C.S. Lewis said some of his earliest stabs of joy came from tales of “Northernness.” For a time, he was obsessed with Wagner’s Ring. Northernness pervades J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Despite my love for the works of these two authors, I hadn’t bothered much about Norse mythology. But, Clyde Robert Bulla’s The Ring and the Fire lay along a rabbit trail leading from Hilda van Stockum’s The Borrowed House.
Bulla’s book is a retelling of Richard Wagner’s opera, The Ring of the Nibelung. In the Introduction on Wagner’s life and the history of the opera, Bulla tells us:
Wagner based his Ring of the Nibelung on tales of Norse and German mythology. Some of the stories appeared more than a thousand years ago in the Edda, a collection of Norse legends. Others were collected in the Nibelungenlied, an epic poem of the twelfth century . . . Wagner planned The Ring as a cycle of three operas and a prelude, to be given on four successive evenings. The prelude, as he called The Rhinegold, was meant to be performed without pause, although in today’s productions it is sometimes divided into four separate scenes.
The three operas besides the prelude are The Valkyrie, Siegfried, and The Dusk of the Gods. Bulla’s retelling is accessible to anyone unfamiliar with the stories, and would be a good preparation for viewing the stage productions.
The Rhinegold is guarded by three water nymphs. The gold has the usual attraction of gold, but if it were to be formed into a ring, the possessor of that ring would be able to rule the world. The nymphs become careless of their charge to guard it because only someone who has renounced love can be the ring’s master. They don’t believe the person exists who would renounce love. They are wrong, of course, and the struggle to possess the ring has dire consequences for three generations of gods, half-gods, and men.
The cast of characters includes Wotan (whom you may know as Woden or Odin), his wife Fricka (goddess of marriage), Freia (youth and beauty), Donner (thunder), Froh (Spring), Loge (Loki), the Valkyries, Norns, gnomes, giants and a dragon.
The ring of power changes hands throughout the stories. We also have a dragon horde, a magic potion, and a helmet that allows the one wearing it to disappear or change shape. A powerful sword is buried in a tree waiting for the strongest of the strong to pull it free. Dragon’s blood allows Siegfried to understand birds. All the elements of modern fantasy are hundreds and hundreds of years old.
Elements of the plot include gods with competing desires, intrigue, hate, jealousy, infidelity, betrayal, murder, and the horror of unintended consequences.
When Janna, in The Borrowed House, tries to summarize the story of Siegfried and Brunnhilde for Frau Kopp, the woman who takes care of her, Frau Kopp says, “Where do you get all this heathenish nonsense?” Janna protests that it’s not nonsense, “It’s all in Wagner’s operas.”
“It’s heathenish anyway,” sputtered Frau Kopp. “And for that they keep you from honest work!”
Many Christian parents have this same concern. Why should our children read this heathenish nonsense?
Some points to ponder:
We read these stories as fairy tales, not as studies of gods or God. When children read or are read to from imaginative literature, they learn early on that giants, fairies, and gnomes are products of imagination. When they read of “gods” interacting with these creatures, I believe they easily sort truth from imagination.
Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies are from the roots of our civilization. From them we learn how our ancestors saw the world, reasoned, and formed or illustrated their guiding principles. We learn where we’ve come from.
Classic literature abounds with allusions to mythical events and characters. The more allusions children recognize, the better they will be able to make connections, and understand deeper than the surface level of literature.
Fairy tales and myths teach us about ourselves. The gods have all the human flaws and frailties, but taken to extremes most of us can’t imagine, with consequences we couldn’t effect if we tried. But by imagining “what if,” children can think through the natural consequences of sin without leaving the safety of home. In The Ring, how did greed lead to the downfall of the gods? How did pride result in murder? In the end, does anyone profit from lies?
In The Borrowed House, Hilda van Stockum weaves elements of The Ring saga throughout her story set during the Nazi occupation of Holland. Themes from these stories written down over a thousand years ago add a deeper layer to the understanding of human behavior in the 20th Century.
You can read Sara’s review of The Borrowed House here.
You can learn more about The Ring and the Fire at biblioguides.com.