TBT – Rare Books Online Showcase

October: The Rhinegold & Valkyrie

Originally published October 2011 on our Rare Books Online Showcase

For the October showcase, Special Collections will be highlighting a fantastic volume: Wagner’s The Rhinegold & Valkyrie. This work, combined with Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods forms The Ring of the Nibelung, translated by Margaret Armour and illustrated by noted English illustrator Arthur Rackham.


Arthur Rackham was born in 1867 and when he was 18 he began studying at the Lambeth School of Art.  Rackham became a full-time illustrator in 1894 when he illustrated for Anthony Hope and has been featured in the Milan and Barcelona International Expositions in 1906 and 1912 respectively.  He was even included in an exhibition at the Louvre in 1914.


Rackham is probably best known for his technique. From Wikipedia:

Rackham invented his own unique technique which resembled photographic reproduction; he would first sketch an outline of his drawing, then lightly block in shapes and details. Afterwards he would add lines in pen and India ink, removing the pencil traces after it had dried. With color pictures, he would then apply multiple washes of color until transparent tints were created. He would also go on to expand the use of silhouette cuts in illustration work.

Typically, Rackham contributed both colour and monotone illustrations towards the works incorporating his images.


This volume, a translation of Wagner’s libretto of the first two parts of The Ring of the Nibelung includes many plates depicting the fantastical images Wagner created on stage for his operas (or as he would prefer them called, “dramas”) from dwarves to dragons. Part of the mythological subject matter is recognizable to the non-opera-goer because it resembles Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, though Tolkien denied fervently that he was inspired by Wagner’s work.  This may or may not be true, but the similarities exist mainly because they both used the same source material, namely the Norse Legends and The Nibelungenlied.


Rackham inspired the cinematography in Pan’s Labyrinth and according to Wikipedia: “In Hellboy, the design of the tree growing out of the altar in the ruined abbey off the coast of Scotland where Hellboy was brought over, is actually referred to as a ‘Rackham tree’ by the director.”

To see Rackham’s illustrations in The Rhinegold & Valkyrie or Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods and the other Rackham-illustrated volume we have, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, come to the third floor of the Murray Library to University Archives and Special Collections!

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