Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen has many hard core devotees. If you’re one of them, there’s a fair chance that it’s not just the music that attracts you: there’s something deeply intoxicating about the “Gods, heroes, dragons and curses” themes of Nordic mythology. My latest sight of this came from an unlikely place, a birthday present from my son of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, the latest posthumous publication of one of J.R.R. Tolkein’s creations, edited by his son Christopher.
Tolkien's vivid creative imagination didn’t only find expression in The Lord of the Rings and its associated mythology. He was first and foremost a linguist and scholar of Old Norse and Old English poetry (his students remember his magical readings of Beowulf). The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is a pair of long epic poems on the same stories of the Völsungs that form the basis of Der Ring des Nibelungen, written in modern English but using many of the devices of Old Norse poetry.
For better or for worse, the Norse myths remained an oral tradition for many centuries longer than their Greek equivalents. As a result, while most variants of the Greek myths are fairly self-consistent, the Norse ones are not, with each poet in each country creating his own interpretation - many of which are wildly different. As Christopher Tolkien’s introduction explains, Wagner was following in this path, starting with the original Norse sources and creating his own artistic vision on top. Tolkien did something similar, albeit in a smaller scale medium and staying somewhat closer to the originals.
It made me wonder to what extent Ring fans know the original sources, and I thought it would be interesting to put together a brief reading list.
The definitive source is the collection of poems known as The Poetic Edda deriving mainly from the Icelandic manuscript Codex Regius, written in the 13th century (most editions include a small number of poems from at least one other manuscript). The poems are believed to be much older than this, but no-one really knows which parts come from when. The covers most of the characters and some of the events in Der Ring, although the names are different: Sigurd for Siegfried, Odin for Wotan, etc.
A little easier to read is the so-called Prose Edda, a sort of guide to writing skaldic poetry containing many worked examples, put together around 1220 by the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson. No-one is terribly sure how many examples are original or whether they were edited or even written by Snorri. This contains another chunk of the stories that ended up in Der Ring, for example the attempt to cheat the giants out of their payment that is central to Das Rheingold.
A somewhat later manuscript containing the same legend is the late 13th century Volsunga Saga (a.k.a. The Saga of the Volsungs, a prose rendering which includes the story of Sigurd and Brynhild (a.k.a Siegfried and Brunhilde).
Strangely, (according to Christopher Tolkein’s introduction), the most complete version of the Nibelung legend appears to have been little used by Wagner, namely the Nibelungenlied, an epic poem from Germany of around the same time and of uncertain authorship. The events in the Nibelungenlied are substantially different from those in the Wagner cycle: for example, a central character is Gunther’s sister Kriemhild and a central event is Hagen stealing the dragon’s hoard from Kriemhild and throwing it into the Rhine, where it becomes the Rhinegold.
Clearly, if you share Wagner’s fascination with Norse poetry and legend, there’s plenty for you to read. Here are some links to get you started:
If you're interested in the libretti of Der Ring, you can download some excellent shareware versions from this link. 9th May 2010