Christopher Smith considers the twilight of the gods
Last month, I spent a rather extraordinary week living in what felt like two parallel universes. In one, life proceeded pretty much as usual. But in the other, I was immersed in that world of giants and dwarves, gods and heroes that is Wagner’s Ring Cycle. A very kind parishioner had treated me to the production at the Royal Opera House. And, since we were up in the amphitheatre, where the seats are not comfortable enough for sleep, I had had plenty of time to reflect on the plot.
The story is Wagner’s own – it has its origins in the world of Norse and German mythology, where we first meet the hero Siegfried, Alberich the dwarf, and Brunnhilde the Icelandic queen, but Wagner takes on and develops these characters in another way. He wants to transport us to the realm of the immortals, the gods of our ancestors. And the Norse god Odin, the one-eyed wanderer who builds himself a great hall and plunges a sword into a tree which eventually his son Sigmund will draw out, becomes, for Wagner, the deeply flawed Wotan, chief of the gods.
‘Flawed’ is perhaps an
understatement, for this is the god who unblushingly fathers children outside his marriage to the goddess of marriage, and who shows signs of rather too much affection for his Valkyrie daughter Brunnhilde. He also fathers twins by a mortal woman, and they, in full knowledge of the facts, begin a love-affair with each other, when reunited as adults. As it happens, the music is particularly exquisite at that point, and it is their son Siegfried who falls in love with Brunnhilde, who is, when you stop to think about it, his aunt. You wouldn’t get it onto the telly before the watershed if it weren’t an opera, I’m sure! Indeed, it all seems a very long way away from our expectations of the way gods, or rather, God, should behave.
And our expectations are, of course, born out of the revelation that God is One, and that he is not prone to the loves and lusts and desire for revenge of the pantheon in which our ancestors believed. They were, of course, projecting their own fears and fantasies onto a world of immortals, so they imagined their gods as beings with the same character flaws as the humans with whom they fought and occasionally fell in love, and of whom they sometimes became jealous.
But the monotheism which we inherit from our Jewish forefathers in the faith puts an end to all that. However much fun it might have seemed, and however straightforward it might have been to be able to explain thunder and lightning as the warring of the gods, God has revealed himself to us as one God, and monotheism makes far greater demands of us.
In the first place, the fact that we let go of multiple gods meant we could let go of their fallibility. Wotan may be chief among the gods, but he is hardly all-powerful, bound as he is by his own lusts and by the treaties he has made and recorded on his spear. But as soon as we shake off the idea of multiple gods, we can conceive of a God who is omnipotent, and so neither God nor his people have to fear the Twilight of the Gods and the destruction of Valhalla.
Yearning for the primitive
And yet there still seems to be a current in modern Britain which yearns for the primitive religious outlook of gods made in the image of man. People flock to Stonehenge at the summer and winter solstices, not only to watch the great stone circles perform their party pieces at dawn, but also, it seems, to worship the sun and the moon. People have charts drawn up because they believe the stars can influence their destiny. People buy crystals which purport to bring them health or wealth, or success in exams and interviews. And people consult clairvoyants, who claim to be able to conjure up the dead for consultation. Having turned his back on Christianity, modern man is, as Chesterton almost said, prepared to believe not in nothing, but in anything.
And yet the self-revelation of God both as One and as Father, Son and Holy Spirit teaches us that he knows what it is to suffer, but is not corrupted by that suffering. God knows what it is to live among human beings, but he is not tempted by the lust that leads to Wotan’s incontinence and self-destruction. But all too often we see to our distress the mess people get into as the stability of life in society becomes weaker. Never mind Wotan and his mythical philandering: the child protection officer in any inner-city school will have come across infinitely more disturbing stories. It sometimes strikes me as a miracle that some of our children get to school at all, given the utter chaos of their homes, but thank God they do, because school at least gives them some stability and order in their lives.
Way of love and life
The ring in the Wagner operas, which is made of stolen gold, corrupts everyone who wears it, including the chief of the gods himself. What a shower they are, those gods of the legends. And, in the opera, they meet their end in the flames of the burning Valhalla. In real life, of course, they never were, and it took God’s self-revelation through the Old Testament, and ultimately in the coming of Jesus, God dwelling among us, to teach us not the way of selfishness and envy, but the way of love and life. It is just what the modern world is searching for. ND