Art Essays Philosophy

The Drama of Love in Richard Wagner’s “The Ring”

Richard Wagner’s grand operatic drama The Ring of the Nibelung is rightly celebrated as one of the finest accomplishments of modern art. The story that Wagner tells, with the unfolding music meant to convey a primordial sense of enchantment forever lost to us, is about the tension between love and lust; the sacred and profane; death and redemption. The Ring is, above all, a tale of sacrificial love and of how sacrificial love is the only true form of love that provides meaning, redemption, and salvation to the mortal humans consecrated to returning to the dust from which they came.

One might go as far as saying that Wagner’s narrative and operatic drama stands in the shadow of St. Augustine. The tension between lust and love, the relationship between power and the self (the incurvatus in se), and sexual desire and primal curses, were all already mapped out by the bishop of Hippo long before Wagner came onto the scene. Indeed, the Ring—in a Norse and Germanic makeover—recaptures the dramatic sublimity of Eden, the Fall of Man, and the lust to dominate others. All of this leads to the great conflagration that is the burning of Valhalla, the immolation of Brünnhilde, and the drowning of Hagen as the ring is returned to the Rhine-daughters and love, harmony, and balance is restored at the drama’s end through the eternal renewal of nature.

Although the story that Wagner told was not new, the manner in which he told it was. Wagner’s conception of Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, is most fully manifested in this opera more so than any other. Through the music, the drama, feelings and story unfold; the music itself tells the story that words and actors also express. The drama of lust, love, and the sacred, unfolds in opera with blaring and melodic music that did startle the musical establishment of Europe (and especially Germany).

Das Rheingold and the Forsaking of Love

No treatment of Wagner would be complete without some basic background to the intellectual and theological, as well as mythological, culture that he swam in. It suffices to say that Ludwig Feuerbach, Georg W.F. Hegel, and socialistic nationalism were the main influences on the young Wagner when he began composing Das Rheingold. Thus we have, in the early sketches made real by Wagner’s composition, the attempt to artistically combine Feuerbach’s assertion that the gods are representations of human imagination and desire, Hegel’s story of consciousness realizing itself in free acts of sacrificial love, and the hopeful aspirations of a unified and egalitarian Germany throwing off the shackles of the vestiges of the Holy Roman Empire while retaining its ancient roots and growing them forward into the new dawn. Wagner may have eventually abandoned his earlier Feuerbachianism and socialism for a more orthodox Lutheranism and conservatism, but this inheritance remains and plays itself out through to the end of the opera with Götterdämmerung.

Das Rheingold opens by transporting us back into the mythic world of pre-consciousness, the Germanic Eden that was the garden of the Rhine. The Rhine-daughters swim and play nakedly in the river; Woglinde sings her lullaby. The free music, its passion, and its serene sublimity evokes that ancient and primordial past when life was free from care, power, and law. The world has not yet been tainted by corruption, deceit, and lust.

The harmonic world of the primordial Rhine is disturbed by a lumbering and stumbling figure revealed to be the ugly dwarf Alberich. Alberich is mesmerized and seized by the bare beauty of the Rhine-daughters. It is in the carnality of the eyes that Alberich is seized by lust. Alberich desires to possess the beauty, breasts, and free-singing serenity of the Rhine-daughters. Thus the drama to love begins in the lust to dominate.

While Alberich is ugly and becomes, undeniably, a cruel and vindictive tyrant after seizing the gold and forging the ring, he is not without some sympathy in the leadup to his “fall.” The Rhine-daughters mock and taunt him, pocking fun at his dwarfish size and ugliness (especially in comparison to their primordial perfection). Alberich’s fall from grace and descent into madness begins with the Rhine-daughters rebuking his sexual desires.

Intent on rape, a display of masculine violence (something that the opera runs replete with), Alberich wades into the river and struggles with the Rhine-daughters. Unable to capture them for his own craven and, now vengeful, desires, Alberich is overcome by the glistening gold at the bottom of the river. Wrought with intrigue, he asks the Rhine-daughters what the glistening metal is. Shocked by Alberich’s ignorance, Woglinde and Wellgunde inform him that the gold can be forged into a ring and provide the wearer immeasurable power. Flosshilde, the most responsible Rhine-daughter, is aghast at her sister’s open response.

As the Rhine-daughters explain the gold and the prospective ring to Alberich, the leitmotif of renunciation plays. The one who forges the ring from the gold will forsake love. But what is love? That is the central thematic question the opera deals with.

When the Rhine-daughters return to mocking Alberich, he is filled with new resolve from the secrets parted unto him by Woglinde and Wellgunde. Ignoring their cruel taunts, Alberich lunges forward and grabs hold of the gold. There is an irony in Alberich’s seizure of the gold. He entered the water to seize the Rhine-daughters for sexual intercourse. He leaves the water having forsaken the beauty of the Rhine-daughters and in possession of an object, rather than a subject, for his lust. Yet in another sense, Alberich achieved what he set out to do—come into possession of an object for himself; after all, that is what the Rhine-daughters were to him when he stumbled upon them and waded into the Rhine intent on possessive plunder.

Alberich returns to his underworld home as the totalitarian tyrant engaged in brutal, materialistic, exploitation. (Alberich, here, represents the industrial capitalist tyrant imagined by Wagner in his youthful socialistic days.) In this subterranean hellhole, Plato’s Cave if there ever was one, we also see Alberich’s cruelty firsthand. He is dragging his brother, Mime, by the ear in a display of power. He seizes the Tarnhelm to advance his power and control over the Nibelungs. All must now prostrate to the invisible tyrant.

In the world of the gods, Wotan attempts to build a grand fortress to avoid the day of judgement—Götterdämmerung, or the downfall of the gods. He enlists the help of the Giants, Fafner and Fasolt, in constructing Valhalla. But the Giants not only demand compensation for their labor, they also want to ensure they will not be conned by Wotan. Wotan gives the Giants Freia, the beautiful goddess of love, as their down payment. Wotan promises the Giants, and Freia, that he will pay them with proper treasure (and thus free Freia from her captivity to the lustful Giants). Freia begs her brothers for help. To no avail. Freia is handed over to the Giants and Wotan is now stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Loge arrives to help Wotan make good on his promises. Loge is the most Feuerbachian of the gods. Loge is, in many ways, Wotan’s now deracinated moral conscience. Loge is rationalization personified. Loge eggs Wotan on to steal the treasure, and the newly forged ring, from Alberich as the means to pay off the Giants and free Freia from the captivity that Wotan forced upon her in a one-way compact. Loge famously informs Wotan with the sophism that stealing from a thief is not stealing. Convinced by Loge’s sophistry, Wotan descends to the subterranean hell that is Alberich’s domain.

Wotan’s seizure of the Rhine’s treasure and the ring makes him an accomplice in Alberich’s crime. Alberich, having been swindled out of the only thing he now cares for, curses the ring and the curse leitmotif rings across the stage. Alberich’s curse is also ironic because he is merely explaining what the Rhine-daughters explained to him. Whoever is in possession of the ring will have a life of misery, servitude (slavery), and emptiness. The misery wrought forth by the ring is a death worse than natural death. We can die forsaking love and pursuing power (thereby being miserable in life and dying the most miserable of deaths) or we can die having loved and sacrificed on behalf of the beloved (thereby living a meaningful and fulfilling life).

Wotan uses the ring and other treasure he stole from Alberich to pay Fafner and Fasolt. The Giants quarrel with each other. Fasolt had lusted after Freia from when he first set eyes on her. She was an enticing object much like the Rhine-daughters to Alberich. Fafner, meanwhile, wants the treasure for himself. He rationalizes his lust for gold by bluntly stating that Fasolt only cared about Freia. Fasolt seizes the ring, with Loge’s manipulative aid, as his share of the treasure. Enraged, Fafner bludgeons Fasolt to death—with the curse leitmotif playing in the background—in a grand reenactment of fratricide every bit as infamous as Cain’s murder of Abel and Romulus’ murder of Remus. Fafner departs with the gold, the ring, and the Tarnhelm and becomes the Dragon sleeping over his horded treasure.

What we find in Das Rheingold is how treasure, the Tarnhelm, but most especially the ring, lead to the forswearing and forsaking of love to win their possession. Material objects cannot satiate the human need for love. The metaphysical reality of love is corrupted by the objectified instrumentalism represented by the ring. We also see the failure of sexual desire, more simply lust, as the basis for love.

Alberich lusted after the Rhine-daughters. The urge to satisfy the sexual need is not love but barbarism, as seen in Alberich’s form and his actions in the Rhine. Fasolt lusted after Freia. Fafner after the treasure. The lusts of the Giant brothers lead to their ruined relationship exhausting itself in the crime of fratricide. Wotan is also guilty of lust in this opening story. His lust for Valhalla leads him to betray Freia and grow increasingly cold toward Fricke (his wife). (Fricke hopes that the construction of Valhalla will provide a rooted home that will allow her and Wotan to once again embrace each other in love.) This bid to escape death leads him to commit treachery and embrace deceit—for it is treachery toward Freia and deceit toward Alberich that he is able to pay for Valhalla’s completion.

Das Rheingold begins the Hegelian movement to consciousness and love in primordial eros. Ultimately primordial eros cannot be love. Primordial eros is predicated on the incurvatus in se, the inward curve to the self. This is especially true in the dwarf Alberich. Moreover, we see how the males are guilty of this inward lust to dominate as women are always the objects of their lusts or power.

Die Walküre and the Limits of Sex

Die Walküre is the second act of the Ring cycle. The story focuses on Wotan and the relationship he has with his new Valkyrie daughter, Brünnhilde, and the illicit and incestuous relationship between Siegmund and Sieglinde. Wotan has fathered the two twins, and so Wotan and Brünnhilde are also caught upon in the drama of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s lives. Die Walküre is simultaneously dark and hopeful. It opens with a storm, an ominous image that evokes the tyranny and despondency left from Das Rheingold. Will Siegmund or Sieglinde be the free-beings to return the ring to the Rhine-daughters and free Wotan and the gods from its curse and anxiety over their impending destruction? Will Wotan be forever haunted by the prophecies of reckoning uttered by Wala?

What makes Die Walküre the first and truest beginning of the Ring cycle is the fact that the central characters are the children of Wotan. Brünnhilde, Siegmund, and Sieglinde are all the children of Wotan in some form. The future hero Siegfried is also indirectly related to Wotan through Siegmund and Sieglinde. The Ring of Nibelung is now the story of Wotan, his children, and the hopeful deliverance of Wotan from his crime in having swindled Alberich from the ring and how sacrificial love brings forth deliverance from the chains of slavery. The prelude that was Das Rheingold, set in the abode of the gods, has now shifted to the world of human mortals with Die Walküre. As such, the movement to personality, freedom, and love begins.

Wotan has fathered the Volsung in hope that one, principally Siegmund, will mature into the free-being to restore the order lost in the dispossession of the Rhine’s treasure. He hides a sword that he hopes Siegmund will find and use to kill Fafner, the Giant turned Dragon, possess the ring, overcome its temptation, and return it to the Rhine-daughters. Because Wotan’s will is bound up in Siegmund, Siegmund is Wotan’s favored child; though Brünnhilde is the daughter to whom he confides his deepest anxieties in a beautiful face-to-face confession.

Where Das Rheingold revealed the limits of primordial eros—pure and unadulterated frolic, sensual play, and sexual desire—as the basis of love, Die Walküre carries forward the Hegelian movement to conjugal union and sacrifice as the foundation of love by revealing the limits of sexual intercourse as the basis for love.

Wotan loves Siegmund because he fathered him. But Wotan’s real love for Siegmund is through Wotan’s willing Siegmund to be the free hero who will liberate him from the crime he has come to share in through stealing from Alberich and guarding against Alberich’s prospective invasion of Valhalla. Sex is not enough to be the basis of love, especially for Sieglinde, who is abused at the hands of her violent spouse, Hunding. Siegmund and Sieglinde, when they meet, fall in love with each other. But their falling in love with each other wasn’t predicated on sex but on Sieglinde’s feminine compassion for the exhausted warrior. While they will seal their love through sex, thus committing the crime of incest that Fricke demands Wotan to uphold to Siegmund’s detriment, the love that Siegmund and Sieglinde share for each other goes far beyond titillating bodily sensations and their satiation.

There are three deeply stirring moments in Die Walküre. First is Sieglinde’s compassion toward Siegmund when they first meet—in this act we hear the first occurrence of the love leitmotif, one of the most powerful and beautiful leitmotifs of the opera which will metamorphosize into the redemption by love leitmotif by opera’s end. Second is Wotan’s confession to Brünnhilde as he confides to her his misery and hope for deliverance from the curse of the ring. Third is Brünnhilde’s announcement to Siegmund of his impending death at the hands of Hunding which affects Brünnhilde’s metamorphosis as she witnesses the love between two mortals and rebels against Wotan’s decree to abandon Siegmund to his bloody fate.

These three episodes reveal, as we’ve already said, the limitations of sex as the basis of love. These three moments in the drama are all loving, touching, and deeply moving—the audience, or the reader—has no illusions that these moments are loving ones. None of them involve sex. None of them involve primordial eros. All of them do involve unique aspects leading up to the final consummation of love revealed through conjugal union and the sacrifices necessary to maintain that blessed union. The first is Sieglinde’s merciful compassion; love includes mercy—after all, it is in this encounter where we hear the love leitmotif for the first time. Second is trust, as revealed in Wotan’s trusting of Brünnhilde as he speaks freely and openly to her; love includes trust which demands an Other. Third is empathy, the empathy that Sieglinde and Siegmund have for each other concerning their impending deaths and the empathy that Brünnhilde has towards the twins causing her metamorphosis through witnessing human love; love includes empathy.

Note that Brünnhilde’s metamorphosis and capturing by human love doesn’t involve seeing carnal beauty or the sexual act. She understands the feelings of Sieglinde and Siegmund. This understanding is paramount in the rise of consciousness. It simply isn’t to be moved by sympathy, as was the first act of love displayed by Sieglinde to Siegmund. Sharing in understanding is an essential component to love.

We should also notice that these three moments involve an Other, not as an object to possess or trade away (as was Alberich’s attempt to possess the Rhine-daughters and Wotan’s bartering of Freia to the Giants), but as a subject-being with whom we can have relationships. All three episodes are face-to-face and You-I encounters. The growth, the movement, to love is predicated on subjectivity and not mere objectifications or satiation of bodily needs.

In Die Walküre we have two competing currents that love swims in. There is sex. Then there are the subject-subject encounters we have just described. Sex is a part of love, as especially seen in Siegmund and Sieglinde’s relationship which will advance the drama forward into its third act with the birth of Siegfried. But the love that is most moving in Die Walküre are these face-to-face, subject-subject, encounters. Love, then, goes beyond sex.

In the end, however, the moral law must be upheld. Fricke’s insistence that incest must be punished seals Siegmund’s fate. Although getting the better of Hunding in their duel with Brünnhilde by his side, Wotan’s intervention with the Spear of Governance shatters the very sword he left for his son. Hunding mercilessly cuts down Siegmund and Brünnhilde runs away with Sieglinde.

Brünnhilde reveals to Sieglinde that she is pregnant with a child who is to be named Siegfried. In this revelation, the first of two instances of the redemption by love leitmotif is heard. Sieglinde overcomes her grief to give birth to the hero-son whom Destiny, it seems, has chosen to be the free-hero to recover the lost treasure and return it to the Rhine-daughters. Sieglinde bearing Siegfried entails so much: to bear the child is an act of love; to bear the child is an act of salvation; to bear the child is the decree of the gods; to bear the child is fruition of the love that Sieglinde and Siegmund shared.

Angered by Brünnhilde’s disobedience, Wotan emerges and tearfully says goodbye to his favorite Valkyrie daughter as the renunciation leitmotif plays again as he kisses her goodbye on her forehead. Brünnhilde must be punished too for defying his will. This is paradoxical because Brünnhilde is the manifestation of Wotan’s will. For Wotan wanted Siegmund to be the hero to defeat Hunding, slay Fafner, rescue the treasure, and return it to the Rhine-daughters. This was Wotan’s plan all along. But bound by the moral law he imposed on mortals, and fated to govern the world from afar, Wotan must contradict his will and kill Siegmund and continue to slowly imprison himself as he lets his will be superseded by the free choices of mortals. Thus Wotan strips away her divinity and puts her to sleep at the top of a mountain. He does take pity on Brünnhilde insofar that he surrounds her with a flame that only a brave hero will be able to overcome—a hero who knows no fear.

Siegfried and the Need for Companionship

The eponymous third act of the Ring cycle, Siegfried, keeps the perspective in the human world but is now more fully human than Die Walküre ever was. Like the previous two acts, Siegfried also wrestles with the metaphysics of love. As the title makes clear, the third act focuses on the heroic young man Siegfried. If Das Rheingold and Die Walküre centered on Wotan as “God the Father,” then Siegfried begins the transition centered on the “Son of God.” After all, Siegfried is indirectly related to Wotan and is, in a certain manner, his beloved son (grandson to be specific). As Paul Heise has written, “It is clear that in many respects the Ring of the Nibelung is loosely based on the model of the Christian Bible: clearly the Bible’s division into an Old and New Testament is paralleled by the Ring’s division into one half dominated by Wotan (God the Father), and a second half dominated by the artist-hero Siegfried (the Savior).”

Where Siegmund failed to be the hero to kill Fafner and rescue the gold from his clutches, the hope of the gods and the Rhine-daughters, and the hope of Brünnhilde’s resurrection, now rests in the youthful and impetuous heart of Siegfried. It is soon revealed that Siegfried has been raised by the dwarf Mime, Alberich’s brother who has escaped his tyrannical rule. However, Mime is not some refugee saint. He is as much a monster as his brother from whom he fled.

The relationship between Mime and Siegfried is Wagner’s inversion of Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic. Mime is Siegfried’s master. Yet on another account, Mime is the slave to Siegfried. Mime is raising Siegfried and attempting to forge him a sword to slay the Dragon and open the gates to the stolen treasure which he intends to capture as his own. Siegfried is the tool to achieve Mime’s conquest of the world.

It is clear that Mime has no love for Siegfried and Siegfried has no love for Mime. Siegfried ventures out into the woods and learns from nature. Siegfried’s hunting and wilderness adventures birth his consciousness as he witnesses mother birds return to their young to tend them. This act of sacrificial love on the part of animals raises Siegfried’s consciousness about his origins and he confronts Mime inquiring about his mother. Mime attempts to answer by claiming he is both father and mother but to no avail.

Siegfried is the most Hegelian act of the play insofar that it is primarily a tale of awakenings. Siegfried grows and grows in consciousness as he encounters the world and all that dwells in it. His interactions and encounters with the world lead to his becoming his own; the self-creator and laborer who joyfully and joyously engages in his labor not yet tainted by alienation.

What Siegfried learns from his encounters with nature is the centrality of companionship. Love, as Wagner explores in Siegfried, entails companionship. Love requires the subjective Other that we previously witnessed in Die Walküre but we must ask where does this companionship lead to? (This is what Götterdämmerung will answer.)

A series of interactions between Mime and Wotan, disguised as a travelling Wanderer, and Mime and Siegfried, lead to Mime revealing Siegfried’s origins and the treasure that Fafner the Dragon is guarding. Alas, Siegfried needs a sword—the very sword of his father that Wotan shattered in the duel between Siegmund and Hunding. Mime is unable to forge the weapon for the youthful warrior. Siegfried subsequently forges the sword himself. He ventures off to kill the Dragon with Mime behind him, shadowing him every step of the way. Under his breath, Mime hopes that Siegfried and the Dragon will kill each other and grant him free access to the treasure.

While Siegfried sounds his horn in desperation to find a companion, the call to adventure preoccupies his quest for companionship (something that Mime cannot provide) as he enters the lair of Fafner and beholds the grand treasure he guards. The two exchange insults and battle. Siegfried plunges the sword into the Dragon’s heart and slays him. In a moving death scene, Fafner recounts the happier life he lived before being granted the treasure owed to him by Wotan. He reminisces of the happy life with his brother, whom he killed, and dies prophesying Siegfried’s death.

The first half of Siegfried is not simply a tale of awakenings; it is also a tale of loneliness. In fact, loneliness often forces awakenings as the human need for companionship is not simply biological but spiritual. Mime is the brother of Alberich but the two are estranged over their respective lusts for power. Wotan travels alone without Fricke, a testament to his growing coldness and isolation as he is consumed with only one goal—having a hero return the ring to the Rhine-daughters. Fafner, who once roamed and labored with Fasolt, is also alone as he hoards over the treasure he possessed through murder. Siegfried is also alone, estranged from Mime and not being able to satisfy his yearning for companionship with the animals he encounters in the woods. Thus, part of the series of awakenings that lead to Siegfried to finding and rescuing Brünnhilde are driven by his metaphysical, ontological, and spiritual need for companionship. It truly is not good for man to be alone. But more than mere companionship is the central place that love holds in companionship; thus Siegfried’s need for companionship is the need for love.

Meanwhile, Wotan’s will seems to be manifesting itself through Siegfried. We have a free hero who knows no fear and slayed the Dragon. He won the treasure, the ring most importantly, and survived Mime’s attempt to drug and behead him. Will he now rescue Brünnhilde, return the ring to the Rhine-daughters, and restore the old order and harmony lost from Alberich’s now distant crime, of which Wotan became an accomplice when he stole from Alberich to pay for Valhalla’s construction? Siegfried, it seems, is the hero Wotan has been looking for.

Siegfried encounters Wotan en route to Brünnhilde’s sleeping tomb. The two trade insults, and Siegfried comes to believe that Wotan is Hunding when Wotan says that he has broken the sword that Siegfried wields once before. Wotan, overcome with self-confidence, believes he will once again shatter the sword with his Spear just as before. This time, however, Siegfried overcomes the god, and power forever transfers from the divine world to the human world. Wotan, still disguised as the Wanderer from before, lets Siegfried pass through. There is nothing he can do.

When Siegfried reaches the top of the mountain and rescues Brünnhilde, now overcome with fear of a woman as he cries out to his mother for help, Brünnhilde speaks lovingly of Siegfried, “O Siegfried, Siegfried! Conquering light! I have loved you always.” Brünnhilde’s decision to be Siegfried’s companion, forsaking divinity and Valhalla in the process, is the ultimate expression of love—for love forsakes power just as power forsakes love. Moreover, the feminine teaches the masculine fear, but also completes it. Siegfried’s quest for companionship is consummated in his betrothal to Brünnhilde. Love demands a companion. Love seeks the metaphysical wholeness completed in the union between male and female, between the masculine and feminine. But the need for companionship is not love. Love goes beyond companionship. And in the final act of the drama, Götterdämmerung, Wagner completes the movement to love which the opera is all about.

Götterdämmerung: Love as Marriage and Sacrifice

Siegfried was an act of awakenings. Götterdämmerung, its antithesis, is an act of betrayals. Here Wagner juxtaposes the movement to love with the old world that love is transforming. Not only is Götterdämmerung the antithesis to Siegfried, it is the final world of sublation as it recourses back to the world of Das Rheingold, while slowly being transformed, through fire and bloodshed, into the new world of abundant life, love, and renewal. Das Rheingold was a world in which the lust to dominate led to betrayals and ended in murder. So too is Götterdämmerung a world in which the lust to dominate manifests its ugly head once more and ends in a series of betrayals and murder.

The shock of Götterdämmerung is from Wagner turning the narrative expectations on its head. We fully expect Siegfried to be the hero who returns the ring and frees Wotan and the gods from its curse. We fully expect Siegfried and Brünnhilde to consummate their love in happy marriage. We fully expect all shall transpire according to Wotan’s will which has been passively running its course despite all the hiccups along the way.

Götterdämmerung is the most human of the worlds in the Ring cycle precisely because Siegfried, the human hero, has overcome Wotan and shattered his Spear of Governance. Wotan now sits passively on his throne as if frozen in time as time passes away. This, however, was necessary because Wotan had been pulling the strings from behind the scene until confronted by Siegfried. In Die Walküre Wotan produced the storm that forced Siegmund to the tree hall of Hunding to find Sieglinde and the sword he planted in the tree for him to use. Moreover, Wotan directly fathered Siegmund for the purpose of slaying the Dragon and returning the treasure to the Rhine-daughters. In Siegfried, as the Wanderer, he was also politely nudging the events onward to his willed conclusion. But for this to happen would mean that the hero is not be free and loving, the two requirements to lift the curse of the ring. The world of love and freedom is only possible with the withdrawal of Wotan; the withdrawal of the gods and their supersession by human mortals.

In this human world we find the lust for power, treachery, and murder. Is the human world much different than the mythical divine realm which suffered from all these ailments? The reason why the two worlds are images of each other is because of the corrupting poison of the ring that taints both.

But what is the question of love being asked in Götterdämmerung? We have seen the limits of primordial eros in Das Rheingold, and how failure to satiate that primordial urge leads to resentment and hatred. We have the seen the limits of sexual passion and intercourse in Die Walküre, yet we also receive a foretaste of love in the feminine compassion of Sieglinde, the trust between subjects in Wotan’s confession to Brünnhilde, and in the empathy of Brünnhilde toward Siegmund and Sieglinde. Love requires the Other as a subject-being and not an object of possession; but compassion, trust, and empathy are not the fullest expressions of love. Siegfried challenges us to go further in the need for companionship, but what, exactly, is the highest form of companionship? Götterdämmerung answers this question by asserting marriage as the highest bond of companionship, subject-subject relationships, and male-female wholeness.

Atop the mountain where Siegfried has just resurrected Brünnhilde with his kiss we see the two lovers locked in embrace followed by Siegfried’s free decision to give her the ring as a token of his love before departing for his joyous adventures in the forest. Brünnhilde refuses to surrender the ring, the token of Siegfried’s love, even though Waltraute visits her and implores her to give the ring back to the Rhine-daughters and free Wotan from his frozen trance. Brünnhilde curses the gods for their callousness.

In Gunther’s hall, though Hagen plots the downfall of Siegfried and hatches a plan to possess the ring, we find the contrast to the free and sacrificial love required in a true marriage through the schemes of marriage moving the Gibichungs. The world of the Gibichungs, that most human of worlds, is shown to be a complex and messy world where love, status, and power all intermix. Hagen, a son of Alberich, has been brought up as the half-brother to the next Chieftain, Gunther, who reminds Gunther that his unmarried status prevents him the full inheritance of Gibichung power.

The need for Gunther to have a wife is purely for status and power. Gunther’s need for marriage, therefore, is not out of love but self-interested power politics. Gunther may be nice, but he isn’t loving in the way Siegfried is. Hagen utilizes this to his advantage as he plots to gain the Rhine treasure by securing Brünnhilde for Gunther and allotting Gutrune, who is also unmarried, to Siegfried. Hagen, the devious mystic who knows the secrets of the world and the ring, convinces Gunther and Gutrune to drug Siegfried despite the friendship sealed by Siegfried and Gunther in the blood-bond oath. Moreover, Hagen taps into the human condition—its need for companionship—and uses this for his own devious end.

Here we find the limit of companionship. Siegfried has found a new companion—the companion that he was, in fact, looking for in his eponymous play. (We must remember that Siegfried wasn’t looking for a woman, let alone a bride and wife.) Gunther is the hunting-warrior companion that Siegfried sought and has, at last, found, but he is to be betrayed despite currying Gunther’s favor and being a loyal friend and in situ brother. Love is deeper than mere companionship. And as Hagen demonstrates, the need for companionship can be manipulated.

The first betrayal is when Gunther and Gutrune, spurred on by Hagen, drug Siegfried to forget his relationship with Brünnhilde. They have betrayed the bond of trust, that sacred and moving bond that moved us to tears in Wotan’s confession to Brünnhilde. The second, and most monumental, betrayal is Siegfried’s abduction of Brünnhilde disguised as Gunther. During their encounter, Siegfried, disguised as Gunther, rips the ring he had just pledged to Brünnhilde from her fingers. This is a symbolic act and image where we see the lust for power, in the form of status, ruin love and destroy holy matrimony. The third betrayal is Gunther’s breaking of his blood-oath with Siegfried. As Gunther becomes more and more a slave to Hagen’s schemes, Gunther paves the way for Siegfried’s murder. The fourth betrayal is Gunther’s betrayal of Gutrune in killing her husband, Siegfried—though this is made complicated by the fact that Siegfried was originally sealed in love to Brünnhilde. Nevertheless, with Siegfried’s memory erased and new marriage to Gutrune, Gunther still goes ahead to deprive his sister of the tender and loving husband she now has. The fifth betrayal is Brünnhilde’s renunciation of Siegfried. Though this is the most understandable, for she has been despicably betrayed by Siegfried (though not necessarily on accord of his own will), Brünnhilde still calls upon the gods (whom she had just earlier cursed when abducted) to grant her revenge and participates in the plot to kill Siegfried.

In the midst of all these series of betrayals, Wotan’s will is moving closer and closer to completion. Siegfried meets the Rhine-daughters who simultaneously taunt him and ask for him to return the ring he wears as the bond of his marriage to Gutrune. The free hero is on the banks of the Rhine. He takes off his ring and calls the Rhine-daughters back. Is this the moment the ring will be returned, and the world restored? Despite wishing to give the ring to the Rhine-daughters, the Rhine-daughters prophesy his death and declare that a woman will be the hero to return the ring to them. They shoo him away at the cusp of the ring’s return.

Why do the Rhine-daughters, who seek the return of the ring, deny the ring’s return despite having earlier asked Siegfried? Siegfried is innocent and unconscious of the ring’s corruptive and corrosive power. As such, he is unconscious of the ring’s destructive spirit and is therefore the unqualified free hero to renunciate the power entailed with possessing the ring. The free hero who must return the ring must also be conscious of its destructive power, and therefore make a free-will decision of renouncing power for love, instead of unwittingly tossing the ring back into the Rhine. Simply put, Siegfried doesn’t know the evil that comes with the ring and, therefore, cannot make that free-will choice between power and love.

So Siegfried departs and, once more in the company of Hagen and Gunther, recounts his childhood, his being raised by Mime, and his slaying of the Dragon. He goes as far as describing his ascent up the mountain to free Brünnhilde—thanks to the cunning of Hagen who has restored his memory. Hagen then stabs Siegfried in the back with his spear as he gazes up at the ravens flying overhead. Meineid rächt’ ich, Hagen cries out as he mercilessly murders Siegfried. “I have avenged perjury.” As Siegfried dies, he remembers his love for Brünnhilde and dies imagining her in his arms—forever and eternally sealed together as one in love because of blessed memory.

Returning to the hall Gutrune is devastated at Siegfried’s corpse. A fight breaks out between Gunther and Hagen, and Hagen slays Gunther. Hagen moves closer to Siegfried to seize the ring, but Siegfried’s hand jumps up and startles the malicious and scheming half-Nibelung.

Brünnhilde enters and realizes the truth of the events that had transpired leading to her abduction. She forgives Siegfried for having been betrayed and utilized for the machinations of others. She orders a pyre to be built along the banks of the Rhine and takes the ring from Siegfried’s dead hand. She turns to the Rhine-daughters and says to take the ring from her after she has died. Brünnhilde is the free heroine who consciously renounces the world of power and scheming for the world of sacrificial love, sealed in marriage, and rides into the burning flame, singing, Siegfried! Siegfried! Sieh! Selig grüßst dich dein Weib! “Siegfried, Siegfried! Look! Your wife comes to greet you in bliss.” The leitmotif of redemption by love sounds for the second and final time—filling the earth with a new revelatory wisdom and leaving the audience without illusion as to the message of Wagner’s drama. Love redeems the broken world.

Brünnhilde’s act of sacrifice is the highest testament to her love. She freely chooses to give up the ring, join Siegfried in death, and brings healing to the fractured world, corrupted by that primordial sin which exhausted itself in murder. As the fire dissipates the Rhine overflows its banks, bringing about the renewal of nature. Hagen greedily attempts to seize the ring, but is drowned by the Rhine-daughters who finally have the stolen treasure returned to them.

In the end it was Brünnhilde who was the free heroine all along. In her renunciation of divinity to be with Siegfried, she chose love instead of power. In rejecting the suggestions of her Valkyrie sister to return to Valhalla, instead electing to stay with Siegfried, she chose love instead of power. In her renunciation of the ring and free act of sacrifice to join Siegfried in death, she chose love instead of power. Furthermore, Brünnhilde is also the divine made flesh; she is the conscious being who made her choices with full knowledge of what she was losing and what she could gain. Moreover, just as males stole from females, and a divine being exacerbated the crime, a female returns to females what was stolen by men and, because of her divine origin, is also the only one who can cancel out the curse and redeem the gods. Brünnhilde as the heroine is the great poetic triumph of the opera. She, and only she, can tie up all the loose ends in her free choices—and with conscious reflection over the opera we realize that every act of decision she made was done freely.

Love and the Sacred in the Ring

The Ring of the Nibelung is a grand tale of love. As such, it is also a grand epic of the sacred. We have seen, in Wagner’s Hegelianized reimagination of the origins and movement of love through history, how love consummates itself through struggle. The struggle to control one’s own sexual passions is the current of Das Rheingold. The struggle to overcome objectification and enter the realm of subject-subject relationships is the current of Die Walküre. The struggle to find companionship, that metaphysical and spiritual need, is the current of Siegfried. The movement of love finally reaches its culmination in conjugal union and sacrifice found in Götterdämmerung, despite the struggle against betrayal, the lust to dominate, and political scheming to reach that place of bliss. Hence we find the entire movement of love through the operatic drama as one long, arduous, but necessary series of sublations leading to the revelation of what love truly is.

But as the movement of sublations occur, something true from the past carries forward to the new. Sexual need is an aspect of love, though should not be the driving and overriding force. Subjectivity, trust, and compassion are all equally part of love. Companionship another aspect of love. All of this comes together in the bliss offered in marriage which can only be sustained through trust and sacrifice as the final act of the drama reveals.

The burning of Valhalla also represents the seismic shift away from the law of the gods and to the free world of love, sacrifice, and treachery that is the human world. In the burning of Valhalla, and the purification of the ring and world in fire and water, we witness not the end of the world in fiery apocalypse, but the renewal of the world in purification. The world is governed not by treaties, oaths, or will to power, but by love. Specifically, the sacrificial love which reaches its most poignant reality in marriage. That is the most sacred gift set in motion by the gods and conferred to human mortals. It is sacrificial love that renews the world and leads to the subject-subject relations we all desire.

This essay was originally published as part of my monthly column at The Imaginative Conservative, 23 January 2020.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


Support Wisdom:

My Book on Literature:

My Book on Plato:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: