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.

Chasing Legends

Back in September, I mentioned that Leiji Matsumoto’s Harlock Saga inspired me to watch the four operas of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. My wife and I treated the viewing a little like many people approach football games. We stocked up on snacks and for each opera, just settled in for an evening’s entertainment.

When we finished the complete cycle, I found myself curious about the legends that inspired it. Much of this was because the legend itself has fascinating mythical elements such as the Norse gods, magical sword, dragon slaying, and a jilted Valkyrie lover. Another aspect was that I saw a handful of parallels between the saga and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, the Ring Cycle is tainted by Richard Wagner’s antisemitism and I wanted to get to know the legend without those disturbing overtones.

I soon learned that early in his academic career, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his own version of the lays that would ultimately give rise to the Ring Cycle. I soon ordered a copy of the book in hopes that the discussion would give me some insights into Norse mythology, some of how Tolkien was inspired by the story, and perhaps even what Tolkien found particularly appealing about the story.

The book includes Tolkien’s versions of the lays along with extensive commentary by his son, Christopher Tolkien. An appendix endeavors to place the story into historical context. There are several notes that show how aspects of the lays and the Norse language influenced The Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, the book never really answered why Tolkien found Norse legend especially appealing, other than to mention that it was part of his academic interest.

Perhaps the aspect of the poems I found most interesting was learning that after Siegfried’s (or Sigurd’s) betrayal and death, Gutrune (or Gudrún) went on to marry none other than Attila the Hun. What’s interesting about this for me is that it places the Siegfied story into a particular place in history and that place is about a generation or two before the rise of King Arthur in Britain, a story that has influenced my own writing.

As discussed in the book, it’s unclear how much of Gudrún’s story was intended as history and how much is taking a popular story and melding it with history. According to the most accurate histories we have, we know Attila married a Germanic woman shortly before his death, so their may be some truths in the legend. The timing of the story also made me wonder whether pressure from the Huns drove the Saxons into Britain helping to give rise to the conflicts that ultimately gave us the King Arthur legend.

Perhaps more interesting to me than this idle speculation is just the fact that Tolkien actually went through the process of retelling the Norse lays that he found so fascinating. It reminds me of what I did when I retold the Arthurian Culhwch and Olwen story. For me, it was an exercise in getting my head around a fascinating story and getting to know it better. Now, Tolkien was much more an expert at Norse legend in his youth than I will ever be in Arthurian lore, and he started with the Norse texts whereas I worked with translations. Still, it was fun to see that we approached the problem of understanding these old stories in a similar way.

If you’re curious about my version of Culhwch and Olwen, I recorded it as an audiobook. You can pick up copies from Amazon or directly from Hadrosaur Productions. In short Arthur’s cousin Culhwch entreats the king to help him win the hand of Olwen. Olwen’s father agrees to let the couple marry if Arthur is successful in a dangerous quest for … grooming supplies!

As for my own interest in Arthurian legend, I’ll just say that the more I looked into it, the more I discovered it was something of a puzzle lost in history. The more I looked, the more I was interested in the history behind the legend. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tolkien felt much the same way about the legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.