Tag Archive | Brunnhilde

Wagner’s Ring – is it silly or socially significant?

 

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).

Brunnhilde – the bold and the beautiful

 

 

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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.

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Can The Ring be taken seriously?

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How seriously should we take the Ring of the Nibelung?

Wagner, of course, meant us to take it very seriously indeed, at least musically.  And he was right, because it’s a work of staggering genius.

Whether he meant us to take the story seriously is another matter.  He used the ancient Norse legends, or at least his version of them, because all those gods and giants and dwarves and other strange beings offered such a rich mine of fantasy from which creative musical treasure could be brought forth.  Humankind is prosaic by comparison and offers less scope for the imagination.  That the legends were just an excuse for great music is borne out by the fact that the story, as told by Wagner, doesn’t make much sense.  The ideas are all there but the plot is full of holes that even a giant could get through!  The storyline and even the motivations often defy logic.  And for this, The Ring has long been derided, even by those who love the music.

Inevitably, therefore, we look for allegory.  And it’s there to be found, if you look.  This is why so many modern producers of The Ring operas, and their set designers, have tried to put their own interpretation on The Ring story, even though the libretto doesn’t make this feasible.  Thus we have  had valkyries on motorbikes ans Wotans in evening dress and Siegfrieds in tee-shirts and dwarves dressed to look like Nazi stormtroopers.  In my opinion, The Ring only works if the characters are dressed in the way illustrators have traditionally shown us that such mythical characters would have dressed – horned helmets, chainmail, swords and all the rest.  I’ve never yet seen a credible horse on stage, for Brunnhilde to ride into the flames, let alone a credible dragon.  But my favourite productions have stuck close to Wagner’s own ideal in terms of scenery and costume – he knew what a giant or a dwarf should look like, and what a valkyrie should wear on her head!

When I wrote Ringtones, the allegorical nature of the story was very much on my mind.  Thus I looked at it through modern eyes and gave the characters modern speech patterns, even though setting it very firmly in the mythical past – where it belongs.  Despite the fact that the protagonists themselves are mythical in character – dwarves and giants and so on – they all have very human traits and speak in human speech in the opera. And in the book.  They can all understand each other without difficulty.  And so it is easy to see them as representative rather than real.  Wotan, for example, is quite familiar to us.  He reminds me a bit of those larger-than-life media moghuls and entrepreneurs and CEOs of  international corporations whose appetites and passions seem larger than those of the rest of us and who make world-changing decisions while being at the same time flawed and  sometimes uncharacteristically vulnerable to the bad (perhaps malicious) counsel of others.

For The Ring is a story about power.  Wotan has it and wants to hang on to it.  Others covet it and try to take it.  Throughout the story love and all finer things are sacrificed  for power – until the very end when love and self-sacrifice bring about redemption and the downfall of those to whom power is everything.  It is interesting to note that this is only accomplished through total annihilation.

The Ring, of course, is the supreme symbol of all that power.  Though there are other powerful symbols in the story – Wotan’s rune-laden spear in which his godly power resides, the sword Nothung borne (briefly) by Siegmund and more effectively by Siegfried, the Taarnhelm which has the power to transform or transport its wearer, Donner’s hammer, Loge’s fire.  And then there is water, the most powerful of the elements in the story, for in the end it is the waters of the Rhine that put out the fire that consumes Valhalla and much else besides.

The gods in this story are the social elite who set the standards which other beings must try to match.  They are blessed with privilege but cursed with responsibility which, increasingly, they don’t want to exercise.  They stand for every society in history where an upper class finally becomes threatened by revolution from those below.

Those below, in The Ring story, being the dwarves who delve and labour and covet wealth because they have never, it’s presumed, had the chance to value other less material things.  There is a certain racial element to this – the dwarves are always black and small and ugly and hairy and misshapen – alien in the eyes of gods and mortals.  The giants, by contrast, are feared rather than despised.  They are freaks but also useful artisans, respected for their strength but not liked and not befriended by any except their own kind.  They’re a bit thick, too, and without humour.  If I was casting them in a modern context I’d probably make them Russian, of the communist kind!

Mortals are the rest of us – the middle class.  Sharing some traits with gods and some with dwarves.  There are other beings in the Nine Realms of Norse legend – elves and suchlike – but Wagner didn’t bother with them and neither did I.  Though the sirenic Rhinemaidens have a nymphlike charm and Erda and her Norn daughters are eldritch as well as dreary.

In any age, at any time, social forces are fighting to gain power or retain it, just like in The Ring.  And sometimes drastic action is needed to bring about resolution – something Wotan knows only too well.  And in this eternal battle we are all caught up; struggling to survive as best we can and using whatever means are available to us.  Some of us will employ trickery, some will behave honourably, others will find courage and many will succumb to cowardice and fear.  And murder.

Thus I see The Ring as an allegory for our time and every time.  The Wotans will sacrifice others and act with exigence to hang on to power and hold things together.  The Frikkas will try to impose their idea of morality on the rest of us.  The Alberichs will try to assuage their ugliness and unlovableness by using any means to attain wealth and power.  The Loges will  conceal their malice and fit their shape to the circumstances until their ends are achieved.  The Siegfrieds will wield their swords with all the aplomb of great sportsmen (think Shane Warne) without ever understanding the harm they do or even what it’s all about.  The Fafners will retreat from the world’s rejection and their own misanthropy by retreating into dark caverns of the mind where none can reach them.  The Erdas will keep up a shrill cry of warning about all the ills that beset the world – or might beset it in the future but, like the boy who cried wolf, nobody will heed them.  The Brunnhildes will stride valiantly through life with loving and true hearts, trying to do good even at great cost to themselves.

Ultimately, what the Ring tells us, in an age of materialism, selfish hedonism and vulgarity, is that if selfless love doesn’t vanquish greed and the lust for power then the end of civilisation as we know it is only an Armageddon away.