Die Walküre — the Story

Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) is the second of the four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung. In order to fully understand its story, one must know of certain events that took place in the first opera, Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold).

Wotan, the leader of the gods, had a great palace built by the giants, Fasolt and Fafner. As payment, he had pledged Freia, the goddess of love and the grower of the apples that give the gods eternal youth. Facing the loss of immortality, the gods bargained for alternative payment, but the only substitute the giants would accept was a great treasure hoarded up by the Nibelungs for their master, Alberich. Alberich ruled these subterranean dwarves through the power of a magical ring forged of gold he had taken from the Rhine; he forsook love, as the price of forging the ring. With the aid of Loge, the god of fire, Wotan captured Alberich and compelled him to yield up all his treasure, including the ring and the Tarnhelm, a magical helmet that enables its wearer to assume any form. Alberich placed a curse on the stolen ring: that it would bring death to all who possessed it until returned to him, its rightful owner. To redeem Freia, Wotan was ready to turn over the treasure to the giants, but not the ring. Warned by Erda, the earth goddess, of the power of the curse to bring about the downfall of the gods, he relented and gave the ring to the giants. The giants immediately fought for its posession, and Fafner slew his brother. Horrified to witness this immediate fulfilment of Alberich's curse, Wotan pondered how he might escape the doom Erda had foretold. Struck by an idea, he named the gods' new home Valhalla, the Hall of the Slain.

Act I is set in a wooden house built around the trunk of a great ash tree. In the midst of a thunderstorm a man appears in the doorway of the hut. He is overwhelmed with fatigue, and evidently in flight. Seeing no one about, he enters and falls exhausted on a rug in front of the hearth. A woman comes in, and finding the stranger lying on the floor, she comes over to ascertain whether he is alive. Suddenly coming to, he cries out for a drink, which she hurriedly goes to fetch. As he gradually revives, the two begin to gaze longingly and lovingly at each other. Restored to vigor, he tells her he must leave immediately so as not to bring on her the troubles that dog him wherever he goes, but she bids him stay: he cannot bring misfortune to where it already exists. She tells him that he is in the house of her husband Hunding, who will surely grant him shelter.

Hunding arrives, surprised and annoyed to find the stranger. His wife explains that she found him seeking shelter, and Hunding says that his house and hearth shall be sacred to the guest. They sit down to dinner. Hunding is struck by the likeness of the stranger to his own wife. On being questioned, the stranger says he is called Wehwalt (a name based on the German word for woe), and that the name is apt, as his life has been ill-starred. He recounts his life story: he was the son of Wolfe, born with a twin sister. One day he went hunting with his father. They returned to find their home burned to the ground by the Neidings, his mother dead, and no trace of his sister. They fled into the forest, where they lived as outlaws, wreaking revenge on the Neidings. But one day his father disappeared; all he could find of him was a wolf-skin. Leaving the forest he tried to rejoin society, but everywhere found rejection: whatever he thought was right, all others found wrong. Most recently, he sought to protect a maiden who was being married against her will, but only succeeded in having her and her brothers slaughtered, barely escaping with his own life. Fleeing from the fight, he found shelter with Hunding.

Hunding realizes that this stranger is the enemy of his own race. The laws of hospitality forbid him from harming the stranger while he remains for the night, but he insists that they must fight on the morrow, and that the unarmed guest shall pay for his shelter with his life. He bids his wife prepare him a draught before they retire for the night. As she slowly goes to do so, she attempts to draw the stranger's attention to the ash tree. Hunding drives her into the chamber, and before joining her, mockingly reminds the stranger that he is unarmed for the morrow's fight.

Left alone in the dark, the stranger ponders his fate, defenceless in the house of his enemy, but deeply enamored of the beautiful woman who has befriended him. He recalls that his father, whom he invokes as Volsa*, had once promised him that he should find a sword in his hour of need. That hour surely has come. Hunding's wife comes in from the bedchamber. She tells the stranger that she has drugged the drink and her husband will sleep soundly. She has come to show him a weapon that he might win, if he were the greatest of heroes. She bids him attend to her narrative. While Hunding's kinsmen caroused at their wedding, she, the unwilling bride, sat forlorn, having been abducted and sold to him. Suddenly an old man strode into the hall, clad in a grey cloak and a slouched hat that hung low and hid one of his eyes. All were terrified at the gaze of the other eye, except she herself, who felt mysterious solace in it. Wordlessly he swung his sword and plunged it deep into the stem of the ash tree. There it remains, for no matter how strong they were, no one has been able to draw the sword from the tree. She believes she knows who struck the sword in the tree and for whom it was destined: the bravest of heroes, who should someday come to her rescue. The stranger is convinced that he must be the one destined to win the sword and free this woman he loves.

A violent gust of wind suddenly blows open the door, and moonlight streams into the room. The pair reflect on the beauty of spring chasing away the darkness of winter. To the woman's closer questioning, the stranger admits that his name is not really Wehwalt, and his father was not Wolfe, but Volsa. Beside herself, the woman exclaims that if he is a Volsung, then his name is Siegmund, and that the sword shall be his. Exultantly he proclaims his identity and draws the sword, which he names Nothung (needful), from the tree, presenting it to her as a bride-gift. She now reveals her own identity: she is Sieglinde, his long-lost twin sister. They fall into each other's arms, declaring that the blood of the Volsungs will now flourish.

Act II takes place in a wild, rocky place. Wotan tells Brünnhilde, the Valkyrie, to prepare for the coming fight between Siegmund and Hunding. The victory is to be Siegmund's, but she is not to choose the slain Hunding for Valhalla: he is no hero. Wotan's wife Fricka now appears, and Brünnhilde tactfully withdraws, having no wish to be drawn into a marital feud. Fricka, as the protector of the sanctity of marriage, is furious with Wotan for fostering and shielding the adulterous and incestuous Volsungs, whom he himself fathered, under the guise of Volsa, by a mortal woman. Wotan patiently explains his plan, to wrest the ring from Fafner through the agency of a hero unconnected with the gods. Fricka is familiar with his idea, and points out the inherent flaw in it: that Siegmund is no free agent. He was fathered, reared, and taught by a god, and he is protected by the magic of a sword bestowed on him by a god. Wotan helplessly admits that Fricka is right. He asks her what he must do, and she demands that he cease to protect Siegmund. Wotan agrees but prevaricates, saying first that Siegmund's defence lies in the sword, not his own protection, and then that the Valkyrie herself chooses the victor, but Fricka is not deceived. She forces him to swear an oath that Siegmund shall fall to protect her honor and the gods' own law. Retiring triumphant from the confrontation, Fricka tells the returning Brünnhilde to await instructions from War-Father.

Brünnhilde senses that things did not go well if Fricka is so pleased, and she is terrified when her downcast father suddenly breaks out in a fearful outburst of impotent fury. She presses him to take her into his confidence. He resists, fearing that baring his inmost thoughts might deprive him of his controlling will. Brünnhilde persists, arguing that as she is only the child of his wish, in speaking to her he speaks only to himself. Wotan than relates to her the history of the Ring: Alberich's renunciation of love and theft of the gold, the limitless power for the wielder of the ring forged of the gold, the curse pronounced by Alberich when robbed of the ring, and Wotan's use of the stolen ring as his payment for Valhalla. Wotan had meant to keep the ring for himself, but was warned by Erda of the danger it would bring and of the downfall of the gods.

Desirous to learn more, Wotan went down into the womb of the earth personified by Erda and wrested wisdom of the gods' fate. She bore him a daughter, Brünnhilde, who along with her eight sister Valkyries was to stir up warfare among men and to select the bravest heroes from the field of battle for Valhalla, where they would fight for the gods in the ultimate battle. Brünnhilde protests that the Valkyries have fulfilled their task and filled Valhalla with heroes, so why does Wotan worry? His concern is the Nibelung's ring. Fafner has transformed himself into a great dragon to guard the ring and the hoard. But if ever the ring should fall into Alberich's hands again, Alberich could and would use its power to overcome Wotan's host and destroy the gods. Only if the ring is restored to the Rhine can this be averted. But Wotan cannot take the ring, Fafner holds it under Wotan's pledge, and should Wotan ever break a treaty sanctified by his spear, his power would be at an end. Wotan now reveals his plan: he has fathered a hero, Siegmund, who, fearless and careless of the gods, and working entirely of his own volition, can slay the dragon and wrest the ring. But as Fricka has made clear, Wotan has brought Siegmund up, shaped his actions, and protected him with a god's sword; Siegmund cannot win the ring as a free agent. Frustrated and helpless, Wotan now understands Erda's prophecy: when the enemy of love gets a son, the end of the gods is near. He has heard that Alberich has bribed a woman to bear his child. In an outpouring of bitterness, he bequeaths the meaningless and hateful pomp and glory of the gods to the Nibelung's son.

Alarmed, Brünnhilde asks what she is to do. Fight for Fricka, Wotan tells her, give the victory to Hunding. Brünnhilde refuses; she knows that Wotan loves Siegmund, and she will obey what his heart truly desires. Wotan turns on her furiously and threatens utter destruction if she disobeys his will, for she is but the creature of his will. Crushed, Brünnhilde prepares to do his bidding.

As Wotan departs and Brünnhilde conceals herself in a cave, Siegmund and Sieglinde appear in flight. Siegmund tries to restrain his sister, begging her to stop and rest, but Sieglinde wildly urges him on. She yields momentarily, only to hysterically call on him to fly from her who has profaned him by having once been another's. Siegmund assures her that Hunding shall atone for her shame with his life. Imagining that she hears Hunding in pursuit, she sees a horrible vision of Siegmund being torn to pieces by the dogs. At last Sieglinde sinks exhausted in her brother's arms and falls asleep.

Brünnhilde appears before Siegmund to announce that he has been chosen to follow her to Valhalla. Siegmund ask her whom he shall find there; fallen heroes, she tells him, his own father, wish-maidens to attend him, all await him in Valhalla. But when told that his bride-sister cannot accompany him, but must remain on earth, he tells the Valkyrie to greet everyone in Valhalla for him: he will remain behind. As long as Siegmund lives, Brünnhilde says, she has no power over him; but when felled in battle, he will have no choice. Siegmund asks what hero shall strike him down, and Brünnhilde says that Hunding is destined to be the victor. Siegmund scornfully reminds her that he wields a charmed sword. Brünnhilde says that he who bestowed the sword now withdraws its magic. She tells him that Sieglinde carries their child, and begs him to leave Sieglinde in her care, but Siegmund says that none but he shall protect her. If the sword cannot serve him against the foe, then at least it will serve him against the friend. He draws the sword and prepares to kill the sleeping Sieglinde. Deeply moved by his devotion, the frantic Brünnhilde stays his arm, crying that the lot of battle is reversed, and that Siegmund shall fight victorious under the protection of the Valkyrie.

Left alone, Siegmund broods over the coming battle raging over his sister, who is still sleeping peacefully. Hearing Hunding's horn, he rushes off to battle. Sieglinde is now awakened from a terrifying dream. Hearing Siegmund and Hunding calling each other to combat in the thickening storm clouds, she cries out to them to murder her first. As Siegmund and Hunding confront each other on the mountain pass, Brünnhilde appears behind Siegmund, urging him on and protecting him with her shield. Wotan then appears, his spear outstretched. The sword Nothung breaks on the spear, and Hunding kills the disarmed Siegmund. Brünnhilde hurriedly collects the fragments of the shattered sword, returns to Sieglinde, and the two flee. Wotan gazes sadly on his slain son. He bids Hunding kneel before Fricka, and tell her that her honor is avenged. At a dismissive wave of Wotan's spear, Hunding falls dead. Wotan suddenly breaks out in fury at Brünnhilde's disobedience to his command, vowing swift pursuit and punishment.

The third act takes us to a mountaintop, where the Valkyries are assembling to bring the slain heroes they have collected to Valhalla. They are momentarily diverted by the amusing spectacle of their own horses, who have carried sworn enemies in life, continuing the fight amongst themselves. They wonder that Brünnhilde has not yet arrived. When they finally spot her, they are alarmed to see her riding in such haste, as if pursued, and shocked to discover that it is not a warrior, but a woman she bears on her saddle. Dismounting, Brünnhilde hastily explains to her astonished and bewildered sisters how she disobeyed Wotan in attempting to aid Siegmund, and is now fleeing his fury. She calls on the other Valkyries to help her and the unfortunate Sieglinde to escape, but they cannot conceive of defying the god themselves. Sieglinde intervenes, saying she seeks only death herself, now that Siegmund is slain. Brünnhilde tells her that she must live for the sake of the child of Siegmund she now carries. The suddenly enraptured Sieglinde begs Brünnhilde and the Valkyries to rescue her and her child. As Wotan is seen approaching, Brünnhilde reaches a momentous decision: she will remain to suffer Wotan's wrath alone, so that Sieglinde may escape. Told by the Valkyries of a dismal forest where the dragon Fafner guards the Nibelung's treasure, Brünnhilde directs Sieglinde to seek refuge there, as it is a place Wotan shuns. She gives Sieglinde in parting the fragments of Siegmund's sword, telling her that they will one day be reforged by the son she shall bear: Siegfried, the most glorious of heroes.

As Brünnhilde hides herself behind the other Valkyries, Wotan arrives, demanding that she come forward to be punished. The Valkyries plead for him to calm his wrath, but he hurls accusations against her of disobedience to his commands, betrayal of his trust, taking up arms against him, and cowardice for seeking to evade her punishment. Brünnhilde humbly comes forward from the midst of her sisters and asks what that punishment is to be. She is to be deprived of her immortality, banished from Valhalla and the company of the gods, a Valkyrie no longer. She shall be put to sleep on the spot, and the man who finds her and awakens her shall have her as his wife. The shocked Valkyries plead for mercy, crying out that such a fate would bring shame on all of them as well. Wotan angrily bids them disperse, threatening any of them who would dare take her side with the same fate. The Valkyries rush off in despair.

Left alone with her father, Brünnhilde seeks to justify her actions, saying that while disobeying his command, she was faithful to his true desires. That she should have set herself up to know Wotan's will better than he himself only angers him further. She confides of a love for the Volsungs aroused in her by their plight. Wotan loved them as well, but was compelled to forsake them; Brünnhilde has chosen the path of love, a path that must leads her from him and the gods. Understanding that there is no avoiding her fate, Brünnhilde begs for one thing: if she must lie helpless in sleep and follow the man who awakens her, at least let him be a hero worthy of her. She has in mind Siegfried, destined to become the greatest of heroes, but Wotan refuses to hear about the Volsungs— he has separated himself from them forever. Undeterred, Brünnhilde conjures a vision of flames surrounding the rock where she lies, a fire so fearsome that none but the bravest of men would dare to penetrate it. Moved at last, Wotan promises her fire, a bridal fire such as never before burned for a bride. Brúnnhilde sinks ecstatically in his arms as he gently bids her farewell, kisses her godhead away, and lays out her sleeping form in her Valkyrie armor. Summoning Loge, the god of fire, he vows that only the man who fears not even Wotan's own spear shall ever cross through the fire.

*In the Völsungasaga the progenitor of the Völsung family was himself named Völsung. But in Germanicizing the Norse names, Wagner invented the name Wälse for the father of the Wälsungen, which is here translated by analogy to Volsa. The name in the Völsungasaga cannot be correct: it should be Völs, and in a passage of Beowulf telling of the same heroic line, his name is in fact given as the Anglo-Saxon equivalent, Waels.