The story for The Ring of the Nibelung was drawn together from existing German, Nordic and Icelandic myths, plus some original twists and turns added by Wagner himself. Many of the characters and events would therefore have been familiar to the first audiences to experience the music drama. This is just as well, as many plot points are not explicitly explained in the narrative and happen off-stage or before the action begins.
Here’s a quick round-up of where some of the key elements of The Ring were sourced.
The Icelandic Sources
The key work in this area is Wagner and the Volsungs Icelandic Sources of Der Ring des Nibelungen by Árni Björnsson which sets out the position very clearly in the introduction:
The sources mentioned here, the Poetic and Prose Eddas and Vƒlsunga saga, all belong to Old Icelandic literature. It has long been known to scholars that Wagner made extensive use of the poems in the Poetic Edda along with Icelandic Heroic Sagas, and indeed he said so himself on various occasions. The name of his work as a whole — The Ring of the Nibelung — has, however, carried the unconscious implication that most of its material is derived from the well-known medieval German poem, Das Nibelungenlied. There is therefore a need to emphasise that Wagner’s main sources were originally written in Iceland in the thirteenth century, and preserved in Icelandic manuscripts until they were printed in mostly Swedish and Danish editions of the seventeenth century and later.
Wagner’s own claim has now been confirmed by new and precise textual comparison. The conclusion is that about 80 per cent of the derived motifs are drawn exclusively from Icelandic literature, and only about 5 per cent exclusively from German literature, while about 15 per cent are common to Icelandic and German literature. Derived motifs in Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Siegfried are almost entirely drawn from Old Icelandic literature. Many motifs from Das Nibelungen- lied are found in the latter part of Götterdämmerung, but most of these also occur in fii›reks saga (an Old Norse prose saga based on medieval German sources that are now lost). But neither Das Nibelungenlied nor fii›reks saga has in it pagan gods, valkyries or norns, or any mention of the Twilight of the Gods.
The Volsunga Saga