Explaining The Ring Part 2 – Julie Lake, author of Ringtones, tells you how it SHOULD have been!
Siegfried, in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, is a Hero. With a capital ‘aitch’. The composer even named an entire opera after him – the third in The Ring Cycle quartet.
Yet few today would regard him as being particularly heroic, even in an age when just about anybody who does anything even mildly remarkable is labelled a ‘hero’. Or a ‘legend’. At least by the Bogan underclass.
Wagner, of course, was resurrecting a sort of mythical Teutonic ideal in which heroes, like those in ancient Greek myth, were what we would now regard more as champions. We tend to think of a hero as someone who acts courageously, even if it means overcoming his own fear, in a good cause. Usually against self-interest and on the behalf of others. Siegfried is certainly brave but he acts only in his own interest at all times. This is not just because he has a peculiar and loveless upbringing but because it’s not in his nature to be otherwise. And thus, as a product of unfortunate nature and inadequate nurture, Siegfried is not so much a hero but a blind force acting for good or ill according not to his own powers of reason but at the instigation of others.
In this sense Siegfried is a victim because his fate is sealed at birth by those – Wotan, Mime – who see him a means to their own ends. But really, when he comes to man’s estate, so to speak, his most defining characteristic is a terrible innocence that wreaks havoc on all those unlucky enough to cross his path. It’s hard to hate Siegfried – but it’s hard to love him, too. Unless, of course, you are Brunnhilde.
For those who don’t know, Siegfried is the illegitimate son of an incestuous union between Siegmund (who really is heroic, albeit an adulterer) and Sieglinde, both children of Head God Wotan by a mortal. As Siegfried’s father dies before he’s born and his mother dies giving birth to him, the Young Hero doesn’t have a very good start in life. Worse, he’s then raised in isolation by the dwarf Mime who hates and envies gods, mortals and just about anyone else. Thanks to the failed power play by his brother Alberich, Mime can’t go back to the dwarf homeland so is forced to live a secluded existence on earth. He sees Siegfried as his ticket to power, wealth and freedom provided he can keep one step ahead of his hateful brother. At the same time, he grows quite fond of the boy and indulges him without giving him quite the love or discipline or guidance a child requires. Rather like many parents today. Nor has Siegfried ever been allowed to play with any other children or have any human contact at all. Small wonder he has grown up to be heedless of the feelings of others. I don’t think it’s quite fair to call him “a total shit” as one Ring critic once did. But he certainly comes across as a bit of a cad.
When we first meet Siegfried he is in the burgeoning pride of young manhood. His only friends are the creatures of the surrounding forest, with whom, like so many lonely children, he had developed a remarkable rapport. So remarkable that he appears to be able to converse with birds – or so those watching over him (Mime, and from a distance, Wotan and Alberich) come to believe. He’s certainly not going to enjoy much intelligent conversation with Mime because the dwarf does nothing but grumble and whine. He does raise Siegfried, though, and give him some rudimentary education and even teach him to speak well…I mean when you listen to Siegfried singing his heart out in the operas his German is of the highest order! And so it is in Ringtones, too. The Young Hero may dress like a rustic and look like a rustic but he speaks like a Graf. Mime, a master smith, also tries to teach Siegfried his own trade but without much success. So as the third Ring Cycle opera begins – and Part Three of Ringtones – Mime is trying – not for the first time – to re-forge the sword Nothung, once wielded by Siegmund, shattered into pieces by Wotan’s spear, and handed to Mime (so he says) by the dying Sieglinde in trust for her son. Siegfried very much wants a decent sword of his own – doesn’t every boy? – and is fed up because the swords Mime make him shatter as soon as he tries them out. He needs something stronger and better…the sword that, did he but know it, he was born to wield.
A clue to Siegfried’s character can be found in his treatment of Mime. Alright, WE know that the dwarf is a nasty, snivelling, minching, ugly little bundle of self-pity. But he is, after all, Siegfried’s foster-father and the boy hasn’t any other father figure with whom to compare him. Yet he treats him not only with contempt and rudeness but also with violence. Says he hates him. Says he’ll be out of there and off to see the world once he’s got a decent sword. Harangues and harasses Mime mercilessly to put Nothung together. There is certainly nothing heroic about the Young Hero at this first meeting; instead he reveals himself as a spoiled, petulant, ill-mannered, bullying lout. Wagner, who after all wrote the libretto as well as the music and thereby defined Siegfried’s character, doesn’t seem to have seen him this way at all. Which makes me rather wonder about Wagner’s own character. When Siegfried berates and threatens Mime the dwarf accuses him of ingratitude and you can hardly blame him. Yet still, illogically, we find ourselves sympathetic towards this rude boy. We understand that Siegfried doesn’t really mean to be cruel – it’s just that he blurts out whatever he is thinking. He has never, you see, learned deceit – which is good. But this means he also has never learned tact – which makes him seem insensitive. Siegfried’s truth is going to prove just as terrible as his innocence. Which goes to show that while honesty is undoubtedly a virtue, too much of it is a pain!
Siegfried finally manages to re-forge the sword Nothung himself. And after some conniving by both Mime and Wotan, who is wandering around Earth in disguise, he goes forth to do the job he’s been bred up to do – slay the giant Fafner. Fafner, if you don’t know, was, together with his brother Fasolt, owed a great debt by Wotan and the gods, which was paid in part by a magic golden ring. Wotan had obtained this ring by guile from the dwarf Alberich who in turn had forged it from gold he had stolen from three girls he found swimming about in the Rhine (yes, it’s complicated!). The ring is said to confer unlimited power on the wearer. It’s never quite clear whether Fafner fully realises this, being a giant and therefore a bit dim, but after killing his brother he goes and hides himself in a cave surrounded by a great forest, guarding the ring and a horde of gold. Rumour has it he’s turned himself into a dragon, thanks to his possession of another powerful artefact, the Tarnhelm. This may just be story he spread around to keep people away – dragons being scarier than giants. Anyway, Siegfried goes off and kills him. Despite the fact that Fafner treats him with surprising restraint and also warns him to beware of Mime who, his former affection now turned to hate, plans to murder his foster-son and grab the treasure. Considering they have never met before and Siegfried has nothing personal against the erstwhile giant our purported hero seems surprisingly eager to make his first kill, and only mildly remorseful afterwards when he realised he has been manipulated into it. He then kills Mime – his lifelong companion – with the same insouciance. I mean, in bygone ages boys of the landowning class were raised to be warriors and it was not unusual for them to have made their first kill or three before they were out of their teens. But Siegfried has been raised to be a smith, not a knight. True, he’s a huntsman, but killing deer and rabbits for the pot is not the same as slaying giants who have never done you any personal harm or dwarves who have fed and clothed you. I, for one, find Siegfried’s propensity to kill on command a little unsettling. For a hero.
And what does he do next? He lies down in a woodland glade and has a jolly good snooze, unfazed by the corpses nearby, and does a bit of communing with the birds. One little bird in particular gives him some useful information (well, that’s the way Wagner has it; in Ringtones you’ll find a more plausible possibility) and because of it Siegfried now has a quest. He has to find a beautiful girl lying on a rock and free her from her bondage – first of course braving the ring of fire that surrounds her. This, as we know, is Wotan’s Great Plan for getting the magic ring of power back to its rightful owners and thus averting the downfall of Valhalla. Rather a convoluted plan and plagued with possible pitfalls. But Siegfried: young, strong, innocent of the world, single minded, undoubtedly brave but – let’s face it – just a bit thick; is the ideal person to carry it out. It’s hard to think of anyone else who would do it without asking a few pertinent questions.
So off Siegfried goes and does as he is supposed to do – mostly. In the opera, he finds the Valkyrie rock and Brunnhilde in amazingly short time. In Ringtones it takes a bit longer and he has an adventure along the way which at least serves to show him what a woman is. And that there are other human beings in the world much like himself. In both opera and book Siegfried encounters his grandfather Wotan, though of course he doesn’t know this. All he sees is a scruffy old man who talks in riddles and seems to be trying to bar his way. So, being Siegfried, he promptly beats the old man up! No mercy for a poorly-armed wayfarer; no exchange of pleasantries; no respect for the aged. Siegfried just shatters the old man’s spear and shoves him aside before leaping up to the Valkyrie rock. An Arthurian knight – Galahad for example – might have offered a kind word and perhaps a sip of water to an old and apparently weak fellow-traveller. But not your average Teutonic hero! Even the giants and dwarves aren’t quite that ill-mannered!
In shattering Wotan’s spear Siegfried unwittingly diminishes the Head God’s power, at a significant moment in the story. Now Wotan is even more dependent on his unwitting part-mortal descendants to carry out The Plan. You’d have thought Wotan might have realised the danger when tackling his strapping grandson. After all, Erda the Earth Witch had warned him. But, as I’ve said before in this series of Ring articles, the CEO of Teutonic Gods Inc might be the boss but he’s not ALL-powerful. He has to be careful. His power, if used unwisely, can be overborne. Not, in this important case, by someone else seeking power (such as Alberich) but by one who has not the least idea of it – or of his own strength. It’s a lesson for all great men (and women) for all time – no power is so great it cannot be conquered if its purpose becomes no longer pure and true. As was the case with Wotan.
The very second Siegfried sees Brunnhilde he falls in love with her. Hardly surprising because, as the great comedian Anna Russell said, he’s never seen a woman before. He’s young and randy, she’s been lying on a hard rock all by herself for simply aeons, so of course they get it on without more ado. But there are other forces at work in the world and these will not be denied. They are soon to prove stronger than passion, stronger than the great and pure love that Siegfried and Brunnhilde feel for each other. In her case, it’s forever. In his case…well, out of sight, out of mind with Siegfried. He goes off into the world again to do some unspecified great deeds and, thanks to a bit of skulduggery by Hagen, son of Alberich, meets Gutrune Gibich who is rich and beautiful and lives in a castle and is much younger than Brunnhilde. She also has the advantage of not being his aunt! Siegfried is flattered at being hailed as a hero by the Gibich clan, and is very full of himself, even though the only vaguely heroic deed he has achieved so far is to kill a weary, somnolent and ageing giant (or dragon, whatever). This is in fact the ONLY heroic thing he ever does in the entire Ring story. Away from Brunnhilde’s restraining influence the Young Hero succumbs easily to Gutrune’s charms, thanks to a magic potion according to Wagner, though once again Ringtones comes up with a more plausible explanation. His lack of tact and sensitivity makes him a perfect patsy for cold-hearted Hagen’s scheming and he swaggers his way towards disaster, blind to any danger despite a pretty pointed warning from the Rhinemaidens (who are trying to get him to give them their ring back – if only he had listened!). When Siegfried falls, a victim of treachery and vengeance, you feel he has brought it all upon himself and it is not so much his death that moves us but Brunnhilde’s terrible anguish.
She gives him a stirring valediction. Wagnerians have traditionally seen this as a symbol of redemption through pure and selfless love but really, it comes across more as the outourings of a guilty conscience because she’s revenged his betrayal with one of her own and as this has helped kill him she’s now stricken with remorse. Because unlike shallow Siegfried she’s capable of deep, strong feeling. Unfortunately these strong feelings lead her to sacrifice herself and just about everyone else in The Ring who hasn’t died already. And, as with just about everyone else in The Ring, she does this without realising the consequences of her action. That’s The Ring story in a nutshell, really. Too many people acting on impulse without bothering to think how it will turn out. Sound familiar?
And of course nobody exemplifies this better than poor old hapless Siegfried. From the moment he leaves the comparative safety of Mime’s cave he just blunders about doing what he likes without a single thought beyond self-gratification. That’s not my idea of heroic. That’s just plain dumb! A total failure of imagination.! A real hero thinks before he (or she) acts. Weighs up the odds. And then still does what a man (or a woman)’s gotta do!
Any bold fool can slay a dragon. But I can’t help thinking that a real hero would try and tame it.