THE NEW era of "The Ring" is upon us.

Richard Wagner's audacious and gargantuan epic, the 16-hour "Ring of the Nibelung," suddenly seems like fertile ground for a new audience, one absorbed in myth, whether from "Star Wars," "Conan the Barbarian," or Tolkien. Starting tomorrow night, many of them will have a chance to see for the first time Wagner's saga of Norse gods, giants, humans and subhumans locked in a deadly power struggle as PBS introduces the first television "Ring" in America.

In eight segments spaced over the next few months, PBS' Great Performances will bring a version taped in 1980 at Bayreuth's Festspielhaus, Wagner's temple for the production of his works. Tomorrow night there is a pleasant introductory hour. And next week comes "The Rhinegold," which Wagner regarded as a one-act prologue--though that prologue is longer, for instance, than "La Bohe'me" or "Tosca." Then will follow, in sequence, that tetralogy of operatic behemoths in which Wagner develops on a colossal musical, theatrical and emotional scale the combined Norse and Teutonic legends of the downfall of the gods and the death of the hero, Siegfried. First comes "The Valkyrie," then "Siegfried" and finally "Twilight of the Gods." All have English subtitles.

"The Ring" makes terrific television--with some startlingly beautiful and grand visual images. The acting in the 34 principal roles is uniformly strong, a rarity in Wagner--and is dramatically and vocally brilliant in the case of bass-baritone Donald McIntyre's portrayal of Wotan, the king of the gods and the closest thing in "The Ring" to a central character.

The television "Ring" comes at a propitious time. A bias against it had developed in a post-World War II generation of Wagnerphobes who could not look at Wotan without thinking Hitler. Also, many dismissed much of "The Ring" as an inflated fairy tale concerned with dwarfs and giants and toads and dragons: Grimm's stories without Grimm's grace.

"The Ring" had a credibility problem--indeed, even the most ecstatic Wagnerites will admit to inconsistencies associated with the work. Perhaps the biggest inconsistency of them all was the Nazi notion, dear to Hitler's heart, that the hero Siegfried embodied the fulfillment of the Aryan race. Siegfried himself, of course, was as doomed as the Third Reich.

And "The Ring's" plot itself is dotted with inconsistencies, as the horde of gold that is its subject jumps over the course of prehistoric time. It starts where it belongs, with the Rhine maidens in the river, but is stolen by the dwarf Alberich, who fashions a ring from it that commands dominion over the universe but carries a curse upon its every possessor. Wotan, the king of the gods, steals it from Alberich, thus sealing the eventual fate of the gods. From him, it goes to the giants Fafner and Fasolt in payment for building Valhalla. The hero Siegfried, who is also Wotan's grandson through a mortal woman, regains it. When he dies, his beloved, the Valkyrie Bru nnhilde, sacrifices herself so that it will be returned to the Rhine maidens, thus completing the symbolic ring.

The story, with its characters of super-human powers and dimensions, seems tailor-made for a generation fascinated by art on an epic scale. And this concern with archetypal tales has led to a renewed interest in Wagner. Francis Coppola's decision to have Col. Kilgore in "Apocalypse Now" flying off to combat in his helicopter gunship to "The Ride of the Valkyries" is an example. And there is also Richard Strauss' very Wagnerian music in Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," or the Wagnerian soundtrack of John Boorman's "Excalibur." All are drawing on music molded to an epic scale to support larger-than-life action.

The new interest in myth has ranged from the obsessive pursuit of the most intricate mythical fantasies in "Dungeons and Dragons" games to the literary following of Tolkien, whose masterpiece is even organized on the Wagnerian model, with its prologue followed by the three volumes of "The Fellowship of the Ring." As to contemporary mythology, Wotan, in one sense, is not all that different from Superman in his ability to switch at will from being a god into being a human. And Siegfried is just as fresh and ingenuous a figure as Luke Skywalker.

Wagner's "Ring" also has become big bucks in the record industry. There are five complete "Rings" listed in the Schwann catalogue, including a digital pressing of this television version under Pierre Boulez. At least two more are now in the making--all this despite the current dearth of superior Wagnerian voices and the fact that the first "Ring" to be made, with a remarkable cast under Solti, comes about as close to being definitive as any is likely to get. There is the long-time "Ring" festival staged by the Seattle Opera each summer, a kind of American Bayreuth. And this coming summer Bayreuth will do its own new "Ring," under Solti (with Sir Peter Hall), to replace the version being televised.

Finally, last March saw the publication of four children's plays based on "The Ring," adapted by Philip Caggiano, in which such details as the incest between Siegmund and Sieglinde and Wotan's numerous acts of adultery are necessarily downplayed.

The PBS production, created in 1976 for the centennial of the first complete Bayreuth "Ring," became a cause ce'le bre among the traditionalists. Audiences were aghast at the dramatic concept, in which young French director Patrice Che'reau lifted the action of "The Ring" from prehistory to 19th- and early 20th-century Germany and treated the work as an allegory on the failure of the Industrial Revolution.

IT MUST have been a real shock when the curtain went up for the opening of "The Rhinegold." This normally is a sylvan scene deep in the Rhine where three romantic, mermaid-like Rhine maidens are swimming around blissfully while guarding their horde of gold.

At Bayreuth in 1976 the scene wasn't exactly sylvan. The three Rhine maidens had been converted into slinky hookers who hang out looking for customers on a huge hydroelectric dam built across the Rhine. And the demon Alberich, who epitomizes the evils of greed in this drama, had wandered down there for some action.

But that's just the first shock. Before long we see Wotan for the first time. Instead of being dressed in the style of a Norse god, he is portrayed as the 19th-century equivalent: a captain of industry. Throughout "The Ring" Wotan is costumed in dark vest, trousers and wing collar or a cut-away or silk dressing gown (much in Wagner's own dressing style). The only concessions to costume convention are Wotan's spear and the rag worn over his blinded left eye.

Likewise, his wife Fricka, the rigid goddess of the laws and taboos of marriage, in her high-necked Victorian lace collar on a black, flowing full-length skirt, looks for all the world like Eva Le Gallienne as one of Ibsen's more fearsome women. In this role, by the way, Hanna Schwarz not only sings beautifully but looks beautiful.

A bit later when we get to what is normally Alberich's cave, with his Nibelung minions slaving away to serve his greed, we find it set in a factory, with red brick walls and metal grates on the floor.

Other allegorical examples: When Siegfried is forging his sword in the opening of "Siegfried," he uses a giant steam engine with a chimney; and in the next act, when he slays the dragon to regain the Ring, the animal is a menacing black figure emplaced on a black gun carriage like the ones used in the wars that ravaged industrial Europe.

Wagner's granddaughter, Friedelind Wagner, who most engagingly narrates this series and its documentary segments, tells a story suggesting the extent to which Che'reau's ideas outraged the Wagnerian old guard. Her mother, the late Winifred Wagner, the former Nazi doyenne of Bayreuth, took great umbrage and one day when Winifred and Che'reau were both present at the same social event, Friedelind intervened on his behalf:

"I said, 'Mother, even though I know you would like to kill him, Che'reau still would like to meet you.' So I brought over Che'reau and they met and Mother told him, 'Many times I felt like killing you. But isn't it better to be stirred up than to be bored.' " (Friedelind, by the way, broke with her family over Nazism, and moved to this country until well after World War II.)

Radical as Che'reau's concept of "The Ring" may have seemed, its origin could hardly have been more respectable. Che'reau and Boulez got the idea from George Bernard Shaw's essay, "The Perfect Wagnerite." In it Shaw declares ". . . 'The Ring,' with all its giants and dwarfs, its water-maidens and Valkyries, its wishing cap, magic ring, enchanted sword, and miraculous treasure, is a drama of today, and not of a remote and fabulous antiquity." And from that, Shaw, with his usual facility, extrapolated the self-destruction of the capitalist economy, symbolized by the ruin of Valhalla.

Whatever the merits of this staging in the theater, it makes for lively and exciting television. There is a striking visual clarity and lack of clutter in the production. The closeups are intense. The sets by Richard Peduzzi and the costumes of Jacques Schmidt make wonderful use of color. The costumes for the giants are fearsome, and, with spectacular use of makeup, Fasolt and Fafner (sung splendidly by Matti Salminen and Fritz Hu bner) are superbly caught in their combination of menacing brutality and vulnerable dull-wittedness.

One of the most effective sets is a castle ruin that ends both "The Valkyrie" and "Siegfried." It is the spot where Wotan puts his daughter Bru nnhilde to sleep, as punishment for disobedience, and surrounds her with fire until a suitable heroic figure can penetrate the fire and rescue her, as Siegfried does. The set, quite unlike anything described by Wagner in the script, is a curved castle ruin modeled on Arnold Bo cklin's famous 19th-century painting, "Island of the Dead." It makes a striking, beautiful setting for two of the greatest love scenes ever composed--Wotan's wrenching farewell to Bru nnhilde, the only person who seems to genuinely love him, and later for the ecstatic love duet of Siegfried and Bru nnhilde.

Che'reau and television director Brian Large demonstrate exceptional gifts for organizing and moving characters naturally, both on the stage and on the television screen ("The Ring" was videotaped at actual performances by a British crew of almost 100).

And though some of the singers' voices are not all that well matched for their roles, their looks by and large are excellent. McIntyre's brooding, majestic, marvelously characterized and phrased Wotan dominates the show, even though he doesn't appear in "Twilight of the Gods."

And while Siegmund and Sieglinde are limited to "The Valkyrie," Peter Hofmann and Jeannine Altmeyer give the parts a breathless, evanescent eroticism. They look like young, handsome creatures of the forest--the very noble savages that Wagner seemed to have in mind--who seemed irrevocably meant for each other long before they realized that their love was incestuous. At the end of act one, they dance in passionate abandon before the camera as if utterly possessed. It is not the best sung of Siegmunds or Sieglindes, but dramatically it hardly could be better.

Herman Becht's Alberich is sufficiently loathsome, and his scheming, cowardly and subservient Nibelung brother, Mime, is made greatly snively by Heinz Zednick.

In "Twilight of the Gods" Fritz Hu bner, who was one of the giants, plays Hagen, Alberich's son. He wears a contemporary business suit, with a loose neck tie and a heavy 5 o'clock shadow. He hardly could look more forbidding--a sort of mix of Willy Loman and Jimmy Hoffa. He sings in character.

Jeannine Altmeyer returns as the elegantly garbed Gutrune and Franz Muzura is her feckless brother Gunther, in his black tie. They both look as if they are dressed for dinner on the Lusitania, with all the sense of doom that connotes.

In addition to Wotan, the two other most crucial roles are Bru nnhilde and Siegfried. Neither Gwyneth Jones nor Manfred Jung is up to Donald McIntyre's lofty standard. Jones' acting is acceptable, if not as dynamic as we have come to expect of this Valkyrie, who takes it upon herself to try to save the world of the gods, even in the face of Wotan's wrath; a character who at least redeems the gods through her self-sacrifice in Siegfried's funeral pyre. If you have seen or heard Nilsson's Bru nnhilde (perhaps her grandest single role), you know how musical and dramatic sparks can fly when father and daughter are evenly matched.

Also, Jones' voice is the same uncertain instrument that it was when she was in Washington with the Vienna Opera some months before this "Ring" tape was made. The wobble at fortissimo levels is out of control, and the pitch problem remains.

For all of Siegfried's heroic baggage, Jung plays him rather like a bumpkin. Siegfried is, in fact, a scatter-brained adolescent, which explains why he keeps botching the smallest things--never, in fact, grasping the power of the Ring that he has rescued--a fateful shortcoming on his part.

It is almost a knee-jerk reaction to bemoan the absence of true Wagnerian tenors when reviewing a Siegfried or a Tristan these days. Vickers and Windgassen have been impressive exceptions, but Jung is not one. He sings conscientiously, and with considerable feeling, but the heroic, bronze timbre just is not there.

Finally, the most important performer in any production of "The Ring" is the conductor. He must confront Wagner's extraordinary web of more than 100 leitmotifs, linked by a mastery of the orchestra that Wagner would match only in "Tristan," "Meistersinger" and "Parsifal." And in "The Ring" there is the sheer physical challenge of preparing and conducting four huge operas at the same time.

Boulez might have seemed a curious candidate for the assignment. In his years as music director of the New York Philharmonic he showed precious little flair for romantic music--and "The Ring" is the peak of high romanticism.

Yet the Boulez "Ring" is often very good. He said one of his goals was to lighten some of "The Ring's" more traditionally murky textures. In the preparations in 1976, some of the orchestra players were so upset with Boulez's new ideas that they formed a committee to protest. But by the 1980 performance, conductor and orchestra were on equally productive courses. Some of the most important moments, like the love music of Siegmund and Sieglinde, seems a little clinical and passionless. But other moments are shaped with enormous intensity and breadth--the wonderfully pure and glowing forest scene from "Siegfried" and the majestic pacing of the whole end of "Twilight of the Gods," with the magnificent funeral music of Siegfried and the shattering immolation scene of Bru nnhilde, with which "The Ring" comes to a close, is shaped with enormous breadth and intensity.

On the whole, it is a "Ring" well worth one's attention--and one's considerable time.

The introductory telecast of "The Ring" will be tomorrow night at 9 on WETA (Channel 26), with a stereo simulcast on WETA-FM (90.9). "The Rhinegold" will be aired on Monday, Jan. 24; Act I of "The Valkyrie" on Feb. 21; Acts II and III on Feb. 28; "Siegfried," Act I on April 11; Acts II and III on April 18. Act I of "Twilight of the Gods" ("Go tterda mmerung") will be on June 6, Acts II and III on June 13. CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 3, Freia, goddess of eternal youth, with giants Fafner and Fasolt in "The Rhinegold"; and two Wotans: Donald McIntyre, and Don Garrard in the 1973 English National Opera production; Chart, THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG FAMILY TREE, Copyright (c) 1979, Martin Krischen; P4, Peter Hoffmann in "The Valkyrie"