Mysteries of the Ring Cycle

For the past month the Met has held Richard Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen on its stage. I have attended an entire cycle (Ring Cycle 2), along with one extra of Das RheingoldDie Walküre, and Siegfried. As I watched those Wagnerian rock-stars perform on the stage of the Met, it occurred to me that the Ring has several unanswered questions. Either Wagner did not include detailed text about how characters completed certain tasks, or he simply made up if and how characters could complete tasks to make the four operas flow more easily. For example: How does Brünnhilde know that Sieglinde is pregnant? Some of the other unanswered questions can simply be due to stage direction. For example: The Rhinemaidens are unable to stop Alberich from taking the gold, and yet he walks right by the Rhinemaidens when he leaves the stage (at least in the Lepage production).

Yes, I know that the Ring is based on Norse mythology and that none of the characters are actually real people. Because of this, Wagner was able to play around with his characters, and tell the audience certain details, while he left some behind. Here are some unanswered questions:

Why do the Gods look alive when Wotan and Loge return from Nibelheim?

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This question first occurred to me just last night when I was watching Das Rheingold. The Giants have taken Freia and they still have her in their grasp. Wotan and Loge let Alberich go back down to Nibelheim when they gain all the gold, and the other Gods: Fricka, Donner, and Froh come out to greet Wotan and Loge. When Wotan and Loge left earlier in Scene 2, Fricka, Donner, and Froh were all lying down and aging due to the lack of Freia’s golden apples. The apples give the Gods youth and life, thus, they felt weak when Freia was taken away. However, when Wotan and Loge return, they all walk around, healthy as ever, and gleefully welcome them back. Froh launches one of his few lines excitedly and with energy, “Sie kehrten zurück!”, or “They have returned!”. Froh could not have hit that high G when he was lying on the rocks moaning because of his lack of golden apples, likewise for the others.

Why doesn’t Wotan know what Valhalla means?

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(The Rainbow Bridge in the Lepage production of Das Rheingold)

After Donner has stormed the sky and Froh has made his Rainbow bridge, Wotan sings his monologue and the Gods are ready to enter their new palace: Valhalla. Before they cross the Rainbow, Fricka asks: “Was deutet der Name? Nie dünkt mich, hört’ich ihn nennen”, meaning approximately “What does that name mean? I have never heard of it before”. Wotan responds saying, “Was mächtig der Furcht mein Muth mir erfand wenn siegend es lent, leg’ es den Sinn dir dar”, meaning “What my spirit has found to conquer my dread, when triumph is won, making the meaning clear”. Does that really answer Fricka’s question? Has Wotan even “triumphed” yet? He barely gave up the Ring to save Freia, making Fricka very upset. Fricka doesn’t even think that Wotan has triumphed, thus, confusion exists when Wotan replies confusingly about the name of Valhalla…and 14 hours later we still don’t know what Valhalla means.

Who is the mother of the Wälsungs?

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(My family tree that I drew depicting the characters in the Ring. Notice the Question Mark as the mother of Siegmund and Sieglinde.)

The mother of the Wälsungs is never mentioned in any of the Ring operas. The only relatives of the Wälsungs that we know are Wotan being the father, and Hunding being the husband of Sieglinde. When Fricka rides up the mountain to confront Wotan about the incest between Siegmund and Sieglinde, she refers to their mother as a “she-wolf”, based on my sub-titles, and also a mortal. If Fricka can mention those two characteristics, why can’t she say the name so we can know who the Wälsungs’ mother is?”. The lack of a name or face does not affect the story, however.

There is another question mark in the paternal spot of the Norns. We know that the mother of the Norns is Erda, but we do not know who fathered them. Their father is never referred to in any of the operas. When the rope breaks, they say “Zu Mutter”, and not, “Zu Mutter und Vater”.

How does Brünnhilde know that Sieglinde is pregnant?

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This one has stumped me for a long time. There is no evidence in the four operas that Brünnhilde has a doctoral degree, or has X-Ray vision to see if Sieglinde is really pregnant. She simply says to Sieglinde: “Rette das Pfand das von ihm du empfing’st: ein Wälsung wächst dir im Schoos!”, meaning “Save the pledge you got from him [Siegmund], you bear a Wälsung’s life”! Brünnhilde knew that Sieglinde was sick and delusional because of seeing her lying on the ground during the “Todesverkündigung” in the second act, and also when she carries her aback Grane when fleeing from Wotan. Brünnhilde sees that she is sick, but how does she know that she is pregnant? We may not know how Brünnhilde diagnosed Sieglinde’s pregnancy, but at least we leave Die Walküre looking forward to Siegfried’s arrival.

How does Brünnhilde know what has happened while she has been asleep?

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Wagner did not make it clear whether Brünnhilde was psychic or not, but it seems that she is when she wakes up in Act III of Siegfried. She states two things that do not make sense due to her lack of being awake. First, she says to Siegfried: “O wüsstest du Lust der Welt, wie ich dich je geliebt” meaning “I know you, joy of the world, I have always loved you!”. How can you love someone if the last time you saw them, never really, was in a woman’s womb? This is the first time they have ever met, and she is only about six pages ahead of “Heil dir Sonne”. Slow down, Brünnhilde. Slow down. The second strange thing that she says is in response to Siegfried’s question about his mother. Siegfried asks: “So starb nicht meine Mutter?”, meaning “So my mother did not die?”. Brünnhilde responds with, “Du wonniges Kind! Deine Mutter kehrt dir nicht wieder”, meaning approximately, “You wonderous child, your mother no longer lives”. How does Brünnhilde know that Sieglinde died in childbirth? She has been asleep! She should be the one asking him, “How is Sieglinde doing? Are you two getting on well?”.  Wagner must have forgotten to tell us that Brünnhilde is psychic.

Why does Siegfried go to the Gibichung Hall?

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Siegfried journeys down the Rhine and arrives at the Gibichung Palace, why? Brünnhilde just let him go on a journey and let him take Grane, she never told him to go there and he never said he was going there. When he arrives, Siegfried asks who Gibich’s son is, and says that his fame has spread down the Rhine. Siegfried has obviously heard of the Gibichungs, but we have not. In Die Walküre, Wotan says that Alberich found himself a woman and planted a Nibelung seed of evil in her womb, but he did not say that the woman was a Gibichung. Maybe Siegfried just stopped at the Gibichung Palace because he thought it was a nice looking rest-stop?

Vice-versa, it is never said how the Gibichungs, or Hagen really, know about Siegfried. Hagen tells Gunther and Gutrune that Siegfried is the strongest of men and that he is the son of the Wälsung twins: Siegmund and Sieglinde. Most likely, Hagen knows about Siegfried because his father Alberich told him about him. However, Wagner never tells the audience how the Gibichungs know Siegfried’s history so well.

Those are some questions that I have been pondering over for the last month when I’ve watched the Ring. Wagner wrote a magnificent epic, but some parts are missing, none of which are key to the outcome of the story. If you can answer my questions, go ahead and try (If you can, you’re psychic). If you have any questions that I have possible answers to, please ask and comment away! Hojotoho!

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5 comments on “Mysteries of the Ring Cycle

  1. I reckon Siegmund went to see the Gibichungs because he’s a hero and needed to do some hero stuff because, let’s be honest, sitting on a mountainside and making out with your girlfriend isn’t very heroic. And they probably also knew about him because, you know, he killed Fafner! Big deal! He was probably like some kind of Viking celebrity.

  2. Hi – love your review of continuity problems. I’ve been on the case for years and have done several performance pieces of the story with contemporary commentary. I’m working on a new one now for Ground Swell New Music Society in Winnipeg next season. Anyway – re how does B know S is pregnant. When B reveals that, Daddy hasn’t yet stripped B of the powers from him and she is known to see the future. So no continuity problem there. When she wakes up with Ziggy, powers from Daddy has been withdrawn, yet a couple of bits of text confirm she’s still a witch so evidently some power was attached to her personally – perhaps from her mother. When she lets Ziggy have her horse, armor etc – handing over the phallic aspects of herself – with an “anything for my guy” vibe. She’s a teenager with a Hero boyfriend – that’s clear from the scene when he gives her his ring. What I want to know is – who is the father of the Norns. The Norns are older, seemingly of the previous order of nature gods like their mum Erda. Best I’ve found is their father force is chaos. I found Lepage’s interpretation very conservative. Still waiting for somebody to knock my socks off with a truly post modern interpretation of this richly layered story difficult.

    • Wow, thank you so much for answering my question about Brünnhilde’s pregnancy diagnosis power. Now it all makes sense! I am also very curious about who fathered the Norns, why did Wagner keep it a secret in the first place? I agree that the Norns were placed more conservatively on the stage in the Lepage, while they had a little more stage action and personality growth in the Schenk.

  3. Val = fallen ones, dead heroes; halla = hall.

    My puzzle is why, when Siegfried passes through the ring of fire specifically to find the girl of his dreams, he is astonished to discover that ‘Das ist kein Mann’.

    Thanks for the great site

  4. “Val = fallen ones, dead heroes; halla = hall.” That could be, but watching it tonight, in a wonderful concert performance, I was struck with Erda’s calling herself “Urwala” and the idea of the earth symbolically surrounding the hall that Wotan has made, – “Wal-hall-a.” He might call it that in a kind of hopeful shoring up of the structure he is so enamored with as well as paying a substantial compliment to the woman he is already planning to track down and ends up having nine daughters with.

    As for the father of the Norns, maybe they didn’t have a father. Wagner would have known Greek mythology in which Gaia conceived and gave birth without having any male help. Wagner easily could have imagined that to be either true of Erda as well, or that Erda and Gaia were actually the same entity. Later Gaia had other children, the Titans, with Uranus and Erda has the Walkuries with Wotan. Perhaps Wotan is a being that is somewhere between Uranus and Jupiter or a combination of both.

    Here’s my question: Since Wagner wrote the stories in reverse order and in “Das Rheingold”, he added ideas that are more sophisticate and complex than seem to be in the earlier texts but then he wrote the music in the reverse order as well, ending musically with “Gotterdammerung”. The later music seems to encompass the more modern ideas expressed in “Das Rheingold”, Why didn’t he rewrite the concluding stories to be as sophisticated as his music rather than leave them in their earlier, more mythological fairy tale mode? It’s late where I am so forgive me if this makes no sense.

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