Issue 263: 2021 01 21: Wagner’s ‘Ring’

21 January 2021

Wagner’s ‘Ring’

Revealed and explained (3)

By Philip Throp



Years have passed and in a cave in the deep forests lives the dwarf Mime, a less violent but nevertheless equally calculating, estranged brother of Alberich, the dwarf who had, in Das Rheingold, enslaved the dwarf population to work in his gold production.  Living with Mime is a youth, Siegfried, brought up from infancy by Mime.  Siegfried has had no contact with the world outside the forest, he is an ignorant child of nature, spending his days wandering in the forest and coming back to the cave only to eat and sleep.  He is ignorant of his origins, but it is clear from the  musical themes played in the orchestra on his appearances that this is the child of Siegmund and Sieglinde, his pregnant mother saved from the disastrous battlefield by Brunnhilde, the chief Valkyrie.

Though Mime has nurtured Siegfried it is clear that the two have no love for each other.  Mime spends his time as a smith trying to discover how to make gold.  Above all, he has the shattered pieces of a sword which, try as he might, he cannot re-smith into a sword.  As he reaches the end of adolescence, Siegfried bad-temperedly seizes the fragments from Mime and smelts them into a magnificent sword.  This is the re-creation of the sword Notung (originally left in the world by Wotan for his son-champion Siegmund to discover and release, then shattered by Wotan’s spear when Wotan intervened in Siegmund’s battle, causing Siegmund’s death and the orphaning of the child in Sieglinde’s womb).  Mime now realises that his long-planned predicted time has come when Siegfried can be an aggressive champion, who Mime can manipulate to win the ring for him from its present keeper.  The keeper is the murderous surviving  giant of the two giant-brothers who exacted the ring from Wotan as the eventual price for building Valhalla.  By now he is a completely slothful but vicious huge dragon guarding the hoard of gold and other magic-power articles, the Tarnhelm and the ring, in a cave.  Mime brings Siegfried to the dragon’s cave and exhorts him to slay the dragon, so that he (Mime) can take control of the hoard and, more importantly, the ring.  Using Notung, Siegfried, still unaware of the existence of the hoard and the significance of his mission, slays the dragon.  Siegfried now licks the dragon’s blood off his fingers, and is visited by a woodbird, whose language he can now understand.  The woodbird tells Siegfried of the treasure behind the dragon and of Mime’s plan to kill him and usurp the treasure.  Siegfried duly confronts and slays his false guardian Mime, and the woodbird bids Siegfried to return to the cave and be sure to take possession of the Tarnhelm and, especially, the gold ring (Siegfried is ignorant of its importance).  The woodbird now enigmatically bids Siegfried to follow her to meet his destiny.

This is the point at which Wagner ceases composing ‘The Ring’, not to return to it until seven years later.

The scene opens with a consultation between Wotan and Erda, the Earth Mother.  Erda tells Wotan that the waning  of the gods’ influence cannot be averted.  The new order can come only on the demise of the old.

Wotan and Siegfried meet on a lonely road, and the ebullient youth picks a quarrel with him.  An angered Wotan lifts the spear, on which the gods’ contracts with the world are carved, to strike Siegfried.  Siegfried wields Notung and Wotan’s spear smashes.  (Notung is of course the sword originally put into the world by Wotan himself to protect the world’s great hero and ensure the successful outcome of his humanistic task).  Wotan is henceforth referred to in the libretto as “Wanderer” and depicted accordingly.

The woodbird now re-appears and leads Siegfried to the rocky mountain-top, surrounded by layers of fire, where Brunnhilde lies in her Wotan-induced “sleep”.

Siegfried wears the Tarnhelm, won in the duel with the slothful dragon, to penetrate the fire and  find the sleeping Brunnhilde.  The sight of her (the first time he has seen [a] another mortal and [b] a woman) awakens a more mature (empathetic?) and human nature in him, and his kiss awakens Brunnhilde.  He is the enacter of Wotan’s commitment to Brunnhilde at the end of The Valkyrie, that only a true champion, the world’s great hero, can reach her on the mountain-top to awaken her.  He gives her the ring as pledge of his troth.  They rush off to celebrate their union, the opera finishing with Brunnhilde’s noble exhortation to him to go out into the world to do “great deeds”.



For this the last opera in the saga/cycle, we are in a different world.  Whilst the previous three have been in mythic worlds, inhabited by gods, mermaids, dwarfs, giants, a dragon-monster, the deep forest, this last opera begins in a more recognisable (perhaps medieval) world of humans (alongside the Rhine).

King Gunther, a weak king, manipulated by a malevolent scheming retainer, Hagen, needs a queen to satisfy his people and provide dynastic succession.  Hagen tells Gunther that their country is about to be visited by a great champion (Siegfried).  He (Hagen) will persuade Siegfried to win a worthy wife for Gunther.  Siegfried arrives at the court, he and the king get on well together and the two pledge an oath of mutual blood-brotherhood, an oath which foresworn will result in death.  Hagen administers a potion to Siegfried which makes him fall madly in love with the first woman he sees.

Enter Gutrune, Gunther’s sister, who cannot believe her luck in having a champion of such renown as her suitor.  Completely entranced by his new-found, cosmetically-inducted desire for Gutrune, and forgetful of past events, Siegfried brags that he knows of a worthy wife he can win for Gunther, and leaves immediately to woo Brunnhilde for Gunther.  This he does by using the Tarnhelm to disguise his identity during the struggle with Brunnhilde on her mountain-top, to her horror he rips the ring from her finger.  Still disguised by the Tarnhelm he explains to Brunnhilde that he (‘the stranger”) has won Brunnhilde not for himself, but for Gunther.

Brunnhilde is forcibly brought to Gunther’s court by Siegfried.  Siegfried is still under the influence of the potion, but Brunnhilde has become aware that “the stranger”, the great champion who has won her, and now denies her, is in fact her Siegfried.  Each of Siegfried and Brunnhilde swear publicly an oath punishable by death if untrue, she that Siegfried and she have had a sexual union together, and he that he does not know her and has wooed her in chivalric honour for Gunther.  Despite determined resistance from Brunnhilde, a forced betrothal takes place, while arrangements are made for Siegfried’s marriage to Gutrune.

In the next scene, we see Hagen, the captain of Gunther’s feudal vassals, who in a dream is visited by the spirit of his father, Alberich, the evil dwarf who stole the ring, forswore love, enslaved the world, and put a curse on the ring when it was forcibly taken from him by Wotan (in Rheingold, the first opera).

As Siegfried is the grandson of Wotan, the chief god, procreated to win the ring for the good of mankind, so Hagen, son of Alberich, is Siegfried’s counterpart for the advancement of evil, self-advancing designs.

In a mass hunt in the forest, including Hagen and Siegfried, to obtain meat for the double-wedding celebration, the effect of the potion on Siegfried begins to wear off, his memory starts to clear, and he is tricked  by Hagen to tell his “life-story” to Hagen and the band of followers.  It becomes clear that Siegfried, despite his mortal oath to the contrary, has known Brunnhilde.  The broken mortal vow is the excuse for Hagen to lawfully slay Siegfried (from behind).  The dying Siegfried sings a farewell  and plea for forgiveness to the absent Brunnhilde.  Brunnhilde enters, sings of the great deeds Siegfried did, and would have done, ordering Siegfried’s body be laid on a funeral pyre.  Brunnhilde lights the fire, Hagen tries to snatch the ring from Siegfried’s body, but the corpse’s fist clenches and rises against Hagen.  Brunnhilde mounts her horse and rides into the fire.  In the skies Walhalla is now seen, bursting into flames and destroyed by the conflagration.  The Rhine overflows, Hagen drowns, and the rise in the waters allows the Rhinemaidens to take back possession of the ring, where it returns to its original position at the start of the cycle.

For this time, the potential of the ring has been thwarted.  The potential of humankind to build a better world for itself has been unsuccessful.  The ring and the potential (for good or evil) in human nature remains.

This is the last of 3 articles in this series, click for the previous Article covering “Das Rheingold and the Valkrie”.

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