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November 1, 2020

Alex Ross More young-adult Wagner

I received a wonderful book-finishing gift from my colleague and friend Will Robin: a short illustrated version of Wagner’s Ring, published in 1964, with illustrations by Warren Chappell and text by none other than John Updike. A section of Wagnerism is devoted to the curious spate of children’s and young-adult Wagner books that came out around 1900, often with creatively bowdlerized treatments of the plots. The titles include Anna Alice Chapin, Wonder Tales from Wagner and The Story of the Rhinegold, Grace Edson Barber’s Wagner Opera Stories, Florence Akin’s Opera Stories from Wagner, Dolores Bacon’s Operas That Every Child Should Know, Constance Maud’s Wagner’s Heroes and Wagner’s Heroines, William Henry Frost’s The Wagner Story Boo, and  J. Walker McSpadden’s Stories from Wagner. (McSpadden also wrote Famous Dogs in Fiction and Ohio: A Romantic Story for Young People.) In these retellings, fewer mishaps befall the characters: Akin allows both Siegfried and Brünnhilde to survive. My favorite evasion of Wagnerian difficulty comes from Chapin, describing Siegmund and Sieglinde: “They loved each other as much as though they had been really brother and sister.”
Updike, who evidently wrote his story for the benefit of his sons David and Michael (so the dedication suggests), makes his own adjustments to the tragic plot of the Ring. Although he does not hide the incestuous relationship between the twins, he passes over the story quite hastily: “Their life was unhappy, but before they died, they had a son, Siegfried, who has been raised in the deep forest by a kind and clever dwarf.” When Siegfried takes the Ring from Fafner, he does not kill Mime but simply walks away: “So small do greedy people seem to a man filled with the music of love.” And the entire action of Götterdämmerung is confined to a couple of extremely vague sentences at the end: “Siegfried and Brunhilda knew joy in one another, but did not live happily ever after. No human beings do. In time they died, and in dying returned the Ring to the mermaids of the Ring, where to this day the gold may be seen gliterring — though people say it is just the sun mixing with the water.”

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Alex Ross Yuval Sharon’s Twilight: Gods

Garage Band. The New Yorker, Oct. 26, 2020.

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