The Nordic Sublime

The Romantic Rediscovery of Icelandic Myth and Poetry

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

The paper provides a background to Wagner’s concern with the Nibelungen material by describing the so-called “Scandinavian Renaissance”, which was started by the Swiss intellectual Paul Henri Mallet in the 1750’s and reached its apex in Wagner’s Ring. The driving force of the Scandinavian Renaissance was the aesthetical concept of the “sublime”, a sort of wild and horrifying beauty believed to be characteristic of Old Norse-Icelandic poetry and mythology. The idea of the “Nordic sublime” developed considerably, however, between the time of Mallet and the time of Wagner, becoming increasingly metaphysical and charged with religious significance. In order to demonstrate this development, a comparison is made between the Eddic poem Baldrs draumar, Thomas Gray’s English adaptation of that poem, The Descent of Odin (1768), and Wagner’s scene between Wotan and Erda in Siegfried, based on the same poem. While Gray adds horror effects in an attempt to make the poem more “Gothic”, Wagner adds mystery, symbolism and a sacral atmosphere, thus making the scene expressive of Romantic philosophy

Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung may be said to represent the culmination of a vast ideological project that was launched in Northern Europe around the middle of the 18th century: the exploitation of Old Norse myth and Early Icelandic poetry for the purpose of establishing a new Romantic ideal, that of the Nordic Sublime. It was a project that is sometimes referred to as the “Scandinavian Renaissance”, and it engaged many leading intellectuals and poets not only in Germany and Scandinavia but also in England, France, and other European countries. [1]

The Scandinavian Renaissance should be understood, I think, not primarily as a revival of genuine Old Norse ideals but rather as a systematic adaptation, reinterpretation, and partly as a distortion, of Old Icelandic poetry in the light of new aesthetic theories that started to develop among European intellectuals during the latter half of the 18th century. As a result of this reinterpretation process, the mythical lays of the Edda — together with the Celtic Songs of Ossian, Scandinavian folk ballads and various other mythical texts of supposedly barbaric origins — became regarded as “sublime”, which meant that they were not seen as merely “beautiful” in the classical sense but believed to possess shattering powers of a special and mysterious kind, derived from nature and from wild illiterate bards, not from the cultivated art of educated poets. [2]

The idea of the sublime had originally been introduced by the Greek critic Longinus in the first century B.C., but it did not give rise to radically new aesthetics until the middle of the 18th century, when it was taken up by Edmund Burke in England and later developed by Kant and other philosophers in Germany. [3] The first critic to apply this new aesthetics to Old Icelandic poetry was the initiator of the Scandinavian Renaissance, Paul-Henri Mallet, a Swiss citizen of Geneva employed in the 1750’s as Professor of French at the University of Copenhagen. In the second edition of his widely-read Introduction to the History of Denmark, [4] the work that made Old Icelandic poetry available to the general reading public of Europe,[5] he characterized this poetry as “sublime but obscure” and continued to write as follows:  

The soaring flights of fancy may possibly more peculiarly belong to a rude and uncultivated, than to a civilized people. The great objects of nature strike more forcibly on rude imaginations. Their passions are not impaired by the constraint of laws and education. The paucity of their ideas and the barrenness of their language oblige them to borrow from all nature, images fit to cloath their conceptions in. How should abstract terms and reflex ideas, which so much enervate our poetry, be found in theirs? … If it be asked, what is become of that magic power which the ancients attributed to this art? It may well be said to exist no more. The poetry of the modern languages is nothing more than reasoning in rhime, addressed to the understanding, but very little to the heart. No longer essentially connected with religion, politics or morality, it is at present, if I may say so, a mere private art, an amusement that attains its end when it hath gained the cold approbation of a few select judges.[6]

In its insistence on the emotional, irrational, barbaric, and magic imagery of great poetry, this statement is quite typical of the new æsthetics of the sublime.[7] It was through inflammatory appeals of this kind, very much in line with the teachings of British critics like Edmund Burke or Hugh Blair, that Mallet’s presentation of Old Icelandic poetry had an enormous effect on young intellectuals all over Europe. People like Thomas Gray and Thomas Percy in England, James McPherson in Scotland, and Johann Gottfried Herder in Germany all became enthused with the powers of such poetry and tried to collect it, translate it, imitate it and present it to the world as a sublime alternative to the Classicist poetics of polite education.[8]

In the first and “Gothic” stage, during the 18th century, the mythical poetry of the Edda was hailed as sublime mainly because it was supposed to give access to a barbaric nightmare world of primitive but delightful horrors of the arctic North, more exciting than the gentle and classical beauty of Latin culture. In the second and truly Romantic stage, which culminated with Wagner in the 19th century, this poetry was also considered sublime because it was thought to communicate, by means of an esoteric and forgotten symbolic language, profound philosophical truths about God, Nature, and the transcendental mysteries of the Germanic soul.[9]

I shall now try to illustrate these two successive stages of the Scandinavian Renaissance by comparing Wagner’s adaptation of one particular Eddic poem, Baldrs draumar, with an earlier adaptation of the same poem by the English 18th-century poet Thomas Gray. By making this comparison I hope to show that both poets, each in his own way, changed and reinterpreted the Edda in order to make it fit the ideas about the Nordic Sublime prevalent in his own time.
* * *

Let us, however, start with the text of Baldrs draumar itself, a poem that does not appear in the famous Codex Regius manuscript but is nevertheless regarded by most scholars as one of the old heathen lays of the Edda.[10] It is a short mythical poem, mainly in dialogue form, about a meeting in Hel, the world of the dead, between Odin, the god of wisdom, and a völva or sybil, who is able to foretell the future. The poem starts out by describing how Odin travels to Hel under an assumed name, Vegtam or Wayfarer, in order to find out why the best and most beautiful god, Baldr, is troubled by ominous and evil dreams. The road that Odin the Wayfarer has to travel is horrifying and gloomy. With the help of magic runes he wakes up the völva, who is sleeping under the ground, “drenched by hail, driven by storm”, and at first she is very unwilling to speak.[11] At Odin’s persistent prompting, however, she finally reveals that Baldr will die through Loki’s evil manipulations. Her prophecy culminates in the following lines, after she has understood who the Wayfarer really is:

„Ertattu Vegtamr,/ sem ek hugða,
heldr ertu Oðinn,/ aldinn gautr.“

(„Way-Tamer you are not,/ nor are you Strider:
You are Odin the Wily,/ unaging magician.„)

To which Odin answers in a furiously insulting tone, which makes the conclusion of the poem similar to a flyting or senna:

„Ertattu völva,/ né vís kona,
heldr ertu þriggia/ þursa móðir“

(„Witch you are not,/ nor woman either:
Womb of monsters,/ you have mothered three.“)

— a reply suggesting that the völva is in fact the evil giantess Angrboða, Herald of Grief, pictured in Snorri’s Edda as mistress of Loki and mother of the three most terrible monsters of the world: the Fenris Wolf, the Midgard Serpent, and Hel, the goddess of Death. The völva appears to confirm that she is indeed this Herald of Grief when she concludes the dialogue with a terrifying vision of the impending doom at Ragnarök, when all the monsters will break free and destroy the world:

„Heim ríð þú, Óðinn,/ oc ver hróðigr!
Svá komit manna/ meirr aptr á vit,
er lauss Loki/ líðr ór böndom
oc ragna röc/ riúfendr koma.“

(„Go home, Odin:/ air your triumph.
No guest shall again/ my grave visit,
Till wild Loki/ tear loose from his bonds
And the World-Wasters/ on the warpath come.“)

This poem was translated into Latin, on the whole faithfully, by the Danish scholar Thomas Bartholin Junior and included together with the Icelandic original in a learned patriotic work published in 1689 about the contempt for death found among pagan Danes in ancient days. This work was one of the sources for Mallet’s Introduction to the History of Denmark, and it was also consulted by Thomas Gray in England after he had read Mallet’s book and become enthused with Eddic poetry and the idea of the Nordic sublime. In 1761 Gray transcribed Bartholin’s Latin translation of Baldrs draumar plus one line of the Icelandic original in his Commonplace Book as an example of “Gothic” poetry, and a few years later, in 1768, he published his own free English adaptation of the poem, entitled The Descent of Odin — an Ode.[12] It starts out as follows:

Up rose the King of Men with speed,
And saddled straight his coal-black steed;
Down the yawning steep he rode,
That leads to Hela’s drear abode.
Him the dog of darkness spied,
His shaggy throat he opened wide,
While from his jaws, with carnage filled,
Foam and human gore distilled:
Hoarse he bays with hideous din,
Eyes that glow and fangs that grin;
And long pursues with fruitless yell
The father of the powerful spell.[13]

As can easily be seen from this quotation, Gray made no attempt to preserve the metric form of Baldrs draumar, even though he did include some kennings like “King of Men” for Odin and some resounding alliterations like “dog of darkness”, “hoarse he bays with hideous din”, etc. The concise and dense form of the Icelandic verses has been expanded to narrative rhymed couplets, and a lot of descriptive detail has been added, mainly details of a “Gothic” nature. For example, the hound that meets Odin on his way to Hel is presented in a more circumstantial way than in Baldrs draumar, and with much more horrifying details: instead of describing the dog as merely “bloodied” (blóðugr), as the original does, the English translation mentions not only his shaggy throat, glowing eyes and grinning fangs but also his jaws, from which, “with carnage filled,/ Foam and human gore distilled”. Gray is thus emphasizing exactly those features of Baldrs draumar that in his time were considered “sublime”: mythical atmosphere, the wild and ghastly aspects of the subterranean landscape, the colourful and concrete images of death. Like Mallet before him, however, Gray is not particularly interested in the actual versification rules of Old Icelandic poetics — he would perhaps have found them just as pedantic and unnecessary as the versification rules of contemporary French classicism.

The final exchange between Odin and the völva — or “prophetess” as she is called here — is presented with a lot more passionate gusto than in Baldrs draumar and with very un-Norse, somewhat theatrical exclamations, clearly influenced by classical rhetoric:

Pr. „Ha! no Traveller art thou,
King of Men, I know thee now,
Mightiest of a mighty line … “

O. „No boding maid of skill divine
Art thou, nor prophetess of good;
But mother of the giant-brood!“

Pr. „Hie thee hence and boast at home,
That never shall enquirer come
To break my iron-sleep again,
Till Lok has burst his tenfold chain;
Never, till substantial Night
Has reassumed her ancient right,
Till wrapped in flames, in ruin hurled,
Sinks the fabric of the world.“ [14]

Although this conclusion is about twice as long as its equivalent in Baldrs draumar, it nevertheless excludes some important features of the Icelandic original, for example the information that the völva had given birth to three monsters (Hel, the Fenris Wolf, and the Midgard Serpent); such mythological references were evidently considered too difficult and obscure for English readers. Instead Gray has given his poem a more universal and classical touch by organizing the last lines as an intertextual play with rhetorical formulas borrowed from non-Scandinavian poems in the classical 18th-century tradition: “in ruin hurled” is from Pope’s Essay on Man and the sinking “fabric of the world” from Gray’s own translation of Propertius’ Elegies.[15] In spite of such sophisticated winks to the educated reader, The Descent of Odin is a fine example of the “Nordic sublime” as it first appeared to European readers during this initial and “Gothic” stage of the Scandinavian Renaissance.

Let us now turn to Wagner’s free dramatic adaptation of the same poem for the stage in Siegfried, Act III, Scene 1. It is a wild and stormy night with lightning and thunder at the foot of a steeply rising mountain. Wotan, disguised as the Wanderer, appears at the entrance of a cave and conjures up from the hidden depths the sleeping body of the Vala — here also called Erda — and the poetic dialogue between the two then develops along the same general lines as in Baldrs draumar and The Descent of Odin. But in Wagner’s version, it is not the dreams of Baldr that prompt the Wanderer to seek out the Vala but a more general metaphysical anguish for the future of the world at the very moment when his chosen hero, Siegfried, is on his way to the Valkyrie rock where he is destined to meet Brynhilde, thus kindling the passionate flames that will eventually, in Gotterdämmerung, burn the whole world down.

Another and most daring innovation by Wagner is that the Vala is presented as Wotan’s secret mistress and as the mother — not of monsters but of the highest god’s beloved daughter, the wise valkyrie Brynhilde. Wotan’s incantation as he wakes Erda from her sleep has a loving and respectful tone, very different from that of Baldrs draumar:

„Dein Wecklied sing’ ich,
daß du erwachest;
aus sinnendem Schlafe
weck’ ich dick auf.
All wissende!
Erda! Erda!
Ewiges Weib!
Wache, erwache’
du Wala! Erwache!“

(„I sing your waking song
that you may waken;
from brooding sleep
I rouse you up.
Primevally wise!
Erda! Erda!
Eternal woman!
Waken, awaken,
you vala, awaken!“) [16]

From a purely metrical point of view this is obviously much closer to Baldrs draumar than Gray’s version was. At this late Romantic stage of the Scandinavian Renaissance it had become quite common to imitate at least the basic verse forms of the Edda, and Wagner does so fairly consistently throughout the Ring. On the other hand, he uses the language of the Edda to convey a philosophical meaning that is completely alien to Old Icelandic poetry. Erda is not just a völva but the Earth mother or Mother Nature herself, and she is addressed as “Allwissende”, all-knowing, as well as “Urweltweise”, possessing the wisdom of the primeval world. She may thus be seen as an equivalent of Venus Urania in classical mythology and as a mythical symbol of Nature in the particular sense in which it was revered by Romantic philosophy: Nature as the cradle of unconscious but sacred wisdom. As she wakes up she defines her own essence in a series of philosophical paradoxes:

„Mein Schlaf ist Träumen,
mein Träumen Sinnen
mein Sinnen Walten des Wissens.“

(„My sleep is dreaming,
my dreaming brooding,
my brooding the exercise of knowledge.“)

According to the same Romantic philosophy, Wotan the Wanderer is the world spirit, the masculine principle of will and conscious intelligence that will transform nature as the world is gradually approaching its end. For this reason the Wanderer says to Erda at the end of their dialogue:

„Du bist — nicht
was du dich wähn’st!
geht zu Ende:
dein Wissen verweht
vor meinem Willen.“

(„You are not
what you think you are!
The wisdom of primeval mothers
draws towards its end:
your knowledge wanes
before my will.“)

In Wagner’s version the Eddic poem of Baldrs draumar has thus become a rather obscure and abstract philosophical allegory about the relationship between unconscious female Nature and restlessly creative masculine Intellect. It is nevertheless a colourful and highly dramatic scene on the stage, and its philosophical ideas are beautifully expressed in the recurring musical leitmotifs of ‘Erda’, ‘Sleep’, ‘Fate’, ‘Ragnarök’, and ‘Nature’, which are all heard during this encounter between Wotan the Wanderer and the Vala. The scene is meant to be sublime not only as a manifestation of primitive horror and primeval mystery but also as a divine revelation of eternal truth and wisdom.

Wagner’s version of Baldrs draumar may be regarded, I think, as a fairly late but extraordinarily beautiful example of the second, Romantic stage of the Scandinavian Renaissance that started around 1800, influenced or led by writers such as Oehlenschläger and Grundtvig in Denmark, Atterbom and Geijer in Sweden, Schelling, the Schlegel brothers and Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué in Germany. During this stage several attempts were made to interpret Old Icelandic mythology in terms of Romantic philosophy and also to create a new and symbolic language based on the Edda as a Germanic alternative to Christian, Jewish, or Classical mythology.[17] In Scandinavia, the most famous and popular of these attempts was made by Grundtvig, whose theological interpretations of the Edda prevailed in Danish folk high schools for several generations.[18]

But it was Wagner’s version that conquered the stage, and today it is probably the only one that may still appeal to an educated audience outside Iceland or Scandinavia — not so much because of his philosophical ideas but because of his masterly way of combining Icelandic myth with staging and music. In his fantastic adaptation of Baldrs draumar the world may still revel in the mythical excesses of the Scandinavian Renaissance — and perhaps even catch a glimpse of the Nordic Sublime. 


[1] See in particular Anton Blanck, Den ‘nordiska renässansen i sjuttonhundratalets litteratur. En undersökning av den “gotiska” poesiens allmänna och inhemska forutsättningar (Stockholm, 1911); Frank Edgar Farley, Scandinavian Influences in the English Romantic Movement (Boston, 1903); Gunnar Castren, Norden i den franska litteraturen (Helsingfors, 1910); Paul van Tieghem, Le préromatisme (Paris, 1924); Thor J. Beck, Northern Antiquities in French Learning and Literature (1755-1855): A Study in Pre-Romantic Ideas, I—II (New York, 1934); Margaret Omberg, Scandinavian Themes in English Poetry, 1760-1800 (Uppsala, 1976).
[2] Cf. Omberg (1976) and Lars Lönnroth, “Mallet och det nordiska sublima”, Sagnaþing helgað Jónasi Kristjánssyni sjötugum 10. april 1994, ed. Gisli Sigurðsson, Guðrún Kvaran and Sigurgeir Steingrímsson (Reykjavik, 1994) vol. II, pp. 527-537.
[3] See in particular Samuel H. Monk, The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in Eighteenth-Century England (1935, reprinted in Ann Arbor, 1957); Thomas Weiskel: The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence (Baltimore & London, 1976).
[4] Introduction à l’histoire de Dannemarc, où l’on traite de la religion, des loix, des mœurs et des usages des anciens Danois, 1st ed. (Copenhagen, 1755), 2nd ed. (Geneva, 1763).
[5] See Blanck (1911); Hélène Stadler, Paul-Henri Mallet 1730-1807 (Lausanne, 1924); Anne-Mette Kirkeby, “Paul-Henri Mallet og de nordiske myter”, Boger, Biblioteker, Mennesker: Festskrift til Torben Nielsen (Copenhagen, 1988).
[6] Thomas Percy’s translation quoted from Northern Antiquities, I (London, 1770), pp. 393-94; on Percy’s translation, see Margaret Clunies Ross, “Percy and Mallet — The genesis of Northern Antiquities”, in Sagnaþing helgað Jónasi Kristjánssyni sjötugum 10. apríl 1994, ed. Gísli Sigurðsson, Guðrún Kvaran and Sigurgeir Steingrímsson (Reykjavík, 1994) vol. I, pp. 107-118.
[7] See my discussion in Lönnroth (1994).
[8] See in particular Blanck (1911).
[9] These two stages were outlined in Lars Lönnroth, “The Reception of Norse Poetics: An International Research Project”, Snorrastefna 25.-27. júlí 1990, ed. Úlfar Bragason (Rit Stofnunar Sigurðar Nordals 1, Reykjavik, 1992).
[10] It is included, usually as an appendix, in most editions of the Edda, for example in Neckel-Kuhn’s Edda. Die Lieder des Codex Regius nebst verwandten Denkmtilern, 5th ed. (Heidelberg, 1983), the text of which is used here; for references to recent scholarship on this poem, see Joseph Harris, “Eddic Poetry”, Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide, eds. Carol Clover & John Lindow (Ithaca & London, 1985).
[11] Quoted from The Elder Edda: A Selectipn. Trans. from the Icelandic by Paul B. Taylor & W.H. Auden (New York, 19170).
[12] On Gray’s sources see Omberg (1976) and Robert Lonsdale’s notes to The Poems of Thomas Gray, William Collins, Oliver Goldsmith (London, 1969).
[13] Lonsdale (1969), p. 223.
[14] Lonsdale (1969), pp. 227–28.
[15] Lonsdale (1969), p. 228.
[16] Wagner: Siegfried, Act III, Scene 1. Both the German text and the English translation are from Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung: A Companion, translated by Stewart Spencer, commentaries by Barry Millington et al. (London, 1993).
[17] See Lars Lönnroth, “Atterbom och den fornnordiska mytologin”, Kritik och teater. En vänbok till Bertil Nolin (Goteborg, 1992).
[18] Lars Lonnroth, “Frihed for Loke seivel som for Thor”. Den nordiska mytologin som politiskt redskap i grundtvigiansk bonde- och folkhögskolemiljö (Serie om folkekultur 1, Aalborg, 1979); J.P. Ægidius, Bragesnak. Nordiske myter og myteforkelling i dansk tradition, Two Volumes (Odense, 1985, 1992).