Though Richard Wagner's music-drama of the Nibelungen Ring bears some resemblance to the ancient German epic, it is a wholly independent composition and was derived from various old songs and sagas, which the dramatist wove into one great harmonious story. The principal source was the Volsunga Saga, while lesser parts were taken from the Elder Edda and the Younger Edda, and others from the Nibelungen Lied, the Ecklenlied, and other Teutonic folklore.
In the drama there are at first only four distinct races,--the gods, the giants, the dwarfs, and the nymphs. Later, by a special creation, there come the valkyrie and the heroes. The gods are the noblest and highest race, and dwell first in the mountain meadows, later in the palace of Valhalla on the heights. The giants are a great and strong race, but lack wisdom; they hate what is noble, and are enemies of the gods; they dwell in caves near the earth's surface. The dwarfs, or nibelungs, are black uncouth pigmies, hating the good, hating the gods; they are crafty and cunning, and dwell in the bowels of the earth. The nymphs are pure, innocent creatures of the water. The valkyrie are daughters of the gods, but mingled with a mortal strain; they gather dead heroes from the battle-fields and carry them to Valhalla. The heroes are children of the gods, but also mingled with a mortal strain; they are destined to become at last the highest race of all, and to succeed the gods in the government of the world.
The principal gods are Wotan, Loki, Donner, and Froh. The chief giants are Fafner and Fasolt, brothers. The chief dwarfs are Alberich and Mime, brothers, and later Hagan, son of Alberich. The chief nymphs are the Rhine-daughters, Flosshilda, Woglinda, and Wellgunda. There are nine Valkyrie, of whom Brunhild is the leading one.
Wagner's story of the Ring may be summarized as follows:
A hoard of gold exists in the depths of the Rhine, guarded by the innocent Rhine-maidens. Alberich, the dwarf, forswears love to gain this gold. He makes it into a magic ring. It gives him all power, and he gathers by it a vast amount of treasures.
Meanwhile Wotan, chief of the gods, has engaged the giants to build for him a noble castle, Valhalla, from whence to rule the world, promising in payment Freya, goddess of youth and love. But the gods find they cannot spare Freya, as they are dependent on her for their immortal youth. Loki, called upon to provide a substitute, tells of Alberich's magic ring and other treasure. Wotan goes with Loki, and they steal the ring and the golden hoard from Alberich, who curses the ring and lays the curse on all who shall henceforth possess it. The gods give the ring and the treasure to the giants as a substitute for Freya. The curse at once begins. One giant, Fafner, kills his brother to get all, and transforms himself into a dragon to guard his wealth. The gods enter Valhalla over the rainbow bridge. This ends the first part of the drama, called the Rhine-Gold.
The second part, the Valkyrie, relates how Wotan still covets the ring. He cannot take it himself, for he has given his word to the giants. He stands or falls by his word. So he devises an artifice to get the ring. He will get a hero-race to work for him and recover the ring and the treasures. Siegmund and Sieglinda are twin children of this new race. Sieglinda is carried off as a child and is forced into marriage with Hunding. Siegmund comes, and unknowingly breaks the law of marriage, but wins Nothung, the great sword, and a bride. Brunhild, chief of the Valkyrie, is commissioned by Wotan at the instance of Fricka, goddess of marriage, to slay him for his sin. She disobeys and tries to save him, but Hunding, helped by Wotan, slays him. Sieglinda, however, about to bear the free hero, to be called Siegfried, is saved by Brunhild, and hid in the forest. Brunhild herself is punished by being made a mortal woman. She is left sleeping on the mountains with a wall of fire around her which only a hero can penetrate.
The drama continues with the story of Siegfried, which opens with a scene in the smithy between Mime the dwarf and Siegfried. Mime is welding a sword, and Siegfried scorns him. Mime tells him something of his mother, Sieglinda, and shows him the broken pieces of his father's sword. Wotan comes and tells Mime that only one who has no fear can remake the sword. Now Siegfried knows no fear and soon remakes the sword Nothung. Wotan and Alberich come to where the dragon Fafner is guarding the ring. They both long for it, but neither can take it. Soon Mime comes bringing Siegfried with the mighty sword. Fafner comes out, but Siegfried slays him. Happening to touch his lips with the dragon's blood, he understands the language of the birds. They tell him of the ring. He goes and gets it. Siegfried now has possession of the ring, but it is to bring him nothing of happiness, only evil. It is to curse love and finally bring death. The birds also tell him of Mime's treachery. He slays Mime. He longs for some one to love. The birds tell him of the slumbering Brunnhilda, whom he finds and marries.
The Dusk of the Gods portrays at the opening the three norns or fates weaving and measuring the thread of destiny. It is the beginning of the end. The perfect pair, Siegfried and Brunhild, appear in all the glory of their life, splendid ideals of manhood and womanhood. But Siegfried goes out into the world to achieve deeds of prowess. He gives her the Nibelungen ring to keep as a pledge of his love till his return. Meanwhile Alberich also has begotten a son, Hagan, to achieve for him the possession of the ring. He is partly of the Gibichung race, and works through Gunther and Gutrune, half-brother and half-sister to him. They beguile Siegfried to them, give him a magic draught which makes him forget Brunhild and fall in love with Gutrune. Under this same spell, he offers to bring Brunhild for wife to Gunther. Now is Valhalla full of sorrow and despair. The gods fear the end. Wotan murmurs, "O that she would give back the ring to the Rhine." But Brunhild will not give it up,--it is now her pledge of love. Siegfried comes, takes the ring, and Brunhild is now brought to the Rhine castle of the Gibichungs, but Siegfried under the spell does not love her. She is to be wedded to Gunther. She rises in wrath and denounces Siegfried. But at a hunting banquet Siegfried is given another magic draught, remembers all, and is slain by Hagan by a blow in the back, as he calls on Brunhild's name in love. Then comes the end. The body of Siegfried is burned on a funeral pyre, a grand funeral march is heard, and Brunhild rides into the flames and sacrifices herself for love's sake; the ring goes back to the Rhine-daughters; and the old world--of the gods of Valhalla, of passion and sin--is burnt up with flames, for the gods have broken moral law, and coveted power rather than love, gold rather than truth, and therefore must perish. They pass, and a new era, the reign of love and truth, has begun.
Those who wish to study the differences in the legends of the Nibelungen Lied and the Nibelungen Ring, and the way in which Wagner used his ancient material, are referred to Professor W. C. Sawyer's book on "Teutonic Legends in the Nibelungen Lied and the Nibelungen Ring," where the matter is treated in full detail. For a very thorough and clear analysis of the Ring as Wagner gives it, with a study of the musical motifs, probably nothing is better for general readers than the volume "The Epic of Sounds," by Freda Winworth. The more scholarly work of Professor Lavignac is indispensable for the student of Wagner's dramas. There is much illuminating comment on the sources and materials in "Legends of the Wagner Drama" by J. L. Weston.