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University of Toronto Quarterly 74.2 (2005) 671-676

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Wagner's Ring, North-by-Northwest

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the study of the European humanities changed course. Like Wallace Stevens's 'jar in Tennessee,' the new object of contemplation gradually altered the surrounding scholarly landscape, beginning with the field of historical linguistics. Jacob Grimm, master mason of comparative Germanic philology, had traced recorded Germanic languages - Gothic, Old Norse, Old English, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old Low Franconian, Old High German, and their modern descendants - all the way back to an ancestral, unrecorded Primitive Germanic, inserting asterisks to signal the hypothetical nature of this Ur-tongue. Then, using the same evolutionist principles of cognateness and continuity, he attempted to reconstruct a common Ur-Germanic mythology, the ancestral story from which all known variants had evolved. But this time, when they were needed most, there were no warning asterisks.

In the Romantic period, as later and earlier, the study of Germanic antiquity had political import. When Grimm wrote his Deutsche Grammatik (the first volume of which appeared when Wagner was six, the last when he was twenty-four), there was no state known as 'Deutschland'; nor was there when the first edition of Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie was published in 1835. For a political entity called Germany to become a reality, an ideal of 'Germanness,' of a glorious common national past, had to be created. But from what? Not from the courtly epics and bridal quest romances of the Holy Roman Empire. The German-speaking lands lacked a heroic age. So Grimm borrowed that of Scandinavia, laying claim to the Viking-age North as Germania germanicissima, or 'Ultra-German Germany.'

Wagner's pan-Germanism in Der Ring des Nibelungen was part of this German takeover of the North, his words, music, and costumes calling up a subterranean politics of allusion and quotation. This study will examine two aspects of this creative fusion.

First, despite the name Der Ring des Nibelungen, in the cycle as a whole, and especially in Die Walküre, Wagner made almost no use of the version of the story found in the Nibelungenlied, a courtly South German poem composed around 1200. Instead, he turned to the more pagan-seeming material of medieval Norse/Icelandic literature - especially the thirteenth-century Völsunga saga (Saga of the Volsungs) and the poems and prose of the two Eddas. Wagner's Ring created the impression, which has endured, that [End Page 671] valkyries and norns, Valhalla and the twilight of the gods, Wälse and the Wälsunger, were timelessly German. They are not.

Second, after pillaging the North, Wagner did his best to domesticate his booty, painting it as German. Think 'valkyrie' and an image of blonde pigtails, open mouth, horned helmet, and cast-iron bra floats into view. This is a face that has launched a thousand brands and imprinted itself on the popular imagination. (On the net, for only $79.50 US a night, you can get a 'Brünnhilde/valkyrie costume' consisting of 'ornate horned helmet; floor-length gown or tunic; breast plate or circular faux metal plate at bust; waist cord; cape. Available in bust sizes 32" and 48".') But her headdress, which signifies 'North' today, has nothing to do with Scandinavia or Iceland but is a continental invention. Through the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century, on the German stage and in historical paintings, the horned helmet was the preferred headgear of unspoiled, fierce, anti-Roman German barbarians. Putting cow-horns on Nordic-looking heads - as Wagner's costume designer, Professor Carl Emil Doepler, did in 1876 for the first Bayreuth production of the full Ring - was not only a departure from the classical tradition of Nibelungenlied illustration; it was also a way of colonizing the North. In what would appear to be a similar takeover, Wagner gave Brünnhilde's eight valkyrie sisters new but traditional-sounding German names, such as Rossweisse, Waltraute, and Ortlinde.

Wagner Looks North

Wagner wrote the libretto for Die Walküre between early November 1851...


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