One Ring To Rule Them All

One Ring To Rule Them All /2018-02-28/Nick Sallnow-Smith

No, not an article about dogs for Chinese New Year. I thought you might have had your fill of those. Instead my title was triggered by The Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance last month of their final “opera in concert” of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Gotterdammerung or Twilight of the Gods. Now the eagle eyed of you will have noticed that the wording of my title comes from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, not from Wagner. However the underlying theme of possession of a gold ring of great power leading to doom unless it can be jettisoned in the right way is virtually identical (Tolkien the plagiarist?).

There have been many many commentaries on Wagner’s myth making. It is something of a rorschach test for social commentators, since it is possible to find many different moral messages. A couple of years ago, there was even an article in The Economist magazine (I refuse to call it a “newspaper”) about the Ring story. True to that magazine’s anti-capitalist line these days, the writer drew the moral of the corrupting nature of money and, therefore, of capitalism itself. This is a regular theme in social commentary today. Money is the root of all evil; wealth, especially unequal wealth, is obviously bad. One should therefore seek solutions to society’s ills by attacking wealth and the wealthy.

Let me offer a rather different interpretation of Wagner’s story. If the distracting glitter of the gold is ignored, the operas can be seen as a warning about the consequences of not respecting property rights and contractual obligations, however powerful you may be. The rise of western Europe in recent centuries depended on the underlying social and commercial stability afforded by private property rights and contract law. Let’s see what Wagner has to say about this.

The Ring cycle begins with Alberich (the villain) taking the Rhinemaidens’ gold from the river, from which he can fashion a ring which will give him power over all, provided he renounces love. It is easy to focus on the power and the riches the ring gives him, which trigger the succeeding events of the four operas, and forget that he has obtained this by an act of theft, not by mining the gold himself. While the ownership of the gold is sometimes presented as the source of its accompanying curse, the root of the problem is the theft, the breach of property rights of the Rhinemaidens.

While Alberich is a typical villain with few redeeming qualities, the complexity of the story comes from the role of Wotan, the “primus inter pares” of the Gods. His role initially appears to be admirable; to retrieve the gold from Alberich so that the world will not be ruled by evil. But he achieves this through trickery and then uses the gold to pay for his “public works” in Valhalla, where the giants – who are his construction force – are building his castle. But he cheats the giants, breaking his contract with them. From that moment, Wotan’s efforts to redeem the situation are doomed, although it takes 3 more operas and 15 hours of music to reach the inevitable end. From Wotan’s point of view, his aims are noble: retrieval of the gold, and the prevention of Alberich’s’ tyranny: all in the public interest! But his means involve breaching all the principles underlying the very society which he is attempting to defend.

By the end of the fourth opera, Wotan’s daughter Brunhilde delivers the ring back to its home in the Rhein, as she sacrifices her life to break the curse. This moment of closure is dramatic but the key point to notice is that even the return of the ring and the death of Brunhilde are insufficient to save the Gods and their heavenly domain, Valhalla. All is destroyed in flames while the river overflows its banks and destroys the earthly domain as well.

(As a side bar, I rather like  Wagner’s unintended prophecy here of the consequences of global warming. The industrial revolution was just beginning to generate serious amounts of CO2 at the time Wagner was writing. Our climate is heading for overflowing rivers and flames just as Wagner seems to have foreseen!)

Wagner’s audience might have been forgiven for wondering, since the ring has been returned and Brunhilde has leapt onto her own funeral pyre, why can’t Valhalla and its gods be saved? For me, the answer lies in the complete undermining of the basis of their civilisation by Wotan himself. A society where the leaders breach the laws they expect all other citizens to respect cannot stand.

Whether Wagner himself had this interpretation in mind, I do not know. But it is a nice coincidence that Wagner was writing his masterpiece just after Frederic Bastiat wrote his own great work “The Law” in 1850. The crux of Bastiat’s short book was that the state should not exempt itself from laws that citizens themselves are expected to respect. To take property by threat of force, to imprison, to murder; these are not only acts which citizens may not do under the law but honest citizens would not wish to commit in any event. Most people instinctively feel theft, fraud, kidnapping are wrong, without needing to check the statutes! Yet our governments, all over the world, commit exactly these crimes. For “the public good” of course, just like Wotan. These exemptions of Governments from laws they apply to all others goes beyond taxation. Competition law, for example, applies to the private sector in Hong Kong but not the government. The Housing Authority does not have to comply with many of the regulations that private sector property owners and developers have to do.

I would guess that everyone reading this note has grown up in a society where these exemptions from the law enjoyed by Governments are so commonplace that virtually no-one questions them. To suggest that “taxation is theft” (or “plunder” as Bastiat phrases it) will in every case get you laughed at. Yet it is. It is simply a theft which is legal, unlike all other thefts.

It is worth reflecting on the moral of Wagner’s great work. However laudable a government’s aims, to achieve them by debasing the natural law on which civil societies are founded may not end well. Do you really want the State to have ”one ring to rule us all”?

Kung Hei Fat Choi!


Nick Sallnow-Smith


The Lion Rock Institute

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