Monday, June 21, 2010

Wagner and The Lord of the Rings

The music of Richard Wagner and the writing of J. R. R. Tolkien are both considerable interests of mine so you can expect substantial writing on both topics in the future. For now, I was recently watching Peter Jackson's spectacular film adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" and came upon two rather striking similarities. The first is of set design and the second of music.

 Leif Roar as Klingsor in Parsifal, about to set Kundry against Parsifal.
Stage design and artistic supervision by Wolfgang Wagner. 1981

 Christopher Lee as Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring,
invoking the spirit of the mountain against the Fellowship.
Artwork and conceptual drawing by Alan Lee and John Howe, 2001.

Parsifal, Act I.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,
The Great River

The scene (using the word loosely since Wagner did not divide the acts into smaller scenes) in Parsifal is quite complex, with multiple choruses, the Knights marching up Montsalvat to the bells, and many themes including those of the Grail, the Eucharist, and the Lance. Shore's scene is considerably simpler but they function in not dissimilar manners. In Fellowship Aragorn catches sight of enormous statues of kings of old, his ancestors. This is simultaneously a reminder of their grandeur and weakness, and also his, that he is the rightful heir but turned from the path since he shares his ancestors' weakness to be tempted by the Ring of Power. Likewise the themes demonstrate Amfortas' mixed feelings, his sacred duty, his suffering, and his sin.

Likewise the figures of Klingsor and Saruman more than superficial relations. Generally, neither managed his tendency to sin and each turned to dark arts. In his classic work on Wagner, Albert Lavignac describes Klingsor:
[he] has vainly sought to root out of his heart the tendencies to sin; and, not succeeding, he has destroyed his animal instincts by laying violent hands on himself. . . he has listened to the Evil Spirit, and received from him unhallowed instructions in the art of magic. . . [Lavignac, 212]
That Saruman succumbed to a natural weakness and was not simply corrupted by studying "too deeply the arts of the enemy" requires some explication, handily provided by Tolkien himself in a letter c. 1956:
In the view of this tale and mythology Power–when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason)–is evil, these "wizards" were incarnated in the life forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains of both mind and body. They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of "fall," of sin, if you will. [Tolkien, 237]
Likewise where Klingsor "Layed violent hands on himself" Gandalf rebukes Saruman for his unnatural machinations, saying, "he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of reason." [The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Council of Elrond."]

Yet we ought not to read too much into these similarities and we should avoid trying to craft analogies and allegories here. The characters are themselves different and function differently in the plots of their respective stories. I do not suggest one was a model for the other but rather point out the noteworthy similarities of style and fundamental themes of two artists exploring man's nature in these particular scenes.



Lavignac, Albert. The Music Dramas of Richard Wagner and his Festival Theatre in Bayreuth. Dood, Mead, and Company. New York. 1901.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Letter No. 181, an unfinished letter to Michael Straight. c. 1956. p.237. Houghton Mifflin Company.  New York. 2000.


  1. Wow! I'm sitting here and Das Rheingold is playing on iTunes and I decided to check out your blog after a long absence and find you batting four for four--Wagner, Tolkein, Mencken and Swift. Great analysis--very insightful. Of course there are tons of parallels between the LOTR and Wagner's Ring because of the sources Wagner and Tolkein used, but seeing the links to Parsifal and the movies is very well done. I look forward to your further posts!

  2. Thanks so much for stopping by Tom and for your kind comments too! I'm very glad you liked what you found here. You can expect more on those four (particularly Tolkien as I'm re-reading him now) in particular as they're favorites of mine also.

    Posting should be fairly regular now so please come back soon!