The Ring explained Part 8 – Ringtones author Julie Lake demystifies Wagner’s Ring Cycle
Fans of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle usually see it as being about the struggle between love and power. When in fact it’s really about a conflict that’s just as old – the class struggle. There are definite Marxist undertones in The Ring and if you think that’s far-fetched it’s worth remembering that Wagner was something of a radical in his younger years. So it’s a fair bet that The Ring was written to express his views on privilege and class exploitation.
On the surface, of course, The Ring of the Niebelung is a mishmash of Norse legends in which gods, dwarves, mortals and various monsters slug it out until everything ends in tears. Wagner, no shrinking violet, knew he had an orchestral and vocal work of exceptional magnificence but he didn’t bother to give us a storyline that made much sense. Anyone who has ever studied the libretti for the four operas (without the benefit of the splendid singing in your ears) knows how easy it is either to fall about laughing or just give up trying to follow the crazy plot and motivations.
That’s why I wrote Ringtones. With a great love of the four operas, a working knowledge of Norse mythology, and the ability to take a modern perspective, it was possible to put together a reasonably coherent story and do away with the silly bits and fill in the gaps in the way that Wagner surely would have done if he’d been as good a writer as he was a composer. In doing this I found that the old ‘love and power’ theory fell to pieces like the sword Needful when Wotan zapped it, to be reforged as a whole bright new theory of class conflict. Viewed in this way, the story of The Ring of the Nibelung starts to make some sense.
What is it, after all, that Wotan, the main protagonist, fears most? It is the downfall of Valhalla; not just his palace but his entire world. Gotterdamerung. The Twilight of the Gods.
In Norse mythology, as in all ancient pantheology, the gods rule the known universe. They are the aristocracy, top dogs, alpha beings to whom all others must bow down. And like elites in every time and place, their abiding concern is to hang on to all that power. For, as history shows, supreme power never stays in the same hands for long. Empires rise and crumble; rulers are toppled by their subjects; new elites rise to take the place of those they have toppled. Power can only be retained through strength – and wealth – and is always vulnerable to either the barbarian at the gate or the discontented serf within.
This is exactly the situation when the Ring Cycle begins. The gods of Valhalla reign supreme but they have become effete and decadent, taking their supremacy for granted. Just like the French and Russian nobilities before they were overthrown. We have a powerful symbol here in the magic golden apples tended by Freia, Goddess of Fertility (and a few other things). The gods depend on these for their eternal youth and strength but, inexplicably, the apple trees are failing. Everyone is worried about this but nobody has a clue what to do about it.
The apples can be seen as representing the source of power which must be tended with constant vigilance if it is to remain healthy and strong. Elites always come to neglect their power sources in time, which is why they inevitably fall. Wotan knows this; he doesn’t really need Erda’s prophesies to warn him; he can see all too clearly that the era of the gods is drawing to its close. Unless he can do something to prevent it.
Just at this time a new source of power emerges – the ring! This bit of bling had been crafted by the Niebelung dwarf Alberich, a nasty bit of work, or so he appears to gods and mortals in the story. Alberich must have a smidgin of better feeling under his dark exterior because he goes to the bank of the River Rhine looking for love. What he finds is three flirty, flighty girls, the Rhinemaidens, whom we assume to be mermaids or sirens because they live actually in the river where their most precious possession is a horde of gold. Alberich goes for a bit of a grope and the girls tease and then repulse him until he gets into a fine old temper and grabs their gold, even though he is fully aware that it comes at a price – he can have love or money but he can’t have both. Seeing that he’s an ugly little sod who isn’t likely to get any love anyway, Alberich goes for gold.
Such magic does the Rhinegold possess that the ring made from it confers great power on whoever wears it. So, like many another downtrodden working class lad, Alberich dreams of seizing power from those who have held it so long – the gods. He’s no revolutionary, this dwarf, driven by notions of democracy and equality. By his own account he’s really only interested in bettering his own position, enjoying fabulous wealth and lording it over his own Niebelung folk. Yes, there’s a hint that he might like to score a point or two off Wotan and the haughty gods. But basically, Alberich just wants to join the nouveaux riches.
Wotan, however, sees it differently and in the operas there is a certain sense that this is due to conflicts in the distant past between gods and dwarves, as well as between gods and giants. Wotan shudders at the thought of Alberich leading his Niebelung hordes to conquer Valhalla and overturning the existing social order. Throughout the Ring Cycle this is his greatest fear and prime motivation for getting the ring back to the Rhinemaidens. Thus Alberich and the Niebelung dwarves can be seen to represent the lower orders who need to be kept in their place. After all, they live in a dark, dank underground and are entirely lacking in refinement and social graces. In fact, as Wagner cast them, they are just how the upper classes have always seen those who serve them at the lowest level – nasty, brutish and short.
Thus the ring – made from mysteriously-sourced gold and crafted by a member of the proletariat – symbolises the mystique of power which, as is pointed out in Ringtones by Loge, is largely a matter of bluff bolstered by myth. Political and social power is gained by force but as the initial strength of the elite wanes it is held in place largely by just those two elements – bluff and myth. That’s why Wotan simply MUST get hold of the ring, because to have such a new and potent artefact in the hands of the lowest class is too terrifying to contemplate. And, when he realises (warned by Erda) that the ring’s power carries a curse it reinforces the fear he already has that his own power to rule – and that of his class, the gods – requires only a sharp shove to make it topple. So why doesn’t he just hang on to the ring, once he’s got hold of it? To augment his own considerable power? Or, believing Erda’s prophecy, albeit reluctantly, doesn’t he immediately return it to the Rhine? Why does he immediately and tamely hand it over to a bloody giant, of all creatures?
The giants, like the dwarves, form an underclass to the gods. Yet their position seems stronger. Dwarves serve the Nine Realms of The Ring as miners and smiths; digging stuff out of the earth’s bowels and fashioning it in to useful artefacts for others. They rarely venture from their oblivion. Giants, however, are big and strong and their own realm (not that we know much about it) is out in the light and air where they seem to occupy a role similar (in our terms) to that of the sturdy, semi-independent yeoman class of bygone times. Giants, we know, have been tough enough to take on the gods in the past and such conflict has led to treaty rather than defeat. At the beginning of The Ring story Wotan is seeking to maintain the uneasy truce between gods and giants and obviously needs their skills and hard labour to build his dream home. Treaties and political negotiations are recorded runically in Wotan’s spear, made from the Tree of the World’s Knowledge (an Ash, if you’re horticulturally inclined). We can see this tree as the accumulation of wisdom and experience that guides human action, and the spear as its implementation. As with all high-level negotiation and the treaties that ratify it, there must be faith and trust. So the word of Wotan, ruler of the known universe, must indeed be his bond. And when he pledges it to the giants, he cannot break it, even at the expense of the ring.
He’s in a nasty position! Again, we might wonder why he doesn’t hastily try and find something else which will satisfy Fafner. But – it’s a difficult moment. Frikka and her siblings are demanding he redeem Freia before the giants take her away for good, Erda is prophesying doom for anyone who dares to wear the ring, the giants are angry, distrustful, obdurate and ready to stomp away as soon as they’ve got what they came for. He just needs one more little bit of gold to complete the payment. And so, in a gesture of supreme exasperation, he chucks in the ring. It’s a gesture he regrets almost as soon as he’s made it and will come to regret more as time goes by…but then he is, after all, Head God and his own power is still stronger than anything else in the Nine Realms and he’ll just have to try and get it back. Which he does, once he fully realises the ring’s significance.
Those who hold power do not always make the wisest decisions, especially when under pressure. They don’t think quickly enough or see far enough ahead. Think of Louis X1V. Think of Czar Nicholas. Think of Julius Caesar. Or Richard Nixon. There’ll always be another chance to act. To put things right. The hubris of rulers tells them they are bullet-proof even when all the evidence tells them the gun is loaded and the trigger cocked.
So now Fafner has the ring. The symbol of power. Yet this stubborn, apparently fearless creature – who has already shown he is more than ready to stand up to the Head God – does nothing with it. Having slain his brother he leaves not only Valhalla where he has just completed a magnificent building but also his own giants’ home and goes to earth, of all unlikely places, where he dozes away the rest of his life in a lonely cave. He even turns himself into a dragon, or so it’s said. Why? I mean if the ring really does hold magic, why not use it for his own ends as Alberich wanted to do? Or, if he fears its death curse, why not just give it up? The only conclusion we can come to is that Fafner has no idea that the ring is anything but a bit of bling – indeed, why should he know of it? Thus the likeliest explanation for his behaviour lies in the nature of giants, who are unsociable, covetous and suspicious of everyone, especially each other. Fafner has been given wealth beyond his dreams but, as it says in Ringtones, what is he going to do with it? Buy a yacht? Build himself a castle bigger than Valhalla? Use his wealth to lure goddesses as beautiful as Freia? Giants have no interest in such things. Like the sturdy yeoman of old, they are happy enough with their lot in life provided nobody tries to take anything from them. They will serve those above on their own terms when it suits without the dangers or responsibility of elitist power, violently defending their rights if necessary. They will despise those below and crush and make no common cause with them when revolution is whispered. Giants have no wish to overturn the status quo. So sudden extreme wealth becomes a problem for a giant. Others will try to take it from him – dwarves, gods, other giants. Even mortals, unless they can be sufficiently frightened away. So Fafner, a true miser, hides himself and his gold where his fearful reputation can protect him best. Wotan, the only one powerful enough to tackle him direct, has given his sacred word. And nobody else has the guts! Until Siegfried the Hero comes along, that is.
Siegfried, though godlike in attitude, is half mortal. When we deconstruct The Ring from a class perspective, mortals represent the middle class in all societies. Essentially conservative yet with the education and ambition to yearn for something better. To govern a democracy rather than be ruled by an aristocracy. Except, that is, for those extremists who wish either to become aristocrats (or gods, if you like) themselves or else overturn the whole structure in the name of The Common Man and the equal sharing of wealth through labour. Wotan, it’s apparent, likes mortals. Unlike Frikka and the other Valhalla-ites who look on those Down There as basically a bourgeois bunch just one level up from the dwarves. He even dreams of a race of beings born of both mortals and gods – and gets this off to a start with his own ill-fated dalliance with a mortal woman. Such a race would combine the best traits of both races and in time compensate for the dangerous decline of the gods. (Perhaps this is where Nietszche got the idea – what IS it with the Germans?)
And so while The Ring begins with a clash between the upper and lower classes, it is soon the middle class that takes over the action. Siegfried, with that extra touch of arrogance that comes from his god-half bullies the decidedly proletarian Mime and strides through the world like the upper-class twit he is, sure in his sense of privilege and happy to take on either god or dwarf or giant. Gunther and Gutrune Gibich conspire and aquiesce to further their ambitions and in so doing serve the purpose of Hagen whose bid for the ring – and its power – is conscious and unequivocal. Brunnhilde becomes mortally middle-class when she is chucked out of Valhalla; she’s a nice girl who seems to just want to settle down with the man of her dreams (even if he is her nephew!) but in the end, while godly Wotan and dwarvish Alberich do nothing but skulk and glower, it is she who actually brings about the overthrowing of the old order. It is a violent act yet her motive is neither destructive nor self-aggrandizing. We can see her as standing for Reform, rather than Revolution but alas, like all reformists, her essential wisdom and good intent are corrupted by the machinations of the fanatical and self-interested until mass destruction becomes the inevitable outcome.
There are other potent symbols of class conflict in The Ring. One is the sword Needful, given first to Siegmund by Wotan who subsequently destroys it, then re-forged by Siegfried. Think of the name – Needful. And how it resonates with the old Communist catchcry, “To Each According to His Need – From Each According to His Ability”. The very downtrodden Siegmund names the sword when it comes to him in his hour of need. Siegmund is a good chap who is very much the victim of his deprived upbringing. And he does indeed need just about everything – love, safety, a job with a decent wage, a roof over his head – and only the sword gives him any chance at it all. Wotan, having raised his hopes in the first place, smites them to pieces at one blow, essentially in the interests of the gods – his own elite. He does this with anguish – but when push comes to shove Siegmund, the innocent, is sacrificed. But the sword of need is not lost. Sieglinde, Siegmund’s wife and sister, secures its shattered segments for their son, Siegfried. Mime, Siegfried’s dwarf stepfather, takes them and keeps them. Wagner casts Mime as a villain but though unattractive he is not totally unsympathetic. He works very hard to try and re-forge the sword but just doesn’t have the ability. In the end Siegfried does it himself and you can’t help thinking that this powerful symbol of redressing need might be better in the hands of someone more deserving. True, Siegfried has neither malice nor ambition. But he is not sympathetic to any needs other than his own, like those members of the middle class who think the unwashed masses should be kept in their place, even if it is a place of constant suffering and deprivation.
Like the ring, the sword Needful confers power on whoever wields it – and like the ring, that power may be illusory. It takes a Hero to wield Needful to good effect – but the sword cannot ultimately protect against mortal weakness. Siegfried, like most of us, has a hidden but dangerous vulnerability. Once this is revealed to his enemies, he is doomed. And when he falls it is not to a god or a dragon but to the half-dwarf, half-mortal Hagen – cold, scheming, resentful, cunning – the very epitome of the lower middle class revolutionary who has been moved to serve the interests of the proletariat. Not that it does him much good. Hagen reaches out for the ring…for the power…but loses it and his life in the deluge that follows. And which takes the ring…and the power…back to its source. Where, presumably, it will lie hidden until the next aspirant for power comes in search of it.
Another interesting symbol is the tarnhelm – a golden helmet made by Mime (at Alberich’s command) which confers on its wearer the ability to change shape, become invisible and even travel through space. This is not an artefact of absolute power like the ring. Rather, it symbolises the ability to adapt and deceive, cause confusion and terror, conduct covert operations, move fast and in concealment – all useful things in the grab for power and not something an elitist like Wotan would want to see in the hands of his class enemy. Yet he has to give the tarnhelm, along with the ring, to Fafner to pay his debt. Fortunately for everyone, the inscrutable giant does absolutely nothing with it. Except, perhaps, to turn himself into a dragon. Only a true revolutionary engaged in trying to overthrow the existing social order can, it appears, understand and make use of the tarnhelm. When Siegfried gets it he uses it to play a particularly nasty practical joke on poor Brunnhilde. After which it has no further place in the story. So what happens to the tarnhelm, that marvellous instrument for transformation? Wagner won’t tell you so if you want to find out you’ll have to read Ringtones!
And then there’s Wotan’s spear. This is the ongoing engine of his power which is carved in runes on its wooden shaft. A shaft which we know has been hacked from The Tree of the World’s Knowledge – to the disapproval of some. Erda, for instance, who is the voice of caution and warning throughout this saga. The voice which, in all ages, is rarely heeded. Wotan can use his spear to cow and even annihilate his enemies and yet he rarely does this. Everyone knows he can – and fears him because of it – yet nobody ever seems to see him do it. He could zap the dreadful Alberich into oblivion and thus save everyone a lot of trouble – and yet he doesn’t do it. Doesn’t do it to Fafner, either. He DOES do it to Hunding, brutal husband of Sieglinde. Who is actually his son-in-law. Zapping him almost casually in a moment of vengeful impulse – and probably to annoy Frikka. It may be that while Alberich holds the ring, as he does at the beginning of the story, Wotan is wary of trying his own weapon against this unknown symbol of power. Especially if another method can be found – the awesome potency of the spear is not, after all, to be wasted. And then, once the ring has been gained, Alberich is not worth bothering about it, temporarily transformed as he is into a harmless toad. A wise ruler knows that with power comes responsibility and you don’t go in for shock and awe just because you can. Wotan sees himself not only as a wise ruler but one born to rule – not like that grubby little prole Alberich!
That’s the difference between the ring and the spear. The latter infers a power that can only be wielded by the especially anointed. The former can be worn by anyone with the strength – or the cunning – to grab it.
And finally, we have the symbol of gold itself. The metal which for all time has been regarded as superior to all else – virtually indestructible, untarnishable, unassailable, ripped from the earth by brutal means to be turned into the kind of wealth which is needed to underpin all social and political dominance. Yet its worth is not inherent; it is only what we declare it to be. Take it with you to a deserted island, along with food and water and a good book, and it will be the possession you value least. This is why it’s best kept at the bottom of the Rhine, guarded by those who prize it only for its glitter. Let loose in the world, the illusory value of gold is always a force for evil that brings out the worst in all who covet it – greed, envy, hatred, selfishness. And as long as some have more of it than others there will be social division and conflict.
That, I think, is the real meaning of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung. Sure, it’s about sex, betrayal and power – but mainly it’s all about class.