EXPLAINING THE RING (1) – BY Julie Lake, author of the satirical novel Ringtones. Which tells things how they should have been!
Wotan, aka Woden, Odin etc, is the central character in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. As, indeed, he is in the old Norse legends on which The Ring of the Nibelung is based.
Don’t let anyone tell you it’s Brunnhilde, or Siegfried. Wotan, Head God of the Nine Realms, is the pivot on which all the action turns and the only character to appear in all four Ring operas.
Wotan might be a God but in most ways he’s all too human. He’s your typical big, swaggering, testosterone-driven male who likes a jar or two and never met a woman – or a goddess – that he couldn’t bed. If you met him in the local pub you’d recognise the type at once.
And yet, there IS a bit more to him than that. He is an affable sort of chap who really does mean well, even if he sometimes does ill, and he can be very thoughtful and introspective at times, especially when he realises that the Twilight of the Gods is at hand and it’s pretty much his fault. Some have labelled him as being quintessentially German of a certain type – veering effortlessly from mawkish sentimentality to inexplicable cruelty. The sort of person who might gas other people’s children by day and then go home and play with his own at night. This is most evident towards the end of the second opera, The Valkyrie, where he keeps telling his daughter Brunnhilde how much he loves her and will miss her yet still condemns her to a dreadful fate.
Wotan – and this should never be forgotten – IS powerful. His mighty spear is potent enough to zap those who offend him into oblivion. His will, throughout most of the worlds over which he rules, is Law. And yet, as The Ring story shows, he is not ALL-powerful. He can be defied and has to defend his position against those who would take it from him. He has to watch his back. His great power is limited by the necessity of using it wisely and well. There is a Natural Universal Law which he cannot break without peril to himself and others. Wotan is the CEO of Teutonic Gods Inc. but he still has to answer to a Board of Directors. This helps explain why it is that though Wotan IS the most powerful character in The Ring it is not he but his arch-enemy Alberich who most influences the story’s events and outcome.
So, the saga really starts when Wotan decides to build himself a mighty palace-castle which he names Valhalla. This doesn’t mean anything in particular (despite reports to the contrary) but he likes the sound of it. He is, by the way, a family man. His own family comes from the Aesir, warrior Gods who bear most of the burden of defending their realm from enemies (mostly dwarves and giants). His wife, Frikka, comes from the other great god family, the Vanirs. Frikka is Goddess of Marriage and various other things and just about the only person who can intimidate her formidable husband.
She has rather a lot of brothers and sisters including Freia, Goddess of Fertility, Froh, God of Spring and Donner, God of Thunder. They are, as Wotan observes at the beginning of Ringtones, a noisy lot.
Wotan employs two giants, Fasolt and Fafner, to build Valhalla. Giants being the master builders in Norse mythology; or at least handy with tools. Part of the price they demand for this is Freia, Wotan’s pretty sister-in-law and Wotan, thinking he’ll get the gold before he has to give up the girl, agrees to this. Much to the fury of Frikka and the Vanirs. Alas, when time comes to pay, Wotan doesn’t have the dosh.
Loge, Wotan’s sidekick and also the God of Fire, comes up with an idea. Loge is a trickster, a shape-changer and a mischief-maker who is distrusted by the gods but his idea appears to have merit in a rather underhand sort of way. He tells Wotan that Alberich, a dwarf who lives in the Dwarf Realm of Nibelung (which is Down There) has stolen some magic gold and if they – Wotan and Loge – can steal it in their turn, it will pay off the giants and all will be well in Valhalla.
This, then, is where Ringtones the Novel begins but the first of the four Ring operas actually opens with Dwarf Alberich, a nasty piece of work if ever there was one, trying to grope the three Rhinemaidens. The Rhinemaidens are sirens who live in the river and guard a precious horde of magical gold. When Alberich can’t get the girls he grabs the gold and makes some of it into a magic ring. And – wouldn’t you know it – that ring conveys awesome power on whoever wears it.
When he learns this Wotan naturally wants the ring for himself and, thanks to Loge’s idea, they do indeed manage to seize both Alberich’s treasure horde AND the ring. However, Alberich curses the ring so that whoever wears it will never know love but will find death instead. Worse than that, Wotan’s old girlfriend Erda the Witch, who is big on prophecies, foretells that Valhalla and much else besides will be doomed to annihilation if the ring is not returned to its rightful owners. Unfortunately, and much against his will, Wotan has already given this troublesome golden circlet to the giants, who fight over it so that Fasolt dies and Wotan, in the words of the comedian Anna Russell, famous for her Ring send-up, knows that the curse is indeed working.
And thus, by the end of the first opera (The Rhinegold) and the first chapter in Ringtones, the scene is set. Wotan has to somehow retrieve the ring from Fafner and get it back to the Rhine. But how?
He comes up with a Cunning Plan, albeit rather a convoluted one. In Ringtones the reasons behind this plan go back to an old fear of Wotan’s that the Gods are becoming decadent and weak. Losing their ability to rule lesser creatures in the Nine Realms, such as giants and dwarves and mortals. Wotan has a fondness for mortals, especially the women, and it’s his habit often to wander the Mortal Realm (which lies between the realm of the gods Up There and that of the dwarves Down There) in disguise, observing and sometimes interfering with human behaviour – though he has to be careful not to break the Natural Universal Law that prevents direct ingtervention. He comes to admire many mortal traits and decides that a race of new beings born from a union of gods and mortals will be the salvation of his particular universe.
Naturally he does his best to kickstart this by bringing about a meeting between his illegitimate twin children by a mortal woman, Siegmund and Sieglinde. This will be the subject of a future article so I won’t go into it here but suffice it to say that things do not go quite as planned and this luckless couple come to a sticky end, largely due to the influence of Frikka and in spite of well-meaning interference from Wotan’s favourite daughter, the Valkyrie Brunnhilde. But not before they have managed to produce a son, Siegfried.
Wotan had hoped that his half-mortal son, Siegmund, would discover and slay Fafner and retrieve the Ring. Wotan himself can’t do this because it would be against Natural Universal Law – he had given his word to the giants and the ring was part of the payment based on that word and thus he cannot behave dishonourably. Not directly, anyway! Once Siegmund is dead he pins all his hopes on Siegfried who is raised in mysterious circumstances to be a Hero. The type of Hero who will happily slay a giant and put the world to rights.
The erstwhile giant has, in fact, rather strangely turned himself into a dragon, though in the Ringtones version this may only be a story put about to repel possible assassins or treasure hunters. Siegfried, as it turns out, grows into just the sort of big, strong, strapping lad who just can’t wait to kill either a giant or a dragon. Though not without a bit of help from his godly grandad.
One of the great enigmas about Wotan is his strange mix of power and impotence. Natural Law – and Frikka – forbid him to interfere too directly and overtly in Mortal affairs. He’s charged with saving the world and yet he can’t just go banging about with his magic spear and do it. He has to use others to serve his purpose and employ subtle means to get them motivated. Thus it is with Siegfried – Wotan has to get up to all sorts of tricks to finally put the Young Hero on the right path first to giant (or dragon)-slaying and then to getting the ring back where it belongs. It would be so much easier if he could just go up to Siegfried and say: “Hey up, I’m your grandfather and here’s what you’ve been born to do – so go and bloody do it!”. But alas, what would Norse legend be without its tortured convolutions? Any decent legend for that matter. And what would any Ring quest story be without its twists and turns and tensions?
So we begin, by this stage in the story, to see why it is that Wotan behaves so peculiarly – and sometimes perversely. He’s made some colossal mistakes – building a home he couldn’t afford, mortgaging himself to blokes who don’t like him anyway, making an enemy of Alberich, upsetting Frikka, coming up with a half-baked plan to develop a Master Race that all goes pear-shaped. If he was more ruthless, he wouldn’t have had to resort to any of these things. But, as I’ve said before, he’s basically a decent chap who does understand – albeit reluctantly – that with power goes responsibility. And that he owes it to his position, and his dignity, to do the Right Thing.
Wotan’s biggest and most inexplicable mistake is the way he deals with his daughter Brunnhilde. She’s his favourite and he has raised her to eminence in Valhalla, making her Head Prefect of the Valkyries, a bunch of strapping girls whose important job it is to retrieve fallen Heroes from any battlefield and take them up to Valhalla. Why? Because Wotan, though often unwise in matters of peace, is more farsighted when it comes to matters of war. He is, after all, a warrior god and he fears that one day Valhalla may be under siege, either from the giants or possibly the dwarves, led by evil Alberich. So he wants lots of heroes, restored to life and honour in the Realm of the Gods, to defend the palace.
When Brunnhilde disobeys her father’s wishes in an important matter (more about this in another article) he doesn’t just lock her up in a dark room for a while or demote her or take away her pony. No, he strips her of her godhead (and thus her immortality), puts her on a rock surrounded by fire and leaves her there for years until some mortal can come along and rape her! Cruel and unusual punishment indeed, most would say. Brunnhilde certainly said so and at least won a concession from her father that the mortal in question would be suitably heroic.
In conceding this, Wotan knows nothing about his grandson-to-be, Siegfried. But when he does learn of the boy’s existence he immediately conceives of yet another of his whacky plans by which Siegfried – who is of course Brunnhilde’s nephew – will be the one to free her. And with whom she will fall in love. And thus Wotan’s idea of a Master Race, which received a bit of a setback with the deaths of Siegmund and Sieglinde, is now right back on track! Never mind the possible cost to the future lovers themselves. Oh, and of course it will be their job to get that damned ring back to the Rhinemaidens. Two birds with one stone, so to speak!
This all obviously begs the question – is Wotan stupid or what? And if he’s that stupid, how come he ruled Valhalla and all the Nine Realms for so long? We see he can be ruthless, even cruel. He has little feeling for the feelings of lesser beings such as Dwarves and Giants, though in this he is no different to other gods – or mortals for that matter. Giants are hard to love. But Wotan doesn’t seem to have much real sensitivity towards the feelings of mortals either, even those of his own blood. All exist to serve his greater purpose…which is understandable in an all-powerful god who never makes mistakes but not at all forgivable in so flawed and human-like a being as the CEO of Teutonic Gods Inc.
And yet Wotan is not a totally unsympathetic character. We do share his anguish and even applaud his bungling attempts to turn his wrongs into rights. There is no malice in him, as there is in, say, Alberich and Loge. Frikka and Erda are both, in their different ways, able to make him see reason. Frikka infuriates him but he will not see her shamed, not even by the actions of his beloved Brunnhilde. We can clearly see that although the business of the ring brings things to a head, Wotan has long feared the decline of his race and his world and agonised over what to do about it. He bears this burden alone, knowing that the other gods can’t see it at all. His heart is generally in the right place but he is, after all, a god, not a mortal, and has to look at the Big Picture (as he likes to say!). In so doing his heart has to give way to his head.
Wotan cuts a more genial figure in Ringtones than he does in Wagner’s operas. In the end, though, he is just as tragic – and just as doomed.