Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Hand of Alberich

Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a German opera composed by Richard Wagner. It is actually composed of four separate operas. In order, they are as follows: Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). The series is, more often than not, referred to as The Ring Cycle. The total time of the series is around fifteen hours, depending on the production and the it is rarely shown in full, outside of the Bayreuth Festival Theater in Bayreuth, Germany, where the Cycle is staged periodically, along with other operas by Wagner during the yearly Bayreuth Festival.

Alberich by Arthur Rackham, 1910
As it happens, I'm a huge fan of Wagner, though I've yet to see a live performance of the entire Cycle (though I've seen videos of it in full and own all of the music). I actually prefer Parsifal to the Cycle, truth be told. But the Cycle is still amazing, still gripping. And like many great operas, it is not a happy tale. I'm not going to recap the story here—there are plenty of synopses available online for those interested—but instead focus on one character in the story: the dwarf Alberich, the nemesis as it were of the Cycle's pseudo-hero. Siegfried.

Das Rheingold opens with Alberich stealing the "Rhine gold" from the Rhinemaidens, mystical water-nymphs of an unknown father who tasked them with guarding the Rhine gold because it could be fashioned into a Ring that would give it's wearer the power to rule the world (sound familiar?). Alberich soon makes the Ring and begins to use its power to control those around him and enrich himself.

The rest of the Cycle revolves around this initial incident, as other characters in the story—gods and men, alike—strive to possess the Ring. It passes from Alberich to others, is eventually obtained by Siegfried, and then is returned to the Rhinemaidens upon Siegfried's death by the valkyrie Brünnhilde, Siegfried's lover, just before she kills herself by riding into the flames of Siegfried's funeral pyre.

In a tale wherein most everyone dies, Alberich and the Rhinemaidens are unique in that they do not. The sparing of the Rhinemaidens makes perfect sense, of course, as they are the spirits of the Rhine river and are the true owners of the Rhine gold. But Alberich, he is again the chief nemesis of the story. He is a thief, a tyrant. the one who cursed the Ring (after he lost it), and the one who renounced Love (which he had to do in order to get the Rhine gold). He is Greed and Evil personified.

Now for anyone who knows much about Richard Wagner the person, this is hardly surprising, for Alberich is widely viewed as a symbol of world Jewry, i.e. Alberich is THE Jew, the symbolic representation of everything that is wrong with Jews in the minds of anti-Semites like Richard Wagner. Not everyone agrees with interpretation, however (I think it's largely correct), but even those who do not see things this way nonetheless agree that Alberich represents something more than just an evil dwarf.

Regardless of underlying meanings, however, one thing I've noticed is that the story of the entire Cycle can be viewed as a series of manipulations by Alberich. Even his failures can be seen this way, as planned moments, if one ascribes a slightly different motivation to the character, beyond simple world domination: namely, the ending of the era of the gods, i.e. Götterdämmerung. And if this is the case, Alberich, far from being the nemesis, is at the very least the agent of change, though also the puppet-master.

No doubt, many readers are seeing parallels in the story with Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien has denied that Wagner's work influenced him in any way, but it is difficult to not see the similarities between Gollum and Alberich: both are dominated by Greed, both seek their respective Rings throughout the tales, both are pitifully ugly creatures whom others mock (the Rhinemaidens mock Alberich's lustful advances in the opening scenes of the Cycle). Of course, there are also parallels between Sauron and Alberich: both are the makers of their Rings (each is thus the true lord of the Ring), both are tyrants who seek world domination. Of course, both Gollum ans Sauron perish in at the end of The Lord of the Rings; Alberich never does, as noted above.

Still, none of this means Tolkien used Wagner, specifically. Because the character of Alberich is drawn form older Germanic and Norse traditions, used by Wagner as a basis for his tale and familiar to Tolkien, without a doubt. So the issue is unknowable and, in my opinion, largely insignificant. But from these other traditions, there is more to learn about the roots of the character of Alberich

Most agree that Alberich is closely related to the Norse dwarf Andvari, who lived under a waterfall, possessed a magic ring, and could shape-shift into a fish at will. Then there is the obscure Merovingian figure of Alberich, a sorcerer who could turn himself invisible (Wagner's Alberich also possesses the "Tarnhelm," which makes him invisible). Finally, there is the anglicized version of Alberich: Oberon. In Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Oberon is the king of the Fairies, consort to Titania. But in this story, Oberon is mostly concerned with making people fall in and out of love, though he is most assuredly the puppet-master of the story.

There is one other Oberon worth noting: Roger Zelazny's Oberon from his Chronicles of Amber. In the original five book series (published from 1970 to 1978), Oberon is the patriarch of Amber, the One True World, which casts shadows that create other worlds (including our own). The story arc of the series revolves around Corwin, one of the nine princes of Amber (sons of Oberon), who through a series of events causes Amber to nearly be destroyed but ultimately succeeds in preserving it from an onslaught by its foes at the Courts of Chaos. Oberon is seemingly missing through most of the books, but in actuality is there in disguise and is carefully manipulating all of the events to achieve an end to his era as ruler of Amber.

I had never considered until recently just how well Zelazny's Oberon tracks with Wagner's Alberich, in terms of manipulating events. But that's probably because it was only recently that I began to see Alberich as the puppet-master of the Ring Cycle. I realize this may not have been the way Wagner intended Alberich to be perceived, but it fits in my opinion. And again, that's because Alberich—like Oberon—represents the key to a new world order, a means of overturning the old one.

With all of this in mind, here's another interpretation of Alberich, in the tradition of Marxist criticism: Alberich is the herald of the age of the bourgeoisie, the dawn of capitalism. He steals the treasure of the earth to feed his greed, to bend others to his will, to master the world. But the gods still stand in his way, the guardians of the old ways, and it is necessary for them to be destroyed in order to free man from their control. This freedom is thus rooted in a break from harmony with the world, just as it is with an end to the control of a chosen few. There are thus both bad and good results; the question is whether or not ending the age of the gods to usher in the age of man is ultimately worth it.

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