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So Whose Gold Is It Anyway?

Posted by acdtest on January 19, 2004

So Whose Gold Is It Anyway?

The Nibelung dwarf Alberich forswears love forever, takes a lump of gold from its resting place at the bottom of the river Rhine, forges it into a ring which confers upon him unlimited power, and thereby sets into motion the chain of events which is Wagner’s epic tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen (“The Nibelung’s Ring”).

Conventional readings of Alberich’s seminal deed have it that he stole from the Rhine the gold from which he forged his ring, and indeed throughout the texts of all four music-dramas Alberich is referred to as a Räuber, usually translated as robber or thief. But the German noun Raub, which ordinarily means robbery, has another meaning as well used poetically; namely, rape or ravish (i.e., seize and carry off by force, or despoil), and it seems to me, within the context of the Wagnerian mythology of the Ring, that poetic meaning more correctly and more accurately characterizes Alberich’s initial deed. How can one steal that which he’s paid for in full, and therefore his very own?

The gold of the Rhine — the Rhinegold — cannot be said to be owned by anyone at drama’s opening. It’s certainly not owned by the three Rheintöchter. They’re merely its appointed guardians (more about what that entails anon). The Rhinegold can be said, in a poetic sense, to be owned by the Rhine itself, but its resting place at the bottom of that great river is merely a transient state, self-defined, for as the Rheintöchter inform Alberich, the Rhinegold may be forged into the ring of power by anyone willing to forswear love, which implies unequivocally that such a one is entitled to take the Rhinegold for that purpose, and therefore become the owner of both gold and ring.

So, what, then, did the guardianship of the Rheintöchter entail? Surely, it did not — could not — entail their taking physical measures to prevent the removal of the Rhinegold from its resting place at the bottom of the river. The very idea is absurd. It would seem, then, that their guardianship could have entailed nothing other than their informing any prospective fancier of the Rhinegold that only one who first forswore love would be entitled to it. Such a warning, as is made clear in the text of Das Rheingold, was considered by the Rheintöchter to be more than sufficient to ward off any prospective taker of the Rhinegold, for who in that primal world would even consider doing such a thing given the condition required?

Alberich, that’s who. And only because cruelly, if innocently, pushed to the deed by the unthinking behavior of the Rheintöchter themselves in response to his attempts at wooing them. In that sense, the Rheintöchter can be said to have failed, wantonly and abjectly, the principal charge of their guardianship by themselves creating a condition that all but ensured its breach.

By this reasoning (and to my way of thinking, the only reasoning that makes ethical, dramatic, and mythical sense within the context of the Ring) it’s clear Alberich is by no stretch of the term a thief. He paid, and paid most dearly, for his right to take the Rhinegold from the river for his own, and forge from it the ring of power, which ring is without question his and his alone as the very title of the tetralogy itself proclaims. There’s but a single thief in Das Rheingold, and that’s Wotan himself, chief god and maker of laws. When, in Scene 4, Alberich declares that the ring is as much his own as his head, eyes, and ears, and hurls at Wotan — who’s just about to forcibly take the ring from Alberich’s finger for himself (which he does in the next minute) — the appellation Schächer (thief), he speaks nothing but the truth; technically, legally, and ethically.

When I informed some Wagner fans of my intention to post here an article making the case that Alberich was in fact no thief at all in the matter of the Rhinegold, one replied, “If you can get Alberich off that rap the Michael Jackson defense team want to hear from you NOW!”

My number’s in the book.

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