Is the story behind Wagner’s Ring of the Niebelung merely silly or is there a deeper meaning?
Critics, ring fanatics and those who hate every note have been arguing this since the cycle was first produced in 1876. Even some of those who love the music dismiss the story.
Which to me rather misses the point. Because though the music tells the story, without the story there is nothing to tell. If you see what I mean. When the giants stride the stage the music swells gigantically. When the dwarf Mime is being particularly sneaky and malicious there is a certain snide pizzicato. When the lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde, Brunnhilde and Siegfried sigh ecstatically and burn with passion the music sighs and burns with them. And even those who don’t know another note of Wagner know what those boisterous Valkyries sound like.
Nobody doubts that The Ring is one of the most remarkable musical achievements in history. But does it also have social significance?
I think it does. And I try to show this, as humorously as possible, in my book Ringtones.
Here, the Gods are the social elite, not without a sense of responsibility for the worlds they rule but also arrogant, capricious and blind to the discontent of those below them. Behind their magnificent façade they are as flawed and vulnerable as the Mortals and Dwarves they so despise.
The Giants, with their disconcerting habit of turning into reclusive dragons, are a looming threat to the power of the Gods but they are slow of wit and easily beguiled by baubles. They have their counterpart in the real world; those who conquer and rule by sheer weight, mindlessly cruel as bad children, fearful, mistrustful, suspicious and yet full of shallow sentiment. The Roman Emperor Nero appears to have been such a man and we have some modern equivalents too. Giant are too thick and gullible to maintain power if challenged by those more cunning than they.
Such as the Dwarves, who would appear to represent True Evil in the Ring. Alberich and his brother Mime forever plot and contrive, driven by greed and envy. Yet their malice is fuelled by a cruel self-knowledge for they are pitiful creatures; ugly, misshapen, despised by all. Small wonder they lust after what they cannot have, as Alberich lusts after the Rhinemaidens. Small wonder he decides that if he can’t have love then gold is the only acceptable substitute. Some have attributed anti-Semitism or outright racism to Wagner’s dwarves but I see them more as representing those underclass types who, perceived as hideous by those more fortunately-born, scheme and agitate for a revolution not for any ideal of freeing oppressed humanity but to satisfy their unappeased hunger. I always feel a bit sorry for Alberich who is not without courage and a sense of beauty. And Mime, for all his spitefulness and ulterior motive, is treated abominably by Siegfried.
The Gods are a motley crew. There’s Wotan, striding around Heaven and Earth to no good purpose and with incomprehensible motives, thundering away like the bully he is. Not much of a husband and a pretty awful father, too, putting Brunnhilde in a coma and sticking her on a cold rock for YEARS! What he ever did to earn his title as Chief God is anyone’s guess. His sidekick Loge, God of Fire, is a nasty bit of work and envious as any dwarf. He is the chief manipulator throughout and represents, I think, those senior bureaucrats who are the true and sometimes insidious power behind politicians and leaders. Loge is the Sir Humphrey Appleby of The Ring.
A more noble character is Fricka, Wotan’s much-abused wife, who just wants the Gods to behave nicely. Mind you she doesn’t seem to care much for Mortals; like any society hostess she thinks the hired help are okay as long as they do as they are told and know their place. That her godly husband should stoop so low as to bonk the maid, so to speak, comes as a terrible shock. Fricka represents those high-minded characters in our society whose own behaviour is exemplary and are capable of great kindness but who have little understanding of the darker urges that drive others.
Most of The Ring’s Mortals are bastards. Literally. And Wotan’s bastards at that. Which actually makes them slightly more than mortal, driven by the same feelings of love, passion, anger, revenge and so on as the Gods but without the power and privilege. ALL the Valkyries are bastards which may account for their general boisterousness. Their mother, Erde, is a right old misery which is not surprising as Wotan left her with all those illegitimate daughters to raise and she is also a sort of Minister for the Environment which as everyone knows is a lowly and thankless job in any government. The doomed lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde are also Wotan’s progeny and seem like decent types though we never really get to know them well enough to find out. Their mortal side appears to predominate and we can see them as those perennial favourites of fiction, couples who love not wisely but too well and end up paying the price for it. And, in sad truth, they ARE a bit soppy! As well as incestuous.
Sieglinde’s husband Hunding is one of only three Mortals in the story and he is hardly a role model for the race. Despite his (grim and gloomy) ancestral hall in the middle of a (grim and gloomy) forest he is a true bogan and you can see him at the footy on a Saturday, swilling beer and bashing his mug about the table and generally being one of the lads. Then reeling through the streets looking to give a good kicking to some perceived racial inferior before heading home to give the wife a quick howsyourfather and a black eye. A nasty bit of work, is Hunding. Domestic violence personified.
Now we come to the stars of this show, Brunnhilde and Siegfried. One is Wotan’s daughter, the Head Valkyrie. The other is his grandson. Not that this fazes anyone; Wotan, like many an aristocratic father in the old days, is far more enraged by her disobedience than by her cohabiting with her nephew. And you can’t blame her for that; he is her rescuer and the first man she has seen for simply yonks! As well as being marvellously handsome and heroic. Brunnhilde is my favourite Ring character because she is brave, kind, true-hearted and feisty and the only one in the whole drama whose motives and behaviour are in any way exemplary. I mean she has a rotten job when we first meet her, carrying corpses away from the battlefield and up to Valhalla but does she complain? No, she yodels cheerfully away and when she falls from grace it is through compassion for another. Brunnhilde represents all that is best in human society, and how too often that best is undervalued.
Siegfried, by contrast, is a shit! A cad, a bounder, a louse of the first order. Sure, he is brave and handsome but, in the words of the immortal Anna Russell, he is also stupid! Thick as! Also arrogant, insensitive…oh why go on, I’ve said it all in an article on Siegfried on this website (see the Wagner bit). If this is the composer’s idea of a hero then it says a lot about Wagner if you ask me! There are a lot of Siegfrieds around today.
So yes, to reiterate, I do think The Ring can be interpreted as social critique though whether that’s what the composer intended nobody is really sure. Beneath the wond’rous music and the florid drama with its Gothic cast of characters lies the basic human conflict of good versus evil leading up to what both religious fanatics and the gloomier environmentalists (among which I count myself) see as the inevitable apocalypse. You’ll see this more clearly if you read the articles and – better still – buy the book (on Amazon download, e-book only, cheap as chips, see link on this website).