Sunday, June 07, 2009
I’ve been thinking about the Volsung saga recently, in part because I’ve had this posthumous Tolkienian retelling of precisely that myth to review, but in part just because its such a strange, intriguingly disorderly body of myth and story. So, as part of this, I’ve been trying—with some success—to overcome my embedded ‘where are the guitars?’ dislike of Wagner, and have put a good many hours into listening to the Ring operas. And under the fold are some thoughts on Siegfried.
I know it’s supposed to be the least liked of the four operas, but I find it the most fascinating, perhaps because there’s just something powerfully askew in it; although I’m not quite sure if I can put my finger on what. But I wonder if its askew-ness isn’t the saving grace here. Reading John Deathridge’s excellent Wagner: beyond Good and Evil (Univ. of California Press 2008) helped me get a handle on things.
Each act of Siegfried moves in an upward curve from darkness to light, from a minor key and sinister orchestration towards a blaze of colour in the major. From the dominants of B flat and F minor to D and F-major in acts 1 and 2 respectively,a and from G minor to a glorious C major in the final act. …. No-one who has actually read Wagner’s writings and absorbed their basic idea can fail to sense in the smallest details as well as in the larger forms of the music in Siegfried an allegory of the movement from the “dark ages” to the bright light of the future.
A movement from dark to light is well and good; but we might be forgiven for wondering what this movement means in more specific terms. Deathridge quotes W. himself: ‘Siegfried should not create the impression of a character drawn with the conscious intention of violating the standards of civilized society; everything he says and does—even the rather cruder aspects of his genuine boyishness—must be presented as the natural expression of an essentially heroic personality who has not yet found an object in life worthy of his superabundant strength. [quoted 62-3]
The same could be said, I suppose, of Fafnir, the dragon: which is to say, he did find an object to which to devote his life (the gold); he just didn’t find a worthy object. Similarly, Siegfried has an object—violence—just not a worthy one. W.’s too-much-protesting is significant, I suppose: because Siegfied does look like a problem. He makes nothing and he keeps nothing; he only destroys. The former two activities are personified by Mime and Fafnir. What does that tell us about the priorities of Wagner’s worldbuilding?
Then there’s this, also quoted by Deathridge: ‘I was filled with proud joy’ (yes, it’s Hitler writing to Wagner’s son Siegfried) ‘I was filled with proud joy when I heard of the victory of the Volk—above all in the city where the sword of ideas with which we are fighting today was first forged by the Master.’ [quoted, 63]
Master means Wagner, of course; but if there’s one thing about which Siegfried is unambiguously clear it is that the person who forges the sword is not the person who fights with the sword. And maybe that’s the disjunction at the heart of the opera: making and using. It makes the opera look very twenty-first century. Because, if the big world-struggle in the C19th and C20th century was over the means of production, it’s hard to deny the sense that today it is over the use of production ...
Wait, so (re-)forging Nothung doesn’t count as “making” something? Okay, he’s not starting from scratch, but that seems like kind of a technicality. He starts with pieces, he melts them down, and then he *makes* a sword out of the metal. Right?
For those who’ve not seen/heard this before, the essential analysis of the Ring.
You make a very good point, Dave. Indeed, glancing back at my post, it strikes me as elliptical to the point of obscurity. I could elaborate upon my thesis, but that might only make matters worse.
In brief: you’re right that this is a reforging of the fragments of something already made; and I’d be tempted to make a big deal out of that distinction. But, to anticipate the obvious objection, by the same token it’s a reforging that Mime himself couldn’t manage. In Wagner’s opera this is somehow (symbolically, I supppose I mean) connected with the fact that (as Mime realises) the blot in Siegfried’s ‘perfection’ is that he knows no fear. This in turn links to a more elaborate theme of the de-socialised nature of Siegfried: the old adage, ‘who lives outside the polis? Only a beast ... or a god.’ There’s something extrinsic about Siegfried, I think: something deliberately excessive and inhuman, in a strict sense. And, weirdly, in this context, it’s less a feature of the other two key players here: Mime and dragon-giant-builder-dude Fafnir. That’s kind of what I was getting at.
I suppose I’d stand by the observation that the whole Ring cycle has to do with the use of powers, artefacts and forces for which the various users (at the heart of the drama) can claim no credit for creating.
Indeed, Siegfried himself is Wotan’s unmade and (consequently?) ultimately uncontrollable tool.
Adam, where will your review of the Tolkien poem be appearing?
It’ll be in Strange Horizons, but not until July, I’m told.
Siegfried, the Swedish tenor Par Lindskog, is a rambunctious bully with long, greasy hair, a sweaty T-shirt and a tattered leather jacket.