for
the battlements of Valhalla,
the stronghold the giants built me,
from whence I then rules the world.
She who knows all
that has ever been,
Erda, the hallowed
wisest of Walas,
warned me against the ring,
prophesied doom everlasting.
I have touched Alberich's ring -
I clung avidly to the gold!
The curse I fled from
does not now fly from me:
what love I must forsake,
kill what I hold most dear,
deceitfully betray
him who trusts me!
Farewell, then,
glory and pomp,
divine splendour's
flaunting shame!
Let what I erected crumble!
I relinquish my work,
one thing alone I still desire,
the End -
the End!
And for that end
Alberich schemes
A woman is carrying
the fruit of hate;
the force of envy
stirs in her womb:205

The woman is Grimhilde, queen of the Gibichungs and Alberich's child referred to by Wotan is Hagen who appears as Siegfried's nemesis in Gotterdammerung.

The future lies in the hands of Siegfried, a young man who knows no fear. He is the child of the incestuous union of Siegmund and Sieglinde (both offspring of Wotan) and he is raised by Mime. He reforges the magic sword Nothung and slays the dragon Fafner, and takes the Ring. It has been Mime's plan to poison Siegfried and take the Ring for himself, but Siegfried is warned of this by a forest bird whose speech he can understand, having tasted the blood of Fafner, a drop of which fell on his finger. He slays Mime and then goes forth to release Brunnhilde the Valkyrie whom Wotan has cast into sleep and surrounded by Magic Fire. Only a hero without fear will win her.

Siegfried is the classic hero. He resembles Parsifal in his child-like simplicity. He is a child of nature, able to understand the natural world and the speech of birds and animals. He cannot be wounded except in the back, an attribute that is given him by Brunnhilde. He is fearless, and accordingly would turn his back on nothing. He is the salvation of the world. As Wotan says;

"Alberich's curse is impotent
before the noble youth,
for fear remains outside his ken.
The hero will fondly awake
her whom you bore here,
Waking, your child of Wisdom
will perform
a world redeeming act."206

Although Siegfried is the classic hero, and wins Brunnhilde, the machinations of Hagen lead to his downfall. He is eventually slain, and Brunnhilde in grief at deception and realisation that she too has been a victim of Hagen's dealings, leaps into Siegfried's funeral pyre with the Ring. The fire leaps up to consume Valhalla, and the Rhine breaks its banks. The Rhinemaidens triumphantly recover the Ring and their lost gold, and the inference is that the world is renewed.

In essence, therefore, Wagner's Ring is about the power of love juxtaposed against the love of power. It has also been described as the rape of the purity of Nature in the pursuit of power. Whatever power the Ring has, any evil associated with it comes from without, or from the curses. Unlike Sauron's Ring, it does not have or possess the evil power of its maker. In addition, there are no associated Rings over which it has control.

The Ring is not inherently evil. But whoever takes the Ring takes it subject to its curses. In addition, the Ring functions as a means to power. It is the love of power that attracts. It does not have the addictive qualities that are manifested in Gollum, Bilbo and Frodo. But it does have power inherent within it. But that power must be evil, for there is no love associated with it. The power that is given by the Ring could not be used for a beneficial or altruistic purpose, since such purpose requires love as a pre-condition. This being so, there is no matter in contention about the Ring. It is claimed by both Gods, Men and Nibelungs. The Wagnerian cosmos is somewhat simplistic207and there is no essential conflict between Good and Evil. The Gods, Nibelungs and Men are flawed. Tolkien's cosmos and creation in The Lord of the Rings is far more detailed, being part of an overall created mythology, with all of the major cosmological ingredients present. The Elves, as preservers and protectors of creation are not present, although reference is made by Alberich to Wotan as "lichtalben" (light-elf) and to himself as "schwarzalben" (dark-elf).208 Beyond this, any similarity ceases. There arises no issue regarding the destruction of Wagner's Ring, for it is not seen as wholly evil. The issues are whether or not a person will take it subject to its curses and by doing so deny their humanity, and whether the Ring should return to the Rhine whence the Gold came.

Wagner's Ring induces in those who do not have it, a lust to possess it. But it has no animus of its own. It is not irretrievably bound to its Maker. The power that is within it is a magical power derived from its source - the Rhinegold.

It is perhaps simplistic to say that the only similarity that the two Rings have is that they are round, and in saying that I believe Tolkien was being dismissive of Wagner's dealings with German myth. There are similarities, but they are broad and general similarities. Both the Rings are symbols of power and carry power within them. Both the Rings carry with them an ability to inspire a lust for power upon those who do not possess them. Possession of the Ring carries a price to be paid. To take the Ring is an exercise in choice.

Both Tolkien and Wagner were aware of and drew upon the Norse and Teutonic myths. The names of the dwarves in The Hobbit appear in the Poetic Edda, which was one of Wagner's sources, along with the Volsungasaga and the Niebelungenlied. The incestuous union between brother and sister is a common theme in other Northern European myths209, and appears in the Tale of Turin Turambar in The Silmarillion.

Any student of Northern European and early Teutonic culture would be aware of the importance of the "finger-ring" as a token. It was not only a means of adornment, but had a very special significance. Rings were regarded as treasure or wealth. They had a social status. Rings were prized as gifts, to be given and received. That Sauron uses the Rings that he gives to enslave indicates a perversion of the traditional basis of exchanging rings. Rings were then, as now, exchanged in marriage, and were material signs of welcome. Two rings feature significantly in the Norse tales - Draupnir, which appears in the prose Edda, and Andvaranaut (Andvari's Ring) which features in the tale of Ottar's Ransom and which appears in the Prose Edda and the Volsungasaga.

The concept of the Ring as giving the owner mastery of the world was Wagner's own contribution to the myth of the Ring. This power would attract to any wielder of the Ring. Tolkien's Ring gave power according to stature. Gollum could not have ruled the world with it. The evil that was present in Wagner's Ring flowed from the rejection of love (the curse of the Rhinegold) and the destruction of the wearer (Alberich's curse). Wagner could not conceive that man would reject love, but the lust for gold and the power that it brought was a powerful motivator, possibly the strongest after love. Thus, Wagner posits one primal desire against another. Tolkien's Ring works far more subtly, playing upon the desires and wishes and particular motives of those who come upon it.

In terms of creative background, both Rings have a common ancestry and, as ingredients of a mythological setting, have certain symbolic similarities. But it is quite clear that Tolkien's work owes nothing to Der Ring des Nibelungen, and it is impossible to draw comparisons between the two works. The few similarities that there are operate as faint and disparate echoes of one another, coming from a distant and common source.

One Ring to Rule Them All by David Harvey
The Tolkien Encyclopedia
The Art of Tolkien
One Ring to Rule Them All by David Harvey

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