The Dawn of Hagen’s Day

Iain Scott provides an introduction to Götterdämmerung

(The Magazine of the COC Volunteer Committee)

On the left bank of the Rhine, near the ancient city of Worms, there is a grimly imposing monumental statue. A fearsome, bearded medieval warrior clad in chain mail, balancing himself somewhat precariously in a small boat, is resolutely poised to throw a horde of golden treasures into the Rhine. “Who is this?” I asked my guide. “It’s Hagen of Tronje,” I was told, “the half brother, vassal and political counselor of King Gunther, son of the Burgundian leader, Gibich.” “I am confused” I replied. “I know about Hagen. He’s the awesome central character who drives nearly all of the action of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. But I can’t recall him throwing the horde away in the Ring Cycle.” “Perhaps so,” I was told, “but there is much more to the massive, 378-canto Nibelungenlied than Wagner used for his highly selective adaptation of the legend.” I subsequently discovered that there is an active industry devoted to the extensive non-Wagnerian aspects of the epic cycle. For example, those who wish to follow the sites, events and places recounted in the wide-ranging poem can nowadays trace a well documented series of monasteries and castles all the way from Worms to Budapest, all of which link in some way to the legendary cast of characters.

I was intrigued to find that the baleful character of Hagen appears in several different medieval poems of the 12th and 13th centuries, turning up in both Scandinavian and German contexts. In some stories, he is one-eyed; in others he is half-human. In all of these versions, however, he is a dominant force, astute, scheming and totally conscienceless. There is even a possibility that he may have been based on a historical figure, since many of the characters in the medieval cycle of legends can be traced back to widely known tribal leaders from the murky centuries following the fall of the Roman empire, such as Atilla the Hun and Theoderic the Ostrogoth.

In Wagner’s music-drama version, we first hear of Hagen in the second act of Die Walküre. Although his name is not yet divulged, Wotan tells his favourite daughter, Brünnhilde of news that a dwarf has made a mortal woman pregnant and that this child will act to precipitate the downfall of the Gods.

Hagen is the first character we encounter as the first Act of Götterdämmerung begins. (We are forty minutes in, but the first two scenes – for the Norns and then for Brünnhilde and Siegfried on the rock – are known as “the Prelude”). We meet him in the spacious Gibichung hall, with the tribal King, Gunther and the King’s sister Gutrune. The two men are half-brothers, from a common mother, Grimhilde, but with different fathers: Gunther is son of the Burgundian King Gibich, Hagen’s father is Alberich. Gunther comments that although he has inherited the Gibichung kingdom, Hagen seems to be the one with all the brains. This is reinforced as Hagen begins to outline his ingenious scheme.

Pointing out that Gunther cannot expect to have full prestige so long as he remains unmarried, Hagen tempts the King with the prospect of “the most glorious woman in the world” as a suitable mate. There is a problem, however. Brünnhilde is inaccessible. She is up on a rock surrounded by magic fire. The only person who has sufficient courage to penetrate this barrier is Siegfried the dragon-slayer, son of the Wolsung twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde. “What’s the point of telling me all this, if I can’t get her?” fumes Gunther.

Hagen, the schemer, has thought of a way around these obstacles. What if Siegfried can be induced to act as Gunther’s agent? Then he could go and get Brünnhilde on Gunther’s behalf. “What could possibly induce him do this for me?” Hagen has an answer for this too. Strong drink. He has brewed a special drink that eradicates part of a man’s memory. When under the influence of this drink, and when confronted with an attractive woman, the drinker will suddenly forget all the women in his past. Siegfried will be introduced to the king’s sister, Gutrune, who is also concerned about her unmarried state, and is excited at the prospect of having such a hero as Siegfried fall in love with her.

No sooner has the plot been hatched when, by remarkable coincidence, Siegfried just happens to be passing by the hall of the Gibichungs and is invited in. Even more remarkably, within 20 minutes he has pledged allegiance to King Gunther, has become his new blood-brother, has drunk the potion of forgetfulness, has fallen in love with Gutrune and has gone off again – to bring Brünnhilde back to the Gibichung hall so that there can be a double wedding.

By the end of the first act, Hagen’s plan is falling neatly into place. Some of us will have noted, however, that when Siegfried arrived, Hagen greeted to him to the notes of his father’s curse leitmotif. We were further put on our guard when Hagen almost immediately took away Siegfried’s horse Grane, the symbol of his intuition and instinct, leaving him naively open to suggestion. Nobody will have been surprised, however, by Hagen’s refusal to take part in the oath of blood brotherhood.

When Act 2 opens it is nighttime. In the moonlight, we can barely make out three altars, dedicated to Wotan, Fricka and Donner. Hagen is meant to be on watch, but has fallen asleep, which in Wagner is almost always a metaphor for the unconscious psyche. Alberich appears. Their conversation can be interpreted literally – between two people, or allegorically – inside Hagen’s head. Both father and son are fixated on who will inherit the power of the ring. Alberich wants his son Hagen to be faithful to him, to act on behalf of the Nibelung family interests, with himself as the prime beneficiary. Hagen has other ideas. Power, once obtained, will transfer to the new generation.

As the voice of Alberich recedes, we are presented musically with the dawn of Hagen’s day. Much has changed since yesterday, Act 1, where we had a comparable dawn for Siegfried and Brünnhilde. Today, Brünnhilde has a new husband, Gunther.

Siegfried has come swiftly back to the Gibichung hall to be with his new love, Gutrune. “What happened last night?” Hagen and Gutrune want to know. Siegfried reports that his disguise worked, he overpowered Brünnhilde and took her into the cave for the night. Gutrune is very anxious to know what took place in the cave. “I was thinking of you, my love” says Siegfried, which gives her some comfort. He then states his innocence, but not without ambiguity. How would you react if you were told this? “Between east and west is north – Brünnhilde was so near and so far.” Gutrune, in love, accepts his explanation.

Hagen now calls the vassals to assemble, for the news is momentous: their King is about to get married. The vassals are instructed to prepare to greet the nuptial pair joyously. Hagen adds, ominously, that if their new queen is ever wronged, they must be quick to avenge her.

We are now set up for a double wedding: Gunther and Brünnhilde and also Gutrune and Siegfried. When she realizes this, Brünnhilde is shocked and appalled. She and Siegfried had spent just one night together, then he had gone off to do heroic deeds. Now, only one day later, he is with another woman and acting as if his one night stand with Brünnhilde had never happened. “Don’t you recognize me?” she asks. “No.” Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

The first round of accusations and recriminations concerns the ring, which Brünnhilde now notices on Siegfried’s finger. The morning after their night of passion, she had given him her horse, Grane, and Siegfried had reciprocated by giving the ring to her. Then, last night, it had been snatched from her by a man looking like Gunther. “How did you get it from Gunther?” No reply. All eyes now turn to Gunther who shrugs “I didn’t give it to him.”

Concern for the ring now quickly becomes secondary. Brünnhilde has a much more significant accusation to make. “I cannot be married to Gunther, since I am already married to Siegfried” she asserts. Siegfried’s defence is once again oblique. “I swore loyalty to Gunther” he says “and last night, my blade separated me from this woman.” Brünnhilde will have none of this. “On our wedding night, the sword Notung was in its sheath against the wall” she counters. They are talking at cross purposes. Clearly, Brünnhilde throughout this exchange is focusing on their first night together. Siegfried, under the influence of the draft of forgetfulness, is talking about their second night, when he was “representing” Gunther.

The image of the sword between two lovers comes from another medieval source, the Tristan and Isolde legend. In an episode not used in Wagner’s music drama, King Mark is warned that his wife is having an affair with Tristan. He is induced to catch them in the act and finds them asleep in a cave, with a sword between them. They have been forewarned of his approach, but on this evidence, Mark accepts their innocence.

Hagen now reasserts his dominance of the plot. His spear is now to be used for oaths. Siegfried, focusing on the second night, says “this spear may strike me if I broke faith with my blood-brother.” Brünnhilde, furious about his denial of their first night screams “you have just perjured yourself!” and is so angry that she is happy to agree with the seemingly betrayed Gunther and the scheming Hagen that Siegfried should die.

Finally, in the central scene of the third act, Hagen concludes his plan. He asks Siegfried if it is really true that he can understand birdsong. Siegfried replies with a lengthy story about his youth. Those of us who have seen Siegfried will remember that there he hears three messages from the Woodbird. The first tells him to get the ring and the Tarnhelm from Fafner’s cave. The second warns him not to trust Mime. But before Siegfried can recount the third message, Hagen gives him the antidote to the potion he drank in the first act. “Have a drink and memory will be properly awoken” says Hagen. “You won’t forget what’s past.”

Siegfried is now suddenly able to remember Brünnhilde on her rock. He tells how he kissed her and enfolded her in his arms. Immediately Hagen plunges the spear on which the oaths had been sworn into Siegfried’s back. “I have avenged perjury” he explains.

Hagen’s is the last voice we hear in the Ring. Having killed Gunther, and having watched Brünnhilde immolate herself on Siegfried’s funeral pyre, Hagen sees the ring being waved aloft by the Rhinemaidens. He plunges into the river in one last deperate attempt to retrieve it, but is drowned. This is not the way he dies in the original legends. He and King Gunther both live to fight another day. The episode commemorated in the Worms statue occurs some years later. Hagen throws the treasure horde into the Rhine, hoping temporarily to hide it or to avoid falling into the wrong hands.

Although Hagen may drive the action of this last part of Wagner’s cycle, at the end he is forgotten. Hagen has had his day. Our attention is completely transferred to Brünnhilde. The music of the epilogue ends the cycle with a huge thank you, a paean of praise, to the understanding, sacrifice, nobility and humanity of Brünnhilde. Hagen’s plots have come to nothing. Instead, the eternal feminine leads onwards and upwards.