The Sword and the Renunciation of Love in Wagner’s Ring

A Brief Note on Aspects of Artistic Symbolism

Deryck Cooke : I Saw the World End

Deryck Cooke : I Saw the World End

This morning I completed re-reading Deryck Cooke’s brilliant if demanding interpretation of Rheingold and The Valkyrie, in his I Saw the World End; and returned to his introductory material. In this chapter on the puzzle, and the problem, of The Ring, Cooke discusses the difficulty of interpretation of the use of the renunciation of love motif (first sung by Woglinde, and then appropriated by Alberich) when Siegmund draws the sword from the tree in Hunding’s house, and the unsatisfactory attempts to explain its use by Shaw, Newman, and Donington. But it seemed to me, two Sundays ago, when watching and listening to this scene as part of a complete re-acquaintance with the tetralogy through Robert Lepage’s production at the Metropolitan Opera (and long after having been first acquainted with it in 1983) that the implication is three-fold: one, Siegmund’s accepting Wotan’s sword will result in Wotan renouncing Siegmund, and, consequently, which occurs to me only today, Wotan’s loss of Wotan’s plan to regain the ring; two, Wotan’s impending renouncement of Siegmund causes Siegmund’s loss of Sieglinde; and three, which also occurs only to me this afternoon, Brünnhilde’s saving of Sieglinde leads to Wotan’s renunciation of his daughter, who will be the enabler, after her loss of Siegfried, of the loss of the world to the gods.

The Norns in the Prologue of Götterdämmerung, in the Robert Lepage production at the Metropolitan Opera

The Norns in the Prologue of Götterdämmerung, in the Robert Lepage production at the Metropolitan Opera

This is why, perhaps, “the immortals shall perish,” as the Norns foretell paradoxically, as I watched Götterdämmerung yesterday—for ruination of the world by power and its despoilments will result ultimately only in self-destruction; and that the path to human betterment is metaphysical, through the ability to be able to feel and know that creative love can exist only when humanity ceases to want to enslave and destroy.

This is eerily close to the concept of the need of redemption, which is explored by Wagner in other of his works; and, as Cooke observes, by Shakespeare in Hamlet and Goethe in Faust; and, for that matter, insisted upon by many of the major religions, cluttered as they have become by power and behavioural enslavement. But redemption is deliverance from sin or atonement for guilt. It may return one to an original state, but it does not seek or want transformation to a new one.

Abandonment and extirpation of the want for power is, of course, impossible for who we are today. And that is why the conclusion of The Ring, as the transformation motif recurs and closes the drama, is so moving and so right and terrible. The self-inflicted twilight of the gods is our own.

Transformation Motif - Sieglinde

Transformation Motif – Sieglinde

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