Brünnhilde Goes West
After some years as a metallurgist, first in steel, next in the Admiralty, and then in the Ministry of Aircraft Production, R. P. LISTER left the Civil Service for a research association in London; but, he writes us, “ I found that writing books in the spare time from being a scientist made me ill; so I gave up this job early in 1919 and have done nothing but write ever since.” The Atlantic, which began publishing Mr. Lister’s poems in 1947, was the first American periodical to celebrate his comic genius.
by R. P. LISTER
THERE are some odd characters in the great world of Opera; and none of them seems, on a first acquaintance, odder than Brünnhilde. We meet her first in the second act of Die Walküre; a calm, godlike creature whose troubles and worries are far removed from those of ordinary mankind. She is interested in Siegmund as a heroic hacker and hewer of foemen, but regards his attachment to Sieglinde as a quite inexplicable weakness. She has no time for women at all, and only takes a passing interest in Sieglinde when she discovers her to be an essential stage in the production and assembly line for a new hero, Siegfried.
We meet her again the next evening, when we go to see Siegfried. He wakes her from her magic sleep on the mountaintop right at the end, when the whole thing is more or less finished. She has changed, of course; she went to sleep as a goddess and wakes up a woman. She goes on in the way one would expect, given the circumstances. But the next evening, in Gotterdammerung, doubts assail us. As the evening progresses, they grow. This person is labeled Briinnhilde, but she does not seem to be the same old Briinnhilde we used to know. 1 have thought a lot about this inconsistency in her character and I have come to a very remarkable conclusion.
This is, that she was obsessed with the idea of the Wild West. The theory is, as far as J know, a new one. I was startled by it myself at first, but the more I looked into it the more obvious it became that all the evidence pointed that way.
The external evidence, of dates and so on, is significant. In the 1840s, Wagner was busy reading the Nibelungenlied over and over, seeking for a way of turning it into a libretto. The Nibelungenlied, that monstrous old German epic poem, is largely concerned with the struggles for the possession of the golden hoard of the Nibelungs; Wagner’s obsession with gold was, consequently, far greater even than is normal among composers. Suddenly, early in 1848, Europe learned that gold had been discovered in California by Captain Sutter and Mr. Marshall. The news must have smitten Wagner like a thunderclap. He rushed off and, in a white heat of inspiration, finished the poem of Götterdämmerung (then called Siegfrieds Tod) that same year. The theme of gold runs through the whole of the Ring drama, dominating it. from start to finish; it is only surprising that Wagner did not dedicate the finished poem to Captain Sutter and Mr. Marshall, or at least to President James Knox Polk.
The objection may be made that an obscure German musician in Dresden can hardly have been aware, at that early date, of the turn things were taking in the West. The objection is a natural one; but it is answered by the poem itself. It is impossible to say by what miracle of divination Wagner reflected so faithfully the manners and morals of the Wild West in 1848, a full two years even before California was admitted to the Union; but that he did so is undeniable.
The whole key to Gotterdammerung lies in the relationship of Brünnhilde to her horse Gräne. It is as a fanatically keen horsewoman that she first appears in the Ring; it is the loss of her horse that causes her decay and downfall.
Let us look for the moment at which Brünnhilde’s character really begins to seem inconsistent. It is not the moment at the end of the third drama, Siegfried, when that hero penetrates the flames surrounding Brünnhilde’s rock and wakes her with a kiss. A long love duet follows. Shaw, who pointed out the monstrous extent of Brünnhilde’s transformation in The Perfect Wagnerite, regards this as being out of character; but here he does Wagner less than justice. Brünnhilde, till she was put to sleep by Wotan, was a goddess; now she is a woman. The only real objection Shaw has to this change is that he dislikes it, but this is not enough. Briinnhilde does behave, when she is awakened, as a woman; and she behaves exactly as would the sort of woman into whom the divine Brünnhilde would be expected to change. That is, she is passionate, majestic, heroic, and, to put it bluntly, rather a bore. She is not the sort of woman whom anybody but a hero would put up with. Shaw could not put up with her, and I have much sympathy with him; but he is unfair to blame Wagner for it. Wagner is portraying a goddess-Brünnhilde recently changed into a woman-Brünnhilde, and he does it to perfection. Briinnhilde is naturally horrified to see him. She realizes instant h that if she had not been so stupid as to part with Griilie she could have leaped on his back at this moment and galloped away through the woods; as it is, she is helpless. She tries to repel Siegfried-Gunther with ihe Ring, but. it has no effect on him. Irritated by the way this woman brandishes her Ring at him, Siegfried firmly takes it from her. The last straw is that Siegfried is too lazy to take her down to the Gibichungs’ place there and then, and decides to stay the night. There is only one bed. Siegfried places the sword Xothiing between himself and Briinnhilde in order to preserve himself from betraying Gunther in any way; but the whole thing is so distressing to Briinnhilde that it is not surprising that she should declare on oath, later on, that he misbehaved himself. consider her state of mind. It is barely twentyfour hours since she was wakened from a twentyyear sleep. Wotan himself has assured her that only one man can reach her through the fire, and that is Siegfried. Siegfried has duly come and gone again, borrowing her horse; and now in walks this tin-hatted miscreant, completely at his ease, and robs her of everything. She has lost Siegfried; she has lost her Ring; and, above all, she has lost her horse. We may not like Rriinnhilde, but we must, unlike Shaw, sympathize with her.
She is still recognizably her old self at the beginning of Götterödmnierung. She and Siegfried, solid Germanic hero and heroine, come out of their cave into the Germanic light of dawn, and sing an ecstatic duet. In the circumstances, it is quite natural. Siegfried is setting off to do new deeds of glory, if he can find them; and before he goes he gives Briinnhilde the Ring as a pledge of their eternal union. Briinnhilde, in a rash moment of generosity, instead of giving him some bit of armor in exchange, gives him her horse. Siegfried does not really need Grime, because he has, swinging at his belt, the Tarnhelm. This magical headgear will change him into any desired form or render him invisible whenever he asks it to. It will also transport him anywhere he wants to go, faster than Gräme can lake him. But he either does not know this or has forgotten it : so he rides off to ihe Rhine on Grime.
It is from this moment that Briinnhilde really begins to go to pieces. She is next seen at the beginning of Scene III, Act I, that same evening. She is silting at the entrance to the cave contemplating the King on her finger.
The Valkyrie theme sounds dimly in the orchestra. This is generally taken to indicate that her sister Valkyrie, Wallraute, is approaching; but this is to accuse Wagner of a rare unsubtlety in the use of his motifs. He quite commonly uses them to indicate the thoughts of his characters, rather than the action taking place on the stage, which the audience can see for themselves; and there is no doubt that that is what lie is doing here. Briinnhilde is contemplating the Ring, but she is thinkingf Imr horse. The significance of the King to her is that it represents her only wax of getting her horse hack.
This is confirmed by her conversation with Wallraute. That Valkyrie, when she appears, wants Briinnhilde to give the King back to the Khinemaidens, who originally owned it, in order to avert the coming Doom of the Gods. Briinnhilde refuses to do this, with considerable warmth, Neither Siegfried nor she has any idea of using the King to achieve world domination, which is what it is for; it is of no real value to them. Iler motive in refusing to return it to its proper owners is merely that by doing so she will forfeit the right to say to Siegfried when he returns, “Well, here’s your wretched King; and now give me back my horse.”Siegfried might give her back the horse without it, but she is afraid that her parting so casually with the King might give him an excuse not to do so. She is already too suffused with her Western obsession not to believe that anyone will do anything to obtain a horse, the supreme possession of mankind.
Her mental downfall is taken a step further when Siegfried comes along, shortly afterwards, disguised as Gunther, to claim her as Gunther’s bride. Siegfried, an inexperienced youth, has only needed one short day to get himself into bad trouble down at the Gibichlings’ place. Gunther has heard of Briinnhilde, asleep on her rock; he wants her for his wife, and proposes to marry Siegfried off to his sister, Gut rune. In this way, he and his half brother Hagen have decided, there will soon be lolsol bonny little heroes about the Gibiehung ranch, which is w hat I he place needs. The difficulty is 1 hat Briinnhilde is stuck up on her rock, and only a perfectly fearless man can get her off it; and Siegfried is rambling at large up and down the Rhine territory and might be anywhere.
Just when Gunther and Hagen are trying to work things out, in walks Siegfried, the one man in the Rhineland who knows no fear. Hagen lias ihe situation sized up in a moment. He calls Gut rune to bring Siegfried a drink. It is the hospitable custom of these wild territories; but this drink is laced. It causes Siegfried to forget immediately his whole past life and fall in love with the firsl woman lie sees, who is, naturally enough, Gut rune.
Bart of their plan is accomplished, and it is now an easy enough matter to persuade a muscular ninny like Siegfried to chase back up the Rhine and bring back, off a rock, this woman to whom his new blood-brother Gunther has taken an unaccountable fancy. He and Gunther row off up the Rhine right away. He leaves Gunther at the foot of the hill, and very shortly he is strolling up through the flames again, disguised as Gunther.
Keen worse things are to follow. In the morning Siegfried leads Brünnhilde down the mountain, changes place with the real Gunther behind a bush, and flies back to the Gibichungs’ place with the assistance of the Tarnhelm. Hagen has told him what it is for, Gunther and Brünnhilde follow him down the Rhine in the boat. When she sees Siegfried again, Brünnhilde immediately spots the Ring on his finger. She realizes how she has been tricked; and she leaps to the natural conclusion that. Siegfried is not only a deceiver but, of all things, a horse thief.
Siegfried is partly fo blame; his action in taking the Ring from her was rather ungentlemanly. He has no idea thal it means so much to her, because under the influence of the magic potion he has forgotten how he got hold of Gräne. He probably intends to give Gunther the Ring sometime; but Rrunnhilde makes such a fuss about it that he becomes stubborn and refuses to part with it or explain how he got it. This is the real cause of his undoing. Brünnhilde insists that, he should give Gunther her Ring, so that, once safely married to him, she can insist on Gunther’s swapping it with Siegfried for the horse. When he refuses, there is nothing for it but to plot with Gunther and Hagen to have Siegfried done away with, so that they can get both Ring and horse back.
Brünnhilde is, in fact, in a terrible quandary. It is not. surprising that she takes such desperate measures. Gnine is in an adjoining stable; she can hear him whinnying away there when the music is soft enough. The Gibichung vassals believe that the horse is Siegfried’s. When a man rides in on a horse, or at least comes down the Rhine in a boat with it, you assume that it belongs to him until it is proved otherwise, particularly when its rider is a ferce-looking character bristling with Rings and Tarnhelms. If Brünnhilde had gone and saddled Grime and ridden away on him, they would have been after her like a shot; the whole country would have been roused, with Gibichung posses scouring the Rhine territories till the horse thief was apprehended. There is no mercy for horse thieves, in the West or on the Rhine. Brünnhilde knows this, and she has to bide her time till, somehow, she can assert her just claim to the animal.
In fact, she does not get Grime back at all. They take Siegfried out hunting, according to plan, and bump him off. He dies intestate, and half the horse at. least belongs to his wife, Gut rune, by federal law, so Brünnhilde is no nearer getting him back. Gunther and Hagen are too busy to think about horses. They have an awkward body on their hands, and propose, to get rid of it before the Sheriff calls in by burning it up on a great, pyre. Everybody is in a very nervous slate— so much so that Hagen gets Into a quarrel with Gunther about the future ownership of the Ring, He thinks he should have it. as payment, for his part in the affair; and when Gunther refuses, Hagen loses his head and kills him.
The whole place is now in an uproar. The Gibichung vassals are feverishly piling up mighty logs by the river’s brim, in order to dispose of the evidence, when Rriinnhilde suddenly starts raving about Grime. She orders the vassals to saddle him and bring him to her.
The vassals are thoroughly tired of Rriinnhilde by now. She has been in one tantrum or another ever since she arrived at the place, and caused no end of trouble. “For Pete’s sake,” they mutter to each other, “is this any time to he talking about horses ? ”
Rut Rriinnhilde must he kept quiet somehow, in order to preserve the decencies. Gut rune is too upset. to care what happens to her half-horse, so two of the vassals go oil to saddle Gräne. They bring him in to Brünnhilde. “Maybe that ‘ll keep the crazy woman quiet,” they say. “ If she rides off on it, so much the better. We can round her up later.”
Rrunnhilde, however, does no such thing. Her mind, by now, is quite unhinged. She sees that she will never establish a legal claim to Gnine, and for a horsewoman like her the prospect ot a lifetime’s pedest.nanism is intolerable. She grabs the Ring off Siegfried’s finger — if they won’t let her have the horse, they won’t got the Ring either— and as soon as the pyre is thoroughly ablaze, she rides Grime right into it and perishes.
The vassals hardly notice it. What with the Rhine coming up in a sudden flood, and three nixies swimming up on the water and getting hold of that Ring— Lord knows whom it belongs to by now , am way — and the Gibichungs’ hall catching fire, and Hagen getting himself drowned, and the whole of Valhalla suddenly appearing in the sky, consumed by flames — what with all this in the space of sixty bars or so, the vassals are far too busy to care about Rrunnhilde and the horse.
When the curtain falls, the Gibichungs, last seen huddled in the foreground in attitudes of terror, are in a hell of a mess. There will be a lot to explain to the Sheriff’when next he happens along; but on the whole they must be extremely glad to have Brünnhilde and her horse-nonsense out of the way.