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The Poetic Edda and Wagner’s Ring Cycle

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By Carolyne Larrington

 

Heil dir, Sonne                             Hail, sun!
Heil dir, Licht!                              hail, light!
Heil dir, leuchtender Tag!       hail, radiant day!
Lang war mein Schlaf;              Long was my sleep;
ich bin erwacht.                          I am awakened.
Wer ist der Held,                        Who is the hero
der mich erweckt?                    who awakened me?       Siegfried, Act III, sc. 3.

At the climax of Siegfried, an astonishing emotional and dramatic climax within the Ring, Brünnhilde at last awakens from her enchanted sleep. Her ecstatic song quotes directly from the Poetic Edda, combining lines from the first three stanzas of the Old Norse poem Sigrdrífumál (The Lay of Sigrdrifa).

Heill dagr, heilir dags synir,                            Hail to the day! Hail to the sons of day!
heil nótt oc nipt! …                                               hail to night and her kin! …
Lengi ec svaf, lengi ec sofnuð var, …            Long I slept, long was I sleeping …
hverr feldi af mér fölvar nauðir?                   Who has lifted from me my pallid coercion?

Wagner saw that the simplicity and intensity of the poem’s language at this transcendent moment could not be improved upon. Brünnhilde awakes to her hero, the man who knows no fear, to a new world in which — deprived of her divinity — a new human existence of love and glory seems possible for her and for Siegfried.

Brünnhilde awakens
Brünnhilde awakens

In his masterpiece, Wagner synthesised stories from across the Old Norse-Icelandic collection of poems known as the Poetic Edda. He had long been mulling over an opera based on the German epic, Das Nibelungenlied, but he realised that he needed more material and more inspiration. Wagner knew where he might find it: “I must study these Old Norse eddic poems of yours; they are far more profound than our medieval poems,” he remarked to the Danish composer Niels Gade in 1846. In 1851, when he got his hands on Karl Simrock’s edition of the Poetic Edda, Wagner finally saw how to develop his ideas about the death of Siegfried into a cycle and he also discovered the rhythms of traditional Germanic alliterative verse which he would use for his libretto.

The first poem of the Edda, “The Seeress’s Prophecy” selectively narrates the history of the universe, from Creation, when the world rises up out of the sea, to Ragna rök or Götterdämmerung, when the world ends in ice and fire. Wagner starts his opera about halfway through “The Seeress’s Prophecy”, where the Seeress allusively notes how moral corruption comes among the gods when they betray the giant who rebuilt the walls of Asgard for them. Interwoven in Das Rheingold with the gods’ bad faith is the tale of the Rheingold from the later heroic poems: the cursed treasure-hoard which brings strife in its wake, epitomised by the ring Andvari’s Jewel.

Wagner used a prose retelling of the heroic legends associated with Sigmund for Die Walküre, themes known to the poets of the Edda, but not recounted by them. Siegfried takes up the Edda once again with the troubled relationship of the young hero and Mime (Regin in Norse), the dragon fight, and the meeting with the valkyrie. In the Edda, Sigurd learns wisdom from the valkyrie: how to use runic magic for healing and protection, to ensure a calm sea, and to make fetters fall from the feet. The deliriously joyful union of hero and valkyrie is lost in a gap in the manuscript. When the story resumes, we are already deep into the betrayal and heartbreak caused by Sigurd’s forgetfulness — thanks to the magic potion given him at his in-law’s court — and the destruction of that sublime love through the hero’s innocence and Brynhild’s vengefulness.

Brünnhilde on the horse Grane rides onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre.
Brünnhilde on the horse Grane rides onto Siegfried’s funeral pyre.

Wagner follows German tradition for Siegfried’s death: stabbed in the back beside the Rhine, his one vulnerable spot revealed by Brünnhilde. The Poetic Edda gives fuller weight to the feelings of Sigurd’s wife. The two queens quarrel and Gudrun flaunts her knowledge of the truth: it was Sigurd who crossed the flame-wall to claim Brynhild for Gunnar. Wagner understood how the story of Siegfried and Brünnhilde must end, in immolation and the destruction of the compromised order of the gods. The world ends in fire as the waters rise and the Rhine overflows. When the ring returns to the Rhinemaidens, the circle is completed, ready — as the “Seeress’s Prophecy” suggests — for rebirth.

It’s 200 years since Wagner’s birth, 137 years since the Ring Cycle was performed for the first time in Bayreuth and shortly afterwards in London. More than any other artist before or since, Wagner saw to the heart of eddic themes, saw the inevitable compromises and double-dealing that divinity must make to accommodate desire and law. He saw how passion transfigures and destroys, how treasure and the torsions of power eat into the soul and bring tragedy to birth. He ended his cycle with Ragna rök and the deaths of his protagonists; he did not wish to follow Gudrun through the terrible cycles of marriage and vengeance that follow the loss of her first husband. The Poetic Edda manuscript ends with the last stand of Gudrun’s only remaining sons, sword in hands perched on the corpses of the slain like eagles on a bough. They die avenging Sigurd’s daughter Svanhildr, whose white-gold hair was, on her husband’s orders, trampled into the mud by wild horses.

Josef Hoffmann, 1876, closing scene of Das Rheingold. The gods make ready to enter Walhall
In this anniversary year, Wagner’s music is played, staged and celebrated. Wagner’s understanding of the mythic and the heroic, of the timeless patterns in human existence, sharply delineated in the powerful lines of the poems which inspired him, invites a re-reading of the Poetic Edda, not only to admire how Wagner adapted what he found there, but to step out across Bifröst, the rainbow bridge that leads to Valhalla, and to immerse ourselves in the stark, uncompromising, yet glorious, imaginative universe where the gods, giants, and heroes walk.

Carolyne Larrington is Supernumerary Fellow and Tutor in medieval English Literature at St John’s College, Oxford. She has published extensively on Old Norse mythological and heroic poetry. Her translation of The Poetic Edda is available from Oxford World’s Classics.

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Image credits: (1) Brünnhilde wakes up and greets the day and Siegfried [public domain]. By Arthur Rackham, via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Brünnhilde on Grane leaps onto the funeral pyre of Siegfried [public domain]. By Arthur Rackham, via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Outside the Hall of the Gibichungs [public domain]. By Josef Hoffmann, via Wikimedia Commons.

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