Explaining The Ring Part Four: Ringtones author Julie Lake tells the story as it really is – or should be
Alberich the Dwarf is the true villain of the Ring of the Niebelung. Very few of the characters in this saga are in fact either admirable or lovable but Alberich is certainly the nastiest. This is not your average Disney-style cutesy Hi ho Hi ho sort of dwarf but a dark, squat, ugly, misshapen, greedy, misanthropic bundle of malice with a bad case of short man’s complex – if he can’t have love then he’ll take over the world.
When we first meet Alberich he has come up from Niebelhome, the dark cavernous realm where the Niebelung race of dwarves dwell, in the hope of a fling with some female who is not of his own ugly kind. He has a go at the three Rhinemaidens, flighty mermaid types who live in the River Rhine where they guard a glittering golden treasure. They tease and then spurn him, provoking him to seize their golden horde and take it back to Niebelhome. Here, with the help of his snivelling brother Mime and a bunch of dwarf slaves he forges part of the treasure into a magic gold ring that confers great power on whoever wears it. Alberich first uses the ring to gain power over his own kind, whom he uses cruelly, and then turns his attentions to the rest of the world – or at least the Nine Realms that make up the known universe in Norse mythology.
Alas for Alberich Wotan, Head God, has learned about the ring and wants it for himself. He certainly doesn’t want it left in the hands of a nasty little oik like the now self-styled Head Dwarf. So, with the help of his sidekick the Fire God Loge (second-ranking villain in The Ring – or at least in Ringtones), Wotan manages to out-wile the wily Alberich and seize his precious ring and all the rest of the Rhinegold.
Alberich is, unsurprisingly, extremely pissed off by this and plots to get back his treasure, which includes the magical Tarnhelm, a helmet which is supposed to enable the wearer to become invisible, or change shape, or be transported instantly to wherever desired. The dwarf puts a curse on the ring, threatening death and lovelessness to whomever wears it.
He probably does this out of sheer malicious desperation because he knows that he’s got Buckley’s chance of getting his treasure back from a being as powerful and inaccessible as the Head God. Wotan, however, is forced to give it all to the giants, Fafner and Fasolt, in payment for building his new palace, Valhalla. He’s not happy about this of course, especially when he learns from his sometime-mistress Erda, the Earth Witch, that Valhalla and much else besides will fall to ruin if the ring and the rest of the gold is not returned to its rightful owners – the Rhine girls.
If Alberich comes to hear of this prophecy he doesn’t give a good goddam about it. Indeed, why should he? What’s Valhalla to him? He hates all the gods – and the mortals – and the giants – and in fact anybody who isn’t a dwarf. And he’s not too keen on them, either!
To be fair, Alberich didn’t have much of an upbringing. As we learn in Ringtones, the Niebelung are not generally good at parenting. Domestic violence is rife among them, counselling unknown and their children brutalised by being sent to work in the mines. It’s not surprising, then, that Alberich is so bitter and twisted. Unlike his fellow Niebelung, he does show a certain intelligence and a wish for finer things. There’s even a hint that he’d like to find love. But there’s a good deal of discrimination against dwarves in the Nine Realms; they are just so dark and shortarsed and rough. Good enough artisans, if you want a bit of smithing done. But absolutely no refinements at all and you certainly wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one. Or your son, for that matter, though as the Niebelung females are said to be very unattractive indeed, this is not likely.
Alberich is not completely without sensitivity and he’s painfully aware of all this. It fuels his malice. And when he finds that Fafner, not Wotan, has the ring he spends the rest of his life trying to get it back. After all giants, though big and stroppy, are neither as intelligent nor as powerful as the gods.
Fafner, however, having killed his brother Fasolt, has gone to Earth and hidden himself and his treasure in a remote cave. Some say he has turned into a dragon, so that nobody will dare go anywhere near his lair. This certainly works with Alberich who skulks around the entrance to the cave but won’t go into it and tackle the giant – or dragon – on his own.
What he needs is a champion. A hero who will slay the giant (or dragon) and take the ring and the rest of the treasure. And who will be dumb enough to yield it up on request…or be duped or bullied into doing so. And, wouldn’t you know it, such a hero is found. Siegfried, son of Wotan’s illegitimate half-mortal son Siegmund, is orphaned at birth and falls into the hands of Alberich’s brother, Mime, who raises him as a foster-son.
So when we meet Alberich for the second time, in the third Ring opera Siegfried (and Part Three of Ringtones) he is still lurking by the giant’s lair waiting for the now-grown Siegfried to do what he was bred up to do and kill the current possessor of the ring. Instead, at first, he runs into Wotan and of course they have an acrimonious exchange of views. Alberich, knowing he can’t match Wotan’s power and wondering what he’s up to, is surly and bitter. Here is the person he blames for all his troubles, which include exile from Niebelhome because once he lost his ring-given power those he’d tyrannised soon threw him out. Yet despite their mutual enmity, Wotan insists that he will not help his grandson kill the giant (or dragon) and gain the ring. Alberich is reluctant to believe him but no, says Wotan, he will not interfere. Cannot and will not. Alberich is free to do as he pleases. In fact he can take the treasure from Fafner right away, before Siegfried gets there. If he’s got the guts! And of course Alberich hasn’t. When the Head God disappears to await the outcome of events at a discreet distance, Alberich has another encounter, this time with his younger brother who has conducted Siegfried to the monster’s den and told him what he must do. In the hope, of course, of getting his foster-son to give him the golden treasure when Fafner has been slain. Siegfried, after all, has been raised in ignorance of the world and will have no understanding of the value of gold. In the past Alberich has always been able to overawe his weaker sibling but not this time. Mime, emboldened by the thought of the power and wealth that might soon be his, is defiant. True, he offers to share the spoils but as neither dwarf trusts the other Alberich is not fooled by this. When Siegfried arrives; so big and bold and unafraid of any creature, and so contemptuous of dwarves, Alberich realises that his chances of regaining ‘his’ ring are becoming very slim indeed. Certainly Siegfried conforms to the plan and slays Fafner. But then he also kills Mime. And Alberich, thwarted yet again, retreats into obscurity as far as the rest of the story is concerned.
His baleful influence, however, is still potent. For he has a son, Hagen, by a mortal woman. Though Wagner never bothers to explain why any woman would take a dwarf for a husband, Ringtones tells us just how this comes about and thus why it is that Hagen is the half-brother of Lord Gunther Gibich, a powerful landowner, and his sister Gutrune. Alberich never lets Hagen forget who he is because just as Siegfried has been raised to retrieve the ring so, too, has Hagen. Before we take a good look at what transpires with Alberich and Hagen, however, we need to look at who exactly was pulling Siegfried’s strings and for this Ringtones is a better source than the operas. Siegfried, as we know, is the son of Siegmund, Wotan’s half-mortal son whom the Head God intended would somehow ensure that the ring of power was returned to the Rhinemaidens. When Siegmund was slain the Head God was forced to transpose his hopes to his grandson. And that, really, is about all he does. Wotan is the central character in The Ring of the Niebelung and without doubt the most powerful, at least as far as his job description is concerned. And yet, if you examine the story closely, it is ALBERICH not Wotan who has the most influence on the outcome.
Sure, Wotan gets things rolling when he first grabs the Rhinegold ring. And right through the saga we think he was right to do so – after all, the thought of such power in Black Alberich’s evil hands is too horrible to contemplate. If only, we think also, he hadn’t been stupid enough to give it to Fafner! But while Alberich devotes all his attention to getting the ring back, Wotan goes in for a lot of convoluted plotting. Thanks to this, Siegmund dies ignominiously and the pregnant Sieglinde flees from her father’s wrath to hide herself away until the baby can be born. Just exactly what Wotan might have done to his daughter, who after all owes her woes mostly to his persistent blundering, is not known. He doesn’t seem to try all that hard at the time to pursue her, but nor does he help her. Instead, he ignores both her and the baby until he realises that the boy might suit his purposes.
In the meantime, and long before Wotan starts to seek his hidden grandson, Alberich and Mime have him in their keeping and though it’s the latter who does all the fostering you just know that Alberich is standing by to put Siegfried to good use when the time comes. True, Wotan made the run-empowered sword Needful in the first place but it’s also Wotan who broke it, so that years later the Young Hero is forced to reforge it himself before he can kill any giants (or dragons). True, too, Wotan puts in an appearance here and there, either conversing in riddles with Mime or being equally enigmatic in his dialogue with Alberich before Fafner’s cave. But he doesn’t actually DO anything.
Alberich doesn’t do all that much either, now I come to think of it. He skulks and he threatens and he plots but ultimately, as with Wotan, he depends on others to do his dirty work. It’s actually Mime who steers Siegfried in the direction of the ring. It is his only real role in the story – but it’s an important one and we’ll look at it in more detail in a further article. Just as we’ll examine whether the power of the ring is real or just auto-suggestion.
Anyway, despite his inability to grab the ring for himself, Alberich makes sure that son Hagen does his duty. When the time comes Hagen uses his half-brother and sister to help entrap the Young Hero and at the end it is the dwarf’s cold-hearted son who kills him. But he doesn’t get the ring! A mysterious power…or maybe it’s just rigor mortis… prevents Hagen taking the fatal bit of bling from dead Siegfried’s finger. Only Brunnhilde, Wotan’s daughter, can do that, and when she chucks it into the Rhine Hagen jumps in after it and drowns. As does just about everyone else in the saga – those who haven’t already burned, that is.
Thus, finally, Alberich’s relentless and single-minded conniving proves more effective than all Wotan’s power and bluster. Wotan and all the gods are brought down. But then so is Alberich and all his greed. In The Ring of The Niebelung nobody wins. Even the Rhinemaidens, for all their ecstatic warbling at the end of the fourth and final opera, don’t get back everything they’ve lost.
What we are left with is this intriguing question – could things have actually turned out any worse if Alberich had been allowed to keep the ring in the first place?