In Chapter 2, we encounter two shadows of the past. Gandalf tells Frodo that Sauron "has arisen again" to menace Middle-earth. And Tolkien reveals to us that he is haunted by the shade of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), composer of the opera Der Ring des Nibelungen (better known in English as "The Ring Cycle").
|Jean de Reszke (1850-1925) in Der Ring des Nibelungen|
The influence of the Ring Cycle on The Lord of the Rings is so obvious that it barely needs to be stated. Both works are closely linked to Norse and German myths, but much of the Ring Cycle is wholly Wagner's. The opera revolves around a magic ring that grants its wearer the power to enslave minds and rule the world. Importantly, this ring is accompanied by a magic helm (the "Tarnhelm") that makes its wearer invisible. The ring was first forged by the evil Dwarf Alberich from enchanted gold he stole from the Rhine river. But when the ring is stolen from Alberich, he places a heavy curse on it:
Whoever possesses it shall be consumed with care,This death-curse is so central to the plot that it even has its own recurring musical theme. For the rest of the Ring Cycle, we see how this curse ensnares all the characters in a tragic cycle of hubris and betrayal. It is inexorable. The giant Fafner clubs his brother to death so he can claim the ring. In turn, Seigfried kills Fafner and seizes it. Finally, Seigfried is treacherously stabbed in the back by the villain Hagen, who himself drowns (in a Gollum-like scene) when trying to grasp the ring as it is reclaimed by the flooding river Rhine.
and whoever has it not shall be gnawed with envy!
Each shall itch to possess it,
but none in it shall find pleasure!
Its owner shall guard it profitlessly,
for through it he shall meet his executioner!
Forfeit to death,
faint with fear shall he be fettered;
for the length of his life
he shall long to die,
the ring's master
to the ring a slave!
There are, of course, many other parallels between the Ring Cycle and The Lord of the Rings, including a sword that was broken, and a heroine that relinquishes the world of the gods for the love or a mortal man. But the central similarity is key: ultimate power (in the form of a ring) warps the hearts of all who would possess it, leading to an evil cycle where each owner is killed by his successor.
And in The Shadow of the Past, Gandalf gives us Tolkien's version of this story: how Isildur cut the Ring from Sauron's hand but drowned in the Anduin River; how Smeagol killed Deagol; and how Bilbo stole the Ring from Gollum. Throughout it all, Gandalf makes it clear that the Ring has its own kind of curse:
"A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades... Yes, sooner or later - later if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last - sooner or later the dark power will devour him."Just as Albrich sang, "for the length of his life, he shall long to die." Although Gandalf doesn't say that one of the Ring's owners will always be killed by the next, his brief history of Isildur and Gollum make it clear that possession of the Ring is a kind of death sentence.
Now I wrote up above that the similarities between the Ring Cycle and The Lord of the Rings are so obvious that they don't need much elaboration. Just so. What interests me most is not the parallels between these works but the areas where Tolkien parts company from Wagner -- for it is the dissimilarities that are most revealing.
Most importantly, in Chapters 1 and 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring, we see that, unlike in Wagner, the curse of the ring can be interrupted. It is interrupted by Hobbits. A hobbit is a sort of anti-hero (certainly an anti-Wagnerian hero). Instead of beefy, ill-fated and oath-bound warriors like Seigfried and company, they are (in Gandalf's phrase) "soft as butter", but "full of surprises". The first rupture in the curse of the Ring occurred when Bilbo forbore from stabbing Gollum in the back during the events narrated in The Hobbit, and revisited at length in The Shadow of the Past. Here Gandalf makes it clear that Bilbo's decision to spare Gollum ultimately saved Bilbo from the curse:
"It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity."The second time that the curse was foiled is in Chapter 1, when Bilbo voluntarily gave up the Ring (60 years after his encounter with Gollum). It's easy to overlook the drama in this scene because it is so underwritten. But by my lights, it is one of the climaxes of the book (albeit a climax in the first chapter) -- and an example of Tolkien's writing at its finest. JRRT excels at portraying how characters struggle unconsciously against evil influence, from the dragon-greed in The Hobbit, to the voice of Saruman in The Two Towers. The understatement in Chapter 1 is delightful:
"Very well," said Bilbo, "it goes to Frodo with all the rest." He drew a deep breath.
"And now I really must be starting, or somebody else will catch me. I have said good-bye, and I couldn't bear to do it all over again." He picked up his bag and moved to the door.
"You have still got the ring in your pocket," said the wizard.
"Well, so I have!" cried Bilbo.
After a long fight, Bilbo is finally able to let it go. It is this triumph that sets the rest of the plot in motion. But how did he do it? Tolkien doesn't quite tell us. His writing, as I say, is too understated to provide obvious answers. What we do know, however, is that Tolkien is infinitely more optimistic than Wagner. For Wagner, the tragedy of the ring is inescapable . But from the very beginning of his trilogy, Tolkien signals that there is something that can resist the death-curse of power. Something subtle and easy to miss. For the rest of The Lord of the Rings, we will discover more about what that something is.
You can find my commentary on Chapter 1 here.