Engi má við sköpum vinna

Wagner’s Use of his Icelandic Sources

Wagner’s Ring and its Icelandic Sources
Stofnun Sigurðar Nordals 1995

The present paper considers the revival of interest in the medieval Nibelung material in nineteeth-century Germany and, in particular, examines Wagner’s attitude to that material and the use to which he put it in the Ring.

In discussing Wagner’s Icelandic sources, it is not enough to ask ourselves the question “what?”. We must also ask the question “why?”. After all, we can quote the Eddas to our heart’s content, but that will not bring us any closer to an understanding of what Wagner thought the Ring was about. I propose, therefore, to concentrate on the reasons why Wagner chose the sources he did and, in doing so, to extend the discussion beyond the confines of Icelandic literature. Wagner was one of the great polymaths of the nineteenth century: few composers have been as widely read, and none has sought to underpin his work with such a vast array of philosophical, aesthetic, political and religious writings. As a result, only an interdisciplinary approach can bring us closer to Wagner.

We may begin, as Wagner began, with the Nibelungenlied. This early thirteenth-century Austrian poem had been rediscovered, after centuries of neglect, in 1755. It was quickly hailed as a national epic, but it was not until the early years of the nineteenth century that the poem’s political potential was exploited. Napoleon’s military successes and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 encouraged Romantic writers to turn to the past in search of a nationalist model: there was a longing for a united Germany as powerful and as respected as under the Hohenstaufen emperors of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Nibelungenlied embodied this lost ideal as did no other poem of the period. Editions proliferated, either in the original Middle High German or in modern German translations. It featured on the school curriculum and in 1815 was even issued in a special edition for freedom fighters on the front.[1]

In turn, this interest in the Nibelungenlied generated a veritable industry in the dissemination of related texts, as scholars discovered, edited and translated the other major sources of the Nibelung narrative. Friedrich Rühs’ translation of the Snorra Edda appeared in 1812, while Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagen brought out translations of the Þiðreks saga and Völsunga saga in 1814 and 1815. The Poetic Edda was the most challenging text linguistically and took longer to appear: von der Hagen’s version of the heroic poems appeared in 1814, followed in 1815 by a selection by the Brothers Grimm. In 1830 Ludwig Ettmüller brought out his critical edition of the Völuspá, following it up in 1837 with his Lieder der Edda von den Nibelungen. But it was not until 1851 that the complete Poetic Edda became available in Karl Simrock’s modern German translation.

Hard on the heels of these various editions came commentary and criticism, with scholarly erudition and Romantic fantasy merging to form an unholy alliance.[2] Literary reworkings followed, beginning with Friedrich Baron de la Motte Fouqué’s Der Held des Nordens (1810), and continuing with dramatised versions by Hermann (1819), Müller (1822), Raupach (1834) and Wurm (1839). The influence of Fouqué’s trilogy Der Held des Nordens cannot be overestimated: the first part, Sigurd der Schlangentöter, is the source not only of the act structure of Wagner’s Siegfried but also of the Norns, the Götterdämmerung love duet and a whole host of other details; Fouqué uses an embryonic form of Stabreim; and, perhaps most startlingly of all, he set out with the avowed aim of treating the Nibelung legend in the spirit of Aeschylus.[3] His sources were the Snorra Edda in Resenius’s 1665 edition and Thormodus Torfaeus’s Historia rerum Norvegicarum of 1711, which retells many of the Icelandic sagas, including the Völsunga saga. In short, Fouqué’s trilogy provided Wagner with much of his primary Icelandic source material in pre-packaged form. It was a pioneering achievement that opened up Icelandic literature to a whole generation of German readers. Meanwhile advocates of the Nibelungenlied continued to press its rival claims, with a number of contributors to the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik suggesting that it might form the basis of a national opera;[4] one such contributor — the poetess Louise Otto — even offered to write up a libretto for Wagner.[5] Other composers — Mendelssohn, Schumann,[6] Liszt[7] and Heinrich Dorn — toyed with the idea of a Nibelung opera, although only Dorn saw the project through to completion.

Wagner, too, was attracted by the Nibelungenlied. He owned no fewer than four editions and is known to have borrowed two more from the Dresden Royal Library, beginning in January 1845.[8] Yet his attitude towards it was one of increasing reserve, until finally he was prepared to dismiss its influence altogether. As long as Wagner shared the Romantics’ nostalgia for Germany’s medieval past, he was happy to borrow from the storehouse of high medieval literature: Tannhäuser (1842–1845) is set in the early years of the thirteenth century, Lohengrin (1845–1848) in the middle of the tenth, Die Sarazenin (1841–1843) in the thirteenth and Friedrich I. (1846–1849) in the twelfth. But the appeal of the Nibelungenlied, a work firmly set in the early thirteenth century, with all the trappings of medieval chivalry, must have begun to wane as soon as Wagner started to develop anarchical tendencies and to turn to myth as an expression of necessary evolutionary change. He could not use history to predicate the future. Myth alone could embody the cosmic struggle between the forces of reaction and a more humane and enlightened regime. It was in order to excavate what he believed was the mythic substratum of the material that he started to delve more deeply into the Scandinavian versions of the legend, versions which, in keeping with the scholarly thinking of his time, he regarded as more archaic and, hence, as more prototypically German. Wagner himself uses the word “urdeutsch” in this context.[9] The essential “Germanness” of the Nibelung legend was one of the few constant factors in Wagner’s attitude to the Ring and one which derives ultimately from Fichte’s belief in the great German Revolution that would liberate the whole of humanity.[10]

Prior to embarking on the first prose draft of the Ring in 1848 Wagner had read the Snorra Edda, together with those of the mythological and heroic poems of the Poetic Edda available to him in the editions of Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagen (1814), Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1815), Friedrich Majer (1818) and Ludwig Ettmüller (1830 and 1837). He had also read Snorri’s Heimskringla[11] and, probably, the Þiðreks saga.[12] It must be emphasised that he read them all in modern German translation. Curt von Westernhagen[3] makes the fanciful claim that Wagner read these texts in the original Icelandic, but Westernhagen belonged to what might be called the hagiographical school of Wagner biography, and his evidence does not bear scrutiny.

But not only did Wagner read these primary sources in translation, he also followed the scholarly debates of the time. He read the writings of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Georg Gottfried Gervinus, Karl Lachmann, Karl Simrock, Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagen, Ludwig Ettmüller, Carl Wilhelm Göttling and Franz Joseph Mone, scholars who, most of them forgotten today, were generally highly regarded in their own time. In particular, he became engrossed in the debate over the historical or mythological origins of the Nibelung legend and even made his own contribution to the subject in the form of the essay Die Wibelungen in early 1849.[14]

Die Wibelungen is a notoriously impenetrable text, even by Wagner’s standards of Byzantine obscurity.[15] It is enough to say here that it finds Wagner wrestling with the rival claims of history and myth and making no clear distinction between them. In this he reflects the ideas of scholars such as Wilhelm Grimm and Karl Lachmann,[16] whose view of myth is indebted to the thinking of Giambattista Vico. Vico’s Scienza nuova of 1725/30 had proposed a tripartite theory of history, beginning with the age of the gods, followed by the age of heroes and, finally, by the age of man. This model lies behind the reconstructions of what might be called the prototypical Nibelung myth and was of fundamental importance for Wagner’s own view of the subject. Such reconstructions were typical of the Romantic belief in the essential Oneness of the different surviving versions of the narrative. In other words, an attempt was made to distil a quintessential form of the narrative by choosing variants from among the whole range of extant versions, be they German, Icelandic, Norwegian or Latin. Lachmann’s reconstruction runs as follows:

A glorious radiant god, a god of peace brought about through victory (Siegfried), murders the mysterious guardians of the cold northern kingdom of the dead (Nibelheim) and steals the gold belonging to the gods of night (Nibelungs) from the dragon that watches over it. Although he acquires wealth and wondrous powers through his theft, he falls under the sway of demonic forces. He has to become their confederate, marry their sister and use the demonic device [of the tarnhelm] to fetch the radiant valkyrie from out of the flames for the king of the land of mists, overcoming her resistance in the shape of the king himself: he marries her with the ring from the treasure, but she becomes not his bride but his lord’s: he dies when pricked by the thorn of death (Hagen), the son of terror, and the stolen gold is sunk in the Rhine.[17]

Lachmann, like Jacob Grimm, Wagner and, at a slightly later date, Max Müller, saw Siegfried as a sungod destroyed by the powers of darkness embodied in the Nibelungs. Indeed, Wagner himself paraphrases Grimm[18] in Die Wibelungen:  

In its most remotely distinguishable form the family saga of the Franks shows us the individualised light- or sungod conquering and slaying the monster of the primeval night of chaos: — this is the original meaning of Siegfried’s fight with the dragon, a fight that resembles that fought by Apollo with the dragon Python. But just as the day must finally yield once more to night and just as summer finally gives way once more to winter, so Siegfried, too, is finally slain: god became man and, through his passing, fills our thoughts with new and heightened sympathy, inspiring us, as the victim of a deed that brings us joy, to replicate his action through the ethical motif of revenge, in other words, through the desire to avenge his death on his murderer.[19]

Siegfried’s actions, culminating in his death, are seen as part of a necessary process of evolutionary change. This is the essential thrust of the scenario that Wagner drew up in October 1848 and which was to provide the basic outline for the Ring. Die Nibelungensage (Mythus)[20] traces the fate of the gods from their corrupt attempts to impose their rule by force to Siegfried’s expiatory death, Brünnhilde’s act of self-sacrifice and the restoration of the ring to the Rhine. It is worth adding here that it has often been claimed that Wagner’s most original contribution to his medieval material lay in his decision to forge a link between the Siegfried story and the downfall of the gods.[21] This is another of the myths in which Wagner’s life is so uniquely fertile. The connection had been made at least as early as 1818 by Franz Joseph Mone in his Einleitung in das Nibelungen-Lied and was familiar to Wagner from the writings of Mone, von der Hagen and Lachmann.[22]

A further misconception that needs to be laid to rest here concerns the question of Wagner and myth, a subject on which much has been written — most of it based upon an intentional or unintentional misunderstanding of Wagner’s own remarks in Opera and Drama, where he writes: “What is incomparable about the myth is that it is true for all time and that its content, densely compressed, is inexhaustible for all ages.”[23] This sentence is regularly ripped untimely from its context and quoted by Wagnerian apologists anxious to deny any unpalatable aspects of the Ring and its performance history. In fact the sentence in question comes at the end of a passage in which Wagner places his own political interpretation on the myth of Creon and Antigone. In other words, it is this myth which is “true for all time”, this myth whose “content, densely compressed, is inexhaustible through the ages”. Yet the gloss that Wagner places upon the myth is quintessentially his own and, with its explicit antithesis between power politics and the redemptive power of love, could have been written only in the mid-nineteenth century under the influence of Ludwig Feuerbach.[24] In short, Wagner regarded myth as a palimpsest in which each generation could write its own version of events in a way that was uniquely valid for that age.

The necessity of change was clear to Wagner from his reading of Hegel,[25] but it is an idea that Wagner would have found confirmed by his medieval sources, where the overwhelming sense of fate is one of a number of themes that were to leave their mark on Wagner’s music dramas in general.[26] Sigurd’s dying words, which provide the title of my paper, are “No one can defy his fate”.[27] Initially, Wagner believed that Siegfried could defy his fate, that Siegfried was the man of the future, the man who reacts spontaneously and instinctively, the free individual whose feelings have not been suborned by the dehumanising influences of nineteenth-century bourgeois society.[28]

Wagner’s belief in the need for change must be seen against the background of his political thinking at the time he first became interested in the Ring. His disenchantment with artistic conditions in Dresden and with political conditions in general found expression in a number of texts from 1848/1849. There are obvious parallels, for example, between the speech that he delivered to the Dresden Vaterlandsverein in June 1848 and the draft scenario Die Nibelungensage of four months later. The fatal lure of gold, which had played a peripheral role in the medieval sources, is central to Wagner’s reconstruction of the legend. In much the same way, he had argued in the Vaterlandsverein speech that only by destroying what he calls “the demonic concept of money” was it possible to achieve “the complete emancipation of the human race”.[29] Wagner concluded his speech by demanding that the king should be “the first and most genuine republican”.[30] (The king in question was Friedrich August II of Saxony.) This apparent anomaly in Wagner’s thinking, whereby a republic should have a king as its ruler, is generally greeted with a pitying smile on the part of Wagnerians[31] and held out as an example of his impractical, apolitical thinking. But precisely the same idea had been central to Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace of 1795 and Friedrich Schlegel’s Essay on Republicanism of 1796. In short, Wagner was in the best of company in advancing this suggestion. It is a suggestion, moreover, that finds literary expression at the end of the 1848 scenario and also in the first version of Siegfried’s Tod, where Wotan’s republican rule was originally to have been consolidated, his guilt vicariously expunged by Siegfried’s act of autonomous free will. In short, Wotan was originally intended to have been a survivor, as Friedrich August II was to have been. Of course, there is nothing in Wagner’s sources to justify such a conclusion, but it is significant that he was willing to countenance it, even if only temporarily, since it demonstrates the extent to which he felt able to alter his sources in order to create his own myth.

It was initially Siegfried’s role to embody what Wagner termed the “purely human”.[32] But in order for him to do so, he had to be stripped of his courtly background. Neither the Siegfried of the Nibelungenlied nor the Sigurðr of the Völsunga saga could fulfil this Feuerbachian function, since both are depicted as flowers of medieval chivalry and, as far as Wagner was concerned, already corrupted by cultural influences. When he came to write A Communication to my Friends in 1851, Wagner adopted a deeply dismissive tone towards the Nibelungenlied,[33] but he had in fact already availed himself of a number of its scenes and motifs when writing Siegfried’s Tod in 1848. This, of course, was the first part of the Ring to be completed, at a time when Wagner had no thought of extending the narrative backwards. In consequence, Götterdämmerung remains more obviously indebted to the Nibelungenlied than any other part of the Ring: the events surrounding Siegfried’s murder derive from the Nibelungenlied, while the Rhinepersons owe their existence to Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s illustrated edition of the poem.[34]

For an account of the “purely human” Siegfried’s youthful adventures Wagner turned to the Þiðreks saga, a ramblingly incoherent account of the life of Dietrich of Verona (the historical Theodoric the Great) which nineteenth-century scholars believed to be an earlier, more primitive version of the narrative. Sigurðr’s fight with the dragon Fáfnir is a case in point: here the hero beats the animal over the head with a large piece of wood in particularly uncourtly fashion.

Wagner’s decision, in May 1851, to preface Siegfried’s Tod[35] with a drama devoted to the life of the young hero was prompted in no small measure by his reading of Karl Simrock’s translation of the Poetic Edda. This was the first complete German translation of the Eddic poems, and it left its mark on Siegfried in particular and the Ring in general in a number of different ways. Three of the Eddic poems deal with journeys undertaken by Óðinn under assumed names — Gangleri, Gangráðr and Vegtamr. It was Simrock who used the name “Wanderer” to describe all three of the god’s manifestations. It is under the name of Gangráðr that Óðinn visits the giant Vafþrúðnir, a confrontation that has clearly influenced the Riddle Scene in Act One of Siegfried. Óðinn challenges Vafþrúðnir to a contest of knowledge, and answers the giant’s questions satisfactorily. Both of them then take their seats on the bench and Vafþrúðnir stakes his head on being able to answer his visitor’s questions. Their contest ranges through the universe from creation to destruction and rebirth, before Óðinn traps the giant with a trick question to which only he, the god, can know the answer. Even the language of the Vafþrúðnismál has left its mark on Wagner’s poetic diction: in Simrock’s archaising translation, Óðinn’s lines “Viel erfuhr ich, / Viel versucht ich, / Befrug der Wesen viel” are repeated almost word for word by Wagner’s Wanderer.[36] If Wagner borrows from the Edda at this point, it is partly to introduce information concerning the mythological background of the work,[37] and partly to show the Wanderer manipulating Mime: after all, Mime needs to know that he himself cannot reforge the sword Nothung; only Siegfried can do that. This manipulatory role of the Wanderer had been familiar to Wagner from the Völsunga saga, which he had first read in late October 1848.[38] Here Óðinn repeatedly and anonymously interferes in the lives of his descendants, appearing at Sigmundr’s death, advising Sigurðr how to kill Fáfnir and helping the hero to choose a horse. In much the same way, Wagner’s Wanderer keeps on interfering in the action, ever anxious to see that his plan is progressing smoothly.

In Act Three the Wanderer conjures up the Vala from her gravemound to confer with her on the fate of the gods. This scene is modelled on Baldrs draumar, or the Vegtamskviða, as Wagner knew it. Travelling this time under the name of Vegtamr, Óðinn seeks out the longdead völva within her tumulus at the doors of Hel. Reluctantly she rises out of the ground at the sound of Óðinn’s voice. Finally she recognises her interlocutor and the scene ends rancorously, as in Wagner. There is a curious contradiction between the ineffectual Vala as she figures in Siegfried and the allwise prophetess of Das Rheingold, who derives her ancestry from the Völuspá. If Wagner retained the contradiction, it was to underline his belief that godly wisdom had already been supplanted in the Hegelian world process as the race of mortals supersedes the gods’ redundant rule.

After conjuring up Erda, the Wanderer confronts his grandson on the slopes of Brünnhilde’s Rock but fails to bar his way to the sleeping valkyrie. Siegfried’s awakening of Brünnhilde is clearly and famously based on the Sigrdrífumál, in Simrock’s translation:

„Heil dir Tag, / Heil euch Tagessöhnen,
Heil dir Nacht und nährende Erde:
Mit unzorngen Augen / Schaut auf Uns
Und gebt den Sitzenden Sieg.

Heil euch Asen, / Heil euch Asinnen,
Heil dir, fruchtbares Feld.“[39]

Wagner removes the reference to night and transforms the greeting to the world into an apostrophe to Siegfried as sungod. Throughout this scene the hero is acclaimed in terms derived from solar myth: “leuchtender Sproß”, “Wecker des Lebens, siegendes Licht”.[40]

Wagner completed the verse draft of Siegfried in June 1851. Three months later he realised that the bi-partite Ring would have to be expanded yet again, and so Das Rheingold and Die Walküre were drafted more or less together. In both cases Wagner was able to rely upon the outline scenario of Die Nibelungensage, supplemented by other reading.

Das Rheingold is based, in the main, on material drawn from the Snorra Edda, which contains the most succinct account of the building of an unnamed fortress for the gods, the gods’ attempts to extricate themselves from the bargain and the theft of Andvari’s gold. Of course, in Wagner’s version, the fortress is Valhalla, the abducted goddess is not Iðunn but Freia, and Alberich’s gold famously includes an all-powerful ring in addition to the accursed hoard. In imposing this unified vision upon his material Wagner owed much to the scholarly writings of his own day, notably Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie,[41] a long article by Karl Weinhold on Loki published in the Zeitschrift für deutsches Alterthum early in 1849,[42] Wilhelm Müller’s Altdeutsche Religion[43] and the annotated Eddic editions of Simrock and Ettmüller, both of whom argued that the gods were destroyed by guilt and inadequacy, not by fate.[44] Grimm in particular helped the composer to flesh out the figures of Fricka and Wotan. Once again, Wagner’s changes are significant: there is nothing, for example, in the sources to substantiate Wotan’s offer to sacrifice his one remaining eye to Fricka’s kinsmen, an offer presumably made to indicate the strength of Wotan’s love of his future wife.[45] Although one of Óðinn’s attributes was a spear and although, according to Snorri, its point was engraved with magic runes, these runes were unconnected with treaties and contracts. This association followed logically from Wagner’s decision to equate the old gods with intransigent law.[46] Equally alien to the medieval texts is Wotan’s continuing interest in the ring once it has served its original purpose of providing a ransom. Although Alberich’s ring, like Andvari’s, is cursed, it also confers on its owner the power to dominate the world. In fact, this motif seems to me to be ill thought-through in the case of Wagner’s work, since there are at least two occasions in the course of the cycle in which the ring signally fails to provide its owner with any protection.[47] While Lachmann had invested the ring with a symbolism absent from the sources, it was left to Wagner to turn it into a token of blind, and blinding, power, an object of covetous lust that reduces Wotan to acts of deceit and low cunning. Such guilt demands the gods’ downfall, a downfall that Wotan seeks initially to avoid by setting in train the events of Die Walküre and thereby seeking to defy his fate.

Die Walküre benefited from Wagner’s study of the Völsunga saga. Here, too, the composer made significant changes to his source. In the saga, Sigurðr is Óðinn’s great-great-grandson. Wagner gradually telescoped the relationships: in Die Nibelungensage of 1848, the Wälsungs’ father is an unnamed hero, with Wotan’s role reduced to what one writer has called “that of a consultant at a fertility clinic”:[48] he provides an apple and the twins’ mother conceives. By Siegfried’s Tod Wotan had become the father of Wälse, who in turn was the father of Siegmund and Sieglinde. Only in the summer of 1852 did Wagner decide that Wotan and Wälse were one and the same person, an inspired move that not only added to the poignancy of the relationship between Wotan and his semi-divine son, but enmeshed him further in the toils of his own tragic dilemma.

The incestuous love between Siegmund and Sieglinde derives, of course, from an episode in the Völsunga saga in which the unhappily married Signý changes shapes with a sorceress in order to mate with her twin brother Sigmundr and produce an heir who will avenge their father Volsung. This act of calculated coition earns Wotan’s disapproval in Wagner’s 1848 scenario, Die Nibelungensage, where it is said specifically that Wotan “decrees Sigmund’s downfall in expiation of his crime”.[49] By 1851 Wagner — and Wotan — had changed their minds. The composer’s reading of Feuerbach had convinced him of the primacy of love and obliged him to rewrite this episode in a spirit profoundly dissimilar to that of his Icelandic source.

I hope I shall not be guilty of causing a diplomatic incident when I say that I think the Völsunga saga is a somewhat inferior work. Its merits it owes to its Eddic source material, while its shortcomings are the result of its compiler’s inability to see that the poems that he was turning into prose reflect radically different versions of events. Brynhildr in particular suffers from his treatment and emerges as a distinctly schizophrenic character, now home-loving wife, pottering about the house with her domestic chores, now warrior maiden resenting her domesticisation. Inspired by his reading of Hegel’s master-slave relationship,[50] Wagner has interpreted Brynhildr’s domesticisation as a punishment for the valkyrie’s act of self-assertive disobedience. Her contribution to the Annunciation of Death Scene in Act Two of Die Walküre appears to be based upon two skaldic poems, the Hákonarmál and the Eiríksmál,[51] while her contribution to the closing moments of the cycle represents a grandiose synthesis of her death scene from the Edda and the cosmological concerns of the Völuspá. Westernhagen argues, somewhat ingenuously, that because the Völuspá ends with the rebirth of the world, so the Ring, too, must end with the emergence of a new world from the ashes of the old one.[52] In fact, Ludwig Ettmüller, in his 1830 edition of the poem, states specifically that these final strophes are inauthentic and that they were added at a later date “by a Christian hand”.[53] But whether or not Wagner believed Ettmüller, he was under no obligation to follow his Icelandic model, spurious or otherwise. After all, we have repeatedly seen him altering his sources for his own ideological ends. His exposure to Feuerbach in the winter of 1848/49 would no doubt have turned him against any Christian reading; and certainly it ensured that the gods, who embodied the law in all its intransigence, were now destined to be destroyed for good.[54]

Of course, this leaves open the question whether the world and its human inhabitants survive. Whether it ever did is difficult to say, but certainly by February 1853 Wagner had decided that it did not: “Mark well my new poem,” he wrote to Liszt;[55] “it contains the world’s beginning and its end!” The passage of time served only to confirm this belief and desire.[56]

As soon as the gods were destroyed, Siegfried’s death lost its ethical justification: there was no longer any regime for him to bolster up.[57] Initially Siegfried had been the embodiment of the New Man, the Ring a lesson in revolutionary thinking. With the passing years, Wagner ceased to see Siegfried as the great white hope. “Which is the greater, Wotan or Siegfried?”, Wagner asked Cosima on 2 July 1872 and, without waiting for an answer, went on: “Wotan is the more tragic, since he recognises the guilt of existence and is atoning for the error of creation.”[58] A few months earlier, on 6 September 1871, Cosima’s diary contains a related entry: “We talk of the love between Siegfried and Brünnhilde, which achieves no universal deed of redemption.”[59] Siegfried is no longer the man of the future, but consigned to a phase in the history of the world’s evolution, just as the Ring as a whole was now felt to reflect a single stage in the prehistoric past. Cosima again, this time an entry of 2 October 1882: “Then friend Rubinstein arrives and at our request plays us the conclusion of Götterdämmerung. R. joins in and sings Brünnhilde’s last words, he is pleased with it all, so heathen and Germanic! … He recalls Gobineau and the Germanic world which came to an end with this work.”[60] For the elderly Wagner, the Ring described a phase in world history that predated the degeneration of the species, reflecting a pristine Germanic Paradise which could never be regained. Myth had again become history. Siegfried had failed, after all, to defy his fate.


Wagner and his Sources
1807 Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes
1810 Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, Der Held des Nordens
1812 Snorra Edda, trans. Friedrich Rühs
Poetic Edda, ed. Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagen
1813 1813 22 May: Richard Wagner born in Leipzig
1814 Poetic Edda, trans. F.H. von der Hagen
1814-28 Nordische Heldenromane,
trans. F.H. von der Hagen (vols. I—III = Þiðreks saga; IV = Völsunga saga)
1815 Heroic poems from Poetic Edda, trans. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
1816 Carl Wilhelm Göttling, Nibelungen und Gibelinen
1816-18 Deutsche Sagen, ed. Grimm
1818 Franz Joseph Mone, Einleitung in das Nibelungen-Lied
Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung
1819 F.H. von der Hagen, Die Nibelungen: Ihre Bedeutung far die Gegenwart und für immer
1819-22 Kinder- und Hausmärchen, ed. Grimm
1829 Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsche Heldensage
1830 Vaulu-Spá, ed. Ludwig Ettmüller
Ludwig Feuerbach, Gedanken über Tod und Unsterblichkeit
1835 Jacob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie (2nd edn. 1844)
1836 Karl Lachmann, Zu den Nibelungen
Franz Joseph Mone, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der teutschen Heldensage
1837 Heroic poems from Poetic Edda, trans. Ettmüller
1837-39 Wagner in Riga
1839-42 Wagner in Paris
1840 Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Qu'est-ce que la propriété?
1841 Ludwig Feuerbach, Das Wesen des Christenthums
1842-49 Wagner in Dresden
1842 20 October: Dresden premiere of Rienzi
1843 2 January: premiere of Der fliegende Holländer
Nibelungenlied, eds./trans. Pfizer, Simrock & Vollmer
Wagner reads Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie (? cf. ML)
Feuerbach, Grundsätze der Philosophie der Zukunft
1843-46 Heldenbuch, ed. Karl Simrock
1844 17 January: Wagner borrows von der Hagen’s Die Nibelungen from Dresden Royal Library
1845 January/February: Wagner borrows Hinsberg’s and Lachmann’s editions of Nibelungenlied
July/August: prose drafts of Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin
19 October: premiere of Tannhäuser
1848 24 January: gold discovered in California
1 April: Eduard Devrient reports Wagner’s plan to write a Siegfried opera
10 June — 2 October: Wagner borrows three editions of Edda and Snorri’s Heimskringla from Royal Library
14 June: Vaterlandsverein speech
4 October: completes Die Nibelungensage (Mythus)
20 October: completes prose draft of Siegfried’s Tod
21 October: borrows Ettmuller’s Edda and von der Hagen’s Völsunga saga from Royal Library before
12 November: completes prose draft of prelude
12–28 November: verse draft of Siegfrieds Tod
after 18 December: Friedrich I.
1949 February (?): Die Wibelungen
March: Achilleus
March/April: Jesus von Nazareth
May: Dresden Uprising; Wagner flees to Zürich, where he remains until 1858
July: completes Die Kunst und die Revolution
4 November: completes Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, dedicated to Feuerbach
1850 August: musical sketches for Siegfried’s Tod
before 22 August: finishes Das Judenthum in der Musik
28 August: Weimar premiere of Lohengrin
1851 10 January: completes Oper und Drama
12 February: Wagner’s parrot falls off its perch Poetic Edda, trans. Karl Simrock
3–10 May: prose sketch of Der junge Siegfried
24 May — 1 June: prose draft of Der junge Siegfried
3–24 June: verse draft of Der junge Siegfried
July/August: Eine Mittheilung an meine Freunde
October/November: prose sketches for Das Rheingold and Die Walküre
2 December: Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état
1852 23–31 March: prose draft of Das Rheingold
17–26 May: prose draft of Die Walküre
1 June — 1 July: verse draft of Die Walküre
15 September — 3 November: verse draft of Rheingold
after 15 December: revises Der junge Siegfried and Siegfrieds Tod
1853 1 November: begins first composition draft of Das Rheingold
(full score completed 26 September 1854)
1854 28 June: begins first composition draft of Die Walküre (full score completed 23 March 1856)
October: reads Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung ("Only now did I understand my Wotan")
1856 16 May: drafts prose sketch for Die Sieger and "conceives new ending for Götterdämmerung" (Annals)
September: begins first composition draft of Siegfried
1857 9 August: finishes second complete draft of Act Two of Siegfried before laying work aside to concentrate on Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger
1858-64 Wagner leads an unsettled existence, living in Venice, Lucerne, Paris, Vienna and Biebrich
1864 12 March: Ludwig II accedes to Bavarian throne and assures Wagner’s material existence
22 December: resumes work on first full score of Act Two of Siegfried (completed 2 December 1865)
1865 10 June: Tristan und Isolde in Munich
1866-72 Wagner lives at Tribschen on Lake Lucerne
1868 21 June: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Munich
1876 13–17 August: first complete performance of Ring
1882 26 July: Parsifal in Bayreuth
1883 13 February: Wagner dies in Venice


[1] See Mary Thorp, The Study of the Nibelungenlied: Being the History of the Study of the Epic and Legend from 1755 to 1937 (Oxford Studies in Modern Languages and Literature, Oxford, 1940), p. 11; and Elizabeth Magee, Richard Wagner and the Nibelungs (Oxford, 1990), p. 3. Magee’s study is one of the most important contributions to Wagner scholarship in recent years.
[2] See Hermann Schneider, “Richard Wagner und das germanische Altertum,” Kleinere Schriften zur germanischen Heldensage und Literatur des Mittelalters (Berlin, 1962), p. 109.
[3] “Seines Amtes möge es sein, die ihm inzwischen vertraut gewordne Nibelungensage, ihn nachziehend zu den altnordischen durch Torfaeus und andere aufbewahrten Gebilde, in Tragödien zu behandeln, in dem Sinne, wie hellenische Bühnendichter die durch Homeros angeklungenen und bewahrten Kunden nach anderweitigen Sagenzweigen bearbeitet hatten”; quoted in Fouqués Werke: Auswahl in drei Teilen, ed. Walther Ziesemer (Berlin, n.d.), vol. II, pp. 7–8.
[4] Anton Wilhelm Florentin von Zuccalmaglio, “Die deutsche Oper,” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, vi (1837), 191; Louise Otto, “Die Nibelungen als Oper,” NZfM, xxiii (1845), 49–52, 129–30, 171–2, 175–6 and 181–3; and Franz Brendel, “Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft der Oper,” NZfM, xxiii (1845), 33–5, 37–9, 41–3, 105–8, 109–12, 121–4 and 149–51, xxiv (1846), 57–60 and 61–4. Elsewhere, Friedrich Theodor Fischer (“Vorschlag zu einer Oper,” Kritische Gänge [Tübingen, 1844], vol. ii, p. 399) struck a similarly nationalistic note. The proposals by Zuccalmaglio, Otto and Fischer are quoted in Dokumente zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Bühnenfestspiels Der Ring des Nibelungen, ed. Werner Breig and Hartmut Fladt (Richard Wagner, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Carl Dahlhaus, vol. XXIX/1, Mainz, 1976), p. 15, 19–24 and 25–6. Brendel’s article is not mentioned here, although it was perhaps even more influential than the others; see Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, trans. and ed. Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington (London, 1987), pp. 158–9.
[5] See Richard Wagner, Sämtliche Briefe, (SB), 8 vols., ed. Gertrud Strobel, Werner Wolf, Hans-Joachim Bauer and hannes Forner (Leipzig, 1967–93), vol. II, p. 438.
[6] See Dokumente zur Entstehungsgeschichte, pp. 15–16.
[7] See Adelyn Peck Leverett, “Liszt, Wagner and Heinrich Dorn’s Die Nibelungen,” Cambridge Opera Journal, ii (1990), 121–44, esp. 128.
[8] The holdings of Wagner’s Dresden library were catalogued by Curt von Westernhagen, Richard Wagners Dresdener Bibliothek 1842 bis 1849 (Wiesbaden, 1966); Elizabeth Magee has examined the loan journals of the Dresden Royal Library and published her findings in Richard Wagner and the Nibelungs.
[9] Richard Wagner, “Eine Mittheilung an meine Freunde,” Gesammelte Schriften and Dichtungen, (GS) 4th edn. (Leipzig, 1911), vol. IV, p. 312.
[10] See Ernest Newman, The Life of Richard Wagner, 4 vols. (Cambridge, 1976), vol. II, p. 9; Paul Lawrence Rose, Wagner: Race and Revolution (London, 1992), pp. 6–11; and Stewart Spencer, “Bayreuth and the idea of a festival theatre,” The Wagner Compendium: A Guide to Wagner’s Life and Music, ed. Barry Millington (London, 1992), pp. 167–70. The Ring was dedicated to “den deutschen Geist”.
[11] Wagner owned translations of the Heimskringla by Ferdinand Wachter (2 vols.; Leipzig, 1835–36) and Gottlieb Mohnike (Stralsund, 1837); in his letter to Franz Müller of 9 January 1856, Wagner described Wachter’s version as “bad” and expressed his preference for Mohnike (SB vol. VII, pp. 336–7). Curiously, he also borrowed Mohnike’s translation from the Dresden Royal Library on 10 June 1848.
[12] According to his letter to Müller (see n. 11), Wagner used von der Hagen’s translation of the Þiðreks saga, published as vols. I—III of his Nordische Heldenromane, 5 vols. (Breslau, 1814–28). Magee (Richard Wagner and the Nibelungs) speculates that Wagner read it before writing Die Nibelungensage (Mythus) but concedes that he may have been acquainted with its contents through Simrock’s Amelungenlied, 3 vols. (Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1843–49).
[13] Curt von Westernhagen, Richard Wagners Dresdener Bibliothek, p. 36.
[14] Dating from Wagner Werk-Verzeichnis, eds. John Deathridge, Martin Geck and Egon Voss (Mainz, 1986), p. 329.
[15] The essay has been considered in detail by Elizabeth Magee, “Wagner’s Wibelungen’ and the Royal Library at Dresden,” Wagner, x (1989), 2–6, and Dieter Borchmeyer, “Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Musikdrama: Wagners Weg von der geschichtlichen zur mythischen Oper,” Die Programmhefte der Bayreuther Festspiele 1992: vi — “Der fliegende Hollander”, pp. 1–25; English trans., pp. 27–42.
[16] See Mary Thorp, The Study of the Nibelungenlied, p. 17; and Theodore M. Andersson, “The Doctrine of Oral Tradition in the Chanson de Geste and Saga,” Scandinavian Studies, xxxiv (1962), 219–36.
[17] Lachmann’s reconstruction was originally published in his “Kritik der Sage von den Nibelungen,” Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, iii (1829), 435–64, esp. 457. It was reproduced as follows by Ludwig Ettmüller, Lieder der Edda von den Nibelungen (Zürich, 1837), pp. xxx—xxxi: “Ein herrlicher, leuchtender Gott, ein Gott des Friedens durch den Sieg (Sigufrid, Sigurdhr) mordet die geheimnisvollen Wächter im kalten nordlichen Todtenreiche (Niflheimr, Niflûnga land?) und raubt das Gold der nächtlichen Götter (Niflûngar, Niflsynir?) dem Drachen, der es hütet. Er gewinnt durch den Raub zwar Reichthum und wunderbare Kräfte, aber er kommt auch in die Gewalt der Dämonen. Er muß ihr Bundesbruder werden, sich mit ihrer Schwester vermählen, für den König des Nebelreichs mit dem dämonischen Werkzeuge die umstrahlte Walkyre aus den Flammen holen, in des Königs Gestalt ihren Widerstand bezwingen: Durch den Ring aus dem Schatze vermählt er sich mit ihr, aber sie wird nicht seine, sondern seines Herren Braut: er stirbt vom Todesdorn (Högni, Hagano), dem Sohne des Schreckens, erstochen, und das geraubte Gold wird in den Rhein gesenkt.“
[18] Jacob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, 4th edn., 3 vols. (Güthersloh, 1877), vol. I, p. 308.
[19] GS, vol. II, pp. 131–2: “Die fränkische Stammsage zeigt uns nun in ihrer fernsten Erkennbarkeit den individualisirten Licht- oder Sonnengott, wie er das Ungethüm der chaotischen Urnacht besiegt und erlegt: — dieß ist die ursprüngliche Bedeutung von Siegfried’s Drachenkampf, einem Kampfe, wie ihn Apollon gegen den Drachen Python stritt. Wie nun der Tag endlich doch der Nacht wieder erliegt, wie der Sommer endlich doch dem Winter wieder weichen muß, ist aber Siegfried endlich auch wieder erlegt worden; der Gott ward also Mensch, und als ein dahingeschiedener Mensch erfüllt er unser Gemüth mit neuer, gesteigerter Theilnahme, indem er, als ein Opfer seiner uns beseligenden That, namentlich auch das sittliche Motiv der Rache, d. h. das Verlangen nach Vergeltung seines Todes an seinem Mörder, somit nach Erneuerung seiner That, erregt.”
[20] The first draft of Die Nibelungensage (Mythus) (NA A H d 2) was completed on 4 October 1848 and is reproduced in Otto Strobel, Richard Wagner: Skizzen und Entwürfe zur Ring-Dichtung (Münich, 1930), pp. 26–33; a second fair copy (NA A II d 3) remains unpublished. When Wagner printed the text in his Gesammelte Schriften and Dichtungen (vol. II, pp. 156–66), he altered the title to Der Nibelungen-Mythus. Als Entwurf zu einem Drama and made a number of minor (mainly orthographical) changes.
[21] See, for example, Westernhagen, Richard Wagners Dresdener Bibliothek, p.41.
[22] See Franz Joseph Mone, Einleitung in das Nibelungen-Lied zum Schul- and Selbstgebrauch bearbeitet (Heidelberg, 1818), p. 85–6; Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagen, Die Nibelungen: Ihre Bedeutung für die Gegenwart and für immer (Breslau, 1819), p. 37; and Karl Lachmann, “Kritik der Sage von den Nibelungen,” p. 462.
[23] “Oper und Drama,” GS, vol. IV, p. 64: “Das Unvergleichliche des Mythos ist, dab er jederzeit wahr, und sein Inhalt, bei dichtester Gedrängtheit, für alle Zeiten unerschöpflich ist.”
[24] The influence of Feuerbach on Wagner remains to be properly examined; but see J. G. Robertson, “Richard Wagner as poet and thinker,” Wagner, vi (1985), 41–55.
[25] See Sandra Corse, Wagner and the New Consciousness: Language and Love in the „Ring“ (London and Toronto, 1990); see also George C. Windell. „Hegel, Feuerbach, and Wagner‘s Ring,“ Central European History, ix (1976), 27–57.
[26] See Stewart Spencer, “Wagner the medievalist,” Wagner, i (1980), 2–17.
[27] The Saga of the Volsungs, ed. and trans. R. G. Finch (London, 1965), p. 59.
[28] See GS, vol. IV, pp. 311–12.
[29] Richard Wagner, Sämtliche Schriften and Dichtungen (SS), ed. Richard Sternfeld and Hans von Wolzogen, 16 vols. (Leipzig, 1911–14), vol. xii. p. 223: “dieser dämonische Begriff des Geldes … die volle Emanzipation des Menschengeschlechtes.”
[30] SS, vol. XII, p. 225: “und wir dürfen nur fordern, daß der König der erste and allerechteste Republikaner sein sollte.”
[31] See, for example, Newman, The Life of Richard Wagner, vol. II, p. 10.
[32] The term “reinmenschlich” is used throughout the Zürich essays: see, for example, GS, vol. III, p. 67 (“Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft”), vol. III, p. 210 (“Kunst und Klima”) and vol. IV, p. 318 (“Eine Mittheilung an meine Freunde”).
[33] GS, vol. IV, p. 312.
[34] Das Nibelungenlied, ed. Gustav Pfizer and illus. Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld and Eugen Neureuther (Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1843), p. 211; the illustration in question is reproduced in Magee (Richard Wagner and the Nibelungs), frontispiece. If Wagner contradicts himself here, it is because it was only after completing Siegfried’s Tod that he discovered Feuerbach’s particular brand of anthropocentric materialism, with the result that it is only in Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, the revised ending of Götterdämmerung and the Zürich essays of 1849–1851 that Feuerbach’s influence can be felt.
[35] Wagner invariably used an apostrophe in Siegfried’s Tod but has been deprived of it by his twentieth-century editors.
[36] Die Edda, die ältere and die jüngere, trans. Karl Simrock (Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1851), p. 25.
[37] This information was needed as long as Wagner was planning a two-part Ring but it lost its raison d’être as soon as the events narrated here were acted out on stage in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. Unfortunately, Wagner failed to revise the Riddle Scene in the light of the preceding music dramas, with the result that the picture that the Wanderer paints of the world has already been overtaken by events; for an alternative interpretation, see Joachim Herz, “The figure and fate of Wotan in Wagner’s ‘Ring’,” Wagner, xv (1994), 69–93, esp. 90.
[38] It is clear from Magee’s researches in the Dresden Royal Library (Richard Wagner and the Nibelungs, pp. 44–6) that Wagner did not borrow von der Hagen’s translation of the Völsunga saga, until 21 October 1848; this late dating obliges us to revise the traditional chronology of the Ring’s genesis.
[39] Simrock, Die Edda, pp. 168–9.
[40] GS, vol. VI, pp. 167–73.
[41] According to his own testimony (Mein Leben, ed. Martin Gregor-Dellin [Munich, 1976], pp. 272–3), Wagner read Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie in the summer of 1843 and later came to regard the experience as tantamount to an artistic rebirth. Since Wagner owned the second edition of 1844, it is not clear whether his memory was in error or whether he borrowed the first edition of 1835 from some unknown source and later bought his own copy of the second edition. What is beyond question is that at least another five years were to pass before Grimm’s multilingual compilation of fact and Romantic speculation had any tangible effect on Wagner’s artistic oeuvre.
[42] Karl Weinhold, “Die Sagen von Loki,” Zeitschrift für deutsches Alterthum, vii (1849), 1–94; Wagner had subscribed to this journal since its first issue. It is significant that Loki/Loge is absent from Die Nibelungensage (Mythus) of October 1848.
[43] Wilhelm Müller, Geschichte und System der altdeutschen Religion (Göttingen, 1844). Although there is no circumstantial evidence that Wagner knew this work, Magee (Richard Wagner and the Nibelungs, pp. 97 and 184–6) argues plausibly that he did.
[44] Simrock, Die Edda, p. 338; and Ludwig Ettmüller, Vaulu-Spá (Leipzig, 1830), p. xlv.
[45] It has frequently been claimed that there is an inconsistency here, inasmuch as there appear to be two reasons for Wotan’s sacrifice of his eye. A close reading of the text shows that this is not the case. In theyrelude to Götterdämmerung, the First Norn announces that Wotan sacrificed eye at the Well of Wisdom. It is clear from the 1852 prose draft (Strobel, Richard Wagner, p. 217) that, having forfeited one eye, Wotan offered to stake his one remaining eye in order to win Fricka, but that he was not called upon to do so. As Magee (Richard Wagner and the Nibelungs, pp. 138–42) has pointed out, nineteenth-century mythographers believed that Wotan sacrificed his eye to create the sun, a belief that resonates throughout the Ring, from the Rhinedaughters’ delight in their gold to Wotan’s “Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge” (GS, vol. V, p. 266) and Brünnhilde’s apostrophe to the dead Siegfried, each reference reminding us of Wotan’s role in creation and Siegfried’s function as his would-be-redeemer.
[46] Ludwig Feuerbach had equated Óðinn with “primeval law” in Das Wesen des Christenthums, eds. Wilhelm Bolin and Friedrich Jodl (Stuttgart, 1903), p. 26.
[47] In Das Rheingold, Scenes 3 and 4, the ring fails to prevent Alberich from being captured; and in Act I, Scene 3 of Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde is defeated by Siegfried’s superior strength in spite of the fact that she is wearing the ring.
[48] Magee, Richard Wagner and the Nibelungs, p. 158.
[49] Strobel, Richard Wagner; p. 27: “Brunhild [sic], die Walküre, schützt Sigmund gegen Wodan’s Geheiß, welcher dem Verbrechen zur Sühne ihm den Untergang beschieden hat.”
[50] See Corse, Wagner and the New Consciousness, p. 25, 28 and 30; see also Barry Millington’s paper in the present volume.
[51] The Hákonarmál was familiar to Wagner from Mohnike’s translation of the Heimskringla, pp. 146–50 and from Ludwig Frauer’s monograph, Die Walkyrien der skandinavisch-germanischen Götter- und Heldensage (Weimar, 1846), pp. 8–11. Frauer’s study was also the source of the Eiríksmál (p. 4).
[52] Westernhagen, Richard Wagner Dresdener Bibliothek, p. 38.
[53] Vaulu-Spá (n. 44), p. 53: “von christlicher Hand.”
[54] The timing of this change has given rise to endless debate; see, for example, William Ashton Ellis, “Die verschiedenen Fassungen von `Siegfrieds Tod’,” Die Musik, iii (1903/4), 239–51 and 315–31; Curt von Westernhagen, Vom Holländer zum Parsifal: Neue Wagner-Studien (Freiburg im Breisgau and Zürich, 1962), p. 76; Carl Dahlhaus, “Über den Schluß der Götterdämmerung,” Richard Wagner: Werk und Wirkung, ed. Carl Dahlhaus (Regensburg, 1971), pp. 97–115; and Roger Hollinrake, “Carl Dahlhaus and the Ring,” Wagner 1976, ed. Stewart Spencer (London, 1976), pp. 68–82.
[55] SB, vol. V, p. 189: “Beachte wohl meine neue Dichtung — sie enthalt der Welt Anfang und Untergang!”
[56] See Stewart Spencer, —Zieh hin! Ich kann dich nicht halten!’,” Wagner, ii (1981), 98–120.
[57] See Warren Darcy, “The World Belongs to Alberich!’ Wagner’s changing attitude towards the ‘Ring’,” Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, ed. Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington (London, 1993), pp. 48–52.
[58] Cosima Wagner, Die Tagebücher (CT), ed. Martin Gregor-Dellin and Dietrich Mack, 2 vols. (Munich and Zürich, 1976–77), vol. I, p. 543: “Von Wotan und Siegfried, welcher nun am höchsten steht, Wotan der tragischste, er hat die Schuld des Daseins erkannt und büßt den Schöpfungs-Irrtum.” English trans. by Geoffrey Skelton as Cosima Wagner’s Diaries, 2 vols. (London and New York, 1978–80), vol. I, p. 506–7.
[59] CT, vol. I, p. 435: “Wir sprechen von Siegfried und Brünnhilde’s Liebe, die keine erlösende Welttat vollbringt.” English trans., vol. I, p. 410.
[60] CT, vol. II, p. 1014: “Darauf kommt Freund Rub. und spielt uns auf unser Ersuchen den Schluß der Götterdämmerung, R. tritt hinzu und singt die letzten Worte Brünnhilden’s, freut sich des ganzen, so heidnisch Germanischen! … Er gedenkt Gobineau’s, der germanischen Welt, die mit diesem Werk ende.” English trans., vol. II, p. 921.