I just watched the third act of Siegfried tonight, having watched Acts 1 & 2 earlier in the week. Siegfried is Wagner’s coming-of-age opera, wherein a young, brave warrior raised in the woods by dwarf slays a dragon and learns the meaning of fear when he encounters his first woman– Brunnhilde.
I enjoyed Siegfried’s encounter with Brunnhilde. Look at the shiny armour. It’s a man! Here, I’ll take off his helm, it must be heavy. Gee, that breastplate looks heavy, too. This is not a man! And thus he is filled with fear at the sight of a woman.
I’ve never read any Wagnerian scholarship, so I may be off the mark on some of my observations, but very telling in this opera, this third act of the third act (Siegfried is the third of the four operas of the famous Ring Cycle), is Siegfried’s encounter with Wotan, Der Wanderer, his great-grandfather. In this encounter, Siegfried shatters the Runestaff, which was both symbol and reality of Wotan’s power over the universe, as we had previously learned in Act 1 when Wotan tells Mime, the dwarf who raised Siegfried, all about it.
With the breaking of the runestaff comes the shattering of Wotan’s power. We have learned already that this same staff when up against this same sword (Notung, which Siegfried reforged at the end of Act 1) on a previous occasion (Die Walkure) shattered the sword, leading to the death of Siegmund, Siegfried’s father.
How can Notung break the runestaff now? All I can think of is the Ring. Siegfried, having slain the dragon Fafnir, took the Ring of the Nibelung from Fafnir’s hoard in Act 2 (along with the Tarnhelm, of course — the Tarnhelm that had enabled Fafnir to turn into a dragon in the first place).
With the Ring, we were told in Act 2, Siegfried can rule the world. And so the power of man rises as the power of the gods falls. The gods diminish, as Wotan prophesied to the all-knowing Wala, Brunnhilde’s mother, at the beginning of the Act.
After Siegfried got over being afraid of Brunnhilde, he revived her with a kiss (true love’s kiss?). Eventually, he convinces this shieldmaiden who has dropped her shield to drop the whole maiden bit as well. With her loss of virginity will come Brunnhilde’s loss of power. The gods diminish.
This diminishing of the gods is brought to these old myths by Wagner. It is not present in the Nibelungenlied or Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun. From the synopsis I’ve read, it doesn’t seem to be in the Volsunga Saga, either. The rise of man and the subsequent (necessary?) fall of the gods is Wagner’s 19th-century German humanism, not ancient or mediaeval heathenism.
Why need we have a Gotterdammerung? Do the gods really need a twilight? Can man not rise without necessarily supplanting the divine? I understand that the Gutrune story needs to be told, but it doesn’t mean twilight for the gods. Rather, it means twilight for Siegfried and Brunnhilde.
I know that this theme of man’s rise vs. the gods exists elsewhere. We see it in Zeus’ resistance to humanity gaining fire, to note the Classical example. But could not humanity rise with the gods? Could we not rise with the assistance of the gods? (The Augustinian way.) Or rise without their assistance but as a testimony to their power as the creators and sustainers of the universe? (The Pelagian way.)