Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Wagner's Ring - Turning the Sky Around

“Hello everyone.  I’m C Sanchez-Garcia, and I’m a Ringhead.”

“Hi C Sanchez-Garcia.  Have you rehabilitated yourself?”

Adolf Hitler was a Ringhead.  Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead are Ringheads.  They come out of the woodwork like garden gnomes whenever Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungun operas are performed. 

I became obsessed with this opera cycle a few months ago when I heard a portion of it on Werner Herzog’s version of “Nosferatu”.  Since then I’ve been wondering what it is that can make this story get under someone’s skin so strongly.  I believe it comes from the pull of mythical archetypes.  I think stories like this speak to some deeper level beyond our reach.

This is what happens more or less -  

There are four operas, Wagner thought of them as a trilogy and a prequel, though he would not have used those terms.  The story is based on the ancient pantheon of Germanic and Nordic gods, lately familiar to Marvel comics fans and movie goers. 

The prequel is “Das Rheingold” which begins inauspiciously with a poor devil of a dwarf named Alberich, chief of a tribe called The Nibelungs and three sexy mermaids called “Rhine Maidens” or “Rhine Daughters”.  At the bottom of the Rhine River the mermaids guard the “Rheingold”, a small pile of gold with a cosmic secret.   Alberich lusts for the Rhine Maidens, flirts with them, makes a serious grab at them one by one but he is way out of his league.   They tease him pretending each to have fallen in love with him on first sight and take turns humiliating him, crushing his heart and generally busting his balls beyond endurance.  Afterward they carelessly chatter the secret of the Rheingold – whoever  curses love and fashions a ring from it will rule the world.  That’s what you get for entrusting this kind of thing to bimbos.  By this time poor Alberich is perfectly ready to curse love; he  up and steals the gold and makes from it a magical ring of power.  During the next three operas “The Valkyrie”, “Siegfried” and “Gotterdammerung” the cursed ring passes through three generations of Gods and mortals bringing destruction and betrayal in its wake and ultimately leading to the downfall of the gods and the beginning of a new world of mortal men and women based on love instead of law.  This marathon musical experience is a good seventeen and half hours long and it has the power to change your head. 

Love versus power is a theme that runs through the opera cycle.  It becomes a kind of zero-sum game where you can have one or the other but not both equally.  Those who acquire ultimate power must renounce love, a theme that resounds through great literature and movie making like “Macbeth” and the “Godfather”.

In Jungian dream study, a dwarf is to the unconscious a symbol of stunted psychic growth.  The waters of the Rhine are the unconscious itself, the primal collective consciousness from which individuation emerges.  The Rhine Maidens are the voices of our instinctual nature, the sexual guardians of the Rheingold.  The Rheingold, hidden at the bottom of the dark waters of the unconscious is the spark of individuated self-aware consciousness.  When Alberich steals the Rheingold, he is Prometheus stealing fire from the gods themselves, consciousness emerging  defiantly from the pool of animal nature which is instinctual and unaware.  The Rheingold is the manifestation of the Self.  The violent birth from the waters of the mother womb of consciousness.

He has renounced love for power which gives him the magic to make a ring from the gold.  He abuses the other Nibelungs  to amass vast wealth for himself alone with which he hopes to raise an army to overthrow the rule of the Gods and make himself lord of the world. 

The other great player in the story is Wotan, as he is called in German, but also known as Odin, the all father of the gods of the air.  Valhalla has been built for him by two giants, Fafner and Fasolt who have demanded Freya, goddess of sex and youth in return.  Without her the gods immediately began to age and weaken as their great life force is possessed by the giants grip.  Loge, god of fire, advises Wotan to steal Alberich's gold as well as the Ring and offer to the gold to the giants in ransom for Freya.Sex has always been associated with youthful vitality in many belief systems, and with spirituality itself.  Though a minor character in the story, without Freya’s function of youth and sexual vitality the gods will wither and quickly age.  

Loge and Wotan journey underground, find Alberich, deceive and bind him and bring him up to Valhalla as their prisoner.  Wotan orders Alberich to give him the Nibelung's hoard to pay the giants in return for his freedom.  When Alberich refuses to part with the ring , Wotan attacks him and wrenches the ring by violence from Alberich’s hand, becoming himself a thief.  But not before Alberich places a mighty curse on the ring that it will bring death and despair to whoever owns it and envy to all who see it.  It is as though he has placed a curse on free will itself.

The giants demand the ring in addition to the gold and Wotan refuses.  Erda, the goddess of mother earth (are you counting? That’s all four elements now) appears ghost like and advises Wotan to let the ring go and then predicts the decline and fall of the gods.  All things must end, says Erda.  Wotan gives the ring to the giants and Freya is returned.

The giants are symbols as well, of strength without imagination.  Fafner kills Fasolt and keeps the hoard and the ring for himself.  He spends the rest of his days as a dragon, sitting inertly on the gold, possessing wealth and power but no plan what to do with it until he is finally killed in the third opera, “Siegfried”.  The gold, and his fear of letting go of it has trapped him into an empty life without purpose.

In the next play, we meet the daughters of Wotan and Erda – the Valkyries, warrior maidens who bring fallen heroes to Valhalla to stock Wotan’s army against the rise of Alberich.  The Valkyries laugh over the death of the slain they collect from battlefields, they are beings entirely without empathy for the dead.  But Wotan has lost something of his own soul, ruling only by cold laws and contracts carved on a spear shaft.  When his Valkyrie daughter Brunhilde comes to warn Siegmund, Wotan’s mortal son, that he must fall in battle but will go to paradise in Valhalla, Siegmund refuses because he will not chose Heaven if it means leaving his great love Sieglinde behind.  For Brunhilde this refusal of paradise stirs a powerful psychic epiphany and she discovers her own spiritual awakening through Siegmund’s compassion.  She is fully human.  She has discovered love.  Her own moral awakening and compassion inspires her to rebel against her father’s will.  She has acquired individuation, independence and passion and is no longer fit to be a god.  She is disowned by Wotan and her sister Valkyries and cursed to live life as a mortal woman as the price of discovering her humanity.  

In the third opera we meet Wotan’s grandson, Siegfried, the child of Siegmund who has been raised in solitude by a dwarf named Mime in hopes of using Siegfried as a tool to acquire the Ring of Power.  He is a morally vacuous and egocentric hero, who is brave because he is unaware of fear and unaware of the feelings of others.  Up until the moment he meets Wotan he has only met two other people and killed them both.

Clinically a sociopath, his purity and bravery are the product of his psychic stuntedness, having been raised without parents or the company of others.   Wotan seeks him out in disguise with a grandfatherly affection, but Siegfried's personality so enrages him that within minutes they are in combat.  Using the sword of his mortal father - a phallic symbol - Siegfried breaks Wotan's spear ending his power.  Defeated, Wotan departs and Siegfried finds Brunhilde in an enchanted sleep on a rock surrounded by Loge's fire, a flame so fierce only a fearless hero can pass through it.  When he awakens Brunhilde from her virginal sleep and sees a woman for the first time he has his first taste of fear and wonder with his awakening sexuality.  The emotional and sexual collision  between this pair of strange virgins is almost brutal in its intensity and is one of the great romantic scenes in all of operatic drama.

Ultimately he betrays Brunhilde and Brunhilde exacts revenge on him resulting in his murder.  In the final scene of the final opera, Christ-like she throws herself on Siegfried’s funeral pyre while wearing the Ring.  The flames flare to the clouds and consume Valhalla and all the gods.  Suddenly the Rhine river swells in a surge quenching the flames and the Rhine Maidens appear and snatch back the Ring of power from the charred hand of Brunhilde, the image of consciousness and rebirth and bring it back to the dark depths of the unconscious. 

The archetypal symbols of the Ring of the Nebelung are the story of the journey of consciousness to self realization and the creation of the world itself.  There is no story I know of that covers so many universal  themes in its course.

 We don’t think of it that way when we listen, but a deeper part of us recognizes it’s own language of symbols and images.  The Rhine Maidens sing to the waters within us.  I think this is what religion does for many people, it has a way of invoking in images and stories what cannot be simply said in words.  I think this is what must be at the highest level of story telling,


  1. An excellent re-telling of a rather contorted tale, Garce. I think you're right that the story taps into a whole range of archetypes - but somehow to me it does not make sense. How can Brunhilde be Christ-like (i.e. loving and compassionate) if she is wearing the ring that curses and denies love? Siegfried is a most ungodlike character, from your description, but his evil comes from within, not from the ring.

    One thing that occurs to me in reading your account is the many parallels with Tolkein's Lord of the Rings saga. I was a Tolkein fanatic as a teenager (maybe another kind of Ringhead). In fact I wrote a 50 page senior English thesis on Middle Earth. As in Wagner's opus, the great ring of power corrupts all who hold it, even temporarily. There's even a dragon nesting upon a pile of gold.

  2. a virtuoso performance here, Garce. if this isn't a ringing endorsement for opera, particularly Ring of the Nibelungun, i don't know what is. i was thinking the same thing as Lisabet, about the parallels with LOTR. others have mused on the same:

  3. Hi Lisabet!

    It’s pretty complicated stuff. I have problems with Brunhilde and Siegfried too. Brunhilde when she’s a Valkyrie is arrogant, playful, assertive and fearless. Even more so when she defies Wotan out of compassion for the pair of doomed lovers. I've heard that of the four operas, “The Valkyrie” is the most universally popular because it is the most human. Fathers and daughters identify with it. Franz Liszt, Wagner’s father in law, sobbed all through the first performance of it. Siegfried is intended to be a hero in as much as he is boyishly aggressive and innocent. But he’s hard to like. And then at the beginning of Gotterdammerung instead of setting up a home and family with his new wife he sails down the Rhine leaving her behind to search for adventure and Brunhilde allows him to leave without protest. She’s very beat down for a lot of this last opera, a far cry from the spear carrying warrior maid riding a flying horse of The Valkyrie. Christ-like may not be the right image, but she wants to go up in flames with her great love and sacrifices herself at the end like a Viking Queen, so at least to that extent. And of course her death restores the ring to the Rhine maidens and brings the world into a new order. What Wagner never explains is what became of Alberich. He isn't killed and at the end there’s no reason he wouldn't try to acquire the ring again someday.

    When I first heard of The Ring my first thought was of Lord of the Rings. I was sure that Tolkien had skillfully riffed off of Wagner, but I haven’t found anyone else who thinks so in spite of the clear similarities in the stories and characters. Maybe not I guess.


  4. Amanda
    - wow!

    What a great article, I definitely want to read this. I just said to Lisabet I didn't think anyone else had seen a connection and now I see someone at the New Yorker no less has. Gotta read this tonight. Thank you for this link!

    Hang in there.




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