Götterdämmerung, The Ring, and the Euro

As the Metropolitan Opera in New York completes its Ring cycle with Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), could there be an analogy with the fate of the Euro?

My review of the Met’s live relay of Götterdämmerung will appear on February 12.


Wagner’s Ring starts with the Niebelung, Alberich forging a ring of power from gold he stole from the river Rhine, using it to create vast wealth. In the meantime the gods construct the mighty palace of Valhalla, without having the money to pay for it, so they trick Alberich out of his treasure in order to pay the giants who did the work. The giants then demand everything, ring included — one kills the other, turns into a dragon and guards his treasure.

All might be well. The gods got something for nothing, but Wotan — king of the gods — having paid off his debt, wants to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens, and the remaining three operas in the cycle deal with the consequences. His plan is a deep one. He fathers two children, Siegmund and Sieglinde, and forges a sword that can be used to kill the dragon. The children grow up together but are later split apart, like West and East Germany, and Sieglinde is forcibly married to a man who doesn’t love her, like East Germany’s marriage to the Soviet Union. They reunite, become lovers, and Siegmund acquires the sword that Wotan created. But Wotan’s wife forcefully objects, and Wotan, realising Siegmund is not the free hero he thought he’d created, changes his mind. With his spear, the mighty instrument on which all treaties are engraved, he breaks the sword.

Siegmund is then killed, but Brünnhilde, daughter of Wotan and the Earth goddess Erda, rescues Sieglinde, and their son Siegfried is born. He becomes the free hero that Wotan originally intended, re-forges the sword, kills the dragon and takes the ring. He then breaks Wotan’s spear with all its treaties, and wins Brünnhilde as his wife.

Angela Merkel knows the story. As a Wagner aficionado she not only attends the opening of the Bayreuth Festival in her official capacity, but goes privately to further performances, and can surely see Wotan’s spear as a metaphor for the treaties of the Euro. It has already cast down the sword of democracy wielded by George Papandreou of Greece — no sooner did he hold it aloft than he was quickly forced from office. But what if someone who is now mightier than they are wields the sword? Chancellor Merkel as a good European is aware of the problem, so she has her solution. Strengthen the spear, strengthen the treaties.

This might work … but then again it might not. Look at Wagner’s Ring. Like present day united Germany, the fearless hero Siegfried is the son of a brother and sister, and if the Germans themselves raise the sword of democracy against the Euro treaties, what then?

In the third opera, after Siegfried has killed the dragon, taken the ring, and broken the spear with all its treaties, Wotan resigns himself to the idea that his days are over, and that his grandson Siegfried will inherit the earth, but … it doesn’t turn out that way.

As we move into the fourth and last opera in the cycle, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) the Norns, daughters of Erda, are spinning the rope of fate. From the past they can read the future, but other forces are at work, and the rope tightens … then breaks.

Alberich, creator of the ring, has a son Hagen intent on reclaiming it. Hagen schemes against Siegfried and Brünnhilde, deceiving Siegfried, who in turn unwittingly tricks Brünnhilde, and in the resulting confusion she reveals how Hagen can kill Siegfried. The deed is done, the body with the ring is carried home on a mighty funeral procession, and Brünnhilde finally realises the awful truth. She immolates herself on Siegfried’s funeral pyre, and in the resulting conflagration, not even Hagen can secure the ring. The Rhine overflows its banks and the Rhinemaidens sweep forth to take it back to its original home.

This is the end of Wagner’s Ring, but the composer allowed opportunities for avoiding such a dramatic meltdown. After Siegfried has given the ring to Brünnhilde as a wedding gift, one of her sisters comes begging her to return it to the Rhine, but she refuses. Pity, because one of the lessons of the Ring is that if you refuse to give it up it will be taken from you, and you will die, then or later. In the first opera one of the giants suffered this fate, in the third opera it was the dragon, and now in the final opera it happens to Brünnhilde. Hagen deceives Siegfried into losing his memory and taking it from her. Now Siegfried has the ring again, but before Hagen kills him the Rhinemaidens appear and ask for it back. He refuses. The only person who ever gave up the ring voluntarily was Wotan himself, in the Prologue, and that only because the wise earth goddess Erda rose from the depths and insisted.

Can anyone give up the Euro? Does anyone have a plan to return it from whence it came without Europe falling into semi-destruction? Wotan had a plan, but changed his mind, and his uncertainty compounded the problem.

It may seem fanciful to compare the Euro with the Ring, but great stories hold our imaginations because they appeal to unconscious feelings and knowledge. The Euro was created from a sense of idealism, to increase the unity and prosperity of Europe. But like the ring it holds its owners in thrall, and its destructive aspects could yet lead to a mighty conflagration.

Exactly how is not known, but in creating his Ring cycle, Wagner went through several different endings in the final immolation scene with Brünnhilde. The Feuerbach ending, the Schopenhauer ending … Where are the philosophers when we need them? The best laid plans of mice and men, of Niebelungs and gods, can go awry, and if the rope breaks … Far better to return the Euro to its Urheimat voluntarily. Pity there’s no-one who can do it.

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