Mime the Metallurgist

R. P, LISTER is a young English free lance with oddly enough &emdash;considerable experience in metallurgy, He is a regular contributor of light verse to the Atlanticand to Punch.


TO US opera-loving metallurgists there is no moment in the theater more satisfying than that at which Siegfried settles down to a little practical work on the sword Nothung. It is a rare opportunity of seeing a fullscale demonstration of metallurgical processes with musical accompaniment; and it occurs only during the Wagner season.

There is, unfortunately, no very satisfactory record of where this sword Nothung originally came from. It is surprising, considering the amount of time the characters in The Ring spend in talking about their pasts; but it is nevertheless true that no full account of the matter is given. We have to proceed by deduction.

The first time Nothung appears in the drama is at the end of The Rhinegold, when Wotan is about to cross the rainbow bridge to the newly constructed Valhalla, He sees this sword lying about the stage in a whole pile of junk recently delivered from Nibelheim; and he picks it up, waves it absent-mindedly in the air, and takes it with him, thinking it may come in handy later. There is no disputing that this is the actual sword Nothung; the trumpets and trombones make this quite clear by playing the sword motif, starting p and ending Jf, sempre crescendo; and when Wagner scores a theme for trumpets and trombones he is not trifling with his audience. He means to be understood.

Admittedly, this fortuitous discovery of Nothung may seem at first a little unsatisfactory. It is reminiscent of Joan of Arc’s account of her sword in Henry VI, Part I: —

I am prepared: here is my keen-edged sword,
Deck’d with five flower-de-luces on each side;
The which at Touraine, in Saint Katharine’s churchyard,
Out of a great deal of old iron I chose forth.

If one inquires a little further, however, the origin of Nothung is seen to be implicit in the drama. It came, with the rest of the old iron, from Nibelheim; and it was undoubtedly made there. It is improbable that Alberich made it, as he had developed the very sensible habit of getting the other Nibelungs to do all his work for him since he acquired the King. The other Nibelungs were all practicing metallurgists, and any of them might have made it; but it is overwhelmingly probable that the original manufacturer of Nothung was Mime, Alberich’s unfortunate brother, the greatest metallurgist of them all. There is no accounting otherwise for his subsequent passion for Nothung, and for his horror at Siegfried’s unorthodox treatment of it after it got broken.

For Mime was, it must be noted, a careful and tidy-minded dwarf. He was not one of your slapdash metallurgists, neglectful of detail, He had spent a lot of time on this sword Nothung, when his brother first ordered it; and it is probable that Wotan’s careless treatment of it did a lot towards warping Mime’s originally blameless character.

In the first place, Wotan got hold of it by nefarious means, without a proper receipt; and in the second, he stuck it in a tree in Hunding’s drafty hut, where the rain dripped in on it and might quite well have rusted it away before Siegmimd ever got hold of it. As it turned out, the sword escaped this misfortune, through no fault of Wotan’s; Siegmimd got it safely out of the tree and might have put it to the proper and decent use of running it through Hunding if it had not been, again, for Wotan’s interference. Some paltry legal squabble between Wotan and Fricka made it undesirable, in Wotan’ s eyes, for the sword to be used in this way. He shattered it on his spear, ruining Mime’s years of careful work.

The bits of Not hung fell into Mime’s hands by a lucky chance, together with Sieglinde and, in the course of time, Siegfried; and he spent a lot of time and hard work trying to stick them together again. It was a hopeless task. For one thing, Wotan had laid it down that it could only be done by a smith who did noi know the meaning of fear. Considering that Mime had made the sword, in the first place, in his usual condition of shivering fright, this seemed a little unfair. And then, it must be confessed that Mime did not go about it in the right way. He should have melted the whole thing down and started from the beginning again; but he was naturally unwilling to do this. He had put a lot of work into getting those fragments into the right hardened and tempered condition; and what he tried to do was to weld them together by hammering. The welds were of extremely poor quality and the whole thing fell to pieces again almost as soon as Siegfried looked at it. Mime had, in fact, lost his grip.

Finally Mime turned the job over to Siegfried at the latter’s request. It is at this point that the metallurgist tenses up, trembling with excitement, in his box or amphitheater stall, as the case may be. It is the supreme metallurgical moment of all opera.

First of all Siegfried clamps the bits one by one in his bench vise and files them to powder. It takes him two minutes. It is a rush job. He puts the filings in a crucible and melts them up in the furnace. This gives him the opportunity for what is called the first Forging Song, though in fact all he is doing is tugging at the great bellows. By the end of the song the filings are melted, and Siegfried pours them into a mold. They solidify into steel in the austenitic or face-centered cubic condition. Does he allow them to pass quietly into the ferriticcementitic condition as they cool? Not a bit of it. He plunges the ingot into water at the back of the stage, while the orchestra makes a magnificent hissing noise. In this way the steel, being quenched, passes into the martensitic state, with a body-centered cubic lattice strained by interstitial carbon atoms. It is hard but brittle. Siegfried tempers it. He has not taken in the half of what Mime has told him about metallurgical theory, but he does know that tempered martensite is tough.

He now bashes the sword about on the anvil and sings the second forging Song, rightly so named. It is a joyous song, full of Hohos and Haheis, and is in tune with the watching metallurgist’s exhilarated feelings. And at the end of the act he takes up his newly created Not hung and deals a dirty great blow at the anvil. This, having a continuous cementite network, is as brittle as blazes, and falls into two halves at one blow, if the stagehands have done their work properly. It is the triumph of martensile over matter.

Thinking it all over in glorious retrospect, the metallurgist decides that the only doubtful thing about the whole business is the time factor. It took the smith Munifican six years to make the swords Courtain and Sauvagine for Ogier the Dane; and it took Gallas three years to make Charlemagne’s sword Joycuse. Three years per sword seems a fair average. Yet Siegfried does the whole thing in the last fifteen minutes of Act One.

Nevertheless, he does a fair job in the limited time allowed. Before the end of the opera, Nothung, undamaged by its contact with the anvil, has slain Fafner disguised as a dragon, and shattered Wotan’s spear. It has also been used to put an end to Mime, whose conversation at last got too tedious to be borne; which shows that the metallurgical profession has its dangers, like any other.