Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Esther 8: The Lords of the Ring

Well, my preciouses ... next year, as part of its new season, the New York Metropolitan Opera will offer a brand new staging of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle—an epic trilogy which is also perhaps the greatest operatic work of all time. (Of course, new versions of Wagner are only front-page news in New York City, but since I’m currently an insomniac in the City that Never Sleeps, I figure I’ll sample the local fare—after all, when in Rome …)

The cycle is a loose update of ancient Norse lore that nonetheless revolves around a unique element not found in that mythology: a magical ring forged from gold sunk deep in the waters of the Rhine that grants its wearer world-altering power. (And yes, Tolkein did admit Wagner’s influence in the development of his own Ring cycle.)

(For an excellent audio introduction to Wagner’s magnum opus, check out this installment of NPR’s excellent program, Radio Lab.)

I was thinking about the symbolism of the ring in Wagner last Saturday, during that time of the week I usually set aside for thinking about nineteenth-century German opera. Which got me to thinking of important rings in the Bible.

Perhaps no ring is so crucial as the one worn--and occasionally loaned out--by King Ahasuerus in the book of Esther. Esther is, most importantly, the Bible book that legitimates and starts the festival of Purim—which is, for the uninitiated, a kind of Jewish Mardi Gras. And I’m a fan of any book that paves the way for drinking and eating hat-shaped cookies. (Look it up, goyim!)

In any case, Esther tells the story of a beautiful Jewish woman--um, Esther--who becomes the preferred concubine of the Persian king Ahasuerus. (I know: “preferred concubine” doesn’t sound like much of an honor, but trust me, it is.) Using her beauty, her cunning, and her position, Esther is able to thwart a dastardly plot by the courtier Haman.

You see, Haman, for reasons that are never fully explained, develops an intense hatred for the Jewish population of ancient Persia and persuades the king to issue and edict commanding their genocidal slaughter. (And yes, this does seem a frightening preview of the Holocaust.) Upon hearing of the plan, Esther convinces the very changeable Ahasuerus to subvert Haman (who is eventually impaled on a hugely phallic pointy stake), empower her adoptive father Mordecai, and issue a counter-edict allowing the Jews to defend themselves.

But what of rings, you ask? Well, when Haman rises to the top of the courtly pack, he is given Ahasuerus’s signet ring--which becomes a physical signifier of kingly favor. Later, after Haman is dead and Mordecai is elevated, Mordecai is given the same ring—and the same esteem: “Then the king took off his signet ring, which he had taken from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai. So Esther set Mordecai over the house of Haman” (8:1-2).

Thus, a small piece of jewelry confers incredible power—power to destroy and to redeem. However, the ring is also closely associated with violence—both Haman’s proposed slaughter of the Jewish population of Persia and the actual slaughter of the Jews’ enemies.

Tensions arise, though, when you bring Wagner into conversation with Esther. Because Wagner was a notorious anti-semite who bought into early—and nefarious—theories of racial purity, later versions of which would be championed by Adolf Hitler. (Hitler famously loved Wagner’s music.) And Wagner's Ring cycle is often read as an allegory for racial struggle. Thus, some still characterize Wagner’s operas—no matter their genius—as proto-Nazi propaganda.

By contrast, Esther is early Jewish resistance literature. Here, we have a map for Hebrew self-defense and an example of bloody, effective revolt against national enemies. Whenever I read Esther, I think of the extreme bravery of the Jews of Warsaw, who mounted a gutty guerrilla campaign against the Nazi invaders in the waning years of World War II.

I’d wager that Wagner wasn’t thinking of Esther when he composed his Ring. But when we listen to it, perhaps we should.


  1. Great post, Joshua. I wonder, though, about a second option. Might it be that Wagner was indeed thinking about Esther? He knew his Bible, after all, and I wouldn't put it past him to attempt to re-write the Bible, as it were, in racialist way--an attempt to undermine that very story?

    Of course, I've no idea if that's possible, but it would certainly be an interesting side-note! Textual influence, as you know, has a strange way of subverting its predecessors.

  2. Again, stellar work on tying in 2 distinct pop culture heavyweights to a Biblical passage. I marvel.


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