The Ring of the Nibelung
An Introduction and Notes with Musical Examples
Part Three: Siegfried
In the Norse Volsunga Saga, Sigurd (Siegfried) is raised at the court of Denmark with Regin (Fafner’s brother) as his ward. Regin encourages Sigurd to kill Fafner, now transformed into a dragon, in order to take the golden hoard that Fafner stole from their father (see back story in Rhinegold notes). The blood of the dragon allows Sigurd to understand the language of birds who reveal Regin’s treachery, and Sigurd cuts off his head (the Poetic Edda gives a similar version of the story).
At this point Norse and Germanic versions diverge. Wagner follows the Volsunga Saga more closely, concerning Sigurd’s discovery of Brunnhilde in the ring of fire, his falling in love with Gudrun (Gutrune) due to the magic potion, and his death, except Sigurd is killed in bed, not during the forest hunt.
In the German Nibelungenlied, Siegfried (called Sivrit in this version) is a prince, son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, king and queen of the Netherlands, who grows up in a palace, and falls in love with the beautiful Kriemhild (Gutrune). In order to marry her, he agrees to accompany her brother Gunther to Iceland to win for him the hand of Prunhilt (Brunnhilde). Any man who desires her must defeat her in an athletic contest or face death. Using an invisibility cloak which increases his strength, Sivrit secretly helps Gunther win the contest. However, Prunhilt on their wedding night rejects Gunther’s advances, binds him and hangs him from a nail on the wall. Humiliated, he shares his plight with Sivrit who agrees to trick Prunhilt again. When the lights are out, Sivrit goes to bed with Prunhilt and after a mighty struggle, subdues her, at which point Gunther slips into bed to claim his bride, but not before Sivrit (for no apparent reason) takes her golden girdle and ring. Later when Prunhilt discovers this deceit, seeing the ring on Kriemhild’s hand, she contrives with Hagen to kill Sivrit during a hunt, which Wagner adapts for the conclusion of his story (see Twilight of the Gods).
Numbers in the notes refer to pages in the Andrew Porter translation (Norton publishers 1977), unless otherwise noted as SS, which indicates a quote from the translation by Stewart Spencer (Thames & Hudson 1993). See the bibliography at the end of part four for further reading.
Siegfried is the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde whom we meet as a young man several years after the conclusion of Valkyrie. Both Wotan and Alberich see in the innocent and fearless Siegfried the means by which they might regain the ring. So too does Alberich’s brother Mime, who raised Siegfried in the forest after his mother died in childbirth.
Using the magical tarnhelm, Fafner the giant has transformed himself into a dragon to protect his gold. Mime encourages Siegfried to challenge the dragon in order to learn the meaning of fear, which Siegfried has never experienced. Mime attempts to repair the broken sword which he got from Sieglinde, but each time Siegfried easily smashes it against the anvil. Finally Siegfried begins the task himself, melts the pieces of his father’s sword to create a stronger weapon, and this time splits the anvil with one stroke. With his new version of the sword Nothung, Siegfried kills Fafner and takes the ring and the tarnhelm. He then kills Mime who was trying to poison him.
Having tasted the dragon’s blood, Siegfried now understands the language of the birds in the forest, who tell him of a beautiful maiden asleep on a fiery mountaintop. When Siegfried seeks her out, Wotan is standing guard, but this time Siegfried’s sword shatters Wotan’s spear, symbol of his authority. The rule of the gods nears its end as Wotan admits his defeat at the hands of a free human being. Finally Siegfried strides through the fire to find the sleeping Brunnhilde, and they fall deeply in love.
Influenced by revolutionary times and the idealistic philosophy of Hegel with its confidence in historical progress and human perfectibility, Wagner brought a new dimension to the Siegfried legends. In The Ring Siegfried represents a new order of human being, uncorrupted by civilization, free from the past since he knows nothing of Wotan’s plans or the history of the ring. He is “purely human” as Wagner described him: naïve, boisterous, arrogant, innocent, a man of impulsive action rather than reason. Bears and dragons are nothing but playmates to him as he doesn’t yet know the meaning of fear. This joyful attitude toward life is captured in the sound of Siegfried’s horn. However, the optimism seen in the third drama of the cycle falls into tragedy in the fourth when Siegfried’s heroic potential is called into question. His naivety and recklessness prove to be his downfall.
The 19th century German philosopher Hegel wrote, “This is the role of heroes in the history of mankind: it is through them that a new world comes into being” (Lee 23). See my essay, “Wagner, Nietzsche, Shaw: Prophets of the Superman” for discussion of Siegfried as a type of superman, the 19th century vision of the next step in human evolution.
By the end of the third music-drama, Siegfried has defeated the representatives of the three races (mentioned by the Wanderer 171-2): Fafner the giant, Mime the dwarf, and Wotan the god — without realizing the significance of his deeds.
In Wagner’s adaptation of the myths, Siegfried grows up not in a castle raised by royal parents but in the forest isolated from all human contact. From observing animals in the woods and the similarity between parents and children, Siegfried knows Mime is not his father. Mime has repeated his traditional, whining answer so often that Siegfried mimics it (163). Siegfried’s impatience with Mime is demonstrated when he breaks the new sword on the anvil. As he leaves the cave, Siegfried threatens Mime with a pun in German: “You’ll learn from me what a beating (fegen) means,” fegen also meaning “to burnish metal.”
As Mime tells of Sieglinde’s suffering, he claims that Siegfried’s mother gave him the pieces of the sword, but later he lets slip to Wotan that he stole them (176).
Wotan’s disguise as the Wanderer is symbolic of his self-deception, thinking he’s uninvolved with Siegfried’s life and any efforts to retrieve the ring. His desire to control events conflicts with his need for a free agent to accomplish what Wotan by his own contracts cannot.
Mime wastes his three questions (which serve as exposition for the audience primarily, giving details of the mythical world). Wotan freely tells him what he needs to know: only one who doesn’t know fear can reforge the sword.
Wagner borrowed from a Grimm brothers’ story about a boy who wishes to learn fear in order to better motivate this scene between Siegfried and Mime. As Mime explains the experience of fear to Siegfried, hoping to entice him to fight Fafner, we hear under his words the fear motif (from Valkyrie Act 3), but Siegfried thinks that this would be “wondrous strange” and longs to feel this thing called fear, and the motif becomes the calm assurance theme.
Just at the point when we might feel sorry for Mime, he shows his true, deceitful self, mixing the potion to kill Siegfried and fantasizing about being lord of the ring (189). Wagner never intended for Mime to be the feeble, pitiful weakling that most performances make of him. His notes indicate that Mime should show the debasing power of evil, deformed by his desires for the ring (Newman 543). Typical of his anti-Semitism, Wagner attributes Jewish qualities to both Alberich and Mime.
In the Vosunga Saga Regin repairs the sword. Wagner’s adaptation of this scene demonstrates his genius for mythological symbolism. There’s something instinctively right — mythically, dramatically, and psychologically — about Siegfried’s reforging the sword himself, not mending the pieces but grinding them down and melting them, in this way taking something of his father and mother (who saved it for him) and making it his own. His hammering resembles the servitude of the enslaved Nibelungs in Rhinegold, but he works the bellows in joyful freedom, building to his mighty cry “Nothung! Nothung!” as he smashes the anvil in two.
Old opponents meet again outside Fafner’s cave (whose name “Neidhohle” means cave of envy). Alberich instantly recognizes Wotan despite his disguise. Wotan admits that he made no contract with Alberich but defeated him by force (194), another trait tying them together.
Has Wotan truly given up his ambition to regain the ring? Or is he remaining purposefully aloof, taunting Alberich that he can have the ring if he can get it from Fafner? Wotan claims to have learned his lesson with Siegmund: only the truly independent hero can help him (195).
Fafner claims that with his death we have seen the last of the giants (206). He dies speaking the name “Siegfried,” the hero of the new order who has vanquished the old.
In a clever scene, the dragon’s blood magically allows Siegfried to understand Mime’s deadly intentions behind his innocent words and to comprehend the woodbird’s song (same theme as the Rhinedaughters’ “Weia Waga” song in Rhinegold).
Siegfried finds the ring but it means nothing to him. Being ignorant of its history and power, he is “free from greed” (SS), thus not under Alberich’s curse at this point. When he gives the ring to Brunnhilde later, it becomes a symbol of romantic love, not its renunciation. Siegfried leaves the hoard to the dead Mime, blocking the cave with Fafner’s body, thwarting Alberich from getting it.
After completing the music for Acts 1 and 2, Wagner put Siegfried aside to work on other projects. After a 12-year hiatus, Wagner returned to composing the music to Siegfried with this dramatic prelude, which begins with the rising theme of Erda accompanied by the galloping rhythm of the Valkyrie music. At the end of this phrase we hear Wotan’s frustration and his descending spear motif, which battles the rising Erda theme for dominance. Trumpets and trombones play the Wanderer motif, not the pensive version of Acts I-II, but the theme of a raging god longing to return to the arena of world affairs (Stone, Ring Disc). The prelude reaches its climax with the Power of the Ring, the sinister echo of the Rhinedaughters’ “Rhinegold!” song, ending on the fate motif.
Wotan summons Erda to rise from her subterranean slumber. He claims to ask for wisdom, “Can a swift-turning wheel be stopped?” (222) but actually he wants to tell Erda his decision to renounce his earlier ambition and resign himself to his doom. He bequeaths the future to Siegfried, who knows nothing of the ring and its power, so is free from greed and the curse of Alberich (224). At Wotan’s words, “The god will gladly yield his rule to the [eternally] young” (225), Wagner told the singer in the first production, “It should sound like the announcement of a new religion” (Bentley 158). The prominent characteristic of the bequest motif is its majestic ascending scale, which is the opposite of the willfully oppressive descent of the spear motif.
Wotan tells Erda that their daughter Brunnhilde will one day work a deed that will redeem the world. Kitcher notes that this idea is “rather vague … What sort of ‘redemption’ is he talking about …? Loving Siegfried? Returning the Ring? Something else? We think Wotan does not know. He has hope for something of enormous significance but has no idea what that might be” (100). At least one point is clear: we should not confuse Wagner’s concept of redemption with the Christian doctrine of salvation from sin, being pardoned by a merciful God. When Brunnhilde “redeems” the world at the end of Twilight, the gods meet their end as well, offering no forgiveness or apology to humanity.
Wotan’s recognition scene with Erda followed by his confrontation with Siegfried is the turning point in the entire Ring cycle. The god, already resigned to his fate but enraged by his grandson’s insolence, must make one last attempt to maintain his authority and dignity. Wotan also promised to protect Brunnhilde from all but the bravest of challengers (152). Wagner explained: “Faced with the prospect of his own annihilation, [Wotan] finally becomes so instinctively human that, in spite of his supreme resolve, his ancient pride is once more stirred, provoked moreover … by his jealousy of Brunnhilde … his most vulnerable spot. He refuses to be thrust aside, but prefers to fall, to be conquered” (letter to Röckel, in Spenser 308).
As with Siegfried’s remaking his sword, this pivotal scene invented by Wagner rings true to both mythology and psychology. Siegfried reverses his father’s fate, breaking Wotan’s spear with his sword, demonstrating the victory of the new world order over the old. Siegfried is a representative of the future, Wotan the past. Wagner’s creation of these two scenes in particular shows him to be a expert dramatist as well as composer.
“Wotan rises to the tragic height of willing his own destruction. This is the lesson history teaches us: to will what necessity imposes, and [to will] ourselves to bring it about.” (Wagner’s letter to Röckel, in Spenser 307).
After composition of the Ring text was complete, Wagner read and admired the philosophy of Schopenhauer, claiming that their thoughts were alike when Schopenhauer wrote, “What gives [modern] tragedy its ethical force is the recognition that the world, that life, offers no real satisfaction and hence does not deserve our loyalty. This is the tragic spirit; it leads to renunciation” (in SS 45). The god’s abandoning his quest for power and acceptance of a determined future is in Wagner’s portrayal of Wotan a moral and philosophical advance.
The text describes Wotan as lord of ravens, his messengers (229) who appear at other times in the final drama (cf 274, 319, 327).
After defeating Wotan, Siegfried passes through the flames to find someone on the ground. Removing the armor, he is startled: “This is no man!” Ironically, the sight of Brunnhilde’s feminine form teaches Siegfried fear for the first time (234). Humorously, at Brunnhilde’s “Are you blinded by my eye’s devouring glance?” (242), we hear the dragon motif.
Brunnhilde gloriously greets the sun as she awakens from her long sleep. This motif derives from the fate motif, but this time fate has been kind in bringing these two together. She joins Siegfried in praising the mother that gave him birth (235).
In the Volsunga Saga Brunnhilde’s punishment resulted from her killing the wrong man in battle against Odin’s will, and has nothing to do with Siegmund.
Brunnhilde claims that by disobeying Wotan she was acting not by thought but by feeling (236), which mirrors Wagner’s romanticism, that truth is discovered not rationally but through the emotions.
The power of love triumphs as hero and heroine are now free from the influence of Wotan’s laws and greed for the ring. Wagner wrote, “The true human being is both man and woman, and only in the union of man and woman does the true human being exist, and only through love do man and woman become human” (letter to Röckel, in Spenser 303).
The “Siegfried Idyll” sung by Brunnhilde was arranged as a piece for chamber orchestra and played on Cosima Wagner’s 33rd birthday in 1870.
Basking in the light of love’s ecstasy, Brunnhilde rejects her past life with the gods. Valhalla may crumble to dust, the Norns’ rope may break, and the twilight of the gods seize them all in darkness, for all she cares; they laugh at the death of the old order (243).
These pages were originally uploaded in 1998. Latest revision September 2018.