Wagner’s quest to find an archetypal hero figure for his operas – a figure well-known from mythology but one whose actions would not seem outdated to audiences in the rapidly changing world of the late 1840s – soon led him to Siegfried, the dragon-slaying folk hero of Norse and German legends. He wrote the libretto for a relatively straightforward romantic opera about the death of Siegfried, the work we now know, with some later changes to Act I, as Götterdämmerung. At first he hesitated about going further with Siegfried onstage while other ‘heroes’ – Achilles, the medieval German king Frederick Barbarossa, even Jesus Christ – competed for his attention (Wagner sketched dramas for music about all three). Finally, a belief that the figure of Siegfried could be both the most modern hero and the most suitable for the new style of ‘music drama’ he now wanted to write, encouraged Wagner to develop the story of Siegfried’s Death by going backwards into the famous events of his earlier life.
Also called Sigurd or Sigurth, the character of Siegfried has many of the classic heroic attributes. He never knows his semi-divine parents and is brought up in the wild by a foster-father (Mime). He has been left a gift which will ensure his fame and fortune (the pieces of a sword). A tendency to rough behaviour (ill-treatment of Mime) leads him to seek adventure in the outside world (killing Fafner the dragon) in the course of which he acquires some supernatural knowledge (tasting the dragon’s blood lets him understand birdsong and hear Mime’s thoughts). The traditional mythical outcome of such a story is for the hero to return home, free his mother from oppression and become the new ruler (as does Oedipus, for example) – events not literally followed by Wagner but with obvious parallels in Siegfried’s discovery and wooing of Brünnhilde (whom he thinks at first is his mother), his marrying (in Götterdämmerung) into Gibichung ‘royalty’ and the intention of Wotan that he should be a ‘free man’ who could regain the lost ring (and moral power) for the gods.
When writing the text of The Young Siegfried as the opera was first called (and unlike the later Das Rheingold and Die Walküre where a coherent narrative and text had to be assembled from many sources), Wagner could rely on an already extant story which existed complete in two Nordic mythological texts. In the Volsung Saga (widely available today in good English translation) and Thidrek of Bern’s Saga he could draw from a detailed account of the day-to-day life of the young orphan growing up with the malevolent foster-father he will later kill. Also, an early 19th century German play about Siegfried (or Sigurd as the Norse tales called him), Fouqué’s The Hero of the North, provided him with a ready-made three-act scenario of events. So in Siegfried – more than in the other Ring operas – we find text lifted almost wholesale from its sources, an anticipation of the working methods of later 19th and 20th century librettists.
Wagner’s love of rough and tumble folk theatre led him to base his hero’s character on the more naive, more comic version of Siegfried offered by these Thidrek and Volsung sagas rather than the medieval Christian knight of the Nibelungenlied. Leaning on these sagas – and Fouqué’s play – for the scenes of young Siegfried at the smithy and in the forest, Wagner turned to the Norse Edda stories for the more serious scenes involving Wotan in his earth-touring disguise as Wanderer. In these old sagas Odin, the chief god, once takes the name of Gagnradr (“one who gives helpful advice”) and presents himself for a riddling contest, in words almost identical to those Wotan uses with Mime in Siegfried Act I:
a weary wanderer
asks for your welcome
will you not greet a guest?
Heads are staked on the outcome and Odin frequently flatters his host while warning repeatedly
Much have I fared
Much have I found.
He eventually wins by asking a question to which only he (Odin) can know the answer.
For the great confrontation with Erda which opens the opera’s Act III, Wagner drew his plot from another Edda saga:
Odin rode on to the eastern door
where a sibyl slept in her grave
the master of magic chanted charms
forced the dead witch to rise.
Neither likes what they hear and they end by reproaching each other in words Wagner again took over almost exactly: “Du bist – was du dich nennst!” (“You are not what you declare!”) Wagner based his Erda’s appearance on the earth goddess of another Edda poem where Odin woos a maiden who will bear him a son to avenge the death of Baldur – just as Erda’s daughter Brünnhilde brings back heroes for Valhalla in Die Walküre. From his other favourite reading Wagner also incorporated touches from the many adventures of Zeus in disguise and Shakespeare’s Duke in Measure for Measure into Wotan’s encounters with Mime, Alberich and Siegfried.
When Wagner modified The Young Siegfried – originally planned as merely a ‘prequel’ to Siegfried’s Death – to become the third part of the Ring tetralogy, he made some important developments in the character of his hero.
If the relationship between Siegfried and Mime seems to become one of brow-beaten – and sometimes literally
beaten – slave and uncomprehending teenage thug, these verbal abuse and threats are every bit as violent in Fouqué’s Sigurd play and other German sources. Then there was the question of how (or if) the young Siegfried will learn fear. Told by Wanderer after the riddling contest that his head is forfeit to one who knows no fear, Mime rightly worries that Siegfried is this person and attempts (in vain) to frighten him with wild-wood horror stories.
At the close of Act II, Siegfried realizes, “Der dumme Knab’, der das Fürchten nicht kennt, mein Vöglein, der bin ja ich!” (“A foolish boy, unacquainted with fear, dear woodbird that is me!”) In Act III, when he is sexually aroused by the sight of the sleeping Brünnhilde, he wonders if this new emotion is fear, but soon after acknowledges that he has never learnt it.
In Götterdämmerung this lack of fear – which implies a lack of true maturity (one of several areas where Wagner’s psychological characterisation appears to anticipate end-of-the-century psychoanalytic research) – will prove Siegfried’s undoing. Devouring everything he could find by the Brothers Grimm, both for information about the old legends and for what one might call psychological hints, Wagner drew Siegfried’s fear problem almost exclusively from their work. The Grimms, for example, had noticed the parallel between Siegfried’s nervous awakening of the sleeping Brünnhilde and the Sleeping Beauty fairy story. Yet it was only after the first draft of Siegfried was written that Wagner claimed to see (or confessed to?) the link between his hero and their story The One Who Went Forth to Learn Fear.
The character of Wotan, substantially created after Wagner created that of Siegfried, threatened to rival that of the young hero in importance in the finished Ring cycle. In his decision to renounce power to Siegfried, yet still to try to bar his way to Brünnhilde’s rock, Wotan is like Christ in the garden of Gethsemane – human enough to want to avoid his fate. The colour of his cloak (blue) is mentioned in the Eddas, but it is a colour always associated with the Virgin Mary. If the text of his scenes with Alberich and Siegfried are taken at face value – for example “Zu schauen kam ich, nicht zu schaffen …” (“The Wanderer watches, takes no action …”) – this god’s progress shows a resignation as Christian as it is Buddhist or Schopenhauerian.
Wotan’s meeting with Alberich in Siegfried Act II has no equivalent in the old stories Wagner researched but was obviously dramatically irresistible – rather like Schiller and Donizetti placing Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots in head-on (but unhistorical) confrontation. Wagner naturally sensed a parallel between Alberich and Wotan, the compromised leaders, and their supposedly free sons Hagen and Siegfried, and had Wotan call himself ‘Light Alberich’ in acknowledgment that both men are playing the same power game.
In the old sagas ‘Brynhild’ appears as a princess, often ferocious, of great physical strength (symbolizing purity and virginity), whose hand is sought as a prize by heroes and princes. Wagner, however, chose to give her the character and pre-history of another Valkyrie, Sigrdrifa (‘victory bringer’), who was punished with sleep for disobeying Odin. The final duet in Siegfried links the myth of Sleeping Beauty with that of a journey to the underworld to fetch back a soul from the dead. Having made his Brünnhilde the daughter of a god and a prophetess, Wagner was able to humanize her transition from abandoned goddess to awakened young woman with the awareness that she is now merely a mortal. He took his text for this almost verbatim from the Eddas’ poem about Sigrdrifa:
What broke the breastplate?
Who summons me from sleep?
How was I saved
From the ghostly spells?
Long I slept
long did I slumber
long are woes in the world …
Hail to the day
hail to the sons of day
Hail to night and its daughter.
The remainder of the old poem, incidentally, is taken up with the runic wisdom that Brynhild gives to her hero, including advice about surfing.
The personalities of the remainder of Wagner’s cast list were carefully honed from a confusing selection of alternative names and actions in the old stories. Mime, the would-be murderous foster-father on whom the tables are turned, was a composite of the old Norse Mimir or Regin. He was to be given one of the blackest of comic scenes in opera when he spoke aloud his murderous thoughts which Siegfried can now clearly hear. “It would be better”, say the more than one Woodbirds laconically in Thidrek’s Saga,
“if this man knew what we knew. Then he would go and kill his foster-father Mime; for Mime had planned to kill him if things turned out as he thought.”
About the Woodbird itself, Wagner – who had researched its song, Messiaen-style, in a valley in Switzerland – left a dark hint that there was a clear link between it and Siegfried’s mother, Sieglinde.