At 03:33 PM 7/4/2005 -0400, Sara Ciborski wrote:
>David, did you ever reveal the "important fact" that you were keeping until
>after others' comments? Or did I miss it? (Certainly possible, given the
>many posts that followed your introduction of the topic.)
No I didn't, and I've been effectively off-list since then. Here's what I
was going to say:
The discussions I've been reading of Robin Hobb's article on fan-fiction
have often taken the position that most of literature is fan fiction. I
would draw a strict distinction between actually "writing in another
author's universe" and "using as your own themes that others have used
before you." The latter is what Tolkien called dipping your ladle into the
Cauldron of Story.
But those who do not draw that distinction have taken the position that
_The Lord of the Rings_ is Richard Wagner fan-fiction. And the person who
told me that pointed as proof to an article by music critic Alex Ross: <
>. Ross writes:
"Tolkien refused to admit that his ring had anything to do with Wagner's.
'Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased,' he said. But he
certainly knew his Wagner, and made an informal study of "Die Walkure" not
long before writing the novels. The idea of the omnipotent ring must have
come directly from Wagner; nothing quite like it appears in the old sagas.
True, the Volsunga Saga features a ring from a cursed hoard, but it
possesses no executive powers. In the Nibelungenlied saga, there is a magic
rod that could be used to rule all, but it just sits around. Wagner
combined these two objects into the awful amulet that is forged by Alberich
from the gold of the Rhine. When Wotan steals the ring for his own godly
purposes, Alberich places a curse upon it, and in so doing he speaks of
'the lord of the ring as the slave of the ring.' Such details make it hard
to believe Tolkien's disavowals."
I remembered the quote as appearing in one of Tolkien's letters, and I
remembered it being referred to often before as Tolkien's implausible
disavowal of Wagnerian influence, so I looked up Wagner in the fabulous
Scull-Hammond index to same. He isn't there. Uh-oh, did the fabulous
Scull & Hammond fall down on the job? No they did not, for I found the
quote eventually: it's on p. 306, in letter no. 239, and here's the
important unnoticed fact:
Tolkien was not referring to Wagner at all. He was replying to an
identification of his Ring with the ring in a "farrago of nonsense" of the
ancient sources, the mythological works of which Ross says "nothing quite
like [Tolkien's ring] appears in." Tolkien's ring could have been identical
to Wagner's, which it is far from being, and his disavowal would still be true.
I went on to comment on differences between Tolkien and Wagner:
Such similarity as Tolkien's ring does have to Wagner's is put in an
otherwise very different story. The family saga of the Walsungs is the
heart of Wagner's drama, and there's nothing like that in Tolkien's novel
(the Silmarillion, which has no One Ring, is a little like that part of
Wagner, but only a little). Alberich, who both forges the ring and carries
it around in crazed possessiveness, must be both Sauron and Gollum if
you're going to draw a source comparison; he doesn't properly own the ring
because he'd stolen the gold, for which there's no parallel in Tolkien; and
he places a curse on it, which neither Sauron nor Gollum does. That the One
Ring is inherently evil because of its source is a basic concept in Tolkien
not present in Wagner. Wagner also doesn't follow up on the thralldom to
the ring the way that Tolkien does.
Ross is tendentious. Tolkien's "informal study" of Die Walkure was an
evening spent reading it with friends nearly four years before beginning
his book, and one hardly needs to cite that to prove he knew Wagner's work.
But all the proving that he knew it in the world will not prove he got it
from that source. Similarity does not equal influence, and similarity in
any case doesn't go very far.
Second and much more important, Tolkien's use for his own ends of various
elements that appear in older mythologies in his own original mythology is
an entirely different thing from fan-fiction writing your own stories in an
existing creative universe. Tolkien used the phrase "the Cauldron of Story"
to describe this process: you dip in your ladle, and a blend of
half-recognizable bits and pieces of this and that come up. He also wrote,
"the ways in which a story-germ uses the soil of experience are extremely
complex, and attempts to define the process are at best guesses from
evidence that is inadequate and ambiguous."
Mike Foster amusingly suggests that if there's a fact about Tolkien I've
always missed, it's this: "The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole,
and yet leave scope for other minds and hands."
However, perhaps less well-known than that is that Tolkien began this
vision by writing of what "once upon a time (my crest has long since
fallen)". And his concluding word on the whole idea, immediately following
the sentence Mike quotes from? "Absurd."