A new English translation of The Nibelingen Myth and Siegfried’s Death

The 1848 Drafts of the Ring

Edward R. Haymes of Cleveland State University has newly translated two Wagner prose works from 1848: the narrative of The Nibelung Myth and Siegfried’s Tod.  These clear and straightforward translations are accompanied by a scholarly explanation of both the context of the two works and the various sources that Wagner relied upon while writing the Niebelungen story that he used for the drama.

Each of these two newly accessible works provides insight into what it was in these stories that attracted Wagner to them.  Wagner “considered myth to be the foundation of a nation,” says Haymes (at 38), and the myth that he conjured was deeply allegorical.  Consider the images that Wagner chose to open the narrative of the myth itself:

Out of the womb of the night and of death rose a race that lives in Nibelheim (Mist-Home) i.e. in subterranean dark crevasses and caves: they are called Nibelungs; in irregular, restless activity they dig (like worms in a dead body) through the bowels of the earth: they melt, purify, and shape the hard metals. (at 45)

The world that is conjured in this single astonishing sentence is one of death, darkness, infection and danger.  Alberich is thus a corruption of the blood of the very universe itself. 

Several of the plot devices that Wagner sets forth in this early narrative he later simplified or combined: here the giants cause the ring to be protected by a dragon, and each of Sigmunde and Sieglinde is married to someone else when they meet.  But it is startlingly clear what is the moral force that drives the story.  Once the ring has been stolen from Alberich and guarded by the dragon,

[the gods’] power stands above everything.  But the peace, through which they have risen to power, is not based on reconciliation, it is brought about through violence and cunning.  The object of their higher ordering of the world is a moral consciousness: the injustice that they perpetuate, however, adheres to them.  [] Wotan cannot erase the injustices without committing a new one: only a free will, independent of the gods, which is willing to take all of the guilt on itself and to suffer for it, can break the spell, and the gods see in human beings the capacity for such a will. (at 47)

In this translation Wagner’s prose loses its awkward, sententious weight and his mind and logic become lucid.  And in this telling of the myth, one of the peculiar actions of Götterdämmerung — Brünnhilde’s accusations at the end of Act II — becomes more understandable.  Says Wagner:

Siegfried accuses her of forgetting her honor: he has remained true to his blood-brotherhood — he had placed his sword between himself and Brünnhilde. — He demands that she confirm this.  On purpose and only determined to ruin him, she pretends not to understand…. (at 53)

Siegfried’s Tod follows closely the poem of Götterdämmerung, and Haymes has conscientiously indicated those parts that appear in the final version and those that are excized. 

My attention was drawn to two passages of stage direction:  one in which, after the Hagen/Alberich scene in Act II, “[t]he sun rises and is mirrored in the water” (at 113) and one in which, after Siegfried’s death, “[t]he moon breaks through the clouds and illuminates the funeral procession of the vassals. — Then fog rises from the Rhine and gradually fills the whole stage to the front.” (at 171)

One recalls that, in the mid-1800s, stage light was provided by primitive gas burners such as the newly-invented lime-light.  Electrical systems were first introduced by Richard D’Oyley Carte at the Savoy Theatre in 1881, to great fanfare.  But here we have, in 1848, an author imagining a piece of theatre in which not only does the lighting of a scene change in front of the audience, but the effect of the lighting change is reflected on the water (presumably a painted backdrop?) and an entire scene change takes place by lighting and without the fall of the curtain.  It is quite astonishing that Wagner imagined not only music that had not been written, but theatre that had not been invented.

A very interesting read, commended to all whose interests lie in the story, the allegory, the dramaturgy and the theatrical ambitions of the Ring.

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