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A TALE OF TWO RINGS: EPIC AND ARCHETYPE IN TOLKIEN’S “LORD OF THE RINGS“ & WAGNER’S “THE RING OF THE NIBELUNGEN”—PLUS “THE NORSE PROSE EDDA,” “THE VOLSUNGA SAGA” AND THE “NIBELUNGENLIED”—–FROM THE WORLD LITERATURE FORUM RECOMMENDED CLASSICS AND MASTERPIECES SERIES VIA GOODREADS—-ROBERT SHEPPARD, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
THE TALE OF THE TWO RINGS: TOLKIEN’S “LORD OF THE RINGS” AND WAGNER’S “RING OF THE NIBELUNGEN”
J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” is one of the most beloved fantasy epics of modern World Literature, celebrated in the film adaptaion of Peter Jackson, read and re-read by devotees from childhood to old age, bringing to life through its magic not only the creation of the epic imagined world of “Middle Earth” inhabited by such immortal characters as Gandalf, Frodo, Bilbo, Sauron and Aragorn, but also a complete alternative history and spiritual cosmology of the universe. I enjoyed reading all of Tolkien’s works immensely as well as re-experiencing them in film, and have always felt in the presence of greatness with his works. But that grand creation was not made from the whole cloth of Tolkien’s pure imagination alone but rather built upon a great tradition derived from World Literature, most notably drawing upon the “Ring of the Nibelungen” (Der Ring des Nibelungen)or Ring Cycle operas of Richard Wagner, as well as the many forerunners Tolkien himself studied and taught ss a Professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford, such as the Norse and early Germanic “Prose Edda,” the “Volsunga Saga” and the “Nibelungenlied.”
Noticing the many similarities and shared motifs between Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas and Tolkien’s epic, some harping critics even went so far as to claim that Tolkien had plagiarized much of his creation from Wagner. This unfair accusation ignores the reality that all great writers build upon a “Great Tradition” as referred to by T.S. Eliot which is bequeathed with generosity to them to freely utilize and adapt as the common heritage of mankind freely invested in its own future development. Horace in his “Ars Poetica” (Art of Poetry) boasted that he often “stole” working materials from the classics, qualified by his mitigating insistence on exercising the good taste to “steal only from the best.”
Indeed, great writers not only have great license to take from the Great Tradition in order to extend and strengthen it, but also find common roots in the myths and archetypes of the “Collective Unconscious” identified by the celebrated psychologist C.G. Jung also as the common spiritual capital of humanity. Thus Vergil’s “Aeneid” drew heavily upon Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the great plays and tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides drew freely upon such sagas and mythic lore as Oedipus and the Greek Gods, and the Chinese epic “Journey to the West” of the Monkey-King drew on the similar figure of Hanuman from the Indian classic “The Ramayana” of Valmiki. Indeed the Bible itself, a most plundered source of borrowings, counsels us to judge value by the fruits of the borrowing rather than by mere roots and fertilizing: “By their fruits you will know them.” Matthew 7:16.
Tolkien himself, questioned on the similarity, said “The two Rings have in common that they are both round, and beyond that they are completely different.” In this he was being a bit rhetorically disingenuous, as the common elements in both great works are more fundamental than superficial. First, the central quest and plot device of a struggle over a Ring of Power, capable of conferring on its bearer mastery of the world, but also bearing a curse of corruption and self-destruction necessitating its removal from the world gives to both works a common central dynamic. Tolkien, who once undertook a common project with C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia Saga, to translate Wagner’s Ring Cycle together, was intimately aware of Wagner’s narrative, along with the sources from which Wagner himself borrowed, such as the Nibelungenlied and the Norse Volsunga Saga.
Secondly, from Wagner Tolkien also took as models or sources of inspiration several other key elements of the Hobbit cycle, including outlines of some of of the key characters. In Wagner’s Nibelungen Ring perhaps the most central character is a dwarf who initially possesses the Ring of Power, Alberich. Alberich initially creates the Ring of Power in the first opera, “The Rhinegold” (Das Rheingold) from enchanted gold stolen from the river-spirit Rhinemaidens, which he is able to do only after renouncing all love, which he does after the beautiful Rhinemaidens spurn his love, berating his ugliness and smallness. Next, the king of the Gods, Wotan/Odin forces Alberich to give the Ring to him, later losing it when he is forced to give it as payment to the giants Fafner and Fasolt for their work in building Valhalla, the palace of the gods. Fafner kills his brother Fasolt over the Ring, and then transforms himself into a dragon to keep watch over it. Thereafter, both the dwarf Alberich and Wotan struggle and plot over decades to recover the lost precious Ring, Alberich exhibiting many of the characteristics of Gollum in Tolkien’s saga in his obsession with it. In Wagner as in Tokien the fate of the Ring is also tied to a looming Apocalypse as its destruction will also usher in a New Age on earth and the departure of the gods or other celestial agents such as the elves or Valkyrie. Both works are populated by an analogous heirarchy of beings or races: the Gods, men, dwarves and Valkyrie Riders in Wagner, and elves, men, dwarves, ents, orcs and malign personages such as Sauron and the Nazgul Riders in Tolkien. In Wagner as in Tokien diverse parties plot to get possession of the Ring, such as Alberich’s brother the dwarf Mime, who raises Sigfried, the product of the incestuous union of Siegmund and Sieglinde in the second opera “The Valkyie,” Wotan’s grandchild, who will have the power to recover the Ring. Siegfried, like Aragorn, must search for his ancestry and repair the broken sword of his forefathers, Nothing, to complete his quest. In both sagas an immortal female being is transformed into a mortal who will die alongside her lover, namely Arwen who choses mortal life and marriage to Aragorn, and Brunhilde, the lover of Siegfried. Both sagas end with the destruction of the Ring, which in turn ushers a New Age and the departure of the gods or spirits of the old order.
THE TWO RING SAGAS AS “EPICS”
Both the “Lord of the Rings” and the “Ring of the Nibelungen” constitute “epics” in their scope and impact. An “epic” as a genre may be defined as a narrative in verse, prose or other form which includes extensive history such as to define the character or destiny of a nation, people even humanity as a whole. Tolkien’s classic famously extends for several thousand years, from the “First Age” to the “Fourth Age” which commences at its conclusion, covers at least three generatiions of its protagonists and defines the formation or reconstituion of a nation, the united Kingdom under Aragorn, and its relationship with “the divine” or supernatural powers–elves, Valar, and evil forces such as Sauron and Morgoth, and with the natural environment. Wagner’s saga also spans three generations from Wotan to Siegmund and Sieglinde and the grandchild Siegfried and embraces a backstory of cosmic proportions, including the famous “Gotterdammerung” (Ragnarok) or fall of the Norse gods led by Odin/Wotan and the burning of Valhalla and Iggdrasil, the Tree of Life and the World. Their sagas concern not only their protagonists or even their peoples, but the entire condition of the world and the conditions of its physical and spiritual continuation, regeneration and renewal. (Parenthetically, I also include my own work, the contemporary and futurist epic “Spiritus Mundi” in the epic genre as it spans in its backstory the history of the Sartorius family from the 1600’s to the present and, through time travel, the history of the human race into the 23rd Century in the wake of the founding of the United Nations Parliamentary Assembly in our own time, and defines the character of the emerging “people of the world” newly and necessarily united in our globalized age, including their relationship with the cosmos and the divine.)
ARCHETYPES AND JUNGIAN MOTIFS IN THE RING SAGAS
Archetypes, according to C.G. Jung and others are universal archaic patterns and images that derive from the collective unconscious and are the psychic counterpart of instinct. They are autonomous and hidden forms which are transformed once they enter consciousness and are given particular expression by individuals and their cultures but exist independently of them as part of our genetic and instinctual heritage. Common examples in literature are the archetypal figures of the Mother, Trickster, Magician, Warrior, King and Devil, or situational archetypes such as the Quest, the Flood, the Fall, Re-birth and Transformation or Apocalypse. Importantly, an archetype is not just a symbol or image in the abstract, but rather a concrete living force within the mind, sometimes referred to as a “complex,” which acts as a source of energy or intensity around the archetypal nucleus and which may drain or augment energy from or to the Ego, and which may exist in either the personal unconscious of an individual, the collective unconscious of the whole human race, or both. The operation and experience of the archetypes, both in their narrative or symbolic form and within the psyche of the protagonist or the reader serve to catalyze psychic growth leading to greater awareness and greater psychic wholleness, maturity and health, and a resultant enhanced capacity for life in the world.
THE HERO’S QUEST ARCHETYPE
One of the central archetypes in C.G. Jung and other archetypal critics such as Joseph Campbell in his “Hero With a Thousand Faces” is that of the hero’s quest. In this archetype, the hero is required to undertake a perilous journey into an unknnown and dangerous realm to accomplish some task of vital importance during which he will be tested and if successful will bring back some vital boon to the world of his origin. The stages of the hero’s journey typically include:
1)Separation and Departure—expulsion from a safe haven, home or childhood
3) Struggle Against Adverse Forces
4) Descent into the Underworld—confronting not only external dangers but his own deepest inner self
5) Return and Re-Integration—a return from the mythic dimension to rejoin the mundane world of his origin
In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings the central hero Frodo undertakes the Quest of the “Ring Bearer” to destroy the Ring of Power in the fires of Mount Doom, which unites him with his brother questers of the “Fellowship of the Ring” who accompany him. In the first stage of Departure the Black Horsemen forcibly expel him from the safe haven of the Shire, a world of innocence, protected child-like existence, harmony and oneness with nature. At Rivendell he is initiated into a larger community of his fellow Questors, who must struggle against a Nemesis, the predatory Sauron and his evil allies and underlings. His journey to both the Mines of Moria and to the evil realm of Mordor challenges not only his physical and external survival and strength but also his inner resolve and willingness to rise to the duty of the quest. In the final chapters after the Ring’s destruction, especially the chapter “The Scouring of the Shire,” Frodo and his companions must return to the world of his origins bearing the strengths obtained by means of the Quest. Thus Frodo on his return, along with Merry, Pippin and Sam are no longer the passive child-like beings of their innocent youth and their world is no longer an Edenic paradise, but they must confront its evils with adult and active powers derived from their growth during the Quest. They undertake to reform their fallen homeland, driving out the petty fascism of the exploitative capitalist and predatory classes backed by the fallen Saruman/Sharkey and restore their community to freedom, justice and harmony with nature.
In Wagner’s Ring Cycle there is little growth of self and insight in the Jungian sense on the part of the hero Siegfried. His quest is defined as “to discover what fear is” in a supposedly fearless heroic self. However Siegfried fails to discover this fear or any measure of inner insight and is led to destruction. It is more the character of Wotan who attains some measure of insight in his unsuccessful quest for the Ring, leading ultimately to his acceptance of his fate of death and downfall of the gods.
THE ARCHETYPE OF THE SHADOW OR DOPPELGANGER
In the Lord of the Rings trilogy Frodo’s steps are incessently dogged by a creature who uncannily manages to follow his every movement, almost as if he were his own shadow: Gollum. In Jung’s concept of the archetype of “The Shadow” such a figure often represents the negative unconscious dimensions of the Self which have been repressed and remain unintegrated within the psyche. Frodo to our eyes and his own appears to be an exemplary character full of idealism, selflessness, courage and love for others. But this benign view ignores what we suspect lies in all human hearts, the capacity for selfishness, love of power, possession and self-importance which are suspiciously absent from his apparant conscious self. Thus until Frodo confronts his own capacity for selfishness and potential evil and tames and overcomes it his steps will be dogged by a demonized being who represents these negative capacities: Gollum. Gollum is craven, selfish, violent and obsessed with his own possession of the Ring and its power. He follows Frodo as closely as Frodo’s own shadow, and indeeds comes to represent an alter ego, or a Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde “Doppelganger” repressed other self.
Notably, in terms of Frodo himself alone, he finally fails in his Quest as at the critical moment within Mr. Doom he refuses to throw the Ring into the feiry abyss. In a sense he never really recognized that selfish capacity within himself until too late. It is only by the “accident” of Gollum biting off his finger with the Ring on it and slipping into the fire that the Quest is accomplishd, along with the loyal aid of Frodo’s more quotidian alter ego, Sam. Thus Frodo as a discrete conscious self balks and fails in the quest, but his extended “composite self” symbolically evolved through growth, experience and and amalgamating his alter egos Gollum and Sam jointly accomplish the Quest almost in spite of Frodo’s conscious self, and it is only the fully integrated “greater self” that is capable of fulfilling its mission and promise. The quest is thus ironically accomplished “by accident,” but this uncanny accident proves to be no mere accident at all, but the fulfillment of deeper psychic laws and destinies.
THE ANIMA FIGURE IN THE LORD OF THE RINGS
Jung conceived “The Anima” as the feminine complementary self present in the male psyche that often inspires love and becomes the face of love leading to a man’s growth towards wholeness. The anima may also bear a negative shape where this complementary relationship is perverted or obstructed. In the female psyche of a woman, the male complementary “other half” of the conscious self most often takes some masculine shape and face, termed by Jung her “Animus,” the masculine counterpart to the feminine Anima. In the Lord of the Rings a powerful “Anima” figure is that of the beautiful elfen queen Galadriel. Notably, Galadriel posseses a magic mirror into which each person looks and sees some aspect of themselves and their destiny. Thus confrontation of the Anima forces the self to a deeper consideration of the male self, revealing hidden or repressed mysteries. For example, the presence of Galadriel leads Gimli the dwarf to realize that possession of wealth and riches, his prior obsession, was less valuable than love and beauty. Another powerful anima figure is that of Arwen, the elven princess and daughter of Elron who is the eternal guide of the heart for Aragorn on his quest. Notably she represents the immortality of the spirit which through love chooses to live and die alongside her beloved mortal man and mate, an idealized feminine virtue.
THE ARCHETYPES OF MASCULINE MATURITY IN THE RING SAGA: THE WARRIOR, THE MAGICIAN AND THE KING
Our connection with the narrative of The Lord of the Rings is through the experience of the Hobbits, diminutive human beings who are admirable and lovable, but seemingly immature, partially child-like, passive and little capable of survival in the more dangerous greater world outside the Edenic Shire. Their tale is one of growth to a greater maturity through encounters with such archetypal male figures of Aragorn, first a Warrior and then a King, Gandalf the Wizard-Magician and the array of supporting warriors and allies who lead them to greater powers and maturity in the face of a hostile world. The Warrior archetype is a destroyer of enemies and bears strength and power. Thus the Hobbits grow from child-like impotence to masculine maturity and power as they are initiated into the fellowship of warriors. Gandalf, as a representative of the Magician Archetype further enhances the power of the warrior with the ability to channel the supernatural and hidden magical powers of nature and the universe for human ends. He is a teacher who empowers others as well as wielding superhuman powers derived from the deepest understanding of the world’s secrets. In Aragorn is manifest the figure of the King, a more mature reincarnation of the warrior’s power, to which is added responsibility, love of people and a “healing power” capable of harmonizing the human community with the cosmic order and nature.
THE RING CYCLES AND SPIRITUS MUNDI
My own work, the contemporary and futurist epic novel Spiritus Mundi also shares the Jungian archetypal heritage of the two Ring Cycles. Its primary moving force and plot device is the Quest of social idealists in our time to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly for global democracy. In the course of this quest they encounter inimical forces that threaten World War III and nuclear Armageddon and are forced into a mythical journey to an Underworld of Middle-Earth, a Jules Verne-like journey to the center of the Earth, plus a celestial ascencion to the Council of the Immortals, analagous to the angelic-elven beings of the Ring saga, and a quest to recover the Silmaril Crystal to save the world. Its material draws heavily on the Great Tradition including the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Dante and the work of such modern immortal greats as Verne, Wells, Tolkien and Wagner.
World Literature Forum invites you to check out the great fantasy epics of Tolkien and Wagner, and also the contemporary epic novel Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard. For a fuller discussion of the concept of World Literature you are invited to look into the extended discussion in the new book Spiritus Mundi, by Robert Sheppard, one of the principal themes of which is the emergence and evolution of World Literature:
For Discussions on World Literature and n Literary Criticism in Spiritus Mundi: http://worldliteratureandliterarycrit…
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Author, Spiritus Mundi Novel
Author’s Blog: http://robertalexandersheppard.wordpr…
Spiritus Mundi on Goodreads:
Spiritus Mundi on Amazon, Book I: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CIGJFGO
Spiritus Mundi, Book II: The Romance http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CGM8BZG
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