Explaining Wagner’s Ring Cycle – Julie Lake, author of Ringtones, tells you how it really was
Brunnhilde is the heroine of The Ring – both in Wagner’s musical version and my own novel Ringtones. She is the only character whom we can unreservedly like and admire. The question is, though, did she ultimately do the right thing?
The leader of the Valkyries, a bunch of warrior maidens, Brunnhilde doesn’t put in an appearance until the second opera in the Ring Cycle. She doesn’t even get a mention in The Rhinegold and we only realise her importance to the story when, in Act II, Wotan declares that he has favoured her above all others. Brunnhilde, a dutiful daughter if ever there was one, is gratified by this but soon discovers that being Daddy’s favourite comes at a very high price.
In fact we’ve hardly got to know her at all before she’s fallen from favour and been stuck on a rock for years, unconscious. Either in a coma or under a spell, depending on how much you believe in magic. Only in the third opera, Siegfried, after she is freed from paternal punishment, do we begin to realise what a fine girl she is.
Wagner made Brunnhilde into the ultimate heroine but I chose to interpret her as more of a 1950s –type English schoolgirl; hearty and wholesome, leading her bunch of hockey-playing, horse-loving sisters on to the battlefield. Not to fight but to collect the slain heroes and take them up to Valhalla where they will be revived as warriors to defend the home of the Gods. Wotan’s praetorian guard, if you like. It’s easy to see the nine Valkyries (all daughters of Wotan by the way, with the Earth Witch Erda) as proto-feminists. After all they wear armour and wield weapons. Still-living men who see a Valkyrie are foreseeing their own death.
Yet, as the famous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ scene shows, these girls, while brave and cheery in manner, are easily cowed by their fearsome father and also have rather soft hearts. They may be unconventional compared with other, more obviously feminine and domesticated goddesses such as Frikka and Freia but they are obedient to parental authority and not about to upset any social norms.
Brunnhilde is very proud of being a Valkyrie. She loves her armour and her freedom and her horse Grane. She loves her Dad, too. But she is bolder than her sisters, especially in defence of injustice. So when we first meet her, summoned by Wotan in Act II of The Valkyrie (and Chapter Two of Part Two in Ringtones) she is still innocent and girlish and ready to do whatever her father demands, yet you can see she’s got a mind of her own.
`What ho, venerable parent!’ is how she greets the Head God in Ringtones and that’s pretty much how she behaves in Wagner too, bounding down the mountain track with her usual girlish enthusiasm. It shows us immediately that she is the only being in all the Nine Realms who dares to tease Wotan, except for Loge, and unlike the sly Fire God Brunnhilde’s teasing is affectionate and without malice. Though we don’t know it at the time, it is the last happy, carefree moment father and daughter will have together. Next, Wotan confides in Brunnhilde all his fears for the future of Valhalla and the troublesome matter of the ring and even his plan for his half-mortal son Siegmund to put things right. This is all news to the chief Valkyrie and in Ringtones she is delighted to learn she has a previously unknown sister and brother. You’d think she had enough sisters, what with eight other warrior maidens and Wotan’s other three daughters by Erda, the Norns. But no, Brunnhilde’s big heart is ready to embrace any number of siblings. The fact that Siegmund and Sieglinda are lovers doesn’t seem to faze her; this is because she is simply too sexually innocent to know any different, which rather makes you wonder what those strapping Valkyrie girls got up to in the privacy of their dormitory but never mind! Similarly, she remains unshocked by their adultery. When Wotan tells her that in the looming fight between Siegmund and Sieglinjde’s cuckolded husband, Hunding, she is to help her brother win she is more than eager to do so.
Then along comes Frikka, Wotan’s wife, Brunnhilde’s stepmother, Goddess of Marriage and a perfect study in Moral Outrage. Frikka takes a dim view of adultery and an even dimmer one of incest. She knows she has right on her side and though the other gods and goddesses seem rather a promiscuous lot Frikka insists that it is the responsibility of the Head God and Goddess to uphold moral values in both Heaven and Earth and anywhere else in the Nine Realms. Even if the Head God is a bit of a lad. Frikka will support Hunding and thus the sanctity of marriage – if Wotan in turn supports his illegitimate son then Frikka will be deeply and publicly humiliated. Wotan knows he can’t do this. The death of his much-loved son will mean the death of his plan to retrieve and return the ring, yet he bows to Frikka’s pleas and now tells Brunnhilde not to interfere after all.
Well! Brunnhilde doesn’t care for her stepmother who, in Ringtones at least, is always trying to make her and the other Valkyries behave in a more ladylike manner; threatening that otherwise they won’t find husbands. As far as she’s concerned the Goddess of Marriage is nothing but a nag and she can’t bear to see her mighty father for once overruled by his equally formidable wife. She makes her feelings known. She argues. Caught between two strong-minded women Wotan explodes – but it is Brunnhilde who bears the brunt of his anger and she is told, in no uncertain terms, to obey or else.
But Brunnhilde doesn’t obey. She goes down to earth and meets Siegmund and realises what a thoroughly decent chap he is. She sees his love for Sieglinde and pities them both. Love between man and woman is a new concept to her and she’s rather impressed by its power. Moreover, she knows perfectly well that Wotan desperately wants Siegmund to defeat Hunding and live, despite his promise to Frikka. This is a pivotal moment in the story, for all the rest hangs on what Brunnhilde decides to do now. So when Hunding arrives and challenges Siegmund and they begin to fight, she steps in to assist her brother. Alas, Wotan is there too and uses his spear to shatter the magic sword Nothung, which he himself had given his son. Siegmund is slain. Brunnhilde, quick as a flash, grabs Sieglinde and bears her away on Grane to the Valkyrie rock where she meets her sisters, who are heia toh-ing away and being generally exuberant until their eldest sister arrives with a woman, not a fallen warrior, across her saddle. In hot pursuit comes Wotan, terrifying in his wrath, and when they learn what Brunnhilde has done the other Valkyries are shocked and reproachful.
Something that comes as a surprise to the opera goer, the Ringtones reader and indeed to Sieglinde herself is that Brunnhilde knows her sister is pregnant. Wagner doesn’t bother to explain just how the virginal Brunnhilde knows such a thing but it’s reasonable to assume that it’s due to her godly powers. Brunnhilde, as Erda later tells Wotan, is wise. She has inherited such wisdom from her mother, who has bred her up to be a daughter who can give the Head God reliable counsel when he most needs it. True, we haven’t seen much evidence of this so far…then again if Wotan had listened to Brunnhilde instead of to Frikka the tragedy of Siegmund’s death would have been averted and Wotan’s Plan might have worked. Cuckold or not, Hunding was a horrible man and no woman should have been forced to marry him, as was poor Sieglinde. This is the sort of thing women like Frikka never take into account when they’re on a crusade….but I’m getting off the subject.
Brunnhilde, the faithful daughter, now feels the full weight of Wotan’s wrath, and a terrible wrath it is. In vain she pleads that in disobeying him she believed she was doing what he really wanted. Fruitlessly she begs for mercy for herself and Sieglinde (who, thanks to connivance by the terrified Valkyries has managed to escape into the forest). Wotan is adamant – unnecessarily so, in the opinion of most others. Anger, shame, pride, grief, loss and defiance are an indigestible mixture driving him on to the kind of dangerous extreme to which powerful men are prone when thwarted and baffled. It’s as if he’s saying to Frikka and her supporters: “Okay, you’ve got your way, just see what lengths I’ll go to in order to satisfy your unreasonable demands! But I will never forgive you!” The more extravagant his self-punishment (and in punishing Brunnhilde he IS punishing himself most cruelly) the more his justification for hating and possibly revenging himself on those who made him do it. Frikka, we learn in time, understands this only too well … her position has been upheld but she has lost her husband’s love.
Wotan tells Brunnhilde that he will strip her of her godly status – and thus her immortality – and place her on the Valkyrie rock, helpless and unconscious, until some mortal man comes along and rapes her. She will never again be able enter Valhalla or see her family. And of course she won’t be a Valkyrie any more. The only concession he makes, after she pleads with him, is that he protects her with a ring of Loge’s fire, so that only someone brave enough to go through it will be able to claim her.
And that’s where we leave Brunnhilde until the end of Part Three in Ringtones or, in the case of the operas, the last act of Siegfried. Although Wagner doesn’t say exactly how long she’s lying on the rock we can get a rough idea by dating it from Siegfried’s birth. Let’s assume that Sieglinde is about three months pregnant when she flees into the forest leaving her half-sister to suffer the full measure of Wotan’s wrath. And let’s assume that Siegfried is about eighteen – twenty at the most -when he finds and frees her (I’ll deal with the Young Hero’s probable age in detail in another article). So Brunnhilde’s punishment must have lasted almost nineteen years. A long time to be left lying on a rock, exposed to the elements in what is obviously a high, cold and windy place. Yet she doesn’t seem to suffer any ill-effects from it. Or even to grow visibly older. Obviously, though now a mortal, she has been able to retain enough immortality through the years of suspended animation to preserve her looks. Perhaps the snowy mountainside provided a form of cryogenics. Or maybe Wotan was merciful enough to put a protective spell on her. Whatever; when Siegfried finds her she is still young and beautiful enough to inspire him with instant passion.
Of course, Siegfried, raised in isolation by a misanthropic dwarf, hasn’t had a lot to do with women. In Ringtones this becomes an issue because Brunnhilde, though still a virgin (a Valkyrie has to hang on to her hymen; it’s in the job description) is an older woman – just how much older we don’t know but she was once an immortal demi-Goddess so we’re talking aeons here. Wagner glosses over this but a modern writer, trying to make sense of this sorry tale, can’t be so cavalier. Siegfried might not know she’s his aunt but Brunnhilde, once she comes to her full senses, must know. After all, she herself once prophesied that Sieglinde would bear a hero. Tried, in fact, to use it as a bargaining point with Wotan, and a fat lot of good that did her.
Anyway, for the time being Siegfried (with some urging from Wotan) has succeeded in finding a beautiful maiden on a rock and, undaunted by the ring of fire, has rescued her and fallen madly in love with her. And she with him. Alone, in the wilderness, they are ecstatic. But of course it can’t last. Siegfried, though he doesn’t really know it, has a job to do. On his finger he has Alberich’s magic ring, wrested from the dead Fafner. And of course Wotan intends for him to give it back to the Rhinemaidens. Instead, he gives it to Brunnhilde as a pledge of their love…after all this is an old-fashioned story and thus when a man beds a decent girl he is expected to wed her. Ringless, Siegfried then leaves Brunnhilde and their new-found woodland idyll and goes out into the world once more. Wagner, as so often in the Ring Cycle, is vague about this. There is a hint that a hero must earn his keep by doing heroic things and in Ringtones this concept is considerably expanded. Furthermore, the book now differs from Wagner in a crucial point – just why does Siegfried go and promptly fall in love with someone else, forgetting Brunnhilde completely? In the opera…well…it’s all down to a magic potion. In the book…well…you’ll have to read it and find out for yourself!
Siegfried goes off and becomes embroiled with the Gibich family including Dwarf Alberich’s son Hagen, who is half-mortal. Hagen, influenced by his vengeful father, is after the ring. Surprise surprise! Meanwhile, Brunnhilde is left behind, waiting for Siegfried to return. Instead she gets a visit from her sister Waltraute, now (according to Ringtones anyway) head prefect of the Valkyries. Brunnhilde believes for a moment that her father has forgiven her and is inviting her to re-enter Valhalla. But now, Waltraute has a different message. Valhalla is falling into despair, Wotan is brooding and weakened by the loss of his spear (to Siegfried, by the way, but that’s for another article) and only the return of the ring to the Rhine will improve matters – the very ring that’s on Brunnhilde’s finger (the fact that Waltraute knows this shows that there are spies everywhere in the Nine Realms – or at least down on Earth!). Brunnhilde refuses indignantly to give up the ring – which she regards as her wedding ring.
Now this is interesting. It shows that Brunnhilde is, after all, no goody-goody. The old Brunnhilde might have bought her way back into Valhalla at any price; might well have cared about the fate of her family and all the other gods. But years of exile on a hard and horrible rock, followed by an interlude of true love and blazing passion, has changed her. She cares nothing for her sister’s pleas – let the gods take care of themselves! She, Brunnhilde, is now a mortal and looking forward to a lifetime of bliss with her handsome, heroic and half-mortal husband. Brunnhilde has been starved of love and any sort of human comfort for so long – small wonder she now clings to what she has so recently gained. You can see this disappointing visit has bruised her very soul – they want her to give up something that she prizes without offering anything in return. And she’s not having it! I don’t blame her at all; in fact I’d do the same. And so, I bet, would you!
It’s not long before Brunnhilde has a second and far more puzzling visitor. Gunther Gibich, a local magnate, has come to woo her. Actually, according to Wagner, it’s Siegfried disguised as Gunther, an idea so implausible that I can only assume the great composer was having a bad day when he thought of it. Research and analysis enabled me to come up with a much more sensible explanation in Ringtones, though the reader is asked to remember that we are still dealing here with gods and dwarves and other beings from Norse mythology. Be that as it may, it’s a good job Brunnhilde is no longer a virgin because she is now well and truly raped. Believing this to be by Gunther, stunned by her own weakness, bewildered by Siegfried’s failure to return, shattered by the whole experience, Brunnhilde allows herself to be taken to the Gibich castle where Gunther, who is not actually a bad bloke, plans to marry her.
And what does she find when she gets there? Siegfried – who seems hardly to remember her (though he hasn’t been gone all that long) and is engaged to Gunther’s sister Gutrune.
The jolly-hockysticks schoolgirl has long gone but the Valkyrie remains and now comes to the fore. Betrayed and still bewildered by it all, Brunnhilde vows vengeance and is encouraged in this by Hagen who is, of course, the evil genius behind the whole thing. She does a dreadful thing – she reveals to his enemy the fact that Siegfried, until now invincible in any kind of stoush thanks to his sword Nothung, has a weak spot. Until now Brunnhilde has been the one person in the entire Ring saga to behave with consistant decency. She has been a loyal and loving daughter and a loyal and loving ‘wife’. She didn’t even make much of a fuss when her father made her suffer an unfair and cruel punishment. She’s been brave, too, as a Valkyrie and also living alone in a wood with nobody to protect her. But you can see, throughout the story, how she is gaining her share of hard knowledge. How she is changing and growing more formidable of purpose. In Siegfried’s arms she grew soft and womanly; for the first time in her life she yielded completely to the will of another. And where has it got her? So just as she has been betrayed, or so she believes, she now becomes the betrayer. And Siegfried is slain.
Now, too late, Brunnhilde realises the extent of the plot against both her and her lover. They have been the tools of the gods and the victims of lesser beings, all because of a power struggle that is far beyond their understanding. Never, since Siegfried’s conception, has either one of them been truly free to decide their fates. She might have just collapsed under the weight of it all and gone mad. Or become Mrs. Gibich. But there is nobility in Brunnhilde and though she wants both vengeance and atonement she also knows it is down to her to ultimately put things right. Or as right as they can be. A grand gesture is called for to expunge evil from the world in the hope that something better will result. And Brunnhilde unhesitatingly makes it, immolating herself and the dead Siegfried and triggering a cataclysm of fire and water that brings the opera…and the book…and the world of The Ring to its end.