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Wagner's Ring

Page history last edited by Skallagrimssonr 11 years, 11 months ago

Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is an operatic drama in four parts: “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walküre,” “Siegfried,” and “Götterdämerung.” The four were first performed on four successive nights in Bayreuth, Germany in 1876.


The piece in this opera most familiar to modern listeners is likely “The Ride of the Valkyries.” You may recognize it from the Looney Tunes version “Kill the Wabbit” or from the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now.


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Plot Summary

 Freia, Goddess of Youth and Beauty

Das Rheingold: The three Rhinemaidens guard a large store of gold in the river Rhine. From it, a ring can be made that will enable the holder to rule the world, if the maker renounces love. The Nibelung dwarf Alberich, embittered by the Rhinemaidens’ teasing, renounces love, steals the gold, and forms a ring. Meanwhile Wotan, the king of the gods, hires the giants Fasolt and Fafner to build his castle Valhalla. They agree and demand the goddess Freia as payment.  Loge tricks Alberich and captures him, enabling Wotan to steal the ring and the rest of the Rhinegold. Wotan then gives it to the giants in exchange for Freia. Because of this, Alberich puts a curse upon the ring and all who have possessed it. Fasolt and Fafner quarrel over the ring. Fafner kills Fasolt and becomes a dragon.


Die Walküre: Wotan is afraid that the curse of the ring will fall on the gods if it is not returned to the Rhinemaidens. It must, however, be done unselfishly, thus the gods cannot do it. Wotan goes to earth and has two children with a human woman, the Wälsungs Siegmund and Sieglinde, intending that Siegmund will slay Fafner and return the gold to the Rhinemaidens. Sieglinde ends up marrying her captor Hunding. Siegmund, fleeing for his life, takes shelter at their house, and when the brother and sister recognize each other, they flee from Hunding’s house and fall in love. Wotan instructs his Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde to protect Siegmund, but since Siegmund has broken a marriage vow, Fricka (Wotan’s wife) will not allow it. Siegmund is slain, but Brünnhilde takes pity on the Wälsungs and saves Sieglinde (pregnant with Siegmund’s son Siegfried) and the fragments of Siegmund’s sword Nothung (Needful). Because of Brünnhilde’s intervention, Wotan puts her into an enchanted sleep and surrounds her with fire so that only a hero can ride through and wake her to be his wife.


Siegfried: Sieglinde’s son Siegfried is raised by Alberich’s brother Mime who hopes that Siegfried will kill Fafner and return the ring to Mime. He attempts to reforge Siegmund’s sword, but is unable to do so. Siegfried is finally able to reforge the sword himself and he kills Fafner. When he accidentally tastes the blood of the dragon he can understand birds, one of which tells him that Mime is treacherous. Siegfried kills Mime and is led by the bird to the sleeping Valkyrie. Siegfried breaks through the flames and awakens Brünnhilde. The two fall in love and Siegfried gives the cursed ring to Brünnhilde.


Götterdämmerung: Siegfried goes forth to find adventure and comes to Gunther, the king of the Rhine people. Gunther gives Siegfried a love potion that causes him to forget Brünnhilde and marry Gunther’s sister Gutrane. Gunther falls in love with Brünnhilde and incites Siegfried to disguise himself as Gunther to win her over. In doing so, Siegfried takes the ring from Brünnhilde. When she recognizes it later she plots with Alberich’s son Hagen to kill Siegfried. But as Siegfried dies his memory returns and he loves Brünnhilde still. Seeing this Brünnhilde throws herself on the funeral pyre, the flames of which lead to the burning of Valhalla and the descent of the gods.


There are a variety of additional summaries available should you wish to have a fuller understanding of the plot. There is a long version, excerpted from The Wagnerian Romances by Gertrude Hall Brownell found here. 74 pages and 47,000 words later, you'll know more about the plot of the Ring than you ever wanted to. Two shorter summaries of the plot are found here and here. You can also watch the following 30 minutes of video of comedienne and singer Anna Russell as she describes and mocks the plot of the Ring Cycle, while playing the major motifs on the piano. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.




Arthur Rackham painted the most well known illustrations of Wagner's Ring Cycle. He was best known for his illustrations of fairy tales at the time, having illustrated the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Peter Pan, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and Rip Van Winkle. Much of Rackam's work can be seen at Project Gutenberg. The illustrations of the Ring were published in 1911 and 1912 containing 64 full paintings done in watercolor and 16 line drawings.


Siegfried killing FafnerBrunnhilde

                         Young Siegfried killing the dragon Fafnir                                                                                 Brünnhilde


Siegfried and the Rhinemaidens

                                Siegfried and the Rhinemaidens                                                                   Brünnhilde on Siegfried's Funeral Pyre    


Musical Structure: Leitmotifs


The music of the Ring is organized around several leitmotifs (leading motifs), short sections of music that represent a certain character, emotion, object or action. Wagner himself described these melodic moments as “guides to feeling” in Oper und Drama (Opera and Drama). Often in criticism these motifs are given names, such as the “Walhalla Motif” or “The Spear Motif.” Depending on how you number them, there are upwards of 200 different leitmotifs in the opera.


There were many who criticized the leitmotif structure as being too obvious. However, in the space of a 15-hour opera, keeping track of the major motifs is complex, especially since they are often layered on top of each other. They also transition, change, and grow as the opera progresses, rendering them far from simplistic.


There are two websites that are incredible resources for learning more about the leitmotifs within the Ring. Both allow readers to listen to the motif in conjunction with the section of the plot in which it appears. The first includes pieces of the score as well as audio files. The second site contains mp3 files only. It has been suggested that only when these leitmotifs are recognized that a listener can begin to fully experience the Ring as it was intended.


How it has been viewed


Wagner’s Ring has been studied since it first appeared in Bayreuth. Articles, essays, entire books have been written on the subject, from a variety of angles and critical positions. Some mock Wagner for his philosophy, for his attempts to do too much within the constraints of an opera. Many criticize the overcomplexity of the work; many try to explain it and synthesize the drama into a sensible whole. Others are simply caught up in the heroic vision. As a boy, C.S. Lewis was one of these last. In Surprised by Joy he wrote, “’Music’ was one thing, ‘Wagnerian music’ quite another, and there was no common measure between them; it was not a new pleasure but a new kind of pleasure, if indeed ‘pleasure’ is the right word, rather than trouble, ecstasy, astonishment, ‘a conflict of sensations without name.’”1 Responses to the Ring are made difficult precisely because one must not only deal with the music, but also the philosophy, the emotion as well as the reason. Following are some of the primary scholarly resources for studying the Ring and descriptions of the general focus of each.


Friedrich Nietzsche was an early supporter and friend of Richard Wagner. In 1872 he published The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik). Nietzsche wrote on the tendency of societies to swing between Apollonian and Dionysian phases, deprecating the modern Apollonian trends. He saw Wagner’s music and German Romanticism as an important pull back towards a Dionysian model. This early work demonstrates the philosophical import of Wagner’s work. Full Text English Translation. Later in life Nietzsche became less enamoured of Wagner, writing Der Fall Wagner (The Case of Wagner: A Musician's Problem), published in September 1888.


Bernard Shaw in 1922 wrote The Perfect Wagnerite. He saw the Ring as a socialist and anticapitalist allegory. He studied Wagner's life, his involvement in the revolution, and his writings and thus his assessment of the story cannot be dismissed lightly. Shaw saw the Ring as a story about a struggle for world power, and the ultimate demise of the rulers (in this case, Wotan and the gods). Full Text. Review.


Robert Donington in 1963 wrote Wagner's Ring and its Symbols. This is a classical Jungian approach to the music-drama. In this work Donington attempted to include analysis of both the musical and poetic aspects of the opera. Review (Requires access to JSTOR).


Deryck Cooke in 1979 wrote I Saw the World End. Though this work was never finished (he only completed full analyses of the first two operas) it is vast in scope. Cooke, rather than analyzing the Ring from a social, political, or theological standpoint, focused on the text and score of the opera itself. He argued that the Ring was not disjointed as some had argued, but was a highly focused and concentrated story. He also studies in depth the uses and transformations of the leitmotifs and their purposes.  


M. Owen Lee wrote Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Round in 1990. He considered the opera first as a “political allegory for [Wagner’s] own century”2. He then looked at Wagner’s use of older Norse mythology to pull listeners back to their essential selves and the uses of the musical themes to aid in this purpose.


Additional Resources Include:

Aberbach, Alan. The Ideas of Richard Wagner. 1988.

Barzun, Jacques. Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage. 1958.

Bentley, Eric. The Cult of the Superman. 1969.

Dahlhaus, Carl. Richard Wagner's Music Dramas. 1979

Herbert, James D. “The Debts of Divine Music in Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen.” Critical Inquiry, Volume 28 (2003) pages 677-708. Link (Requires access to JSTOR).

Holman, J. K. Wagner's Ring: A Listener's Companion. 1996.

Kitcher, Philip, and Richard Schacht. Finding an Ending: Reflections on Wagner's Ring. 2004.

McCreless, Patrick. Wagner's Siegfried. 1982

Stone, Monte. The Ring Disc: an Interactive Guide to Wagner's Ring Cycle. 1997. 


With the plethora of scholarship on the subject, it is perhaps best to begin looking at the Ring with a view to what Lewis called “Northernness.” Because whatever else the Ring may be, it is certainly Northern.


The Source Myths


Richard Wagner drew primarily from three sources to create his drama: The Elder Edda, the Volsungasaga (The Saga of the Volsungs), and Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelung). Only one of these, the Nibelungenlied, was an original German work. The others are part of Norse and Icelandic mythology. Wagner's purpose was to create a mythology that was essentially German, that spoke to a German people about their own identity, so it is ironic perhaps that he chose an Icelandic saga as one of his primary sources. The use of myths as the primary sources for this drama was also very deliberate on Wagner's part. Myths told essential, not superficial, stories. “Myth, Wagner believes, provides greater scope for expressing the essence of history than history itself. Connections between characters, objects, and ideas become less problematical. Wotan, the spear, and the history of contract, or Loge, fire, and self-consciousness, can readily refer to one another, whereas this would run the risk of appearing contrived in straightforwardly historical narrative .”3


It is clear from the story of the Ring that Wagner was very familiar with the mythology he was drawing from. No one who had not studied carefully could have manipulated the stories while maintaining essential themes and symbolism. It has been said that “Wagner’s manner of weaving this early mythical thought into his own argument was nothing less than that of a genius talent, a singular ability that afforded the composer the means to adapt an ancient mythology into the world of his day without abandoning the fundamental concepts as they prevailed in the heathen Germanic scheme of things.”4


A full analysis of the Norse elements in the Ring would take volumes. There are innumerable plot points that are taken directly from the Volsungasaga or the Nibelungenlied, many more that are changed slightly for Wagner’s purposes, and a whole collection that are Wagner’s own invention to satisfy the overarching drama of the Ring. A fuller examination of Wagner’s treatment of Norse mythology is given by William O. Cord in The Teutonic Mythology of Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung.4


Wagner and Viking Death Metal


As shown on this website's page on Viking Metal music, Wagner was not the only one to reach back to the Eddaic tales as source material. Norse mythology and Viking themes have been used in the genre of death metal increasingly over the last thirty years, with bands such as Enslaved, Amon Amarth, and Tyr. It is astonishing that the same culture (Viking culture) is represented in two such diverse forms of music. How can a 15-hour opera of the complexity of the Ring arise from the same story as a five-minute piece screamed by an angry Norwegian? What is it about the Norse mythology that has drawn two such radically different artists to draw from the same source?


The root of the issue may be simply this: it is not necessarily a fascination with Vikings that has led so many to create music based on their mythology. Rather, it is due to the immense adaptability of how we perceive Viking culture. When Wagner wrote his Ring cycle, the Norse mythology was not well known to the public and little translated. Because of this he was able to create his own mythology and make it essentially Germanic. He could adapt Norse mythology simply because there was no one left who followed that religion or was an expert on the subject. Could it be that similar adaptations are allowed today for those writing Viking Metal? Our culture has many perspectives on what the historical Vikings were, and many are wrong. We have mental images of warriors with horned helmets, but we are told that Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets. There is a lack of clarity in the modern imagination of what Vikings were, making their culture and mythology again adaptable.


Neither Wagner nor modern metal groups have remained absolutely true to the mythology as recorded in the Eddas and Sagas. Significant pieces are maintained, but the differences are many. It shows again that the point in using Viking mythology is not to revive interest in the Vikings themselves, but to identify another society with their culture, heroism, and values. Wagner sought to make something fundamentally German in the Ring. He succeeded so well that today we still identify much of the content of the Ring with German culture. “Wagner's Ring created the impression, which has endured, that Valkyries and Norns, Valhalla and the twilight of the gods, Wälse and the Wälsunger, were timelessly German. They are not.”5


Several death metal groups are pulling back to Viking mythology to “rediscover” their history. Though initially their music was rejected as subversive, it is now becoming a part of the national identity of several Nordic countries. “Extreme metal, which once seemed like a threat to Norway’s cultural heritage, is inevitably coming to be seen as part of it.”6 Here a similarity to Wagner’s work arises. Wagner created a cultural image from the Volsugasaga that was German. His purpose in many ways was to draw his people back to their primal selves through myths. In much the same way, modern Viking Metal bands are taking Norse myths and calling their people to identify with those representations of Vikings.


Not all Viking Metal bands, however, are interested in presenting a true image of Viking culture. “In contrast to musicians who studied mythology and linguistics, there are various bands that promote stereotypical views on the Viking Age and Norse mythology.”7 It becomes difficult at this point to separate out the false images from the true, which adds to the modern confusion about the real nature of the Vikings.


While an initial contemplation of Wagner’s Ring and modern Viking Metal finds little in common, there are significant similarities of purpose. Both draw from their Viking heritage to create a new cultural identity. In the end, music is simply one more method for adapting and using the malleable Viking mythology.




1. Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1955; page 75.

2. Lee, M. Owen. Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Round. New York: Summit Books, 1990; page 18.

3. Berry, Mark. “Richard Wagner and the Politics of Music-Drama.” The Historical Journal, Vol. 47, Issue 3 (2004), pp. 663–683.

4. Cord, William O. The Teutonic Mythology of Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.

5. Frank, Roberta. “Wagner’s Ring, North-by-Northwest.” University of Toronto Quarterly, Volume 74, Number 2 (Spring 2005), pages 671-676.

6. Sanneh, Kelefa. “On the Road to Spread the Word of Good, Old-Fashioned Evil.” New York Times. New York Times, November 8, 2007. Web. 16 December 2009. Link.

7. von Helden, Imke. “Barbarians and Literature—Viking Metal and its Links to Old Norse Mythology.”  Web. 16 December 2009. page 3. Link.


Additional Links


A First-Timer’s Guide to Wagner’s Ring  An excellent resource to look at if you plan to attend a performance of the Ring and wish to understand it better.

Arthur Rackham  An illustrated biography of the renowned illustrator Arthur Rackham.

Bayreuth Festival  The official website of the Bayreuth Festival, where Wagner's Ring was first performed.

Synopsis A medium-length synopsis of the plot of the Ring.

Wagner Experience This website from the University of Texas is one of the greatest online collections of information about the Ring.

Wagner Operas  Contains a biography of Richard Wagner and a synopsis of each opera that he wrote.

William and Gayle Cook Music Library  The full score of the Ring is available here.






Comments (1)

Skallagrimssonr said

at 1:28 am on Dec 18, 2009

There is a lot of really good information on this page. I linked to your "Source Myths" section from my game, Odin's Challenge. It would suggest you expand your introduction at the top of the page, stating explicitly how Wagner and his opera are related to the Viking World and drawing your readers in. What is the Ring cycle and why should we want to read about it and see a performance of it?

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