Wagner Bicentennial Symposium
Wagner’s Place in the Germanic Tradition
Part 2: The Story of Der Ring des Nibelungen
Part 2 of 5
The Story of Der Ring des Nibelungen
For the uninitiated, I will now tell the story of the Ring, confining myself to essentials. Even the initiated would do well to read this summary, just to re-familiarize themselves with the story, as the account of Wagner’s use of the source material to follow will presuppose that one is well-acquainted with the events of all four operas. Those who feel they are very familiar with the storyline of the Ring can skip to the next installment.
Das Rheingold begins deep beneath the surface of the river Rhine. Three mermaids, or water nymphs (“Rhine Daughters”) guard a chunk of gold which possesses special properties: using a magic spell, it can be shaped into a ring which would confer on its wearer mastery over the entire earth. However, there’s a catch: the spell can only be worked by one who has completely renounced love. The dwarf Alberich appears and desperately tries to woo the Rhine daughters. After they taunt the ugly creature mercilessly, he renounces love and steals the gold.
Meanwhile on a nearby mountain, Wotan and the gods are waiting to take possession of Valhalla, which is being built for them by a pair of giants. Egged on by the mischievous Loge, Wotan has made an unwise deal with them: he has promised the giants the beautiful Freia as payment, should they complete the job on time. Wotan fully expects to be able to get out of this deal, on some pretext or other. But when the giants finish the job and show up expecting payment, he is at a loss to know what to do. He can’t give up Freia, as she is the source of the golden apples that keep the gods eternally young.
Once more coming to Wotan’s aid, Loge tells him of how Alberich has acquired the ring of power and is busy amassing a treasure with the aid of the Nibelungen (dwarfs), who are now his serfs. Wotan and Loge descend into Nibelheim in order to steal the treasure from Alberich and offer it to the giants as substitute for Freia (an arrangement the giants tentatively accept). In Nibelheim, Alberich brags of his powers and demonstrates his newly-created Tarnhelm, a kind of cap that can make its wearer invisible, or allow him to take any shape he wishes. Loge tricks Alberich into taking the shape of a tiny frog – whereupon Loge and Wotan nab the evil dwarf and return to the surface of the earth with both him and his treasure.
Wotan forces Alberich to give up the ring of power, and puts it on his own hand. But Alberich isn’t going to go quietly: he curses the ring, promising that all who wear it will meet their doom. The giants, whose names are Fasolt and Fafner, are pleased with Wotan’s compromise, and claim the treasure and the Tarnhelm. Suddenly, however, wise Erda (a kind of chthonic goddess-prophetess) rises from the earth and advises Wotan to shun the ring. He wants to gain more knowledge from her, but she disappears quickly. Having now heard of the Ring’s powers, the giants demand it as well, and Wotan has no choice but to relinquish his prize. But the curse soon shows its power when Fafner kills Fasolt in a quarrel over possession of the ring. Fafner then lumbers off with ring, Tarnhelm, and treasure. Satisfied that Freia is safe, the gods cause a rainbow bridge to appear and walk across it, entering Valhalla. They leave behind clever Loge, who predicts their downfall.
When Die Walküre begins, many years have passed since the events just described. Wotan fears the power of the ring, now in the hands of Fafner, and at the same time he covets it. So he has hatched a two-part scheme. First, he has descended into the earth and Erda, siring on her nine immortal, semi-divine female warriors: the Valkyries. It is their job to gather dead heroes and bear them to Valhalla. Wotan, in short, is building an army of the dead, who will be able to defend him against a possible onslaught by whoever may bear the ring. (Alberich had promised him that he intended to storm Valhalla and Fafner might well do the same – or, worse yet, Alberich might regain the ring.)
Second, in the guise of “Wälse” Wotan has sired twins on a mortal woman. Their names are Siegmund and Sieglinde. Siegmund is now a young man, and Wotan has guided him since infancy, hoping that he will become a hero capable of killing Fafner and capturing the ring – for immediate delivery to Wotan, needless to say. Why can’t Wotan slay Fafner himself? Because his power rests upon the treaties and agreements he has made (all of which are engraved on his spear). If he reneged on his agreement with Fafner and killed him, his power would lose its legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Only a man – a hero – free of Wotan’s entanglements may defeat Fafner and acquire the ring.
All of the above is, in fact, the background to Die Walküre, revealed through dialogue. When the actual story opens, Siegmund is on the run, pursued by a clan he has wronged in some fashion. He seeks shelter in a house, not realizing that it is actually the home of Hunding, the leader of the clan that has sworn vengeance against him. Fortunately, Hunding is out and Siegmund is given hospitality by none other than Sieglinde, Hunding’s wife. The twins were separated when they were very young, however, and do not immediately recognize each other. When Hunding returns, he informs Siegmund that the next day they will fight a duel to the death. Then he retires, leaving the twins alone. Slowly, they come to recognize each other – and simultaneously to feel something more than just familial love. Siegmund tells his sister that their father, Wälse (Wotan), had promised him a sword in his hour of direst need. And, lo and behold, Sieglinde shows him a sword thrust into a great ash tree. It was put there long ago by Wotan in his guise as the grey-bearded Wanderer. Siegmund draws the sword from the tree and christens it Nothung (“needful”). Then he claims Sieglinde as his bride, and the two of them disappear into the forest.
Meanwhile on a barren mountainside, Fricka is in high dudgeon over Siegmund and Sieglinde’s adultery, to say nothing of their incest. Fricka, you see, is the goddess of hearth and home, so she takes the forbidden love of the twins as an affront to her authority. And she knows everything about Wotan’s little scheme. She confronts her weary husband, demanding that when Siegmund faces Hunding, Siegmund must die. This, of course, is the very last thing Wotan wants, since his plan is that Siegmund must go on to win the ring. But Fricka also confronts Wotan with his own self-deception: Siegmund is no “free hero”; Wotan has manipulated him every step of the way. Seeing the truth of it, the Lord of Hosts has no choice but to give in to her demands.
After Fricka departs, Wotan is comforted by his favorite Valkyrie, Brünnhilde. He confesses everything to her, including his lust for the ring’s terrible power. But now, in a state of extreme dejection, he admits that all he longs for is “the end.” He orders Brünnhilde to go to Siegmund and insure that on the following day he will fall to Hunding’s sword. Brünnhilde is stunned, as she knows of Wotan’s love for Siegmund. But she reluctantly agrees to do as commanded.
After Brünnhilde meets Siegmund, however, and hears of his deep love for Sieglinde (he refuses to enter Valhalla without her) she decides that she cannot carry out Wotan’s orders. (Besides, she has the capacity to see into Wotan’s heart, and reads there his true desire: that Siegmund should live.) And so when the battle with Hunding begins, Brünnhilde attempts to defend Siegmund – but suddenly Wotan appears, shatters Siegmund’s sword with his spear, and allows Hunding to kill his beloved son. Brünnhilde quickly manages to gather the fragments of the sword, and disappears with Sieglinde – who by this point is pregnant with Siegmund’s child: the greatest hero of them all, Siegfried.
Riding Grane, her horse, Brünnhilde carries Sieglinde to a mountaintop where the other Valkyries are gathered and implores them to help her. Terrified of Wotan’s wrath, they make a token attempt to conceal her when the god finally arrives, bent on punishing his favorite. Sieglinde hastens away, carrying the fragments of Nothung, and Wotan pronounces his judgment: Brünnhilde is to be rendered mortal, then put to sleep. The first man to waken her she will take as husband, even if he be the lowest man on earth. She defends herself, stating that she only did what she knew Wotan truly wanted, in his heart of hearts. He knows that this is true, and his love for her moves him to grant Brünnhilde’s one request: that her slumbering body be encircled by flames that only a hero can pass through. (We all know who that hero will be – and so, it seems, do Wotan and Brünnhilde.) Wotan puts her to sleep and summons Loge, the god of fire, to ring her with a wall of flame.
Perhaps close to twenty years have passed when Siegfried begins, for the title character is now a young man. His mother, Sieglinde, died giving birth to him, and he has been raised all these years by the dwarf Mime. This is no kindly foster father, however. He is the brother of Alberich, and longs to gain the ring for himself. He has raised Siegfried just so that he might grow up, kill Fafner, and hand the ring over to him. (In short, not unlike how Wotan raised Siegmund!) Such a task will require a great hero, for in the intervening years Fafner has changed himself into a dragon (presumably by means of the Tarnhelm, though Wagner does not say so) and guards the ring and the treasure in a cave deep in the forest. Mime has told Siegfried nothing of his parentage, insisting that he is both the boy’s father and mother. But the young hero has grown to hate the scheming Mime, and is physically repulsed by him – sensing intuitively that he cannot be the dwarf’s son. Mime, for his part, hates Siegfried for his beauty and purity, and sees him only as a tool.
Now when Mime found the dying Sieglinde, not only did he spirit away her child, but also the fragments of Nothung. Since then, the dwarf has tried repeatedly to reforge the sword, without success. One day Wotan, in his guise as the Wanderer, comes knocking while Siegfried is out. He challenges Mime to a guessing game, and the price if Mime loses will be his head! The question and answer session that follows becomes an opportunity for Wagner to recap the audience on what has occurred in the preceding two operas. Mime loses, but Wotan lets him keep his head – and even gives him some advice: only a man who has never felt fear may forge the sword and make it whole again. Then he departs.
Wotan, of course, has described Siegfried. And lately, in fact, Siegfried has been perplexed over the fact that he has yet to experience this “fear” that Mime speaks of. When he returns home, he forces Mime to reveal the truth about his parents. Then he seizes the fragments of Nothung and successfully reforges the sword. While Siegfried is at the fiery forge, a jubilant Mime plots to kill the boy as soon as he has slain Fafner. He is now more convinced than ever that the ring will soon be his.
A little later, Wotan encounters Alberich in the forest. The unhappy dwarf is lingering about outside Fafner’s cave. Together, they rouse Fafner from his slumber, and warn him that a hero approaches who may be his undoing. But the dragon dismisses their words, and slumbers on, sitting atop his hoard. The god and the dwarf depart, and soon Mime and Siegfried arrive at the mouth of the cave. The dragon attacks Siegfried, who uses Nothung to deal him a mortal blow. Before Fafner dies, however, he warns an uncomprehending Siegfried that there is a curse on the treasure. When Siegfried burns his fingers on the dragon’s corrosive blood, he involuntarily sucks on them – and is suddenly able to understand the language of the birds calling to him from the trees. They warn Siegfried that Mime intends to poison him. Having now had quite enough of the nosy old dwarf, Siegfried runs him through with the sword. The birds also advise Siegfried as to the location of a certain maiden, asleep on a mountaintop ringed by fire. Taking the ring and Tarnhelm, Siegfried sets off to rescue Brünnhilde.
At the base of the mountain on which the Valkyrie sleeps, Wotan raises Erda from the earth to question her about the fate of the gods. She has no more to tell him than he already knows: the age of the gods is nearing its end. Resigned to his fate, Wotan expresses the hope that together Siegfried and Brünnhilde will redeem the world. However, when he actually crosses paths with Siegfried later on, Wotan is suddenly seized again by the desire to hold on to his power. He attempts to block Siegfried’s way, but the hero (who has never learned of the gods) shatters Wotan’s spear (symbol of his power) with Nothung. Immediately, Wotan disappears – and never appears again in the Ring. Siegfried successfully passes through the fiery barrier and finds Brünnhilde in full armor. At first he thinks she must be a man. But when he removes the armor he realizes otherwise – and for the first time in his life feels fear. Brünnhilde awakes joyfully, but then realizes to her horror that she is now a mortal woman. Soon, however, the two find themselves in love. With an outpouring of jubilation, they celebrate their love – and the twilight of the gods.
Götterdämmerung opens with a prologue involving the three Norns. Together they spin the fates of man, represented by a great thread. The three sisters recount the tale of how, at the beginning of time, Wotan gave up his eye to drink at their well of wisdom. And of how he tore a branch from the world ash tree to serve as his spear. But since then the well has dried up, and the tree has never recovered from this violation: it has withered and died. The Norns tell us that Wotan, having now lost his worldly power to Siegfried, has ordered the dead heroes of Valhalla to cut up the tree and pile the wood around his fortress. It will not be long before the god will thrust one end of his shattered spear into Loge, whereupon fire will consume Valhalla. As to the events that will follow, the Norns are uncertain. Suddenly, as they gather the thread it snaps. The end of time is near.
At the opening of Act One, the scene shifts to the Hall of the Gibichungs (Burgundians) on the Rhine. The Gibichung king is Gunther, a weak and vacillating man. His most trusted advisor is his dour half-brother Hagen, whose father is Alberich. Just as Wotan sired Siegmund in order to acquire the ring, Alberich sired Hagen for the same task. Hagen now advises Gunther that he should use Siegfried to win Brünnhilde for himself, and make her his queen. And once that task is done, Siegfried can marry Gunther’s sister, Gutrune. Of course, all of this is really a scheme on Hagen’s part to acquire the ring.
As luck would have it, Siegfried arrives a little later, having left Brünnhilde on her mountaintop to go adventuring. Before leaving her, however, he gave her the cursed ring as a token of his love. But on his arrival at the Gibichung court, Siegfried is given a magic potion that makes him lose all memory of Brünnhilde – and immediately fall in love with Gurtrune. After Siegfried and Gunther become blood brothers, the hero agrees to don the Tarnhelm, taking on Gunther’s likeness, and to pass through the flames and win Brünnhilde for the Gibichung king.
Meanwhile, Brünnhilde is visited on her lonely mountaintop by Waltraute, another of the Valkyries. She pleads with Brünnhilde to restore the ring to the Rhine. Waltraute tells her of Wotan, who now sits in Valhalla in a state of deep despair, awaiting the end of the world. Only Brünnhilde may now avert the coming catastrophe, if she will restore the natural order of things, and return the ring to the Rhine daughters. But Brünnhilde refuses to part with the ring, since Siegfried gave it to her as a sign of his love. Almost as soon as Waltraute leaves, Siegfried himself appears—but, of course, he is a changed man (in more than one sense). He seizes the ring from Brünnhilde’s hand, and declares her the property of Gunther. Of course, the confused Brünnhilde really believes that he is Gunther, as Siegfried is wearing the Tarnhelm. Later, he will turn her over to the real king, and then travel separately, back to the palace on the Rhine.
When Gunther and Brünnhilde arrive at the Gibichung court, they are greeted by Hagen and the Gibichung vassals. And, of course, by Siegfried. Brünnhilde is astonished to see him there, and to hear that he is engaged to Gutrune. Siegfried, of course, has no memory of her. Brünnhilde swears an oath that she and Siegfried have lain together as man and wife. Speaking falsely, but honestly, Siegfried insists that they have not, and then departs. Left alone with Brünnhilde and Gunther, Hagen offers to avenge her by killing Siegfried, and Brünnhilde reveals the one vulnerable spot on the hero’s body: his back. In Wagner’s version this is not because the dragon’s blood missed a spot. It is because Brünnhilde did not protect Siegfried’s back with her magic spells, thinking it unnecessary since Siegfried would never turn his back on an opponent. (What she fails to realize, of course, is that the world now contains men without honor, who would gladly stab the hero in the back – a significant point, to which we will return later.) For his part, Gunther agrees to the plot against Siegfried, believing that he may well have lain with Brünnhilde. Under these unhappy circumstances, the double wedding nevertheless proceeds as planned.
Gunther and Hagen plan to kill Siegfried while he is hunting in the forest with them. On the appointed day, Siegfried encounters the three Rhine daughters. They implore him to return the ring, telling him that it is cursed. Foolishly, he ignores their pleas. Hagen then gives Siegfried an antidote to the magic potion he took earlier. The hero begins to remember everything – and just as he recollects his love for Brünnhilde, Hagen stabs him in the back. The hunting party then carries Siegfried’s lifeless body back to the castle. Gutrune is beside herself with sorrow, accusing her brother of murder. But Hagen brazenly takes credit for the deed. When Hagen and Gunther quarrel over the ring, Hagen kills his king. But when he reaches down to take the ring from Siegfried’s finger, he is horrified when the dead man raises his arm threateningly.
Brünnhilde then enters and orders a funeral pyre to be built for Siegfried. She proclaims that Siegfried’s death has atoned for Wotan’s guilt, and that her suffering has at last made her wise. She command’s Wotan’s ravens to return to Valhala, bringing him news of the world’s imminent demise. Taking the ring, Brünnhilde promises that it will be returned to the Rhine. Then she ignites the funeral pyre and, mounting Grane, rides into the flames. The castle is consumed in fire, and the Rhine overflows its banks. Hagen is still bent on capturing the ring, but the Rhine daughters drag him into the water to his death. The flames spread, and Valhalla itself is consumed. The gods are no more. But the orchestra returns to the “Rhine music” heard at the very beginning of the Ring, suggesting rebirth, and eternal cycles of creation and destruction.
1. An alternative hypothesis is that possession of the ring has physically corrupted Fafner, as it does Smeagol in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Rather than use the obvious modern German word Drache, Wagner deliberately employs the Old High German Wurm. This meant the same thing as “dragon,” but the image it conveys is of something larval, rather than reptilian.