Tag Archive | Ring Cycle

Siegfried – superhero or just plain dumb?

Hero3

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.

WOTAN – Godlike or just gormless?

EXPLAINING THE RING (1) – BY Julie Lake, author of the satirical novel Ringtones.  Which tells things how they should have been!

Wotan

Wotan, aka Woden, Odin etc, is the central character in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  As, indeed, he is in the old Norse legends on which The Ring of the Nibelung is based.

Don’t let anyone tell you it’s Brunnhilde, or Siegfried.  Wotan, Head God of the Nine Realms, is the pivot on which all the action turns and the only character to appear in all four Ring operas.

Wotan might be a God but in most ways he’s all too human.  He’s your typical big, swaggering, testosterone-driven male who likes a jar or two and never met a woman – or a goddess – that he couldn’t bed.  If you met him in the local pub you’d recognise the type at once.

And yet, there IS a bit more to him than that.   He is an affable sort of chap who really does mean well, even if he sometimes does ill, and he can be very thoughtful and introspective at times, especially when he realises that the Twilight of the Gods is at hand and it’s pretty much his fault.  Some have labelled him as being quintessentially German of a certain type  – veering effortlessly from mawkish sentimentality to inexplicable cruelty.  The sort of person who might gas other people’s children by day and then go home and play with his own at night.  This is most evident towards the end of the second opera, The Valkyrie, where he keeps telling his daughter Brunnhilde how much he loves her and will miss her yet still condemns her to a dreadful fate.

Wotan – and this should never be forgotten – IS powerful.  His mighty spear is potent enough to zap those who offend him into oblivion.  His will, throughout most of the worlds over which he rules, is Law.  And yet, as The Ring story shows, he is not ALL-powerful.  He can be defied and has to defend his position against those who would take it from him.  He has to watch his back.  His great power is limited by the necessity of using it wisely and well.  There is a  Natural Universal Law which he cannot break without peril to himself and others.  Wotan is the CEO of Teutonic Gods Inc. but he still has to answer to a Board of Directors. This helps explain why it is that though Wotan IS the most powerful character in The Ring it is not he but his arch-enemy Alberich who most influences the story’s events and outcome.

So,  the saga really starts when Wotan decides to build himself a mighty palace-castle which he names Valhalla.  This doesn’t mean anything in particular (despite reports to the contrary) but he likes the sound of it.  He is, by the way, a family man.  His own family comes from the Aesir, warrior Gods who bear most of the burden of defending their realm from enemies (mostly dwarves and giants).  His wife, Frikka, comes from the other great god family, the Vanirs.  Frikka is Goddess of Marriage and various other things and just about the only person who can intimidate her formidable husband.

She has rather a lot of brothers and sisters including Freia, Goddess of Fertility, Froh, God of Spring and Donner, God of Thunder.  They are, as Wotan observes at the beginning of Ringtones, a noisy lot.

Wotan employs two giants, Fasolt and Fafner, to build Valhalla.  Giants being the master builders in Norse mythology; or at least handy with tools.  Part of the price they demand for this is Freia, Wotan’s pretty sister-in-law and Wotan, thinking he’ll get the gold before he has to give up the girl, agrees to this.  Much to the fury of Frikka and the Vanirs.  Alas, when time comes to pay, Wotan doesn’t have the dosh.

Loge, Wotan’s sidekick and also the God of Fire, comes up with an idea.  Loge is a trickster, a shape-changer and a mischief-maker who is distrusted by the gods but his idea appears to have merit in a rather underhand sort of way.  He tells Wotan that Alberich, a dwarf who lives in the Dwarf Realm of Nibelung (which is Down There) has stolen some magic gold and if they – Wotan and Loge – can steal it in their turn, it will pay off the giants and all will be well in Valhalla.

This, then, is where Ringtones the Novel begins but the first of the four Ring operas actually opens with Dwarf Alberich, a nasty piece of work if ever there was one, trying to grope the three Rhinemaidens.  The Rhinemaidens are sirens who live in the river and guard a precious horde of magical gold.  When Alberich can’t get the girls he grabs the gold and makes some of it into a magic ring.  And – wouldn’t you know it – that ring conveys awesome power on whoever wears it.

When he learns this Wotan naturally wants the ring for himself and, thanks to Loge’s idea, they do indeed manage to seize both Alberich’s treasure horde AND the ring.  However, Alberich curses the ring so that whoever wears it will never know love but will find death instead.  Worse than that, Wotan’s old girlfriend Erda the Witch, who is big on prophecies, foretells that Valhalla and much else besides will be doomed to annihilation if the ring is not returned to its rightful owners.   Unfortunately, and much against his will, Wotan has already given this troublesome golden circlet to the giants, who fight over it so that Fasolt dies and Wotan, in the words of the comedian Anna Russell, famous for her Ring send-up, knows that the curse is indeed working.

And thus, by the end of the first opera (The Rhinegold) and the first chapter in Ringtones, the scene is set.  Wotan has to somehow retrieve the ring from Fafner and get it back to the Rhine.  But how?

He comes up with a Cunning Plan, albeit rather a convoluted one.  In Ringtones the reasons behind this plan go back to an old fear of Wotan’s that the Gods are becoming decadent and weak.  Losing their ability to rule lesser creatures in the Nine Realms, such as giants and dwarves and mortals.  Wotan has a fondness for mortals, especially the women, and it’s his habit often to wander the Mortal Realm (which lies between the realm of the gods Up There and that of the dwarves Down There) in disguise, observing and sometimes interfering with human behaviour – though he has to be careful not to break the Natural Universal Law that prevents direct ingtervention.  He comes to admire many mortal traits and decides that a race of new beings born from a union of gods and mortals will be the salvation of his particular universe.

Naturally he does his best to kickstart this by bringing about a meeting between his illegitimate twin children by a mortal woman, Siegmund and Sieglinde.  This will be the subject of a future article so I won’t go into it here but suffice it to say that things do not go quite as planned and this luckless couple come to a sticky end, largely due to the influence of Frikka and in spite of well-meaning interference from Wotan’s favourite daughter, the Valkyrie Brunnhilde.  But not before they have managed to produce a son, Siegfried.

Wotan had hoped that his half-mortal son, Siegmund, would discover and slay Fafner and retrieve the Ring.  Wotan himself can’t do this because it would be against Natural Universal Law – he had given his word to the giants and the ring was part of the payment based on that word and thus he cannot behave dishonourably.  Not directly, anyway!  Once Siegmund is dead he pins all his hopes on Siegfried who is raised in mysterious circumstances to be a Hero.  The type of Hero who will happily slay a giant and put the world to rights.

The erstwhile giant has, in fact, rather strangely turned himself into a dragon, though in the Ringtones version this may only be a story put about to repel possible assassins or treasure hunters.  Siegfried, as it turns out, grows into just the sort of big, strong, strapping lad who just can’t wait to kill either a giant or a dragon.  Though not without a bit of help from his godly grandad.

One of the great enigmas about Wotan is his strange mix of power and impotence.  Natural Law – and Frikka – forbid him to interfere too directly and overtly in Mortal affairs. He’s charged with saving the world and yet he can’t just go banging about with his magic spear and do it.  He has to use others to serve his purpose and employ subtle means to get them motivated.  Thus it is with Siegfried – Wotan has to get up to all sorts of tricks to finally put the Young Hero on the right path first to giant (or dragon)-slaying and then to getting the ring back where it belongs.  It would be so much easier if he could just go up to Siegfried and say: “Hey up, I’m your grandfather and here’s what you’ve been born to do – so go and bloody do it!”.  But alas, what would Norse legend be without its tortured convolutions?  Any decent legend for that matter.  And what would any Ring quest story be without its twists and turns and tensions?

So we begin, by this stage in the story, to see why it is that Wotan behaves so peculiarly – and sometimes perversely.  He’s made some colossal mistakes – building a home he couldn’t afford, mortgaging himself to blokes who don’t like him anyway, making an enemy of Alberich, upsetting Frikka, coming up with a half-baked plan to develop a Master Race that all goes pear-shaped.  If he was more ruthless, he wouldn’t have had to resort to any of these things.  But, as I’ve said before, he’s basically a decent chap who does understand – albeit reluctantly – that with power goes responsibility.  And that he owes it to his position, and his dignity, to do the Right Thing.

Wotan’s biggest and most inexplicable mistake is the way he deals with his daughter Brunnhilde.  She’s his favourite and he has raised her to eminence in Valhalla, making her Head Prefect of the Valkyries, a bunch of strapping girls whose important job it is to retrieve fallen Heroes from any battlefield and take them up to Valhalla.  Why? Because Wotan, though often unwise in matters of peace, is more farsighted when it comes to matters of war.  He is, after all, a warrior god and he fears that one day Valhalla may be under siege, either from the giants or possibly the dwarves, led by evil Alberich.  So he wants lots of heroes, restored to life and honour in the Realm of the Gods, to defend the palace.

When Brunnhilde disobeys her father’s wishes in an important matter (more about this in another article) he doesn’t just lock her up in a dark room for a while or demote her or take away her pony.  No, he strips her of her godhead (and thus her immortality), puts her on a rock surrounded by fire and leaves her there for years until some mortal can come along and rape her!  Cruel and unusual punishment indeed, most would say.  Brunnhilde certainly said so and at least won a concession from her father that the mortal in question would be suitably heroic.

In conceding this, Wotan knows nothing about his grandson-to-be, Siegfried.  But when he does learn of the boy’s existence he immediately conceives of yet another of his whacky plans by which Siegfried – who is of course Brunnhilde’s nephew – will be the one to free her.  And with whom she will fall in love.  And thus Wotan’s idea of a Master Race, which received a bit of a setback with the deaths of Siegmund and Sieglinde, is now right back on track!  Never mind the possible cost to the future lovers themselves.  Oh, and of course it will be their job to get that damned ring back to the Rhinemaidens.  Two birds with one stone, so to speak!

This all obviously begs the question – is Wotan stupid or what?  And if he’s that stupid, how come he ruled Valhalla and all the Nine Realms for so long?  We see he can be ruthless, even cruel.  He has little feeling for the feelings of lesser beings such as Dwarves and Giants, though in this he is no different to other gods – or mortals for that matter. Giants are hard to love.  But Wotan doesn’t seem to have much real sensitivity towards the feelings of mortals either, even those of his own blood.  All exist to serve his greater purpose…which is understandable in an all-powerful god who never makes mistakes but not at all forgivable in so flawed and human-like a being as the CEO of Teutonic Gods Inc.

And yet Wotan is not a totally unsympathetic character.  We do share his anguish and even applaud his bungling attempts to turn his wrongs into rights.  There is no malice in him, as there is in, say, Alberich and Loge.  Frikka and Erda are both, in their different ways, able to make him see reason.  Frikka infuriates him but he will not see her shamed, not even by the actions of his beloved Brunnhilde.  We can clearly see that although the business of the ring brings things to a head, Wotan has long feared the decline of his race and his world and agonised over what to do about it.  He bears this burden alone, knowing that the other gods can’t see it at all.  His heart is generally in the right place but he is, after all, a god, not a mortal, and has to look at the Big Picture (as he likes to say!).  In so doing his heart has to give way to his head.

Wotan cuts a more genial figure in Ringtones than he does in Wagner’s operas.  In the end, though, he is just as tragic – and just as doomed.