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Away down in the translucent depths of the Rhine, three beautiful nymphs, Woglinde, Wellgunde, and Flosshilde, daughters of the river-god, dart in and out among the jagged rocks. They have been stationed there to guard the Rhinegold, the priceless treasure of the deep, whence comes all the warm golden light which illumines the utmost recesses of their dark and damp abode.

Das Rheingold
The nymphs suddenly pause in their merry game, for the wily dwarf Alberich has emerged from one of the sombre chasms. He is a Nibelung, a spirit of night and darkness, and slowly gropes his way to one of the upper ridges, whence he can see the graceful forms of the nymphs, watch their merry evolutions, and overhear them repeatedly admonish each other to keep watch over the gleaming treasure, which their father, the Rhinegod, has intrusted to their keeping, warning them that just such a dark and misshapen creature as the dwarf would try to wrest it from their grasp:--

   'Guard the gold!
    Father said
    That such was the foe.'

RhinemaidensBut all Alberich's senses are fascinated by the water-nymphs' beauty, and he soon falls madly in love with them, and makes almost superhuman efforts to overtake the mocking fair. Hotly he pursues them from ridge to ridge, yielding to the blandishments of one after another, and is beside himself with rage as they deftly escape from his clasp just as he fancies he has at last caught them. The fair nymphs, who know they have nothing to fear from so infatuated a lover, swim hither and thither, tantalising him by their nearness, and lure him up and down the rocky river-bed.

They have just exhausted his patience, and driven him wild with impotent rage, when the green waters are suddenly illumined by the phosphorescent glow of the Rhinegold, the treasure whose presence they hail with a rapturous outburst of song, and whose secret power they extol:--

   'The realm of the world
    By him shall be won
    Who from the Rhinegold
    Hath wrought the ring
    Imparting measureless power.'[2]

The dwarf, attracted by the brilliant light, hears their words at first without paying any attention to them; but when they repeat that he who is willing to forego love can fashion a ring from this gold which will make him master of all the world, he starts with surprise. Fascinated at last by the glow of the treasure, and forgetting all thoughts of love in greed, he suddenly grasps the carelessly guarded gold and plunges with it down into the depths, leaving the three nymphs to bewail its loss in utter darkness.

Little by little the gloom lightens, however, and instead of the river bed the scene represents the green valley through which the Rhine is flowing. In the gray dawn one can descry the high hills on either side, and as the light increases Wotan and Fricka, the principal deities of Northern mythology, are seen lying on the flowery slopes.

As they gently awaken from their peaceful slumbers, the morning mists entirely disappear, revealing in the background the fairy-like beauty of a wondrous palace which has just been completed for their abode. This sight startles Fricka, for she knows that the assembled gods have promised that Fasolt and Fafnir, the gigantic builders, should have sun and moon and the fair Freya as fee. To lose the bright luminaries of the world were bad enough, but Fricka's dismay is still greater at the prospect of parting forever with the fair goddess of beauty and youth. In her sorrow she bitterly regrets that the promise has been made and rendered inviolable by being inscribed on her husband's spear, and reproves him for the joy he shows in viewing the completion of his future abode:--

   'In delight thou revel'st
    When I am alarmed?
    Thou 'rt glad of the fortress,
    For Freya I fear.
    Bethink thee, thou thoughtless god,
    Of the guerdon now to be given!
    The castle is finished,
    And forfeit the pledge.
    Forgettest thou what is engaged?'

Thus suddenly brought to his senses, Wotan, king of the Northern gods, protests that he never really intended to part with the beauty, light, and sweetness of life, and seeks to excuse himself by urging that Loge, the god of fire and the arch-deceiver, overpersuaded him by promising to find some way of escape from the fatal bargain:--

   'He whom I hearkened to swore
    To find a safety for Freya;
    On him my hope have I set.'

They are still discussing the matter, and eagerly wondering why Loge does not appear, when Freya comes rushing wildly upon the stage, with fear-blanched face and trembling limbs, breathlessly imploring the father of the gods to save her from the two huge giants in close pursuit. In her terror she also summons her devoted brothers, Donner and Fro. But, in spite of the strength of these potent gods of the sunshine and thunder, the giants boldly advance, boasting aloud of their achievement, and demanding the fulfilment of the stipulated contract.

The gods are almost at their wits' end with anxiety, when Loge, god of fire, appears. They loudly clamour to him to keep his word and release them from the consequences of their rash bargain. In reply to this summons, Loge declares he has wandered everywhere in search of something more precious than youth and love, and that he has utterly failed to find it. No one, he says, is ready to relinquish these blessed gifts,--no one except Alberich, who has bartered love for the gleaming treasure which he has just stolen from the Rhine nymphs. Loge concludes his speech by delivering to Wotan an imploring message from the defrauded maidens, who summon him to avenge their wrongs and help them to recover the stolen gold. The description of the gleaming treasure, of the power of the ring which Alberich has fashioned out of it, and especially of the immense hoard which he has amassed by the unlimited sway which the ring enables him to wield over all the underground folk, has so greatly fascinated the giants, that, after a few moments' consultation, they step forward, offering to relinquish all claim to the previously promised reward, providing the hoard is theirs ere nightfall. This said, they bear the shrieking and reluctant Freya away as a hostage, and vanish in the distance.

As they depart, the light suddenly grows wan and dim. The goddess who has just departed is the dispenser of the golden apples of perennial youth according to Wagner, and, as she vanishes, the gods, deprived of the substance which keeps them ever young, suddenly lose all their vigour and bloom, and grow visibly old and gray, to their openly expressed dismay:--

   'Without the apples,
    Old and hoar--
    Hoarse and helpless--
    Worth not a dread to the world,
    The dying gods must grow.'

This sudden change, especially in his beloved wife Fricka, determines Wotan to secure the gold at any price, and he bids Loge lead the way to Alberich's realm, following him bravely down through a deep cleft in the rock, whence rises a dense mist, which soon blots the whole scene from view.

In the mean while, the dwarf Alberich has conveyed the gleaming Rhinegold to his underground dwelling, where, mindful of the nymphs' words, he has forced his brother and slave, the smith Mime, to fashion a ring. No sooner has Alberich put on this trinket than he finds himself endowed with unlimited power, which he uses to oppress all his race, and to pile up a mighty hoard, for the greed of gold has now filled all his thoughts. Fearful lest any one should wrest the precious ring from him, he next directs Mime to make a helmet of gold, the magic tarn-helm, which will render the wearer invisible. Mime is at work at his underground forge, and has just finished the helmet which he intends to appropriate to his own use to escape thraldom, when Alberich suddenly appears, snatches it from his trembling hand, and, placing it upon his head, becomes invisible to all. The malicious dwarf misuses this power to torture Mime with his whip, and rushes off to lash the dwarfs in the rear of the cave as Wotan and Loge suddenly appear. Of course their first impulse is to inquire the cause of Mime's writhing and bitter cries, and from him they hear how Alberich has become lord of the Nibelungs by the might of his ring and magic helmet. In corroboration of this statement, the gods soon behold a long train of dwarfs toiling across the cave, bending beneath their burdens of gold and precious stones, and driven incessantly onward by Alberich's whip, which he plies with merciless vigour. He is visible now, for he has hung the magic helmet to his belt; but he no sooner becomes aware of the gods' presence than he strides up to them, and haughtily demands their name and business. Disarmed a little by Wotan's answer, that they have heard of his new might and have come to ascertain whether the accounts were true, Alberich boasts of his power to compel all to bow before his will, and says he can even change his form, thanks to his magic helmet. At Loge's urgent request, the dwarf then gives them an exhibition of his power by changing himself first into a huge loathsome dragon, and next into a repulsive toad. While in this shape he is made captive by the gods, deprived of his tarn-helm, and compelled to surrender his hoard as the price of his liberty. Before departing, Wotan even wrests from his grasp the golden ring, to which he desperately clings, for he knows that as long as it remains in his possession he will have the power to collect more gold. In his rage at being deprived of it, Alberich hurls his curse after the gods, declaring the ring will ever bring death and destruction to the possessor:--

   'As by curse I found it first,
    A curse rest on the ring!
    Gave its gold
    To me measureless might,
    Now deal its wonder
    Death where it is worn!'

wotanThis curse uttered, he disappears, and while mist invades the place the scene changes, and Loge and Wotan stand once more on the grassy slopes, where Fricka, Donner, and Fro hasten to welcome them, and to inquire concerning the success of their enterprise. Almost at the same moment, the giants Fasolt and Fafnir also appear, leading Freya, whom Fricka would fain embrace, but who is withheld from her longing arms. The grim giants vow that no one shall even touch their fair captive until they have received a pile of gold as high as their staffs, which they drive into the ground, and wide enough to screen the goddess entirely. Thus admonished, Loge and Fro pile up the gleaming treasure, which is surmounted by the glittering helmet, whose power the giants do not know. Freya is entirely hidden, and only a chink remains through which the giants can catch a glimpse of her golden hair. They insist upon having this chink closed up ere they will relinquish Freya, so Wotan is forced to give up the magic ring. But he draws it from his finger only when Erda, the shadowy earth goddess, half rises out of the ground to command the sacrifice of the treasure which Alberich stole from the Rhine maidens.

As the stipulated ransom has all been paid, the giants release Freya. She joyfully embraces her kin, and under her caresses they recover all their former youth and bloom. In the mean while the giants produce their bags, but soon begin quarrelling together about the division of the hoard, and appeal to the gods to decide their dispute. The gods are all too busy to pay any heed to this request, all except the malicious Loge, who slyly advises Fafnir to seize the ring and pay no heed to the rest. As the ring is accursed, Fafnir remorselessly slays his brother to obtain it; then, packing up all the treasure in his great bag, he triumphantly departs. To disperse the shadow hovering over Wotan's brow ever since he has been obliged to sacrifice the ring, Thor now beats the rocks with his magic hammer, and conjures a brief storm. The long roll of thunder soon dies away, and when the fitful play of the lightning is ended Thor shows the assembled gods a glittering rainbow bridge of quivering, changing hues, which stretches from the valley where they are standing to the beautiful portals of the wondrous palace Walhalla, the home of the gods!

Fascinated by this sight, Wotan invites the gods to follow him over its lightly swung arch, and as they trip over the rainbow bridge, the lament of the Rhine-maidens mourning their treasure falls in slow, pitiful cadences upon their ears:--

    Purest gold!
    O would that thy light
    Waved in the waters below!
    Unfailing faith
    Is found in the deep,
    While above, in delight,
    Faintness and falsehood abide!'

Excerpted from Stories of the Wagner Opera by H. A. Guerber (1895)