The Ring Cycle and Norse Mythology

I’ve been interested by the Norse myths for quite a few years now, but it was only very recently that I read a version of the Volsunga Saga. This is an ancient Scandinavian saga of the Volsung family and their various adventures. The oldest surviving written copy was written in Iceland around the year 1400 AD and the oldest drawings of scenes from it are from Sweden and were made around 1000 AD. It is the main inspiration for the plot of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but there are quite a few key differences.

Warning: If you don’t yet know much about the plot of the Ring, you are unlikely to be able to make any sense of this at all.

Das Rheingold: This is the main opera as far as the gods are concerned. Most of them, including Froh, Donner and Freia make basically no other appearances. The part of the saga that corresponds to Rheingold is a part that comes about halfway through, in the form of a flashback. This, too, is the only appearance of any of the gods, other than Wotan (Odin). This flashback is where the Ring is first mentioned. There is no mention of Rhinemaidens anywhere in the entire thing. The ring belongs to Alberich (Andvari) in the first place and it is taken by Loge (Loki) to help the gods pay compensation to Hreidmar, a dwarf whose son he has killed. Fafnir is another of Hreidmar’s sons and he kills Hreidmar in order to take the Ring and the gold. Then he turns himself into a dragon in order to guard it, thereby rejoining with the plot of the operas. The part of the opera that involves the giants and the building of Valhalla is an adaptation of a completely separate Norse myth that Wagner has woven into the Volsung story.

Water-nymphs plead with the Flame-haired One

The Rhinemaidens talking to Loge (Loki)

Die Walküre: In this opera, Wagner has once again sewn together two different stories, both of them parts of the Volsungasaga. The story of Sieglinde (Signy) and Siegmund and the story of Brunnhilde being made mortal by Wotan (Odin) are separate and come at different times within the saga. Sieglinde (Signy) is a very different character in the two stories. While in Wagner she is a quiet, innocent (although incestuous) and fairly dull character, in the saga she is hell-bent on revenge (her husband Hunding (Siggeir) having had all her family (except Siegmund, who escaped) murdered) and ruthless to the extent that she kills two of her own children for being ‘traitors’. She also, instead of dying giving birth as in the opera, burns to death after she sets her house on fire. Crazy lady. Siegmund, however, continues to live a happy and fulfilling life after she dies until he is killed in battle by a mysterious one-eyed stranger. The character of Brunnhilde does not appear in this part of the story at all and the story of her banishment from Valhalla is only mentioned briefly later on.

Mime (the dwarf whom you are not supposed to feel sorry for) talking to a mysterious one-eyed stranger

Siegfried: Siegfried’s counterpart in the Volsungasaga is called Sigurd. He is the son of Siegmund and his second wife, Hiordis (the first wife doesn’t matter; she was a nasty lady who does not deserve to be mentioned) and he was born after his father tragically died (see above). The story goes that he was sent away to be looked after and brought up by a guy called Regin (Mime) (because there was the ever-present fear that if he stayed at home with his mum, he might grow up to be a human being with emotions, rather than a trained fighting machine). Regin (Mime) is the brother of Fafnir and he tells Siegfried (Sigurd) the story of all the stuff that happened in Rheingold (this is the flashback part). They then reforge Sigmund’s sword (which was shattered during his fight with the mysterious one-eyed stranger) and Sigfried (Sigurd) goes off and killed Fafnir (with some help from a mysterious one-eyed stranger who just happened to be there). The remainder of the opera is exactly the same as the saga. The birds start talking, Regin (Mime) turns out to be evil, he is killed, Siegfried (Sigurd) meets Brunhilde etc. etc.

Siegfried (Sigurd) gets distracted at precisely the wrong moment

Götterdammerung: This opera is probably the most similar to the saga. There are only two main differences. Firstly, Siegfried’s death is totally different. Hagen is a character who was made up by Wagner: he does not appear anywhere in the saga. Instead, Siegfried is stabbed in his sleep by Gunther’s (Gunnar’s) youngest brother, Guttorm (having been persuaded to do it by Brunnhilde). Ever the hero, however, Siegfried’s final act is to pick up his father’s sword and throw it at his murderer, thereby killing him as well. Secondly, Brunnhilde’s death is a lot more boring. She sits in her room and stabs herself. That’s it. No horses, no fire and absolutely no apocalypse. This is where Wagner (finally) finishes, but the saga does not. It carries on, telling the story of What Gudrun Does After Siegfried (Sigurd) Dies. This is also long and complicated and is probably best left to another day.

P.S. If you feel that you now have some vague understanding of what the differences are, well done. It’s a complicated thing and I don’t think I’ve explained it very well.

P.P.S. I would highly recommend reading some of the other Norse Myths if you like that sort of thing because they really are fascinating.

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2 thoughts on “The Ring Cycle and Norse Mythology

  1. I have not read the ancient/original sources, but I would highly recommend JRR Tolkien’s rendering of the saga, ‘The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun’…it’s beautifully written and recreates the intricacies of Old Norse alliterative poetry. It is truly one of the most fascinating stories ever composed.

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