Big Bad Wagner - Lord of the Sings
(First, please forgive the lame pun in the title...I couldn't help myself. My dad will no doubt give me grief; deservedly so because lord knows I give him grief when he spouts this kind of thing!)
Anyway - it occurs to me that perhaps I have bitten off more than I can chew. Imagine trying to explain to a friend who has never seen the show what happens in just the first season of Game of Thrones. (Spoiler alert for anyone who’s been living in a cave since 2011.) ‘There’s this guy who is the Lord of the Northlands and his name is Ned Stark; actually, it’s Eddard Stark but people call him Ned. Anyway, Ned Stark is best-mates with Robert Baratheon, King of the Seven Kingdoms. King Robert asks Ned to move to the Capital and become Hand of the King because the last Hand died mysteriously and Robert needs help running shit. Ned reluctantly agrees and moves down to Westeros with two of his daughters but he faces political intrigue up the yin-yang with everyone plotting and conniving for their own bit of power while backstabbing everyone else in the process. Robert is too interested in whoring around and drinking to care and Robert’s wife, Cersei, hates Ned because Ned has discovered that the prince isn’t actually Robert’s son but the illegitimate incestuous offspring of Cersei and her brother…etc. etc. etc.’ You see how convoluted it all is.
But Game of Thrones is a great analogy for Wagner’s Ring in terms of the interweaving stories and characters, and the epic themes of power, morality, corruption, betrayal, sacrifice, heroism, love, and fate. The reality is we all know the story anyway, whether we know we know it or not. Any tale with dragons, dwarves, giants, treasure, magic, witches, clairvoyants, etc. likely has its source in Nordic folklore. Think of Harry Potter, Xena: Warrior Princess, He-Man and She-Ra, Thor, World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, not to mention the Brothers Grimm and most of the fairy tales we all grew up with. These can all claim origins in Old Norse legends.
One of the most outstanding features of The Ring is its fluidity with concepts like morality and power. There is no singular locus of evil against which all the heroes struggle and toward which all our antipathy is directed. Most of the main characters are thoroughly equivocal and our relationship to them is ambivalent; for instance, Siegfried is quite unlikable, while Alberich is pitiable. We do not love the heroes nor despise the villains because they are all portrayed with elements of contradiction.
In other stalwarts of fantasy fiction we notice a clearer distinction. Generally, the entirety of the given fantasy world will fall subject to the pervasive malevolence of an evil individual. In Lord of the Rings (LOTR) there is Sauron, in Harry Potter there is Voldemort, and in Star Wars there is the Sith. Game of Thrones represents something different because there is no overarching, all-encompassing dark force (e.g. while King Joffrey is horrific, his sphere of influence is quite limited.) The Ring is more sophisticated even still, because no one character epitomizes a particular extreme because each contains some kind of paradox. This means there is no one archetype being evoked as paradigmatic and lends the story a lot of depth and nuance.
Sauron; Voldemort; The Sith
et’s look at some concrete examples.
Wotan is lord of the gods, and by that definition he should be the moral compass and the most powerful character. But Wotan is rendered impotent on several occasions. For instance, he is twice forced to yield to the demands of his wife on moral grounds (first, the retrieval of her abducted sister, Freia, from the giants; and second, in allowing Siegmund to die.) Wotan also forfeits any moral authority when he dupes and extorts Alberich the dwarf to attain the Ring. Finally, despite his best efforts, Wotan is incapable of turning the tide against the gods’ downfall. This last point is in contrast to another magical-staff wielding power-figure, Gandalf in LOTR, who effectively leads the uprising that defeats the evil Sauron and his armies. For a god, let alone the head god, Wotan distinctly lacks any real might.
Then take the central hero Siegfried, who should by all conventions be the aspirational figure whom we all admire and cheer for. Truth be told, Siegfried is a bit of a pain in the arse. He is arrogant, impulsive, petulant, dismissive, and intolerant. He also bullies his sniveling caregiver, the dwarf Mime (even though the audience is privy to Mime’s scheme to manipulate Siegfried into winning the treasure from the dragon only to kill him afterwards, Siegfried doesn’t know this.) So the hero is massively flawed and far from a paragon of virtue.
Now let’s look at the architect of doom in the Ring, the nasty and vindictive dwarf, Alberich. After being mockingly rebuffed by the luscious Rhinemaidens at the very opening of the whole saga, Alberich renounces love and steals their precious magical Rhinegold. Alberich compels his brother, Mime, a master-smith, to fashion the gold into two objects: the Ring of Power and the Tarnhelm (which enables its wearer to adopt any form.) With the Ring, Alberich enslaves the entire dwarf race and forces them, under duress, to mine his treasure fortune. This is when Wotan descends to the underworld and deceives Alberich in order to steal the Ring. Wotan then uses the Ring to pay the Giants for building the gods’ celestial palace, Valhalla. As Wotan departs, the rightfully incensed Alberich casts a terrible curse upon the Ring, which eventually causes the collapse of the entire existing world order and destroys everyone in it, including the gods. The LOTR parallel of Alberich is Gollum for they both share an insatiable lust for the precious ring. There is even a parallel tradition of physical representations.
Although Alberich is disagreeable and unpleasant, it is not fair to characterize him as pure evil – unlike those aforementioned dark masters in LOTR, Harry Potter and Star Wars. It is only after Alberich is scorned by the Rhine-maidens and swindled by Wotan that he becomes the accursed (I suppose you could make another analogy here with Anakin Skywalker who becomes Darth Vader after his mother is murdered.) Alberich – and Skywalker – are simply the products of what has been done to them, of the way the world has treated them. And how astonishingly far and wide we can spin that theme as a critique of, for instance, generational cycles of violence, cycles of spousal abuse, global warming and the environment, even the history of the World Wars.
This is why Wagner’s Ring has such enduring power, because its ancient mythology is capable of articulating universally persistent truths.