Tag Archive | ringtones

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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Siegfried – superhero or just plain dumb?

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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.

 

 

A new look at The Ring

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Wotan, Head God and CEO of Teutonic Gods Inc., has a problem.  He likes to rule the world – well, several worlds actually – and enjoys wielding supreme power.  On the other hand he’s an easy-going sort of chap who to indulges himself with plenty of wine, women and song, much to the irritation of his formidable wife Frikka.  For several aeons he’s managed to successfully balance both power and pleasure but now it’s all going horribly wrong and he stands to lose everything…

This, basically, is the story behind Richard Wagner’s huge work The Ring of the Nibelung; four operas that last almost four hours each.  A formidable endurance test for even the most avid opera-lover, let alone the cast of performers.  ‘Ring’ fanatics abound – as do those who love music but don’t care for Wagner’s type of sung drama which offers splendid orchestration and heroic vocalisation but not too many hit tunes.  This is why The Ride of the Valkyries is the only tune that non-Wagnerians can readily hum!

I am a ring tragic.  One of that select and undoubtedly peculiar band who can listen to, and watch, The Ring operas over and over again.  Once you get hooked, it’s an addiction for which there is no cure except more of the same.

But even I have to admit that The Ring has a very silly story.  Okay, it takes a suspension of everyday reality to believe in gods and giants and dwarves and other weirdos but then most of us managed to do that very happily with Tolkien (or at least with Peter Jackson).  And today there are quite a lot of people out there (mostly under the age of 30, admittedly) who are enthusiastic about vampires.  The problem with Wagner’s version of the old Norse legends, though, is that the storyline is full of inconsistencies and the plot (for want of a better word) full of holes.  And yet he renders it all so seriously!

So I decided to rewrite it.  Using the basic story as Wagner saw it, but with the gaps filled in and the silly bits made sane and the unfathomable explained.  And a touch of satire to make it more digestible. You’ll still meet Wotan and his gang of neurotic gods and goddesses,  the tragic lovers Siegmund and Sieglinde, their gormless (but very brave) son Siegfried the Hero and the equally brave Brunnhilde who is Wotan’s favourite daughter and head of the Valkyries.  The Giants Fasolt and Fafner still stomp through these pages while the Dwarves Alberich and Mime scuttle about their bad business.  All the lesser Mortals are here too – Sieglinde’s husband Horrible Hunding, the even more horrible Hagen who is half-dwarf, the Gibich siblings Gunther and Gutrune who find themselves unwittingly caught up in affairs way beyond their understanding.

Ringtones is written to amuse – it’s ‘funtasy’ rather than fantasy, in the manner of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Yet there is a serious undertone at work for the story of The Ring is essentially a story of love versus the lust for power.  When greed and violence, lust and jealousy, evil and plain old stupidity threaten to take over the world then only extreme self-sacrifice can redeem it.  Over the next few days I’ll indulge myself in writing a series of blog articles on The Ring to augment the story for those who are already addicted and to elucidate it for those who know nothing about it.

In the meantime, you can buy the book or take a sneak preview by going to

http://www.amazon.com/Ringtones-Julie-Lake-ebook/dp/B00HNVHLBA

 

Have fun!