Luke and Vader fighting
From The Empire Strikes Back, 1980

The Star Wars series and Wagner's Ring
Structural, thematic and musical connections

by Kristian Evensen



Buy at Amazon.comThis article is for entertainment only and makes no claims as to the scientific value or exactness of the contents! The research preceding the writing of this article utilised doubtful methods and was critisized heavily even by the author. Read on at own risk.....


The film trilogy [N1] by George Lucas and John Williams, Star Wars, consisting of Star Wars, released in 1977 (sometimes referred to as A New Hope or Episode IV), The Empire Strikes Back (the Empire), released in 1980 and The Return of the Jedi (the Jedi), released in 1983, represents major turning points in cinematography, as well as in film music, film sound, visual effects and other areas. The opera tetralogy by Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen, consisting of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, composed from 1848 to 1874 and produced theatrically for the first time in 1876, represents major turning points in the history of opera, as well as in orchestral music, the art of singing and the production of operas.

Boulez ringIt may seem strange to connect two so very different works of "art". The one, Richard Wagner's Ring is undoubtedly the peak of musical romanticism, and by many praised as the greatest work of art ever produced. The other, the Star Wars film trilogy (which recently became a tetralogy, and is later to become a hexalogy) is a purely commercial product of the American film industry, by many not counted at all as a work of "art". It is obvious that the differences between these two cultural phenomena are many.The difference of the greatest magnitude may well be represented by the economic aspect: The Star Wars series are among the top box-office hitsin the history of the cinema. (Worldwide they are nos 2, 7 and 8 respectively, adjusted for inflation. [As of 09/2004] [N2]). As such, they must be counted among the most commercial successful products ever. The Ring, on the other hand, lacks this sort of statistics, but it is unlikely that the work has ever raised any profit at all. In all probability, all productions of this work in its history has resulted in net deficits.

Many will count the Ring as high or high-brow art, and the Star Wars trilogy as low or low-brow art. This distinction will not be discussed here, as it seems to be irrelevant to the present discussion.

There is one central premise, however, that unites the two works: The interest in myths. Wagner's Ring was certainly an attempt to reinterpret, re-present, and even to analyse several of the Teutonic, northern European myths, as well as a tremendously successful attempt to create a new myth for the modern man. Star Wars may lack the analytic approach of Wagner, but it shares the goal of representation and creation of a new, accessible, mythical world. The enormous success and the huge cult following is proof enough that the film series to a large degree has succeeded in this. More than 20 years after the initial release of Episode IV, the Star Wars series is a daily, living presence in the minds of thousands of people; it has indeed become a modern myth.

Levine ringIf one accepts this interest in myth as a common, general premise for the two works, it becomes interesting to connect and compare the works, to investigate the possibility of common traits. As will be seen, there are quite a lot of those, and several of these concern points of the greatest importance to the respective works. Which specific myths, historical and fictional material that has been sources of inspiration and interest from Wagner and Lucas, is not elaborated here.

This article will discuss connections on three different levels. First, the structural identities, both in the respective works, in their processes of production and in their reception. Second, the thematic identities, both in the use of sub-narrations and in the use of symbols. Third, the musical identities, both in the way the music is connected to the text and the action, and in the structure of the music itself.

Structural identities

The dimensions

Films and operas normally appear as single creations, they are conceived and produced as single objects. The idea of a connected series of operas, or of films, is not unheard of, but it is (at least until recently) very rare in the case of films and extremely rare in the case of operas.

The huge project of Der Ring des Nibelungen consists of four great (and three of them: long) operas, thematically connected and conceived as a single work - encompassing 15 or 16 hours of music and scenic action. This singular project was realised after years of planning and work. In the whole literature of important operas, through the whole of the history of music, there is nothing remotely like this project when it comes to temporal dimensions and ambitiousness of scope.

The project of Star Wars was originally conceived as a series of nine films (nonology), was soon realized as a trilogy, and is now, after years of planning and work, in the process of becoming a hexalogy (six films). Film trilogies (or longer series) are rare, and although they exist (The Godfather, Alien) they are almost never originally conceived, planned and realized as a thematic and narrative whole. The rule is more often that new films are added according to the expectation of more profit. A film series like Star Wars with ultimately six movies - encompassing maybe around 12 or 14 hours of film, must be unique at least in the context of major films.

Both the Ring and the Star Wars series share the unique positions in their respective media of projecting a thematic and narrative continuity over unprecedentedly long spans of time.

The non-linear realisation

It is no small feat just to realise works of this dimension. It is interesting to note that both processes of creation were undertaken in a non-linear, "U"–shaped way.

  • The film trilogy was initiated with Episodes IV , V and VI, whereafter Lucas worked himself backwards with Episode I, more than two decades later, and is now planning to work forwards with Episodes II and III.
  • The opera tetralogy was started with the text for Götterdämmerung (originally: Siegfried's Tod), whereafter Wagner worked himself backwards with the texts, then forwards with the music until completion more than two decades later.

To create a World

Both works create their own World, both Worlds are supposedly in the past, the characters of both Worlds seem just the same known and contemporary to us. Both Worlds are richly endowed with details like different creatures, relations between these, descriptions of different societies and environments, stories and reports from the past, new and old conflicts, new and old hopes. In both cases we are without preparation thrown into such a World - which has to be, and generally will be, accepted unconditionally in order for us to join the "journey".

One obvious example of identity in this context is: A gallery of aliens = a gallery of gods, dwarves etc.

  • In Star Wars there is a large gallery of creatures and characters from different planets, with widely differing physical appearances and sets of behaviour. Examples are talking robots (C-3PO), a talking feline creature (the Wookie Chewbacca), the small, desert-dwelling Jawas, the large, evil Hutts (Jabba), the small, forest-dwelling Jedi (Yoda), the human heroes (Luke) etc.
  • In the Ring there is a large gallery of creatures and characters from different parts of the world, with widely differing physical appearances and sets of behaviour. Examples are the mermaid-like Rheintöchter (Rhinedaughters), dwarves (Alberich and Mime), giants (Fasolt and Fafner), gods (Wotan, Freia, Brünnhilde), half-god/half-element (Loge), half-god/half-human heroes (Siegmund, Sieglinde and Siegfried), human (Gunther, Gutrune and Brünnhilde again), half-dwarves (Hagen), dragons (Fafner again) etc.

The need for total control

Both Wagner, as composer and producer of his own operas, and Lucas, as screenwriter, director and producer of his films, show a need for total control with the end product.

  • Lucas creates his own film studio, his own company for creation of new and revolutionary visual effects (Industrial Light & Magic, founded in 1975) and his own standards for sound and image (THX).
  • Wagner creates his own theatre (the Feststpielhaus in Bayreuth) in order to realize his ideals concerning the visual and auditive effects.

  • In Star Wars Lucas uses newly developed computer techniques to create special visual and auditive effects. Star Wars was the first film with a world-wide distribution to use the new Dolby stereo-optical sound system, a system which later has made possible the many surround systems.
  • In the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, the theatre built to present the Ring in the best possible way, Wagner hides the orchestra, both to create a new "sound" and to achieve a better balance between singers and orchestra. By hiding the orchestra and by turning out the lights in the theatre, Wagner also ensured a much better visual illusion than what previously was possible in theatres. He also introduced a whole range of new sound effects, from hidden bells to construction of new horns (the Wagner tuba), from the masterful balancing of voice and orchestra by orchestration to the special architecture of the hall. (Again, the hidden orchestra, and the wooden construction turning the hall into a huge musical instrument with the audience inside!) Bayreuth was the first, and is still the only place with such a placement of the orchestra.

Lucas' need to establish new standards for sound and picture has led him to develop the THX standard for reproduction of sound and picture in cinemas and in home video systems. This is a clear parallel to Wagner's need to control the quality and balance of sound, and the quality of visual presentation in his opera house in Bayreuth.

The cult following

The Ring and the Star Wars series represents important cultural phenomena. Indications of this is the tremendous cult following of to both. An expression of this cult following is the fact that a large number of people were willing to pay the entrance fee for some random film, only to watch the trailer for Star Wars Episode I, and thereafter leave the cinema hall. This was done waiting for and in expectation of the real thing. The parallel here is Wagner's presentation of parts of the Ring as one man shows for an inner circle of friends and followers. This was also done waiting for and in expectation of the real thing.

Another example: Tickets were bought weeks in advance of the premiere of Episode I, and hundreds of persons slept out in queues for several days in order to secure tickets. This compares with the need to order tickets for Bayreuth several years in advance, and the hour-long queues with persons having only a little hope of getting a return ticket for an already sold-out performance.

Activities are one thing, reception is another. It is an easily observable fact that supporters of the Star Wars series tend to count these films as the best films ever made. An example of this is a poll taken among Norwegian internet users recently: The question was, which film did one count as the best ever? Of those who took the trouble to cast their vote, the overwhelming majority voted for Star Wars! It goes almost without saying that many of those who appreciate the music of Wagner count the Ring as the greatest work of music theatre, possibly the greatest work of music ever, - some would claim, even the greatest work of art ever!

Adherents of both works tend to be engulfed to such a degree that they seem to live in and identify with these, and they repeatedly relive the same works. The present author has tried this with both works and can confirm the subjective similarity in the form of extreme identification, the totality of and the extraordinary intensity of the experience and the need for repetition.

Thematic identities

This section will investigate some themes which are common to the two works in question. There are lots of parallels, not only in the general choice of themes, but in several interesting and significant details. Some parallels may be expected, others may be surprising. The level of detail where identities appear is entirely unexpected, and this is what prompted the present author to write this article.

The Old Sin which is Atoned by Youthful Heroism

  • Wotan has committed sins with world-destroying consequences:
    a) He has cut off a branch of the world ash tree in order to make his spear, the spear of runes and of contracts - and in order to rule by these contracts and their protection by the spear.
    b) He has made a deal with the Giants which he doesn't intend to keep: He has granted the goddess Freia as payment for their work of building Walhall.
  • Annakin Skywalker has committed sins with world-destroying consequences:
    He has yielded to "the Dark side of the Force" and ended up as Darth Vader, a tool for the evil Emperor.

  • Wotan's daughter, Brünnhilde, and Wotan's grandson, Siegfried, have to compensate for Wotan's sins by going against his will. They succeed through their love for each other, and Wotan and the gods perish. Siegfried and Brünnhilde sacrifices their lives.
  • Annakin's daughter Leia and his son Luke, have to compensate for Annakin's sins by going against his will. They succeed through their love for each other and Vader and the Emperor perish. Luke and Leia are willing to sacrifice their lives, but they (surprise!) are spared.

The Conflict Between Power and Love

The conflict between power and love is the ancient, central conflict close to the centre of what it is to be a human being. It is the conflict where one must choose, and where generation upon generation have made the wrong choices. It is the main conflict of most of the old stories and legends, stories which are there to try to influence us to make the right choice once in a while. It is the archetypal conflict which lies at the heart of both the Ring and the Star Wars series.

  • In the Ring, the central conflict is between lust for power, symbolized by the Ring and by Walhall and exemplified by the actions of Alberich, Mime, Wotan, Fafner and Hagen on the one hand, and love, symbolized by the goddess Freia and her apples and exemplified by the actions of Siegmund, Sieglinde, Brünnhilde and Siegfried on the other hand. In the Ring all characters are complex and shows both good and bad sides, with the exception of Hagen, who is pure evil.
  • In Star Wars the central conflict is between lust for power, symbolized by the Death Star and exemplified by the actions of Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine and Jabba the Hutt on the one hand, and love, exemplified by the actions of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke, Leia, Han Solo, R2D2 and 3PO on the other hand. In Star Wars all persons are rather simple, and show generally only good or bad sides, with the exception of Lando Calrissian, who seems to change sides a couple of times.

Extremely simplistically, the identity is thus:

  • The Star Wars is a simple tale of good and evil, of love and power. It makes you want to be a better person.
  • The Ring is a complex tale of good and evil, of love and power. It also makes you want to be a better person.

Father and Son : The Central Conflict, and Two Battles of Life and Death

The conflict between father and son is eternal, and is present in many stories. Common in the Star Wars series and the Ring is the fact that this conflict not only is central, it is in part a conflict of life and death, and it is a conflict where the son, at least for a time being, does not know he is facing his father. In both works there are two central battles of life and death, in Star Wars both are between father and son, in the Ring the first battle is between the son and his enemy supported by his father, the second battle is between grandson and grandfather.

The first battle takes place in the second part of each series:

Luke and Vader, first fight
The Empire Strikes Back, 1980

Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader fights in The Empire Strikes Back. Vader mutilates Luke, destroys his sword and almost kills his son.

Siegmund and Hunding fighting
Die Walküre, 1856

Siegmund and Hunding fights in Die Walküre. Wotan destroys Siegmund's sword and Hunding kills Wotan's son. The illustrations also shows Brünnhilde vainly trying to protect Siegfried with her shield.

The second battle takes place in the third part of each series:

Luke and Vader, second fight The Return of the Jedi, 1983

Luke and Vader fights in Return of the Jedi. Luke slashes Vader's right hand off and renders Vader's sword useless. Luke may kill Vader, but spares his father.

Siegfried and Wotan fighting
Siegfried, 1869

Siegfried and Wotan fights in Siegfried. Siegfried splinters Wotan's spear. He spares his grandfather.

Father and Daughter - a Conflict of Will

Also between father and daughter there are central conflicts in the two works. This is in fact the central conflict between characters in the Ring, not so, however, in the Star Wars series. What is common between the two works is the idea of a conflict of will - and in both cases this is a question of the will of a father in conflict with himself.

  • Wotan tries to make his daughter Brünnhilde act according to his will: Siegmund must die in battle with Hunding (Die Walküre, 2. act). Brünnhilde understands his real will, that Siegmund, his son, shall live, and she acts on this understanding instead.
  • Darth Vader tries to make his daughter Leia act according to his will: Reveal where the Rebels (and among them, his son) are hidden so he may kill them, but she resists (Star Wars). Luke later understands his father's real will, that he shall live (the final battle in The Return of the Jedi).

The Magic Sword

The idea of a magic sword is of course central to a number of legends. Here the obvious identity is: Light sabre = Sword.

The use of light sabres is central in all episodes of the Star Wars series. This has its parallel in the central Sword in the Ring, which not only has the utmost importance in some pivotal actions in the opera, but which also has a strong symbolical significance.

The light sabre also seems to be more than a weapon: The use of a sword, however sophisticated, seems anachronistic in a space age context where (laser-) guns must be immensely more effective. The light sabre, however, is connected with the supernatural Force, used by the Jedi knights, and thus achieves its mythological significance - and this makes us accept it.

Notice the structural identities between the central scenes where the light sabre and the Sword respectively have their most important parts:

  • Siegmund's sword is destroyed in his fight with Hunding. Wotan, Siegmund's father, supports and protects Hunding and is effectively Siegmund's killer. (Die Walküre)
  • Luke's sword is destroyed in his fight with Darth Vader, his father. Luke is almost killed by his father. (The Empire Strikes Back)

  • Siegfried (son of Siegmund and grandson of Wotan) shapes his new and better sword from the pieces of Siegmund's sword, and this does not break in his fight with Wotan, it is Wotan's spear that breaks. Wotan yields to Siegfried and lets him go. (Siegfried)
  • Luke constructs his own new and better light sabre - which does not break in his next fight with Vader. Vader yields to Luke and saves him from the Emperor. (The Return of the Jedi)

The Orphaned Hero

The obvious identity is Luke Skywalker = Siegfried

  • Siegfried is raised by a stepfather. Both his parents are dead. Siegfried wants to get away, out into the world.
  • Luke is raised by his uncle and his aunt. He believes that both his parents are dead. Luke wants to get away, out into the world.

Tuition and Initiation by a Dwarf

Dwarves play important roles in many myths and legends, and there are good dwarves and there are evil dwarves. In our two works there are two dwarves with structural identities, but in one case the dwarf is evil, in the other the dwarf is good.

  • Siegfried is taught by Mime, a lone dwarf living in the woods. The tuition fails, but Siegfried in spite of that achieves his mission: He forges his sword and kills the dragon Fafner. The dwarf is evil.
  • Luke is taught by Yoda, a lone dwarf living in the woods. The tuition fails, Luke leaves before he has finished. In spite of this he achieves his mission: He constructs his new sword and frees his friends. The dwarf is good.

The Incestuous Hero Twins

The incestuous brother-sister relationship is common to many myths, the same is the theme of the twins separated at birth or soon after. In both of our works under consideration these two themes are combined.

The identities are: Luke & Leia = Siegmund & Sieglinde.

  • The heroic pair, Siegmund and Sieglinde are twins, unknown to themselves. They were separated in early childhood through dramatic circumstances. They meet as adults and fall in love. They make love even though they realise that they are twins. They have a son, Siegfried.
  • The heroic pair Luke and Leia are twins, unknown to themselves. They were separated immediately after birth through dramatic circumstances. They meet as adults and are attracted to each other. Early in the Empire Leia kisses Luke passionately, seemingly to provoke Han Solo. At this point the spectators don't know that Luke and Leia are brother and sister, they don't know it themselves, therefore the kiss may easily be taken as an erotic invitation. Only in the Jedi will we (and the characters) know that they are twins.

The Symbols of Power

The identity is: The Death Star = The Ring.

Both the Ring and the Death Star are circular in form and symbols of power. Both even exerts physical power in some scenes.

  • The Ring is made by Alberich, after he has forsworn love. The Ring is a symbol and a means for power, made in the hope of world-embracing power.
  • The Death Star is constructed by the Empire by order of the evil Emperor and under supervision of Darth Vader, made in the hope of world embracing-power.

There is also a certain similarity between the Death Star and Walhall, both powerful fortresses. The musical motiv of Walhall is deducible from the motiv of the Ring, a connection which is highlighted by Wagner in the transition music between scene 1 and 2 of Das Rheingold.

The Evil Dragon

Both Jabba the Hutt and Fafner (first a giant, later transformed into a dragon) are very unsympathetic characters. Fafner is seen killing his own more soft-hearted brother Fasolt in Das Rheingold. Jabba is seen eating small, living creatures and killing women for entertainment. But neither are main characters, although both are extremely annoying and somewhat evil. Fafner shows his most sympathetic side dying, none such mollifying traits are shown in Jabba. In addition to the identities below, Jabba also has the trait, commonly attributed to dragons, of keeping young women (traditionally so-called "virgins") imprisoned.

The identity is thus: Jabba the Hutt = Fafner.

  • In Star Wars, the special edition of 1997, Jabba moves around, he is a large creature. Han Solo owes him payment for a loan. In the Jedi Jabba is all but immobile, he lies and guards his treasures. Jabba is killed by Leia as a result of Luke's attack.
  • In Das Rheingold Fafner is a giant moving around, he is a large creature. Wotan owes him payment for the work of building Walhall. In Siegfried Fafner is transformed into a dragon which is all but immobile, he lies and guards his golden treasure. Fafner is killed by Siegfried.

In the Jedi Jabba likes to watch people being eaten by a giant animal, the Rancor. In Siegfried, Fafner is a giant animal who likes to eat people. (Rancor - Dragon - Fafner! The Rancor "has some of the characteristics of a reptile. A rancor has disproportionately long arms, huge fangs and long, sharp claws." [N3] Fafner, the dragon, also has some of the characteristics of a reptile, like huge fangs and long, sharp claws.)

Siegfried kills Fafner as the small figures Mime and Alberich watches with the hope that Siegfried also will be killed. Luke kills the Rancor as the small keepers watches with the hope that Luke will be killed.

The Forced Marriage, the Tyrannical Husband

The abduction of a girl or young woman, forced into marriage with a tyrannical and primitive husband, later to be redeemed by a hero, is another traditional theme. This theme is central in Die Walküre, and may be read into the Return of the Jedi.

The identity is: Jabba the Hutt = Hunding.

  • Hunding, a primitive tyrant, lives in an isolated mansion in the wood.
  • Jabba, a primitive tyrant, lives in an isolated mansion in the desert.

  • Hunding has abducted and married Sieglinde by force. The marriage is her chains. Sieglinde later drugs Hunding and escapes with her twin-brother, Siegmund.
  • Jabba has abducted and keeps Leia in chains. Her clothing is harem-like and indicates that some sort of sexual force is being exerted upon her by Jabba, a sort of forced "marriage". Leia later strangles Jabba and escapes with her twin-brother, Luke.

Magic Sleep and Sex Change

This is the traditional "Sleeping Beauty" theme, but strangely enough, in both cases combined with a suggestion of sex change, almost as a side thought. In both cases a woman is first mistaken by her lover to be a man, but in one case the woman is the sleeper, in the other she is the waker. The sex change theme in this connection may perhaps be seen as harbouring a hidden homosexual component.

The identities are: Han Solo = Brünnhilde = Sleeping Beauty.

  • Brünnhilde is put to deep sleep inside flames. This is done by order of her father, Wotan. The hero Siegfried later awakes her and they (sort of) marry. Just prior to the point where Siegfried wakes Brünnhilde, Siegfried finds her asleep in her armour and thinks she is a man. Only after "undressing" her by removing her disguising armour does he realize that she is a woman, whom he is soon to love.
  • Han Solo is through cold and carbon brought into hibernation, a deep, unconscious sleep. This is done by order of Luke's father, Vader. The heroine Leia later awakes him and they later (perhaps) marry. Just after the point where Leia wakes Han Solo, he sees her in disguise as Boushh, a male bounty hunter. Only after she "undresses" by removing her (voice-)disguising helmet does he realize that she is Leia, the woman he loves.

The Magic Helmet

There is an identity concerning the use of a magic helmet in both works. Such a helmet is really used with magic effect, several times, in the Ring, and this helmet has a dramaturgic function in the operas. Such a helmet also exists in the Star Wars series, but although it is barely used with magic effect, it has a dramaturgic function, but less significant.

This rather slight identity is: Tarnhelm = Vader's mask

Musical identities

General similarities

The importance of the orchestra

Films of the 60s and the 70s were generally not produced with a lavish, symphonic score. Parts of a film with music in this period generally were much shorter than parts without music, the music was often popular songs or rock music, often "prefabricated" and not composed for the film. This must be seen as a setback compared with the late 30s, the 40s and part of the 50s, when prominent symphonic scores were to be expected in films. One might say that the films of the 60s and the 70s no longer were the multimedia artwork that the films of the earlier golden age were. The music for a film was now reduced to an embellishment, to be almost or entirely discarded, at the whim of the director, instead of an integral part of the totality of the film.

Then, in 1977, enter Star Wars and John Williams. This film, with a playing time of 121 minutes, includes 88 minutes of symphonic music. And this extremely prominent and brilliant symphonic music is even the first the audience experiences in the film, as it starts before anything appears on the screen. Williams with this music re-establishes film music as an integral element, almost on par with the moving images, of the film, and thus partakes in recreating dramatic, narrative film as the multimedia artwork it can be.

The role of music in Star Wars is comparable to the role of the orchestra in the Ring. Romantic opera up to Wagner was more often than not dominated by the singers and their arias, not seldom written to show off their vocal brilliance. Italian opera, e.g. Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini and even for a large part, Verdi, is mainly a series of songs, accompanied by an orchestra and staged with costumes and setpieces. Not so in Wagner, where the orchestra has no secondary role, but partakes in the musical totality, even the dramatic totality as complete equal to what is seen and heard from the stage. In the Ring, the orchestra is a major dramatic force, often the dramatic force, not an accompaniment.

This identity between Wagner's Ring and Williams' Star Wars music is thus:

  • Der Ring des Nibelungen = symphonic opera
  • Star Wars = symphonic film

The opening effect

A subtle detail, new both in character and realization, in the very beginning of both Star Wars and the Ring may be a result of this focus on the orchestra. What is common here is an opening effect, bold, new, unheard of at the time of the works creation.

  • The music of Star Wars starts in advance of the images, while it still is dark in the cinema hall. The quality of sound and the orchestral splendour of the opening music is quite a new experience in the context of film, and it is drawing the spectators' attention both because of the surprise element of music in the darkness and because of the clear audible contrast with the otherwise excellent 20th Century Fox theme of Alfred Newman which preceded this opening music.
  • Das Rheingold also starts with music in the dark, the deep, primal pedal notes, the prolonged, static harmony, consisting of a single, embellished chord lasting several minutes: A dramatically new idea in the context of opera and even art music generally, which also relentlessly draws the spectators attention to the orchestra.

The use of leitmotifs

Wagner was not the originator of the idea and use of leitmotifs, but he was the composer who perfected the compositional technique of making the leitmotifs the basis of a large, musical structure. It is interesting that the one musical context in this century where the leitmotif technique has been used to a large degree is in film music. The frequent, and even structural, use of leitmotifs in film music was evident in composers of the "golden age" like Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

In Wagner, the easily recognizable musical leitmotif is not only a structural building block, it is equally important as a musical symbol for something non-musical. The leitmotif thus may represent a person, a place, an object, an idea, a specific aspect of a persons character or an event. The recognizable leitmotifs will often change character according to context and specific meaning, they are not static entities.

In the classical film music, the leitmotif technique is not as nuanced as in Wagner (of course), they are most often representing a person or group of persons. John Williams must be credited for reviving the use of the leitmotif technique in film music and integrating it with a more modern musical idiom than what was possible in the thirties and forties. At the same time he manages to keep much of the freshness of the music of composers like Erich Korngold and Miklós Rózsa, two of his most important ideals for the Star Wars music.

In Williams the leitmotifs also often represents persons (Luke, Leia, Vader, Yoda), but there are motifs representing objects (Death Star) and ideas (the love of Han Solo and Leia, the Force). He also transforms his motifs according to context and dramatic need of the moment, often with tremendous effect. Williams' ability to mould his leitmotifs into different expressions, often in a polyphonic structure, is indeed one of his major strengths as a composer, and this is a main factor in making it so enjoyable just to listen to his scores, even without the visual elements present.

The construction of the leitmotifs

The leitmotifs both of Star Wars and of the Ring share important principles of construction. They are all generally based on a clear melodic-rhythmic-harmonic idea. The leitmotif is always perceived as a musical "entity", nucleus or unity. Several specific identities of construction will be investigated in the next section.

Specific identities of construction

A comparison of several motifs from the films and from the operas follows. Some motifs are transposed for ease of comparison. Single motifs are playable if you have installed a sound card in your computer - just click on the music example!

The identities shown here are not meant to imply the Williams has been plagiarizing Wagner. It is not known whether Williams was familiar with the Ring at the time of composing his brilliant music for Star Wars and the sequels. Even if he did know the older work, he will certainly not have tried to copy ideas from it. [N4] It is important to stress that although there are several structural identities between central motifs in the two works, Williams' motifs all have their own individual characteristics, something which never is deducible by analysis. Williams' greatness and originality as a composer is clearly shown by the individuality and expressivity in his motifs and his use of them. The uniqueness of Williams' motifs, when listened to, and their distinctness, is just as important, and as interesting, as the structural identities with the Wagner motifs. This distinctness seems to exclude the question of unconscious plagiarism, as this probably would have resulted in motifs that not necessarily had structural identities, but rather in motifs that in some audible way resemble each other. With a couple of possible exception, audible resemblance is not the issue here.

How, then, are these structural identities to be explained? Several thoughts may appear. First, Williams and Wagner both worked for a large part inside the same musical tradition, although Williams had about a hundred additional years of this tradition to grow from. Trying to express closely related emotions, actions and ideas, some of the same musical structures may come to mind. This seems to imply, however, that musical structures really represent extra-musical phenomena, or at least that they may do so by convention or by tradition. Second, and more boldly, one may conjecture that some musical structures may have a sort of archetypal validity. Some human experiences just demand to be expressed musically in certain ways, and any composer trying to make such musical statements necessarily will be forced to walk in trodden paths, so to speak. This view may also explain, in part, the immediate and forceful appeal the music both of Wagner and Williams, to a large public with minimal previous experience with the "tradition". Third, there may of course be coincidences.

The music for the Ring embraces several dozens of motifs; the number of motifs for the Star Wars series is not nearly of this magnitude. The comparison of a few of these motifs is significant all the same, because most of the motifs in question are among the most important in both works, and because most of these motifs also represent ideas, persons, emotions or situations that seem closely related.

Luke Skywalker = Siegfried

The greatest male hero of the Ring is Siegfried, as the main male hero of Star Wars is Luke Skywalker. Luke is represented by one well known motif, the main Star Wars motif. Siegfried is represented with at least three different motifs, two of which are closely related variants. There are significant identities between Luke's motif and the three Siegfried motifs.

To begin with, compare Luke's motif with the two variants of Siegfried.

Play Luke Skywalker's motif as it appears at the Main Title of Star Wars.
Luke Skywalker's motif

Play Siegfried's horn motif as it appears in Siegfried, 2. act, 2. scene, score cue Waldweben, where Siegfried is alone.
Siegfried's horn motif

Play Siegfried's heroic motif as it appears in Götterdämmerung, Prelude, 23 bars after the cue Tagesgrauen.
Siegfried's heroic motif

By transposing Siegfried's horn motif and combining this with Siegfried's heroic motif, it is easy to see how they really are variants for the same underlying form:

Siegfried's two motifs compared.
Siegfried's two motifs compared

The two motifs are identical as regards intervallic structure, only rhythm and tempo are different. The heroic motif is most often represented with one note less at the end than the horn motif, as here, but sometimes complete with the missing F.

Now, first the comparison between Luke and Siegfried's horn.

Luke and Siegfried's horn compared.
Luke and Siegfried's horn compared

  • Both motifs start with a fifth rising from the tonic at the first beat of the first bar, see (a).
  • Both motifs have three stepwise descending notes from the fourth step (the subdominant) at the first beat of the second bar, followed by a leap upwards, (b). The leap is a fourth in Siegfried, a seventh, which is two fourths, in Luke.
  • Both motifs have the dominating rhythmic motif of three eight-notes on the heavy, first beat of the bar, followed by a long note on the second beat of the bar, (b) and (c). This rhythmic motif also marks the end of both motifs.

Even more identities will appear if one compare Luke and Siegfried in the heroic variant.

Luke's motif and Siegfried's heroic motif compared.
Luke and Siegfried, heroic compared

Between these motifs there is the common key, B-flat major. Perhaps no coincidence this, as this is a "heroic" key, closely related to E-flat major, the key of Beethoven's Eroica symphony and Strauss' Ein Heldenleben.

  • As above, the significant, heroic rising fifth to begin with, (a).
  • At (b) there is a movement from the sustained fifth (F) through the third (D) back to the sustained tonic (B-flat).
  • At (c), and closing Siegfried, there is the stepwise movement from the subdominant (E-flat) down to the supertonic (C). In Siegfried this ends at a sustained supertonic. In Luke, this movement is repeated twice and the supertonic is only sustained the third and closing time.

If we move Siegfried one bar in respect to Luke two additional identities appear:

  • The initial rising fifth is repeated in the beginning of bar 2 of Luke, this time from the subdominant (E-flat) to the tonic (B-flat) (d). This time even the rhythmical structure is identical, the lower note is on the first beat of the bar, the sustained second note is on the second beat of the bar, both are syncopated. (The downwards triplet eight movement in Luke is now seen as an embellishment.)
  • The return movement from the sustained, syncopated top note is passing through one note in downwards movement back to the bottom note, to be reached on the first beat of the next bar, (e). The passing note is not completely identical, it is a second above the bottom note in the case of Luke, a third in the case of Siegfried.

Due to the fact that these two Siegfried motifs are variants, these identities are even strengthened, as they are combined in the motif of Luke.

Next, compare Luke's motif and Siegfried's tragic motif. On hearing, these two motifs seem to be completely different. There are, however, structural identities right through the motifs!

Play Siegfried's tragic motif as it appears in Götterdämmerung, 3. act, 2. scene (the so-called Funeral music).
Siegfried's tragic motif

Siegfried tragic and Luke compared.
Luke and Siegfried, tragic, compared

  • Both motifs opens with similar upward leaps (a), a fourth and a fifth respectively.
  • The next movement is in both motifs three notes in downwards stepwise movement followed by an upwards leap (b), a sixth and a seventh respectively. The rhythmical movement is identical in that both movements have the last, topmost and longest note as the goal.
  • The next movement is a downward leap, (c), a sixth and a fourth respectively. The rhythm is identical.
  • The next movement is again three notes in downwards stepwise movement followed by an upwards leap (d), a fifth and a seventh respectively. Again the movement is directed towards the final note in both motifs.
  • The penultimate three notes in both motifs form a stepwise downward turning movement (e), finishing on a long note, the dominant and the supertonic respectively. (The supertonic's function is similar to the dominant!)

Quite a succession of identities for two motifs that sounds so differently!

Obi-Wan Kenobi / the Force = Siegfried as tragic hero

The next comparison concerns two motifs with a clear audible similarity, an exception in this context. The Star Wars motif is assosiated both with Obi-Wan Kenobi and with the magic Force.

Play Obi Wan Kenobi's motif / The Force motif as it appears at the cue Binary Sunset in Star Wars. (The motif is transposed for comparison, orig. in G minor.)
Obi Wan Kenobi's motif / Force motif

Play Siegfried's tragic motif.
Siegfried's tragic motif

Kenobi's and Siegfried's tragic motifs compared.
Kenobi and Siegfried, tragic, compared

  • The opening upbeat, a rising fourth ending on the long tonic (a).
  • Next, a dotted figure with a three-note stepwise movement (b). (The direction is opposite.)
  • A falling minor sixth, identical rhythm (c).
  • A rising upbeat again, a fourth and the similar fifth, respectively (d).
  • A sequence of three step-wise rising notes, ending on the long, final note of the motifs. The sequences are somewhat embellished, but the step-wise structure is the basis in both cases (e). In Kenobi, D, E-flat, F. In Siegfried, E-flat, F, G.

This identity between Obi Wan Kenobi and Siegfried as a tragic hero is entirely logical. Kenobi sacrifices himself at the end of Star Wars, he is killed by the evil Vader. Kenobi is the main hero that is killed in the Star Wars series, and his death will redeem his friends and all people from the oppression by the Empire. Siegfried is also ultimately killed, by the evil Hagen, not a conscious sacrifice by Siegfried, but perhaps an unconscious one. Siegfried is the main hero that is killed in the Ring. His death will redeem all people from the suppression by the power of the Ring and from the misguided actions of the gods.

Siegmund & Sieglinde, twins = Luke & Leia, twins

As noted above, there is a parallel between the two pairs of twin siblings, Siegmund & Sieglinde in the Ring and Luke & Leia in the Star Wars trilogy. This parallel is reflected in a corresponding musical identity. [N5]

Play the motif of Luke & Leia as twin siblings as it appears at the cue Luke and Leia in Return of the Jedi.
Luke and Leia's motif

Play the motif(s) of Siegmund and Sieglinde, twin siblings as it appears in Die Walküre, 1. act, 1. scene at the cue "Sie neigt sich zu ihm herab und lauscht".
The motifs of Siegmund and Sieglinde, twin siblings

The twin siblings' motifs compared.
The twin siblings' motifs compared.

In the Ring, the motifs of Siegmund and Sieglinde are often considered separately — this comparison will use the Sieglinde part of the twins' motif. As the two motifs are used frequently in conjunction, and as the twins have a central part of their dramatic role functions as the twin siblings they are, it seems fair to compare only a part of this pair of motifs with the Star Wars motif.

  • The first part, the opening upbeat, (a), consists of a fourth and then a fifth, moving from the dominant through the tonic and back to the dominant. In the Ring version, the third, b flat, is interpolated between the tonic and the dominant.
  • The second part, (b), of the motives consists of a stepwise movement from the fifth to the third step. In both versions, the last note is the longest. The rhythm of the first two notes is inverted (long-short in the Ring version, short-long in the Star Wars version).

The structural strength of this identity seems somewhat surprising, given the relatively slight aural identity, but it is entirely plausible considering the thematic parallel between the two twin pairs.

The Death Star = The Ring

Play the Death Star motif as it appears in Star Wars at the end of the cue Learn About the Force, as the Death Star is seen for the first time.
Death Star motif

Play The Ring motif as it appears in Das Rheingold, end of Scene 1.
The Ring motif

The similarities between the Ring motif and the Death Star motif are perhaps not so obvious. The key of important instances of both motifs, A minor, is common. More importantly, the basis of both motifs is a broken chord, although different chords. There is also a chromatic element, more emphasized in the Ring motif than in the Death Star motif. Finally there is the rhythmical similarity between the final, rising half of the Ring motif and the whole of the Death Star motif: emphasized-long short short emphasized-long, all intervals rising.

Leia = Brünnhilde

Play Leia's motif as it appears in the concert suite Princess Leia's Theme. From Star Wars.
Leia's motif

Play Brünnhilde's motif as it appears in Götterdämmerung, Prelude, 26 bars after the cue Tagesgrauen.
Brünnhilde's motif

Brünnhilde's and Leia's motifs compared.
Brünnhilde and Leia compared

These two motifs, representing the major female protagonists in each of the works, have quite different sounds to the ear. They share, all the same, a common structural identity as shown by the analysis.

  • Both have the opening intervall of a rising major sixth (a). In Brünnhilde this interval is embellished with a turn.
  • The following part of each motif is delineated by the interval of a falling major second (b). This concludes Leia, but Brünnhilde has an additional falling seventh.

Darth Vader = Hunding

The final motifs to be compared here, are the motifs of Darth Vader and Hunding respectively. Textually, these two characters have little in common. Both are evil opponents, though, antagonizing our heroes. These motifs also have some audible similarity.

Play Darth Vader's motif as it appears in the concert suite The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme). From The Empire Strikes Back. (The motif is transposed for comparison, orig. in G minor.)
Darth Vader's motif

Play Hunding's motif as it appears in Die Walküre, 1. act, 2. scene.
Hunding's motif

Hunding and Vader compared.
Hunding and Vader compared

  • Both motifs start with three repeated tonics (a). In Hunding the third note is emphasized with a double anticipation. The repeated tonic contributes to the threatening expression of both motifs.
  • Next is a turning movement starting again from the tonic. This consists of two falling thirds separated by a rising leap, a sixth in Hunding and a fifth in Vader (b), both ending on the first beat of the next bar. The rhythm is slightly different.
  • Both motifs have an harmonic emphasis on the leading note, B-natural, in both cases near or at the end of the motif (c). In Vader the B-natural is in the melody, in Hunding it is in the chord.

The next section is added more as an afterthought, as it refers to Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde, the great love story, and not to the Ring. It was too tempting to show also this identity of musical motifs, as the comparison also in this instance refers to one of Wagner's greatest works! [N6]

Han & Leia = Tristan & Isolde

Han Solo and Leia are of course the central love couple in the Star Wars trilogy, as Tristan and Isolde are in Wagner's opera of the same name. There is reason to believe that the love of Han and Leia ends happily, in contrast to the union only in death that happens in Tristan. This difference is reflected in the fact that the love theme of Han & Leia is in a major key, the main theme of Tristan is in a minor key. Han & Leia's theme is also for a large part diatonic, but with an important chromatically changed note, while the Tristan theme is completely chromatic – with the added intensity and uncertainty this results in.

Play Han & Leia's love theme as it appears in the The Empire Strikes Back at the cue Han Solo and the Princess.
Han & Leia's love themes

Play Tristan & Isolde's love theme as it appears at the beginning of Tristan und Isolde.
Tristan & Isolde's love themes

The two love themes compared.
The two love motifs compared

  • The main motif of the Tristan theme is constituted by a rising small sixth followed by two falling semi-tones (a). In Han & Leia, the exact same motif appears in the second half-frase of the theme, only with a slight embellishment with the two notes Ebb and Gb. The Han & Leia theme also has a diatonic and shortened variation of the same motif (a') as the first half-frase.
  • A rising major third (b) appears in both themes at the same point of the motif (a), i.e. immediately after the three first notes. This prominent third is introduced polyphonically (but to the ear: quasi-melodically) in Tristan, but purely melodically in Han & Leia.
  • Both themes end with a rising small second, with a long last note. In both cases the first note is rhythmically accented, the second note not. (c)
  • According to Arnold Schönberg, a musical interval can be considered to have the same structural significance whether it appears horizontally (as melody) or vertically (as harmony). This may not be very obvious to the casual listener. The intervals of the fourth (x) and tritone (augmented fourth or diminished fifth) (y) appear prominently as intervals that constitute the main chord of the Tristan love theme, a chord which is of the utmost importance in the whole of the opera. The same two intervals appear prominently as frase-endings in the two half-frases of Han & Leia's theme.


[1] This article disregards the most recent additions to the Star Wars series, Episode I, The Phantom Menace and Episode II, Attack of the Clones. As far as connections between the films and the Ring, Episode I and Episode II seem not to add anything of significance. In fact, in certain regards, these two episodes even detract from the overall mythical significance of the Star Wars series. An example of this is Jabba the Hutt, who in Episode I is seen together with a smaller Hutt, seemingly his wife. This collides with the more mythical (although less "physiological") depiction of Jabba in The Return of the Jedi, where he keeps the almost naked Leia seemingly as a concubine or sexual plaything. Neither will the added focus on political intrigue in the two "first" episodes on the part of the evil forces seem to confirm the mythical aspects of the original Star Wars trilogy, rather the opposite. Finally, the "mechanization" of the robots as well as the storm troopers (replaced by clones in Ep. II) reduces or even removes "mythical" aspects of these figures in these episodes. In the original trilogy, R2D2 and 3CPO are all but the only robots of importance, and of course they both behave more like persons than what we normally would expect of robots in this sort of film. In Ep. I and II there are thousands and thousands of really mechanical robots with practially nil personality. A parallel: The storm troopers of the original trilogy are easily perceived as figures manifesting real evil, while the clones of Ep. II are mere puppets with seemingly no inherent morality or even personality - they merely obey whomever should order them around.

[2] Source:

[3] Source:, the official Star Wars web site.

[4] It must be made clear that the present author is not at all implying that Williams is plagiarizing Wagner or anyone else. Plagiarizing in film music is not unknown of, however.

[5] The section on the motifs of the twin pairs was added Sept. 2004.

[6] The section on the love themes was added Nov. 2003.


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