The Book of the Ring
A prose rendition of Wagner's music-drama
“Der Ring des Nibelungen"
My goal in this book is not to make an accurate and scholarly translation of the original Nibelungenlied - there are plenty of these about already, by hands more capable than mine - but simply to create a companion narrative to Wagner’s highly personal interpretation of that legend. Like Dante, Wagner is believed to be inaccessible to the ordinary mortal, who quite likes the idea of spending a few days in picturesque Bayreuth, and even “taking in the show”, because it’s one of those cultural great walls that one feels one ought to have climbed; on the other hand, sixteen hours of caterwauling in a foreign language, spread over four days, and not even permitted to take in a picnic hamper, is probably too much. All those diaphragm-heavy women and men in uncomfortable clothing. All those Nazi overtones. No, Wagner may be a cultural icon for the bourgeois aficionado, but I’m going to stick to Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, or maybe risk a throw at Verdi or some gentle Mozart. Not Wagner. Not for me.
But the truth is, Wagner is perfectly accessible. For anyone who has read “The Lord of the Rings”, or even just seen the movie version, the story of “The Ring” is already totally familiar, though both Wagner and Tolkien have adopted and adapted the source myths to suit their own purposes. It’s the music that’s difficult, for its inner complexities as well as its length. How much easier, it has always seemed to me, how much easier to approach the music, if one is already completely familiar with the story. Then you can listen, knowing what’s happening on the stage in front of you, able to focus where you need to focus, undistracted by trying to make sense of the narrative and following the electronic sub-titles on the screen above the stage.
Here, then, is the narrative, retold in the vernacular, accessible to anyone above the age of basic literacy. I have used Wagner’s libretto as my starting-point, keeping his stage directions religiously, telling the tale in precisely the order that he tells it, using his dialogue wherever it’s prosaically feasible to do so, paraphrasing libretto into common speech or into narrative wherever his lyrics soar into the ethereal heights of the pre-Raphaelite Romanticism which was his hyperbolous addiction.
This, of course, isn’t “The Ring of the Nibelungen”, which is a monstrously brilliant piece of Festspiel. This is only a prose account of the plot and action of “The Ring”. Once you’ve read this, you mustn’t stop there, thinking you’re done. The words are nothing, without the music.
David Prashker, Preface to "The Book of the Ring"
Excerpt: From "Die Valküre", Act Two, Scene Five: the death of Siegmund and the punishment of Brünnhilde:
Siegmund bent over Sieglinde, to listen to her breathing. Sleep was good. Like a soothing potion it purged the pain and soothed the grief that previously had so torn her features. Was it the Valküre who had brought this healing balm of sleep? He had no idea. No idea, either, if the furious battle about to be unleashed would wake her, or simply wake again the terror in her heart. She seemed quite lifeless, though her breathing told him she was still alive. And smiling now, in sleep, as though her lips were responding to some pleasant dream.
"Sleep on, my love," his fingers stroked her brow, her lips. "Sleep on until the battle's done, and peace brings joy to both of us."
He laid her gently down upon the rocky seat and kissed her forehead in farewell. Hunding's alarum had started up again, with resolution now, summoning him to fight.
"You call me to prepare for battle," Siegmund thought. "But it's you who needs to make your preparations. For battle and for death." He drew his sword and, looking at it as though he were no longer sure what destiny was planned for him, he braced himself. "Whatever's due, now is the moment," he clenched his teeth. He needed certainty, but there was nothing certain. Wälse had promised him a magic sword, infallible in battle. Brünnhilde had taken away the magic from the sword, then given it back again. But had she? Had she the authority to give it back? Who could he trust, now both his guardians had proven so untrustworthy. Only the sword, and his own courage. These he must trust. Alone, guarded or unguarded. By his own free will. He, Siegmund, alone, must act. There was no alternative.
"Nothung will pay the debt," he pressed his lips against the blade, and swore an oath in his own heart. Siegmund, alone, by the courage of the sword. Let the gods make and alter their decrees. Siegmund, alone, would stand up for his destiny. Even, if necessary, against the gods.
He hurried now towards the cleft in the great rock that would lead him down to the ravine. Down into the dark storm cloud he vanished, the flash of his sword visible for an instant as it refracted a flash of lightning breaking overhead.
And even as he left her, as though she sensed his parting, Sieglinde moved restlessly in her dreams. She was imagining that she was waiting for her father to come home from the woods. The boy was with him. She heard herself calling out, "Mother! Mother!" telling her mother about some strangers, frightening strangers, unfriendly eyes glowering at her. Black smoke and darkness filled the house. Flames flared around her. They were burning down the house. And she was calling out for help. Calling to Siegmund.
A violent clap of thunder and a flash of lightning woke her.
"Siegmund!" she jumped up, calling out his name again, staring about in growing terror. But the world had vanished behind thick, black thunderclouds. And not a sound, save only Hunding's horn-call in the distance, and then his voice, echoing around the mountain passes:
For a moment Sieglinde didn't realise who he was calling. Wehwalt – the name Siegmund had given himself when she first asked him. Wehwalt – woeful.
And now Hunding was summoning him to dreadful woe.
"Stand where you are and fight or I shall set my dogs on you!"
"You stand where you are," Siegmund’s voice rejoined from the far side of the ravine. "Where are you hiding that I can't find you. Come out, that I may face you man to man."
Hunding, Sieglinde had recognised. And Siegmund. Her heart was pounding as the voices raged and went to war. If only she could see them.
"Run all you can, treacherous cuckolder," Hunding called out. "You can't escape. Fricka will smite you down."
Siegmund had reached the pass by now. He couldn't see Hunding in the darkness of the storm, but from his voice he could place precisely where he stood.
"Are you pursuing me weaponless?" he scoffed. "You spineless creature that has to hide behind a woman's skirts. Do battle in your own name, lest Fricka prove untrustworthy and fail you at the last." No answer. He held up the sword, certain that it would flicker in the darkness when the next lightning flash lit up the sky. So Hunding would see the sword, and quiver.
And then the lightning flashed.
"See, Hunding. From amongst the blossom on the ash-tree in your house, I plucked this sword. Undaunted. Soon you'll taste its blade."
Another flash of lightning illuminated the rock for just an instant, enough for Sieglinde to see the two men locked in mortal combat. With all her strength she called to them:
"Stop, you madmen. Murder me first.""
She rushed toward the pass, intending to go down and place herself between them. But suddenly, above their heads, a flash of lightning broke so vividly she staggered as if blinded.
"Strike him, Siegmund. Trust the sword."
It was Brünnhilde, appearing in that flash of light. Closer and closer to Siegmund she flew down, hovering over him, protecting him with her shield.
"Strike him, Siegmund," she urged again. "Trust the sword."
Then Siegmund struck, aiming a fatal blow at Hunding. But the sword hadn't yet reached its mark when a glowing red light broke out of the clouds, and there stood Wotan, close at Hunding's side, his spear held out to thwart the thrust of Siegmund's sword.
"Get back from my spear!" the Father of War called out. "In pieces let the sword be shattered!"
In terror, Brünnhilde recoiled before Wotan, sank back with her shield. Siegmund's plunging sword couldn't be stopped however. It searched for Hunding's heart, but found, and snapped on, Wotan's spear. Hunding reacted quickly. He plunged his own spear into the disarmed breast of the defenseless man, and Siegmund fell, dead on the ground. Sieglinde too, hearing his death sigh, fell with a cry on the damp earth, falling as if lifeless, though she'd only fainted.
Brünnhilde vanished even as Siegmund fell. Wotan too, disappearing even as Hunding's blade struck home. Once more, only darkness upon the face of the deep. Black clouds. Thunder over the mountain. But in that darkness, Brünnhilde turned in haste towards Sieglinde.
"Flee, woman," she urged. "Take my horse. As fast as you can. Flee!"
Quickly she lifted Sieglinde onto the horse, climbed on behind her, dug in her spurs, and loosed the reins.
Just in time. At that very moment the clouds at last divided, allowing light to seep through. Hunding had fought in that darkness against an unseen enemy, but now his victory was clearly visible. Nodding his head with the satisfaction of revenge, he pulled his spear from Siegmund's chest. And standing on a rock behind him, leaning on his spear and gazing sadly upon Siegmund's corpse, Wotan the War-Father, framed by clouds.
"Go, you wretch," he sneered. "Go kneel before Fricka and tell her that Wotan's spear has avenged her shame. Go. Go!"
But Hunding hadn't even turned around when Wotan waved his hand contemptuously in front of him, and the husband of Sieglinde fell down dead.
And then what dreadful rage overcame the War-Father, seeking the Valküre, his daughter, hearing the sound of her horse's hoofsteps as they galloped away at speed.
"Brünnhilde," Wotan could scarcely contain his fury. "Woe upon you and your crime. This you'll regret, I vow. Your rashness will be punished, if my steed should overtake yours in flight."
And holding out his spear once more, pointing it at the heavens, the Father of War brought forth one final peal of thunder, one final flash of lightning.