Theatre: The Ring of the Nibelung aka: Die Walkuere
Der Ring des Nibelungen ("The Ring of the Nibelung"*
this is sometimes mistranslated as the plural "Nibelungs," but the singular is correct — the Nibelung referred to is Alberich. The name "Nibelung" (literally, "mist-descendent") refers to the race of dwarfs to which Alberich belongs. This particular noun is declinated in German, which results in the ending "-en".
) is a cycle of four operas by Richard Wagner (hence the alternative term, the "Ring Cycle," which is sometimes applied to the whole) *
Wagner himself eschewed the term "opera" as applied to these works, preferring to refer to them as "Bühnenfestspiele", "stage-festival-plays"; the term "music-drama," though also rejected by Wagner himself, is generally preferred by his followers
. The cycle premiered at the Wagner Festival Theater in Bayreuth, August 14th-17th, 1876, though the first two sections of the work had already appeared at the Munich Court Opera in 1869 and 1870.Der Ring des Nibelungen consists of
Prologue: Das Rheingold ("The Rhine-Gold")
Day I: Die Walküre ("The Valkyrie")
Day II: Siegfried
Day III: Götterdämmerung ("Twilight of the Gods")*
this is sometimes stated, especially in older references, as DieGötterdämmerung, "The Twilight of the Gods," but Wagner never used the article in his references to the work.
For a recap of the plot, consult our synopsis page.The fundamental theme of Der Ring des Nibelungen is the opposition of Power to Love. Wagner's original intention in the work was socially progressive, suggesting that the plutocratic society of 19th century Europe could be fundamentally improved by rejecting the desire for the domination of others *
principally through money, which is why the Ring of Power is forged from the Gold of the Rhine
and embracing instead redemption through universal love. As for the means of achieving this, Wagner originally leaned towards anarchism and social revolution (Siegfried single-handedly bringing down the rule of the gods and burning Walhalla is a barely-disguised metaphor for the anarchist destruction of the feudal/capitalist establishment in Europe); however, as his philosophy developed, he came to reject love as leading to social improvement, and suggested instead that the only possible "redemption" would come through a compassionate rejection of all personal desires, including the desire for societal amelioration, to achieve a Buddhistic Nirvana — or what Wagner called the „wunsch- und wahnlos, heilig Wahlland, the desire-free, illusion-free, holy chosen Land."As the vehicle for this symbolic drama, Wagner radically adapted the ancient legend of Siegfried the dragon-slayer, as it was preserved in ancient German and especially Scandinavian sources, such as the Nibelungenlied, the Völsunga saga, Thridiks saga of Bern, the Poetic Edda, and the Prose Edda, as well as other, lesser works. He also found much suggestive detail in the scholarly writings of antiquarians such as Simrock, Rühs, and The Brothers Grimm. Wagner composed the text in the style of ancient Germanic poetry, in the alliterative verse form called Stabreim, as, for example, in Walküre:
Waffenlos fiel' ich
in Feindes Haus!
Seiner Rache Pfand’
raste ich hier!
Defenseless, I found
my foeman’s house!
Fall’n to his revenge,
remain I here!
Wagner shows a tendency in his verse to employ an excess of superlatives ("Deepest love’s holiest need") and unusual or archaic words and constructions („neidlich”, "emulable" (?); “der Recken Zwist “of war-men the strife", and so on), which gave his text rather a stilted sound even in the over-blown literary German of his time. Dramatically, however, his text is masterly in its construction; his situations highly suggestive, and his characterization vivid and deep in psychological insight.The staging of the work proved problematic. Wagner had the typical Teutonic and 19th century fascination with history, and instructed his scenery and costume designers to emulate as closely as possible the Ancient Germanic setting of the original legend.note which, oddly enough, despite the cycle's legendary setting, can be dated historically pretty exactly to the year 437 A.D. by the destruction of the Rhine-based kingdom of Gunthaharius (Wagner’s Gunther) by the Huns Unfortunately, that particular period was (and still is) a particularly obscure one in terms of social history, and Carl Döpler’s designs, though in accordance with the best knowledge of the time, were largely based on ceremonial costumes, in some cases extrapolated backward from much later sources note The effect is somewhat like trying to imagine the civilian costume of George Washington from looking at the dress uniform of George S. Patton. Hence the rather silly looking Horny Vikings costumesnote which Wagner’s wife Cosima famously compared to "Red Indian chiefs" and settings that still inform most people’s mental image of the Ring. Furthermore, the spectacular scenic effects that Wagner intended, his dwarfs and dragons, gods and nixes, his bear and rams and serpent and ravens and wood-bird, even his rainbows, mists, rivers, caverns, and mountains, have afforded nightmarish problems from the very earliest presentations of the work. (Legend has it that the dragon’s neck was unavailable in the first performances, having been sent by mistake, not to Bayreuth in Bavaria, but to Beirut in Lebanon.) Nevertheless, Wagner’s dramatic technique was highly influential, to the extent that it colored the general public’s very conception of what "opera" is.Note that it is largely Carl Emil Döpler's costume designs for the Valkyries in the 1876 Bayreuth production of Wagner's Ring that has established the popular image of the fat, horn-helmeted, breast-plated operatic soprano, though it may be noted that Döpler's Valkyries actually wear winged helmets. The common expression "The opera ain't over till the fat lady sings" may well derive from productions of Götterdämmerung in which Brünnhilde sings a lengthy monologue just before the conclusion (the actual last words are those of the villain Hagen) or from Tristan und Isolde which actually concludes with a lengthy monologue from the opera's heroine. (The lady in question being fat because the huge soprano voice required to sail over a Wagnerian orchestra is not often found in petite women.) In both operas, the hero has died in the previous scene, so an uninformed audience member might well have assumed the opera would be over at that point.Most important, of course, is Wagner's music. In the Ring Wagner's Leitmotiv*
Wagner invented neither the use of the Leitmotiv nor the name; the symbolical use of melodies or melodic phrases can be traced back to The Middle Ages, and the word itself was invented by Wagner's disciple, Hans von Wolzogen, to describe what Wagner himself called "melodic moments of feeling."
method is used in its most developed and sophisticated form. The score is by no means a simple patchwork, with (say) a "Wotan" motive*
Note that "motive" is the Anglicization of Wolzogen’s „Motiv“ preferred by Wagnerian commentators from George Bernard Shaw and Ernest Newman up to Deryck Cooke, rather than the Frenchified motif
sounding every time Wotan appears on-stage. Rather, it is a symphonic development of fundamental musical ideas, varied, combined, split, and developed in a complicated psychological counterpoint to the symbolism of the stage action. Frequently the music reveals the unspoken thoughts or feelings of a character; equally frequently, it comments ironically on the action. For the rest, Wagner’s music is characterized by the preeminence of harmony, making rich use of chromaticism in the service of mood-setting and picture painting — hence his importance as a dramatic composer, and his influence on later composers, particularly for the cinema, which has lasted to this day.
Tropes occurring in The Ring of the Nibelung:
Achievements in Ignorance: Siegfried succeeds in reforging Nothung, for the very reason that he knows not fear. Literally. Never mind that Mime with all manner of skill in smithery can't do it, Siegfried can somehow do it just from having complete ignorance of the concept of fear.
Added Alliterative Appeal: The libretto of the Ring is written in Stabreim, the ancient Germanic verse-form that was based on alliteration. Thus the opening of Rheingold:
„Weia! Waga! Woge, du Welle! Walle zur Wiege! Wagalaweia! Wallala weiala weia!"
Ancestral Weapon: In Walküre, Brünnhilde gives the fragments of Siegmund's sword to Sieglinde; Siegfried duly forges them anew into a sword in his eponymous opera.
Anti-Hero/Anti-Villain: Wotan. Though he is trying to establish a world of order and laws, his actions are nearly always self-serving.
Artifact of Doom: The Ring of the Nibelung. Mainly because Alberich cursed all those who would have it after him, but not only due to that. The misery and hatred that it brings is implicit in the very act of making it, since the condition for doing so is the renunciation of Love (in the broader sense that includes all affections). Plus, pretty much any item that gives its bearer power over the whole world will end up with a pretty bloody trail behind it of those who sought it out.
Bed Trick: Actually occurs in Wagner's sources for the Ring, but softened by him into a temporary exchange of identities by Siegfried and Gunther; Brünnhilde's certainty that this trope has been invoked leads to the disaster that follows.
Brother-Sister Incest: At the beginning of Die Walküre, Sieglinde is married to Hunding. A mysterious stranger arrives. The mysterious stranger and Sieglinde fall in love, and Sieglinde drugs her brutish husband. At the end of the act it is revealed that the mysterious stranger is Siegmund, and he is Sieglinde's long-lost brother. The brother and sister ecstatically declare their love at the end of the act. Their child, Siegfried, will be the hero of the eponymous next opera in the cycle.
Butt Monkey: Mime is victimized by both Alberich and Siegfried.
Cain and Abel: In Das Rheingold, Fafner kills his brother Fasolt, and in Götterdämmerung, Hagen murders his half-brother Gunther.
Then there is the rivalry between Mime and Alberich.
The Chessmaster: Wotan likes to think he is this, but actually is easily outgambitted by Fricka and even (in a way) Siegfried. However, at least one contemporary production (the spectacular Copenhagen Ring, for this and other reasons nicknamed the Feminist's Ring) plays it straight with Brünnhilde of all people: she not only manipulated Wotan into accepting her terms of punishment, but chose her future husband in doing so — who is not even born at this point, but has already been named by her. Talk about long-term thinking.
Chickification: Threatened by Wotan as a horrible fate for the Valkyries; Brünnhilde comes to embrace it.
The Chosen One: Siegfried is the hero destined to recover the Ring and rescue Brünnhilde from the ring of magic fire.
Wait, someone named Hagen masks himself as the Consigliere?
Cool Helmet: As a result of Döpler's costume designs, in which helmets are adorned by various varieties of horns and wings.
Cool Sword: Nothung ("Born of Need"), Wagner's equivalent to the Nibelungenlied 's "Balmung" ("Destruction") or Volsungasaga's "Gram" ("Wrath").
Curb-Stomp Battle: The first act and a half of Siegfried is spent building up to what ought to be an epic battle between the fearless Siegfried and Fafner the dragon. The actual fighting only goes on for one minute before Siegfried runs Nothung through Fafner's heart, and is set to rather perfunctory music.
Face Heel Turn: Alberich does a decidedly abrupt one of these, starting as a inept lover but quickly transforming into an Evil Overlord and staying that way for the rest of the cycle. This also sets the entire rest of the plot in motion.
Fearless Fool: Siegfried has never learned what fear is until he meets Brünnhilde. (No, you're not supposed to laugh.)
Forged by the Gods: The magic sword Nothung, created by Wotan note or, at least, appropriated by him and wielded first by Siegmund and then Siegfried.
Forging Scene: In Siegfried, the eponymous hero reforges his father's shattered sword Nothung, while singing an address to the weapon, „Nothung! Nothung! Neidliches Schwert!"
For Want of a Nail: Wotan spends the whole saga trying to keep the ring from falling back into Alberich's hands. Except that all he had to do was return the ring to the Rhinemaidens, which he couldn't do, because he had to pay Fasolt and Fafner for building Valhalla by giving them the ring. And the main reason he built Valhalla was because Fricka hounded him into it. And the only reason she did that was to keep him home and hopefully stop him from running around cheating on her. So in the final analysis, the whole mess could have been avoided if Wotan had just kept his dick in his pants.
Full Potential Upgrade: Siegfried has a habit of contemptuously snapping Mime's swords in two until Siegfried finally reforges the invincible Nothung.
German Language: While Leitmotiv was actually coined rather by Hans von Wolzogen rather than by Wagner, the Master did coin the resoundingly Teutonic term, Bühnenfestspiel mentioned above.
Give Me a Sword: The weaponless Siegmund voices this sentiment when he sings his aria „Ein Schwert verhieß mir der Vater". At the end of the act he pulls Nothung, which had been planted there by Wotan, out of the ash tree that supports Hunding's roof.
Hat of Power: The Tarnhelm, which grants the wearer invisibility, shape-shifting, and teleportation.
The Heavy: Hagen in Götterdämmerung is perhaps the most typical example.
Idiot Hero: Siegfried ain't the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Anna Russell describes him as "very young and very handsome and very brave and very stupid ... a regular Li'l Abner type."
Ignored Confession: In the final act of Götterdämmerung, Gutrune confesses that she created the Love Potion that made Siegfried forget Brunnhilde. However, Brunnhilde doesn't seem to hear this (or be able to register it) and continues wondering why Siegfried had betrayed her.
In Siefried it is said she died in childbirth, there is nothing to suggest Mime killed her - he probably would have mentioned it in the scene where thanks to Fafner's blood Siegfried can hear through his lies.
Incest Is Relative: Apart from Siegfried's Parents, Siegfried has a relationship with his aunt Brünnhilde, as Wotan is her Father.
It May Help You on Your Quest: In Siegfried, after the eponymous hero kills Fafner, he can understand the forest bird's song telling him to take the ring and helm. He doesn't know what they really are, but it keeps them out of the hands of Alberich and Mime. (Too bad that the ring is an Artifact of Doom...)
In fact, if you're not a gigantic ham, you have no place in Wagnerian opera. Period. (SeeWorld of Ham, below.)
Laser-Guided Amnesia: In Götterdämmerung, Siegfried is drugged to forget that he ever met Brünnhilde, but remembers killing Fafner and all his other early deeds. Later, he steals the Ring from Brünnhilde, but promptly forgets this.
One of the most moving and beautiful scenes ever written, with heartbreaking music to match.
Leitmotif: The Leitmotif technique, if not invented by Wagner, was certainly perfected by him. In his operas, not only would every character have his/her own motif, but also objects, places, and even abstract ideas, all of which would be woven into a complex symphonic whole, in which the variations of the motifs have a psychological effect far more significant than a mere announcement of a character's presence.
Light Is Not Good: Done rather subtly in the Ring, in which often the only difference between Wotan and Alberich is that Wotan somewhat regrets his actions — but does them anyway. (Wotan actually refers to himself as „Licht-Alberich" ("Light-Alberich") and to the dwarf as „Schwarz-Alberich" ("Dark-Alberich" (or more literally "Black-Alberich"))).
No Plans, No Prototype, No Backup: It has been asserted that when composing the Ring, Wagner at one point intended for the operas to be performed three times in a purpose-built opera house. Afterward, all copies of the score and all the props were to be burned, along with the entire opera house. Obviously this did not happen.
Pacing Problems: It has been opined that some scenes, such as Wotan's recap of previous events to Brünnhilde (in Walküre), go on way too long.
Fridge Brilliance: On the other hand, the fact that every single act contains all the relevant exposition makes it possible for them to be performed/broadcast separately, for the benefit of short modern attention spans. (Interestingly, this is the exact opposite of Wagner's intentions: he was adamant that the four operas should be performed on four successive nights. Ideally, this performance should take place in a temporary wooden structure that would be burned down at the end of Goetterdaemmerung.)
The Power of Love: In the Ring, though Sieglinde is rescued from Hunding, and Brünnhilde from the Ring of Fire, Sieglinde's love does not save Siegmund, and Brünnhilde's actually leads to Siegfried's death, and both the ladies (like everyone except the Rhine-daughters, and possibly the Nibelungs) die under rather unpleasant circumstances. (A monologue in an early version of the text, in which Brünnhilde specifically invoked The Power of Love before burning herself to death, was deliberately cut by the composer because it no longer represented his philosophical ideas.)
Public Domain Artifact: Averted; the Ring (or rather, any of its prototypes) was not a well-known artifact before Wagner.
Ring of Fire: Brünnhilde is imprisoned in one at the climax of Die Walküre.
Ring of Power: The central symbol of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Wagner's depiction of an inevitably corrupting, incorrigibly evil ring inscribed with flaming runes would hugely influence Tolkien's, though Tolkien often disingenuously denied it.
Sacred Hospitality: Invoked by Hunding in Walküre with the words „Heilig ist mein Herd — heilig sei dir mein Haus!" ("Sacred is my hearth — sacred to thee be my house!")
Small Reference Pools: The "Ride of the Valkyries" is one of a select group of classical pieces known to practically everyone who knows classical music only from Pop Culture references. Likewise, the Ring of the Nibelung itself appears whenever opera is mentioned, but only if "Viking" helmets are involved, and usually without any of the Master's music.
Star-Crossed Lovers: Siegmund is killed by Hunding (after Wotan shatters Siegmund's sword), Sieglinde dies in child-birth; Siegfried is speared in the back, Brünnhilde burns herself to death on his funeral-pyre. Falling in love is generally not a good idea in a Wagner opera.
Tenor Boy: Invoked with Siegmund and Siegfried — the more "boyish" Wagnerian rôles, though perhaps subverted by Mime.
There is no world in which Mime could conceivably be called an ingenue.
Theme Song Reveal: One of the basic uses of the Leitmotif, as for instance when the Walhall motif plays when Sieglinde describes the old man who thrust the sword into Hunding's roof-tree.
Valkyries: It is Wagner's version that most people think of when imagining these mythological "Gatherers of the Slain" — however, it is worth noting that unlike the popular conception, Wagner's original Valkyries did not wear horned helmets, but winged ones; did not ride winged horses, though they were aerial ones; and, though intended to be rather manly, ungentle women, were intended to be statuesque in the 19th century manner, rather than grossly obese.
Verbal Backpedaling: In Siegfried, the dragon's blood acts as a reverse Truth Serum, allowing Siegfried (and the audience) to hear through Mime's lies. Several times, Mime lets his malicious intent slip; Siegfried questions him; he objects that he didn't say anything untoward, then continues in a soothing tone telling Siegfried He Has Outlived His Usefulness.
Voice of the Legion: Fafner, after he becomes a dragon, is subject to various kinds of technological vocal amplification — originally just a speaking trumpet, but using higher and higher tech ever since.
We Can Rule Together: Hagen asks his father Alberich who will inherit the "eternal power" (ewige Macht) of the Ring if he gets it back from Siegfried. Alberich says: "I... and you!" He can't fool his son though.
Woman Scorned: For Brünnhilde, it is not enough that her husband, Siegfried, completely forgot her due to a love potion and married Gutrune, he also kidnapped her in the form of Gunther, and took her wedding Ring.
Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: The first step in bringing forth the fall of gods and man? Three beautiful women scorning poor, ugly Alberich until he is so bitter that he renounces love.
World of Ham: "Wagnerian" has become practically a synonym for this.
The World Tree: The ash tree trunk in Hunding's house (which older sources call an oak or apple tree) may be an attempt to invoke a connection to Yggdrasil.
Wrecked Weapon: Happens twice, once when Wotan shatters Siegmund's sword Nothung with his spear, and again when Siegfried symmetrically shatters Wotan's spear with the reforged Nothung.
You Are Worth Hell: Siegmund rejects eternal glory in Valhalla rather than be separated from wife/sister Sieglinde. See above trope, Twincest.
Notable works which cite The Ring of the Nibelung:
The Yu-Gi-Oh! character, Siegfried von Schroider, is derived from the Wagnerian character, and one of his cards is even called "Nibelung's Ring." Moreover, he has a Valkyrie deck, which is a reference to Walküre.
The foundation for The World in the .hack series is based off of this and Norse mythology in general. Several characters also are references.
Stephen R. Donaldson's The Gap series is literally a Space Opera, being an adaptation of the RingIN SPACE!.
George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite is an analysis of the Ring from a Socialist point of view.
In Nicholas Meyer's Sherlock HolmesPasticheThe Seven Per Cent Solution, Holmes (who adores Wagner), Dr. Watson, and Sigmund Freud all attend a performance of Siegfried; Watson and Freud fall asleep.
In James Joyce's Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus yells "Nothung!" as he destroys a lamp with his staff.
In The Sleeping Beauty, the little bird warns Siegfried not to take the ring or mess with Bruunhilde, saying it will be his "DOOM!" After a book's length of other adventures, Bruunhilde is awakened by a completely different prince, tells Wotan exactly what she thinks of him and the entire story, and informs him that she took the Ring back to the river maidens herself and put an end to the whole silly misunderstanding.
In the aftermath of the Enron disaster, the Firesign Theater compared the Enron story to "The Ring cycle," with hilarious results. A video of that show can be found on the DVD of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
alternative title(s): The Ring Cycle; Der Ring Des Nibelungen; The Ring Of The Nibelung; The Ring Cycle; Ring Of The Nibelung; Der Ring Des Nibelungen; Ring Cycle; Die Walkuere; Siegfried; Goetterdaemmerung; The Valkyrie