Monday, August 15, 2011

Brunhilde —
Last week, I discovered an old archived radio show from NPR called The Ring and I, which "explores the impact and influence of Wagner's Ring Cycle." (I strongly recommend you give it a listen!) I learned a heck of a lot of stuff. Stuff I SHOULD have known already. I grew up in a household filled with classical music. Rossini, Verdi, Beethoven, and even Gilbert and Sullivan were everywhere. All that great music from the Bugs Bunny cartoons? I could NAME that stuff! The Marriage of Figaro, The William Tell Overture, The Hungarian Rhapsody, and yes, of course, The Ride of the Valkyrie. I knew all of it.

We certainly knew who Wagner was. There were Wagner records on the shelves, but I guess my folks weren't much into him. I never learned the stories of these huge operas. When I got older and got into comics, I became a fan of Thor, and later when she showed up, Valkyrie. I always liked the idea that they came from ancient mythology, and again, I knew about the Wagner operas, but I never bothered. Even when the Ring Cycle was sort-of-incorporated into the comics back in Thor #300 (One of my favorites!), I didn't look it up. Somehow, I never read about the operas in college, or even on Google, until now. It's kind of embarrassing.

But today... after hearing the NPR show and doing some much-needed reading, Brunhilde the Valkyrie is all new for me. And here she is.

Here's my super-short summary of the four operas:

  • Odin gives Brunhilde, his favorite daughter and leader of the Valkyries, a series of contradictory orders. When she can't follow them, he strips her of her godhood and abandons her on Earth. She ultimately gets even by DESTROYING THE WHOLE DAMN UNIVERSE.

There. See?

She doesn't do it with her mighty spear or while riding her mighty winged horse. She does it almost as an afterthought. Brunhilde is not supposed to be the hero of the story. It's supposed to be the mortal idiot man-child Siegfried. When he is killed, Brunhilde's takes the ring from his finger and destroys it, ending everything.

People who saw the operas for the first time (The whole thing is 18 hours long!) wouldn't have expected this ending. It's all about the ring. It was forged by Alberich the dwarf from magical gold which he stole from the guardian mermaids at the head of the Rhine river. It gives its owner the power to rule the universe. Odin, meanwhile, has contracted Fafnir the giant, the world's greatest magical architect, to build Valhalla, a new realm for the gods to move into. Its awfully expensive, and Odin has no way of paying for it. Fafnir agrees to take the ring as payment, so Odin steals it from Alberich, who curses it as it's being carted away. All who know of the ring will desire it, all who possess it will be murdered by its next owner, and when it's destroyed, all works gained by it will be lost.

So now Fafnir has the ring. He kills his brother in a quarrel over it, and slinks away into a cave filled with gold where he sits in paranoid seclusion, in the form of your typical gold-hoarding dragon. Odin wants the power of the ring, but he can't own it himself for fear of being killed. So he sets in motion a series of events that he hopes will result in somebody he controls coming into possession of the ring. This includes having lots of babies with innocent mortal women. (Doesn't it always?)

Enter Brunhilde. Odin has been gathering an infinite army of slain warriors to defend Valhalla against the power of the ring, and that's her job. But then, word arrives that two of Odin's mortal children, Siegmund and Sieglinde, long-lost twins, are having an affair. Not good. Odin sends Brunhilde to bring Siegmund to Valhalla, which means killing him. But she can't do it. Siegmund is ultimately killed in a fixed fight arranged by Odin, who then punishes Brunhilde by turning her mortal and putting her to sleep. He places her in a ring of impenetrable fire.

Sieglinde dies giving birth to Siegmund's son Siegfried. The boy is raised in seclusion by Mime the dwarf, Alberich's brother, in hopes that he will be able to kill Fafnir and obtain the ring for him. The 18-year-old Siegfried DOES kill Fafnir, but he also kills Mime. He takes the ring and jaunts off to find more adventure, being severely naive, uneducated and fearless. And having never met another person ever. Of course, he turns out to be the one guy who can walk through fire and awaken Brunhilde. He falls for her on sight.

When Siegfried sleeps with another woman, Brunhilde tells Gunther, the son of Alberich, that Siegfried has one weak spot in his back. So Siegfried dies. Literally stabbed in the back. Then Brunhilde learns that Siegfried's so-called betrayal was arranged by Gunther with a magic potion. So she takes the ring from Siegried's dead hand, orders the Rhinemaidens to come get it, then throws herself into the funeral pyre. Valhalla, paid for by the ring, burns.

I had to read through this stuff a few times to get all the relationships right, and I left out tons of details and other characters. Actually though, now that I think about it, the whole thing can be summarized in four words:

  • Odin is a dick.

Yeah, that's it.

One of the things I find so exciting about all this is that Wagner didn't create any new characters or stories. He took existing mythology and folktales and crunched them all into a convoluted mish-mash that makes a weird kind of sense. (As Nina Paley says, "All creative work is derivative.") He ret-conned it. Just like they do in comics. And along the way, he created a new way of telling it.

I have my own views on Brunhilde. Some day, I'll write down my own version of the ring. If Wagner could make shit up, so can I.

Oh, and you all know how much I admire Steve Gerber's work. Looking back on his stint with the Defenders now, his handling of Valkyrie as a lost goddess with no memory of her past or her husband makes a perverse kind of reverse-sense. I get it now, Steve. I get it.



  1. I has a few questions.

    1. Why couldn't Brunhilde kill Siegmund? She deals with dead people all the time and all that'll happen is he'll "live" in Vanhalla. Which,if the old legends are to be believed,is a pretty sweet deal. And did Odin actually say she had to kill him? I mean,he could have just wanted him to come visit or something.

    2. He has a ring that controls the universe. Walking through fire isn't exactly a challenge at that point. Why is that hard to believe?

    3. Why is Brunhilde blameless in this? She chose to ignore Odin's orders to kill a guy. She overreacted and told the guy how to kill her husband instead of hearing him out and finding out what was really going on. If anything,Brunhilde's a cunt as much as Odin's a dick. I guess genital based behavior runs in the family.

    4. Since Brunhilde brings the dead to Valhalla,wouldn't she be able to interact with her husband in some way even if he was dead? I'm not saying they'd do it or anything,but they could at least talk. Of course,at that point,I think the conversation would be dominated by Seigy telling her how much of a bitch Brunhilde is for getting him killed.

  2. First of all, IT'S OPERA. It doesn't necessarily make any sense at all. The characters apparently know everything that's going to happen, and they stand around singing at each other for hours and hours.

    But yeah, there ARE details that make no sense.

    1. The way I understand it, Siegmund couldn't enter Valhalla as a living mortal. He had to be a dead warrior. Brunhilde could only collect souls that die in battle, but he wouldn't fight her. The reason he didn't want to die in battle was because he loved Sieglinde too much to leave her. Brunhilde saw that he was more noble than herself, and there was nothing she could do. ALSO: the only reason Odin wanted Siegmund dead was because his wife Fricka demanded it. She's the goddess of marriage-and-loyalty or something-or-other, and she demands that incest be punished. Plus, she knows how much of a mess Odin is making, and these aren't HER kids, so she's fucking with him. Odin had previously instructed Brunhilde to protect Siegmund in battle, but now... See, this goes on forever. You have to come up with your own answer.

    2. Siegfried was too dumb to know what he had on his finger. And Odin's fire cold only be penetrated by someone without fear. Siegfried was too dumb to be afraid.

    3. Brunhilde was a tool of Odin, just like everybody else. She resisted, which was supposed to be impossible. She didn't owe any loyalty to Siegfried at all, now that I think about it.

    4. Huh?

    You could argue forever, and people HAVE. Opera fans are just like comic book geeks. Point that out next time someone tries to claim superiority.

  3. Like the great Anna Russell said, Siegfried was "very strong, very brave, very handsome, very stupid..."

    I am of the opinion that the Ring cycle beats the socks off of "The Lord of the Rings". And not just because of the music.

    With regards to "all art being derivative", over at there's a very nice essay showing how Iron Man II is actually the Parsifal story in disguise....