Wagner and Tolkien

Wagner and Tolkien: Mythmakers is a book by Renée Vink.

Book cover of Wagner and Tolkien: Mythmakers, which depicts a couple birds flying to the left in a beige abstract cloudy sky

I went looking for a book that let me leverage what I know of Tolkien to access the inner workings of Wagner’s Ring story. This book very much succeeded. I felt fully briefed on the origins of Wagner’s story and the thematic similarities and differences from The Lord of the Rings. Various other of Tolkien’s works feature prominently as well, such as The Children of Hurin and Tolkien’s own treatment of the Sigurd story. I felt like a genius for noticing that both these artists were philologists who were adapting material that inspired them, and seeking such a book!

Here are some notes that will convey what I felt was important from the book.

The medieval myths

Wagner was working earlier in the arc of philological knowledge than Tolkien, but we can think of them both as being inspired by Germanic and Norse/Icelandic poems and legends.

We’re dealing here in particular with the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda and the Völsunga saga, all written in Old Norse in the 13th century. In addition there is the middle-high German adaptation, also from the 13th century, the Nibelungenlied.

Two philologists

The goals of these two artists were similar, in that both were fascinated by this medieval material, and wanted to adapt it and convert it into stories that were relevant to their national identity. Some notes:

  • Wagner read the original stories for inspiration. He didn’t try to do a straight adaptation.
  • The Ring seemed to many folks afterward to be more authentic than the originals, despite all Wagner’s additions!
  • Tolkien did such things too – creating material but pretending it was just missing before. It let him (Tolkien) combine his fiction writing with his scholarly research. What better way to explain your hypothesis about the resolution of conflicting data than to write the missing story?
  • The Völsunga saga compiler did something similar, compiling earlier stories into their own version.
  • Wagner didn’t think the Nibelungenlied felt authentic enough, or mythic enough, but when he was shown the Eddas he was inpsired.
  • Opinions differ on how much Old Norse Wagner knew. It was not none. But he owned both original Eddas and translations.
  • Both used archaic vocabulary, for example in Wagner: Friedel (lover), Wal (bodies of slain warriors), Mage (kinsman), Minne (love), Mut (mood).
  • Both used archaic grammar (inversions), e.g. in LotR, “Only to the North these tidings came.”
  • Both used wordplay, for example in Wagner zur Wal kor ich ihn mir (I chose him to be among the slain), playing on the meaning of Valkyrie.
  • This blew my mind: the whole Ring is in alliterative verse, like the Old Norse was!
    • alliterative verse has rules for repeating consonants in a pattern like c c / c x or c x / c x or others.
    • for example the line Schwarzes, schwieliges / Schwefelgezwerg!
    • Wagner bent a few rules, but the full rules weren’t inferred until later in the 19th century so we forgive him.

Shared adapted elements

Tom Shippey calls Wagner’s Ring the most important medieval adaptation of the 19th century, and Lord of the Rings the most important of the 20th. Here are the elements of Wagner’s Ring that are shared with Tolkien’s Rings, and which have common origin in the medieval texts:

  • Slaying a dragon (Eddas, Völsunga saga)
  • Ring-quarrelling relatives (Poetic Edda)
  • Reforged sword (Völsunga saga)
  • Hiding in a cave with the ring (Eddas)
  • Riddle game (Poetic Edda)
  • Dwarves as creators of artifacts (Eddas)

Shared original elements

This section is the main point. Wagner made the ring in his story much more significant than it had been in the medieval stories. He also focused on the nature of power. Tolkien’s story has many parallels to this Wagner-specific material. This is therefore the piece that points most clearly to an influence from Wagner to Tolkien. The agenda of this book is to clear away many noisy discussions to ascertain what is the cleanest evidence, internal to the stories, that there may have been such influence.

Recall though that Tolkien is not adapting the original myths and Wagner is. Tolkien did adapt the original myths though (in The New Lay of the Völsungs and The New Lay of Gudrún)! Vink’s book looks at those, but I’m skipping them here.

  • Both rings grant “world domination”, and both rings seem to grant this proportional to stature: Gollum and Alberich do not gain much power.
  • The ring (or its tarnhelm sibling) grants invisibility.
  • Fear of death fuels the desire for power.
    • Wagner: and this causes lovelessness
    • Tolkien: it causes rebellion against God to gain power over life and death
  • Nature is very important. There are personifications thereof (Rhinemaidens, ents).
  • Tolkien is interested in good vs evil. Wagner is interested in love vs power. Here lie many dissertations.


Both men wrote a lot about their process and their opinions. Here are some key points that separate them.

  • Tolkien: fantasy is about creating a secondary world. But dramatizing it (meaning, on stage) creates in effect a tertiary world of actors and effects, and it’s never successful.
    • In fantasy (prose) one can say “there was bread on the table,” and the reader fills in the sensory and evocative detail. On stage one must choose a specific loaf.
  • But perhaps they are not so far apart: Wagner was against hyper-realism on stage (though he overdid it anyway).
  • Wagner uses music to convey much of the drama. This is the most important point that’s not explored by the agenda of this particular book.
  • Is the Ring a tragedy, and LotR a comedy (or Tolkien’s word, eucatastrophe)? Some people see it that way.
    • But both stories end with a mythical age coming to an end, and the world ready to begin again with more mundane people. So maybe not so different.

What did Tolkien think of Wagner’s Ring?

  • There’s no evidence he heard an entire Ring cycle. Possibly Siegfried. But he read the libretto, possibly only Die Walküre.
  • One encounters that Tolkien said “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.”
    • This is in “Letter 230” to his publisher Allen & Unwin.
    • But he was not referring to Wagner’s Ring, he was referring to the Norse sagas!
    • 90% of Tolkien-Wagner discourse is rendered moot by this observation.

Appendix: königsproblem

Vink’s book spends some time observing that the medieval stories are contradictory on a certain plot point, and that Wagner and Tolkien both knew this and had their separate solutions. This raises the whole process whereby a modern creator decides to fill in gaps in older material, as a way of adapting and extending that material. This is one of the things that I love about Tolkien, and so it helped transfer some of that adoration to Wagner.

The question for philologists was: what was the matter with the ring cursed by Andvari, found by Sigurd in the dragon’s hoard, such that Brynhild demanded Sigurd’s death? It arises from a gap in the Poetic Edda (we are missing most of the Great Lay of Sigurd). The Prose Edda and Nibelungenlied contradict each other.

It became known that all of these medieval sources are adaptations of a 5th century story. What was the story? Wagner came up with a solution.

Tolkien came up with another in The New Lay of the Völsungs (Tom Shippey wrote a nerdy inside joke: “Perhaps the ‘New Lay’ was meant to fill out the ‘Old Lay,’ and the ‘Short Lay,’ and so replace the ‘Great Lay.’)

The drama elements at issue are something like this:

  1. Sigurd meets Brynhild.
  2. Sigurd gives Brynhild a ring (sometimes it’s Andvaranaut).
  3. Sigurd meets Gunnar.
  4. Sigurd agrees to win Brynhild for Gunnar by taking Gunnar’s form.
  5. Sigurd does this and moreover lays with Brynhild.
  6. Sigurd takes from her the above ring to mark the conquest (all in Gunnar’s form).
  7. Sigurd wins Gudrun.
  8. Sigurd gives Gudrun the ring.
  9. Gudrun taunts Brynhild that Sigurd slept with her, and as proof shows her her ring.
  10. Brynhild is humiliated.

Wagner’s solution was to have the ring be The Ring, eliminate 7-9, and replace these with Brünhilde seeing the ring on Siegfried’s finger.

Tolkien’s solution was hard for me to differentiate from my own 1-10 above, probably because he was hewing closer to the source material and I am too dense to see the subtle distinctions.

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I am a software engineer and mathematician. I work on NLP algorithms for Apple News, and research homotopy type theory in CMU’s philosophy department.