Essay Series Pt.II: "The Influence of Wagner's Ring Cycle" or "Greed as a Motif in Wagnerian Art"

Hello! Here is another essay I wrote in Ireland that focused upon the influence of one of my favorite composers, Richard Wagner.


The thirteenth-century epic poem, “The Nibelungenlied” or “Song of the Nibelungs”, based upon early Icelandic sagas about the life, death, and redemption of Siegfried the dragon-slayer has been an object of speculation for centuries. Richard Wagner, the famed nineteenth century century composer, took material from the poem, expanded it, changed a few details, and added new elements to the story, thereby giving it a new life through his opera tetralogy, “Der Ring des Nibelungen” or “The Ring of the Nibelungs”. The comparisons and contrasts between music drama and text will be explored as well as why both works have endured for many generations.

 There are strong motifs that are present in both versions such as revenge, murder, jealousy, and retribution but the most powerful one that is present in both accounts is greed: it is, by far, the most underlying emotion in the story with the exception of love.

 Siegfried is actually a pawn in a deadly game of wills in the original poem and a manufactured, God-like mortal meant to restore order to dysfunctional worlds of chaos in Wagner’s epic music drama.

In fact, the 1976 Bayreuth Centennial production, Patrice Chereau’s famous Ring Cycle, owes much to George Bernard Shaw’s treatise “The Perfect Wagnerite”: an interpretation of the Wagnerian mythos which claimed that the tetralogy is a metaphor for corporate greed and lust at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century; the singers were not in traditional warrior-like garb, but instead, were clothed in the business suits and formal dresses of the period.

Shaw’s take on the myth will be a subject for discussion as well because it plays a significant part in allowing it to blossom in the post-Wagnerian twentieth century; his words echo in the relevance of today: “First, The Ring, with all its gods and giants and dwarfs, its water-maidens and Valkyries, its wishing-cap, magic ring, enchanted sword, and miraculous treasure, is a drama of today, and not of remote and fabulous antiquity” (Shaw, 1898); however, the story of Siegfried seems to resemble the story of Achilles: “Both were young and courageous, both were invulnerable except in one spot, both fought a warrior maiden, and both were murdered” ( Lorre Goodrich, 1961).

Regardless, the tale escapes Homeric duplication and has made a mark on comparative literature in its own spectacular way. Kriemhild, Siegfried’s wife in “The Nibelungenlied” avenges her husband’s murder in the poem after years of plotting and manipulating her new husband, Attila the Hun. One can see why her name requires further study (Chriem=grim-grief; hilde= bearing).

The poem speaks of how greed and the lust for revenge can destroy not only one but two societies which belong to the Burgundians and the Huns; in Wagner’s Ring, they belong to the Gods and mortals. Although there are four operas that tell the tale, only the last two in the cycle, Siegfried and Gottedammerung, contain the main details of the basic story from the poem; in fact, Wagner wrote the libretti of each in reverse starting with “Siegfrieds Tod” or “Siegfried’s Death” which was originally a poem he wrote in 1848.

Andrew Porter’s celebrated English translation of Wagner’s texts alone has allowed the ‘Nibelengenlied” characters to transcend the original poem from which Wagner drew his inspiration and highlighted the composer’s Gesamtkunstwerk (“Total Artwork”) theory that Music drama should be an amalgam of music, theatre, and dance: “This translation of The Ring was made for singing, acting, and hearing, not for reading”. This is definitely an example of how “The Nibelunglied”, albeit drastically changed, has evolved into a new art form via Wagnerian Opera. Mr. Porter’s understanding of the composer’s German text merits discussion.

Under the auspices of cinema, particularly European, the Nibelung legend climbed to a new apex. Fritz Lang, the famous German director, made a two-part movie based upon the epic poem and entitled it “Die Nibelungen”; the first half was called, in pure Wagnerian fashion, “Siegfried” while the second half was called “Kriemhild’s Revenge”. How Mr. Lang’s reverence for the poem was apparently influenced by the Ring cycle, as well as its role in complimenting the Wagnerian ideal, will be also examined.

 “The Nibelungenlied” is an anonymously Austrian written poem (although widely thought of as German) written around 1200 A.D. and is an important document with three direct sources: “actual history of the invasions of the fifth century, Scandinavian mythology---which in turn comes largely from Icelandic myths---and Oriental legends partially remembered from Asia, the original home of the Indo-Europeans” ( Goodrich, 1977).

Wagner decided to discard the Oriental elements of the poem (e. g. Kriemhild’s marriage to Attila, the clash between her kinsmen and the Huns) as well as its historical aspects (King Attila actually defeated a Burgundian king named Gundicarius in 430 A.D.); he wanted to show that the myth alone was enough to explain how greed can lead to anyone’s climactic downfall. Siegfried’s successful conquest over the dragon and its hoard, the Nibelung treasure, fed his bravado in the “Nibelungenlied”, but in Wagner’s “Gottedammerung”, he is warned by the Rhinemaidens of the doom that awaits him should he not relinquish the Ring cursed by the dwarf Alberich; the stubborn hero adamantly refuses: “The world’s wealth I could win me by this ring” (Wagner, 1848); spoken like a true capitalist, Wagner’s lead character knows no fear especially since Fafnir the dragon failed to teach it to him.

Arrogance is a road that certainly leads to greed. King Midas proved this to be true in the classic Greek story of a ruler who was so proud of his wealth that he acquired from Dionysus a magic touch of gold, much to his later dismay. After slaying the dragon, Siegfried bathes in its blood which makes him invulnerable save for a spot in his back that was covered by a linden leaf; the anonymous poet must have been well aware that linden leaves are normally heart-shaped which must be a subtle hint that the object of the hero’s heart will eventually be responsible for his death.

Hagen is one protagonist in the “Nibelungenlied” who easily represents the power of greed; he is quite the villain. He uses Kriemhild’s naively-offered information on how to exploit Siegfried’s “Achilles heel” to his advantage; once he kills the hero, the Nibelung treasure can be claimed for his own. Wagner wisely used Hagen again in “Gottedammerung” to show his understanding of this character’s importance in the saga and remembered that he is the son of Alberich, the original Nibelung treasure owner.

Hagen clearly has an agenda early on as he tells King Gunther how they would both benefit from Siegfried’s murder: “I’ll kill him---you shall gain! All the world is yours to command when you set hands on the ring that in death alone he will yield” (Wagner, 1848). Now here is the Nibelungenlied version based upon another manuscript: “Just think, King, how many lands you would encompass, however, if he were dead” (Goodrich, 1977). Wagner expanded the idea of Hagen’s lust for Siegfried’s death from mere kingly annexation to world domination.

There were other important characters that the composer borrowed from the poem like Brunhild, the Icelandic queen that Siegfried had fooled with his magic cloak which allows its user to shift into any other person or become invisible. Wagner used the invisibility cloak or magic Tarnhelm once with Alberich in the first opera, “Das Rheingold” as well as in “Gottedammerung” with Siegfried.

The Brunhild of both tales wanted Siegfried dead because she felt dishonored by his treachery. The Tarnhelm is a part of the treasure that the hero had won from slaying the dragon; it can also represent the interchangeability of avarice in the world; in other words, there are many forms of greed that exist as is shown in the story. King Gunther, a minor, but pivotal character, not only wanted Queen Brunhild because of her beauty and battle prowess, but she would also be a welcomed addition to his wealth and prestige as a powerful sovereign.

By adopting the semblance of this Burgundian king, Siegfried is an example of the dangerous brevity of lust when he is the only one who is able to go through flames on the mountain where Brunhild sleeps, and once again, arrogance started it all with Alberich proudly displaying the powers of the Tarnhelm to Wotan, King of the Gods. Siegfried used the magic device in the “Nibelungenlied” to help Gunther win the hand of Queen Brunhild but he was not totally selfless either when he first came on the scene in Burgundy: “Whether you like it or not, I have come to deprive you of your possessions and also to subdue your towns and villages” (Goodrich, 1977).

In this world of dragons and treasure, there is wealth to be had for anyone with proper ambition. Wagner must have discovered elements of what was happening during his time within this medieval story; as was aforementioned, he wrote the libretto for Gottedammerung in 1848 which is also the year of the Dresden revolution to unify Germany under a strong democracy in which he strongly supported; the uprising had failed and of course, the composer was thoroughly disappointed.

Fifty years later, George Bernard Shaw’s “The Perfect Wagnerite” was published. Friedrich Nietszche, the German philosopher and personal friend of Wagner’s, had long since critiqued the composer’s works, but Shaw’s account of the hidden meanings behind the Ring cycle appeared under greater scrutiny.

First, Shaw had no reservations whatsoever of his “superior” understanding of the Ring: “It is generally understood, however, that there is an inner ring of superior persons to whom the whole work has a most urgent and searching philosophic and social significance. I profess to be such a superior person…” (Shaw,1898).

The Irish poet and playwright may have perhaps believed in his own greatness to a level of pomposity, but he also did understand the political underpinnings of what inspired Wagner to write the Ring in the first place; the Nibelung myth provided the instruments through which his ideas were voiced.

The Dresden uprising of 1848 had failed because of the human capacity for greed which suppressed the progress of civilization, according to what Shaw believed to be the real story of the Ring: Wotan, the Father of the Norse Gods, is the true villain of the entire tetralogy, even more so than Hagen, because his initial greed is to own the Nibelung treasure transformed into an all-powerful Ring, and is the head of the ruling class that resists change in Valhalla as well as Earth which leads to both of their ultimate destruction: “And he owns and controls a new god, called the Press, which manufactures public opinion on his side, and organizes the persecution and suppression of Siegfried” (Shaw, 1898).

According to Shaw, Siegfried is “a totally unmoral person, a born anarchist...” (1898). Wagner’s version of the hero does not have to answer to the cosmic laws that were created by Wotan and his wife Fricka; he is a free spirit and the perfect embodiment of the noble savage. Wotan did not appear in “The Nibelungenlied” but Hagen instead presided over a good deal of the events in both the poem and “Gottedammerung”. Greed has to linger and be personified, after all.

The opera, “Siegfried, displayed the anarchistic nature of the title character as the man without fear or morals: no one else could have subdued a bear, re-forged a sword, slain a dragon, and got the girl in the end. Unlike the Austrian poem, Siegfried actually met Wotan, disguised as a Wanderer, and challenged his authority: “Stretch out your spear and see it break on my sword!” (Wagner, 1848).

The composer chose to make this a crucial scene in “Siegfried” because the hero defies the order of things; it would not have made a difference if he knew that he stood in front of Wotan himself or that he is actually his grandfather; Siegfried’s arrogance drove him on to break the Spear of the Gods, the instrument and symbol of order and conformity in the universe, and climbed the mountain of fire where Brunhild was asleep, waiting for him.

Ironically, Siegfried’s life ended at the tip of Hagen’s spear; therefore, one cannot shatter the spear of the law establishment (Wotan) without facing dire circumstances. Another dwarf character, Mime, is another example of how greed plays into the drama; he raised the young, orphaned Siegfried not out of love, but for eventually taking whatever future possessions he might acquire.

Wagner transported him to “Siegfried” as comic relief as well as to convince an audience that unlawful commercial gain will be costly: Mime planned to kill Siegfried, but of course, the young hero killed his foster father instead after discovering his treachery.

In “The Nibelungenlied”, Brunhild, the proud Icelandic queen, was defeated by Siegfried who was hidden under the Tarnhelm and working alongside King Gunther in many displays of athletic greatness. Here, Siegfried earlier in the poem defied authority by tricking it: “You must not fear the Queen. Give me your shield and let me bear it, and take careful note of what I say to you. Now you go through the motions, and I shall do the deeds” (Anonymous, 1200).

Now here is Wagner’s carefully written scene of Brunhild’s deception in “Gottedammerung”: “An eagle has flown here to tear me to pieces!” (Wagner, 1848). This alludes to the very first scene in the poem where Kriemhild had dreamt of a bird being torn asunder; this cannot be an accident. As one goes through the libretti of the Ring cycle, one may be able to detect other references to the original poetry that inspired it (e.g. Siegmund and Sieglinde as Siegfried’s real parents, the murder in the forest, etc.).

Wagner must have been always conscious of taking what he had read and transforming the material into the story he concocted to fit his ideas on the misuse of government while using archetypal imagery borrowed from mythology. The epic prose went so far as to show the grandeur and almost ridiculous manifestations of wealth in many stanzas; our hero, Siegfried and his retinue of knights must have been well off indeed: “…their gem-studded saddles and narrow poitrels were hung with bells were hung with bells of lustrous red gold; thus magnificently did they come riding up to Brunhild’s hall (Anonymous, 1200).

Wagner’s Ring had ostentatious displays in many productions as well but Chereau’s 1976 version clearly followed Shaw’s interpretation of the music dramas, carrying the Nibelung story well into the twentieth century even without the strong medieval pageantry of the poem; other productions “followed suit”.

No longer are there choruses of armored knights, but instead, modern weapons and clothes: “I have seen, at Covent Garden, Chicago gangsters with tommy guns running about during the overture to Act I of Die Walkure …” (Donington, 1990). This is the true meaning of myth, whether the interpretation is successful or not: the transcendence of the original material where the outward appearance may differ, but the hidden meanings remain consistent throughout the ages: “Myth is true for all time. Symbols explain themselves…in a symbol, there is concealment and yet revelation” (Donington, 1990).

Alberich’s taskmaster mentality towards the Nibelungs in “Das Rheingold” reportedly enhanced Hitler’s warped ideologies about race relations between the Germans and Jews during his rise to power which is of course, an extremely unfortunate legacy of myth gone awry.

Fritz Lang in his film “Die Nibelungen” (1924) was a favorite of the Nazi leader and wanted the director to create Third Reich movies. Hitler’s love of Wagnerian opera ignited his imagination to celebrate the Aryan supermyth by furthering it into cinema; if he had lived, there could have been a Parsifal or even Lohengrin on the silver screen. Mr. Lang brought “The Nibelungenlied” back to its original story but with Wagnerian subtleties.

Understanding that Hagen and Wotan share an equal greed for the ring of power, he chose to have a composite character in his film: Hagen looked very much like a Burgundian Wotan with an eye carefully obscured as if the Ravens of memory and knowledge took it.

Mr. Lang released “Metropolis” three years later, which is a film noted for its statement about the ills of corporate and societal greed. “Die Nibelungen” bore the weight of more Wagnerian symbolism with its ethereal landscapes, dream-like imagery, and ornate costumes.

Through film, the two different art forms of literature and music came together in a way that complimented both genres; sadly, however, it did not translate well to all audiences: “I remember when Die Nibelungen was shown here, in Pasadena. The audience didn’t understand it.

They had no fun with it because they had no relationship to the legend. The only legend which, in my opinion, the American knows are the westerns” (Lang, 1972). Nowadays, new mythologies like Star Wars have emerged into American consciousness and reliably steadfast ones like Star Trek and “Lord of the Rings” have re-emerged; however, the Nibelung legend does take root in the same source as Professor Tolkien’s epic fantasy literature which could be regarded as the “other great Ring story”.

Mr. Lang’s re-telling of “the Nibelungenlied” goes with his tradition of showing action instead of violence; the poem had quite a few scenes of abhorrent activities; for example, after Kriemhild killed Hagen, along with several other Burgundians, out of revenge for Siegfried’s murder, she became a casualty herself: “He leapt at Kriemhild in fury and struck the Queen with a heavy swing of his sword.

She winced in dread of Hildebrand----but what could her loud shrieks avail her? There lay the bodies of all that were doomed to die. The noble lady was hewn to pieces” (Anonymous, 1200). Even Wagner was not so graphic. Mr. Lang simply allowed her to die suddenly after killing the villain and later explained his aversion to violence in his films by giving an example of another of his classic films, M: “Immediately we know that the girl is dead and then we see the balloon flying away. This is action in a certain way” (Lang, 1972).

Mr. Lang could have used the excuse that medieval battles were quite violent and graphic, but instead, he chose to deviate away from the graphic nature of the poem because he felt that Kriemhild’s actions would kill her spirit as well as her corporeal self anyway. This is not to say that there were no scenes of a horrifying nature in “Die Nibelungen” because there were a few (e.g. the burning of the Burgundians in King Attila’s great hall); however, they were not gratuitous but faithful to the pre-Wagnerian story. Greed still gave birth to carnage in the film version as well.

Mr. Lang made sure to have all of the key characters in place for the calamities to come. Hagen was just as evil and corrupt as before, Gunther is still a sniveling coward who cannot do his own dirty work, Siegfried is the same arrogant whelp who has the classic symptoms of a megalomaniacal fool, Kriemhild is vengeful, and Brunhild is an icy-cold warrior queen. Wagner, on the other hand, took the story to a level where there is more expostulation of the characters which could easily fit into a sixteen-hour musical epic that would span four evenings.

George Bernard Shaw looked at Wagner’s re-invention of “The Nibelungenlied” under the microscopic precision of a Socialist: “the danger is that you will jump to the conclusion that the gods, at least, are a higher order than the human order. On the contrary, the world is waiting for Man to redeem it from the lame and cramped government of the gods” (Shaw, 1898).

Thus, from a medieval poem fraught with revenge and murder, had arisen a new story written by a composer turned dramatist that dealt with how the greedy need to contain and control the order of Man can be a counterproductive force that will eventually destroy a society if it stays unchecked. Fritz Lang was obviously familiar with the legend and decided not to industrialize it like Shaw did, but instead, return to the original story outlined in the poem, tone down the violence, and kept in mind the overall influence of greed without sacrificing it. The legend has lived on.




Anonymous, 1200. The Nibelungenlied. Translated from German by A.T. Hatto,1965. London, England: Penguin Classics.Chesley,L. & Gould, M., 1972. Fritz Lang: The Lost Interview. MovieMaker: The Art and Business of Making Movies [Online] (85) 21, May 2004, Available at

[Accessed 21 May 2010]

Donington, R., 1990. Opera & Its Symbols. 1st ed. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Goodrich, Norma L., 1977. Medieval Myths. 2nd ed. USA: Mentor in assoc. with New American Library.

Porter, A., 1977. Richard Wagner: The Ring of the Nibelung, 1848-1853. 1st ed. Translated from German by Andrew Porter, 1977. New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Shaw, G. B., 1898, The Perfect Wagnerite, 4th ed., 1923. London: Constable & Co.

Film Bibliography

Die Nibelungen, 1924 [DVD] Directed by Fritz Lang. Germany: Criterion Collection

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