Wagners Mythologie der Ring

© Copyright Zac Sawyer 2015

Wagner’s Nibelungs

Richard Wagner, in the Ring des Nibelungen, made the Nibelungs particularly his own with his creation of Albricht and Mime, and the vast numbers of enslaved Nibelungs, working away over their anvils in the depth.
The Nibelungs were not, however, Wagner's own creation, and Wagner simply adapted and adopted the dwarf-like creatures for his own purposes.

Albricht, of course starts the whole saga bey stealing the Ring and the Rhine-gold from the Rhine-maidens, after forswearing love.
The plural word Nibelungen (Niflungar) has various meanings in medieval sources.
In the Prose Edda, Niflungar is a name for the Gjúkungar (the sons of Gjúki), Gunnarr and Hƒgni.
In the first part of Das Nibelungenlied they appear as human heroes, living in Nibelunge lant, served by both giants and dwarves.
In Das Lied vom Hürnen Seyfrid, the Nibelungs are dwarves, whose ancestor was called Nibelung.
Wagner appears to adopt this idea, although he also imbues his Nibelungs with various attributes of dark elves and dwarves, as described in the Poetic and Prose Eddas.
Der Nibelungen-Mythus says of the Nibelungs:
'From the womb of the Night and Death was spawned a race that dwells in Nibelheim (Nebelheim), i.e. in gloomy subterranean clefts and caverns: Nibelungen are they called.'
The genitive singular Nibelungen in the title of The Ring refers to Alberich.
Nibelheim or Nebelheim is a nineteenth-century Germanisation of the Icelandic Niflheimr, which often occurs in the Prose Edda,  and is believed to mean ‘world of mists’ or ‘world of darkness’.
Der Nibelungen-Mythus continues:
'With restless nimbleness they burrow through the bowels of the earth, like worms in a dead body; they smelt and smith hard metals."
And in the Prose Edda, dwarves and black elves down in the earth are often said to own precious metals, and to be unusually skillful smiths.
They were commissioned, for instance, to make various magical items for the gods.
The vast wealth of the Burgundians is often referred to as the Niblung or Niflung hoard.
In some German texts Nibelung appears instead as one of the supposed original owners of that hoard, either the name of one of the kings of a people known as the Nibelungs, or — in variant form Nybling — as the name of a dwarf.
In  Wagner's  Der Ring des Nibelungen, Nibelung denotes a dwarf, or perhaps a specific race of dwarves.
The earliest probable surviving mention of the name is in the Latin poem Waltharius, believed to have been composed around the year 920.
In lines 555–6 of that poem Walter, seeing Guntharius (Gunther) and his men approaching says (in the Chronicon Novaliciense text, usually taken to be the oldest):
"Non assunt Avares hic, sed Franci Nivilones, cultores regionis."
The translation is:
"These are not Avars, but Frankish Nivilons, inhabitants of the region." 
The other texts have nebulones 'worthless fellows' instead of nivilones, a reasonable replacement for an obscure proper name. In medieval Latin names, b and v often interchange, so Nivilones is a reasonable Latinization of Germanic Nibilungos.
This is the only text to connect the Nibelungs with Franks.
Since Burgundy was conquered by the Franks in 534, Burgundians could loosely be considered Franks of a kind and confused with them.
The name Nibelunc became a Frankish personal name in the 8th and 9th centuries, at least among the descendants of Childebrand I (who died in 752, see Dronke, p. 37).
Yet, in this poem, the center of Gunther's supposedly Frankish kingdom is the city of Worms on the Rhine.
In the Eddic poems the word Niflungar is applied three times to the treasure (arfr) or hoard (hodd) of Gunnar (the Norse counterpart of German Gunther).
It is also applied once to Gunnar's warriors and once to Gunnar himself. It elsewhere appears unambiguously as the name of the lineage to which the brothers Gunnar and Högni (Hogni) belong and seems mostly interchangeable with Gjúkingar or Gjúkungar, meaning descendants of Gjúki, Gjúki being Gunnar's father.
The variant form Hniflungr also occurs as the name of Högni's son in the eddic poem Atlamál, and as a term for the children born by Gunnar's sister Gudrún (Guðrún) to Atli (Attila the Hun).
It appears to be a general term for "warrior" in Helgakviða Hundingsbana I.
Hniflungar might be of separate origin, meaning descendants of Hnef, referring to the Hnæf son of Hoc who is prominent in the Old English Finnesburg Fragment.
However h was early dropped initially before other consonants in Norwegian dialects which might lead to the adding of h to names in other dialects where it did not originally belong.

Wagner, the Eddas and the Mythology of the 'Ring'

One of the most important publishers of Nordic writings in German was his friend Ludwig Ettmüller, whom Wagner called ‘Edda-Müller’.
In 1830 he published Voluspá with a glossary, and later, in 1837, his own translation of Die Lieder der Edda von den Nibelungen (including most of the heroic poems of the Poetic Edda).
In 1851, the publication of Karl Simrock’s translation of the Poetic Edda and the greater part of the Prose Edda marked a milestone.
Wagner therefore had plenty of material to choose from when he entered this field in about the middle of the nineteenth century.
At this time Wagner owned four editions of Das Nibelungenlied, and during the years 1844–48 he borrowed many books on the subject from the Royal Library in Dresden.
Yet he frankly says in Eine Mitteilung an meine Freunde (A Communication to my Friends) in the summer of 1851 that he has never been able to see how to create an opera about Siegfried on the basis of Das Nibelungenlied:
'To all our wishes and warm impulses, which in truth transport us to the Future, we seek to give a physical token by means of pictures from the Past, and thus to win for them a form the modern Present never can provide.
In the struggle to give the wishes of my heart artistic shape, and in the ardour to discover what thing it was that drew me so resistlessly to the primal source of old home Sagas, I drove step by step into the deeper regions of antiquity, where at last to my delight, and truly in the utmost reaches of old time, I was to light upon the fair young form of Man, in all the freshness of his force.
My studies thus bore me, through the legends of the Middle Ages, right down to their foundation in the old-Germanic Mythos; one swathing after another, which the later legendary lore had bound around it, I was able to unloose, and thus at last to gaze upon it in its chastest beauty.
What here I saw, was no longer the figure of conventional history, whose garment claims our interest more than does the actual shape inside; but the real naked man, in whom I might spy each throbbing of his pulses, each stir within his mighty muscles, in uncramped, freest motion: the type of the true human being.
Although the splendid type of Siegfried had long attracted me, it first enthralled my every thought when I had come to see it in its purest human shape, set free from every later wrapping.
Now for the first time, also, did I recognize the possibility of making him the hero of a drama; a possibility that had not occurred to me while I only knew him from the medieval Nibelungenlied.'

Wagner, admittedly, does not here state unequivocally what the ‘primal source’ and ‘old-Germanic Mythos’ are.
But he can hardly be meaning anything other in this connection than Icelandic sagas and poems.
He had quite simply nothing else to choose from
 Moreover, the Danish composer Niels W. Gade recalled in his old age that in April 1846 he had met Wagner, who was conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Dresden.
Wagner said to Gade:
‘I must study these Old Norse eddic poems of yours; they are far more profound than our medieval poems’.
In his autobiography Wagner also states directly that his reading of Franz Joseph Mone’s bold studies of German heroic stories led him to turn his attention to other ‘German’ heroic legends than those about the Nibelungs and German re-tellings of heroic stories (Mein Leben):
'I became especially attracted to the unusually rich pages of Mone’s investigations of these heroic legends, even though stricter scholars have criticized them as overly audacious. This drew me irresistibly to the Nordic sources of these myths, and to the extent that it was possible without fluent knowledge of the Scandinavian languages, I now tried to get to know the Eddas, as well as the prose fragments comprising the basis for large parts of these legends. Viewed in the light of Mone’s comments, the Wälsunga saga exerted a decisive influence on the manner in which I began to form this material to my own purposes. The consciousness of the close primeval kinship of these old myths, which had been shaping within me for some time, thus gradually gained the power to create the dramatic forms which governed my subsequent works.'
It is clear that the verse-form of eddic poems and the setting of the Volsung Saga had appealed to Wagner, and that he felt that these works bore witness to a more fundamental stage of culture than Das Nibelungenlied and other medieval German poems.
The characters and their qualities, as well as many aspects of the stories, certainly differ considerably from what one finds in Das Nibelungenlied.
Wagner says that he read these works during the period 1847 to 1848, at the same time as he was working on the music for Lohengrin, which he completed in April 1848.
The theatre-goer Eduard Devrient noted in his diary on 1 April 1848 that Wagner had walked with him in the Grosser Garten in Dresden, and told him of a new idea for an opera based on the story of Siegfried and the Nibelungs.
Wagner started on the libretto of the Ring in the autumn of 1848, constructing his own myth under the influence of the various ancient writings he had read.
The first outline,which he completed on 4 October, is only about eight pages long, and yet it actually contains the framework for the whole of Der Ring des Nibelungen.
At this period, however, Wagner had only one opera in mind, Siegfrieds Tod (The Death of Siegfried), which would later become Götterdämmerung.
Der Nibelungen-Mythus was thus at this stage just the backcloth for this eventual opera.
Only two weeks later, on 20 October, he completed the first prose draft of a libretto for Siegfrieds Tod, and shortly afterwards an outline for the scene with the Norns intended for the opening of the same opera.
After this the libretto was shelved for two and a half years.
At this time Wagner was forced to flee the country because of his part in the Dresden uprising in the spring of 1849, and settled in Switzerland.
In the spring of 1851, however, he returned to the Siegfried material.
The most likely incentive for this seems to be the publication at the end of February of Karl Simrock’s new translation of almost all the Eddic poems, and most of the narratives of the Prose Edda
This gave Wagner an excellent overview of the Eddas and Norse mythology.
Before long he realised that it would be necessary to compose another opera, on Siegfried’s youth, in order to explain better what led up to the hero’s death.
His friend Eduard Devrient had in fact already pointed this out to him in the winter of 1848–49.
So in May 1851 Wagner wrote two versions in prose for Der Junge Siegfried (The Young Siegfried), and finally one in verse in June.
This was to be a comic opera, and a deliberate contrast to what followed.
In the autumn of 1851 Wagner came to the conclusion that two further operas would be required in order to accommodate all the material he wanted to include.
He mentions this in letters to Theodor Uhlig on 12 October and 11–12 November, and to Franz Liszt on 20 November, 1851.
So from early November 1851 to late May 1852, he was compiling the libretto for Das Rheingold and Die Walküre.
Wagner published fifty copies of the entire libretto in February 1853, and presented them to friends and relatives.
Ten years later, in 1863, it was published on a commercial scale, with the revisions he had made up to that time.
Wagner wrote the librettos of the four parts of the Ring in reverse order, starting with the last.
After this he began to compose the music, starting now at the beginning of the story.
Between November 1853 and August 1857 he completed the music for Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, and began work on Siegfried.
After this he put the opera cycle aside for seven years while he composed Tristan and Isolde and The Mastersingers.
He then completed Siegfried in 1864–71 and Götterdämmerung in 1869–74.

The Eddas and the Volsung Saga

The writings that Wagner made most use of, directly or indirectly, in writing Der Ring des Nibelungen, are the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, and the Volsung Saga, along with a few details from Heimskringla, Egils saga and Gísla saga.
The Prose Edda was, as early as 1300, attributed to Snorri Sturluson, who probably compiled it at his home in Reykholt between about 1220 and 1230.
The meaning of the word Edda is not entirely clear; it can, for instance, mean great-grandmother.
But as the title of a book it probably means ‘poetics’, and the Prose Edda is essentially a handbook for poets.
In order to understand the ancient poetic language, however, it was necessary to know something of various ancient myths of gods and heroes, and so the Prose Edda has often been seen as a guide to Nordic mythology.
Versions of the book survive in three vellum manuscripts, and a number of vellum fragments from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
A paper copy of a lost vellum manuscript, from around 1595, is preserved in Utrecht, Holland.
Since it was first compiled, additions to and adaptations of the original text have often been made, and the Prose Edda was first published, based on a much altered seventeenth-century version with Latin and Danish translations, in Copenhagen in 1665.
The Poetic Edda is a collection of mythological and heroic poems.
The oldest extant manuscript, which dates from about 1270, contains about 30 poems.
This came into the possession of Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson in 1643.
The bishop believed that the collection was the work of the eleventh-century scholar Sæmundr the Wise, and so he called it ‘Sæmundr’s Edda,’ just as the Prose Edda is known as ‘Snorri’s Edda’. Although this was a misunderstanding, the name ‘Sæmundr’s Edda’ has continued to be used.
In 1662 Bishop Brynjólfur gave the book to the king of Denmark, since when it has been known as the Codex Regius of the Eddic Poems or Konungsbók eddukvæ›a (the king’s book of eddic poems).
Some of the poems in it are found in other medieval books and fragments, and further comparable poems of rather later date are preserved in various other manuscripts, so that the Eddic poems in all may be said to total about 1600 stanzas.
The poems are probably of varied date, and are likely to have evolved gradually in oral tradition.
The oldest of them may date back to long before the settlement of Iceland.
Voluspá (The Seeress’s Prophecy) and Hávamál (Words of the High One) were published with Latin translations in Copenhagen in 1665; the first volume of a complete edition of eddic poems was published by the Árni Magnússon Foundation in Copenhagen in 1787 and the second in 1818, but this work was not completed until 1828, when the third and final volume appeared, and the first complete text was that edited by Rasmus Rask in 1818.
The Volsunga saga is one of the so-called Heroic Sagas (fornaldarsögur, ‘sagas of ancient time’), which are set in prehistoric times outside Iceland. Its historical background in general is the period of migrations in Europe, that is the fourth to sixth centuries, and the story reflects warfare between Burgundians, Huns and Goths.
The god and goddess, Ódinn and Frigg, also appear at the beginning of the saga.
The Volsung Saga was largely written on the basis of the heroic poems of the Edda, probably in the late thirteenth century.
It also contains material from poems which have not been preserved in the actual Edda manuscript. The oldest extant manuscript of the Volsunga saga dates from about 1400.
Many names in Wagners Ring Des Nibelungen are drawn from Das Nibelungenlied (using Modern German, not Middle High German spellings), though they are also found in Old Icelandic texts, generally in a rather different form, or in another role, such as Alberich (Álfrekr), Brünnhilde (Brynhildr), Gunther (Gunnarr), Hagen (Hƒgni), Siegfried (Sigurðr), Sieglinde (Sigrlinn), Siegmund (Sigmundr).
In many cases, however, Wagner’s knowledge of Norse texts was via secondary sources, such as books by the German scholars and writers Jakob Grimm, Karl Simrock and Fouqué.
He made copious use of Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie, whence he derived most of his mythological name-forms.
Eventually, however, Wagner altered many of the names to his own taste, in order to give them added significance, meaning in German, in accordance with Grimm’s understanding of them.
Wodan (Ódinn) thus became Wotan (cf. Wut, fury, wildness), Fro (Freyr) became Froh (joyful) and Donar became Donner (thunder).
Gunther’s sister was by Grimm named Gudrun, but Wagner changed this to Gutrune, to signify ‘good rune(s)’ in German.
The name is still, however, clearly derived from the Gudrún of the Norse texts, while Kudrun was the heroine of a medieval German poem of the same name, though the subject is very different.
Wagner, naturally enough, also sought to use name-forms that were easily pronounced by German speakers and singers.
At any rate, Wagner was clearly of the same view as the brothers Grimm and many others, that the culture of northwest Europe was essentially ‘German’ or Germanic, and so he probably felt that it was unnecessary to specify in which country or region a story originated.
Wagner, of course, was less interested in history as such than in myth, which he regarded as transcending time and place.

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