The Ring of the Nibelung

I enjoy retelling myths and folktales and love seeing the ways other people interpret those myths and folktales from their perspective. I’m a fan of movies and their soundtracks. In fact, I often put on soundtrack music as a background when I write to help set a mood for the story I’m telling. I also love fantasy tales involving quests, dragons and magic. For all these reasons, I feel drawn to Richard Wagner’s famous opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. The whole story is a retelling of Germanic myth. The cycle introduced the “leitmotiv” or recurring theme for characters or moods and the music itself can be stirring and powerful.

P. Craig Russell’s Ring of the Nibelung comics and my Blu-Ray of the opera

Taken as a unit, these four operas are enormous. The total running time is some 15 hours, and it’s common for them to be performed over the course of four nights. When the operas are performed, there’s a lot to take in. There’s grand and epic music. Typically it’s performed in the original German. It’s a mythic story performed on stage with a large cast. Even a “minimalist” approach to staging these stories takes a lot of technical skill. I’ve only watched the whole thing through once on Blu-Ray and while I followed the story, it was a challenge.

A couple of weeks ago, I discovered that artist P. Craig Russell adapted Der Ring des Nibelungen into comic book format under the translated title The Ring of the Nibelung. On one hand, this seems audacious, moving an opera into the silent world of comics, but I thought it worked remarkably well. His illustrations are gorgeous and you see the four stories that compose the operas as the mythic stories they are. He visualizes the dwarf Alberich who steals gold from mermaids in the Rhine to make a ring of power. We see the god Wotan as he’s caught between what his heart tells him to do and what the law tells him to do concerning his twin children Siegmund and Sieglinde. We see the valkyries visualized and Russell shows us the battle between Siegried and the dragon for the ring made from the Rhine gold. Next time I sit down to watch these operas, I plan to start by reading Russell’s comic adaptation to help me see the story threads as I also appreciate the music and the staging.

One of the things I found fascinating when I did watch Der Ring des Nibelungen and was reinforced when I read the comic adaptation were some of the parallels between Wagner’s opera and J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings. I assumed the parallels exited because both Wagner and Tolkien were inspired by the same source material, but I recently learned that the central element of the cursed ring is not found in the older legends. Tolkien himself was a scholar of Germanic and Nordic legends and was highly critical of, what he considered, Wagner’s loose interpretation of the legends. I’ve seen it suggested that Tolkien may have been inspired to write his books because he thought Wagner had missed the mark. I’m not enough of a Wagner or Tolkien scholar to know how likely that is. Still, like following a ring full circle, this gets to the root of what I find fascinating about retellings. Wagner and Tolkien saw different aspects to the same source material and both created fascinating works that provide food for thought.

6 comments on “The Ring of the Nibelung

  1. Jack "Blimprider" Tyler says:

    Good day, my old friend, and I hope it finds you well. Interesting comparison between Wagner and Tolkien. I know less about Tolkien than I should, and not nearly enough about Wagner to contribute to that particular discussion. However…

    Have you read Eaters of the Dead? Written by Michael Chrichton in response to his friend Kurt Villadsen, who challenged him to demonstrate that Beowulf was interesting. Villadsen’s view was that in order to be considered a “classic,” a book had to be too boring to read, and intended to teach a college course on the subject called “The Great Bores.” I tend to agree with hiim, but that’s neither here nor there.

    I have tried and failed to read Beowulf, though I keep a copy handy to fight off bouts of insomnia, but Eaters of the Dead is a gripping yarn that kept me hanging on every word. Same story, but written by someone who knows how to write. It is, as is always the case, superior to its movie treatment, The 13th Warrior, but then what book isn’t?

    • Good to hear from you, Jack. I have not read Eaters of the Dead and didn’t know about its history. I’ll have to add it to my to-read list. I actually haven’t read Beowulf either, though it’s a classic I’ve been meaning to explore.

      What I know of the history of Beowulf is that it was written down in Old English somewhere between 700-1000 AD. I’m guessing it had an oral history before that. So, judging the quality can be a tricky business. You’re not just judging the original writing, but the skills of the translator, plus the tastes of audiences have changed a lot in 1000 years. Heck, even going back to the 1970s, James Clavell’s Shogun had a ton more head-hopping than any contemporary editor would allow. Another aspect is that when people wrote down these oral stories for the first time, it wasn’t uncommon for the transcriber to either editorialize or just misunderstand a portion and paraphrase something poorly. I say all this not knowing the particulars of Beowulf, but knowing this often happened in works of that era.

      A good translator and modern interpreter can make a big difference in how historical works are perceived.

  2. rich1698 says:

    Rings of the Nibelung and Das Rhinegeld would make great fantasy films

  3. I’ve read *The Lord of the Rings* more than once, and took music history in college. And I wrote *GURPS Fantasy Folk: Elves* which mentions Tolkien. So I’m rather embarrassed to admit I never thought about a connection between Tolkien’s work and Wagner’s Ring Cycle other than they both mention “ring.”

    But a search for “Wagner and Tolkien” shows me a number of people have thought about it.

    In my defense, while I’ve listened to music from the Ring Cycle, I’ve never seen a production (and I don’t speak German). And it appears that Tolkien himself dismissed any significant connection by saying, “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceases.” So perhaps my missing a connection isn’t all that far off.

    • I’ve read a couple of Tolkien’s dismissals of being inspired by Wagner and I feel a little like “[the gentleman] doth protest too much methinks.” I suspect it’s true that Tolkien wasn’t inspired in the sense that he borrowed any elements directly from Wagner. However, one theory I’ve read — and I could believe it from my own approach to writing — is that he started The Lord of the Rings from a very simple premise: Presuming Wagner got his whole story completely wrong, how would he tell a story about a cursed ring in a world inspired by Nordic myth correctly. In essence, Tolkien wasn’t “inspired” in the sense that he told the same story. It would be more like his distaste for Wagner set him on a path to tell what he considered to be a completely different tale.

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