web analytics
Der Ring des Nibelungen Videos

The Ring of the Nibelung, 13

Siegfried’s death

Everyone waited anxiously for Siegfried to explain the valkyrie’s accusation, but the hero stated emphatically:

“I swear that what Brunhild says is false!”

So saying, he gave his arm to Gutrune, and the two lovers made their way to the palace, followed by a court of ladies and gentlemen.

On the terrace stood Hagen, Gunther and Brunhild.

Gunther looked dazed. His eyes questioned his half-brother, who had remained unmoved until then, and Hagen thought it was time to strike the decisive blow against the hero. He approached Brunhild and whispered in her ear:

“If you trust me, you can have your revenge.”

“You don’t know who he is. You can never harm him.”

“I am not ignorant of his courage and strength, but he will have some weaknesses.”

“He is invulnerable from the front. Only from behind can he be hurt; but he never turns his back on the enemy.”

The feast lasted all night. Great bonfires were lit, and the time passed with singing, shouts of joy, and libations of wine and mead in honour of Siegfried and Gutrune.

At dawn, Hagen organised the hunt according to his sinister plan. He would kill Siegfried from behind and claim that the hero’s death had been caused by a wild boar’s lunge.

The morning was cold. The air was dry and biting. The Rhine looked like a broad silver ribbon in the pale light of dawn.

The hunting party set off into the forest, preceded by the eagerly running dog tracks, tracking the prey.

Siegfried led the way. As soon as he saw the silhouette of a bear he broke away from the group and ran in pursuit of the beast with his bow drawn, ready to shoot the flying arrow. He passed through thickly wooded areas in pursuit of the bear, and after a strenuous march, he found himself back on the river bank. He sat down to rest and watched the eddies formed by the current as it crashed against the rocks. Suddenly the hero saw a blonde hair emerge from one of the reefs. It was Flosshilde, one of the Rhine’s daughters, who began to swim facing the rising sun. After a few moments, Siegfried heard the voice of the undine calling to her sisters:

“Come, the sun is up, its rays are warm! Come out, sisters, from the bottom of the river, which no longer has the gleam of gold since it was taken from us!”

The group of undines then emerged from the bottom of the father Rhine, and their hair looked like rivers of gold on the silvery waters.

Siegfried gazed at them in rapt attention, and to attract their attention he sounded his hunting horn.

“Welcome the hero!” cried Flosshilde.

“Let him come to the shore!” cried Woglinde.

“Let him give us back the ring!” added Wellgunde.

So said the daughters of the Rhine, as they swam towards the shore.

“Are you the ones who hid the bear I was chasing? When it reached the river, the bear disappeared as if by magic.”

The undines made their noisy laughter heard. They mocked the hero.

“What reward will we get if we give you back your prey?”

“I have nothing to offer you. I never carry anything with me.”

“What about the ring that glitters on your finger?” Wellgunde boldly suggested?

“Yes, that’s right! Give us the ring on your hand!” repeated the Rhine’s daughters in chorus.

“To get the ring,” answered Siegfried, “I had to face a terrible dragon.”

“How could you steal it?”

“I did not steal it. I took it from him.”

“We don’t believe you, Siegfried. It is no easy thing to snatch a ring from a terrible dragon.”

“True: it was not easy for me. The struggle was tremendous. More than once I thought I would succumb: but I finally defeated him, and now his body lies at the entrance to his horrible cavern.”

“How? Did you slay the dragon?”

“Yes, it was the only way to get hold of the ring.”

“Oh! And did you touch its blood?”

“Yes, I dipped my lips in it; that’s why I understand the language of the bird of the forest.”

“Poor Siegfried!”

“Unhappy hero!”

“What fate awaits you!”

So said the undines, pitying the sad end that awaited the invincible hero. The latter did not understand their lamentations and asked:

“Ah, you want to trick me into getting rid of it!”

“It is true what we say! That ring was made with the gold that Alberich stole from us. When it was stolen from him, the Nibelung put a curse on anyone who came into possession of it. You snatched it from the dragon; well, you must get rid of it before the misfortune that hangs over your head threatens to cut the thread of your life.”

Hearing the story and the threat contained in the tremendous prophecy, Siegfried was irritated. Unfamiliar with fear, it was not easy to make him believe in misfortunes near or far and in dangers present or future. Rather, he believed that all the chatter of the undines was intended to convince him to part with the ring forged from the gold of the Rhine, stolen from his sister nymphs.

He stood arrogantly on the rock and replied to the three swimmers:

“Your prophecy does not frighten me. I will never part with the ring.”

“Reflect, Siegfried! Our prophecy will be fulfilled. The ring brings misfortune. Throw it into the waves. The river-father will thus regain the gold that was taken from him, and you will be able to ward off the curse.”

“I have fought the dread dragon for the jewel; I have broken the spear of a god with the sword that I tempered myself; so shall I win and come out victorious from the plot of fate.”

“Pride blinds you, Siegfried. You are an invincible hero, you have broken the spear of Wotan; but you cannot escape your destiny, which is preparing a fateful end for you.”

“The dragon also spoke to me thus, but I cut off his talk with the edge of my sword. In the same way, I shall be able to defend myself against my enemies.”

“Is this your last word, and shall we return to the sad depths, orphaned of the gleam with which the gold that was taken from us illumined it?”

“Neither flattery nor threats, neither augury nor doom, can determine me to give you back the ring that shines in my hand. That is my will.”

In the face of this unexpected refusal, the undines, saddened, decided to sink once more into the waters of father Rhine. Before disappearing, they sang, in a sorrowful voice, a song that sounded to the hero’s ears like the prelude to a funeral march:

Fate has woven the web
from which no one can escape;
not even the hardest heroes
its iron meshes can break.

Thou, Siegfried, hast tempered a sword,
and with it you slew the dragon;
but the ring that is in thy hand
carries with it a curse.

The day is at hand
for the death that awaits you.
Soon your body will be ashes
in the flames of high fire.

Siegfried listened for a long time to the chorus of the Rhine daughters, until the voices were drowned out by the muffled murmur of the river waves.

Suddenly there came the echoes of hunting horns. The hero then decided to re-join his companions. He went back into the forest and, guided by the sound of the horns, came to a clearing in the jungle, where the other hunters were waiting for him. He was greeted with shouts of joy and cordial words, which ceased when they realised that he had returned without having taken any game.

“You don’t have any prey?” asked Hagen, approaching him with mock friendliness.

“No, I can’t add to the morning’s haul. Perhaps I shall have better luck in the afternoon’s raid.”

“Tell us something of your life, Siegfried,” said one of the hunters.

“Tell us, tell us!” insisted the crafty Hagen, while prince Gunther made a gesture of displeasure. He knew that his half-brother was trying to make the hero talk to learn all his secrets.

Siegfried noticed that everyone was interested in his story and began to narrate. His memory was slowly clearing as the effects of the brew prepared by Hagen, which the hero had drunk the day before, mixed with the wine that Gutrune had offered him, were wearing off.

“I was born in the cave of a dwarf of the Nibelung stock, named Mime. He raised me with great care and taught me the art of metal smelting and steel tempering. He planned to make me strong and brave so that I could face the dragon of the forest. That dragon was the custodian of this ring and a magic helmet. When I reached the age when I could accomplish the task, Mime gave me two pieces of a sword. This had been my father’s; only with it, I could defeat the terrible dragon.

”The dwarf had tried many times in vain to put the two pieces together. When I had succeeded in remaking and tempering my father’s sword, Mime took me into the forest and pointed out the cavern where the ring and the helmet were. It was a hard fight with the dragon that guarded it.

”At last, I killed it, and my hand was bathed in its blood. As I brought it unwillingly to my lips, I had the impression that it increased the power of my senses. I realised that I understood the language of a forest bird. This bird guided me for a whole day through the forest. When we reached the foot of a high rock, it told me to climb to the top. In the middle of the path, a passerby stood in my way and tried to stop me. He blocked my way, but with a blow of my sword, I smashed his mighty spear to pieces. To reach the top I had to pass through a ring of fire, in the middle of which lay a sleeping maiden.”

Siegfried stopped again. A dense fog again obscured the panorama of his memories. Hagen then malignantly inquired:

“Did you wake the sleeper?”

“Not at once. I gazed at her for a long time. I took off her helmet. I kissed her on the forehead…”

“And you made her your wife, didn’t you?” insisted Hagen.

“Yes, I made her my wife and entrusted her with the ring when I left. But now I see that it must all have been a dream because the ring is still shining on my finger. I don’t understand! I don’t remember!”

“You didn’t come back after your departure? You didn’t take it off by force?”

“Yes! I remember now that I took it off violently. But why? Yes, yes, Brunhild is my wife! She is still waiting for me on the rock; I’m going to look for her!”

Remembering the name of his beloved, Siegfried set out at once. After a few steps, he thought he heard the voice of the forest bird. He stopped to listen, and at that moment Hagen approached him, wielding his javelin. With a mighty thrust, he hurled it at the hero’s back, and he fell like an oak cut down by lightning.

“Farewell, Brunhild!” were Siegfried’s last words.


Editor’s Note:

So the original story ends in tragedy, not drama, like Tolkien’s tale, published about a hundred years after Wagner began writing his tragedy.

‘Frodo’ (who in Tolkien’s tale looked about thirty years old; not the teenager that Peter Jackson filmed for an increasingly infantilised white audience) doesn’t throw the ring. The hero keeps it, with fatal consequences not only for himself but for all his kindred, as we shall see tomorrow.

(Remember that the music we hear in the clip above, Siegfried’s death and the funeral march by the end of Götterdämmerung, was played by the Nazis just after Hitler died. It was a sign of the dark blackness that would cover not only Germany, but the entire West.)