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The Valkyries

Before the curtain rises on the Valkyries, let us see what has
happened since it fell on The Rhine Gold. The persons of the
drama will tell us presently; but as we probably do not
understand German, that may not help us.

Wotan is still ruling the world in glory from his giant-built
castle with his wife Fricka. But he has no security for the
continuance of his reign, since Alberic may at any moment
contrive to recover the ring, the full power of which he can
wield because he has forsworn love. Such forswearing is not
possible to Wotan: love, though not his highest need, is a higher
than gold: otherwise he would be no god. Besides, as we have
seen, his power has been established in the world by and as a
system of laws enforced by penalties. These he must consent to be
bound by himself; for a god who broke his own laws would betray
the fact that legality and conformity are not the highest rule
of conduct--a discovery fatal to his supremacy as Pontiff and
Lawgiver. Hence he may not wrest the ring unlawfully from
Fafnir, even if he could bring himself to forswear love.

In this insecurity he has hit on the idea of forming a heroic
bodyguard. He has trained his love children as war-maidens
(Valkyries) whose duty it is to sweep through battle-fields and
bear away to Valhalla the souls of the bravest who fall there.
Thus reinforced by a host of warriors, he has thoroughly
indoctrinated them, Loki helping him as dialectician-in-chief,
with the conventional system of law and duty, supernatural
religion and self-sacrificing idealism, which they believe to
be the essence of his godhood, but which is really only the
machinery of the love of necessary power which is his mortal
weakness. This process secures their fanatical devotion to his
system of government, but he knows perfectly well that such
systems, in spite of their moral pretensions, serve selfish and
ambitious tyrants better than benevolent despots, and that, if
once Alberic gets the ring back, he will easily out-Valhalla
Valhalla, if not buy it over as a going concern. The only chance
of permanent security, then, is the appearance in the world of a
hero who, without any illicit prompting from Wotan, will destroy
Alberic and wrest the ring from Fafnir. There will then, he
believes, be no further cause for anxiety, since he does not yet
conceive Heroism as a force hostile to Godhead. In his longing
for a rescuer, it does not occur to him that when the Hero comes,
his first exploit must be to sweep the gods and their ordinances
from the path of the heroic will.

Indeed, he feels that in his own Godhead is the germ of such
Heroism, and that from himself the Hero must spring. He takes to
wandering, mostly in search of love, from Fricka and Valhalla. He
seeks the First Mother; and through her womb, eternally fertile,
the inner true thought that made him first a god is reborn as his
daughter, uncorrupted by his ambition, unfettered by his
machinery of power and his alliances with Fricka and Loki. This
daughter, the Valkyrie Brynhild, is his true will, his real
self, (as he thinks): to her he may say what he must not say to
anyone, since in speaking to her he but speaks to himself. "Was
Keinem in Worten unausgesprochen," he says to her, "bleib es
ewig: mit mir nur rath' ich, red' ich zu dir."

But from Brynhild no hero can spring until there is a man of
Wotan's race to breed with her. Wotan wanders further; and a
mortal woman bears him twins: a son and a daughter. He separates
them by letting the girl fall into the hands of a forest tribe
which in due time gives her as a wife to a fierce chief, one
Hunding. With the son he himself leads the life of a wolf, and
teaches him the only power a god can teach, the power of doing
without happiness. When he has given him this terrible training,
he abandons him, and goes to the bridal feast of his daughter
Sieglinda and Hunding. In the blue cloak of the wanderer, wearing
the broad hat that flaps over the socket of his forfeited eye, he
appears in Hunding's house, the middle pillar of which is a
mighty tree. Into that tree, without a word, he strikes a sword
up to the hilt, so that only the might of a hero can withdraw
it. Then he goes out as silently as he came, blind to the truth
that no weapon from the armory of Godhead can serve the turn of
the true Human Hero. Neither Hunding nor any of his guests can
move the sword; and there it stays awaiting the destined hand.
That is the history of the generations between The Rhine Gold and
The Valkyries.

The First Act

This time, as we sit looking expectantly at the curtain, we hear,
not the deep booming of the Rhine, but the patter of a forest
downpour, accompanied by the mutter of a storm which soon gathers
into a roar and culminates in crashing thunderbolts. As it
passes off, the curtain rises; and there is no mistaking whose
forest habitation we are in; for the central pillar is a mighty
tree, and the place fit for the dwelling of a fierce chief. The
door opens: and an exhausted man reels in: an adept from the
school of unhappiness. Sieglinda finds him lying on the hearth.
He explains that he has been in a fight; that his weapons not
being as strong as his arms, were broken; and that he had to fly.
He desires some drink and a moment's rest; then he will go; for
he is an unlucky person, and does not want to bring his ill-luck
on the woman who is succoring him. But she, it appears, is also
unhappy; and a strong sympathy springs up between them. When her
husband arrives, he observes not only this sympathy, but a
resemblance between them, a gleam of the snake in their eyes.
They sit down to table; and the stranger tells them his unlucky
story. He is the son of Wotan, who is known to him only as
Wolfing, of the race of the Volsungs. The earliest thing he
remembers is returning from a hunt with his father to find their
home destroyed, his mother murdered, and his twin-sister carried
off. This was the work of a tribe called the Neidings, upon whom
he and Wolfing thenceforth waged implacable war until the day
when his father disappeared, leaving no trace of himself but an
empty wolfskin. The young Volsung was thus cast alone upon the
world, finding most hands against him, and bringing no good luck
even to his friends. His latest exploit has been the slaying of
certain brothers who were forcing their sister to wed against
her will. The result has been the slaughter of the woman by her
brothers' clansmen, and his own narrow escape by flight.

His luck on this occasion is even worse than he supposes; for
Hunding, by whose hearth he has taken refuge, is clansman to the
slain brothers and is bound to avenge them. He tells the Volsung
that in the morning, weapons or no weapons, he must fight for his
life. Then he orders the woman to bed, and follows her himself,
taking his spear with him.

The unlucky stranger, left brooding by the hearth, has nothing to
console himself with but an old promise of his father's that he
shall find a weapon to his hand when he most needs one. The last
flicker of the dying fire strikes on the golden hilt of the sword
that sticks in the tree; but he does not see it; and the embers
sink into blackness. Then the woman returns. Hunding is safely
asleep: she has drugged him. She tells the story of the one-eyed
man who appeared at her forced marriage, and of the sword. She
has always felt, she says, that her miseries will end in the arms
of the hero who shall succeed in drawing it forth. The stranger,
diffident as he is about his luck, has no misgivings as to his
strength and destiny. He gives her his affection at once, and
abandons himself to the charm of the night and the season;
for it is the beginning of Spring. They soon learn from their
confidences that she is his stolen twin-sister. He is transported
to find that the heroic race of the Volsungs need neither perish
nor be corrupted by a lower strain. Hailing the sword by the name
of Nothung (or Needed), he plucks it from the tree as her
bride-gift, and then, crying "Both bride and sister be of thy
brother; and blossom the blood of the Volsungs!" clasps her as
the mate the Spring has brought him.

The Second Act

So far, Wotan's plan seems prospering. In the mountains he calls
his war-maiden Brynhild, the child borne to him by the First
Mother, and bids her see to it that Hunding shall fall in the
approaching combat. But he is reckoning without his consort,
Fricka. What will she, the Law, say to the lawless pair who have
heaped incest on adultery? A hero may have defied the law, and
put his own will in its place; but can a god hold him guiltless,
when the whole power of the gods can enforce itself only by law?
Fricka, shuddering with horror, outraged in every instinct, comes
clamoring for punishment. Wotan pleads the general necessity of
encouraging heroism in order to keep up the Valhalla bodyguard;
but his remonstrances only bring upon him torrents of reproaches
for his own unfaithfulness to the law in roaming through the
world and begetting war-maidens, "wolf cubs," and the like. He is
hopelessly beaten in the argument. Fricka is absolutely right
when she declares that the ending of the gods began when he
brought this wolf-hero into the world; and now, to save their
very existence, she pitilessly demands his destruction. Wotan has
no power to refuse: it is Fricka's mechanical force, and not his
thought, that really rules the world. He has to recall Brynhild;
take back his former instructions; and ordain that Hunding shall
slay the Volsung.

But now comes another difficulty. Brynhild is the inner thought
and will of Godhead, the aspiration from the high life to the
higher that is its divine element, and only becomes separated
from it when its resort to kingship and priestcraft for the sake
of temporal power has made it false to itself. Hitherto,
Brynhild, as Valkyrie or hero chooser, has obeyed Wotan
implicitly, taking her work as the holiest and bravest in his
kingdom; and now he tells her what he could not tell Fricka--what
indeed he could not tell to Brynhild, were she not, as she says,
his own will--the whole story of Alberic and of that inspiration
about the raising up of a hero. She thoroughly approves of the
inspiration; but when the story ends in the assumption that she
too must obey Fricka, and help Fricka's vassal, Hunding, to undo
the great work and strike the hero down, she for the first time
hesitates to accept his command. In his fury and despair he
overawes her by the most terrible threats of his anger; and she
submits.

Then comes the Volsung Siegmund, following his sister bride, who
has fled into the mountains in a revulsion of horror at having
allowed herself to bring her hero to shame. Whilst she is lying
exhausted and senseless in his arms, Brynhild appears to him and
solemnly warns him that he must presently leave the earth with
her. He asks whither he must follow her. To Valhalla, to take his
place there among the heroes. He asks, shall he find his father
there? Yes. Shall he find a wife there? Yes: he will be waited on
by beautiful wishmaidens. Shall he meet his sister there? No.
Then, says Siegmund, I will not come with you.

She tries to make him understand that he cannot help himself.
Being a hero, he will not be so persuaded: he has his father's
sword, and does not fear Hunding. But when she tells him that she
comes from his father, and that the sword of a god will not avail
in the hands of a hero, he accepts his fate, but will shape it
with his own hand, both for himself and his sister, by slaying
her, and then killing himself with the last stroke of the sword.
And thereafter he will go to Hell, rather than to Valhalla.

How now can Brynhild, being what she is, choose her side freely
in a conflict between this hero and the vassal of Fricka? By
instinct she at once throws Wotan's command to the winds, and
bids Siegmund nerve himself for the combat with Hunding, in which
she pledges him the protection of her shield. The horn of Hunding
is soon heard; and Siegmund's spirits rise to fighting pitch at
once. The two meet; and the Valkyrie's shield is held before the
hero. But when he delivers his sword-stroke at his foe, the
weapon shivers on the spear of Wotan, who suddenly appears
between them; and the first of the race of heroes falls with the
weapon of the Law's vassal through his breast. Brynhild snatches
the fragments of the broken sword, and flies, carrying off the
woman with her on her war-horse; and Wotan, in terrible wrath,
slays Hunding with a wave of his hand, and starts in pursuit of
his disobedient daughter.

The Third Act

On a rocky peak, four of the Valkyries are waiting for the rest.
The absent ones soon arrive, galloping through the air with slain
heroes, gathered from the battle-field, hanging over their
saddles. Only, Brynhild, who comes last, has for her spoil a live
woman. When her eight sisters learn that she has defied Wotan,
they dare not help her; and Brynhild has to rouse Sieglinda to
make an effort to save herself, by reminding her that she bears
in her the seed of a hero, and must face everything, endure
anything, sooner than let that seed miscarry. Sieglinda, in a
transport of exaltation, takes the fragments of the sword and
flies into the forest. Then Wotan comes; the sisters fly in
terror at his command; and he is left alone with Brynhild.

Here, then, we have the first of the inevitable moments which
Wotan did not foresee. Godhead has now established its dominion
over the world by a mighty Church, compelling obedience through
its ally the Law, with its formidable State organization of force
of arms and cunning of brain. It has submitted to this alliance
to keep the Plutonic power in check--built it up primarily for
the sake of that soul in itself which cares only to make the
highest better and the best higher; and now here is that very
soul separated from it and working for the destruction of its
indispensable ally, the lawgiving State. How is the rebel to be
disarmed? Slain it cannot be by Godhead, since it is still
Godhead's own very dearest soul. But hidden, stifled, silenced
it must be; or it will wreck the State and leave the Church
defenseless. Not until it passes completely away from Godhead,
and is reborn as the soul of the hero, can it work anything but
the confusion and destruction of the existing order. How is the
world to be protected against it in the meantime? Clearly Loki's
help is needed here: it is the Lie that must, on the highest
principles, hide the Truth. Let Loki surround this mountain top
with the appearance of a consuming fire; and who will dare
penetrate to Brynhild? It is true that if any man will walk
boldly into that fire, he will discover it at once to be a lie,
an illusion, a mirage through which he might carry a sack of
gunpowder without being a penny the worse. Therefore let the fire
seem so terrible that only the hero, when in the fulness of time
he appears upon earth, will venture through it; and the problem
is solved. Wotan, with a breaking heart, takes leave of Brynhild;
throws her into a deep sleep; covers her with her long warshield;
summons Loki, who comes in the shape of a wall of fire
surrounding the mountain peak; and turns his back on Brynhild for
ever.

The allegory here is happily not so glaringly obvious to the
younger generations of our educated classes as it was forty years
ago. In those days, any child who expressed a doubt as to the
absolute truth of the Church's teaching, even to the extent of
asking why Joshua told the sun to stand still instead of telling
the earth to cease turning, or of pointing out that a whale's
throat would hardly have been large enough to swallow Jonah, was
unhesitatingly told that if it harboured such doubts it would
spend all eternity after its death in horrible torments in a lake
of burning brimstone. It is difficult to write or read this
nowadays without laughing; yet no doubt millions of ignorant and
credulous people are still teaching their children that. When
Wagner himself was a little child, the fact that hell was a
fiction devised for the intimidation and subjection of the
masses, was a well-kept secret of the thinking and governing
classes. At that time the fires of Loki were a very real terror
to all except persons of exceptional force of character and
intrepidity of thought. Even thirty years after Wagner had
printed the verses of The Ring for private circulation, we find
him excusing himself from perfectly explicit denial of current
superstitions, by reminding his readers that it would expose him
to prosecution. In England, so many of our respectable voters are
still grovelling in a gloomy devil worship, of which the fires of
Loki are the main bulwark, that no Government has yet had the
conscience or the courage to repeal our monstrous laws against
"blasphemy."

George Bernard Shaw