Richard Wagner - The Ring Cycle

Plot and Character Examination

Woton

Woton is chief of the gods and keeper of covenants and promises. He is married to Fricka, the goddess of house and home.

Woton hired two giants, Fasolt and Fafner, to build a gleaming fortress / palace called Valhalla. In exchange for their labor, he promised to give them his wife’s sister, Freia. Unfortunately, this was a promise he never intended to keep. Fricka is understandably angry with her husband for giving away her sister.

As the giants come to collect their fee, Woton commands Loge to find an acceptable payment in lieu of Freia. This results in Loge telling the two giants of Alberich and the Rheingold. The promise of power and the ability to escape from the deal with the giants interests the gods, including Woton himself. Thus begins the chain of events that eventually lead to the destruction of the entire world, including the gods.

It could arguably be said that it was Woton’s greed for possessions [his home], and hypocrisy [intended not to keep a deal when he himself is supposed to act as enforcer of all contracts] is primarily responsible for the downfall of the gods. With his imprudent decision to wager the source of his (and the other gods’) immortality for a palace (i.e., material goods), Woton was as guilty as Alberich for the destruction of the world.

Fricka

As mentioned previously, Fricka is the goddess of house and home and wife of Woton.
She is also the sister of Freya. Fricka urges her husband, Woton, to obtain the ring after she learns that it could be used to keep him faithful. In Die Walküre, it is Fricka who tells Woton that he must defend Hunding’s marriage to Sieglinde against the Siegmund. Woton is reluctant because he believes that Siegmund could save the gods by restoring the Rheingold; however, if he refuses to defend Hunding, he will lose his power.

Freya

Freya provides the other gods with golden apples that ensure their eternal youth and power.
Her abduction by Fafner and Fasolt after the completion of Valhalla is devastating to the gods, who begin to age immediately. Had Freya’s presence not been absolutely essential to the survival of the gods, Woton and company may not have gone to the trouble to rescue her.

Alberich

Alberich sets in motion the entire Ring by renouncing love and taking the Rhinegold from the Rhinemaidens. After his brother, Mime, fashions the gold into a ring of immense power, Alberich enslaves the other gnomes of the underworld (Nibelheim) and forces them to mine gold for his treasury.

Alberich obtains a magical helmet (the Tarnhelm) that allows the wearer to change shape and size. Loge and Woton descend into the underworld and trick Alberich into turning into a frog, after which they steal the helmet and force him to give up his wealth to Fasolt and Fafner. He curses the ring, saying all those who possess it will encounter envy and death until it returns to his hand.

In the opera, Alberich represents the archetype of power being evil and loveless. Some authors have interpreted his character as Wagner’s embodiment of the evil “Jew”*.

Fasolt

Fasolt and his brother, Fafner, built Valhalla for Woton in exchange for Freya. When Woton attempted to back out of the deal, it was Fasolt who refused to allow it, due to his infatuation with the goddess of youth. It was also Fasolt that refused to accept Alberich’s wealth in exchange for Freya unless it was enough to hide her from view. When Woton eventually gives up the ring to the giants (to fill the gap in the wall of gold that hides Freya), they begin to fight and Fafner kills Fasolt.

*Gottfried’s ‘strine journey: A Wagner faces his ugly heritage, by Daniel Mandel. Published in the July 2000 edition of AIJAC – the Australia / Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.

Fafner

Fafner is the brother of Fasolt, the other giant that built Valhalla for Woton. It was Fafner who complained that the gold alone was not in lieu of Freya because he could still see her behind the wall of treasure. He demands the ring from Woton (who is wearing it at this point). After Woton gives up the ring, Fafner kills his brother and takes it for himself in a possible Cain and Abel allusion.

Woton cannot directly attack Fafner, or else his spear will be broken.

Fafner, now in dragon form, is woken by Woton and Alberich, and warned that someone is coming to kill him. Fafner scoffs, and falls back asleep. The next day, Siegfried ends up stabbing Fafner in the heart with Nothung after being led to the cave by Mime. Fafner promptly dies, but not before warning Siegfried about the person who orchestrated the battle.

The Apocalypse Conspiracy* says the following about the Fafner and Fasolt characters, “Both brothers are strongly characterized and each one represents a different aspect of the people. The first one would correspond to the utopia of 1789, the one that dreams about justice and about equality. For this idealist, money has no value; only women and love are worth granting efforts. With a lot of common sense he accuses Wotan of sacrificing love and the value of women to sterile stony bulwarks. His brother Fafner would correspond more to the revolutionary of 1791.

The ambitions are totally negative.

If he wants to seize Freia [sic], it is only to deprive the Gods of the golden apples, to weaken them, by no means to eat them. He is the one who will urge his brother to agree with the exchange.”

Erda

The goddess of earth and the mother of the three Norns, Erda warns Woton to give up the ring after taking it from Alberich. She apparently has the ability to see the future and possesses great wisdom; on more than one occasion, we see Woton asking for / receiving advice from Erda.

Siegmund

Siegmund is the son of Woton, twin brother / lover of Sieglinde, and the father of Siegfried. After running through the forest one night, Siegmund entered the house of Sieglinde and Hunding. Siemund and Sieglinde instantly experienced a strong attraction to each other; despite learning they are twins. Sieglinde’s husband tells Siegmund that he may stay the night, but in the morning, he will promptly be killed.

Woton, forced by Fricka to defend Hunding’s marriage rights, destroys Siegmund’s sword after Brünnhilde refuses his orders. Siegmund is quickly killed by Hunding (whom is killed by a mere wave of Woton’s hand shortly thereafter). However, Siegmund and Sieglinda managed to have one night of passion, which results in the birth of Siegfried.

Sieglinde

The wife of Hunding, daughter of Woton, twin sister / lover of Siegmund, and mother of Siegfried. She is saved by Brünnhilde, who hides her near Fafner’s cave. She took the shattered pieces of Siegmund’s sword, which will later be wielded by her son, Siegfried.

Brünnhilde

Brünnhilde is the warrior daughter of Woton, and a Valkyrie. She is originally ordered by Woton to defend Siegmund, but is forced to change sides when Fricka reminds Woton that he is required to defend Hunding’s marriage vows. She defies her father’s orders, and losses her immortality as punishment.

She eventually marries Siegfried, who gives her the ring after killing Fafner with the reconstructed sword. Brünnhilde’s sister, Waltraute, warns her that their father Woton says the gods are doomed to destruction unless she gives the ring back to the Rhinemaidens, but Brünnhilde's new love for Siegfried is more important to her than concern for the gods. She refuses to give up the ring, and Waltraute rides off in despair.

Siegfried returns to Brünnhilde, transformed by the Tarnhelm into Gunther's form. He tears steals the ring and claims her as Gunther's Bride.

Later, at Siegfried’s apparent deception and treachery (she was unaware he was under the power of a magic potion), she reveals Siegfried’s weak spot – a spear thrust into his back would be fatal. Hagen, of course, takes advantage of this knowledge and murders him.

When her husband is killed, Brünnhilde considers the gods responsible for Siegfried’s death, regains possession of the ring, and swears it will once again belong to the Rhinemaidens. She puts it on, sets Siegfried’s funeral pyre on fire, and jumps into the flames (but not before she orders her father’s ravens to tell Loge to go Valhalla for the downfall of the gods). The world burns down, the gods are destroyed, and the Rhinemaidens once again posses their gold.

*http://ring.mithec.com/eng/whomime.html - An excellent resource that includes analysis of characters and events.

Mime

Mime is Alberich’s brother. It was Mime who forged the ring from the Rhinegold and the Tarnhelm. He had hoped to use Tarnhelm to outwit his brother and steal back the ring. It is also Mime who found Siegfried in the woods as Sieglinde was dying, raised him, and later attempts to forge a sword for him that cannot be broken. He had kept the fragments of Nothung (which he offers as proof of his story), but doesn’t have the ability to reforge the sword.

Later in the story, Mime wagers his head against a disguised Woton.

Woton wins, leaving one who has, “known no fear”, to kill Mime (of course, we know this to be Siegfried). As was the case with his brother Alberich, Mime hopes to outwit Siegfried and take back the ring to gain world domination and ultimate power. He is killed by Siegfried after attempting to give him a poisoned drink.

Siegfried

The husband of Brünnhilde (making Woton his grandfather from both sides), and son of Siegmund and Sieglinde. Siegfried is the hero of the story, although we continually see him deceived and manipulated by characters such as Mime, Hagen and Gunther. It was Siegfried who forged Nothung after Mime confesses he lacked the ability and used it to kill Fafner. He gave the ring to Brünnhilde, who refused to give it up despite advice to do so.

Siegfried is eventually killed after Brünnhilde, believing him to be unfaithful, reveals his weakness to Hagen. After discovering that Siegfried was deceived, Brünnhilde burns his body, herself, and the rest of the world (by bidding Loge to burn Valhalla).

Loge

Loge is the fire god who eventually returns to his elemental form and destroys everything (I find it interesting that in the beginning, Loge mutters his desire to do just this). In Das Rhinegold, Woton awaits the arrival of Loge, hoping he will have the wisdom to get the chief god out of his mess with the giants, implying some sort of inherent wisdom. It was also Loge who proposed the gods steal the gold, just as Alberich did. It was Loge who tricked Alberich into changing into a frog and stole the Tarnhelm. Loge creates the ring of fire that surrounds Brünnhilde.

It is Loge’s character that represents the purifying force of fire. He is a direct offshoot of Wagner’s association and admiration of Bakunin, who fostered this idea of burning the establishment. The influence of Bakunin will be discussed later in the essay.

Hagen

The half brother of Gunther and Gutrune. He is the son of Alberich. In an effort to gain control of the ring, he convinces his siblings to use a magic potion to marry Brünnhilde and Siegfried themselves. They each get spouses; he gets complete world domination. It was Hagen who convinced Gunther to help him murder Siegfried. Hagen kills Gunther in a quarrel over the ring after Siegfried is murdered.

A Note on the Characters

It is important to note that each of the important characters had possession of the ring at one time, and each refused to return it to its rightful owners. Although Alberich was the first to steal the gold, we see the same behavior in characters such as Woton, Brünnhilde, and even the “hero” Siegfried. It is possible that Wagner was implying they were all guilty and, as a result, deserving of the punishment that comes in the end.