Knowledge of The Saga of the Volsungs provided central inspiration Richard Wagner when he composed his cycle of music dramas, the Ring of the Nibelung. This nineteenth-century version of the Volsung-Nibelung legend is along with Tolkien's work in the twentieth century best known today. As he had earlier depicted the courtly world and its ethic in great detail in Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, Wagner, in composing the Ring cycle, made less use than is normally assumed of the version of the story found in the South German Nibelungenlied, which is essentially a courtly epic. Instead he turned to the more pagan material and attitudes that he found in the Scandinavian sources, especially in Eddic poetry and in The Saga of the Volsungs.

In 1851 Wagner wrote to a friend concerning the saga:

Already in Dresden I had all imaginable trouble buying a book that no longer was to be found in any of the book shops. At last I found it in the Royal Library. It. . . is called the Völsunga saga--translated from Old Norse . . . This book I now need for repeated perusal. . . . I want to have the saga again; not in order to imitate it. . . rather, to recall once again exactly every element that I already previously had conceived from its particular features.

He explored this mythic world in the Ring cycle as a way of expressing his reflections on his own period and countrymen, intending the Ring to be a commentary on the industrial and political revolutions of the nineteenth century. Wagner himself had revolutionary yearnings; he was exiled for his participation in the revolution of 1848.

Not only was Wagner directly inspired by his own reading of The Saga of the Volsungs in H. von der Hagen's 1815 German translation, but the composer was also influenced by the treatment of the saga in Wilhelm Grimm's Deutscher Heldensage. Wagner appears to have been especially struck by Grimm's interpretation of the sibling marriage in the Norse material, and reading Grimm helped Wagner to form his views about the central importance of the The Saga of the Volsungs and Eddic poetry. In adapting the Norse material to his own uses, as elsewhere in writing his librettos, Wagner took many liberties with his medieval sources, abridging, changing, condensing, and combining them freely and imaginatively. The dwarf Alberich, in the opening scene of the Rhinegold, the prelude to the cycle, is taken from the Nibelungenlied, where he is the treasurer of the Nibelung dynasty. The setting in watery depths comes from the Scandinavian tradition and is reflected in the account of the dragon Fafnir found in the saga and in Eddic poetry. The Rhine maidens are borrowed from German folklore. The company of gods and the story of the establishment of Walhalla (Valhalla) were freely adapted by Wagner from the Prose Edda of the thirteenth-century Icelander, Snorri Sturluson.

In the Valkyrie, the first of the music dramas that form the main body of the cycle, Wagner relied heavily on the version of the legends found in The Saga of the Volsungs. Unlike the music drama, the saga meanders through many generations of Volsungs before reaching Sigurd. In the saga, Sigurd's half brother Sinfjotli is of incestuous birth; Wagner transfers this motif, and the dramatic story that surrounds it, to his principal hero, Siegfried (Sigurd). The wisdom imparted to the hero by the Valkyrie Brunnehilde (the Norse Brynhild), whom Wagner makes a daughter of Wotan, is an important element in Siegfried's maturation process and one that is most fully described in the Norse material. The fourth and final music drama, the Twilight of the Gods, reflects Wagner's familiarity with the plot structure of the Nibelungenlied. In this section of the cycle, the role of the villain Hagen (Hogni in the saga) comes principally from the Nibelungenlied, as does the sequence in which Siegfried is killed.

The portrayal of the father of the gods illustrates better than anything else the difference between Wagner's version and his sources. The intervention of Odin (Wotan) is more sporadic and less purposeful in the saga than in Wagner's drama. In the Ring, the god's actions are motivated by an overriding aim, to regain possession of the magical ring and thus to reassert control over the world. Wotan's deliberate plotting to produce a hero who would regain for him the lost ring and the golden hoard can be seen as a critique of the acquisitiveness of the Industrial Age. Wagner added the dimension of political power to the qualities of the ring. In the Scandinavian sources magic rings possess the power to generate wealth and they carry curses, but Wagner's ring also grants its bearer the power to rule the world. The source for this quality seems to have been a relatively insignificant line from the Nibelungenlied, which says that the Nibelung treasure included a tiny golden wand that could make its possessor the lord of all mankind.

In Siegfried, Wagner followed the Norse tradition most closely. Wagnerites will quickly recognize the saga's version of the hero's youth, the dragon slaying, the roasting of the monster's heart, and the singing birds that lead him to the sleeping heroine. The mythical pagan world of the saga comes vividly alive in this part of the cycle, although the romantic ideals of the nineteenth century repeatedly dominate Wagner's presentation. At times we can perceive the dramatic reasons for Wagner's changes. Whereas Sigurd in The Saga of the Volsungs is treacherously killed in bed, Wagner followed the German version which has the hero die in a splendid forest setting, providing the composer with an opportunity to have his music reflect forest and mountain scenes. Once the hero is dead, however, Wagner returns to the version found in the saga for Brynhild's final immolation by fire, and he ends the entire cycle of music dramas in a burst of pagan glory.

Reshaping his Norse sources, Wagner united two stories, unconnected in their Norse forms: the tale of Sigurd and the account of Ragnarök, the downfall of the Norse gods. In Wagner's version, the flames of Siegfried's funeral pyre rise to ignite Walhalla, bringing about the twilight of the gods. Wagner's outlook is strongly conditioned by Völuspá, a powerful Eddic poem that presents all of cosmic history as inevitably leading to the cataclysmic doom of Ragnarök. In Völuspá, Odin calls up from her grave a dead giantess to prophesy for him the fate of the gods; this scene was probably a model for Wotan's confrontation with the earth goddess, Erda, in the Ring. Although now generally translated as "the fate of the gods," the word Ragnarök was earlier interpreted by scholars to mean "the twilight of the gods." Wagner translated this into German as Götterdämmerung.

The Saga of the Volsungs says that its hero's "name is known in all tongues north of the Greek Ocean, and so it must remain while the world endures." Wagner's Ring cycle has helped to make this thirteenth-century statement true.