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Myth and Legend in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Part Two

By Karl E.H. Seigfried

The concept of a man being seduced by a supernatural creature – whether goddess, elf or fairy – and spending time in her mystic realm before (in some cases) returning in a somehow transformed state to the everyday world is one that seems to be have been quite widespread. Thomas the Rhymer of Scotland has his Queen of Elfland, Lord Nann of Celtic Brittany has his Corrigan, and Oisin of Ireland has his Niamh. Sigurd’s visit to the mountain of Brynhild can also be seen as a variation on this theme.

Likewise, the Tannhäuser ballad is but one version of the ancient idea that a man who stays with a beautiful woman of the Other World is taken out of the normal flow of time’s passing. Either nine years in Elfland takes place in then space of one of our nights, or a single night in Elfland lasts through one of our decades. The Tannhäuser of the opera laments, “The time I have sojourned here, I cannot measure. Days, moons mean nothing to me any more.”

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