Wagner’s Ring and the Germanic Tradition
Wagnerphile Books, 2021
Richard Wagner is a cornerstone of Western culture. He is one of the few composers that still receive mainstream attention in the 21st century, but usually for negative reasons. Hacks can’t resist the temptation to bash him for his alleged proto-Nazism and anti-Semitism. Even if critics see him as a predecessor to Hitler, many of them still enjoy his music. Few doubt he was a great musician.
But less attention is paid to Wagner as a mythmaker. Collin Cleary’s excellent Wagner’s Ring and the Germanic Tradition highlights the Old Sorcerer’s role in resurrecting the Germanic myths and gods for the modern era. Before the horrible Thor films and mediocre Viking shows, the average person’s knowledge of the Germanic tradition was derived from the Ring Cycle. The fearsome Valkyries, imposing gods, and bold heroes have captured the imagination of millions for generations. Cleary argues that Wagner’s Ring is the most beautiful and intellectually profound representation of the old myths available to us. The author, a frequent Counter-Currents contributor, obviously knows that there are earlier sources for the Germanic myths, but he asserts that the older sources fail to reach the artistic brilliance of Wagner and are distorted by Christian influence. Wagner, in the author’s opinion, depicted the myths stripped to their pagan core, making them essential works for the folkish heathen. But it’s not just practicing Asatruar who will find the book valuable. The reader will come away with a deeper appreciation for the Ring Cycle and its lasting impact on Western culture.
Cleary disputes arguments that Der Ring des Nibelungen somehow distorts Germanic myths. Most of our sources for the myths come from Christians, fragments, and elements in medieval court literature. The author insists Wagner was a more genuine pagan than the older sources and captures the myths in their true spirit. The Ring Cycle wasn’t initially meant to be a new myth for European man. Wagner first set out to write the opera as an anarchist allegory. Traces of that still remain in the final libretto, but Wagner’s later philosophical awakening made the opera much more than a Left-wing diatribe about greed and power. The work articulated the Faustian spirit of the West and its primordial archetypes.
Clearly explores the sources behind the Ring and what Wagner changed in his interpretation. The most obvious change is the names. Odin (Wuotan) became Wotan, Donar became Donner, etc. The principal sources are the Nibelungenlied, the Thidreks saga, the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, and the Volsung saga. Cleary shows what Wagner took from these sources and how he made the materials different for his final work. The author particularly hones in on the differences between the Nibelungenlied and the Ring. The Nibelungenlied is the great Germanic national poem and it elicited much interest in the Romantic 19th century. Cleary finds it to be an inferior work and mired in the stilted medieval poetry. The author notes that Wagner found it limiting and particularly didn’t like its courtly refinement and Christian trappings. The composer wanted to strip it of these false accouterments and restore the story to its original state. The Ring succeeded in this effort.
The book gives an uninitiated layman a good sense of the story and themes within the Ring. One theme that Cleary particularly examines in the opera is that love is simply the answer. This sounds more like John Lennon than radical traditionalism, but Cleary shows that there’s more than meets the eye here. Love is meant as “fellow feeling” rather than romantic attachment to a significant other. It’s the great resistor to the degradations of modernity that burn the ties of man. It’s the feeling of individuals belonging to something higher than themselves and forms the basis of a healthy society. It’s not simply a gooey message of an Apple advertisement. But Wagner’s opera doesn’t simply say that love is the answer. It expresses the pessimistic message that love itself cannot overcome human wickedness and tragedy will always be part of life.
The many characters of Der Ring are also explored, with most attention paid to the central character, Wotan. In this character, Cleary sees the Faustian spirit embodied. Wotan seeks mastery and knowledge no matter the cost. This behavior, as well as that of the mortal heroes, leads to the opera’s tragic end. Cleary’s Odinism, which he alludes to in the book, calls for its followers not simply to worship the god but to become a god. This call is part of the European’s Faustian nature, the drive that makes him explore the cosmos and conquer the known world. This constant striving is part of our civilization, but it also carries the seeds of our destruction.
The Odinic path is appealing to a certain kind of European, yet it is a risky ideal, especially for a religion. The Ring cycle demonstrates this. There are still higher powers than Wotan, ones that can’t bend to divine whims or mortal action. Siegfried may shatter Wotan’s spear, but he can’t escape his fate. Even if one became a god, there are still forces you can never transcend. There is a risk in promoting the idea of becoming a god at a time when every person turns themselves into their own personal celebrity through social media. Our degraded world promotes hyper-individualism to the point of self-worship. A rooted faith would inform adherents of nature’s laws and why they must be respected, not trampled in pursuit of personal vanity.
Cleary isn’t an advocate of some crazed Ayn Randism and he of course knows the dangers that lurk within the Faustian spirit. We should want our great men to exert themselves past limits and the herd. But personal apotheosis can’t be a mass message, and even the great men need to realize that their fates too are fixed by the Norns. Der Ring delivers this lesson powerfully.
All societies and civilizations express themselves through their myths. Today, we suffer under the horrible myths of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, St. George Floyd, and many other unbearable tales. These all serve to shape the public consciousness and represent our society’s values in all their ugliness. Nearly all modern art and entertainment repeat and support these corrupt myths.
For us as a true counter-culture, we need myths and art of our own. Wagner’s Ring gives us both, and it is work worthy of intense admiration and study. All men and women of the Right are recommended to read Cleary’s fine work on the subject. There’s more to the operas than soaring sopranos and dramatic music. It manifests the spirit of our people and our ancient traditions. It’s a myth for which we can build the world anew.
Wagner’s Ring & the Germanic Tradition is available for purchase here.
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