Wednesday 24 July 2019

Der Nibelungen auf Bühne und Bildschirm

Every culture has its own great, foundational myths. For Japan, one is the story of the Chūshingura, the 47 Ronin. Among the Nitsitapii (Blackfoot) Indigenous peoples of North America it is the stories of Napi and Morningstar. In England it is King Arthur and Robin Hood. The United States is in a unique position of rising in historical times and therefore mythologizing its own history... They are great mythmakers of the American Revolution and the Alamo. For German-speaking peoples, that story is ostensibly the legend of Siegfried and the Nibelungen.

Such a durable myth stands interpretation and reinterpretation and adaptation over the centuries. Its original forms are lost in antiquity but its earliest complete form is found in the Nibelungenlied. Written around 1200 CE, its first half outlines the rise and fall of the hero Siegfried, a nobleman and wandering warrior who conquered the northern kingdom of the Nibelung. His voyages bring him to the Burgundian kingdom on the Rhine, where he desires to woo the Burgundian princess Kriemhild. Unfortunately, her brother King Gunther seizes the opportunity to employ Siegfried's prodigious strength (and cloak of invisibility) to help him subdue Brünhilde, the warrior-queen of Iceland. They succeed, but in so doing lay down the groundwork of their own destruction. A spat between Brünhilde and Kriemhild results in the latter exposing her husband's role in Brünhilde's humiliation. This leads to a conspiracy among the Burgundians to murder Siegfried. The second half picks up after the hero's death, when Kriemhild's second marriage to King Etzel of Hungary gives her the opportunity to exact a revenge on her family that ferociously swallows up the Burgundians, the Nibelung, Hungary, and herself.

Kriemhild meets Siegfried.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911).

Altogether, the Nibelungenlied is a fairly straightforward Mediaeval epic with few fantastic elements. During his wanderings, Siegfried is said to have killed a dragon and bathed in his blood, making him invulnerable save for one spot covered by a leaf. That and his cloak of invisibility are about all that transgress historical credulity. Otherwise, the Nibelung legend is rooted in actual history. The Burgundian kingdom on the Rhine was destroyed in 437 CE under the rule of King Gundaharius, through it was destroyed at the hands of a Roman general. King Etzel is a reference to Attila the Hun (d.453 CE) and a Mediaeval belief that Hungary was connected with the Huns. About 80 years after the fact, a story developed that Attila was killed by his Germanic wife Hildico.

Nor was Kriemhild's blood revenge purely drawn from imagination. Consider Olga of Kiev, whose husband King Igor was killed by the neighbouring Drevlian kingdom in 945 CE. When Drevlian emissaries arrived by boat to announce that Igor had been killed and offered for Olga to marry their own Prince Mal, she had the people of Kiev carry the boat with its passengers to a trench where the Drevlians were buried alive. She then summoned Drevlian dignitaries (who did not know about what happened to the first party) to come and escort her to their kingdom. Those she locked in a bath house and burned alive. She then went to the Drevlians asking to hold a funeral feast at the grave of her husband. They obliged, and while they were drunk on mead, she had her people slaughter them. Only then did she gather her army together to wage outright war on the Drevlians. City after city fell until they reached modern Korosten, where Igor had been killed. They refused to surrender, mainly out of fear that she was still out for revenge. Olga replied that the prior slaughters had satiated her need for revenge, and that all she would take for tribute was three pigeons and three sparrows from each house in the city. The gift was granted... Sulphur-infused cloth was tied to each bird, they were lit on fire, and freed to return home. The entire city ignited and the citizens were killed as they fled the inferno. Olga's story is not the only one of vengeful and powerful Mediaeval women.

This is all in contrast to Das Lied vom Hürnen Seyfrid, another Mediaeval ballad that emphasizes Siegfried as a dragon-killer (dispatching multiple beasts including one that has kidnapped Kriemhild) and winner of the treasure of the Nibelung dwarves. The aftermath is found in the poem Kriemhild's Wedding.

Siegfried slays Fafner the Dragon.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911)

The poem was well-received upon its completion in the Middle Ages, though audiences of the time were more interested in the historical and courtly aspects of Kriemhild's revenge than upon the heroic deeds of Siegfried. The compelling questions were on the guilt of both Kriemhild and Siegfried's murderer Hagen, and knightly deportment under such horrific circumstances. Sadly, the Nibelungenlied was largely forgotten as Europe declined into the Enlightenment. Into the late 18th and early 19th centuries, however, a new movement of Romanticism took hold hand-in-hand with the creation of the modern Nation-State. Romantic Nationalism sought to unite peoples of shared language and culture into collective political bodies where previously they had identified with diverse kingdoms, fiefdoms, clans, and city-states. The Nibelungenlied was rediscovered as a uniting foundational myth of the Germanic peoples.

It was into this environment that composer Richard Wagner developed Der Ring des Nibelungen. Over the course of the 20 years, from the late 1840's through its premiere in 1870, he drafted an epic four-part opera whose completion coincided with the creation of the German Empire in 1871. His initial impetus may have been furnished by a series of articles in Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a German music magazine explicitly prompting composers to develop a "national opera" inspired by the Nibelungenlied. Felix Mendelssohn was known to be working on a Nibelung opera at the same time. But it was Wagner's magnificent opera that succeeded to become a classic and furnished one of the world's most recognizable pieces of music.

Wagner's original composition was for an opera called Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried's Death) on the hero's demise. He realized that for it to make the most sense, he needed a prequel opera he called Der Junge Siegfried (The Young Siegfried) about his rise to power. By October 1851, the project had escalated to four parts: Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Der Junge Siegfried and Siegfrieds Tod. The latter two were renamed Siegfried and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) respectively. The operas were written in reverse order, beginning with Siegfrieds Tod and ending with Das Rheingold, but the first to be performed (over Wagner's objections) were Das Rheingold and Die Walküre by command of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Ludwig, the melancholic Romantic king who built Neuschwanstein, was Wagner's royal patron and what the royal patron wants, the royal patron gets.

Proper performance of the entire cycle did not occur until 1876, after Wagner had completed his custom opera house in Bayreuth, Bavaria. The Bayreuth Festspielhaus still holds an annual festival during which the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen is performed multiple times. A full Ring Cycle runs for four evenings and in excess of 15 hours, being a very ambitious commitment of time, energy, and money for both the production companies and the viewer. Much like with Shakespeare, many companies seek to overwrite themselves on Wagner's work by modernizing the content and setting. The 2013 Bayreuth staging by Frank Castorf set it to modern political intrigues over oil, and was met with resounding boos on its premiere. Nevertheless, it takes the average plebeian approximately ten years of waiting in queue to finally get tickets to the Bayreuth Festival.

The Ring Cycle begins with Das Rheingold and the Nibelung dwarf Alberich attempting to woo the mermaid-like Rhinemaidens frolicing in Germany's great river. After being toyed with by them for some time, because he is such a loathsome and ugly thing, he learns of the magical Rhinegold they are protecting. The Rhinegold carries with it the power to be fashioned into a ring that can make slaves of the world, but a terrible cost must be paid to obtain it. The one who would take the Rhinegold must forsake love.

Alberich, teased by the Rhinemaidens, reaches for the Rhinegold.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911).  

The scene changes to Walhall and a panicked Fricka. Wotan has traded the hand of her sister Freia, goddess of youth and beauty, to the giants Fasolt and Fafner in exchange for their labour in building the mighty halls of his citadel. Though Wotan tries to wriggle out of the deal, he is bound by the fact that his power derives from the treaties inscribed on his staff broken from the Weltesche, the World Ash-Tree. To break his own treaties is to destroy his own might. At the prompting of Loge, demigod of fire and trickery, the giants agree that only one substitute would suffice: the hoard of treasure that Alberich has acquired by enslaving the Nibelung with the Ring.

Alberich lords over the Nibelung.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911)

When Loge and Wotan succeed in tricking the Ring and the treasure from Alberich, the dwarf pronounces a terrible curse upon it. The Ring creates a hunger for power, and whoever has possessed it shall forever want to keep it. If it is lost, they shall forever seek it and they shall resort to any means to obtain it. No sooner does he say this than it is proven... Wotan very reluctantly surrenders the ring to Fasolt and Fafner, the latter murdering his brother to become the sole lord of the Ring. The deal engraved on Wotan's spear is complete, but despite the warnings of wise Erda the goddess of the Earth and above the laments of the Rhinemaidens, the king of the gods is now consumed with plots to regain the one Ring with which to rule the world. 

The Rhinemaidens lament.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911).

One can see that Wagner has gone far afield of the original Mediaeval Nibelungenlied. For Das Rheingold, Wagner drew most of his inspiration from the Scandinavian Eddas with their stories of Odin, Thor, and the Norse pantheon. The Eddas also record traditions about Siegfried (Sigurd in the Eddas), the slaying of Fafner (Fafnir), and the conflict between Kriemhild (Gudrun) and Brünhilde from which Wagner would derive parts of his reinterpretation. In Wagner's hands, multiple Mediaeval sources of mythology become a single rich text on the inverse relationship between love and power. More specifically, the kind of native relational power exercised in love, loyalty, fidelity, and trust as opposed to the kind of authoritarian, hierarchical power imposed from without. Wotan's power derives from the treaties which also bind him in relationship, and once he obtains a throne and a castle he finds himself wanting the authoritarian, hierarchical power symbolized in the Ring. Alberich sacrificed love to obtain this power, but with it only becomes a petty dictator of the subterranean Nibelung. Eventually he loses even that much as those more powerful than him come to take it from him. That kind of power sows the seeds of its own destruction.   

Wagner's next opera, Die Walküre, derives its inspiration from the Völsungsaga. This Icelandic legend contains yet another variation on the story of Siegfried and Brünhilde, as well as Siegfried's ancestry. In Die Walküre we are introduced to Siegmund, a beleaguered wayfarer on the run from a band of nobles he fought with in an attempt to rescue a girl from a forced marriage. Homeless, wounded, weaponless, devoid of a family or a people, he finds his way into the home of Sieglinde, wife of Hunding, beneath a great ash-tree. She cares for the stranger and, in the process, the two become entranced. Hunding returns home and they discover that he is one of the nobles hunting for Siegmund. Showing proper hospitality, Hundig allows Siegmund to stay the night before threatening to slay him in the morning.

Sieglinde nurses Siegmund.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911).

In the terrifying evening that ensues, Sieglinde puts Hundig to sleep with a potion and relates her story to Siegmund. As a child she was kidnapped from her mother and twin brother, and as a woman forced into this marriage with Hunding. On her wedding night, a mysterious one-eyed wanderer came and thrust a sword into the trunk of the ash-tree which none but her rescuer will be able to remove. Siegmund tells the story of how he came home one awful day to find his mother killed, his home burned, and his twin sister kidnapped. They realize that they are the estranged twins and that Siegmund is her rescuer.

Siegmund draws Nothung, the sword, from the ash-tree.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911).
Exactly none of this goes over well with Fricka, goddess of marriage. The idea of a pair of adulterously incestuous twins plotting to murder the husband sends her enraged to Wotan. It turns out that the twins are, in fact, Wotan's own children. Furthermore, there is a long game that Wotan is playing with them. Wotan needs a free, independent agent to slay Fafner and return the Ring to him. Only in that way could he regain the Ring's power without violating his deal with the giants. Thus he sired the Wälsungs as a free race to do the work for him. Fricka calls this out a load of crap: Wotan sired them and has helped them at every stage, including providing the magical sword Nothung for Siegmund. Despondent, Wotan orders his daughter, the Valkyrie Brünhilde, not to help Siegmund in his upcoming battle with Hunding. Siegmund must die to appease Fricka.

Brünhilde, the Valkyrie.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911).

In defiance of Wotan's command, but in deference to his actual wishes, Brünhilde helps Siegmund in the battle. Eventually Wotan is forced to intervene, breaking Nothung and allowing Hunding to kill him. Brünhilde gathers Sieglinde and the fragments of the sword, and then flees Wotan's wrath. Thus we get to the most popular single piece of Der Ring des Nibelungen, The Flight of the Valkyries. The other Valkyries do a pitiful job of trying to hide Brünhilde and Sieglinde from Wotan, their father. It only works long enough for Sieglinde to escape with the shattered pieces of Nothung. As punishment, Brünhilde is put into a timeless slumber from which she may only be awakened by a great, fearless hero who braves the fires that Loge surrounds her body with. But there is hope, for within Sieglinde's womb lies Siegfried, child of Siegmund, who will grow into that hero.

Brünhilde sleeps.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911)
Siegfried, the third opera of the Ring Cycle, sees a grown hero contemptuous of Mime, the Nibelung dwarf who has raised him. The Nibelung are a poor race despised by all, even those closest to them and even by each other. Mime is a talented smith who created the Tarnhelm for his brother Alberich while the Nibelung were enslaved by the Ring. The Tarnhelm is a magical diadem which can make a person invisible or disguise them as anyone. It was also taken by Wotan and Loge with the Nibelung hoard, which now lies in possession of Fafner. In fact, the giant has used the Tarnhelm to transform himself into a ferocious dragon squatting sulphurously atop his pile of gold.

Fafner the Dragon.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911).

Years ago, Mime found the fleeing Sieglinde alone in the forest and pledged to raise her child as his own. In reality, Mime saw the opportunity to rear a hero who could slay Fafner and gain him the Ring. Unfortunately there was no weapon he could make that was strong enough to withstand the might behind the boy's arm. Finally he tells this story to Siegfried and presents him with the pieces of Nothung, which Siegfried promptly reforges into a capable sword. As Siegfried prepares to abandon his foster father - for there is nothing more he can learn from the conniving dwarf - Mime says there is but one last lesson. Siegfried has not yet learned what "fear" is. Off they go to Fafner, who Mime insists will teach him fear. It doesn't work.

Siegfried tastes the blood of the slain Fafner.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911)

Siegfried lays claim to the Ring and the Tarnhelm, though he is ignorant of their uses. He also tastes the blood of the dragon after it spurts out and burns his hands. The blood conveys the power to sense the meaning behind words... With it he can understand the birds of the forest and hears Mime's secret intentions to kill him to gain the Ring. After dispatching his foster father, Siegfried follows the bird's advice to seek a sleeping woman surrounded by fire. Fearless of the flame, only one obstacle blocks Siegfried's path: Wotan. He has already resigned himself to the fact that Siegfried and Brünhilde are free of the gods, free to forge their own destinies through love of each other. Though the gods have worked, it is man who shall inherit. One last thing remains. Standing as Brünhilde's defender, Wotan goads Siegfried on to use Nothung to break his spear and Wotan's power in the process. The twilight of the gods is at hand as Siegfried ascends the rock, kisses Brünhilde awake, and they proclaim their love to each other.

Siegfried is captivated by the sleeping Brünhilde.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911). 

Finally we get to the fourth opera, Götterdämmerung, and the part ostensibly based on Die Nibelungenlied. A prelude sets the tragic inevitability of what is to follow: the Norns (the Teutonic version of the Fates) spin their string of destiny around melancholy Wotan, enthroned in Walhall, who has ordered the felling of the World Ash-Tree. Its dry, dessicated branches are piled up around Walhall as a funeral pyre, awaiting the final spark to ignite them. Then the string snaps on the jagged rock of the Ring. The Ring, the pursuit of the Ring, has frayed and broken the string of fate. The natural order is ripped asunder. They cannot see what is to happen.

The Norns.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911)

The action shifts to the kingdom of the Gibichungs ruled by King Gunther, his sister Gutrune (in place of Kriemhild), and their half-brother Hagen. Like Wotan, Alberich has also been busy creating heirs for himself who may be able to fulfill his will. Using his remaining treasure he paid off the mother of Gunther and Gutrune to provide him with a child who could eventually reclaim the Ring. Now is his opportunity, as wandering Siegfried ends up in their kingdom. Hagen hatches his plot. In Siegfried lies the solution to two problems, namely, Gutrune's lack of a husband and Gunther's desire to win Brünhilde, who still resides on her rock surrounded by flame. To Gutrune, Hagen gives a love potion that causes Siegfried to forget Brünhilde. The hero's desire for Gutrune's hand gives Gunther the leverage he needs to compel Siegfried to use the Tarnhelm, masquerade as Gunther, pass through the flames that encircle her and subdue Brünhilde. Siegfried gladly does so, in the process stealing back the Ring he gave to Brünhilde as a conjugal gift.

Brünhilde kisses the Ring that Siegfried gave her.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911).

One can imagine how well it goes over when shamed Brünhilde, wife of Gunther, sees the ring on Siegfried's finger and Siegfried in the arms of another woman. Siegfried is compelled to swear on Hagen's spear that he did not do the deed of which he is accused, which puts Hagen in exactly the position he wants. When the men go out for a hunt, Hagen slips Siegfried an herb that restores his memory, timed just so that Siegfried incriminates himself with admissions of love for Brünhilde. Hagen and his spear leap to action to avenge the wrong Siegfried unwittingly perpetrated. When the deceased Siegfried is brought back, Brünhilde orders a grand funeral pyre for him and then jumps on it herself. The blaze ignites the tinder around Walhall, spelling the end for the gods and Wotan's lineage.

Brünhilde leaps on Siegfried's funeral pyre.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911)

And the Ring? Brünhilde wore it to the pyre. Before the blaze cooled down and Hagen could retrieve it, the Rhinemaidens flooded the riverbanks, carrying both him and the Ring off. After all of that scheming and suffering, all that loss and betrayal, all that struggle and strife, the Rhinegold ends up back where it started.

The Rhinemaidens drown Hagen and reclaim the Ring.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911)

The longevity of Wagner's opera is understandable... Weaving together multiple mythic sources with the sturm und drang of his sublime music, he created a compelling story of the dynamics between love and power, loyalty and betrayal, freedom and fate. With the advent of film came another opportunity to retell the timeless story for a new era.

Fritz Lang, one of the greatest directors of all time, turned his prodigious talents towards the story in 1924 for a two-part costume epic. The first part, Die Nibelungen: Siegfried blends Wagner and the original Mediaeval text together, setting the stage with the more fantastical aspects of the story before settling into the intrigues of the Burgundians.

The film opens with Siegfried (Paul Richter) at the anvil, tutored by Mime. Hearing of the fabulous kingdom of Burgundy and the beautiful Kriemhild (Margarete Schön), he takes a journey through the dangerous Wood of Woden. While in its thickets, he encounters the dragon Fafner, kills him, and bathes in his blood. After he tresspasses in the Nibelung kingdom of Alberich, who tries to kill him. Failing, Alberich uses his last words to pronounce a curse of death on the Tarnhelm, the treasure, and all who hold it. Now a wealthy noble, Siegfried reaches Burgundy and the story unfolds much as it does in the Mediaeval legend. Part two, Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache (Kriemhild's Revenge), picks up the second half, with Kriemhild's savage wrath swallowing up the lives of all around her and eventually herself.

Siegfried slays Fafner in Die Nibelungen: Siegfried.

On release and to posterity, Siegfried was better received than Kriemhilds Rache. It's easy to understand why, since it is the first part that has much of the marvelous fantasy with dwarves and dragons. That dragon was itself a cinematic marvel: a life-size, fire-breathing mechanical apparatus operated by an army of puppeteers. The only thing exceeding it is Lang's stunning Expressionist cinematography. Despite its flaws (including portraying the Huns as something akin to goblins or cavemen), even Kriemhilds Rache is stunning to watch. Every frame is like an Expressionist painting. Die Nibelungen was immediately preceded by the two-part Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (the Gambler, 1922) and would be followed by Lang's masterpieces Metropolis (1927), Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon, 1929), and M (1931).

Die Nibelungen was remade in 1966 and 1967 in two parts, Siegfried von Xanten and Kriemhild's Rache. Originally, Fritz Lang himself had been attached to the project but emphatically resisted it on the grounds that he didn't want to be seen as creatively bankrupt in his old age (in contrast to, for example, Cecil B. DeMille who seized the opportunity to remake his 1923 film The Ten Commandments in 1956). Director duties eventually fell to Harald Reinl and the film did well with West German audiences but was absolutely slaughtered by critics. An awful TV movie titled Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King  was made in 2004 based on Wagner's telling but refashioned in the narrative of Europe's conversion to Christianity in the early Middle Ages. A little known Italian adaptation, The Dragon's Blood, was released in 1957.

Die Nibelungenlied and Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen could very easily be translated into a good movie or Netflix series in this post-Lord of the Rings, post-Game of Thrones milieu. But with the opera in regular rotation and Fritz Lang's masterpiece on home video and digital streaming, it would be hard to compete. The next most logical adaptation would actually be to video game. Whatever format is to come, the story is unlikely to disappear thanks to its historic importance as an emblem of German culture.

This month, Oxford World's Classics has released a new hardcover translation of the Poetic Edda. "Comic, tragic, instructive, grandiose, witty, and profound, the poems of the Edda have influenced artists from Wagner to Tolkien," writes Oxford. "In its pages, the one-eyed Odin, red-bearded Thor, Loki the trickster, the lovely goddesses and the giants who are their enemies walk beside the heroic Helgi, Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer, Brynhild the shield-maiden, and the implacable Gudrun."

Oxford was kind enough to send a copy for review and it is an excellent resource for understanding the background to Der Ring des Nibelungen, as well as standing on its own footing as one of the great European cultural texts. The Poetic Edda begins with tragedy: The Seeress's Prophecy recounts the Scandinavian myth of creation and pantheon of gods before foretelling of their inevitable doom. Through the following pages, translator Carolyne Larrington, Professor of Medieval European Literature and Official Fellow at St John’s College, Oxford, introduces us to Odin the one-eyed seeker of wisdom who regularly engages in games of trivia with those he encounters, insatiable in his desire to understanding the coming Ragnarok. His end came not from battle with Fenrir the wolf, the Midgard-Serpent, or his adopted brother Loki, of course, but from a humble, nonviolent carpenter from Galilee. Transcribed in the 10th century AD, the Poetic Edda reflects a millennium of Christian encroachment, such as the invention of Odin hanging on the World Ash-Tree, pierced by a spear and "sacrificing himself to himself," to obtain the knowledge of runes.  

The first half of the Poetic Edda relates the stories, wisdoms, and outbursts of torrid insults of the gods. The latter half tells the stories of the heroes, in particular Sigurd. The tale is told of cursed gold that begets fratricidal violence and in turn draws the attention of the dragon-slayer. It is the dwarf-like smith Regin who sets his foster child Sigurd against his brother Fafnir. An interesting difference is that after the death of Sigurd, Brynhild disappears from the narrative by suicide and Gudrun (c.f. Gutrune, Kriemhild) is married off to Atli (c.f. Etzel, Attila the Hun)... However, Atli kills Gunnar (c.f. Gunther) and Hogni (c.f. Hagen) out of a desire for the hoard of gold they stole from Sigurd rather than at the spurring of Gudrun. After the deed, Gudrun slays Atli in revenge for her family. Mediaeval Norse protocol is a confusing thing.

The hardcover Poetic Edda (ISBN: 9780198834571) retails for £16.99 and is available from Oxford University Press.

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