One of the more underrated influences on popular culture is the figure of Richard Wagner, particularly his magnum opus, the Ring cycle.This is perhaps due to the fact that Wagner proved to be something of a bigot and an anti-semite, positions that, while once commonplace, are rightfully no longer en vogue. It also likely owes to the fact that his work was put to use by the Nazis, who essentially ruined every bit of interesting culture they were associated with, including the toothbrush mustache and the undercut. Those unfortunate facts aside, Wagner’s impact on culture is immense and undeniable. His work is a transitional stage between the end of the classical era and the dawn of modern multimedia. Wagner’s corpus embodies the metamorphosis of western culture from the pre-Hollywood era to the era of industrial light and magic, the gargantuan, immersive and large-scale economic behemoths of the entertainment industry in which contemporary society is awash. Not only did Wagner’s work presage the dawn of Hollywood, but the entire multi-billion dollar industry of immersive fantasy experiences, from Dungeons and Dragons to Game of Thrones, can trace its lineage back through the work of Wagner. His Der Ring des Nibelungen is an epic cycle of superhuman beings, of elves and giants and dragons, of quests and magical objects like rings of power and helmets to provide a cloak of invisibility, in which the stuff of myth is used to comment on contemporary society and to inspire mankind to pursue its highest aim, namely redemption through self-sacrificial love.
For the purposes of this article, we want to trace how Wagner’s work, especially the Ring Cycle, provided source material for J.K. Rowling in her creation of the Wizarding World and its themes, both in Harry Potter and the Hogwarts saga and extending to the Fantastic Beasts series currently playing out in the Warner Brothers films.
Who Even Likes Opera Anyway?
First, let’s establish the plausibility that J.K. Rowling is consciously and purposely drawing inspiration from a composer of musical theater. While this may seem like a stretch at first, we know that at least one Harry Potter character is associated with the opera —the alchemist (and actual historical figure), Nicolas Flamel. Harry relays the legend that Flamel was once seen at the opera more than 400 years after the date of his birth.
“But it’s true. [Nicolas Flamel] was spotted at the opera in Paris in 1762 and he was born back in 13 something.”
Taken in isolation, the conjunction of a key character in Philosopher’s Stone with the opera would be mere coincidence. But, of course, there’s more to it than that. Let’s not forget that one of the primary themes in the Harry Potter canon is the work of research, the close reading of texts, and the connection between the text in books and events in the story. If we have learned anything from Harry Potter, it is that, when faced with a mystery, we should head straight to the library. When we arrive, we should not be surprised to find that there is a thread woven between books and into the lives of characters and that, through careful exegesis, we can solve the riddle.
With a little research, we learn that Wagner, as a German composer of the 19th century, was an heir to an aesthetic movement of the 18th century known as “Sturm und drang.” A major hero of this movement was Goethe, whose Faust is the story of an alchemist who sells his soul to the devil in an attempt to gain unlimited knowledge. In what I believe is a nod to the connection with Goethe and Faust, Rowling originally dubbed the Death Eaters “the Knights Of Walpurgis”, a bit of word play on the “night of Walpurgis” (Walpurgisnacht), an event that features prominently in Goethe’s Faust and about which he wrote a poem. The Harry Potter saga is, of course, woven around similar themes involving alchemy (which Rowling calls “potions”), soul-selling (or soul-splitting in Potter) and unlimited power. So we have a connection between Harry Potter and Goethe, but what about Wagner? As it turns out, Wagner intended to complete a Faust symphony based on Goethe’s play.
Making Rings — metallurgy and alchemy
Wagner’s Ring Cycle is so named because of the magical artifact at the center of the saga — the Ring of the Niebelung. This ring is a magic object forged by a race of dark elves (the Niebelung), pressed into service by Alberich. They forge the Ring from the magical Rhinegold, which was stolen by Alberich from the beautiful and enchanting Rhinemaidens. The affinity between metallurgy used to create artifacts — especially magical artifacts like rings that empower the wearer to rule the world — and alchemy should be noted. Alchemy is the process by which metallurgists transmute the properties of metals. Mircea Eliade has drawn out the connection between the smith who makes metal objects in ancient times to medieval alchemist who remakes himself in the alchemical fire in his work The Forge and the Crucible. The work of the blacksmith is intricately bound up in the work of the alchemist, as the practical act of forging weapons and ornaments likely gave rise to the more speculative and esoteric practices of pure transmutation in alchemy. There is a primal magic at work any time someone takes the raw materials of nature and forms them into objects for human use. The amplification of this magic leads by projection to tales about magical rings that control the world. Alchemy is a form of speculative or philosophical blacksmithing, in which the work transforms not just the material but the spirit of the one who performs the work. This, in turn, leads to the tradition of literary alchemy , which transforms the soul of the reader through the work of art. This was Wagner’s aim in the Ring Cycle, though he used myth and not alchemy as his source, and it is Rowling’s aim in her fantasy literature, which draws heavily on myth and alchemy to fan the flames in her reader’s soul.
Norse Mythology and Wagner’s Ring
For source material Wagner looked to both the Niebelunglied and Norse mythology for characters around which he could weave his Ring Cycle. The Niebelunglied was the first known epic poem written in German and is considered a sort of German “Iliad.” From it Wagner most drew, among others, the characters of Sigfried, Brunnhild and Hagen. He combined these characters with others drawn from Norse mythology, including Wotan (or Odin), and Loge (or Loki) and Fafner the giant. We should note as a Harry Potter connection that Loki is the father of the great wolf Fenrir who lends his name the terrible werewolf, Fenrir Grayback. It may also be fruitful to explore the connection between Odin’s lost eye and the magical eye of Mad-Eye Moody.
Wagnerian References and Themes
An alchemist at the opera? An alchemist who sells his soul? Sturm und Drang? We’re well aware of Rowling’s penchant to play with words and names and we should immediately recognize the tip of the wand to Wagner in the name of the foreign wizarding school — Durmstrang. Just in case you think this kind of wild speculation is kind of thing you would read in the Quibbler, note the means of transportation that Durmstrang employs — a flying ship, yet another nod to Wagner and his first masterpiece, “The Flying Dutchman.” Another of Wagner’s works is the opera Parsifal, based on the story of the Arthurian knight and his quest for the Holy Grail. In Rowling’s work, there are several references to Arthurian characters and the Knights of the Round Table — “Merlin’s beard!” the Latinization of the name Parsifal or “Percival”, memorialized in the estranged Weasley (Percy, Son of Arthur) and, most significantly, as one of Dumbledore’s many names (Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore).
In Rowling’s work, Harry is often thematically related to Sigfried. He is the chosen one and the warrior hero who will defeat Fafner and return the ring to Wotan. Though Harry is far more likeable than Sigfried. Wotan is thematically related to Dumbledore. Wotan’s staff has runes carved into it as does the Elder Wand. Wotan promises to Sigfried that he will find a weapon to his hand when he most needs one, similar to Dumbledore’s statement about the Sword of Gryffindor. Wotan disguises himself as a wolf in the Ring cycle and is associated with the wolf, possibly the source of “Wulfric”, one of Dumbledore’s names. Wotan is governed by unbreakable pacts, like the one he forges with Fafner and therefore cannot slay him directly. Wotan must use another as an agent in order to obtain the ring. This is similar to the theme of the blood pact between Dumbledore and Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts series and also to a lesser degree to the fact that Dumbledore uses others like Snape and Harry in the Harry Potter saga. Brunnhilde is connected with Lily Potter. She is the embodiment of self-sacrificial love and the beating heart of the entire saga. Brunnhilde is condemned to sleep at the top of a mountain by Wotan, surrounded by fire that can only be penetrated by one who knows no fear. Compare this to the ring of fire cast by Grindelwald, a Loki character who is both charismatic and cunning and also a liar, who casts a ring of fire to test his followers. The climax of the Ring cycle comes as Brunnhilde rides her horse through the funeral fire set for Siegfried. In an act of self-sacrificial love, she gives herself to the flames and destroys the Ring, restoring the gold to the Rheinmaidens. This act is the most significant for the Harry Potter connection — self-sacrificial love is the greatest force in the universe. This is the meaning and purpose of both Wagner’s Ring cycle and the Ring composition that Rowling has woven throughout the Harry Potter and Fanstastic Beasts series.
Beyond the intertextuality and allusion at work between Rowling’s contemporary fantasies and the classic operas, there is an even deeper dialectic at work between Rowling and Wagner. Rowling’s literary style emulates Wagner’s great stylistic and compositional innovation, known as the leitmotif. Modern film audiences are so accustomed to the effects of the leitmotif that it’s hard to imagine a score composed without them. Leitmotifs are the melodic and harmonic lines that stand as symbols or signals. For instance, they may signify that a character has arrived or a certain force is present. The best examples come from the work of John Williams, who is heavily influenced by Wagner. Think of the Imperial March or the Force Theme in Star Wars — hearing these leitmotifs in the films either accompanies characters or plotlines or signals that they are at work in the background. Think of Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme” and you’re immediately traveling through the clouds, headed toward Little Winging for another cycle in the unfolding Harry Potter myth. Leitmotifs were bequeathed to musical drama by Wagner but the concept of the leitmotif has applications to other types of expression as well, including prose. The concept of the leitmotif has become mainstream and part of the shared lexicon, but I’m convinced that Rowling’s debt to Wagner extends beyond the trove of Teutonic mythical elements of giants, elves and rings and to the formal elements of composition through thematic set pieces that recur throughout the work, gaining in intensity, depth and psychological import each time they are invoked.
The entire Harry Potter saga has been composed as a cycle, like Wagner’s Ring. Each installment of the cycle contains all of the leitmotifs and each time we traverse the circuit of a new installment (a new book or film) we have the leitmotifs invoked, developed, contrasted, recast, varied and ultimately given newer, deeper meanings. We have Harry at the Dursleys. Harry being called into the Wizarding World. Harry escaping the Muggle world. Harry encountering a new aspect of Wizarding Society. Harry in Diagon Alley. Arriving at Hogwarts. Sorting. Learning about the new faculty. Meeting the new teacher/villain. On and on, through year after year, the leitmotifs of the saga are brought out and woven together to create ever deeper rings of meaning. In an interview about her Cormoran Strike series, Rowling (Galbraith) has drawn a concrete connection between musical and literary leitmotifs in her work:
Q: Music is threaded through the novels (we know, for example, that Strike’s dad is a famous rock star; Blue Öyster Cult songs figure in the plot of “Career of Evil”). If you were to give me a playlist to listen to while I read “Lethal White” what would be on it?
A: There are eight songs or pieces of music mentioned in the novel that should be on the playlist: “Cutt Off” by Kasabian, “No Woman, No Cry” by Bob Marley, “Wherever You Will Go” by The Calling, Rihanna’s “Where Have you Been,” “ Ni**as In Paris” by Kanye West and Jay-Z and “Oliver Twist” by D’Banj, “Black Trombone” by Serge Gainsbourg and Brahms’s Symphony №1, C Minor.
I’d add “So Long Marianne” by Leonard Cohen for Strike and Charlotte, “Heroes,” by David Bowie for the Olympic backdrop and “White Horses” by Andrea Ross, not only for the book’s leitmotif, but for Robin, and a romantic, innocent girl’s idea of adventure and freedom.
— J.K. Rowling’s Friend Robert Galbraith Has Something to Say
I’ll have more to say elsewhere about the significance of Blue Oyster Cult and how it draws out the intertextual dialogue between Harry Potter and Cormoran Strike, but for the purposes of this article it’s significant to note another Wagner connection. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is a song used as a leitmotif in Career of Evil. It’s a song about how love can conquer death.
Romeo and Juliet
Are together in eternity, Romeo and Juliet
40, 000 men and women everyday, Like Romeo and Juliet
40, 000 men and women everyday, Redefine happiness
Another 40, 000 coming everyday, We can be like they are
Come on baby, don’t fear the reaper
Baby take my hand, don’t fear the reaper
We’ll be able to fly, don’t fear the reaper
I repeat — “Don’t fear the Reaper” is a song (like Wagner’s Ring is comprised of songs) about how love can conquer death (like Wagner’s ring is about love conquering death and Harry Potter is about love conquering death). This connection, through music and lyrics, leads readers to connect the strings between works of art in vastly different styles and periods to deliver the same fundamental message. This sort of intertextual commentary is not the stuff of kids books or pulp detective fiction. This is high art. It’s essentially the same sort of high art that has earned James Joyce’s Ulysses the reputation as greatest novel of all time.
Lest this connection between Harry Potter and Cormoran Strike seems like a stretch, I’ll present you with the cover artwork from the album on which “Don’t Fear the Reaper” first appears. Notice that it depicts a magician holding Tarot cards and pointing to a symbol. Tarot, along with the other Hermetic arts like alchemy, astrology, herbology and bestiaries, obviously forms the basis of the Hogwarts curriculum and source material for the Harry Potter narrative. The magician pointing to the symbol could also be a clue to the fact that Rowling used the formalist structure of the Harry Potter series to draw out the Deathly Hallows symbol and is using the intertextual commentary of the Strike novels to tease out yet again. Read more about that here. What does this all mean? Rowling is, once again, letting us know that she is hiding things in plain sight.
In the absence of the Wagner connection, Rowling’s use of the word “leitmotif” could be understood as a colloquialism which simply refers to “theme.” But I believe she chooses her words carefully and that her entire corpus is an intertextual conversation between works and that, as a reader and interpreter herself, she is constantly encouraging her fans to treat her texts as exegetical puzzles to be solved.This game of “trace the influence” is what Rowling invites us to play along with her (just as Joyce did a century ago as he wove his narratives around mythology and music). Trace the intertextuality and you’ll find the magic of the meaning in the work. The spell is conjured through a combination of formalist composition in the ring structure punctuated by a prose form of Wagnerian leitmotifs. For the initiate, Rowling wants us to know how the magic is made and so she leaves clues.
Rowling’s mastery of the leitmotif, I believe, and its connection to ring composition, are what have made the Harry Potter saga perhaps the most engrossing canon of literature outside of the Bible. This is why readers can and will read the books over and over, finding new depths each time they repeat the circuit. For fans, reading Harry Potter like listening to a favorite album that’s worn out from being played again and again. Not only do the leitmotifs have meaning in and of themselves, they gain richness and complexity as they are played in counterpoint to one another. (See leitmotifs like “Harry suspects Malfoy and/or Snape is up to no good” and how it can be varied and inverted to create richer effects.) This is a key aspect of Rowling’s style and its impact on generations of readers and I believe she learned it in part from Richard Wagner. Just as Wagner took the stuff of myth to compose an epic designed to set the human soul free, Rowling took the stuff of Wagner and used it to transform the souls of her readers. The intertextual connections are clues and provide a richness and depth not unlike the invocation of leitmotifs. Harry Potter is consciously connected to Wagner’s work through the echoes in names and narrative themes, which opens us to a world that we might never have encountered otherwise. Rowling has joked about a Harry Potter opera, but why not? She’s conquered the literary world, she’s conquered film, she has an amusement park and a play. In each of these media — book, film, stage or experience — she’s set a generation ablaze with fervor not just for her characters but for the possibilities of the artforms themselves, for art itself. She is, in a very real sense, the heir of Wagner’s empire. He had the same aims in his project to build Bayreuth Festival — a destination meticulously designed and crafted to stage the multimedia experiences that he created, to bring the myth to life, and to help humanity achieve its highest possibilities through encounters with his art. Rowling is a modern day Wagner.