The Ring of the Nibelung
An Introduction and Notes with Musical Examples
Part Four: Twilight of the Gods
Norse mythology is unique in that it includes a story of future events, the end of the gods in a great battle. Ragnarok means “fate or doom of the gods” which in German becomes Gotterdammerung, “Twilight of the Gods.”
The great battle will be preceded by three year-long winters and general moral decay. Ominous signs will appear: wolves that eat the sun and moon, and the stars fall. At Ragnarok, Loki will escape his chains (his punishment for plotting Balder’s death), and captain the ship Naglfar (made of dead men’s nails) to attack Asgard along with the frost giants. The ship will ride on tidal waves created by the loosing of Jormungandr, the world serpent, from the ocean bottom. Fenrir the giant wolf will break his bonds, and Surt and the fire-demons will attack from the south.
Heimdall, guardian of the Rainbow Bridge (Bifrost), who never sleeps and sees and hears everything, sees the approaching enemy and sounds his trumpet as warning, but it’s too late to avoid the final battle. In the battle all the gods meet their end: Odin is swallowed by Fenrir, who in turn is torn asunder by Odin’s son Vidar. Thor kills Jormungandr but dies of its venom. Loki and Heimdall kill each other. Surt kills Freyr, then destroys the world by fire.
Some things manage to survive Ragnarok: Valhalla itself, Thor’s hammer and his two sons, Odin’s favorite son Balder returns to life, and two humans, protected under the World Ash Tree Yggdrasil, who repopulate the world.
Wagner’s major innovation was to link the story of the end of the gods (modified to suit his purposes) with the deaths of Siegfried and Brunnhilde, taken from his sources. In Rhinegold Erda first prophesied about the unavoidable doom of the gods, setting up the conclusion of The Ring. In other adaptations of the original myths, Wagner has Wotan tear the branch from the world ash tree, thus causing the tree to die. Wagner identifies Gunther’s half-brother Hagen as Alberich’s son, linking Siegfried’s murderer (with the ring as his ulterior motive) to Wotan’s old adversary.
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 Twilight for further reading.
TWILIGHT OF THE GODS (GOTTERDAMMERUNG)
The opening prologue depicts the Norns, daughters of Erda, weaving the threads of fate on the mountain top outside the cave where Siegfried and Brunnhilde sleep. The Norns used to weave at the base of the World Ash Tree, but now it is dead. After his defeat by Siegfried, Wotan ordered the branches of the tree cut and stacked around Valhalla. There the gods await the final day when Loge’s fires will light the wood and destroy them all. While the Norns see these future events, the thread of fate mysteriously breaks.
In the morning Brunnhilde and Siegfried emerge from the cave. The two lovers say their farewells before Siegfried leaves in search of adventure. Siegfried gives the ring to Brunnhilde for safe-keeping as a symbol of their love.
Traveling down the Rhine river, Siegfried arrives at the hall of the Gibichungs. In a dream Alberich incites his son Hagen to help him regain the ring, which Hagen does with the unwitting aid of his half-brother and sister, Gunther and Gutrune. Hagen gives Siegfried a drugged drink, causing him to forget his relationship with Brunnhilde, and he falls in love with Gutrune instead. Meanwhile, one of Brunnhilde’s sisters arrives at the mountain to tell her that Wotan has resigned himself to death and awaits the fiery end. She asks Brunnhilde to return the ring to Wotan but she refuses. Siegfried then appears, transformed into the guise of Gunther with the help of the tarnhelm. He forcibly takes back the ring and kidnaps Brunnhilde for the real Gunther to marry.
On discovering Siegfried’s treachery, Brunnhilde betrays him to Hagen, revealing how Siegfried may be killed by striking him in the back, the only place that she has not covered with a protective spell. Hagen promptly slays him during a hunt. Learning too late that Hagen has tricked them both in order to regain the ring, Brunnhilde orders Siegfried’s funeral pyre to be lit, and she rides her horse into it, forgiving Siegfried and uniting them in death. Wotan and the other gods are consumed by the flames that destroy Valhalla. Hagen is drowned in the rising waters of the Rhine, as the Rhinedaughters repossess the ring; its curse is lifted when it is returned to nature.
This scene mirrors the opening of Rhinegold with the three Rhinedaughters and the crime against nature with the theft of the gold, which Wagner reminds us of with the Rhine motif. Three Norns, Erda’s daughters, weave the threads of fate (their weaving becomes an inversion of the Rhine motif). They sing of long ago when they wove at the base of the World Ash Tree. There Wotan gave up an eye to drink from the stream of wisdom, but also he tore a limb from the tree to make his spear. Because of this violence, the tree is now dead, the result of Wotan’s abuse of power, perverting his wisdom, symbolized by the stream of wisdom drying up. The Norns tell of the final collapse of the old world order which has become rotten at its ‘roots.’ The tree now provides the funeral pyre for the waiting gods, resigned to their doom.
Mythological background to the World Ash Tree: Yggdrasil (old Norse name) lies at the center of the world, its three roots separating Asgard (land of the gods), the land of the Frost Giants, and Hel (name for both the place of the dead and its queen). The World Tree represents and sustains life, and its fate determines life’s end (Ragnarok). A serpent gnaws at its roots; three Norns (Fate, Being, Necessity) sit at its base at the well of Urd and carve runes in its trunk telling the future of each person. Also at its base lies Mimir’s well of wisdom where Odin came for a drink and left one eye as payment. One cryptic reference in the Poetic Edda implies that Odin hung himself on the tree for nine days, pierced with his spear, in order to gain control of the magic runes (one of his names is “God of the hanged”). Some critics think this might be a late Christian influence on the older myth. Wagner invented the ideas of Wotan’s tearing a branch from the tree, causing it to wither and die, and using its wood for kindling at the fiery end of Valhalla.
As the Norns weave their rope around the rocks, it breaks, signifying the end of Erda’s foreknowledge, but does this mean fate no longer rules, that humanity is now completely free?
Fate (or lot) is mentioned infrequently in the text of the Ring, mostly in Valkyrie (Porter ed. 83, 104, 119, 141, 143), but the Fate motif is heard frequently (ex: when Brunnhilde enters to prepare Siegmund for death, before the Wanderer/Erda confrontation, at Siegfried’s discovery of Brunnhilde, her confusion at his later betrayal, at Siegfried’s last breath, at the immolation scene).
When the rope breaks, the themes of the Ring’s Curse and Siegfried’s horn and sword predict a future that the Norns can no longer see. Later in Act 3 Siegfried boasts to the Rhinedaughters that his sword can sever the Norn’s thread into which the curse is woven. Fate is closely associated with the ring and its curse throughout, so breaking the rope may not mean the end of fate itself but the end of the curse and the gods’ foreknowledge and influence in the world. Siegfried doesn’t escape the curse, but his actions, along with Brunnhilde’s devotion unto death, eventually break it.
When we next see Siegfried and Brunnhilde, both receive new motifs (Siegfried’s is a majestic version of his horn call), signifying their new relationship and new beginning. Brunnhilde is no longer the warrior maid but a mortal woman, her music soft and feminine. Unfortunately, the hope heard in these new themes won’t last long. Both of them are unknowingly caught up and manipulated by the old order. They too must perish before humanity can be truly free of the gods’ influence.
Brunnhilde lost her strength and wisdom along with her virginity: “the maidenly source of all my strength was taken away by the hero to whom I now bow my head” (SS).
Siegfried’s Rhine journey includes these themes: Siegfried, his horn-call, Loge’s fire, Rhine, Erda, Rhinegold, Rhinedaughters. At his arrival at Gibichung hall we hear the curse, the god’s destruction, sword, power of the ring.
Gunther mistakes cunning in his half-brother Hagen for wisdom, similar to Wotan’s reliance on Loge in Rhinegold. Gunther is not completely blameless in this affair; he seeks to increase his fame by marrying the glorious Brunnhilde, not for true love (257).
Hagen says that with the ring Siegfried now can command the Nibelung army, but he’s unaware of the power he wields (259).
Hagen promises Gutrune that the potion will bind Siegfried to her, fittingly singing the loveless theme, as the hero’s feelings will not be true love. As Hagen explains his plans to trick Siegfried, the tarnhelm motif transforms into the magic potion motif, revealing the means by which the deception will take place.
Ironically, Siegfried drinks to Brunnhilde’s memory, then promptly forgets her. The potion of oblivion has been criticized as a cheap melodramatic device, although here Wagner follows his source in the Volsunga Saga. However, it can be interpreted as a symbol of the tragic paradox in which Siegfried is caught. To be free from Wotan’s laws and influence, he must also be ignorant of his past, thus falling unwittingly to Hagen’s scheme, a victim of his own innocence (Dahlhaus 91).
In his ignorance of the ring’s tragic heritage, he also begins to repeat Wotan’s mistakes: betraying love, snatching the ring from Brunnhilde by force, and trusting in his own power, not fearing the ring’s curse (Act 3) His naive recklessness enabled him to overcome obstacles such as Fafner and the circle of fire protecting Brunnhilde, which would have blocked anyone who knew fear. However, these heroic qualities sow the seeds of his destruction as well, making him unprepared for the treachery of Hagen. Natural innocence too easily succumbs to superior cunning and deceit (Kitcher 189, 201).
We first learn of Hagen’s true identity as Alberich’s son at the end of the scene (270), although the curse theme which plays when he meets Siegfried gives us a hint (262).
Waltraute visits her sister with desperate news about their father. She tells Brunnhilde that Wotan no longer collects warriors to fight off the final battle. When Waltraute repeats Wotan’s words, “If the ring returns to the Rhinedaughters, from its curse both gods and world will be released,” she is hopeful, failing to see the double meaning (275).
Brunnhilde defiantly sings, “I shall never relinquish love, though Valhalla’s glittering pomp should crumble into dust” (SS), at which point we hear the Renunciation of Love theme, which seems odd considering her declaration of love, unless we understand the motif more appropriately as the “love-curse” which Alberich first stated (discussed in Valkyrie notes). Refusing to surrender the ring despite what happens to the gods, Brunnhilde has now fallen under the ring’s curse of possessiveness. Note similar sentiments at the end of Siegfried where the two lovers laugh at the death of the gods: “Gods may sink to eternal night! Twilight and darkness seize all the clan!” (243). Selfish love becomes a destructive power, “love a fundamentally devastating force” (Wagner, in SS 370).
When Siegfried suddenly appears in the guise of Gunther, Brunnhilde is alarmed. Another mortal has passed through the flames — how can that be? Siegfried’s brutal stealing of the ring from her hand reminds us of Wotan’s treatment of Alberich. Failing to protect her from Gunther/Siegfried, the ring has no power over one who does not fear it (279). Siegfried promises to separate himself from her during the night with his sword, which becomes a later point of debate between them.
Alberich visits Hagen in a dream; Hagen is not happy to be his son (282). Alberich says the curse has no power over Siegfried, as long as he is ignorant of its power (283) — at least by this point in the story, but see further discussion below.
Loge’s flames surrounding Brunnhilde’s mountain were apparently an illusion, as Siegfried says Gunther could have passed through them unharmed if he hadn’t been afraid (286); also Wotan no longer stands as her protector.
The vassals are the first appearance of a traditional operatic chorus in The Ring. When Hagen calls them, they are surprised that disagreeable Hagen is happy, not knowing the real reason.
Siegfried’s ambiguous responses to Gutrune concerning his faithfulness to her (286-7) set up the later tension between his denial of sexual relations with Brunnhilde and her claims of rape.
Siegfried kept the ring he stole from Brunnhilde, a sign of possessiveness in him as well, making him susceptible to its curse.
Hagen is the first to suggest treason (295), hastily taking control of the situation; he later invents the cover story of the hunting accident (304).
Brunnhilde sings, “He forced from me delight and love,” (296) to the loveless theme, but her quavering variation of the motif hints at her deception. For her, however, one betrayal is much like another (i.e. he might as well have raped me). The fateful swearing on Hagen’s spear appears to seal Siegfried’s fate, if in fact he is lying. However, as we learn at the end, it is Brunnhilde who in her anger has sworn falsely. Siegfried will die, but not because of this oath.
In the Volsunga Saga Brunnhilde interprets Gutrune’s dream, foretelling of Siegfried’s drinking the potion and marrying Gutrune, then strangely Brunnhilde seems to be surprised when this happens.
The Nibelungenlied tells of Siegfried’s bathing in dragon’s blood, making him invulnerable except for one spot on his back where a linden leaf fell. Wagner invented the idea of Brunnhilde not protecting his back because of his bravery (301), perhaps inspired by Achilles (the subject of a possible opera at one time).
In the prelude to Act 3, we hear Siegfried’s joyful horn sharply juxtaposed with menacing tones reminding us of Hagen’s call (a motif based on the Power of the Ring). The music then takes us back to the very beginning of The Ring with the natural rhythms of the Rhine and the beautiful sound of the Rhinegold in its original, uncorrupted form. The Rhinedaughters swim playfully in the water until Siegfried appears, lost in his hunt for a bear.
The Rhinedaughters taunt Siegfried (as they did Alberich in the first scene of Rhinegold). At first Siegfried is willing to trade the ring for love (the reverse of Alberich), but when they threaten him with its curse, he refuses. This show of pride and possessiveness places him under the ring’s curse for the first time, leading to his first and only defeat. When he says, “You’d still not get it from me,” the Power of the Ring motif plays (311).
From another perspective, he also falls victim to Hagen’s cursed desire to possess it, so the fault lies outside the hero himself. By the end of the composition, Wagner didn’t consider Siegfried a tragic figure since he lacks self-awareness. Some critics claim that he falls because of his false oath on the spear, but this assumes he was lying, a misunderstanding which Brunnhilde clears up in the finale.
Siegfried’s death during the hunt is taken from the German source Niebelungenlied. Wagner had followed the Volsunga Saga mainly up to this point.
As he lays dying, Siegfried refers to events in the third drama as happening long ago, “in my boyhood days” (316). There is little sense of time in the myth, as he and Brunnhilde may have lived a long time on the mountain, and he seems to have had many other adventures before coming to Gibichung hall.
There is a minor recognition scene as Siegfried’s memory returns, but no time for remorse. He dies thinking of their first meeting.
When the body is placed on the funeral pyre, tension mounts when ominously the dead Siegfried raises his arm to prevent Hagen from taking the ring.
Brunnhilde’s final speech (the last of six versions which Wagner wrote) explains the truth about Siegfried’s betrayal of her love, but not her sexuality that night. He was false, yet true.
She accuses the gods of guilt for Siegfried’s wrongful death, the curse meant for them falling on him. She gains wisdom through suffering (a common theme in Greek tragedy). She understands how their fate is intertwined with the gods, symbolically hurling the torch heavenward to light Valhalla’s pyre.
Before this final scene, the Rhinedaughters have spoken to Brunnhilde (312, 326) who in death returns the ring to the Rhine, restoring Nature (full circle). Hagen is pulled down by the Rhinedaughters to his death. When Hagen leaps to his death for the ring, the curse motif is heard but breaks in half.
Brunnhilde’s sacrificial love, willing to forgive Siegfried and be eternally united with him in death, brings redemption from their mutual betrayal, and redeems the natural order by returning the ring’s gold to the Rhine. We shouldn’t read the redemption of the gods or all humanity into this final theme as some critics do. Wagner’s title for the redemption motif “the glorification of Brunnhilde” is probably more appropriate as it focuses on her immediate action.
“Love may not conquer all, or resolve all, or even preserve all; but the kind of love Brunnhilde comes to know and to express at the end can vindicate all, the inevitability of death and destruction notwithstanding. … despite all, love can achieve a form of triumph, giving meaning and value to what would otherwise be blank and bitter defeat” (Kitcher 101, 103).
Although Siegfried and Brunnhilde fall victims to the curse of the old order, they are also the first representatives of the new.
The final music weaves together motives of the Rhine, Rhinedaughters, Valhalla, Power of Gods, Siegfried, Twilight, and Redemption.
Conclusion: Ring Transformations
When he began his massive project with its focus on the death of Siegfried, Wagner first envisioned him as a revolutionary hero, “the man of the future whom we long for but cannot ourselves bring into being, who must create himself by our destruction. … In Siegfried I have tried to portray the most highly developed and complete human being I can conceive of” (letter to Röckel, in Spenser 308-9).
In his youthful exuberance for Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche described Siegfried as the Superman, beyond good and evil, an evaluation he later reversed. See my article, “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.
In early plans for an opera on Achilles, Wagner wrote that Man was intended to surpass God, just as Achilles was destined to surpass his father: “Man is the perfection of God. The immortal gods are only the elements which beget mankind. In Man creation achieves its end” (Ewans 77).
But the Superman is not complete in himself. Wagner: “Siegfried alone (man by himself) is not the complete human being; he is merely the half. It is only along with Brunnhilde that he becomes the redeemer. To the isolated being not all things are possible; there is need of more than one, and it is woman, suffering and willing to sacrifice herself, who becomes at last the real, conscious redeemer” (letter to Röckel, in Spenser 307).
In his first prose draft (1848), the final drama ends with Brunnhilde taking Siegfried victoriously to Valhalla, which isn’t destroyed by fire in this early version. His wrongful death redeems the gods from their crimes, and he will live on gloriously after death.
However, this optimism is not reflected in the final 1852 version of the text. Wagner decided to combine Siegfried’s tragedy with the doom of the gods, a connection never suggested in the mythical sources. Kitcher calls the Siegfried of Gotterdammerung “a fossil remaining from an earlier version of Wagner’s project to which he and his life and death are no longer central” (190).
With Siegfried as the free man of the future no longer Wagner’s focus, the heroic center of the cycle shifted from Siegfried to Wotan and Brunnhilde, who both learn that redemption comes through self-renunciation, a denial of the will. In Act 3, scene 2 of Siegfried (the turning point of the cycle), the will of the god that once ruled the world now wills to renounce its claims. Wotan accepts that his time has come. The deaths of Siegfried and Brunnhilde are now seen as an earthly image of Wotan’s own renunciation, their funeral pyre a reflection of the burning of Valhalla.
Typical of the period, Wagner’s Romanticism was both idealistic (infinite longing) and fatalistic (inevitable disappointment). Attempting through abuse of power to hold onto what we cannot keep causes us to hurt and destroy others and is ultimately futile.
Wagner finally chose not to rely on words to express the poem’s final meaning but on his music which speaks of beauty and harmony in a new world order despite the death of heroes and gods.
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These pages were originally uploaded in 1998. Latest revision September 2018.