Wotan--made secretly uneasy by Erda’s dark prediction that
‘Nothing that is ends not;
A day of gloom
Dawns for the gods;--
Be ruled and waive from the ring’--
relinquishes the ring which he had wrested from Alberich, as has been seen. His restlessness however daily increases, until at last he penetrates in disguise into the dark underground world and woos the fair earth goddess. So successfully does he plead his cause, that she receives him as her spouse and bears him eight lovely daughters. She also reveals to him the secrets of the future, when Walhalla’s strong walls shall fall, and the gods shall perish, because they have resorted to fraud and lent a willing ear to Loge, prince of evil.
Notwithstanding this fatal prediction Wotan remains undismayed. Instead of yielding passively to whatever fate may befall him, he resolves to prepare for a future conflict, and to defend Walhalla against every foe. As the gods are few in number, he soon decides to summon mortals to his abode, and in order to have men trained to every hardship and accustomed to war, he flings his spear over the world, and kindles unending strife between all the nations. His eight daughters, the Walkyries, are next deputed to ride down to earth every day and bear away the bravest among the slain. These warriors are entertained at his table with heavenly mead, and encouraged to keep up their strength and skill by cutting and hewing each other, their wounds healing magically as soon as made.
But, in spite of these preparations, Wotan is not yet satisfied. He still remembers the all-powerful ring which he has given to the giants, and which is still in the keeping of Fafnir. In case this ring again falls into the hands of the revengeful Alberich, he knows the gods cannot hope to escape from his wrath. He himself cannot snatch back a gift once given, so he decides to beget a son, who will unconsciously be his emissary, and who will, moreover, oppose the offspring which Erda has predicted that Alberich will raise merely to help him avenge his wrongs. Disguised as a mortal named Wälse, or Volsung, Wotan takes up his abode upon earth, and marries a mortal woman, who bears him twin children, Siegmund and Sieglinde. These children are still very young when Hunding, a hunter and lover of strife, comes upon their hut in the woods, and burns it to the ground, after slaying the elder woman and carrying off the younger as his captive.
On their return from the forest, Wälse and Siegmund behold with dismay the destruction of their dwelling, and vow constant warfare against their foes. This vow they faithfully keep until Siegmund grows up and his father suddenly and mysteriously disappears, leaving behind him nothing but the wolf-skin garment to which he owes his name.
Hunding, in the mean while, has carried Sieglinde off to his dwelling, which is built around the stem of a mighty oak, and when she attains a marriageable age he compels her to become his wife, although she very reluctantly submits to his wish. The opening scene of this opera represents Hunding’s hall,--in the midst of which stands the mighty oak whose branches overshadow the whole house,--which is dimly illumined by the fire burning on the hearth. Suddenly the door is flung wide open, and a stranger rushes in. He is dusty and dishevelled, and examines the apartment with a wild glance. When he has ascertained that it is quite empty, he comes in, closes the door behind him, and sinks exhausted in front of the fire, where he soon falls asleep. A moment later Sieglinde, Hunding’s forced wife, appears. When she sees a stranger in front of the fire, instead of her expected lord and master, she starts back in sudden fear. But, reassured by the motionless attitude of the stranger, she soon draws near, and, bending over him, discovers that he has fallen asleep:--
‘His heart still heaves,
Though his lids be lowered,
Warlike and manful I deem him
Though wearied down he sunk.’
As she has only a very dim recollection of her past, she fails to recognise her brother in the sleeper. He soon stirs uneasily, and, wakening, tries to utter a few words, which his parched lips almost refuse to articulate, until she compassionately gives him a drink.
Gazing at Sieglinde as if fascinated by some celestial vision, Siegmund, in answer to her questions, informs her that he is an unhappy wight, whose footsteps misfortune constantly dogs. He then goes on to inform her that even now he has escaped from his enemies with nothing but his life, and makes a movement to leave her for fear lest he should bring ill-luck upon her too. Sieglinde, however, implores him to remain and await the return of her husband. Almost as she speaks Hunding enters the house, and, allowing her to divest him of his weapons, seems dumbly to inquire the reason of the stranger’s presence at his hearth.
Sieglinde rapidly explains how she found him faint and weary before the fire, and Hunding, mindful of the laws of hospitality, bids the stranger welcome, and invites him to partake of the food which Sieglinde now sets before them. As Siegmund takes his place at the rude board, Hunding first becomes aware of the strange resemblance he bears to his wife, and after commenting upon it _sotto voce_, he inquires his guest’s name and antecedents. Siegmund then mournfully relates his happy youth, the tragic loss of his mother and sister, his roaming life with his father, and the latter’s mysterious disappearance.
Only then does Hunding recognize in him the foe whom he has long been seeking to slay.
Unconscious of all this, Siegmund goes on to relate how on that very day he had fought single-handed against countless foes to defend a helpless maiden, running away only when his weapons had failed him and the maiden had been slain at his feet. Sieglinde listens breathless to the story of his sad life and of his brave defence of helpless virtue, while Hunding suddenly declares that, were it not that the sacred rights of hospitality restrained him, he would then and there slay the man who had made so many of his kinsmen bite the dust. He however contents himself with making an appointment for a hostile encounter early on the morrow, promising to supply Siegmund with a good sword, since he has no weapons of his own:--
‘My doors ward thee,
Till the dawn shelter they show;
A flawless sword
Will befit thee at sunrise,
By day be ready for fight,
And pay thy debt for the dead.’
Then Hunding angrily withdraws with his wife, taking his weapons with him, and muttering dark threats, which fill his guest’s heart with nameless fear. Left alone, Siegmund bitterly mourns his lack of weapons, for he fears lest he may be treacherously attacked by his foe, and in his sorrow he reproaches his father, who had repeatedly told him that he would find a sword ready to his hand in case of direst need.
‘A sword,--so promised my father--
In sorest need I should find--
In the house of the foe,
Here in pledge
To his wrath I am held.’
While he is brooding thus over his misfortunes, the flames on the hearth flicker and burn brighter. Suddenly their light glints upon the hilt of a sword driven deep in the bole of the mighty oak, and, reassured by the thought that he has a weapon within reach, Siegmund disposes himself to sleep.
The night wears on. The fire flickers and dies out. The deep silence is broken only by Siegmund’s peaceful breathing, when the door noiselessly opens, and Sieglinde, all dressed in white, steals into the room. She glides up to the sleeping guest and gently rouses him, bidding him escape while her husband is still sound asleep under the influence of an opiate which she has secretly administered:--
‘It is I; behold what I say!
In heedless sleep is Hunding,
I set him a drink for his dreams,
The night for thy safety thou needest.’
Leading him to the oak, she then points out the sword, telling him it was driven into the very heart of the tree by a one-eyed stranger. He had come into the hall on her wedding day, and had declared that none but the mortal for whom the gods intended the weapon would ever be able to pull it out. She then goes on to describe how many strong men have tried to withdraw it, and warmly declares it must have been intended for him who had so generously striven to protect a helpless maiden. Her tender solicitude fills the poor outcast’s famished heart with such love and joy that he clasps her to his breast, and, the door swinging noiselessly open to admit a flood of silvery moonbeams, they join in the marvellous duet known as the ‘Spring Song.’
As they gaze enraptured upon each other, they too perceive the strong resemblance which has so struck Hunding, but still fail to recognize each other as near of kin. To save Sieglinde from her distasteful compulsory marriage, Siegmund now consents to fly, providing she will accompany him, vowing to protect her till death with the sword which he easily draws from the oak, and which he declares he knows his father must have placed there, as he recognizes him in the description which Sieglinde had given of the stranger:--
‘Siegmund the Volsung,
Seest thou beside thee!
For bridal gift
He brings thee this sword.
He woos with the blade
The blissfullest wife.
From the house of the foe
He hies with thee.
Forth from here
Follow him far,
Hence to the laughing
House of the Spring,
Where Nothung the sword defends thee,
Where Siegmund infolds thee in love!’
This passionate appeal entirely sweeps away Sieglinde’s last scruples; she yields rapturously to his wooing, and they steal away softly, hand in hand, to go and seek their happiness out in the wide world. Hunding, upon awaking on the morrow, discovers the treachery of his guest and the desertion of his wife. Almost beside himself with fury, he prepares to overtake and punish the guilty pair.
As a fight is now imminent between Siegmund, his mortal son, and Hunding, Wotan, who is up on a rocky mountain overlooking the earth, summons Brunhilde the Walkyrie to his side, bidding her saddle her steed and so direct the battle that Siegmund may remain victor and Hunding only fall. Chanting her Walkyrie war-cry, Brunhilde departs, laughingly calling out to Wotan that he had best be prepared for a call from his wife, who is hastening toward him as fast as her rams can draw her brazen chariot. Brunhilde has scarcely passed out of sight when Fricka comes upon the scene. After upbraiding Wotan for forsaking her to woo the goddess Erda and a mortal maiden, she says that, as father of the gods and ruler of the world, he is bound to uphold religion and morality. She then dwells angrily upon the immorality of the just consummated union between Siegmund and Sieglinde, who are brother and sister, and finally forces her husband, much against his will, to promise he will revoke his decree, give the victory to the injured husband, Hunding, and punish Siegmund, the seducer, by immediate death.
Wotan therefore summons Brunhilde once more, and sadly bids her to shield Hunding in the coming fight. Brunhilde, who realizes that the second command has been dictated by Fricka, implores him to confide his troubles to her. She then hears with dismay an account of the way in which Wotan has been beguiled into wrongdoing by Loge, of his attempts to gather an army large enough to oppose to his foes when the last day should come, and of his long cherished hope that Siegmund would recover the fatal ring which he feared would again fall into the revengeful Alberich’s hands. Finally, however, Wotan repeats his order to her to befriend Hunding, and Brunhilde, awed by his despair, slowly departs to fulfil his commands.
The god has just vanished amid the mutterings of thunder, expressive of his wrath if any one dare to disobey his behests, when Siegmund and Sieglinde suddenly appear upon the mountain side. They are fleeing from Hunding, and Sieglinde, who has discovered when too late that Siegmund is her brother, is so torn by remorse, love, and fear that she soon sinks fainting to the ground. Siegmund, alarmed, bends over her, but, having ascertained that she has only fainted, makes no effort to revive her, deeming it better that she should remain unconscious during the encounter which must soon take place, for the horn of the pursuing Hunding is already heard in the distance.
Siegmund has just pressed a tender kiss upon Sieglinde’s fair forehead, when Brunhilde, the Walkyrie, suddenly appears before him, and solemnly warns him of his coming defeat and death. He proudly tells her of his matchless sword, but she informs him that his reliance upon it is quite misplaced, for it will be wrenched from his grasp when his need is greatest. Then she tries to comfort him by describing the glory which awaits him in Walhalla, whither she will convey him after death.
Siegmund eagerly questions her, but, learning that Sieglinde can never be admitted within its shining portals, passionately declares he cannot leave her. He next proposes to kill her and himself, so that they may be together in Hela’s dark abode, for he will accept no joys which she cannot share:--
‘Then greet for me Valhall,
Greet for me Wotan;
Hail unto Wälse,
And all the heroes!
Greet, too, the graceful
For now I follow thee not.’
Brunhilde’s heart is so touched by his love for and utter devotion to Sieglinde, and she is so anxious at the same time to fulfil Wotan’s real wish, in defiance of his orders, that she finally allows compassion to get the better of her reason, and impulsively promises Siegmund that she will protect him in the coming fray. At the same moment Hunding’s horn is heard, and Brunhilde disappears, while the scene darkens with the rapid approach of a thunderstorm. Such is the darkness that Siegmund, who has sprung down the path in his eagerness to meet his foe, misses his way, while Sieglinde slowly rouses from her swoon, muttering of the days of her happy childhood when she dwelt with her family in the great wood. Suddenly, the lightning flashes, and Hunding and Siegmund, meeting upon a ridge, begin fighting, in spite of Sieglinde’s frantic cries.
As the struggle begins, Brunhilde, true to her promise, hovers over the combatants, holding her shield over Siegmund and warding off every dangerous blow, while Sieglinde gazes in speechless terror upon the combatants.
But in the very midst of the fray, when Siegmund is about to pierce Hunding’s heart with his glittering sword, Wotan suddenly appears, and, extending his sacred spear to parry the blow, he shivers the sword Nothung to pieces. Hunding basely takes advantage of this accident to slay his defenceless foe, while Brunhilde, fearing Wotan’s wrath and Hunding’s cruelty, catches up the fainting Sieglinde and bears her rapidly away upon her fleet-footed steed.
After gazing for a moment in speechless sorrow at his lifeless favourite, Wotan turns a wrathful glance upon the treacherous Hunding, who, unable to endure the divine accusation of his unflinching gaze, falls lifeless to the ground. Then the god mounts his steed, and rides off on the wings of the storm in pursuit of the disobedient Walkyrie, whom he is obliged to punish severely for his oath’s sake.
The next scene represents an elevated plateau, the trysting spot of the eight Walkyries, on Hindarfiall, or Walkürenfels, whither they all come hastening, bearing the bodies of the slain across their fleet steeds. Brunhilde appears last of all, carrying Sieglinde. She breathlessly pours out the story of the day’s adventures, and implores her sisters to devise some means of hiding Sieglinde, and to protect her from Wotan’s dreaded wrath:--
‘The raging hunter
Behind me who rides,
He nears, he nears from the North!
Save me, sisters!
Ward this woman.’
The sound of the tempest has been growing louder and louder while she is speaking, and as she ends her narrative Sieglinde recovers consciousness, but only to upbraid her for having saved her life. She wildly proposes suicide, until Brunhilde bids her live for the sake of Siegmund’s son whom she will bring into the world, and tells her to treasure the fragments of the sword Nothung, which she had carried away. Sieglinde, anxious now to live for her child’s sake, hides the broken fragments in her bosom, and, in obedience to Brunhilde’s advice, speeds into the dense forest where Fafnir has his lair, and where Wotan will never venture lest the curse of the ring should fall upon him.
‘Save for thy son
The broken sword!
Where his father fell
On the field I found it.
Who welds it anew
And waves it again,
His name he gains from me now--
“Siegfried” the hero be hailed.’
The noise of the storm and rushing wind has become greater and greater, the Walkyries have anxiously been noting Wotan’s approach. As Sieglinde vanishes in the dim recesses of the primeval forest, the wrathful god comes striding upon the stage in search of Brunhilde, who cowers tremblingly behind her sisters. After a scathing rebuke to the Walkyries, who would fain shelter a culprit from his all-seeing eye, Wotan bids Brunhilde step forth. Solemnly he then pronounces her sentence, declaring she shall serve him as Walkyrie no longer, but shall be banished to earth, where she will have to live as a mere mortal, and, marrying, to know naught beyond the joys and sorrows of other women:--
‘Heard you not how
Her fate I have fixed?
Far from your side
Shall the faithless sister be sundered;
Her horse no more
In your midst through the breezes shall haste her;
Her flower of maidenhood
Will falter and fade;
A husband will win
Her womanly heart,
She meekly will bend
To the mastering man
The hearth she’ll heed, as she spins,
And to laughers is left for their sport.’
Brunhilde, hearing this terrible decree, which degrades her from the rank of a goddess to that of a mere mortal, sinks to her knees and utters a great cry of despair. This is echoed by the Walkyries, who, however, depart at Wotan’s command, leaving their unhappy sister alone with him.
Passionately now Brunhilde pleads with her father, declaring she had meant to serve him best by disobeying his commands, and imploring him not to banish her forever from his beloved presence. But, although Wotan still loves her dearly, he cannot revoke his decree, and repeats to her that he will leave her on the mountain, bound in the fetters of sleep, a prey to the first man who comes to awaken her and claim her as his bride.
All Brunhilde’s tears and passionate pleadings only wring from him a promise that she will be hedged in by a barrier of living flames, so that none but the very bravest among men can ever come near her to claim her as his own.
Wotan, holding his beloved daughter in a close embrace, then gently seals her eyes in slumber with tender kisses, lays her softly down upon the green mound, and draws down the visor of her helmet. Then, after covering her with her shield to protect her from all harm, he begins a powerful incantation, summoning Loge to surround her with an impassable barrier of flames. As this incantation proceeds, small flickering tongues of fire start forth on every side; they soon rise higher and higher, roaring and crackling until, as Wotan disappears, they form a fiery barrier all around the sleeping Walkyrie:--
As I found thee at first--
In arrowy flame
As thereafter thou fleddest--
In fluttering fire;
As I dealt with thee once,
I wield thee to-day!
Arise, billowing blaze,
And fold in thy fire the rock!
Loge! Loge! Aloft!
Who fears the spike
Of my spear to face,
He will pierce not the planted fire.’
Excerpted from Stories of the Wagner Opera by H. A. Guerber (1895)