Roger Scruton’s most recent book, The Ring of Truth, is densely packed with insight. His discussion, very early into the book, of the influences of J.G. Fichte in the moral and philosophical world in which Siegfried struggles for “freedom and individuality” were entirely new to me and very much valued.
Among the many helpful analyses in this volume is a suggestion about the import of the final D-flat motif in the Ring – the one accompanying Brünnhilde’s self-immolation heard first from Sieglinde in Walküre Act III and afterwards never again until the end.
This theme was labeled “Redemption Through Love” during the first 100 years after the work’s premiere. Since then it has been the subject of much speculation, and this Blog has reflected questions concerning its relevance to concepts of the persistence of life, or the promise of children, among other interpretations.
Scruton suggests that sacrifice is the essence of the Ring and of this musical theme. The theme is heard upon Sieglinde’s decision to sacrifice her life so that her child may live, and Brünnhilde’s decision to sacrifice her own life that Siegfried’s love may be vindicated. And Scruton is specific:
Wagner is not trying to persuade us that sacrifice is the meaning of life. Rather, as in the Greek tragedy, he is showing through represented acts of sacrifice that life has another meaning than the pursuit of status and power, and that it is our ability to accept death that makes this meaning real to us. He is showing, through the sacrificial moment, that there are things in all our lives that are sacred, and which vindicate what we are.
To Scruton, Wagner posits human love as a symbol of “the ability of human beings to discount their own interests.”
I also found Scruton’s treatment of Siegfried – a character I and many others find intrinsically distasteful rather than heroic – to be brilliant and even uplifting.
In the end we just have to accept that Siegfried is what he appears to be: not the new man or the artist-hero; not the forger of a freer world or the fitting deposer of a supernatural god; but someone who never quite grows up, an adopted child who is unable to form secure attachments, and who exists fully as a person only by moments, when the armour of his belligerence falls away. [He serves as] a symbol of the individual’s search for self-knowledge and self-identity in a godless world.
Siegfried is, thus, most effective and recognizable to us when, during the forest murmurs, or when trying to understand his parentage, or riven by erotic excitement as well as a deep yearning to be made whole through attachment to another, we see ourselves — not our heroism, but our imperfect strivings.
This is a challenging book – I took it up and put it down over a period of 18 months, I blush to admit. But throughout that time it gave me nothing but pleasure.
Dear Peter P:
I’m Paul Heise, whose online allegorical interpretation of Wagner’s “Ring” at http://www.wagnerheim.com Scruton cites several times in his book. If you haven’t already done so, you might find it interesting to read his introduction to my website http://www.wagnerheim.com, the link to which you can find on the homepage on the upper left corner. You also might find it interesting to read what he said about my online “Ring” interpretation in his article “The Ring of Truth” which was published in “American Spectator” in 2011, the same year that, with his financial aid and sponsorship, I was able to post my lifelong research project on RW’s “Ring” at http://www.wagnerheim.com. To sum up, he stated in his Intro to my website, and in his article, both published in 2011, that he regarded my “Ring” interpretation as one of the most important instances of Wagner scholarship that we have, and that he had long struggled to grasp the meaning of RW’s “Ring” until he read my “Ring” interpretation.
I’m sure you noticed that he critiqued my allegorical approach to the “Ring” in his own “Ring” study (published by Penguin/Allen Lane in 2016). However, I never had the opportunity to challenge his critique in print. At his suggestion I have since that time completed my final revision of my online “Ring” study from 2011 (it’s been shortened by about 150 pages and includes corrections of mistakes and 16 more musical motifs in the motif guide (which, however, eliminated about 3-4 motifs previously included), and am now trying to find a publisher who will publish it in hardcopy.
Your friend from http://www.wagnerheim.com,
Paul Brian Heise
Hmm, when I dipped into your treatise I saw quite a few mistakes. I was going to list them for you, but if you’ve finalised it then it’s not worth it, I suppose. I did notice you’d got one that shocked me when I saw it in Scruton – the suggestion that Siegmund intends to commit suicide rather than fight Hunding. Where is that even coming from?
I have to say I don’t agree with this, and I have read Scruton’s book several times trying to make sense of it. In contrast to his work on Parsifal, which I found genuinely illuminating, I believe he had no firm concept of what the Ring is all about, but was swayed one way and the other by people with stronger concepts than his own arguing their case to him. His introduction reveals that one friend had to draw him a picture as regards the importance of Brünnhilde, which changed his outlook significantly, but even there I get the impression that he only went half way and ended up sitting between two stools.
He can’t settle on an interpretation of Siegfried’s character or place in the drama, veering from presenting him as the hero, to dismissing him as irretrievably flawed. Was it Wagner’s intention to present Siegfried as a character struggling for freedom and individuality? This is a debatable point, but really, not in the way Scruton presents him. Why Siegfried is a superficially unsatisfactory hero-figure (and why every book about the Ring now has to have a chapter entitled something like “The Problem of Siegfried”) is deeply interesting topic, but it’s not one Scruton seemed to me to have any answer for.
Your interpretation of the motif Scruton names “Sieglinde’s blessing” seems to me to have it entirely the wrong way round. Sieglinde doesn’t decide to sacrifice her life so that Siegfried may live – entirely the contrary. Sieglinde sacrifices her *death* so that Siegfried may live. When Siegmund dies, all she wants is to die with him – something he instinctively understood, hence his decision to kill her rather than leave her to face the future without him. Brünnhilde, being a woman, imagined that as soon as she told Siegmund of Sieglinde’s pregnancy he would back off in order to save the child. But Siegmund is a man and he doesn’t even break step. Sieglinde is all he cares about and a newly-fertilised ovum is nothing to him compared to the living woman he loves. It’s only when Brünnhilde lays the same line on Sieglinde that she gets her result. Sieglinde, like Brünnhilde, is a woman and has the same priorities. From absolute despair and a determined wish to die, she resolves to do whatever it takes to bring the child to term, despite the suffering the prescient Brünnhilde warns her about.
Sieglinde does die, of course, but why? Siegfried/Sigurd’s mother is alive in all the source material except the Thidriks Saga. Wagner deliberately chose that one version for very specific reasons. Sieglinde couldn’t live, because if she had, imagine the answers Siegfried would have given when Wotan came to test whether he was indeed completely untainted by any godly influence. And to put it simply, if anything bad happens to a Volsung in the Ring, suspect Wotan.
There are all sorts of levels to that motif, including hope for the future, a transformative realisation that all is not lost and future suffering can be borne in the pursuit of something better. There’s also the question of *who* is the Love who is doing the redeeming? Sieglinde is more than she is often understood to be. But one thing it is not about is Sieglinde sacrificing her life. (Wagner himself suggested “the glorification of Brünnhilde”, suggesting he was thinking more about the words Sieglinde is singing than the fact that it’s Sieglinde singing them, which is worth considering.)