The Wanderer’s unanswerable questions

Iain Scott provides an introduction to Siegfried

(The Magazine of the COC Volunteer Committee)

Siegfried may be the title character, but for me, the central character is Wotan, the God who asks unanswerable questions. “Siegfried” is a music drama brimming with questions. Some are overt, rooted in quests for identity. Others are purposefully banal, in staged quizzes. But one unanswerable question, posed in the third act, is at the core of the drama. To what extent do we enjoy free will? Another way of asking the same question is to ask: To what extent are we are responsible for our own actions? Is our deeply felt desire to impact on our destiny merely an illusion? Is God our puppet master? Every religion has views on the desirability of free will, and teaches about its consequences, for ourselves and for others. The balance between free will and the will of God is also a question which has fascinated both artists and thinkers for centuries. It clearly preoccupied Wagner when writing the allegory of the Ring.

In “Siegfried“, each of the five principal male archetypal characters, Siegfried, Mime, Fafner, Alberich – and especially the Wanderer – are disturbed, perplexed, and full of existential questions. They appear in stark contrast with the serenity of Erda and Brunnhilde, whose only questions are to know who woke them from their prolonged sleep, or with the female Forest Bird, who asks no questions, but spontaneously provides both information and advice.

Appropriately, it is the most deeply troubled and thoughtful character in the drama, the Wanderer, who poses the most profound question of all. He makes a special effort to visit Erda, the earth-mother, the embodiment of wisdom, in order to ask a question: “How can a turning wheel be stopped, once it has begun to roll?” He wants to be told, in other words, once the metaphorical dice have been cast, the Rubicon river crossed, the dogs of war unleashed – once a significant action has been taken, words uttered, or mistake made – is then the progress of history inevitable, inexorable, and unstoppable? Is there anything that can be done, even by a God, to change the course of destiny? He raises an even more perplexing question: Is he himself, a God, the architect of destiny — or also subject to it? Erda, wisely, has no answer. Each individual must come to their own conclusions on these issues.

In Wagner’s original conception, the central character was to have been the title character, the brash, unthinking young hero Siegfried. The hero’s central dilemma was to have been his relationship with the ex-Walkyrie, Brünnhilde. Indeed, the massive project which became “the Ring Cycle” began with a single drama about the death of Siegfried. Wagner then expanded his conception with a second drama, a “prequel”, designed to explain the youth and adolescence of Siegfried. As we know, these dramas then prompted a third, about Siegfried’s parents (“Die Walküre”) and then a fourth about the reasons for creating Siegfried’s parents (“Das Rheingold”).

As Wagner delved deeper into the myths, however, and especially as he began to set his texts to music, the chief God, Wotan, gradually emerged as the primary interest and driving force of each component of the cycle. No doubt this was in part because the central character in any Wagnerian music drama is always an autobiographic refection of the composer himself.

Few people can easily identify with the adolescent boor, Siegfried. He be uncommonly brave, but he is also unusually stupid. Almost everyone, however, finds themselves identifying strongly with Wotan – especially those who have ever been in a leadership role. It is this archetypal figure’s progress from youthful hubris, to middle aged maturity, and then to experienced wisdom which becomes one of the most powerful themes of the entire Ring Cycle.

We first meet Wotan in “Das Rheingold”, the “Prologue” to the three “Days” of the Ring Cycle. Here, he is a young, ambitious, talented, attractive, vigorous leader. He is full of a sense of mission and vision. He is proactive. He is a builder. Even when his best laid schemes gang agley, we are both with him and for him. Admittedly, he makes promises he finds he can not keep. Nevertheless, thwarted, but still a vigorous leader, he is inspired to dream up an ingenious alternate plan for the family business. He will achieve his goals and objectives through others, on a longer time span than he had originally conceived. Specifically, he will empower the next generation, his children. It is one of Wagner’s most brilliant strokes of genius that the orchestra tells us what no words can ever express, as Wotan leads his fellow-Gods into Valhalla. The orchestra, not the text, tells us of Wotan’s innermost thoughts. He will create a new race, the Wolsungs, and will give his son, Siegmund, a sword – so that the son can achieve what his father no longer can do. Our C.E.O. is down, but by no means out. We end “Das Rheingold” anxious to find out how his new plan will work.

Following this “Prologue”, we now come to the first “Day” of the cycle (“Die Walküre”). Here, we watch with fascination a sequence of profound changes and the painful process of maturity which takes place within Wotan. His wife, with the best of intentions, forces him to abandon his great plan and to sacrifice his agent, his beloved son, Siegmund. Wotan now becomes progressively angry, depressed, humiliated, withdrawn, and vengeful. He is a psychological portrait of the emotions we all experience when frustrated. As he leaves his daughter, Brünnhilde on her fire-rimmed rock, we once more find ourselves feeling for him. “A sadder and a wiser man he rose the morrow morn.” We have been there too.

By the time we encounter Wotan on the second “Day” of the cycle (“Siegfried”) the great God has become a mere shadow of his former self. He is no longer a C.E.O. basking in the spotlight. He is a lonely, solitary nomad. He no longer calls himself Wotan, but is simply “the Wanderer”. He watches and waits. He observes. He gives every appearance of being impotent. Almost, but not quite! There is literally a flash of his former self when his spear “as if by accident” showers sparks when it hits the ground, during his dialogue with Mime. His arch-enemy and alter-ego nemesis, Alberich, is deeply suspicious of his motives and does not know whether to believe him or not when the Wanderer claims that he has learned to refrain from intervening in the course of events. We too wonder: can an ex C.E.O. ever let go? Is his disguise a scheme to fool us – or perhaps himself?

Wotan’s final crisis comes in the final act of “Siegfried”. The great God’s symbol of power, his ash spear, is shattered by his grandson’s recently re-forged sword. (Earlier, in “Die Walküre”, that very spear had overcome the sword; now, this has been reversed.) We recognize that a watershed moment has been reached. The rule of the old order and the rule of law have been severed by a new youthful force. A new world order with a new leader will take over, for good or ill. Defeated, dejected, the God withdraws to Valhalla to watch how his grandson will handle matters.

Many great philosophers and religious leaders have taught that humility, acceptance, renunciation, or abnegation of the will are the secrets of inner peace and happiness. These lessons are rarely accepted early in life. It is easier to renounce things that have been possessed or experienced. Wotan, by the end of “Siegfried”, has been forced by adversity to adopt a Schopenhauerian or Buddhist acceptance of the “rolling wheel” of destiny. He never appears again, but in the third and final “Day” (Götterdämmerung), like all fathers, his subconscious influence remains tangible and still powerful.

Wagner’s endlessly fascinating music dramas, and especially the Ring Cycle, are appealing because they touch on our own experiences of life and its complexities. Wotan’s unanswerable questions about whether we — and even he — are architects or puppets of our destiny are part of this fascination.