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.
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.