Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Ring of the Nibelung: Das Rheingold

Richard Wagner's musical drama Der Ring Des Nibelungen is a tour de force on many levels. Running sixteen hours over the course of four days, this operatic story-cycle retells the Nordic saga of Sigurd the dragon-slayer (here in his Germanic guise as Siegfried) using densely worded alliterative verse and thematic musical motifs to express on both emotional and intellectual levels the universal mythological significance inherent in this story of human spiritual evolution, as revealed through the psycho-theological archetypes of primeval gods and demigods. In other words, a story of Everyman.

Das Rheingold begins the story as a prelude, telling of the theft and cursing of the Rhinegold by the dwarf Alberich from the three Rhine Maidens, and of Odin's attempts to wrest it from him as payment to two giants who are holding the goddess Freya hostage for wages earned in building the golden hall of Valhalla for the gods of Asgard. As an introductory drama, this sets up a conflict between the forces of love and power which will play out among both gods and men in the subsequent trilogy.

Wagner, over the course of 28 years, created this mammoth work by drawing out the psychological and spiritual essence of the Old Norse story, deftly crafting it into a work more relevant and poignant to his modern audience, and one which has since become one of the benchmark epics of the operatic stage, and rightly so. Sadly, however, since few these days attend - or even listen to - opera, Wagner's brilliant work is in danger of once again disappearing into the haze of obscurity. It is for this reason that I've chosen to update the story in a newer medium more acceptable to us here in the 21st century.

In preparing to write and illustrate a prose novelization of this 19th century opera cycle, I've spent well over a year doing research, on top of the many years of study already undertaken in this area. As those of you who follow this blog will know, one of the tools I like to use when studying works in translation is the my "Comparative Study Guide" format, in which I line up various editions side by side to get a better look at what I've got. It helps me get a handle on the text by breaking it down and looking at it closely, line by line and word by word if necessary - and it often is: sometimes a single word can greatly alter the underlying meaning of a passage.

For Das Rheingold, I've employed three translations into English (from Wagner's original German), two of which are in the public domain, and so made it into my Study Guide. These are the 1877 Alfred Forman translation, which was not only the first translation into English, but the first translation of Wagner's Ring cycle into any language. The other is that done by Frederick Jameson and published in 1900. Forman's is the more literal, but less poetic of the two, so I find they complement each other nicely. The other translation I have is that of Stewart Robb, copyright 1960, on which I did a "book review" back in March.

For the Das Rheingold - Comparative Study Guide I have utilized a three-column format with the line-by-line English translations in the first two, along with running commentaries drawn from six sources in the third, these being:
  • George Dippold, Richard Wagner's Poem...Explained (1888)
  • Gustav Kobbé, How to Understand Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung(1895)
  • Jessie L. Weston, The Legends of the Wagner Drama (1896)
  • William C. Ward, A Study of the Inner Significance of Richard Wagner's Music-Drama (1889)
  • Richard Aldrich, A Guide to The Ring of the Nibelung (1905)
  • Gertrude Hall, The Wagnerian Romances (1907)
In this way you can not only study the primary texts quite closely, but also refer to the contemporary academic scholarship of the day as you go along, more effectively drawing out the deeper meaning and hidden subtext of complex passages. This is of particular use for those not well-versed in musical theory or the classical motifs of Wagnerian opera, which is a study all in itself. Two among the commentators describe for the reader the relevant musical phrases used to represent each character and action, so that the Comparative Guide may be used to study Wagner's music as well as the Siegfried story.

Visit the Ring Saga Research archives over on the Fantasy Castle Books website (or click on any of the titles) to access and download the Das Rheingold Comparative Study GuideAnd, of course, there are three more volumes yet to come....

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Nibelungenlied

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Volsung saga is the rare and unique glimpse we get into its development through time. No other early epic work of literature has such a diverse and well-documented evolution, save perhaps the legendary tales of King Arthur.

Beginning with the Old Norse Poetic Edda collection of the earliest known lays and ballads composed and transmitted orally from as early as 850 A.D. to the Middle High German Nibelungenlied penned sometime around 1230, the Volsung matter spans not only centuries, but regions as far removed and diverse as Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, the British Isles and a broad swath of northern Europe. The divergence between the ancient Nordic warrior sagas and the later chivalric romance is vast and dramatic.

By the early 13th century France and Germany were well into the era of courtly chivalry, with a highly developed code of knightly conduct, in which wealth and social status are as prized as actual deeds. This is reflected in a form of poetry that by this time had reached a highly refined state, with a clearly ordered rhyme and metre penned almost exclusively by the very knights it praised, for only they were literate and educated and had time to spare for such endeavors. Its content, too, has little to do with common men, but is filled instead with lengthy descriptions of richly embroidered clothes and lavish palaces the likes of which only the wealthiest of kings might dream.

The Nibelungenlied is, in fact, so far removed from the gritty Old Norse story of Sigurd the dragon slayer that it has all but forgotten the reason why the dragon is in the tale at all, and the central motivation has been reduced to little more than avenging the slights and insults of bickering women. Events have lost almost entirely any significance they once held, and are made instead to serve only as a means to describe another tournament or army a hundred thousand strong brought down by the might of a single man. The whole is so ridiculously blown out of proportion as to mean nothing at all. It is just this type of high-flown narrative that Cervantes was mocking in Don Quixote.

But still there is a certain charm and wit to be found in The Nibelungenlied, buried amidst its 9516 lines of verse (three times that of Beowulf!). And there are touching moments too. The vow of Kriemhild to never love for fear her bad dreams might come true might truly have been a forceful motivation, had the poet seen it through. Tellingly, although Wagner himself was a German writing opera for a German stage, he used the Old Norse version of the Volsung story rather than the one told in his own language.

This past week I slogged my way through a reading of four different translations of The Nibelungenlied, searching for material to use, and I have to say that it was grueling. There are about a thousand translations to be found out there (just do a search on Google Books), of which I have half a dozen or more. Of these I compared two translations in verse and two in prose, the first two being those of Horton (1898) and Needler (1904), while the prose renditions I employed were those of Armour (1897) and Shumway (1909). I had started piecing together one of my comparative documents for these, but only made it to around stanza 1000 before I gave that up as far too time-consuming: there were way too many errors in the text files to spend my time correcting them, and since Google Books has actual scans of them all, there was no point in wasting time with it.

The one thing of most interest that I found in doing this, however, is in discovering just how different Armour's prose rendition is from the actual verse. While the poetic translations vary only in specific wording of each line (and not at all in content), Armour has created a highly concise and compact version in which stanzas are reduced to single sentences, making it less exact, but far more pleasant (and speedy) to read. For though Shumway's prose follows the verse lines literally (and so, mechanically), Armour has captured more of the sense and spirit of it. Indeed, she has even added in some of her own bits here and there to flesh it out, a move which incensed the academics to no end, but made her book more popular than any other translation. It was, in fact, her text that Arthur Rackham illustrated.

So although I agree with Wagner in his choice of primary source material, there are some episodes and events in The Nibelungelied that I might yet use. For one, I like the idea of a warrior maiden who vows to marry only the man who can defeat her in athletic competition, and who beheads anyone who can't. And should I go so far as to bring in the Atli matter, in this version Kriemhild's vengeance on her brothers rather than her husband makes much more sense. But that has yet to be decided.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Volsunga Saga

The Völsunga Saga is a 13th century prose retelling of the heroic lays found in The Elder Edda. For the most part they follow closely the heroic poems, although there are a great many additional and/or alternate details given, including - most importantly - the matter contained in "The Great Lacuna" missing from the Edda, as well as an introductory sequence not found in the Eddas at all which concerns Volsung's descent from Odin. The only existing manuscript dates to circa 1400, and also contains Ragnar Lodbrok's Saga which follows after Völsunga Saga without a break (readers of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Chronicles series will know Ragnar's name quite well).

One of the best things about the Völsunga Saga, of course, is that it's in prose, which makes it far easier to read and understand, being more closely akin to the common speech of normal mortals (those of us not endowed with poetic tendencies or divine inspiration). That is not to say that it's written in modern English, nor is it easy to breeze through. But it is much more like reading narrative, poetic though it may still be.

Over the weekend I polished off a comparative re-reading of both R. G. Finch's 1965 edition, and that great staple translation done by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson in 1888. The latter was, in fact, the first English rendering of the Völsunga Saga, and has never been surpassed, at least for popularity. That might be due in part to the fact that all subsequent editions simply pale in terms of poetry: the breadth and beauty of William Morris's work has long been hailed by critics and casual readers alike, and his and Magnusson's obvious love of the material shines through on every page. Today the rendering leans toward the archaic and borders on hard to comprehend, but once the rhythm of the language is grasped it flows freely and with truly astonishing grace and power.

Texts of both of these translations can now be found on a dedicated Resources page in the Ring Saga archives, where you can also find a complete outline of the story and a thorough genealogy (as given in this version of the story). To the Morris-Magnusson edition I have appended, or rather incorporated, all of Finch's academic line notes, while from Finch's own edition I have deleted all of the facing Icelandic pages, as well as his entire introduction, which is poorly written and far less useful than his notes (although you can also download the complete English-Icelandic version if you like). As some of those notes were on the original Icelandic facing pages, you will have to refer to those notes in the Morris-Magnusson edition, or download the complete Finch PDF (which is a monster at 55 megabytes, and one of the primary reasons I deleted half the pages, for those of you without high speed broadband).

I highly recommend you make the effort to read the more poetic Morris-Magnusson translation, which presents more accurately the sense of the old Norse world. A single example will suffice to make my point: for the line given by Morris-Magnusson as "Now these things wear away with time," Finch has simply "Then it was over."

I rest my case.