Archives for posts with tag: Dark Crystal

The influence of Fritz Lang’s 1924 silent classic Die Nibelungen can be seen in the style and design of many Sci Fi and Fantasy films of the 80s from The Empire Strikes Back to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Whether unconscious borrowing or deliberate tribute, elements of this German classic helped make these films great.

The guide through the darkness

In Die Nibelungen, Alberich the dwarf leads our young hero Siegfried from a swampy setting into a dark cavern to the Nibelung treasure with a magic glowing globe to light their way. In The Empire Strikes Back, a character of dwarfish height finds Luke in a swampy setting, and, carrying a glowing object, leads Luke to Yoda – a Jedi master he seeks. Instead of a magic orb, Yoda holds Luke’s camp light.

To the primitive being Luke thinks Yoda is, the light seems a magical object. Like Siegfried, Luke is slightly reluctant to follow the short and hunched creature into the darkness. Fortunately for Luke, Yoda has no intention of hurting his guest, but In Die Nibelungen, Alberich tries twice to deceive Siegfried in an attempt to kill the young hero.

To further separate the tone of these two stories, the light serves a comedic purpose in The Empire Strikes Back, prompting Yoda’s classic toddler retort, “Mine! – or I will help you not!” It seems to almost parody the cliché of the guide holding a mysterious light because it isn’t magic at all – just a regular camp light. These references to Die Nibelungen are effective in Empire because the roles of the similar components are reversed. Fear is exchanged for humor and evil is replaced with good.

Though used for a different purpose, several identical elements of these two settings remain: the dwarf guide who appears out of nowhere, dark and swampy setting, glowing object to light the way,  and young hero who has already achieved a great thing – in Luke’s case, destroying the Death Star and in Siegfried’s case, having just slain a dragon – and requires something from his guide through the darkness to reach his next destination.

alberich leads siegfried

Alberich the dwarf leads Siegfried to the Nibelung treasure in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924)

yoda leading luke to his hut

Yoda leads Luke to his hut with a camp light in The Empire Strikes Back (copyright 1980 Lucasfilm)

The “guide” carrying a glowing orb is also used in The Black Cauldron, a 1985 Disney film adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. In this film, the young princess Eilonwy leads our young hero Taran through the dark depths of a castle in which they are both being held prisoner. Alexander incorporates the element of a glowing magical orb lighting the way in dark underground tunnels but reverses the role of his character by making the guide friendly instead of menacing.

glowing orb

Alberich’s magical glowing orb in Die Nibelungen

eilonwys' globe

Eilonwy leads Taran with a magical glowing orb in The Black Cauldron (copyright 1985 Walt Disney Company)

In addition to the motif of the stunted, odd, and sometimes grumpy guide and the light he carries to lead the way, the contrast of the darkness of a rocky passageway and the light of a luminous cavern is used in Die Nibelungen to invoke sense of wonder and the excitement that is felt from the thought of discovering hidden treasure. The light/dark contrast from dark tunnel to bright open space is also used in Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal (1982) in a similar way as it is in Die Nibelungen. In The Dark Crystal, the cranky old hunched-over guide is Aughra. She first appears menacing, but seeing that she is good-natured, our young Gelfling hero Jen quickly trusts her. Aughra leads Jen through a dark passageway to a mysterious place. Once inside, a bright light suddenly fills the screen and the film score plays a theme that invokes wonder. It’s like entering another world – a peculiar world where science and magic seem to harmoniously meet in mechanical splendor. In Die Nibelungen, the light/dark contrast between the luminous cavern interior and the dark and swampy exterior is remarkable. To an audience in the silent film era, the sequence would have seemed as bright as the light cast upon Jen as he enters Aughra’s workshop in The Dark Crystal.

bright cavern

Alberich the dwarf leads Siegfried into a luminous cavern in Die Nibelungen

jen entering aughra's workshop

Jen is awed by Aughra’s workshop in The Dark Crystal (copyright 1982 Jim Henson Company)

Inside Aughra’s workshop there is a giant mechanized model of the heavens, a concept Jen has seen drawn in the sand many times by the mystics, but never represented with such heavy and detailed moving industry. The same thing occurs in Die Nibelungen when Alberich the dwarf leads Siegfried into the luminous cavern. The contrast between dark and light and reality and magic and mystery is just as pronounced in this shot as it is in The Dark Crystal. Just as Jen is shown scientific industry in Aughra’s workshop, Alberich shows Siegfried the magical industry of the secret cavern. A massive crown, for example is being made for an ice giant. When Siegfried tries to reach through the window to touch that “other world” it quickly turns back into the form of a rocky wall of the cavern. It is, in a way, like that for Jen as well. Jen doesn’t understand what the model does. In the way the “magic” of the model is beyond Jen’s understanding, the “magic” of the ice king’s crown is beyond Siegfried’s physical reach.

The intention behind the guides showing the young hero “magical” things in these respective stories are in sharp contrast with each other. Aughra is leading Jen to new knowledge to help him with his quest while Alberich is showing Siegfried the wondrous riches of the caverns only enough to distract his naive guest long enough to kill him. Though both Jen and Siegfried are naive, the mood in each story couldn’t be more different. In The Dark Crystal, it is wonder, and in Die Nibelungen, it is foreboding treachery. Though one creates suspense and the other does not, they both carry epic quality.

Similar shots and wardrobe

The sequence where the Nibelung treasure arrives at Gunther’s castle and is unloaded looks similar to when Baron Munchausen packs up the Sultan’s treasures and carries it away in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). Again, the roles are reversed. The treasure is being packed instead of unpacked in Baron Munchausen while in Die Nibelungen it is being brought to the castle instead of being taken away. In Baron Munchausen, the reference is, of course, used for comedic purpose and any allusion to epic poetry only serves to further embellish the impossible quality of the Baron’s already inflated tales of his many exploits of highly questionable validity.

Also, notice the similar arched entrances of the castle in the two shots.

unloading of Nibelung treasure

The Nibelung treasure arrives at Gunther’s castle in Die Nibelungen

baron munchausen

The Sultan’s treasure departs from the Sultan’s Palace in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (copyright 1988 Columbia Pictures)

When Brunhild arrives at Gunther’s castle after Siegfried wins her for Gunther with trickery, the wide bright shot with steps and ceremonial guards looks strikingly similar to when the Atreides arrive on Arrakis in Dune (1984). By using this shot from Die Nibelungen, director David Lynch evokes something of the mood of the German story, alluding to the danger that awaits the House Atreides. Just as Brunhild walking into Gunther’s castle brings the demise of Siegfried and Burgundy, the audience watches the Atreides literally walking into the trap set for them by the Harkonnens. It is a beautiful shot and a tragic reminder that the family will soon be torn apart by betrayal.

priest coming down to meet brunhild and gunther

The priest comes down the steps to meet Brunhild in Die Nibelungen

dune

The Arteides arrive on Arrakis in David Lynch’s Dune (copyright 1984 Dino De Laurentiis)

dune 2

The Atreides arrive on Arrakis in David Lynch’s Dune (copyright 1984 Dino De Laurentiis)

The look of Brunhild’s battle garb was recreated in the 1981 film Dragonslayer. Galen, the unlikely dragonslayer, goes after the dragon Vermithrax Pejorative with a round shield and a spear, the same weapons Brunhild uses to test Gunther. Since Dragonslayer deals with the death of magic and its subsequent replacement by religion, the weaponry invokes the magic of the mythic world – and, more importantly, a mythic world with a dragon. The reference works, again, because the roles are reversed. Galen is the hero, while Brunhild is a villain.

By using the contrary sides of these borrowed elements, their usage is balanced, achieving a nearly unconscious invocation of the nearly timeless yet distinctive style, mood, and tone of epic.

brunhild with spear and shield

Brunhild prepares to challenge Gunther in a spear-throwing competition in Die Nibelungen

dragonslayer

Galen (played by Peter MacNicol) enters Vermithrax Pejorative’s lair in Dragonslayer (copyright 1981 Walt Disney Company)

Now, aside from the scenes described in the Nibelungenlied itself, what sort of design and imagery inspired Lang’s unique cinematic interpretation of the epic poem? As Journey to Perplexity points out, Lang seemed heavily inspired by the style of Klimt. In addition to design patterns, Lang also borrowed from other artists. This shot below of Gunther mourning the fading of Burgundy’s splendor in Die Nibelungen resembles both the composition and mood of Jean-Paul Lauren’s The Excommunication of Robert the Pious (1875).

gunther upset

Gunther mourns the fading of Burgundy’s splendor in Die Nibelungen

excommunication of robert the pious jean paul laurens

The Excommunication of Robert the Pious by Jean-Paul Laurens (1875) Musée d’Orsay

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, we get a glimpse of Smaug the dragon. Dragons love gold above anything else and Smaug is no exception – he coils himself around the treasure horde of the dwarf king under the mountain.

Smaug7

Don’t worry Tolkien Estate, it was only a bit of fun for a batch of homebrew!

In a tale from Norse Mythology, a dragon plays the role of a man corrupted by the greed of gold. This corruption manifests itself physically. It changes the person, sort of like how symptoms of a physical or mental illness can change a person’s appearance and personality.

Though dragons are creatures in Norse Mythology – we shouldn’t confine ourselves to always thinking of them in that literal sense. They do not always hatch from eggs as do chickens or snakes. Men can become dragons.

In the tale of Otter’s ransom, we have Fafnir the dragon. He, like Smaug, hordes a trove of treasures mined and crafted by dwarves. But unlike Smaug, Fafnir was not born a dragon. He becomes a dragon from the greed of gold – greed of a particularly cursèd horde of gold: Otter’s ransom.

One day Odin, Loki and Hoenir were traveling in Midgard, the land of men. They followed a river which brought them to some falls. There, they noticed an otter eating a salmon. Only it wasn’t actually an otter – it was Hreidmar’s son Otr in the form of an otter:

There hunted hungry

Hreidmar’s offspring:

the silver salmon

sweet he thought them.

Otr in otter’s form

there ate blinking,

on the bank brooding

of black waters.[1]

Fischotter (Lutra lutra) image: copyright 2012 hellboy2503/Jörg David (original URL)

Loki, never one to miss an opportunity for mischief and games, picked up a stone by the riverbank and threw it at the unwitting creature who sat there feasting on its catch:

Then Loki boasted of his catch – with one throw he had bagged an otter and a salmon. They took the salmon and the otter away with them and came to a farm which they entered.[2]

They called at the gate of the farm. When the owner, Hreidmar, asked who it was at the gate, Odin called out to him, “We are three travelers looking for a night’s lodging. We bring a salmon and an otter fur, both of which you are welcome to it in exchange for your kind hospitality!”

Hreidmar quickly called his two sons, Fafnir and Reginn, to his side and told them that their brother Otter had been killed and that his murderers were waiting at the gate wanting supper and a bed for the night.[3]

Fafnir and Reginn came at Odin, Loki, and Hoenir with fore-hammers of the smithies to kill them, accusing them of killing their brother Otr, who often shape-shifts as an otter when he fishes by the falls. As there was a blood price in those days for killing kin, Odin asked Hreidmar what Otr’s blood price would be:

“Peace,” said Odin. “We have slain thy son, it would seem, but it was unwittingly that we did the deed. We will give a recompense for the death of thy son.”[4]

Hreidmar named a blood price for Otr. They would bring a piece of treasure for every hair on the otter skin as Otr’s ransom:

Redgolden rings.

Ransom costly,

This fell must fill,

This fur cover![5]

Since Loki got them into this mess, Odin and Hoenir made Loki go to Svartalfheim, the world of dwarves, and bring back the dwarf Andvari’s horde.[6]

There he searched until he found a silent black lake, and in that lake he wriggled his fingers… until they closed upon the gills of a large pike, which Loki jerked up onto the shore.[7]

“What fish have I found

in the flood leaping,

rashly roaming?

Ransom pay me!”[8]

It was Andvari in fish form. Loki told him that he would let him go only if he paid Otter’s ransom. Andvari reluctantly agreed and turned back into his dwarf form. Andvari gave Loki all of his gold, but kept from him one single ring. Loki noticed this, and demanded that Andvari give up the ring:

“What hides thy hand

Thus hollow bending?”[9]

To which Andvari replied:

 “The ring is little –

Let it rest with me!”[10]

But Loki would not let Andvari short Otter’s ransom:

“All, Andvari,

All shalt render,

Light rings and heavy,

Or life itself!”[11]

If Andvari gave up this perfect ring to Loki, he would lose his ability to make treasures. This ring, like the Philosopher’s stone, was free of any impurity. He who has this ring, possesses the secret power of making gold. Andvari cursed Loki for taking the ring from him:

“The ring with the rune

Of power upon it:

May it weigh down your fortune,

And load you with evil,

You, Loki, and all

Who lust to possess

The ring I have cherished.”[12]

This wasn’t the first time anyone had cursed Loki. So why should he put any stock in this angry old dwarf’s threats? After all, Loki won the gold fair and square – it’s not like Andvari saw him coming.

So Loki brought Andvari’s horde, and the ring, back to Odin. Since Odin quite liked the ring, he kept it for himself. Hreidmar flayed the otter, filled the inside of the skin with gold and then covered every little hair. After the very last piece of gold was placed on the otter’s skin, a single whisker remained. Realizing the ransom was one treasure short, Odin surrendered the ring to Hreidmar. It covered the whisker and Otter’s ransom was paid. With their debt paid, Hreidmar let Odin, Loki, and Hreidmar go.

After their guests from Asgard left, Reginn and Fafnir asked Hreidmar for shares of the gold. Hreidmar refused their request – he would not even part with the smallest bit of copper. Reginn and Fafnir turned against their father and murdered him for his horde. After this was done, Reginn realized that Fafnir had no intention of sharing the gold either. Fafnir told his brother Reginn that if he ever tried to take some of the gold for himself, he would kill him. Reginn left the farm and:

…Fafnir went up on to Gnita Heath and, making a lair there, turned himself into a dragon and lay down on the gold.[13]

The cursèd ring from Otter’s ransom – the piece of treasure that covered the very last whisker on the otter’s dead body, which had the power to pit father against sons and brother against brother, turned Fafnir into a dragon. It also played a part in causing the tragic deaths of Sigurd and the Valkyrie Brynhild – and, depending on your interpretation, even played an important role in bringing about Ragnarök – The Twilight of the Gods – “THE END OF THE WORLD!!!!…or the beginning,” as Aughra from The Dark Crystal would say…

aughra

Aughra tells Jen about the Great Conjunction in The Dark Crystal. image copyright: 1982 Universal Pictures/Sony Pictures/The Jim Henson Company

 

 


[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “The New Lay of the Völsungs” The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún Ed. Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York, 2009), 67.

[2] Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda, trans. Jean I. Young (Berkeley, 1954), 110. (Italicized emphasis: mine)

[3] Douglas “Dag” Rossman, The Northern Path (Seven Paws: Chapel Hill, 2005), 72.

[4] Padraic Colum, Nordic Gods and Heroes (Dover: Mineola, 1996), 144.

[5] Tolkien, 68.

[6] Some say Loki went to Queen Aegir who gave him a magic net with which to catch Andvari and that Loki returned to the same falls – Andvari Falls. As deeds are always returned in Norse Mythology, a magic net was also used to catch Loki when he tried to hide in fish form from the Gods when they brought him to justice for killing Baldur.

[7] Rossman, 73.

[8] Tolkien, 68.

[9] Tolkien, 69.

[10] Tolkien, 69.

[11] Tolkien, 69.

[12] Colum, 149.

[13] Snorri Sturluson, 112.

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