Return of the Rings: Nordic Mythology co-created the epics of Tolkien and Wagner
Tolkien and Wagner are among the most influential artists in their respective fields. Tolkien has been (deservedly or no) been credited with being the founding father of the modern fantasy genre, and Wagner's mythic explorations not only created a new expression for opera but have also been credited (almost certainly undeservedly) for having inspired the Jewish holocaust. Both Tolkien and Wagner sought to (re)create the myths of an ancient era, giving to their audience a sense of history which transcended the momentary. Tolkien and Wagner both seem to believe that myth is necessary to the soul of the modern romantic; Tolkien approaches it as a sort of religious and linguistic door to truth, which opens vistas of hope in men's minds, while Wagner approaches myth as a metaphor for the evolution of culture, in which one can inspire humanity to a wiser future. Tolkien particularly sees Nordic History as offering an example of personal heroism and meaning in a war-torn world, while Wagner sees it as an ancient proclamation of the coming of an age of uber- humanism.
Tolkien explores the Nordic myths philologically, as it influences our language and therefore symbolism; his plots are generally reconstructions from the actual languages themselves, with syncretic plots. "Tolkien once said that he wrote The Lord of the Rings simply to create a world in which 'A star shines on the hour of our meeting' (Elen sila lumenn' omentielvo) was a common salutation." (Henning, 1) He drew a majority of his characters, place names, and plot elements --from rings to wraiths to orcs-- on the languages which inspired him, particularly the ancient Celtic, Finnish, Saxon and Nordic languages of his Aryan heritage. "He viewed his languages as real languages that he was discovering, rather than inventing." (Henning, 1) There are countless examples of words which Tolkien stumbled across in original languages and could not entirely define or explain without recourse to myth-making. For example, Beowulf and other ancient texts refer occasionally to a race of monsters called "orc," a term which had also been used by Blake for the Revolutionary Spirit. (Wikipedia) Myrkwood is mentioned twice in the poetic Edda, in Atlakvitha and Lokasenna, as a dark forest housing elves. All of the dwarves which accompany Bilbo on his journey are also listed as being among the fighting ranks on the day of Ragnarok, according to the Edda. "Even the name of his fantasy world, Middle Earth, derives directly from the ancient Scandinavian name for the human realm between the heavens and the underworlds, Midgard." (Dubois & Mellor) In recreating these new languages out of the fragments of old, dead languages, Tolkien began to discover new mythologies which these languages could be used to create. As he wrote, "oft to victory [linguists and poets] have turned the lyre / and kindled hearts with legendary fire, / illuminating Now and dark Hath-been / with light of suns as yet by no man seen." (Tolkien)
Though the actual happenings in his stories are generally of Tolkien's own genesis, such as the journey of a fellowship across the world to destroy a cursed ring, or Aragorn's king-making, or the grand politics between Mordor, Isengard, Gondor, and the Rohirrim, they find their base not only in the linguistic tensions which actually existed, but also in assorted elements of older myths. For example, a gold-hoarding dragon is a central figure in the myth of Sigfried. Gandalf is described as an old man wearing "a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak, a silver scarf over which a white beard hung down below his waist, and immense black boots." (Tolkien, Hobbit) This is remarkably similar to the way in which Odin is described, both in the traditional literature and by critics of Wagner's work such as Bernard Shaw. The hat, which can be used to cover the missing eye socket, is a particularly telling point. The dwarves and elves are blatantly drawn from the racial mix of Norse mythology, (though Tolkien's elves seem to have a bit more in common with the Tuatha Danaan than with the light-fleeing Norse elves.) Some small scenes may also directly resemble elements of Norse mythology. For example, the way in which Gandalf fools the three trolls into remaining in the open debating dinner until he can cry out "Dawn take you all, and be stone to you!" which is remarkably similar to a line in the Alvissmol Edda, in which Odin manages to trick the dwarf he catches running off with his daughter, chatting with him until he too can call out: "must I now betray thee: The day has caught thee, dwarf!" Likewise, one sees similarities between the which Sigfried's family interacts with the golden ring and the way in which Tolkien's One Ring becomes addictive and a curse to those who wield it. However, all of these elements are discrete, and do not come together to form a complete mirror of the Nordic mythology.
Wagner, on the other hand, explores Nordic myths socio-culturally, as it shapes our relationships and national imagery. His plots are literally reworkings of old myths, though he also is responsible for warping many of the plot elements. The Ring Cycle is taken almost scene-for-scene from a loose collection of Norse works. On first glance at the myths, it may seem that Wagner has taken some rather extreme liberties with the works. For example, according to Wagner, Sigfried (or Sigurd) is the child of the incestuous union of Sigmund and his sister, and these two are both dead. In the originals, Sigfried is the child of another union between Sigmund and a non-related woman. Moreover, the entire tale of the Rhine Gold's bizarre journey from the pool of the nymphs to the clutch of a dwarf, to the control of Odin and finally to Fafnir's fratricidal grip and from there to Sigfried is no where in the original. However, there is such a ring in Fafnir's grasp nonetheless, which he got in murdering kin, and his kin from Odin, and Odin and Loki together from a dwarf. The significant difference is not in the sentiment but in the details of the tale. After all, giants did indeed build a castle for the gods, and they were indeed tricked out of their reward by Loki. (Prose Edda, Skaldskaparmal) Likewise, it is true in the original that Sigmund and his own sister gave birth to a child, and the story of a forced marriage and a sword embedded in a tree and many other such details are drawn from the history of Nibelungenlied, and the Volsunga Saga.
Wagner is not so much guilty of inventing mythology or even of warping it, but rather of condensing it. A host of individuals are condensed together, so that Sinfjatli, Sigmund's son/brother, becomes one with Sigmund, Regin who is bereaved of wealth by his brother and fosters Sigmund is combined with one of the dwarves from whom Odin stole the ring, and those dwarves made identical with the giants who built for Odin. Emotionally, the truths of the Eddas and the sagas remain -- what changes exist are largely inconsequential facts, which must give way to the demands of theater for simplicity of plot and strength in the story arc. Hence even the death of the gods, which is merely prophesied in the original, must be visualized in the Ring Cycle.
According to the writings of Bernard Shaw, the point of these myth-making is not to retain the spirit of the original, but rather to explore the way that mankind is capable of ascending to the status of gods. Shaw suggests that the dwarves and giants and gods represent stages in the development of man, specifically our economic development, and that Sigfreid is symbolic of the coming of a new era of humanism. This is quite possible, in the same way that in Tolkien's world the totalitarian forces of Mordor might theoretically represent fascism and industrialization threatening to overcome agrarian Britain, or that the dark-skinned Southroners and orc-hordes are representative of unwelcomed racial and cultural immigration. However, it seems likely that in both cases, regardless of the political stances of the authors, the story cannot be taken as sheer allegory, for this would defy the nature of these rediscovered myths. It is possible to reinterpret and reapply old myths, and Wagner does this with some skill.
Yet the myths themselves retain a great deal of power, which may be precisely why the fourth installment of the Ring Cycle got away from the "great philosophic theme" (Shaw, 76) which may have existed in the prior three. However, it is also possible that the true theme of mythology did exist precisely in these four as it ought to do -- in the first three it is grandiose and theological, and in the last it is dirty and sly and full of human passion and hatred. This is precisely like real mythology,…