Fantasy fiction fans can go gaga over Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen) according to Rick Walter, author of a recent series on the four-part opera. Even if you don’t know your Brünnhilde from your Sieglinde, you’ll be able to tell that J.R.R. Tolkien most certainly got his ideas for LOTR from the Ring.
“Tolkien doesn’t admit it,” Walter said in last week’s interview. “But there are characters in Lord of the Rings that are taken directly from the Ring Cycle.”
One of those characters is the Norse god Wotan, whom we might think of as Gandalf or Obi Wan Kenobi or Dumbledore. “Wotan screws up very, very badly in the Ring. He’s almost human. But he does evolve into that wise old man, a trusted elder with an ironic sense of humor,” Walter said.
To kick off this 15-plus-hour opera written to be performed over four days, the dwarf Alberich steals gold from the Rhine maidens and has his slaves forge it into a ring. Wotan steals the ring to pay for his castle keep, Valhalla; Alberich curses the ring, twice. Drama and death ensue, along with mind-blowing masterpieces from a 105-piece orchestra.
“People who fall in love with the Ring Cycle are also addicted to fantasy fiction,” Walter said. “Even some people who wouldn’t dream of going to the opera love this one.”
Walter’s book series breaks down the opera’s four sections: Das Rheingold (see Alberich above); Die Walküre (the Valkyries and their leader Brünnhilde, who is Wotan’s daughter); Siegfried (who wakes up the dragon Fafner by tooting his hunting horn); and Götterdämmerung (Twilight for the Gods). If you see parallels to Game of Thrones and Neal Gaiman’s American Gods, you get an A+.
The entire Ring Cycle is based on Norse mythology but here’s the grand surprise: Wagner made up most of it himself.
“In a nut-shell, his Cycle isn’t truly mythology—instead, it’s an original piece of storytelling that borrows here and there from the tangle of Nordic tales—a few noteworthy characters, a few notorious episodes—then weaves them into an overall plotline that’s largely brand-new,” writes Walter in an essay about the book series. “In short, it’s made-up mythology.”
That doesn’t mean Wagner didn’t do his homework. As Walter notes in his essay, Wagner biographer Elizabeth Magee did extensive research into where the composer gleaned the ideas that built this epic narrative. The answer lay in books he bought and borrowed, reading hundreds of sources on Norse mythology and legend.
There have been many parodies of the Ring Cycle written and performed over the years, notably Das Barbecü, a country-Western spoof in which the Rhine maidens are transformed into synchronized swimmers and the hero Siegfried into a romantically inclined cowboy. Elmer Fudd warbles “Kill the wabbit” to the “Ride of the Valkyries” (“Walkürenritt”) as he chases Bugs Bunny. And if you’ve ever seen the quintessential Wagnerian soprano garbed in armored breastplates and a horned helmet, you know that Brünnhilde is a laughingstock of pop culture. It’s just too easy to poke fun but, when we do, we’re not punching down: the Ring Cycle is too masterful to be debased. Wagner was not without a sense of humor, however. “The lyrics have a lot of puns,” Walter said.
Walter’s Ring Cycle series is written for a general audience and, given the publisher’s cover designs and illustrations by Cliff Mott, will please readers of graphic novels as well. You probably won’t be able to catch a performance in New Mexico anytime soon, although many opera companies in surrounding states have mounted it. “Every major opera house in the U.S. attempts a Ring for the sake of their pride,” Walter said. “Of course, in Germany and Austria, there are several performances annually, especially at the Bayreuth Festival. Pre-pandemic, they did it every year in Europe.” Right now, the Metropolitan Opera in New York is planning on importing a major production of the entire Cycle from English National Opera in 2025-2027.
Walter’s fascination with the Ring began in high school and college. There were no easily available recordings to be had of the Ring until Decca Records released Maestro Georg Solti’s awarded version with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1965 (he wasn’t “Sir” Georg Solti until 1972). It is still considered by many legitimate sources to be the finest classical recording ever made; the “Ride of the Valkyries” from that recording can be heard in the movie Apocalypse Now. “That recording came out when I was in college,” he said. “I’ve been fascinated with the Ring Cycle since then.”