"Zurück vom Ring!" (Back from the ring!)Der Ring des Nibelungen
("The Ring of the Nibelung"Translation note
) is a cycle of four operas by Richard Wagner
(hence the alternative term, the "Ring Cycle," which is sometimes applied to the whole)note
. 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
- Prologue: Das Rheingold ("The Rhine-Gold")
- Day I: Die Walküre ("The Valkyrie")
- Day II: Siegfried
- Day III: Götterdämmerung ("Twilight of the Gods")note
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 suggesting that the plutocratic society of 19th century Europe could be fundamentally improved by rejecting the desire for the domination of othersnote
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’
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
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
. Hence the rather silly looking Horny Vikings
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
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
method is used in its most developed and sophisticated form. The score is by no means a simple patchwork, with (say) a "Wotan" motivenote
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:
- Kiai: The Valkyries use the well-known cry „Hojotoho! Hojotoho! Heiaha! Heiaha!"Naturally, their cry is a significant musical Leitmotif.
- Kick the Dog:
- Alberich's cruel mistreatment of the enslaved Nibelungen in Das Rheingold is probably there to convince the viewer that Alberich is evil, so we don't feel sorry for him when the gods steal his ring.
- Hagen's mockery of Gutrune after Siegfried's death (in Götterdämmerung) seems pretty uncalled for.
- Kill 'em All: Götterdämmerung culminates with Siegfried's death, prompting Brünnhilde to make a Heroic Sacrifice that burns down Walhall with all the gods and heroes inside.
- Lady of War: The Valkyries, particularly Brünnhilde.
- 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.
- Last Kiss: Wotan memorably gives this to Brünnhilde in Walküre.
- 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"))).
- Love at First Sight: Plenty of examples in the Ring:
- Long lost siblings Siegmund and Sieglinde quickly fall in love in Act I of Die Walküre.
- Siegfried instantly falls in love with Brünnhilde after he braves the magic fire and awakens her with a kiss.
- Love Potion: Where it also induces Easy Amnesia in Siegfried.
- MacGuffin: The Ring, whose actual powers are never fully explained. But it can apparently divine gold.
- Meaningful Name: As when Siegmund ("Victorious Protection") calls himself „Wehwalt der Wölfing — ("Sorrow-ruled, son of Wolfe").
- Mood Motif: One of the basic functions of the Leitmotive.
- Music of Note: The "Ride of the Valkyries" is the Standard Snippet.
- Named Weapons: The principal sword in the Ring is named Nothung.
- Nice Hat: Those winged (and horned) helmets.
- 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.
- Norse Mythology: Wagner has hugely affected the popular perception of it.
- Only the Chosen May Wield: The sword in the ash tree, which can be only pulled out by Siegmund, as he does in Die Walküre Act I.
- Opera: Uh...yeah.
- Orchestral Bombing: The Walkürenritt.
- Our Dragons Are Different: As a matter of fact, the dragon (Fafner) is a transformed giant, possibly through use of the magical Tarnhelm. Alberich briefly becomes a dragon using the Tarnhelm, too.
- Our Dwarves Are All the Same: Except for Alberich and Mime, the Nibelung dwarfs are pretty much Punch-Clock Mooks.
- 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.
- Playing with Fire: Loge.
- Pop-Cultural Osmosis: An astonishing number of Wagnerians have been attracted to his music via Apocalypse Now and Looney Tunes cartoons.
- 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.
- The Punishment: Alberich, in the Ring, must renounce all love in order to steal the magical Rhine-Gold that will make him ruler of the world.
- Reforged Blade: Nothung, in Siegfried.
- Reluctant Gift: Wotan is hesitant to give away Alberich's Ring as payment to the giants for the building of Valhalla. Erda has to convince him to do this.
- "Ride of the Valkyries": The Trope Namer comes from Die Walküre.
- 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 is an inevitably corrupting, incorrigibly evil ring inscribed with flaming runes.
- 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!") Despite realising Siegmund is the man who was hunting for killing members of his clan he says he will let him stay the night. Then Siegmund elopes with Hunding's Wife.
- Sadly Mythtaken: Or sometimes Willfully Mythtaken. Wagner enraged folklorists from his own time to the present for adapting ancient myths and legends with abandon, and in the process, ousting the originals from the minds of most of the public.
- Self-Immolation: Brünnhilde.
- Serial Escalation: Where Wagner took opera — I mean, Bühnenfestspiel.
- Shock and Awe: Donner.
- 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.
- Space Jews: The Nibelungs have been claimed by some to be stand-ins for the Jews. See Does This Remind You of Anything? above.
- Speaks Fluent Animal: Siegfried can do this after tasting the dragon's blood.
- Spirit Advisor: Alberich seems to fulfill this function for Hagen in Götterdämmerung.
- Standard Snippet: The "Ride of the Valkyries".
- Star-Crossed Lovers: Falling in love is generally not a good idea in a Wagner opera:
- 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.
- Gutrune apparently dies of grief.
- The Starscream: Mime, in his relationship with Alberich.
- Stockholm Syndrome: In some versions of Das Rheingold, Freia is shown to develop sympathy for the love-stricken Fasolt.
- Surprise Incest: Subverted, Siegfried and Sieglinde realises they are siblings but go ahead.
- Tenor Boy: Invoked with Siegmund and Siegfried — the more "boyish" Wagnerian rôles, though perhaps subverted by Mime.
- 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.
- The Time of Myths: The setting for the Ring Cycle.
- Trash the Set: If everything goes according to Wagner's plans, the cycle is meant to be staged in a temporary wooden building that is to be set ablaze at the story's end.
- Tricking the Shapeshifter: Loge captures Alberich by daring him to transform into something small, whereupon Alberich becomes a toad.
- Twincest: Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre.
- Übermensch: Nietzsche saw Siegfried (and, indeed, Wagner himself) as the type of the new man who would transcend outworn moralities.
- Ultimate Blacksmith: Alberich, Mime, and Siegfried all have claims on the part.
- 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.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: At the end Alberich is still around, however this is appropriate as only he and the Rhinemaidens survive and the Ring Cycle started with them. Some versions don't make it clear what happened to Gutrune, though she is supposed to face Death by Despair.
- 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.
Works which cite The Ring of the Nibelung:
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Anime and Manga
- Giant Robo
- The Legend of Koizumi features a reincarnated cyborg Wagner as one of Those Wacky Nazis whom our heroes battle, complete with attacks based on his operas.
- 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 Dot Hack series is based off of this and Norse mythology in general. Several characters also are references.
- Trinity Blood: Melchior von Neumann's favourite Auto-Doll is named Sieglinde.
- In James Herriot's "All Creatures Great and Small" books, Siegfried Farnon got that name because his father was a fan of Wagner.
- In George C. Chesbro's The Beasts of Valhalla, Evilutionary Biologist Siegmund Loge (ha ha) is a fanatical Wagner fan.
- The main character of Robert A. Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls also admits to cribbing the plot for one of his books from Der Ring des Nibelungen.
- In John C. Wright's The Chronicles of Chaos, there is banter mangling together The Lord of the Rings and Der Ring des Nibelungen.
- Stephen R. Donaldson's The Gap series is literally a Space Opera, being an adaptation of the Ring IN 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 Holmes Pastiche The 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.
- Tom Holt's comic fantasy novel, Expecting Someone Taller, is, very loosely, a sequel, set in modern times.
Live Action TV
- 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.