An Introduction and Notes to
THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG
Part 4: Siegfried
By Larry Brown
Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tennessee, USA
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In the Volsunga Saga, Siegmund (who is not Odin's son in the original) obtains his sword from the tree, mates with Signy his sister unknowingly (she's in disguise), and kills her cruel husband but she dies with her husband in a fire. By another wife, Siegmund has Sigurd (Siegfried). Siegmund is killed in battle when Odin smashes his sword (but not as punishment for incest). Sigurd is brought up at the court of Denmark, with Regin (Fafner's brother) as ward (story of the dragon slayer).
At this point Norse and Germanic versions diverge: Wagner follows Volsunga Saga more closely, concerning Sigurd's discovery of Brünnhilde in the ring of fire, his falling in love with Kriemhild (Gutrune) by the magic potion, and his death except Sigurd is killed in bed by Hogni (Hagen), not during the forest hunt.
In the Nibelungenlied, Siegfried (called Sivrit) is a prince, son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, king and queen of Netherland, who grows up in a palace, marries Gutrune before meeting Brünnhilde (Prunhilt), an Icelandic queen whom he wins in an athletic contest for Gunther (Wagner rejected the medieval chivalry of this account and only borrowed details of Siegfried's death during the hunt from this version.)
Overview of the major themes of the four music-dramas:
- Rhinegold: Love vs Greed / Power
- Valkyrie: Love vs Law
- Siegfried: Love = Freedom
- Twilight of the Gods: Love = Resignation/Self-Sacrifice/Redemption
- Siegfried represents a new order of human being, independent of the past, as he knows nothing of Wotan's plans or the history of the ring. He is "purely human" as Wagner described him: naïve, boisterous, violent, arrogant, innocent; a man of impulsive action rather than thought. 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. By the end of this drama, he 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.
- 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.
- From observing animals in the woods, Siegfried knows Mime is not his parent. 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 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 efforts to retrieve the ring. His desire to control events conflicts with his need for a free agent to accomplish what he by law cannot: obtain the ring.
- 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.
- Just at the point where we might feel sorry for Mime, he shows his true self as cunning and deceitful, 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).
- 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 remelting 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 Nibelungs in Rhinegold, but he works in joyful freedom, building to his mighty cry "Nothung! Nothung!" as he smashes the anvil in two.
- Just as later in Act 3, Siegfried's confrontation with Wotan rings true to both myth and psychology, as the god, already resigned to his fate, must in anger make one last attempt to maintain his authority and dignity. Siegfried reverses his father's fate, demonstrating the victory of the new world order over the old. Wagner's invention in these two scenes shows him to be a expert dramatist as well as composer.
- Old opponents meet again, Alberich instantly recognizing Wotan through his disguise.
- Wotan admits that he made no contract with Alberich but defeated him by force (194).
- When Alberich threatens to storm Valhalla with Hel's army (194), we hear the Valhalla theme mixed with Loge's fire.
- By this time 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 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).
- In a very clever scene, the dragon's blood magically allows Siegfried to understand Mime's true intentions behind his innocent words (213) and the woodbird's song (same theme as the Rhinedaughters' "Weia Waga" nature sounds 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 Brünnhilde later, it becomes a symbol of supreme love, not its renunciation.
- Siegfried leaves the hoard to the dead Mime, blocking the cave with Fafner's body, thwarting Alberich from getting it.
- The prelude mixes themes of Erda, Valkyrie, frustration, spear, fate, and the Wanderer (not the pensive version of Acts I-II, but a raging god longing to return to the arena of world affairs), ending with Power of the Ring.
- Wotan claims to ask Erda for wisdom, "Can a swift-turning wheel be stopped?" (222) but actually wants to tell Erda his decision to renounce his earlier ambition and resign himself to his doom. He bequeaths the future to Siegfried (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).
- Wotan's recognition scene, followed by his confrontation with Siegfried, is the turning point in the entire cycle, all of which Wagner invented: "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 Roeckel, in Ewans 50).
- Already willing to turn the future over to Siegfried's kind, his grandson's insolence enrages him one last time. Wotan also promised to protect Brünnhilde from all but the bravest of challengers (152).
- The text describes Wotan as lord of ravens, his messengers (229; cf 274, 319, 327).
- Ironically, the sight of Brünnhilde's feminine form teaches Siegfried fear for the first time (234). Humorously, at Brünnhilde's "Are you blinded by my eye's devouring glance?" (242), we hear the dragon motif.
- Brünnhilde gloriously greets the sun as she awakens from her long sleep. She joins Siegfried in praising the mother that gave him birth (235).
- Brünnhilde claims that by disobeying Wotan she was acting not by thought but by feeling (236), which mirrors Wagner's aesthetic ideal, 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 Mime's greed.
- Wagner: "It is only by love that man and woman attain to the full measure of humanity ... only in the union of man and woman by love does the human being exist." (Aberbach 147)
- Basking in the light of Siegfried's love, Brünnhilde 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).
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Copyright 1999 by Larry A. Brown