This week I discovered the answer to what has long been (to me) one of the great literary mysteries: why did Siegfried, the hero of Wagner's Ring Cycle, kill his mentor on the word of a couple birds? I mean, can you picture what would happen in modern times if Siegfried tried to get off a murder charge with `But your honor, some birds said he was plotting to kill me and steal my dragon gold. It was self defense!'
Okay, I know that one cannot understand an ancient epic if one tries to read it with a modern mindset, but every time I came across that particular part in the story, my mind would start shouting `hold it Siegfried! Who're you going to believe? The guy who raised you, or a bunch of flighty birds?' And every time, Siegfried picked the birds.
This week, I finally read The Saga of the Volsung (translated by Jesse Byock.) which is the story on which Wagner's Ring Cycle was based. There the birds say one line that gave Siegfried a genuine motive for killing his mentor: "He is not as wise as I thought if he spares Regin after having killed his brother."
Now, in The Saga of the Volsung, the poet has just finished giving numerous examples of how vitally important avenging blood-kin is to the Nordic people. It's a matter of honor. Regin is lamenting the fact that he sent our hero (called Sigurd in this version) to kill his brother, the dragon Fafnir. Suddenly the Siegfried/Sigurd's actions make sense. Regin really is a threat, and if Sigurd had thought about it two seconds, he'd have realized that without the birds even telling him so. Since in Wagner's version, Siegfried's mentor is no relation to the dragon, that motivation gets lost.
All of this got me thinking about myths, and legends, and fairy tales. So often when you're reading a fairy-tale there will be a piece that just doesn't work. Someone will toss their comb over their shoulder and it'll transform into an impenetrable forest or something, and you'll be left scratching your head, wondering how the hero knew to toss his comb in the first place. Likely it all made sense to the original audience -just as Sigurd killing Regin makes sense once you know that Regin is the dragon's brother and would be honor-bound to try to kill Sigurd. People's attitudes change over time, and when stories don't change with them, well, that's where you get a lot of weirdness.
One thing I love to do when writing is invent myths, legends, and fairy-tales for my story culture. Thinking about what people used to believe gives you a wonderful foundation for deciding what people believe currently. Even when attitudes shift, something of the old often lingers.
So what about you guys? Anyone else who uses invented myths and fairy-tales as an important building block in writing? Anyone have a favorite fairy-tale or legends with pieces that just don't make sense?