Tag Archive | Wagner

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).



Another article that tries to make sense of Wagner’s Ring Cycle – by Julie Lake, author of Ringtones

 Poor old Hagen!  He has such a dreary part to play in The Ring.  Wagner doesn’t introduce him to us until the fourth opera – Gotterdamerung.  And when we do meet him he’s such a misery!  Gloomy of countenance with never a hint of a smile.  True, he is able to summon up a kind or rough joviality with the Gibichung vassals when necessary, but you know he’s only pretending to be one of the lads because it suits his dark purpose. 

Yet hateful Hagen’s role is crucial to the story because he is the one who kills Siegfried the Hero.  Thus precipitating the final doom – his own and just about everyone else’s in The Ring of the Niebelung.

Technically, this makes him a baddie.  Yet I find myself with a sneaking sympathy for Hagen.  Like so many others in the saga, he is the victim of forces far beyond his control and though he appears to submit willingly to those forces and, indeed, obviously believes that he himself is dictating the progress of events, he is in his way just as much a victim as poor stupid Siegfried.

In fact, if you think about it, Hagen and Siegfried have a lot in common.  Though not actually related they are step-cousins of a kind because Hagen’s father Alberich and Siegfried’s foster-father Mime are brothers.  Not very close brothers, mind you, or else the two boys might have grown up together and THAT might have brought about a very different outcome!

Hagen has been fathered by Dwarf Alberich, The Ring’s chief villain, on a mortal woman.  We know nothing about his childhood but he appears to have grown up mainly in the household of the Gibich, half-brother to the Gibichung lord Gunther and his sister Gutrune.  Wagner doesn’t bother to explain much about this relationship so if you want a bit more background you’ll have to turn to Ringtones.  It’s quite obvious that Hagen has had a rather rotten childhood; a father who isn’t around all that much and a mother who is long dead by the time he joins the story.  Obviously he is in a position of inferiority to that of Gunther, the Gibichung heir, and indeed seems to live with his rich and powerful kin as a sort of upper servant; a steward who runs the show and gives orders to the vassals and men-at-arms.

Alberich appears to view his son merely as a tool for his own vengeance and may indeed have bred Hagen just for this purpose.  As a half-human with good connections Hagen can be accepted where a Niebelung dwarf cannot.  He has a better chance of getting close to the magic ring – which is Alberich’s one obsession.  We take it as a given (at least we do if we’ve watched the three preceding operas) that Alberich has instilled this obsession in his son; then in Gotterdamerung he drives the point home by appearing to Hagen in a dream, reminding him of his filial duty in no uncertain terms.

So poor old Hagen has never known any love.  Alberich, after all, had long ago renounced it in favour of gold and power, in effect also denying it to his misbegotten son too.  Who knows what Hagen might have been like with a bit of decent parenting.

Siegfried, too, is the victim of poor parenting.  Indeed, both characters show strong symptoms of either psychopathy or perhaps Asperger’s Syndrome – inappropriate behaviour, casual cruelty, a  lack of empathy with others.  But while The Young Hero is at least blessed with good looks, charm, boundless energy and a capacity for sportive merriment Hagen is lumpen, sluggish and cold of heart.  Siegfried has the blood of the gods in his veins (or ichor, or whatever passes for blood with gods) while Hagen has the blood of cavern-dwelling dwarves.

So, blighted from birth, it’s no wonder that Hagen takes such a dim view of the world and even less to be wondered that he takes an instant dislike to Siegfried.  True, he has already marked his step-cousin down as a victim before their first meeting.  But you can tell, thanks to Wagner’s superb musical characterisation of these two foredoomed enemies, that Hagen just can’t wait to give that bumptious but popular Young Hero his comeuppance.  Despite their several similarities, Siegfried is simply everything that Hagen is not.  Does Hagen fully realise this? It’s hard to tell because, though menacing, he plods through his part showing no emotion – not even anger.

He is certainly cunning, though, and this appears to show an intelligence of which the appallingly innocent – and thick! – Siegfried is not possessed.  Hagen’s plan to trap and eliminate Siegfried, and to manipulate Brunnhilde, Gunther and Gutrune into helping him, is masterful.  Stolidly, he overcomes all obstacles. Yet the plan ultimately backfires. Is this the Fates at work?  Is it the overmastering power of redemptive love (as some Wagnerians would have us believe)?  Or is it that Hagen, despite his cunning, lacks the imagination to predict what Brunnhilde might do if Siegfried dies?  Whether or not Brunnhilde’s great love is redemptive is open to interpretation but there is no doubting her despair and her passion. Hagen, the loveless and the passionless, is incapable of understanding such feelings.

And so he fumbles the ball.  Almost literally, because he is so stunned by Brunnhilde’s self-immolation and its aftermath that he fails to grab the ring.  His death, like his life, is clumsy and harsh.

There have been many fine Hagens in the performance history of Gotterdamerung but I have a particular liking for the recent interpretation by Hans Peter Konig (NY Met Production).  This is no single-minded villain, hell bent on cruelty for the love of it.  His Hagen shows a degree of bewildered resignation: a sort of “what am I here for, oh dear I suppose I’d better get on with it then” approach.  He is grim, he is slow, he is so obviously not looking on the bright side of life that I, at least, found him quite pitiful.  Tragic, rather than wicked.

This is possibly because I don’t like Siegfried and find him infuriating!  Of course, if Hagen felt the same way he might have done better, from the point of his posthumous reputation at least, to have picked up his spear – or even a sword – and faced the Hero in single combat.  Except, as we know, Siegfried would have beaten the shit out of him!  And Hagen wasn’t in the business of pointless heroism; he had a proper job and estates to run and a ring to regain.

I’m not saying we should try to love the loveless Hagen.  But just endeavour to put yourself in his boots for a moment.  Until Gotterdamerung he has apparently led a blameless – albeit joyless – life.  Wagner tells us no differently and not even Ringtones accuses him of any previous crimes.  He’s got his mostly-absent and extremely unpleasant father bashing his ear from time to time with ideas of vengeance and power. He’s got his spoiled brother and sister apparently depending on him for getting anything done around the place, including finding marriage partners for them.  On the periphery he’s got an ill-assorted bunch of gods, half-humans and water nymphs vying for power and what he believes is his family treasure. And then he’s got wonder-boy Siegfried stomping boastfully around the general vicinity, in proud possession of the gold, the girl and a very big sword.

Okay, it’s Hagen’s influence that lures Siegfried to the Gibichung realm in the first place.  Nobody said he was a nice guy!  Just that, given the circumstances, it might not be all his fault.  Like Action in West Side Story, he’s depraved because he’s deprived and maybe…just maybe…if he’d had the right counselling when young they’d have found that deep down inside him there was some good.  Alas, we’ll never know!

Wagner’s Ring – a study in class warfare


The Ring explained Part 8 – Ringtones author Julie Lake demystifies Wagner’s Ring Cycle


Fans of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle usually see it as being about the struggle between love and power. When in fact it’s really about a conflict that’s just as old – the class struggle.  There are definite Marxist undertones in The Ring and if you think that’s far-fetched it’s worth remembering that Wagner was something of a radical in his younger years.  So it’s a fair bet that The Ring was written to express his views on privilege and class exploitation.

On the surface, of course, The Ring of the Niebelung is a mishmash of Norse legends in which gods, dwarves, mortals and various monsters slug it out until everything ends in tears.  Wagner, no shrinking violet, knew he had an orchestral and vocal work of exceptional magnificence but he didn’t bother to give us a storyline that made much sense.  Anyone who has ever studied the libretti for the four operas (without the benefit of the splendid singing in your ears) knows how easy it is either to fall about laughing or just give up trying to follow the crazy plot and motivations.

That’s why I wrote Ringtones.  With a great love of the four operas, a working knowledge of Norse mythology, and the ability to take a modern perspective, it was possible to put together a reasonably coherent story and do away with the silly bits and fill in the gaps in the way that Wagner surely would have done if he’d been as good a writer as he was a composer.  In doing this I found that the old ‘love and power’ theory fell to pieces like the sword Needful when Wotan zapped it, to be reforged as a whole bright new theory of class conflict.  Viewed in this way, the story of The Ring of the Nibelung starts to make some sense.

What is it, after all, that Wotan, the main protagonist, fears most?  It is the downfall of Valhalla; not just his palace but his entire world.  Gotterdamerung.  The Twilight of the Gods.

In Norse mythology, as in all ancient pantheology, the gods rule the known universe.  They are the aristocracy, top dogs, alpha beings to whom all others must bow down.  And like elites in every time and place, their abiding concern is to hang on to all that power.  For, as history shows, supreme power never stays in the same hands for long.  Empires rise and crumble; rulers are toppled by their subjects; new elites rise to take the place of those they have toppled.  Power can only be retained through strength – and wealth –  and is always vulnerable to either the barbarian at the gate or the discontented serf within.

This is exactly the situation when the Ring Cycle begins.  The gods of Valhalla reign supreme but they have become effete and decadent, taking their supremacy for granted.  Just like the French and Russian nobilities before they were overthrown.  We have a powerful symbol here in the magic golden apples tended by Freia, Goddess of Fertility (and a few other things).  The gods depend on these for their eternal youth and strength but, inexplicably, the apple trees are failing.  Everyone is worried about this but nobody has a clue what to do about it.

The apples can be seen as representing the source of power which must be tended with constant vigilance if it is to remain healthy and strong.  Elites always come to neglect their power sources in time, which is why they inevitably fall.  Wotan knows this; he doesn’t really need Erda’s prophesies to warn him; he can see all too clearly that the era of the gods is drawing to its close.  Unless he can do something to prevent it.

Just at this time a new source of power emerges – the ring!  This bit of bling had been crafted by the Niebelung dwarf Alberich, a nasty bit of work, or so he appears to gods and mortals in the story.  Alberich must have a smidgin of better feeling under his dark exterior because he goes to the bank of the River Rhine looking for love.  What he finds is three flirty, flighty girls, the Rhinemaidens, whom we assume to be mermaids or sirens because they live actually in the river where their most precious possession is a horde of gold.  Alberich goes for a bit of a grope and the girls tease and then repulse him until he gets into a fine old temper and grabs their gold, even though he is fully aware that it comes at a price – he can have love or money but he can’t have both.  Seeing that he’s an ugly little sod who isn’t likely to get any love anyway, Alberich goes for gold.

Such magic does the Rhinegold possess that the ring made from it confers great power on whoever wears it.  So, like many another downtrodden working class lad, Alberich dreams of seizing power from those who have held it so long – the gods.  He’s no revolutionary, this dwarf, driven by notions of democracy and equality.  By his own account he’s really only interested in bettering his own position, enjoying fabulous wealth and lording it over his own Niebelung folk.  Yes, there’s a hint that he might like to score a point or two off Wotan and the haughty gods.  But basically, Alberich just wants to join the nouveaux riches.

Wotan, however, sees it differently and in the operas there is a certain sense that this is due to conflicts in the distant past between gods and dwarves, as well as between gods and giants.  Wotan shudders at the thought of Alberich leading his Niebelung hordes to conquer Valhalla and overturning the existing social order.  Throughout the Ring Cycle this is his greatest fear and prime motivation for getting the ring back to the Rhinemaidens.  Thus Alberich and the Niebelung dwarves can be seen to represent the lower orders who need to be kept in their place.  After all, they live in a dark, dank underground and are entirely lacking in refinement and social graces.  In fact, as Wagner cast them, they are just how the upper classes have always seen those who serve them at the lowest level – nasty, brutish and short.

Thus the ring – made from mysteriously-sourced gold and crafted by a member of the proletariat – symbolises the mystique of power which, as is pointed out in Ringtones by Loge, is largely a matter of bluff bolstered by myth.  Political and social power is gained by force but as the initial strength of the elite wanes it is held in place largely by just those two elements –  bluff and myth.  That’s why Wotan simply MUST get hold of the ring, because to have such a new and potent artefact in the hands of the lowest class is too terrifying to contemplate.  And, when he realises (warned by Erda) that the ring’s power carries a curse it reinforces the fear he already has that his own power to rule – and that of his class, the gods – requires only a sharp shove to make it topple.  So why doesn’t he just hang on to the ring, once he’s got hold of it?  To augment his own considerable power?  Or, believing Erda’s prophecy, albeit reluctantly, doesn’t he immediately return it to the Rhine?  Why does he immediately and tamely hand it over to a bloody giant, of all creatures?

The giants, like the dwarves, form an underclass to the gods.  Yet their position seems stronger.  Dwarves serve the Nine Realms of The Ring as miners and smiths; digging stuff out of the earth’s bowels and fashioning it in to useful artefacts for others.  They rarely venture from their oblivion.  Giants, however, are big and strong and their own realm (not that we know much about it) is out in the light and air where they seem to occupy a role similar (in our terms) to that of the sturdy, semi-independent yeoman class of bygone times.  Giants, we know, have been tough enough to take on the gods in the past and such conflict has led to treaty rather than defeat.  At the beginning of The Ring story Wotan is seeking to maintain the uneasy truce between gods and giants and obviously needs their skills and hard labour to build his dream home.  Treaties and political negotiations are recorded runically in Wotan’s spear, made from the Tree of the World’s Knowledge (an Ash, if you’re horticulturally inclined). We can see this tree as the accumulation of wisdom and experience that guides human action, and the spear as its implementation.  As with all high-level negotiation and the treaties that ratify it, there must be faith and trust.  So the word of Wotan, ruler of the known universe, must indeed be his bond.  And when he pledges it to the giants, he cannot break it, even at the expense of the ring.

He’s in a nasty position!  Again, we might wonder why he doesn’t hastily try and find something else which will satisfy Fafner.  But – it’s a difficult moment. Frikka and her siblings are demanding he redeem Freia before the giants take her away for good, Erda is prophesying doom for anyone who dares to wear the ring, the giants are angry, distrustful, obdurate and ready to stomp away as soon as they’ve got what they came for.  He just needs one more little bit of gold to complete the payment.  And so, in a gesture of supreme exasperation, he chucks in the ring.  It’s a gesture he regrets almost as soon as he’s made it and will come to regret more as time goes by…but then he is, after all, Head God and his own power is still stronger than anything else in the Nine Realms and he’ll just have to try and get it back.  Which he does, once he fully realises the ring’s significance.

Those who hold power do not always make the wisest decisions, especially when under pressure.  They don’t think quickly enough or see far enough ahead.  Think of Louis X1V.  Think of Czar Nicholas.  Think of Julius Caesar.  Or Richard Nixon.  There’ll always be another chance to act.  To put things right.  The hubris of rulers tells them they are bullet-proof even when all the evidence tells them the gun is loaded and the trigger cocked.

So now Fafner has the ring.  The symbol of power.  Yet this stubborn, apparently fearless creature – who has already shown he is more than ready to stand up to the Head God – does nothing with it.  Having slain his brother he leaves not only Valhalla where he has just completed a magnificent building but also his own giants’ home and goes to earth, of all unlikely places, where he dozes away the rest of his life in a lonely cave.  He even turns himself into a dragon, or so it’s said.  Why?  I mean if the ring really does hold magic, why not use it for his own ends as Alberich wanted to do?  Or, if he fears its death curse, why not just give it up?  The only conclusion we can come to is that Fafner has no idea that the ring is anything but a bit of bling – indeed, why should he know of it?  Thus the likeliest explanation for his behaviour lies in the nature of giants, who are unsociable, covetous and suspicious of everyone, especially each other.  Fafner has been given wealth beyond his dreams but, as it says in Ringtones, what is he going to do with it?  Buy a yacht?  Build himself a castle bigger than Valhalla?  Use his wealth to lure goddesses as beautiful as Freia?  Giants have no interest in such things.  Like the sturdy yeoman of old, they are happy enough with their lot in life provided nobody tries to take anything from them.  They will serve those above on their own terms when it suits without the dangers or responsibility of elitist power, violently defending their rights if necessary.  They will despise those below and crush and make no common cause with them when revolution is whispered.  Giants have no wish to overturn the status quo.  So sudden extreme wealth becomes a problem for a giant.  Others will try to take it from him – dwarves, gods, other giants.  Even mortals, unless they can be sufficiently frightened away.  So Fafner, a true miser, hides himself and his gold where his fearful reputation can protect him best.  Wotan, the only one powerful enough to tackle him direct, has given his sacred word.  And nobody else has the guts!  Until Siegfried the Hero comes along, that is.

Siegfried, though godlike in attitude, is half mortal.  When we deconstruct The Ring from a class perspective, mortals represent the middle class in all societies.  Essentially conservative yet with the education and ambition to yearn for something better.  To govern a democracy rather than be ruled by an aristocracy.  Except, that is, for those extremists who wish either to become aristocrats (or gods, if you like) themselves or else overturn the whole structure in the name of The Common Man and the equal sharing of wealth through labour.  Wotan, it’s apparent, likes mortals.  Unlike Frikka and the other Valhalla-ites who look on those Down There as basically a bourgeois bunch just one level up from the dwarves.  He even dreams of a race of beings born of both mortals and gods – and gets this off to a start with his own ill-fated dalliance with a mortal woman.  Such a race would combine the best traits of both races and in time compensate for the dangerous decline of the gods.  (Perhaps this is where Nietszche got the idea – what IS it with the Germans?)

And so while The Ring begins with a clash between the upper and lower classes, it is soon the middle class that takes over the action.  Siegfried, with that extra touch of arrogance that comes from his god-half bullies the decidedly proletarian Mime and strides through the world like the upper-class twit he is, sure in his sense of privilege and happy to take on either god or dwarf or giant.  Gunther and Gutrune Gibich conspire and aquiesce to further their ambitions and in so doing serve the purpose of Hagen whose bid for the ring – and its power – is conscious and unequivocal.  Brunnhilde becomes mortally middle-class when she is chucked out of Valhalla; she’s a nice girl who seems to just want to settle down with the man of her dreams (even if he is her nephew!) but in the end, while godly Wotan and dwarvish Alberich do nothing but skulk and glower, it is she who actually brings about the overthrowing of the old order.  It is a violent act yet her motive is neither destructive nor self-aggrandizing.  We can see her as standing for Reform, rather than Revolution but alas, like all reformists, her essential wisdom and good intent are corrupted by the machinations of the fanatical and self-interested until mass destruction becomes the inevitable outcome.

There are other potent symbols of class conflict in The Ring.  One is the sword Needful, given first to Siegmund by Wotan who subsequently destroys it, then re-forged by Siegfried.  Think of the name – Needful.  And how it resonates with the old Communist catchcry, “To Each According to His Need – From Each According to His Ability”.  The very downtrodden Siegmund names the sword when it comes to him in his hour of need.  Siegmund is a good chap who is very much the victim of his deprived upbringing.  And he does indeed need just about everything  – love, safety, a job with a decent wage, a roof over his head – and only the sword gives him any chance at it all.  Wotan, having raised his hopes in the first place, smites them to pieces at one blow, essentially in the interests of the gods – his own elite.  He does this with anguish – but when push comes to shove Siegmund, the innocent, is sacrificed.  But the sword of need is not lost.  Sieglinde, Siegmund’s wife and sister, secures its shattered segments for their son, Siegfried.  Mime, Siegfried’s dwarf stepfather, takes them and keeps them.  Wagner casts Mime as a villain but though unattractive he is not totally unsympathetic.  He works very hard to try and re-forge the sword but just doesn’t have the ability.  In the end Siegfried does it himself and you can’t help thinking that this powerful symbol of redressing need might be better in the hands of someone more deserving.  True, Siegfried has neither malice nor ambition.  But he is not sympathetic to any needs other than his own, like those members of the middle class who think the unwashed masses should be kept in their place, even if it is a place of constant suffering and deprivation.

Like the ring, the sword Needful confers power on whoever wields it – and like the ring, that power may be illusory.  It takes a Hero to wield Needful to good effect – but the sword cannot ultimately protect against mortal weakness.  Siegfried, like most of us, has a hidden but dangerous vulnerability.  Once this is revealed to his enemies, he is doomed.  And when he falls it is not to a god or a dragon but to the half-dwarf, half-mortal Hagen – cold, scheming, resentful, cunning – the very epitome of the lower middle class revolutionary who has been moved to serve the interests of the proletariat.  Not that it does him much good.  Hagen reaches out for the ring…for the power…but loses it and his life in the deluge that follows.  And which takes the ring…and the power…back to its source.  Where, presumably, it will lie hidden until the next aspirant for power comes in search of it.

Another interesting symbol is the tarnhelm – a golden helmet made by Mime (at Alberich’s command) which confers on its wearer the ability to change shape, become invisible and even travel through space.  This is not an artefact of absolute power like the ring.  Rather, it symbolises the ability to adapt and deceive, cause confusion and terror, conduct covert operations, move fast and in concealment – all useful things in the grab for power and not something an elitist like Wotan would want to see in the hands of his class enemy.  Yet he has to give the tarnhelm, along with the ring, to Fafner to pay his debt.  Fortunately for everyone, the inscrutable giant does absolutely nothing with it.  Except, perhaps, to turn himself into a dragon.  Only a true revolutionary engaged in trying to overthrow the existing social order can, it appears, understand and make use of the tarnhelm.  When Siegfried gets it he uses it to play a particularly nasty practical joke on poor Brunnhilde.  After which it has no further place in the story.  So what happens to the tarnhelm, that marvellous instrument for transformation? Wagner won’t tell you so if you want to find out you’ll have to read Ringtones!

And then there’s Wotan’s spear.  This is the ongoing engine of his power which is carved in runes on its wooden shaft.  A shaft which we know has been hacked from The Tree of the World’s Knowledge – to the disapproval of some.  Erda, for instance, who is the voice of caution and warning throughout this saga.  The voice which, in all ages, is rarely heeded.  Wotan can use his spear to cow and even annihilate his enemies and yet he rarely does this.  Everyone knows he can – and fears him because of it – yet nobody ever seems to see him do it.  He could zap the dreadful Alberich into oblivion and thus save everyone a lot of trouble  – and yet he doesn’t do it.  Doesn’t do it to Fafner, either.  He DOES do it to Hunding, brutal husband of Sieglinde.  Who is actually his son-in-law.  Zapping him almost casually in a moment of vengeful impulse – and probably to annoy Frikka.  It may be that while Alberich holds the ring, as he does at the beginning of the story, Wotan is wary of trying his own weapon against this unknown symbol of power.  Especially if another method can be found – the awesome potency of the spear is not, after all, to be wasted.  And then, once the ring has been gained, Alberich is not worth bothering about it, temporarily transformed as he is into a harmless toad.  A wise ruler knows that with power comes responsibility and you don’t go in for shock and awe just because you can.  Wotan sees himself not only as a wise ruler but one born to rule – not like that grubby little prole Alberich!

That’s the difference between the ring and the spear.  The latter infers a power that can only be wielded by the especially anointed.  The former can be worn by anyone with the strength – or the cunning – to grab it.

And finally, we have the symbol of gold itself.  The metal which for all time has been regarded as superior to all else – virtually indestructible, untarnishable, unassailable, ripped from the earth by brutal means to be turned into the kind of wealth which is needed to underpin all social and political dominance.   Yet its worth is not inherent; it is only what we declare it to be.  Take it with you to a deserted island, along with food and water and a good book, and it will be the possession you value least.  This is why it’s best kept at the bottom of the Rhine, guarded by those who prize it only for its glitter.  Let loose in the world, the illusory value of gold is always a force for evil that brings out the worst in all who covet it – greed, envy, hatred, selfishness.  And as long as some have more of it than others there will be social division and conflict.

That, I think, is the real meaning of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung.  Sure, it’s about sex, betrayal and power – but mainly it’s all about class.

Loge – The Ring’s evil genius


The Ring Cycle explained Part 5 – Ringtones author Julie Lake explains the REAL story behind Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung


Loge is the most enigmatic being in The Ring of the Niebelung.  In Wagner’s four operas there is a hint that his role is more significant than it appears on the surface, even though the audience only really gets a good look at him in the first opera, The Rhinegold.  In Ringtones Loge plays a much bigger part, for here he is revealed for what he really is – the evil genius of the saga who is the instigator of just about every major development.  In face the book, which claims to be the true story behind The Ring, is largely based on a fragment of Loge’s memoirs which is all that remained after The Big Bang.

In Norse mythology, from which The Ring story is culled, Loge is the God of Fire; a shape changer and trickster whose mischief-making is a constant irritant to the gods.  He is the killer of Baldur, son of Wotan, and the main instigator of Ragnarok, the mythical destruction of the gods and their universe.  Wagner didn’t bother with Ragnarok in his version of events but substituted his own Twilight of the Gods in which the malicious Loge’s role is minor but significant because it is he who suggests to Wotan that he can get the ring of power from Alberich the Dwarf.  The composer retains the Fire God’s essential nature, however, as do I in researching and writing Ringtones. In the book, Ragnarok becomes ‘Wagnerog’ (hee hee!) and gets a brief, fearful mention though it has no connection with the catastrophic events that actually do come to pass.  Loge is still, however, the probably deliberate force behind the burning of Valhalla even though his is not the hand that lights the fire.

We don’t really know much about Loge, not even his birth.  He is said to be part-giant, though his stature (according to both opera and book) is slender and quite small.  Certainly he is not a full-god but rather more of a sprite, like Ariel or Puck.  And like these airy beings he serves a powerful master, in this case Wotan, Head God and CEO of Teutonic Gods Inc.  The other gods dislike and distrust him and he, in turn, despises them though it’s hard to know whether the attitude of the gods to Loge is because of his conniving nature and sarcastic tongue, or whether Loge behaves like that because they sneer at his inferior birth.  In any case, we do have a clear picture of this enigmatic being as lithe, red-haired, sharp-featured, sharp-tongued, charming when he wants to be, always stirring up trouble, impertinent to his betters, supercilious to his inferiors and highly intelligent.  In fact one  opera critic described him as “the only true intellectual” in the Ring Cycle.  Myself, I think that’s going a bit far.  There’s no evidence that Loge ever reads a book or writes a poem or studies anything worthwhile except how to make mischief.  He’s certainly smarter than your average god – let alone your average dwarf or (for Mortalsake!) giant.  But I don’t see him as having a highly-developed intellect.  He is, however, a profound cynic and the only one in the story not to believe in the power of the ring.

Loge is able to travel easily in time as well as space but his main personal power lies in his job description – he is the God of Fire.  This isn’t actually a terribly important job as things go in Valhalla – Brunnhilde’s role as Head Prefect of the Valkyrie corps of warrior maidens carries far more prestige – but it does make him useful.  What is always unceretain with Loge is his motivation.  Alberich, for example, wants the power that goes with the ring.  Wotan wants to put his world back to rights (and hang on to his power).  Frikka wants marital fidelity. Brunnhilde wants Siegfried.   Siegmund and Sieglinde want each other.  Hunding wants vengeance.  Fafner wants to get paid.  Siegfried wants to get laid.

But what, exactly, does Loge want?  We are never quite sure, but we sense his envy and malice towards those who have more than he.  There is a hint that he is ambitious and wouldn’t mind seizing power if it comes his way easily. Yet he is too cynical to believe that power, like love, is anything but transitory and ultimately futile.  And certainly he doesn’t want the responsibility that goes with it.  He gets his kicks from covert manipulation and thus the type of power he enjoys most is that of the puppet master who can make others dance to his pulling of the strings.  Should the ring ever come into his possession you can be sure that he will use it in the worst possible way for the worst possible reasons.

In Ringtones the ubiquitous Fire God fills in the gaps left by Wagner in his operas.  It is Loge who shows Wotan how to trick Alberich into giving up the ring.  It is Loge who serves as Wotan’s spy on Earth and who pokes and prods the various characters and situations in the gleeful expectation of mayhem while simultaneously spreading alarm and despondency around Valhalla.  Loge is the little bird who tells Siegfried about the beautiful maiden imprisoned on a rock and Loge is the one who tells Hagen and his Gibich siblings about Siegfried and who shows him the way to the Gibich Castle.  After first convincing Brunnhilde that she needs to let her lover get out and about a bit more.  And of course Loge is there are the end, when Valhalla falls into flaming ruin.  He is the God of Fire and also Fire Chief of Valhalla; in these capacities he would for sure have played a supervisory role in erecting Siegfried’s pyre and using his powers (or perhaps planting incendiaries if you prefer the realistic view) to ensure that it burns with exceptional ferocity.  When the fire explodes heavenwards and gets out of control we’re reminded that, not long before, Loge promised Froh, God of Spring, a spectacular fireworks show. This seems to indicate that the destruction of Valhalla is no accident. But why?  What could shape-changing Loge possibly gain from burning down his own home?   Sure, he’s the ultimate nihilist.  But even for someone so apparently world-weary such large-scale destruction seems a bit extreme.

Therefore it’s not unreasonable to assume that Loge’s real interest is to create enough distraction and alarm so that he can grab Siegfried’s ring from the flames.  After all, he is the only one there with the expertise to safely enter a burning structure.  But Brunnhilde, hell-bent on self-immolation, is too quick for him.  It is she who actually sets fire to the funeral pyre after first taking the ring from Siegfried’s finger and throwing it into the river.  Brunnhilde has no idea that the flames will leap high enough to reach Valhalla, and wouldn’t care much anyway by then. Whether Loge realises it or not is something we’ll never know for sure because ultimately his fire – the only real power he possesses – is overwhelmed by the greater power of water.

Ringtones remains true to Norse legend in that Loge first appears to us as a mischievous imp enslaved by Wotan and gradually develops a more sinister persona and purpose.  In the end he is the most dangerous of all the characters in the saga because he alone understands the importance of symbolism in the attainment and maintenance of power.  He doesn’t for a minute believe that the Nibelung ring possesses any magic.  To him, it’s just a bit of bling and its purported power lies only in the fact that others believe in it.  Loge would have made a great advertising executive.  And we all know what happens to THEM, eventually.  They burn out!

Alberich – true villain or The Ring’s real mover and shaker?

Explaining The Ring Part Four: Ringtones author Julie Lake tells the story as it really is – or should be


Alberich the Dwarf is the true villain of the Ring of the Niebelung.  Very few of the characters in this saga are in fact either admirable or lovable but Alberich is certainly the nastiest.  This is not your average Disney-style cutesy Hi ho Hi ho sort of dwarf but  a dark, squat, ugly, misshapen, greedy, misanthropic bundle of malice with a bad case of short man’s complex – if he can’t have love then he’ll take over the world.

When we first meet Alberich he has come up from Niebelhome, the dark cavernous realm where the Niebelung race of dwarves dwell, in the hope of a fling with some female who is not of his own ugly kind.  He has a go at the three Rhinemaidens, flighty mermaid types who live in the River Rhine where they guard a glittering golden treasure.  They tease and then spurn him, provoking him to seize their golden horde and take it back to Niebelhome.   Here, with the help of his snivelling brother Mime and a  bunch of dwarf slaves he forges part of the treasure into a magic gold ring that confers great power on whoever wears it.  Alberich first uses the ring to gain power over his own kind, whom he uses cruelly, and then turns his attentions to the rest of the world – or at least the Nine Realms that make up the known universe in Norse mythology.

Alas for Alberich Wotan, Head God, has learned about the ring and wants it for himself.  He certainly doesn’t want it left in the hands of a nasty little oik like the now self-styled Head Dwarf.  So, with the help of his sidekick the Fire God Loge (second-ranking villain in The Ring – or at least in Ringtones), Wotan manages to out-wile the wily Alberich and seize his precious ring and all the rest of the Rhinegold.

Alberich is, unsurprisingly, extremely pissed off by this and plots to get back his treasure, which includes the magical Tarnhelm, a helmet which is supposed to enable the wearer to become invisible, or change shape, or be transported instantly to wherever desired.  The dwarf puts a curse on the ring, threatening death and lovelessness to whomever wears it.

He probably does this out of sheer malicious desperation because he knows that he’s got Buckley’s chance of getting his treasure back from a being as powerful and inaccessible as the Head God.  Wotan, however, is forced to give it all to the giants, Fafner and Fasolt, in payment for building his new palace, Valhalla.  He’s not happy about this of course, especially when he learns from his sometime-mistress Erda, the Earth Witch, that Valhalla and much else besides will fall to ruin if the ring and the rest of the gold is not returned to its rightful owners – the Rhine girls.

If Alberich comes to hear of this prophecy he doesn’t give a good goddam about it.  Indeed, why should he?  What’s Valhalla to him?  He hates all the gods – and the mortals – and the giants – and in fact anybody who isn’t a dwarf.  And he’s not too keen on them, either!

To be fair, Alberich didn’t have much of an upbringing.  As we learn in Ringtones, the Niebelung are not generally good at parenting.  Domestic violence is rife among them, counselling unknown and their children brutalised by being sent to work in the mines.  It’s not surprising, then, that Alberich is so bitter and twisted.  Unlike his fellow Niebelung, he does show a certain intelligence and a wish for finer things.  There’s even a hint that he’d like to find love.  But there’s a good deal of discrimination against dwarves in the Nine Realms; they are just so dark and shortarsed and rough.  Good enough artisans, if you want a bit of smithing done.  But absolutely no refinements at all and you certainly wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one.  Or your son, for that matter, though as the Niebelung females are said to be very unattractive indeed, this is not likely.

Alberich is not completely without sensitivity and he’s painfully aware of all this.  It fuels his malice.  And when he finds that Fafner, not Wotan, has the ring he spends the rest of his life trying to get it back.  After all giants, though big and stroppy, are neither as intelligent nor as powerful as the gods.

Fafner, however, having killed his brother Fasolt, has gone to Earth and hidden himself and his treasure in a remote cave.  Some say he has turned into a dragon, so that nobody will dare go anywhere near his lair.  This certainly works with Alberich who skulks around the entrance to the cave but won’t go into it and tackle the giant – or dragon – on his own.

What he needs is a champion.  A hero who will slay the giant (or dragon) and take the ring and the rest of the treasure.  And who will be dumb enough to yield it up on request…or be duped or bullied into doing so.  And, wouldn’t you know it, such a hero is found.  Siegfried, son of Wotan’s illegitimate half-mortal son Siegmund, is orphaned at birth and falls into the hands of Alberich’s brother, Mime, who raises him as a foster-son.

So when we meet Alberich for the second time, in the third Ring opera Siegfried (and Part Three of Ringtones) he is still lurking by the giant’s lair waiting for the now-grown Siegfried to do what he was bred up to do and kill the current possessor of the ring.  Instead, at first, he runs into Wotan and of course they have an acrimonious exchange of views.  Alberich, knowing he can’t match Wotan’s power and wondering what he’s up to, is surly and bitter.  Here is the person he blames for all his troubles, which include exile from Niebelhome because once he lost his ring-given power those he’d tyrannised soon threw him out.  Yet despite their mutual enmity, Wotan insists that he will not help his grandson kill the giant (or dragon) and gain the ring.  Alberich is reluctant to believe him but no, says Wotan, he will not interfere.  Cannot and will not.  Alberich is free to do as he pleases.  In fact he can take the treasure from Fafner right away, before Siegfried gets there.  If he’s got the guts!  And of course Alberich hasn’t.  When the Head God disappears to await the outcome of events at a discreet distance, Alberich has another encounter, this time with his younger brother who has conducted Siegfried to the monster’s den and told him what he must do.  In the hope, of course, of getting his foster-son to give him the golden treasure when Fafner has been slain.  Siegfried, after all, has been raised in ignorance of the world and will have no understanding of the value of gold.  In the past Alberich has always been able to overawe his weaker sibling but not this time.  Mime, emboldened by the thought of the power and wealth that might soon be his, is defiant.  True, he offers to share the spoils but as neither dwarf trusts the other Alberich is not fooled by this.  When Siegfried arrives; so big and bold and unafraid of any creature, and so contemptuous of dwarves, Alberich realises that his chances of regaining ‘his’ ring are becoming very slim indeed.  Certainly Siegfried conforms to the plan and slays Fafner.  But then he also kills Mime.  And Alberich, thwarted yet again, retreats into obscurity as far as the rest of the story is concerned.

His baleful influence, however, is still potent.  For he has a son, Hagen, by a mortal woman.  Though Wagner never bothers to explain why any woman would take a dwarf for a husband, Ringtones tells us just how this comes about and thus why it is that Hagen is the half-brother of Lord Gunther Gibich, a powerful landowner, and his sister Gutrune.  Alberich never lets Hagen forget who he is because just as Siegfried has been raised to retrieve the ring so, too, has Hagen.  Before we take a good look at what transpires with Alberich and Hagen, however, we need to look at who exactly was pulling Siegfried’s strings and for this Ringtones is a better source than the operas.  Siegfried, as we know, is the son of Siegmund, Wotan’s half-mortal son whom the Head God intended would somehow ensure that the ring of power was returned to the Rhinemaidens.  When Siegmund was slain the Head God was forced to transpose his hopes to his grandson.  And that, really, is about all he does.  Wotan is the central character in The Ring of the Niebelung and without doubt the most powerful, at least as far as his job description is concerned.  And yet, if you examine the story closely, it is ALBERICH not Wotan who has the most influence on the outcome.

Sure, Wotan gets things rolling when he first grabs the Rhinegold ring.  And right through the saga we think he was right to do so – after all, the thought of such power in Black Alberich’s evil hands is too horrible to contemplate. If only, we think also, he hadn’t been stupid enough to give it to Fafner!  But while Alberich devotes all his attention to getting the ring back, Wotan goes in for a lot of convoluted plotting.  Thanks to this, Siegmund dies ignominiously and the pregnant Sieglinde flees from her father’s wrath to hide herself away until the baby can be born.  Just exactly what Wotan might have done to his daughter, who after all owes her woes mostly to his persistent blundering, is not known.  He doesn’t seem to try all that hard at the time to pursue her, but nor does he help her.  Instead, he ignores both her and the baby until he realises that the boy might suit his purposes.

In the meantime, and long before Wotan starts to seek his hidden grandson, Alberich and Mime have him in their keeping and though it’s the latter who does all the fostering you just know that Alberich is standing by to put Siegfried to good use when the time comes.  True, Wotan made the run-empowered sword Needful in the first place but it’s also Wotan who broke it, so that years later the Young Hero is forced to reforge it himself before he can kill any giants (or dragons).  True, too, Wotan puts in an appearance here and there, either conversing in riddles with Mime or being equally enigmatic in his dialogue with Alberich before Fafner’s cave.  But he doesn’t actually DO anything.

Alberich doesn’t do all that much either, now I come to think of it. He skulks and he threatens and he plots but ultimately, as with Wotan, he depends on others to do his dirty work.  It’s actually Mime who steers Siegfried in the direction of the ring.  It is his only real role in the story – but it’s an important one and we’ll look at it in more detail in a further article.  Just as we’ll examine whether the power of the ring is real or just auto-suggestion.

Anyway, despite his inability to grab the ring for himself, Alberich makes sure that son Hagen does his duty.  When the time comes Hagen uses his half-brother and sister to help entrap the Young Hero and at the end it is the dwarf’s cold-hearted son who kills him.  But he doesn’t get the ring!  A mysterious power…or maybe it’s just rigor mortis… prevents Hagen taking the fatal bit of bling from dead Siegfried’s finger.  Only Brunnhilde, Wotan’s daughter, can do that, and when she chucks it into the Rhine Hagen jumps in after it and drowns.  As does just about everyone else in the saga – those who haven’t already burned, that is.

Thus, finally, Alberich’s relentless and single-minded conniving proves more effective than all Wotan’s power and bluster.  Wotan and all the gods are brought down.  But then so is Alberich and all his greed.  In The Ring of The Niebelung nobody wins.  Even the Rhinemaidens, for all their ecstatic warbling at the end of the fourth and final opera, don’t get back everything they’ve lost.

What we are left with is this intriguing question – could things have actually turned out any worse if Alberich had been allowed to keep the ring in the first place?

Brunnhilde – the bold and the beautiful





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.


Siegfried – superhero or just plain dumb?


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.

Can The Ring be taken seriously?




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.



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, 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.