The most important cultural event of the past decade is the ongoing release of the film version of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. No better guide exists to the mood and morals of the United States. The rapturous response among popular audiences to the first two installments of the trilogy should alert us that something important is at work. Richard Wagner’s 19th-century tetralogy of music dramas, The Ring of the Nibelungs, gave resonance to National Socialism during the inter-war years of the last century. Tolkien does the same for Anglo-Saxon democracy.

Tolkien well may have written his epic as an “anti-Ring” to repair the damage that Wagner had inflicted upon Western culture. Consciously or not, the Oxford philologist who invented Hobbits has ruined Wagner before the popular audience. It recalls the terrible moment in Thomas Mann’s great novel Doktor Faustus when the composer Adrian Leverkuhn, finishing his Faust cantata in the throes of syphilitic dementia, announces: “I want to take it back!” His amanuensis asks, “What do you want to take back?” “Beethoven’s 9th Symphony!” cries Leverkuhn. Leverkuhn (on the strength of a bargain with the Devil) has written a work whose objective is to ruin the ability of musical audiences to hear Beethoven.

Tolkien has taken back Wagner’s Ring. That may be his greatest accomplishment, and a literary accomplishment without clear precedent. To be sure, The Lord of the Rings is not a great work of literature to be compared to Cervantes or Dostoyevsky. But it is a great landmark of culture nonetheless. Its revival in a reasonably faithful cinematic version has far-reaching effects on the popular mind.

Wagner had done as much to Beethoven. “People don’t like music; they just like the way it sounds,” quipped the English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. Beethoven’s musical devices are stations along a journey which has a goal. Wagner turned these musical devices into the haunted caves and dells of a world in which the listener wanders capriciously, abandoning all sense of time and direction. Audiences never liked Wagner’s music, but they loved the way it sounded. Musical effects in Beethoven, however eccentric, are subordinate to the long-range musical goal. In Wagner, musical effects are capricious events. That well suits the introduction of Wagner’s Uebermensch, the hero Siegfried, for reasons I will make clear in a moment.

It is hard for us today to imagine what a cult raised itself around Wagner after the 1876 premiere of his Ring cycle. Compared to it the combined fervor for Elvis, the Beatles, Madonna and Michael Jackson seems like a band concert in the park. Perfectly sensible people attended a Wagner opera and declared that their lives had changed. Bavaria’s eccentric King Ludwig II literally fell in love with the composer and built him the Bayreuth Festival, to which the elite of Europe repaired in homage. It was something like the mood that swept the youth of the West in the late 1960s, but an order of magnitude more powerful.

In 1848, Wagner was a disgruntled emulator of French grand opera who stockpiled hand grenades for revolutionaries, a fugitive from justice after that year’s uprising. A quarter-century later he stood at the pinnacle of European culture. What precisely did he do?

Wagner announced the death of the old order of aristocracy and Church, of order and rules. Not only was the old order dying, but also it deserved to die, the victim of its inherent flaws. As the old order died a New Man would replace the servile creatures of the old laws, and a New Art would become the New Man’s religion. The New Man would be fearless, sensual, unconstrained, and could make the world according to his will. Wagner’s dictum that the sources of Western civilization had failed was not only entirely correct, but also numbingly obvious to anyone who lived through the upheavals of 1848. But how should one respond to this? Wagner had a seductive answer: become your own god!

Using elements of old Norse sagas and medieval epic, Wagner cobbled together a new myth. The Norse god Wotan personifies the old order: he rules by the laws engraved on his spear, by which he himself is bound. To build his fortress Valhalla he requires the labor of the giants, and to pay the giants, he steals the treasure of the Nibelung dwarf Alberich. Alberich won the treasure with a magic ring he fashioned from the stolen Gold of the Rhine River. Wotan covets this ring, which gives its bearer world mastery, but is compelled to give it to the giants.

Wagner’s audience had no trouble recognizing in Wotan and the other immortal gods the ancient aristocracy of Empire and Church, who made a fatal compromise with capital (the Ring of world domination) and thus sealed their own doom. Siegfried (Wotan’s grandson) takes the Ring back from the giant Fafner, and then shatters the god’s spear and wins as his bride the immortal Valkyrie Brunnhilde. Through the rest of a silly plot full of love potions and magic disguises, Siegfried is betrayed and stabbed in the back. Brunnhilde immolates herself on Siegfried’s funeral pyre and the flames burn down Valhalla as well, gods and all. A New World Order emerges on the basis of heroic will. It is not hard to see how appetizing this stew was for Hitler.

Tolkien himself despised Wagner (whom he knew thoroughly) and rejected comparisons between his Ring and Wagner’s cycle (“Both rings are round,” is the extent of his published comment). But the parallels between the two works are so extensive as to raise the question as to Tolkien’s intent. The Ring of Power itself is Wagner’s invention (probably derived from the German Romantic de la Motte Fouque). Also to be found in both works are an immortal woman who renounces immortality for the love of a human, a broken sword reforged, a life-and-death game of riddles, and other elements which one doesn’t encounter every day. Here is a compilation derived from sundry websites, along with a few of my own observations. For those who don’t know the details of the Tolkien Ring – well, you will before long, because it is a story that everyone will learn.

Alberich forges a Ring of PowerSauron forges a Ring of Power
Wotan needs the giants to build ValhallaThe Elves need Sauron to forge their Rings of Power
The Ring gives the bearer world dominationThe Ring gives the bearer world domination
Wotan uses the Ring to pay the giantsSauron betrays the Elves
The Ring is cursed and betrays its bearerThe Ring is evil and betrays its bearer
Fafner kills brother Fasolt to get the RingSmeagol kills friend Deagol for the Ring
Fafner hides in a cave for centuriesSmeagol-Gollum hides in a cave for centuries
Siegfried inherits the shards of his father’s swordAragorn inherits the shards his fathers’ sword
Brunnhilde gives up immortality for SiegfriedArwen gives up immortality for Aragorn
Wotan plays “riddles” for the life of MimeGollum plays “riddles” for the life of Bilbo
A dragon guards the Nibelungs’ hoardA dragon guards the dwarves’ hoard
The gods renounce the world and await the endThe Elves renounce the world and prepare to depart
The Ring is returned to its origin, the River RhineThe Ring is returned to its origin, Mount Doom
Hagen falls into the riverGollum falls into the volcano
The immortals burn in ValhallaThe immortals leave Middle-earth
A new era emerges in the worldA new era emerges in the
Men are left to their own devicesMen are left to their own

The details are far less important than the common starting point: the crisis of the immortals. Wagner’s immortal gods must fall as a result of the corrupt bargain they have made with the giants who built Valhalla. Tolkien’s immortal Elves must leave Middle-earth because of the fatal assistance they took from Sauron. The Elves’ power to create a paradise on Middle-earth depends upon the power of the three Elven Rings which they forged with Sauron’s help. Thus the virtue of the Elven Rings is inseparably bound up with the one Ring of Sauron. When it is destroyed, the power of the Elves must fade. More than anything else, The Lord of the Rings is the tragedy of the Elves and the story of their renunciation.

What Tolkien has in mind is nothing more than the familiar observation that the high culture of the West arose and fell with the aristocracy, which had the time and inclination to cultivate it. With the high culture came the abuse of power associated with the aristocracy; when this disappears, the great beauties of Western civilization and much of its best thought disappear with it. That is far too simple, and in some ways misleading, but it makes a grand premise for a roman-a-clef about Western civilization.

Tolkien enthusiasts emphasize his differences with Wagner, as if to ward off the disparagement that The Lord of the Rings is a derivative work. As Bradley Birzer, David Harvey, and other commentators observe, Tolkien detested Wagner’s neo-paganism. He was a devout Roman Catholic, and explicitly philo-Semitic where Wagner was anti-Semitic. But this defense of Tolkien obscures a great accomplishment. He did not emulate Wagner’s Ring, but he recast the materials into an entirely new form. “Recast” is an appropriate expression. A memorable scene in Wagner shows Siegfried filing the shards of his father’s sword into dust, and casting a new sword out of the filings. That, more or less, is what Tolkien accomplished with the elements of Wagner’s story. Wagner will still haunt the stages of opera houses, but audiences will see him through Tolkien’s eyes.

What does one do when the immortals depart? One acts with simple English decency and tenacity, says Tolkien, and accepts one’s fate. The Lord of the Rings is an anti-epic (as Norman Cantor puts it), whose protagonist is a weak, vulnerable and reluctant Hobbit, as opposed to the strong, wound-proof and fearless Siegfried. The Hobbit Frodo Baggins does his duty because he must. “I wish the Ring had never come to me! I wish none of this had happened!” he exclaims to the wizard Gandalf, who replies: “So do all that come to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” No utopian is Gandalf; what one must do is to muddle through.

“I will remain Galadriel, and I will diminish,” decides the Elf-Queen of Lothlorien, rejecting the chance to take possession of the One Ring and preserve her powers. The Elves choose between vanishing and accepting a taint of evil, and choose the former.

Modesty, forbearance, and renunciation are the virtues that Tolkien sets against Wagner’s existential act of despair. The high culture of the West is gone. The world that remains after the Elves board their gray ships and sail into the West is devoid of beauty and wonder. The kingdom of Men that emerges from The Lord of the Rings is a humdrum affair, in which the best men can do is to get on with their lives. Even the anti-heroes of this anti-epic, the Hobbits who bear the evil Ring to its ultimate destruction, cannot remain in Middle-earth; they sail off along with the Elves.

Those who hold America in contempt for its lack of refinement (this writer always has held the term “American culture” to be an oxymoron) should think carefully about this conclusion. From their founding on Christmas Day 800 AD, when Charlemagne accepted the crown of the revived Roman Empire, the institutions of the West have been formed in response to external threat. The Holy Roman Empire of the High Middle Ages, Tolkien’s conscious model for the Kingdom of Gondor, arose in response to the incursions of Arabs in the south, Vikings in the north, and Magyars in the West. Boorish and gruff as the new American Empire might seem, it is an anti-empire populated by reluctant heroes who want nothing more than to till their fields and mind their homes, much like Tolkien’s Hobbits. Under pressure, though, it will respond with a fierceness and cohesion that will surprise its adversaries.

Orcs of the world: Take note and beware.

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