Wagner and the Volsungs: Icelandic Sources of Der Ring des Nibelungen

Wagner and the Volsungs: Icelandic Sources of Der Ring des Nibelungen

By Árni Björnsson
2003 | 296 pp. | 978-0-903521-55-0 | Paperback 5.5 x 8.5 in
$24 |

This book is a translation of a revised edition, edited by Anthony Faulkes, of Árni Björnsson's Wagner og Volsungar, published in Icelandic in 2000. In it the sources Wagner used in compiling the libretti of his great work, Der Ring des Nibelungen, are detailed scene by scene through all four operas of the cycle. Many will be surprised to learn than no more than five percent of his material is derived solely from medieval German books such as Das Nibelungenlied, while at least eighty percent is from Old Icelandic writings: the Prose Edda, Eddic poems, and various sagas. The concept of Götterdämmerung, for example, in which the world is consumed by fire, as well as the flickering flame surrounding Brünnhilde's mountain fastness, were known to Wagner from Icelandic sources alone, since they do not appear in any German text, and may well have been inspired originally by the volcanic eruptions that occur so frequently in Iceland. About fifteen percent of Wagner's literary motifs in the Ring are common to both German and Icelandic texts.

The book also contains a brief account of Wagner's life, and tells how he came to know Icelandic literature through the spread of knowledge of Old Icelandic texts in the German-speaking world during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It examines the reasons why Germanic mythology was almost exclusively preserved in Iceland in the Middle Ages, but became so popular in Germany in the nineteenth century and later. The long process of composition of words and music for the Ring cycle is related to details of Wagner's life, and mention is made of the reception of Wagner's works in modern Iceland, when his debt to Icelandic literature was finally repaid.