Somewhere in my boxes full of old photographs there is a picture I took in 1986 while on a pilgrimage to Oxford, England. The purpose of that trip to England was not to visit Oxford, but to attend a conference with one of my oldest friends (who probably would prefer to remain anonymous). I was stationed in Germany at the time, and he was in need of a vacation, so we met in England to join other friends at a Christian conference. When it was over the opportunity arose to see Oxford. Since we had met two very charming British girls at the conference, and since they shared some of my enthusiasm for Tolkien, they joined us on this journey.
Ah, Tolkien. He was the attraction to Oxford. J.R.R. Tolkien’s works have captured my attention since I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at age 11. Of the handful of authors who shaped my worldview, he and C.S. Lewis share the top position. It was his grave I particularly wanted to see, after enjoying a pint in his honor at The Eagle and Child, the pub where he, Lewis, and others shared their literary ideas. The old photograph lost somewhere in the boxes is the one I took of his grave. One day I will dig it out and put it in an album of good memories.
Tolkien left us far more than good memories, of course. He has made a lasting impact for good on four generations of English-speaking youth. That impact shows no sign of slowing – provided youth of the present and future read him, that is. Watching the cinematic adaptations of his works is not enough. The depth of Tolkien is not in the action sequences of Elves fighting Orcs and Dwarves hunting dragons, but in the way he weaves the essence of humanity into his stories. I view this as a gift from the Almighty.
My guess is that David Goldman would agree. In this article reposted from PJ Media, he investigates what appears to be a major motivation for Tolkien: neutralizing the anti-Semitic messages of German composer Richard Wagner. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Nazism knows the high place of Wagner in Adolf Hitler’s esteem. It should be no surprise that Wagner, like Hitler, despised Jews. Tolkien did not despise Jews; he despised those who twisted our historical and literary inheritance into something evil to justify the eradication of that which is good. That is what Goldman relates as he presents the back story of a masterful author’s life work.
Why is this important? The literary-minded understand. Words, music, and images capture the soul and shape the mind. Regarding Tolkien and Wagner, Goldman sums up the point this way:
Wagner’s legacy remains baleful. Fortunately, many more people know Tolkien than know Wagner, and we may pronounce Tolkien’s project a success. Unfortunately, Wagner’s hold on the cultural elite remains strong, and influences modern culture in ways of which the popular audience is unaware.
How did he arrive at this conclusion? Read on and find out.
And thanks very much to my anonymous old friend, who not only accompanied me on that Oxford pilgrimage long ago, but brought this piece to my attention.
David P. Goldman
Originally published in PJ Media, August 31, 2016
In the current issue of Commentary my friend Rabbi Meir Soloveichik discusses J.R.R. Tolkien’s fascination with the Jews, who are of course the Dwarves in the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as Tolkien himself stated in a 1971 BBC interview. Tolkien was no anti-Semite (not, at least, according to the canonical definition, namely someone who hates the Jews more than is absolutely necessary). His views in The Hobbit were typical of the philo-Semites of the 1930s: the Jews/Dwarves are “calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people…if you don’t expect too much.”
In The Lord of the Rings, completed after the Holocaust, Tolkien turned more sympathetic, depicting a great Elf-Dwarf friendship, and presaging (as Rabbi Soloveichik points out) a Jewish-Christian alliance against the forces of evil. One might add that in The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s early (but posthumously published) compendium of Middle-Earth mythology, the Dwarves were created before the Elves, just as the Jews came before the Christians–but by mistake, in Tolkien’s account.
In the Dwarves’ quest for their ancient homeland in the Lonely Mountain, Rabbi Soloveichik observes, Tolkien evinces a certain sympathy for Zionism.
But all this begs the question of what put the Jews at the center of Tolkien’s attention in the first place. Part of the answer is to be found in Tolkien’s lifelong effort to undo the pernicious influence of Richard Wagner, whose “Ring of the Nibelungs” is the most influential art work of the past two hundreds years (and in my view also the most pernicious). Wagner plundered the ancient Norse and Germanic sagas in the service of a revived paganism. Tolkien by contrast set out to repurpose the old pagan stories to make them a sounder foundation for the Christianity that would succeed them.
In Wagner’s pageant of gods and heroes, the aristocracy (the gods) establish their rule by treaties (covenants). But in order to maintain their rule they must hire the Giants (capital and labor) to build their fortress Valhalla, and steal the cursed gold of the Nibelung dwarves (the Jews). Wagner made clear in his writings and correspondence that the nasty Nibelungen were the Jews, whom he really, really hated. In one of his last writings he claims that the point of the Eucharist is to purge the communicant of pollutants to Aryan blood, in particular to remove the stain of Jewish blood from Jesus himself. Wagner stole the plot of his breakthrough opera “The Flying Dutchman” from one Jew (Heinrich Heine) and its musical portrayal of the sea from another Jew (Felix Mendelssohn), and then published a pamphlet alleging that Jews could only imitate but not create new art.
Wagner’s legacy remains baleful. Fortunately, many more people know Tolkien than know Wagner, and we may pronounce Tolkien’s project a success. Unfortunately, Wagner’s hold on the cultural elite remains strong, and influences modern culture in ways of which the popular audience is unaware. A stake has not yet been driven through his heart. I swing a mallet to this end whenever opportunity permits.
In a 2003 essay (“The Ring and the Remnants of the West”) I compared Wagner’s and Tolkien’s respective treatment of the same Norse and Teutonic mythological themes:
I concluded, “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.”
David P. Goldman is the columnist “Spengler” for Asia Times Online; his latest book is How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too). He is the Wax Family Fellow at the Middle East Forum.