Two Ways to Rule Them All

What killed Siegfried? And who saved Frodo? And most of all, should we even care anyway?

I’m talking of course about the protagonists of two different Ring cycles: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Frodo from The Lord of the Rings, and Richard Wagner’s Siegfried from Der Ring des Nibelungen. The juxtaposition of these two characters might seem strange, because there isn’t much likeliness between the fearless Wagnerian hero Siegfried and our hairy-toed friend from the Shire, apart from some business with magic rings. Yet it is valid to raise these questions for one main reason. Both Tolkien’s and Wagner’s Ring cycles are in fact adaptations of the same medieval epic, the Song of the Nibelungs. The faith of both heroes however, couldn’t be more different.

In a nutshell— maybe you didn't get it the first time — Frodo triumphs, Siegfried dies. If we consider the storylines of both epics, these outcomes look very surprising. All Siegfried had to do to save the day was walk into the Rhine and return the Ring to its rightful owners, the Rhinemaidens. Frodo on the other hand could not simply walk into Mordor — no one can — but succeeded the hard way nevertheless. Why?

Deconstructing postmodernists might say: “Because the respective authors decided so.” Luckily, I’m not a postmodernist, and so we’ll make the more interesting exercise of finding an explanation in the actual stories. Yet, because both are such vast works of art, each having left even bigger interpretative traditions, it would be wise to limit the scope of this essay in order to answer this question. For Wagner’s Ring Cycle, I’ll discuss solely the last opera Götterdämmerung, and more specifically the staging I witnessed at the Longborough Festival Opera last summer, which will be reprised next summer when they perform the entire ring cycle. And because I’m such a spoiler, I will take the last episode of The Lord of the Rings as well, and more specifically Peter Jackson’s 2003 film version of The Return of the King.

Yes, I know, I’m selling out to Hollywood, I could have at least taken the book. You might suspect this is all about clicks on links, about compensating for the unpopularity of opera... Maybe, but that’s not the only reason. Fact is that the film version makes for a much better comparison, as modern cinema comes much closer to Wagner’s ideal of Gesamtkunst than any form of literature — it is no coincidence that early interwar films made extensive use of Wagnerian music scores to suit their dramatic purposes.

Let’s stay seated in those interwar theatres for a minute. Seen through this lense, The Return of the King can easily be interpreted as a case for collectivism. As in the whole trilogy, among the most memorable scenes are the major battles, not in the least the final Battle at the Black Gates. You could interpret this as easy box office sensationalism, but film history tells us a different story.

The origins of battle scene cinema don’t lie in capitalist California, but in communist Russia. It was the great Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein who first introduced them as a way to stage his ideal of “the mass as hero”, most famously in his 1925 movie Battleship Potemkin. Whenever Eisenstein did introduce a strong individual protagonist, like in Alexander Nevsky, his success was still very much depended on the collectivist mobilization of his armies. The same can be argued for Frodo’s faith in The Return of the King. Without the human victory at Minas Tirith, and the aforementioned attack on the Black Gates of Mordor, our hobbit hero would have never reached Mount Doom alive.

The case for collectivism becomes even stronger if we consider its total absence in the Götterdämmerung, especially apparent in the minimalist production at Longborough. The only time an army is summoned here, the antagonist Hagen lures it into a state of spurious celebration. In this regard, the role of Hagen in Götterdämmerung symbolises everything that can go wrong with individualism. With his greedy manipulations, he runs the show from the start to finish. And the other individuals don’t look much better. Siegfried’s naivety, Brünnhilde’s vindictiveness and Gunther’s lack of spine — quite literally in this production, where he’s introduced in a wheelchair — all contribute to the fateful conclusion. This narrative seems to support George Bernard Shaw’s marxist interpretation of the Ring cycle. In his 1898 essay The Perfect Wagnerite he interpreted the story as an allegory of the collapse of individualistic capitalism.

There is one big problem with this explanation though, clearly visible if we return to the Black Gates. (As a manner of speaking. No need to actually grab your axe, Gimli.) In this scene you could clearly see that the side having the biggest advantage of collectivism are Sauron’s orcs, hugely outnumbering the human force at the gates. Yet, they lost. So it can’t have been collectivism that saved Middle Earth.

For a real explanation it's time to finally leave the Cold War logic of individualism vs. collectivism behind. Our understanding of political economy has moved on, and cultural criticism should follow that lead. We no longer believe in the materialism that formed the philosophical foundation of Shaw's marxism — and the actual foundation of consumer capitalism, for that matter. Today we focus on the man-made organizations that build the roads between individual entrepreneurs and the crowds, on the people behind flows of money and resources back from the masses to the producers. Now we do see the intermediate structures that went missing in the older narratives.

That means we can at last find a middle ground between the evil individualism of Hagen and the faceless orc armies of Mordor. It's smaller organizations based on personal trust and shared identity — clubs, societies, parties, businesses — that keep us from sliding into these totalitarian extremes of individualism and collectivism. That is what really seperated Frodo from Siegfried: The Fellowship.

Moral of the story?

Get together and do stuff, I guess. The most obvious ways are of course direct initiatives like political activism or economic innovation. But really, anything that reconnects isolated individuals will do; anything that gives a new face to the directionless masses. Dress up and reenact the Battle of Helm’s Deep, for example. Volunteer to help stage an opera. Or just join us, to work on the next issue of Distilled.

Brecht Savelkoul