Power and knowledge in Wagner’s Ring
Last night, I attended the Seattle Opera’s production of Wagner’s first in the four part Ring series: The Rhinegold. The opera’s central figures – mythological gods, two giants, and a thieving dwarf – all must grapple with the conflicting pull between love and power. Power – embodied by the ring – requires giving up love.
Wagner makes it clear that choosing the ring and all the power it bestows to be evil. When the opera returns to the dwarf, Alberich, who had first stolen the gold for the ring from the river, it reveals him as the cruel overlord of the dwarfs. He whips his brother, and demands that the dwarfs forge gold for him faster. Similarly, when Wotan, the king of the gods, reluctantly hands the ring to the brothers in return for his sister-in-law, their ensuing struggle leads one to murder the other.
What is more interesting about the themes of The Rhinegold is the nature of this power. The brother of Alberich alludes to how the ring is able to reveal to Alberich where the gold lies hidden. The ring endows its wearer with knowledge, and this knowledge is powerful. It seems this is more then just coincidence as Loge, the demigod of fire, is the most powerful character in this opera, largely because of his intelligence. Loge tricks Alberich so that Wotan may gain control of the ring, and Loge is sought when Wotan demands a solution to his arrangement with the giants.
It is clear that to Wagner, where there is knowledge, there is also power. But does this then mean that Wagner believed that knowledge is inherently evil? Not necessarily. The Goddess of wisdom, who cautions Wotan about the ring is an unquestionably positive figure. This is obvious both in the theme of the music that occupies her entrance, and in the way in which the characters become enchanted by her powerful words of warning.
Instead, Wagner’s first installment of the Ring reveals knowledge is corrupted and exploited at the expense of man’s desire to capture and control all he can. This is the aspect of knowledge that Wagner finds evil.