Theosophy – February 1897

RICHARD WAGNER'S MUSIC DRAMAS: VI-1 — Basil Crump

VI. - THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG.

PART I. THE RHINEGOLD.

With the "Rhinegold" I was starting on the new path, where I had first to find the plastic nature-motives which, in ever more individual evolution, were to shape themselves into exponents of the various forms of Passion in the many-membered Action and its characters. The peculiar nature-freshness that seemed to breathe from hence upon me, like the higher mountain air, bore me untired over all the exertions of my work. — Epilogue to the Ring of the Nibelung.

The great Nibelungen Myth, as dramatically treated by Wagner, expresses perhaps more than any other of his works the Theosophical teaching that Man is the mirror of the Universe, the microcosm of the macrocosm. It is cosmic, yet human, and it is in its application to present human nature that we will try to analyze it. This gigantic drama occupied Wagner's attention on and off for some twenty years, and consists of four great parts to each of which it will be necessary to devote one of these articles.

The chief powers we see at work in the story are the Human Will represented by the God Wotan or Odin, and the power and knowledge which may be used by the Will for good or evil, symbolized by the Gold. It is really Wotan who is the motive power in all the characters, just as we act in all the departments of our nature whether high or low, selfish or unselfish. As H. P. Blavatsky says in the Glossary, the Will, like all the rest, is septenary in its manifestation, thus having a vehicle in each of the seven human principles. "Emanating from the one, eternal, abstract and purely quiescent Will it . . . runs down the ladder of degrees until the divine Eros becomes, in its lower, animal manifestation, erotic desire." It is at this lower end that the action of the Rhinegold opens.

Pure and harmless the Gold is resting in the green waters of the Rhine, lit up daily by the golden rays of the sun and guarded by the three Rhine-maidens. But the Will has begun to stir in its lowest form as gross desire and lust for power: the dwarf Alberich crawls up from the red Underworld and learns from the maidens, who repulse his coarse advances, that he who will forswear the divine power of Love (Eros) can weld the Gold into a Ring, the symbol of selfish power. With the cry, "Love I forswear forever," Alberich snatches the Gold and disappears with it to his infernal abode, where he welds the Ring and by its aid accumulates a Hoard of Treasure, and employs his brother Mime to forge the Tarnhelm or Helmet of Concealment which enables its owner to change his form or become invisible at will.

In the Overworld Wotan is making the same mistake on a higher plane. He has bargained with the giants Fafnir and Fasolt for the building of a splendid air-castle called Valhalla or the Place of the Chosen Heroes; that state known in Theosophy as Devachan or the "Dwelling of the Gods." The price to be paid is the goddess Freya, who tends the Golden Apples of Youth, which are only another aspect of the power of the Gold. Now Devachan is a state of rest and meditation brought about by a more or less selfish life in matter; for we find that the devoted soul who works always unselfishly for the Race is able to reincarnate and continue working without this rest between each life on earth. The repose of Devachan can be renounced just as can the bliss of Nirvana. So here we see Valhalla being built concurrently with the arousing of selfish desire.

But when the giants demand their reward and Freya is handed over to them, Wotan discoverers the fatal mistake he has made, for the Gods no longer have the golden apples and begin to grow old and worn. Clearly Freya must not be lost or else will the divine life be utterly swallowed up in the material. So Loki the Fire-God, who is simply the other face of Wotan (Loki-Odin are two-in-one) goes forth to seek a substitute for Freya, but returns with the news that nowhere can he find anything to equal the worth of woman. On his travels, however, he had heard of the theft of the Gold and suggests that it should be obtained as a ransom for Freya. The Two-in-one, the Will and the Fire-self go down into the red fire of the abode of the Nibelungs and induce Alberich to show them the power of the Tarnhelm by changing himself first into a snake and then into a toad. In the latter form they seize and bind him, for there is always some one form in which we can more easily overcome our lower powers. Deprived of his possessions Alberich utters a curse upon all who shall hereafter possess the Ring, and that curse lies heavily upon us today — the karmic result of having used the divine power for selfish ends.

The giants agree to take in exchange for Freya as much treasure as will, when piled around her, completely hide her from view; but when the Hoard is spent and the Tarnhelm added there is still .a chink left through which an eye of the goddess is visible. For the possessions acquired by the aid of the Ring are not enough to obliterate completely the last spark of spirituality; it needs the Ring itself. Now comes the great trial for Wotan; the giants demand the Ring to fill this last crevice, but the desire for the fatal power has entered Wotan's heart and a fearful struggle goes on within him. Almost has he decided to keep the Ring, when the mysterious figure of Erda, the great Earth-Mother, rises and warns him of the curse attached to it and the approaching doom of the Gods; so with a mighty effort he tears the Ring from his finger and flings it to the giants. The Will, taking counsel with the Heart of Nature, has stopped short of renouncing utterly the light of spirit for the sake of selfish power, and thus, as we shall see, has made it possible for a way of redemption to be opened up.

No sooner have the giants got the Ring than the curse begins to work; they quarrel over the division of the treasure and Fafnir slays his brother and takes it all for himself. While packing up his gains he throws aside an old sword as useless, little recking of the hidden power it holds. Wotan's glance falls upon it and a grand idea enters his mind: he — the Creative Will (Kriyasakti) — will evolve a New Power which shall win back the Gold and restore it to its original element from which it should never have been taken. Meanwhile Donner the Thunder-God dispels with a brilliant flash of lightning the mists which had gathered threateningly around the Gods, and reveals the towers of Valhalla joined to earth by a beautiful rainbow-bridge. Picking up the sword, Wotan greets his new abode and leads the way over the rainbow-bridge while the magnificent Sword-motif blazes out like a gleam of promise on a dark and threatening horizon.

Thus closes the Prologue of this great drama. In the second part we shall see how this new power, foreshadowed by the sword-motif, is brought into being. One thing remains to be noted, and that is the present fate of the Ring. Wotan, by his act of renunciation, has in reality placed it beyond the reach of further mischief until the coming of that Power which, by self-sacrifice, shall redeem the curse wrought by Alberich. Fafnir retires to a remote cave, changes himself by means of the Tarnhelm into a Dragon, and keeps guard over the treasure. His character has changed, in accordance with the change in Wotan's will, from the builder of Valhalla to the guardian of the Ring and Hoard — the symbolical Dragon of Wisdom who guards the divine power and knowledge from misuse.


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