Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung is clearly indebted to Norse mythology for its storyline and dramatis personæ. The Poetic Edda and Prose Edda (Elder and Younger, respectively) presented Wagner with a wealth of resources in characters such as Odin (Wotan), Frigg (Fricka), and Freyja (Freia), as well as in events such as the theft of Andvari (Alberich) the dwarf's gold. What is fascinating is the dextrous fashion in which Wagner combines and reinterprets his sources to construct a vehicle that has historical literary relevance as well as an infusion of Wagner's own thought. In his book I Saw The World End, Deryck Cooke observed that
it might even be argued that The Ring is as valid and coherent a dramatic synthesis of the complex mythology of Northern Europe as we are ever likely to get.1 Whether connections were convenient in Wagner's exposition of a cohesive storyline, the Norse mythological tradition of the Gods ultimately meetings their downfall is fundamental. Because of this, he was able to make philosophical statement concerning humanity's approaching independence from religious thought constructs; the theme of class struggle and revolution was also easily drawn out for same reason.
It is perhaps appropriate to begin this paper with a look at Rhinegold, the first play in the RingCycle. For this opera, he amalgamated elements of the Prose Edda and the Nibelungenlied. In the Prose Edda, we see that the race of Gods have enlisted the aid of a Giant (or Jotun) wright in the construction of their fortress, Valhall (Walhall in the Ring of the Nibelung). In return for his labour, the Giant demands the goddess Freyja. In their desire to have a stronghold at their disposal, the Gods (Aesir in the saga) convene and decide to fulfill the Giant's wish, if he can meet a deadline for the completion of the fortress. The Gods, of course, attempt to set a deadline they believe impossible for the Giant to meet; thus, they hope to have Valhall and have to hand over Freyja. The Giant, however, suprises them, and draws near to completion before the deadline.
Then, according to the Prose Edda,
the gods sat down in their judgement seats, and sought means of evasion...2 so that they could deceive the Giant and retain both Freyja and Valhall despite his having fulfilled his promise. The parallel between the saga and Rhinegold is not hard to observe here. In the Edda, the Giant is murdered by Thor (Donner in The Ring). In The Ring, on the other hand, there are two Giants (rather than one), and one is murdered by the other. Here we can begin to see Wagner's prowess at combining the different sagas. Wagner takes to lesser characters in the Prose Edda, Fafnir and Regin; he then renames them Fafner and Fasolt. In addition, he makes them the Giant (replacing the solitary, unnamed Jotun builder), and has Fafner bludgeon Fasolt to death. The surviving Giant, in Rhinegold, magically transforms into a dragon, and is later killed by the hero, Siegfried. the murder of Fasolt by Fafner is a perfect example of a number of threads coming together into a fusion: firstly, the murder happens in a dispute over a hoard of gold (the gold stolen from the dwarf Andvari in the Prose Edda, which is the very same as the gold of Alberich in Rhinegold); secondly, the dragon whom Fafner becomes is killed by the hero Siegfried in the opera Siegfried.
Conveniently, the character Fafnir of the Edda also turns himself into a dragon and stands guard over a gold treasure. He, too, is slain by a hero, this one named Sigurd. this character is clearly the prototype of Siegfried, who, like Sigurd, receives training from a smith (Fafnir's brother Regin in the saga) who
declared to him where Fafnir lay on the gold, and incited him to seek the gold.3 Wagner melds the elements of the Giant wright, the brother's Fafnir and Regin, the dragon, and Siegfried together in a proficient and purposeful way. In this way, the progression of several loosely related events from different sources comes together to focus squarely upon the business of a dwarf (or Nibelung) named Alberich, a hoard of cursed gold, and a magical ring. Underneath all the other occurences is the incident in the saga in which the God Loki (Loge in the Ring) is sent by the other Gods to steal a hoard of gold from a dwarf by the name of Andvari. In the Edda, Loki makes off with the gold, but also takes with him a message from Andvari that any future posessors of the hoard and ring will be cursed to die. In the Ring, the gold and the ring pass through many hands, and it does indeed happen that anyone who holds either in his posession meets his doom. The gold hoard of the Prose Edda saga is passed off to a character named Hreidmarr (The father of Fafnir and Regin) in payments for the death of his son, the otter. Out of this, the cases of the dragon Fafnir, the smith Regin and the hero Sigurd were spawned.
Wagner manipulates the temporal sequence of events in the sagas to bring out important attributes in his characters. As was observed in the Prose Edda, the Gods' contractual dealings with the Giant wright occured before the affairs of Fafnir, Regin, Sigurd and the gold came into play. In the Ring, however, Wagner places the appearance of the gold at the very outset of the story. Alberich the dwarf perpetrates the theft of a gold fortune from the Rhine river, guarded by three Rhinemaidens. The God Wotan and his servant Loge travel to Alberich's cavern to retrive the gold from him; the gold is intended as payment to the Giants Fafner and Fasolt for their work in building Walhall. Alberich, just like Andvari in the saga, curses the gold and all of its future holders. Just as it was written in the Prose Edda, the goddes Freia is the Giants' demanded payment for their labours in Rhinegold. The gold stolen from Alberich is to be an alternate form of payment. Also part of Alberich's hoard is a ring crafted from some of the ill-gotten gold; Wotan attempts to keep the ring from Fafner and Fasolt, who, upon seeing it, insist on having it included in their remuneration. Wotan hesitates in giving it to them, for he sees the tremendous power of Alberich's ring. In The Ring, this turn of events foreshadows the downfall of Wotan and the other Gods; Wotan's movements in the world center around contracts and contractual obligations to others. In this moment of uncertainty, Wotan goes against his own nature, coming close to betraying Freia and the other Gods because of his desire to maintain ownership of the ring.
Wotan's brush with becoming a traitor is important; the Poetic Edda tells of Ragnarok, the downfall of the Gods. Wagner uses this even to weave his revolutionary beliefs into the story; however, while the Gods meet their fate fighting a cataclysmic war in the sagas, the The Ring depicts them as having caused their own demise because of their greed. Moreover, the collapse of the Gods' power structure in the world makes way for humanity to move into a position of control over their own existence. Wagner uses four characters in The Ring to make this transition. In the opera, they are Siegmund, Sieglinde, Brunnhilde and Siegfried, and their presences span from Die Walkure to Götterdammerung. Wagner derives them from the characters of Sigmund and Signy are quite similar to that of Siegmund and Sieglinde; both pairs are a twin brother and sister, and in both cases the brother rescues the sister from a tyrannical husband (King Sieggir in the Nibelungenlied, Hunding in Die Walkure). Sigurd is the offspring of Sigmund and Signy, just as Siegfried is born of Siegmund and Sieglinde. The characteristics and deeds of Sigurd and Siegfried are nearly identical. In the sagas, Brynhild does not have quite the same standing as a major character, but Wagner developed her into The Ring's Brunnhilde to aid in the betrayal of Siegfried, and thus the perpetuation of the ring's curse. There are similar features in the stories of the two figures,
notably the Valkyrie status of Brynhild (Brunnhilde), and her punishment by Odin (Wotan), Sigurd's (Siegfried's) passing through a wall of fire to meet her, his forgetting her through the agency of a potion, and her joining him in death.4 Again, we see Wagner directing readily available myths toward his desired end, without taking them too far away from their origins. His manipulation of characters the relations between them is expert; for instance, in The Ring, Alberich is the father of Hagen. We see a parallel in the sagas in that a character called Elberich is the father of Hogni, who is involved in the plot to corrupt Sigurd along with Gunnar (Gunther in The Ring) and Kriemhild (Gutrine in The Ring, Gudrun and Grimhild in other sagas). By merging Andvari and Elberich, Wagner created a person who could remain relevant throughout The Ring cycle and help maintain a sense of continuity. Without a connection between Alberich and Hagen, he could not have as easily concocted a reason why the corruption of Siegfried would be as important as it is to the story. Once the connection was made, though, there were numerous reasons to include Hagen's plot. Alberich's revenge is an obvious theme; however, the underlying matter of the cursed ring and gold is allowed to continue through the connection between Alberich and Hagen. Wagner also performs the interesting maneuver of making brothers out of Alberich and Mime. In the sagas, Mime raises Sigurd; similarly, The Ring's Mime plays surrogate father to Siegfried after the death of Siegmund and Sieglinde. Although there is no connection between Mime and Andvari or Elberich in the mythology (not to mention that Mime is a man and not a dwarf in the sagas, either), Wagner adds depth to the storyline of The Ring through the relationship between Mime and Alberich. Mistreated by Alberich, Mime flees and leads a solitary life in the woods. As he raises Siegfried, he trains him in the ways of weapon forgery. Finally, he directs Siegfried to slay the dragon Fafner in order to retrieve the ring and the gold. This can be seen as an indirect form of retaliation against Alberich, who was the proverbial slavedriver while in posession of the treasure.
It is doubtless that the potential connections to be made between The Ring and Norse mythology are as deep as the Norweigan Sea and as wide as the Russian Steppes. This essay can hardly even be considered a scratch on the surface, yet this is a testimony to the richness of Wagner's reinterpretation of old mythologies. He managed to reconstruct them in a focused manner so that he could produce a story which was itself a vehicle for his thoughts and ideas. In choosing Norse mythology, Wagner no doubt was aiming for a history he felt Germany would identify with. The revolutionary tone of the times in which he lived and worked gave birth to a generation of people who would and did relate to The Ring's subtext of class struggle and social upheaval. He wanted to present the public with an escape from the everyday world, while at the same time echoing and perhaps strengthening their desire for change. This was achievable with the implementation of Norse mythology. With some cutting and pasting of old texts, Wagner was able to come up with a format that performed both functions. The mythical nature of the old sagas held it in a form of escape and fantasy, while the potential for a political reading of the work was enormous. In this way, Wagner seems to have reconstructed the mythology of the Norse and old Germans in such a way that they became once again relevant and meaningful.
Deryck Cooke, I Saw The World End
, (1979; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991) 86.
Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda
, trans. Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, Ph.D. (1916; The American-Scandanavian Foundation, 1967) 54.