How seriously should we take the Ring of the Nibelung?
Wagner, of course, meant us to take it very seriously indeed, at least musically. And he was right, because it’s a work of staggering genius.
Whether he meant us to take the story seriously is another matter. He used the ancient Norse legends, or at least his version of them, because all those gods and giants and dwarves and other strange beings offered such a rich mine of fantasy from which creative musical treasure could be brought forth. Humankind is prosaic by comparison and offers less scope for the imagination. That the legends were just an excuse for great music is borne out by the fact that the story, as told by Wagner, doesn’t make much sense. The ideas are all there but the plot is full of holes that even a giant could get through! The storyline and even the motivations often defy logic. And for this, The Ring has long been derided, even by those who love the music.
Inevitably, therefore, we look for allegory. And it’s there to be found, if you look. This is why so many modern producers of The Ring operas, and their set designers, have tried to put their own interpretation on The Ring story, even though the libretto doesn’t make this feasible. Thus we have had valkyries on motorbikes ans Wotans in evening dress and Siegfrieds in tee-shirts and dwarves dressed to look like Nazi stormtroopers. In my opinion, The Ring only works if the characters are dressed in the way illustrators have traditionally shown us that such mythical characters would have dressed – horned helmets, chainmail, swords and all the rest. I’ve never yet seen a credible horse on stage, for Brunnhilde to ride into the flames, let alone a credible dragon. But my favourite productions have stuck close to Wagner’s own ideal in terms of scenery and costume – he knew what a giant or a dwarf should look like, and what a valkyrie should wear on her head!
When I wrote Ringtones, the allegorical nature of the story was very much on my mind. Thus I looked at it through modern eyes and gave the characters modern speech patterns, even though setting it very firmly in the mythical past – where it belongs. Despite the fact that the protagonists themselves are mythical in character – dwarves and giants and so on – they all have very human traits and speak in human speech in the opera. And in the book. They can all understand each other without difficulty. And so it is easy to see them as representative rather than real. Wotan, for example, is quite familiar to us. He reminds me a bit of those larger-than-life media moghuls and entrepreneurs and CEOs of international corporations whose appetites and passions seem larger than those of the rest of us and who make world-changing decisions while being at the same time flawed and sometimes uncharacteristically vulnerable to the bad (perhaps malicious) counsel of others.
For The Ring is a story about power. Wotan has it and wants to hang on to it. Others covet it and try to take it. Throughout the story love and all finer things are sacrificed for power – until the very end when love and self-sacrifice bring about redemption and the downfall of those to whom power is everything. It is interesting to note that this is only accomplished through total annihilation.
The Ring, of course, is the supreme symbol of all that power. Though there are other powerful symbols in the story – Wotan’s rune-laden spear in which his godly power resides, the sword Nothung borne (briefly) by Siegmund and more effectively by Siegfried, the Taarnhelm which has the power to transform or transport its wearer, Donner’s hammer, Loge’s fire. And then there is water, the most powerful of the elements in the story, for in the end it is the waters of the Rhine that put out the fire that consumes Valhalla and much else besides.
The gods in this story are the social elite who set the standards which other beings must try to match. They are blessed with privilege but cursed with responsibility which, increasingly, they don’t want to exercise. They stand for every society in history where an upper class finally becomes threatened by revolution from those below.
Those below, in The Ring story, being the dwarves who delve and labour and covet wealth because they have never, it’s presumed, had the chance to value other less material things. There is a certain racial element to this – the dwarves are always black and small and ugly and hairy and misshapen – alien in the eyes of gods and mortals. The giants, by contrast, are feared rather than despised. They are freaks but also useful artisans, respected for their strength but not liked and not befriended by any except their own kind. They’re a bit thick, too, and without humour. If I was casting them in a modern context I’d probably make them Russian, of the communist kind!
Mortals are the rest of us – the middle class. Sharing some traits with gods and some with dwarves. There are other beings in the Nine Realms of Norse legend – elves and suchlike – but Wagner didn’t bother with them and neither did I. Though the sirenic Rhinemaidens have a nymphlike charm and Erda and her Norn daughters are eldritch as well as dreary.
In any age, at any time, social forces are fighting to gain power or retain it, just like in The Ring. And sometimes drastic action is needed to bring about resolution – something Wotan knows only too well. And in this eternal battle we are all caught up; struggling to survive as best we can and using whatever means are available to us. Some of us will employ trickery, some will behave honourably, others will find courage and many will succumb to cowardice and fear. And murder.
Thus I see The Ring as an allegory for our time and every time. The Wotans will sacrifice others and act with exigence to hang on to power and hold things together. The Frikkas will try to impose their idea of morality on the rest of us. The Alberichs will try to assuage their ugliness and unlovableness by using any means to attain wealth and power. The Loges will conceal their malice and fit their shape to the circumstances until their ends are achieved. The Siegfrieds will wield their swords with all the aplomb of great sportsmen (think Shane Warne) without ever understanding the harm they do or even what it’s all about. The Fafners will retreat from the world’s rejection and their own misanthropy by retreating into dark caverns of the mind where none can reach them. The Erdas will keep up a shrill cry of warning about all the ills that beset the world – or might beset it in the future but, like the boy who cried wolf, nobody will heed them. The Brunnhildes will stride valiantly through life with loving and true hearts, trying to do good even at great cost to themselves.
Ultimately, what the Ring tells us, in an age of materialism, selfish hedonism and vulgarity, is that if selfless love doesn’t vanquish greed and the lust for power then the end of civilisation as we know it is only an Armageddon away.