Continuing Melanie Newbould‘s occasional blogs on faith and the arts.
The Ring I
I first encountered Wagner’s tremendous Ring cycle when I was around 15 years old or so. Yes—it was because I had just read Tolkien—so I was interested in rings, dragons and things. But of course Wagner’s Ring is very different—for one thing it has music! In the Ring cycle I encountered the idea of a God becoming human. Now of course, I had already encountered this idea in the basic Christian teaching I received at school, but somehow at this stage, it was more exciting and meant much more to me as part of the Ring.
The tale—featuring a Ring that confers infinite power on the owner but ultimately brings destruction—was written by Wagner; it does not occur in the various fragments of Norse mythology or the Nibelungenlied that Wagner used to craft his libretto. Now it is sometimes thought that the Nazis were particularly keen on Wagner—but reading a little about this seems to suggest the reverse—they performed very few of the operas. Meistersinger and the last of the Ring operas, Götterdämmerung were performed through the war; these can be done without much reference to anything that might be deemed political or indeed magical. However, most of the operas were not performed much after 1938. It is not difficult to speculate why; their message of compassion, renunciation and the futility of the search for power would surely be unacceptable. Hitler personally liked Wagner. It is hard to understand what he might have thought about the cursed ‘Ring of Power’, a concept that seems so aptly to predict his downfall. Perhaps, at some point he did come to understand; he is reported to have listened to Lehar rather than Wagner after 1940 or so.
Even without the music, the Ring of the Nibelung is a wonderful story. It consists of four separate operas. Das Rheingold starts with a perfect world in which three Rhine maidens sing and guard their gold (which is beautiful not valuable). Into their idyll, the world of nature, comes Alberich (the eponymous Nibelung) who steals the gold and renounces Love in order to forge the Ring of power from the Gold. He also gets Mime (his brother) to forge a helmet that enables the wearer to assume any shape, the tarnhelm. Meanwhile Wotan, the God, needs money to pay for his big house—Valhalla, build by Fasolt and Fafner (the Giants). So he steals the gold from Alberich, and pays the giants with it (including the Ring). Alberich curses the Ring. But the fact remains—Wotan’s empire is built on cracked foundations (the gold was not Alberich’s nor Wotan’s to spend). Immediately the giants gain possession of the gold (and the Ring), Fafner kills Fasolt (the first sign of the Ring’s malign power) and sets off into the forest, to live as a dragon, sleeping on top of his gold (like you do). The ring itself then disappears from the tale for quite a while.
Wotan feels the only way out of the inevitable downfall that will surely follow this ‘original sin’ is for someone freer than himself to put things right. This has to be a human for he as a God is bound by treaties and conventions. The next opera Die Walküre (the Valkyrie) descends to the world of humans. Wotan (who has no children with his wife, Fricka, the goddess of marriage) has fathered a human son and daughter with a mortal woman—they are twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, who have met as adults and fallen in love with each other (a bit odd, but never mind). Wotan hoped that Siegmund might be his hero who puts the world right (but he was to be proved wrong about that). The twins do not know they are children of a God, they believe Wotan to be a mortal man, Walse, and they are known as the Wälsungs. Sieglinde is owned by a man, Hunding, who stole her as a child (women are just a commodity for him). Wotan’s earthly family live by an altogether different morality, where woman are not traded or commodified; this has not yet happened on our earth of course, so, in this, Wotan was rather before his time.
Wotan also has nine immortal daughters, the Valkyries, including his most favoured, Brünhilde. They are goddesses of the battlefield and take fallen heroes to Valhalla. Hunding and Siegmund are to face each other in combat, because of Sieglinde. Siegmund is to use a sword, Nothung, left for him by Walse (Wotan). Though Wotan and Brünhilde plan originally to favour Siegmund in the combat, Wotan’s wife objects. For her, marriage is about legal contacts and Hunding legally owns Sieglinde and must be favoured. She of course knows who the twins are and that Wotan left a special sword for Siegmund. Wotan reluctantly agrees that Siegmund must die and informs Brünhilde.
The combat takes place. Brünhilde cannot obey what Wotan says, she must do what she knows he really desires. She realises this when she meets Siegmund before the combat, as a Valkyrie. She therefore protects Siegmund in the combat. Wotan intervenes—his spear breaks Nothung and Siegmund is killed. He then strikes Hunding dead. Brünhilde flees away, fearing Wotan, with Sieglinde (now pregnant) and with the fragments of the sword.
Wotan eventually catches up with Brünhilde. At first he is angry and tells her what her punishment for disobedience is to be: she is to become a fully mortal woman (we all know that this is actually a great gift). She successfully pleads that she be protected, so that any man who wins her will have to be very brave. Wotan agrees to this condition. His anger has faded and they tearfully and tenderly say goodbye to each other, as a loving father and daughter. He surrounds Brünhilde with a burning ring of fire and leaves her asleep on a rock, now a mortal woman. And so ends the second Ring opera.
For me, there was so much to think about here. The basic story is about the development of an original sin that must somehow be atoned for. I will explain what happens next (spoiler—the world ends—it’s Das Ende) in the next post.