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Wagner Bicentennial Symposium  
Wagner’s Place in the Germanic Tradition
Part 3: Wagner’s Use of Source Materials for the Ring

rackham_valkyrie [1]3,473 words

Part 3 of 8

Wagner’s Use of Sources for the Ring

As a brief summary of how Wagner makes use of the major sources discussed in section three above, I don’t think one could do any better than this paragraph from an article by Elizabeth Magee:

Looking back, we can see how the Eddas supplied most of Das Rheingold, aided by a view of the Nibelungs taken from Das Lied vom hürnen Seyfrid. The Volsunga saga, supplemented by skaldic poetry, dominates Die Walküre. Siegfried retains the Wanderer from the Volsunga Saga and introduces the Thidreks saga boyhood tale into an Edda– based scenario. In Götterdämmerung Wagner blends Edda and Volsunga saga material until finally, at Siegfried’s death, the German Nibelungenlied is allowed to come into its own. The perishing of the gods of the epilogue and the purging by fire and flood bring us back to the Snorra Edda and the Völuspá.[1]

Of course, there’s a great deal more to tell – and it is a rather intricate story. Still, a full study of Wagner’s adaptation of the sources would take a book-length work, so we can only scratch the surface here.

First of all, let us note that the stories of Siegfried do not originate, as Wagner supposed, in Scandinavia. In fact, the earliest sources are thought to be Frankish and Burgundian lays, written as late as the 5th century. These somehow or other made their way to Scandinavia, and were elaborated in the Völsungasaga and other texts. There is nothing in the German materials (including the Nibelungenlied) about the ring, Brünnhilde’s being a Valkyrie, Siegfried and Brünnhilde meeting prior to his encountering Gutrune (Kriemhild), a magic potion that makes him forget Brünnhilde, and many other details. In fact, there is nothing in the German accounts of Siegfried even about the gods. Wagner derived all of these elements from the Scandinavian sources.

It is rather ironic that most educated people believe that the Ring is based heavily upon the Nibelungenlied, when in fact Wagner derives comparatively little from it. Elizabeth Magee, in the passage quoted above, puts the matter quite correctly: it is only in Götterdämmerung, and then really only in the parts dealing with Siegfried’s death, that Wagner is greatly indebted to the Nibelungenlied. As to the Thidreksaga, though it is in Old Norse, it is thought to be mainly a translation of German materials, possibly a translation of a single German text. From Thidreksaga, Wagner derived the motif of Hagen (“Hogni”) being only part human. In this text, his father is an elf; his mother he shares with Gunther. Furthermore, Wagner derived from Thidreksaga much of the material about Siegfried’s boyhood: how he was raised by Mime the smith (here “Mimir”), his splitting of the anvil, etc. In Thidreksaga the dragon is actually Mimir’s brother (called here “Regin,” elsewhere the name of the smith who raises Siegfried). After dispatching “Regin,” Siegfried kills Mimir/Mime, just as in Wagner’s version.

There is much more to tell about Wagner’s use of the purely Scandinavian materials. First of all, in all three of the major Scandinavian sources Wagner utilized (the Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, and Völsungasaga) there occurs some version of the story of “Andvari’s gold,” which was extremely important to Wagner. In brief – and sticking closely to the version in the Prose Edda – Odin, Loki, and Hoenir are out exploring when Loki spies an otter who has just caught a salmon. Acting quickly, he kills the otter with a stone, bagging both him and the fish. But it turns out that the otter is the son of a powerful man named Hreithmar, who has two other sons: Fafnir and Regin. They capture the Aesir and skin Otter, demanding that the gods pay a ransom of gold great enough to cover the skin entirely. So Loki descends into the world of the “dark elves” (dwarfs) and finds a dwarf named Andvari who has amassed a large treasure, by means of a ring that can magically produce gold (and this is all it does, by the way: it is not a ring of power). When Loki steals both the treasure and the ring, Andvari places a curse upon them. Odin at first wants to keep the ring for himself, but he has to relinquish it in order to completely cover Otter’s skin. Fafnir and Regin then kill their father for the treasure, but Fafnir makes off with it, hoarding it on Gnita Heath and changing himself into a dragon. Regin then raises young Sigurd, who slays both Fafnir and Regin, etc.

It is obvious how this story forms the basic framework of the Ring, with a number of details changed. For example, the Aesir need the treasure in Wagner’s version in order to ransom Freia. With that alteration, Wagner fuses the Andvari story with the story in the Prose Edda of the building of Valhalla, as well as the story of the theft of Idun’s apples (about which I’ll have more to say in just a moment). Andvari becomes Alberich. Fafnir and Regin become Fafner and Fasolt, the giants who build Valhalla for the gods. Regin becomes Mime, who in Wagner’s version is obviously no relation to Fafner. It is Freia that the treasure must cover, not Otter’s skin. And, most important of all, the ring becomes a ring of power, as well as a device for generating treasure. (One common misunderstanding of Der Ring des Nibelungen is that Alberich’s treasure is the Rhinegold: in fact, the ring is the Rhinegold, whole and entire, in a transformed shape; the treasure is accumulated by means of the ring.)

Julia Manning Wotans wut [2]

Now as to Freia and her golden apples, this comes about in Wagner through conflating the figure of Freia with the goddess Idun. In the Prose Edda it is said that the goddess Idun “keeps in her box the apples the gods have to eat, when they grow old, to become young again, and so it will continue up to Ragnarök.”[2] Wagner simply conflates Freia with Idun. This is not by any means an unreasonable move on his part, and some have theorized that Idun is in fact an aspect of Freia.[3] That her apples are golden seems to have been a feature Wagner borrowed from the mythic Greek apples of the garden of Hesperides.

In both the Prose Edda and Poetic Edda, we find Brünnhilde depicted as a Valkyrie[4], an element which does not appear in any of the German sources. In the Poetic Edda (but not the Prose Edda) she is punished by Odin for taking the wrong side in a battle, and put to sleep by him. In the Prose Edda (and in the Völsungasaga) Siegfried gives her Andvari’s ring, just as Wagner has Siegfried give Alberich’s ring to Brünnhilde in the Prologue of Götterdämmerung. Regin (Wagner’s Mime) is not a dwarf in either the Prose Edda or the Völsungasaga. Wagner draws this detail from the Poetic Edda, though it is not clear that the “Regin” listed as a dwarf in Völuspá is the same Regin who appears as Siegfried’s foster father.

Also from Völuspá Wagner derives the basic character of Erda, who prophecies, as does the Völva (seeress), the end of the gods. As Cooke points out, Tacitus provided Wagner with some further inspiration here, as he notes that Nerthus (Grimm’s Erda) “intervenes in the affairs of men.”[5] Wagner also refers to Erda as “Wala” and “Urwala.” This too comes from Jacob Grimm, who theorized that Walawa or Wala was the Old High German equivalent of Völva.

There is, of course, much else in the Eddas that inspired Wagner, and that he made use of – too much to detail here. He was particularly taken, it seems, by the description in the Prose Edda of the dwarfs as like maggots that had “quickened” in the flesh of Ymir.[6] In his “Prose Sketch” of the Ring from 1848, he describes the Nibelungs as “like worms in a dead body.”[7] As Cooke points out, Wagner also borrowed the flavor of a number of exchanges in the Poetic Edda. In the Vafthrudnismal, Odin engages in a question and answer game with a giant, his head being the price for losing the contest – similar to Wotan’s contest with Mime in Siegfried. In Grimnismal, Odin and Frigg quarrel over two rival warriors, much as Wotan and Fricka do over Siegmund and Hunding in Die Walküre. In Lokasenna, Loki taunts the gods relentlessly, not unlike Loge does in Das Rheingold. Many other examples could be adduced, offering further confirmation (if any is needed at this point) of how a close reader Wagner was of the traditional sources.

We now turn to the Völsungasaga, which is without question the most important source for the Ring. This is a fascinating text, which demands multiple readings. It is as barbaric a tale as there ever was, filled with instances of mindboggling brutality, and brimming with much that is simply bizarre. It demands an esoteric reading, which someday I hope to produce. We have the entire Siegfried story presented here, repeating much of the material contained in the Eddas, including the story of Andvari’s ring. Thus, one often cannot say categorically that this element or that was drawn by Wagner from the Völsungasaga, rather than the Eddas. However, it is safe to say that the Völsungasaga was his major source and inspiration, as generally speaking it elaborates all elements of the Siegfried story in much greater detail than do the Eddas.

It is only in the Völsungasaga that we have the full story of Siegfried’s parentage. Indeed, several generations pass in the story before Siegfried ever appears. In the Völsungasaga, Siegfried is not produced through an incestuous union of brother and sister. The product of that union, in fact, is Sinfjotli, whose sibling parents are Siegmund and Signy. Siegfried is actually the son of Siegmund and his third wife, Hjordis. However, Wagner wisely considered the motif of the incestuous marriage so arresting and dramatic that he used it for Siegfried’s parents instead. (And he rejected the name “Signy” for “Sieglinde,” the name of Siegfried’s mother that appears in the German sources.)

It is Hjordis who preserves the fragments of the sword Gram (Nothung, in Wagner’s version) after the death of Siegmund. Thus, Wagner’s “Sieglinde” is actually a conflation of Signy and Hjordis.[8] Again, purists may object – but Wagner’s decision makes complete dramatic sense, and is arguably an improvement on the overly-complex and often confusing storyline of the Völsungasaga. Wagner likewise conflated Siegmund with Agnar, a warrior whom Brünnhilde supports in battle contrary to Odin’s orders.

One element will disappoint readers coming to this text from Wagner: in the Völsungasaga Siegfried is murdered in his bed (and, in this version, Hogni/Hagen is against the plot!). This was obviously far less dramatic and visually interesting than the version in the Nibelugenlied, where Siegfried is murdered in the forest. Interestingly, the Poetic Edda, in a prose portion, notes that there are conflicting stories about Siegfried’s death:

In this poem the death of Sigurd is related and here it is said that they killed him outside. But some say this, that they killed him inside, sleeping in his bed. And Germans say that they killed him out in the forest. And the “Old Poem of Gudrun” says that Sigurd and the sons of Giuki were riding to the Assembly when he was killed. But they all say that they treacherously betrayed him when he was lying down and unarmed.[9]

Wagner wisely preferred the German version, and so it is this that is portrayed in Götterdämmerung.

A couple of other details concerning the Völsungasaga may be mentioned here. First, to state the obvious, Wagner “Germanizes” Völsung as “Wälse.” In the Völsungasaga, Völsung is actually the great grandson of Odin. However, Wagner actually identifies him with Odin/Wotan, thus eliminating three generations from the clan of the “Wälsung.” In Die Walküre, Siegmund refers to his father (Wälse) as “Wolfe.” This is a sly reference to a fascinating portion of the Völsungasaga, in which Siegmund and Sinfjotli hide out in the forest, donning wolf skins and changing themselves into wolves for nine days at a time. This tale is told (without the lycanthropy) very briefly by Siegmund in Act One of Die Walküre, where it is a recollection of his time with his father, Wälse (Wotan). In short, Wagner conflates Siegmund with Sinfjotli.

To make one last point about the Völsungasaga, in it we find Odin continually intervening mysteriously in the stories events, which gave Wagner the idea for Wotan’s relatively brief and unexpected appearances in Acts One and Three of Siegfried, as well as Sieglinde’s recollection, in Act One of Die Walküre, of how “the Wanderer” appeared briefly and thrust Nothung into the ash tree (a scene taken straight from the Völsungasaga.[10]

Now let us deal with some loose ends: Wagnerian elements that are difficult to trace to the traditional sources. First of all, Wagnerites are usually shocked to discover that there are no Rhine maidens (or “Rhine daughters,” Rheintöchter) in German folklore, nor is there any Rhinegold. These seem to be Wagner’s invention. However, some mermaids do appear in the Nibelungenlied (though not in the Rhine). Depending upon how the text is interpreted, the author may be suggesting that there are three of them – and one is named Sieglinde! (Definitely not to be confused with Siegfried’s mother, whom the text also names Sieglinde.) There is nothing in any source about a dwarf trying to woo some mermaids or water nymphs, and there is no “renunciation of love” motif. This is all Wagner.

As to the Rhinegold, in the Völsungasaga, Andvari (whom Wagner transforms into Alberich) is living with his gold under a waterfall (in the Prose Edda he lives in a pool of water, and in the Poetic Edda he lives under “Andvara-falls”; in all three sources he has taken the form of a fish). In Reginsmal (in the Poetic Edda), Loki refers to the gold of Andvari by the kenning “the water’s flame.” Deryck Cooke speculates that this could have suggested to Wagner the idea of the gold gleaming beneath the surface of the Rhine.[11] Further, Cooke also points out that in all sources except Thidrekssaga “the Rhine is the treasure’s ultimate destination.”[12] All of this could have inspired Wagner to create the Rhinegold, and the Rhine maidens to guard it. Further, as noted above Andvari’s ring is not a “ring of power.” However, the Nibelungenlied does very briefly mention a “little rod of gold” amongst the Nibelung treasure which can confer mastery over all humankind.[13] Wagner simply seems to have conflated the ring with the rod.

I have said that Wagner’s Alberich is based upon Andvari, but matters are actually more complex than this. Let’s start with the name, which actually appears in the Nibelungenlied. There we find Siegfried journeying to “Nibelungenland,” conquering the kingdom, making vassals of its knights, and seizing the Nibelung treasure. But in doing so he must tangle with a “savage dwarf” named Alberich. Aside from being a dwarf, he has none of the properties with which Wagner endows him, and appears only briefly. An “Elberich” also shows up in the fifteenth-century Heldenbuch, which Wagner consulted as well. Elberich is “ein wilder Zwerg” (a fierce dwarf), who possesses a ring of invisibility. Only here he is described as “King Elberich the dwarf.” It could be, as Cooke conjectures, that both the Nibelungenlied and Heldenbuch are drawing on some other source in which Alberich/Elberich is the owner of the hoard. In the sixteenth-century Lied vom hürnen Seyfrid the hoard belongs to a dwarf named “Nybling.” Wagner seems to have consciously synthesized all of this: the dwarf Andvari with his gold become Alberich the dwarf and the Nibelung hoard, and the “Nibelungen” become dwarfs. But there is one further component that went into the Alberich of the Ring. As noted earlier, in Thidrekssaga the father of Hagen/Hogni is an “elf.” Wagner simply made this a “dark elf” (dwarf) and identified the character with Alberich.

As to Wagner’s “Nibelheim,” this is his Germanization of the Norse Niflheim. In making this alteration, of course, Wagner connects Niflheim with the Nibelungs. Purists have howled over this, but in fact there is a real etymological connection. Both Old Norse nifl and German Nebel mean “mist” or “fog” and derive from Proto-Indo-European *nebhos. In compounds Old Norse nifl– suggests darkness. But in all probability “Nibelung” originally meant something like “being of the mist” or possibly “being of darkness.” There are no dwarfs in the Norse Niflheim. Instead, they live in Svartalfheim: “dark elf world/home.” Though we might have wanted Wagner to distinguish the two, it is not entirely unreasonable to conflate Niflheim and Svartalfheim, and to make Niflheim/Nibelheim the abode of the dark elves given that: (1) nifl– can carry the connotation of darkness (dark elves, dark place under the earth), and (2) the association of “Nibelung” with dwarfs (Alberich/Elberich, Nybling, the depiction of the Nibelungs as dwarfs in Das Lied vom hürnen Seyfrid, etc.).

Interestingly, in Das Lied vom hürnen Seyfrid the Tarnhelm appears as a nebelkap (mist cap). The term “Tarnhelm” is actually Wagner’s coinage. In the Nibelungenlied it is a Tarnkappe, only in Middle High German Kappe didn’t mean a hat, it meant a cloak. However, in the Nibelungenlied it only has the power to make the wearer invisible. In Wagner’s version alone it has the power to cause one to change shape. Readers may also be surprised to learn that there is no “Tarnhelm” in the Scandinavian sources. Siegfried changes shape with Gunther/Gunnar by using a magic spell (in the Völsungasaga it is provided to him by Grimhild, wife of King Giuki). Fans of Fritz Lang’s splendid 1924 film Die Nibelungen (which deserves a commentary all to itself) will be surprised to hear that in the Nibelungenlied Siegfried never changes shape with King Gunther: everything is accomplished entirely by means of the cloak of invisibility. (Lang borrowed the “shape changing” motif from Wagner.)

Finally we may note that there are numerous references to the runes in Der Ring des Nibelungen, where the term has the same variety of meanings it does in the Scandinavian sources. At times it simply seems to mean letters or signs. For example, in Scene Two of Das Rheingold Fasolt reminds Wotan of the “runes [Runen] of well-considered contract, safeguarded by your spear.”[14] At other times, however, Runen means magic formulae. For instance, we are told in Das Rheingold that “A rune-spell [Runenzauber] makes a ring from the gold.”[15] In the Prologue of Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde says to Siegfried “I gave to you a bountiful store of hallowed runes [heiliger Runen].” And Siegfried says to her “in return for all your runes I hand this ring to you.” [16]

This exchange from Götterdämmerung, of course, calls to mind the Sigrdrifumal in the Poetic Edda, and once more demonstrates Wagner’s intimate knowledge of the traditional sources. In closing this section I will just remark that a full investigation of Wagner’s indebtedness to the Germanic tradition – his mythic, philosophic, poetic, and musical sources of inspiration – would be a complete education in the Germanic tradition itself.

In the next installments of this essay I will discuss the philosophical influences on Wagner and offer an interpretation of the meaning of Der Ring des Nibelungen. We will find that the Ring holds up a mirror to the West itself.


[1] Elizabeth Magee, “In Pursuit of the Purely Human: the ‘Ring’ and its Medieval Sources,” in Spencer, 32. (For full endnote references to some sources, see Part One of this essay.)

[2] Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, trans. Jean I. Young (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 54.

[3] See for example North, Richard, The Haustlǫng of Þjóðólfr of Hvinir (Hisarlik Press, 1997), xiv.

[4] Though in the Lay of Sigrdrifa she is referred to as “Sigrdrifa.”

[5] Cooke, 227.

[6] Prose Edda, 41.

[7] Richard Wagner, “The Nibelungen-Myth as Sketch for a Drama,” in Pilgrimage to Beethoven and Other Essays, trans. William Ashton Ellis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 301.

[8] Siegmund had a wife between Signy and Hjordis: Borghild, with whom he had two sons.

[9] Poetic Edda, Brot af Sigurdarkvida, 176.

[10] As to the lesser sources Wagner utilized, in Norna-Gests þáttr Siegfried’s foster father is clearly depicted as a dwarf. In Das Lied vom hürnen Seyfrid, the Nibelungs and the sons of “King Nibelung” are depicted as dwarfs. One of the sons, “Eugel,” is compelled by Siegfried into helping him, utilizing a “cloak of invisibility.”

[11] Cooke, 135.

[12] Ibid., 135.

[13] “Nibelung” has various meanings in these sources, and the situation is actually quite confusing. In the Nibelungenlied the “Nibelungen” are not dwarfs, and the denotation of the term shifts, eventually referring to the Burgundians.

[14] Spencer, 74

[15] Ibid., 82.

[16] Ibid., 285, 286.