Roy Thomas and Gil Kane’s Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung

Thomas-Wagners Ring

It never would have occurred to me to make a graphic novel out of Wagner’s Ring cycle, but on reflection, it’s a natural — I mean, who is more a superhero than Siegfried, the son of a god, running around slaying dragons with a magical sword and all?

The story is, of course, compressed – this is a one-volume graphic treatment of roughly sixteen hours of opera. Writer Roy Thomas has added an introduction relating the creation of the world and the rise of the gods, delivered by the earth goddess Erda, and then the story moves into “The Rhinegold,” the building of Valhalla and the theft by Wotan of the magical ring that will bring the final tragedy. “The Valkyrie” relates the story of Siegmund and Sieglinde, the brother and sister who, after years of being separated, meet as strangers and fall in love when Siegfried stumbles into the home of Hunding, Sieglinde’s husband, and is given shelter as a guest by Sieglinde, all unknowing that he is fleeing from none other than her husband. Siegfried draws the sword Nothung from the tree growing through Hunding’s house, which no one else has been able to do. (No, I don’t know why there’s a tree growing through the house.) After chasing the two through the forest, Hunding kills Siegmund, while the Valkyrie Brunnhilde spirits Sieglinde away to safety; Brunnhilde herself is put into a magical sleep on a mountain top surrounded by fire as her punishment for disobeying Wotan. In “Siegfried” we finally meet the young hero, son of the two siblings, who has been raised in the forest by the dwarf Mime, brother of Alberich, who first forged the ring. Siegfried reforges his father’s sword and kills the dragon Fafnir, winning for himself the ring and the Tarnhelm, which disguises its wearer in any form the wearer wishes, and ultimately wakes the sleeping Brunnhilde. In “The Twilight of the Gods,” Siegfried journeys to the seat of the Gibichungs, ruled by Gunther. There he meets Gutrune, Gunther’s sister, and due to a magical potion slipped to him by Hagen, Alberich’s bastard son, half-brother to Gunther and Gutrune, falls in love with her, forgetting Brunnhilde completely. Gunther decides that Brunnhilde would make the perfect bride and talks Siegfried into disguising himself as the king and bringing her back. Brunnhilde, thinking that Siegfried has in truth forgotten her, plots with Hagen to kill Siegfried, and only after the deed is done does she realize what had truly happened. She rides her horse into Siegfried’s funeral pyre, the Rhine overflows its banks, sweeping away the hall of the Gibichings as the Rhinemaidens recover the ring and Valhalla burns.

The graphic style is classic Gil Kane, which is to say classic DC/Marvel superhero action comics. I’m not sure if it’s the best style for this story, but offhand I can’t think of a better one. I do have some problems with the page layouts, which sometimes verge on the chaotic. Kane has also from time to time played tricks with scale within a frame, a device that doesn’t always work, leaving overly crowded frames in front of a huge face that is doing the narration.

My main objection is to the text, which is, I think, too much a straight rendering of the libretto. The style is somewhat stilted and actually reads like a straight translation of Wagner’s text. I would have preferred a more contemporary diction — not slangy necessarily, but with a smoother flow and a more vernacular feel — maybe something that doesn’t go quite as far as a high-heroic, Tolkien-style dialogue. As it is, there’s a bit of disconnect between the style of the graphics and the style of the text.

A word of warning: Wagner’s story is, when all is said and done, an adult story, and that’s reflected in this treatment: there is lots of gore, a fair amount of sex (not to mention the incest), muscular, scantily clad young heroes and voluptuous maidens wearing even less.

On the whole, however, it’s a pretty good job.

(Warner Books, 1991)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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