Big Bad Wagner - Twilight

Today will be a short one to conclude our time spent on Wagner. Its purpose is to simply ask some questions, mainly concerning how Wagner articulates the broader concepts and philosophies that underpin The Ring.


Wagner presents some ideas as diametrically opposing forces: for instance, love and power. Love is clearly the ethical superior of power for Wagner. And although love is perennially enduring, it is also characterized as somewhat feeble. Those characters who give themselves to love are condemned to suffer and ultimately, to perish. Fasolt the Giant, who loves Freia, is killed by his brother Fafner; Siegmund and Sieglinde both die for loving each other; Brünnhilde is consigned to mortality for safeguarding Siegmund and Sieglinde, and she is subsequently forsaken by Siegfried; Siegfried is beguiled by a potion that makes him betray his beloved and leads to his death by conspiracy. (It is interesting to note that all of these characters are completely oblivious to the existence of the Ring, and yearn nothing for what it bestows.) 

By contrast, hungering after power leaves other characters almost totally isolated. After procuring the Ring and Tarnhelm, Fafner retires to a cave and adopts the form of a huge dragon where he sleeps until Siegfried disturbs and then kills him; Alberich is found years later, a shell of his former self, haunting Fafner’s cave; Mime only has Siegfried, who detests him; and Wotan wanders the earth alone until resigning to his fate, whereupon he returns to Valhalla and quietly awaits his demise. 


Other ideas in The Ring are presented as a polemic. For instance:

Is Sieglinde’s marriage to Hunding, which is patently an abusive relationship, more sacrosanct because of the social contract that binds them than the erotic love she feels for her twin brother, despite that social taboo? A big question, and one to discuss over a good bottle of red.

Another polemic: Was Brünnhilde right to defy Wotan in defending the valiant outcast Siegmund from the barbarous Hunding? Was Wotan wrong to punish her with banishment and mortality? Was not Brünnhilde merely enacting the true desire of Wotan’s heart, as she strenuously argues? Wagner has us ask these questions by way of the characters themselves, who grapple with them at such length in the operas.    


Yet other ideas are presented as different facets of the same motivating force: Alberich stole the magical Rhinegold to forge the Ring, renouncing love as payment; Wotan tore a branch from the magical World Ash Tree, thus killing it, giving an eye as payment. Both represent a contemptuous rape of the natural world in the pursuit of power.

As a point of distinction between the two: Alberich rules through the threat of physical violence, whereas Wotan rules through the steady accretion of treaties and alliances. Alberich is therefore the personification of corrupt and unjust tyranny, Wotan of facile politicking. Wagner is clearly posing the question, ‘Is one really better than the other?’


The Ring is one of the most ambitious projects in the history of human culture. It consumed almost 25 years to come to fruition and performing it remains the crowning achievement of any opera company. There are devotees who scour the earth for productions and flock with unabashed alacrity to these festivals of ideas and sound. As I said at the start of this mini Wagner-epic, he demands more of you than most other composers. But if you are able to give yourself over to its mesmeric passion you will experience one of the greatest artistic triumphs of creativity humanity has yet produced.

Kirsten Hicks