This is the November 2020 edition of the Gwern.net newsletter; previous, October 2020 (archives). This is a summary of the revision-history RSS feed, overlapping with my Changelog & /
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Siegfried, we learn, is congenitally immune to fear and unable to understand even what it is. Such disabilities are not unheard of, and are typically due to brain damage, such as genetic mutations or prenatal trauma. In Siegfried’s case, while his prenatal care was shockingly lacking and his delivery circumstances in a dark forest were primitive at best, a genetic etiology from a homozygous mutation appears more likely given his status as an F2 hybrid of an Æsir/
human cross and then a sibling mating—a situation practically calculated to simultaneously maximize outbreeding depression & inbreeding depression.
Mime is unable to teach Siegfried fear with his crude behavioral interventions (although we can note that in such cases, the separate CO2 suffocation fear reflex is often intact, so Siegfried likely could have been able to learn fear by strangling rather slaying). Unsurprisingly, like most such cases, Siegfried is poorly equipped for the real world, and not long after leaving the highly-controlled environment & oversight of his legal guardian, Siegfried dies with a net inclusive fitness of 0, having been unable to prudently navigate human social dynamics.
The death of Siegfried may seem tragic, but we should note that this is how natural selection removes such severely disabling mutations from the gene pool, and in lieu of modern medical interventions & any understanding of genetics, this was perhaps the best that could be done under the medieval circumstances. I applaud Wagner for illustrating the subtle mechanisms through which selection operates and how even apparent banes like fear & cowardice are in fact boons.
The ending is easier to describe who survives than who dies1; some of the humans survive, the Rhine Maidens receive their gold back, and pretty much everyone else is dead or implied to die when Loki, at Brünnhilde’s charge, presumably sets Valhalla on fire (Odin having heaped up firewood around it). Further, the flooding of the Rhine wipes the slate clean, the hoard of the Nibelungs is lost in the dragon’s cave, Valhalla is rubble, Odin’s treaties are all abrogated. It is a Götterdämmerung, but curiously, it is not the one described at all in the Eddas (there is no hint of resurrection, or the gods waking up and discovering, mysteriously, their old chess set laying on the ground). For all his textual research to create a palimpsest, Wagner resorts to this as an ending. There is no narration; no character like Erda tells us what to think; neither Siegfried nor Brünnhilde ascend to heaven in a redeeming Christianizing gloss as we might expect of the creator of Parsifal, The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, or Lohengrin. Despite the many hours we have now invested listening to character explain things at often enormous length, we are left alone. Everything fades out to meandering, quiet music that passes away.
What does it mean? What does all this music amount to? Surely Wagner did not mean his magnum opus to be merely a showcase for his music and opera singers (or a standing challenge to opera houses to be able to perform the cycle). The Bayreuth Festival was supposed to be a secular sacrament for the modern German man, annually combining his national heritage with all the arts to transform him. So what does it mean?
I’m comforted to read in Wikipedia that Wagner appears to have been just as uncertain as I was, going through 6 versions of the ending: Odin’s plan succeeds as the Ring is returned, the Nibelungs liberated, and the happy pair ascend to Valhalla, redeeming the gods’ sin and ending the cycle of theft/
inheritance. Or, they ascend, but the gods now depart, powerless and replaced by their moral superior, Siegfried. Or, all must perish in fire, and humans rule thenceforth. Or, the Schopenhauerian version has Brünnhilde is enlightened by her sufferings, and liberated from the wheel of reincarnation, leaving behind the old order, which has been erased. Or, finally, her speech is dropped, and there is just the music. If we trust Wikipedia, the ending would seem to have a quite definitive meaning:
Although Wagner never set either the Schopenhauerian or the Feuerbachian lines, he did include them as footnotes in the final printed edition of the text, together with a note to the effect that while he preferred the Schopenhauerian lines, he declined to set them because their meaning was better expressed by the music alone.
Her part of the tale is elevated from, as Tolkien remarked of Guðrúnarkviða II, “only in the background of the tale, a brief and terrible storm beginning in fire and ending in it”2, to the skeleton key for the cycle: she literally ends the cycle (of corruption, struggle, and betrayal) with her enlightenment.
Like Takahata’s final anime The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the Ring warns us of the self-defeating nature of desire: taken too far, what is virtue becomes vice; what should be a blessing, is a bane. Gold is beautiful, and Das Rheingold opens with rhapsodies about its beauty, but this beauty causes far greater ugliness. Wagner’s Odin worked for the sake of power, for building Valhalla and binding the world with his treaties and impeding potential rivals who might use the Rhinegeld’s power; it is admirable to strive for greatness, to defend oneself and one’s own, and to build things for the ages, but what did Odin sacrifice to do so? Odin didn’t sacrifice quite like Albrecht, but he sacrificed his honor, then his good relationship with his wife, then his children & grandchildren. The result of all his work was futility: betrayal, incest, misery, fire, destruction of his works, and death for all. Lesser characters likewise throw away what they had by lusting for more, to receive, in the end, the nothing of death. Only Brünnhilde—who acts out of compassion by taking pity on the suffering, refusing complicity in cruelty—escapes the lure of the Ring, and the (seemingly) endless cycle of schemes and revenge, vengeance, greed, betrayal, etc. The Ring cycle illustrates the harmful consequences of craving (particularly for power), the need for compassion in the face of the impermanence of all things, and how to escape suffering through acceptance.
An apocalypse puts everything in perspective. The thunder rages and the lightning burns, but the muttering storm too shall fade and pass away: all things, even the gods, come to an end. The earth is cleansed, a new day begins, the gods discover their old chess pieces laying in the fresh green grass, and the viewer walks out of the theater in the suddenly-bright sunlight, feeling, somehow, wiser and younger.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Ex Machina (2014)
Oddly, apparently Alberich survives. I find this untidy, and I prefer to imagine (given his general absence from the physical action & spectral appearance during his lecture to his son, in “Hagen’s Watch”) that he died of old age or longing sometime before.↩︎
As quoted by Christopher Tolkien, pg 55, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, J.R.R. Tolkien 2012. Christopher sources it to “Oxford lectures”; all Internet quotes of it seem to postdate 2012 and stem from it, so those lectures appear unpublished.↩︎