The most amazing aspect of this scene is that Wagner created much of it out of his own imagination, since he had little to go on in terms of providing both a beginning to the story and the main conflict upon which the entire Ring Cycle pivots.

Let’s examine each in turn:

1) The Rhine: The Rhine River would naturally be a source for a German opera, and it is actually the final resting place of the treasure in the Nibelungenlied, one of the main sources for the Ring Cycle. Of course, since much of the source material is Scandinavian and even Icelandic, the river could have been ANY river, but the Rhine makes some good sense in terms of the sources.

5) The Rheingold: the gold plays an important part in numerous sources for The Ring.  When the gold first appears in the Scandinavian sources, it is in the possession of the dwarf Andvari, who lives under a waterfall in a river (you can see how Wagner used this idea for Das Rheingold, i.e. underwater). His gold is nearby, in a cave (this will also occur later in the cycle).  As we have seen, this dwarf becomes Alberich in the Ring Cycle.

6) The ring and its potential for world power: this is again pure Wagner. It is true that there is a ring in the sources, and it belongs to Brünnhilde, which Siegfried takes from her, and later gives to his wife. However, that is the end of it. The ring has no POWER. However, the sources DO indicate that there IS an object of absolute world power amongst the Nibelung treasure:

“The hoard’s treasure lay there…a little rod of gold.

He who knew its secret…the mastery would hold

Over all men living…in the whole wide world.”

However, a rod is not a ring! Therefore, Wagner created this symbol entirely on his own.

7) The renunciation of love: this is TOTAL WAGNER.  There is absolutely no source for this idea anywhere. Wagner was justifiably proud of his idea, as can be seen in a letter he wrote to his closest friend Theodor Uhlig in 1851:

“It begins with Alberich, who pursues the three water-women of the Rhine with his lust for love; is rejected by one after the other (laughing and fooling); and in his fury, eventually steals the Rheingold from them.  This gold is in itself only a glittering ornament of the water’s depth…. but another power resides in it, which can be drawn from it, however, only by him who renounces love.”  (Italics by Wagner himself).

Therefore, Wagner had found the central idea of the entire Ring Cycle: the conflict between POWER and LOVE. One cannot stress strongly enough that this idea was purely his own and has no roots in any mythology whatsoever.

8)  Alberich’s theft of the gold: is it really stealing? The Rhinemaidens tell Alberich that if one renounces love, the gold is rightfully his. Therefore, it seems a bit contrived to call it stealing, since he took the step to renounce love, thus winning the gold. Interestingly, Wagner’s original working title for Das Rheingold was The Theft of the Rheingold. In the original sources, as we will see (Scene 2), there is theft of gold and treasure, but it is the GODS who steal the gold from the dwarf Andvari.

Blog Summary Widget

There are 8 elements in scene 1:

1) The Rhine

2) The Rhinemaidens

3) Alberich

4) His unsuccessful wooing of the  Rhinemaidens

5) The Rheingold

6) The potential for making a ring that gives absolute world power

7) The renunciation of love as the condition of the above

8) Alberich’s theft of the gold

2) The Rhinemaidens: there are no Rhinemaidens at all in the mythology, but there are three mermaids in a section of the Nibelungenlied, who warn Gunther that that he will not return from Etzel’s land, but will meet his death there. Wagner used these three maidens in his sketch for Siegfried’s Death (i.e. Götterdämmerung), which you might recall was the FIRST of the Ring stories to be written. He called them Rhinemaidens, and then used them as well in Das Rheingold. We will not see them again until Act 3 of Götterdämmerung. Incidentally, Wagner did not use the term “Rhinemaidens,” but rather, used the term Rheintöchter, which literally translated means “Rhine-daughters.”

3) Alberich: this character is the dwarf-king of the Nibelung race, and is described as ‘the most notorious thief and most cunning of all the dwarfs’. However, as we will see, Wagner combined certain characteristics of this character with another, the dwarf Andvari (it is this dwarf who has the gold and a ring which can increase his gold).

4) Unsuccessful wooing of the Rhinemaidens: pure Wagner