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Alberich and Friends
by Ian Runcie
Published by Trafford, 2004.
145 pages; Perfect bound;
catalogue #04-0456;
ISBN 1-4120-2628-8
US$16.50, C$21.00, EUR13.50, £9.50


This book is subtitled A Novel of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It tells the story of the four music-dramas in short novel format and at first sight may seem simply to be an extended synopsis. Bearing in mind that The Ring is one of the most written about works of art in history, the question is: do we need this book?

Well the innovative thing about it is that it is structured around the main characters or character groups so each chapter bears the name of one of these. How it works is that each of the four dramas gets on average just over 25 pages divided into a varying number of chapters. So Rheingold, the shortest drama, gets four with Alberich, Frica, Loge and Donner, and Götterdämmerung, the longest, paradoxically gets only one with The Gibechungs. You wouldn’t know this, by the way, from the table of contents – there isn’t one! Bad mark for that.

Ian Runcie has set himself a tricky task in trying to balance a focus on the characters each with their "lives, histories, philosophies and psychology", with a story-teller’s imperative to keep the narrative rolling along. Under the circumstances I think he copes remarkably well.

The book’s blurb suggests that Runcie would claim that the raison d’être for his work is the character-study approach although I think there is also merit in stripping the libretto down to a damn good story. When sitting in the opera house through one of the Ring’s longeurs, it is easy to forget that you are in the midst of a rattling tale of sex and violence. Although Runcie tells the story quite well he makes a couple of mistakes, in my opinion, which drag the format away from the story-novel approach towards synopsis, the result being a muddled compromise between the two. First, he quotes chunks of text to serve as dialogue. These are in original verse format in (unacknowledged) translation. Second, he is inconsistent, in introducing quotes, with his use of "says" and "sings". The characters may do one or the other. In novels, as in real life, people do not normally sing to each other when communicating, let alone speak in verse.

Very occasionally he gets the characters to "speak" in the first person and here Runcie invents his own words. It is one of the devices which enables him to get at their psychology and indulge some of his own interpretation.

His interpretation owes a lot, or maybe everything, to Robert Donnington whose book, Wagner’s Ring and its Symbols, was published forty years ago. Basically, this was a Jungian analysis of the Ring’s meaning, taking the characters as archetypes so they are mother figures, child figures, and so on. But a single character might have several sides to it; and nearly everyone has their dark side. In terms of Wagner literature, Donnington’s book seemed pretty trendy at the time and reflected some of the extreme symbolic aspects of Bayreuth productions of the post-war years. Some people thought it went too far, judging it a pretentious intellectual game in symbolism. I was suspicious when I read it and went so far as to find a library that held Jung’s complete works and found that the texts were littered with specific references to Wotan, Brünnhilde, Erda et al as archetypes. It follows that Jung was assuming his readers knew their Ring – an interesting insight into intellectual life in the German-speaking world!

Anyone who has read Donnington will find the influence on Runcie plain to see. For example, there is no chapter entitled "Wotan"; only a three page "epilogue" bearing his name. This is on the grounds, presumably, that all the characters are aspects of Wotan’s own make-up, or, to go further, he IS the Ring. I enjoyed the little epilogue which consists of Wotan’s cynical review of the whole sorry business. It helped to bring out what for me is the funny side of the Ring, a story that is a catalogue of human failings, where people (I include Gods here) are driven inexorably into no-win situations of their own making and hardly ever learn; a tale that is a monument to "the triumph of hope over experience" and where chief God Wotan ends up paralysed by his wife’s nagging and his own dilemmas. The consequences are so unremittingly disastrous you can only laugh.

Among three short appendices is a succinct four–page note on some of the philosophy that informs The Ring. This is taken from Bryan Magee (acknowledged) who has written extensively on Wagner and philosophy. Here Runcie points out the influence on Wagner of Feuerbach (which he spells "Faeueuberg"). It was only after Wagner had completed the libretto of The Ring, a work infused with Feuerbach’s thinking, that he discovered the philosophy of Schopenhauer. In spite of this, Runcie admits that he is giving a Schopenhauer slant to his interpretation. This could perhaps be justified on the grounds that Wagner said that on reading Schopenhauer he realised he was a Schopenhaueran all along without knowing it. But if he had read Schopenhauer before, then the Ring would have turned out very different. We know this because he did start to alter it and then changed his mind. The ending of The Ring as we have it is a Feuerbach ending that belongs to Wagner’s anarchy days and is based on the principle that a prerequisite to a better and freer material world is the destruction and sweeping away of the old order. Runcie, in his epilogue, bets on a bleak outlook which does not lead to a better world. That is Schopenhaueran in its pessimism.

I do not think a Schopenhauer interpretation justified. Trying to turn the Ring into Tristan und Isolde (which was a Schopenhauer creation involving the conflict between earthly wanting and a desire for dissolution into an "at-one-ness") doesn’t work. For example, Runcie has a strong sexual tension in operation between Wotan and Brünnhilde with Tristanesque yearning for at-one-ness thrown in. This is not in the libretto although admittedly it’s not too difficult to do a pop Freudian sublimation take on the relationship. But Runcie writes his own script that sounds like a racy piece of airport-novel romantic fiction. So at the end of Die Walküre, as Wotan says goodbye to Brünnhilde prior to imprisoning her on the rock, "Brünnhilde closes her eyes and with tender kisses on her lips, feels him firm against her." This is her father remember. Then Runcie goes into Wagner-speak for Brünnhilde’s own words: "Wotan my father-lover you have realised your destiny, your true self, your great love. We are one. I am your wish maiden." And then, "She feels her breastplate being lifted away. Blocking out all sensations except the thrill of tightening to his touch she relaxes to finally, ecstatically, yield and fuse with him."

What Runcie is beginning to do here is merge Wotan with Siegfried so that when the latter turns up a generation later to wake Brünnhilde, she sees a lover who is a young-looking father – or a father who has turned into a young lover. You get the drift. Schopenhauer meets Freud and Jung.

Paradoxically, when it comes to sex that is unequivocally in Wagner’s script – between Siegmund and Sieglinde at curtain fall at the end of the first act of Die Walküre - Runcie describes it prudishly, making it seem rather perfunctory and less erotic than the near-miss between Wotan and Brünnhilde: "The two lovers rush towards the hills to consummate their joy and complete their destiny."

On the back cover the book’s stated aim is "to stimulate old hands and inspire new fans". My initial view was that the book could be an enjoyable way for newcomers to start to get to grips with both the story and the issues. I worry about some of the interpretive eccentricities but maybe that is to patronise newcomers. Old hands I thought would not get too much out of it. But then here I am, an old hand (albeit still learning) who has been provoked by some claims in the book and has therefore been made to think. In a sense, therefore, I have been stimulated and for that I must be grateful to an English doctor from Sussex. Thank you Dr Runcie.

John Leeman



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