Wagner - The End Of The Ring

( Originally Published 1894 )

THE fire has always fascinated and charmed me. When I was a child myself I used to watch it till my eyes ached, and my habit of throwing sticks and paper into it to see them burn was a terror to all my aunts. A bonfire was a delicious joy, and fireworks, especially if I could set them off myself, were the summit of happiness. Even now, whenever I see a house on fire I am afraid my pleasure in watching it is much greater than my sorrow for the people who are losing their property or their home. I do not want houses to burn, but if they must burn 1 want to see them. As for the fire on the hearth, that is my counsellor and friend. When we are alone together I sit and gaze into it, and it tells me of old, happy times, of other friends who are far away now, and of the pleasant nights we had together. It speaks to me of old hopes, it is glad with me in their fulfilment or it cheers me in their loss. It talks of bright, new hopes, and tells me that even if all else fails, it will still be true to me and will try, if I will come back to it, to cheer and help me again as it cheers and helps me now.

As I sat in this way with the fire, the little girl came and took a low stool beside me. She looked into the fire too, laying her cheek upon my hand, which rested on the arm of the chair. She does not care for our talks about other hearth fires that long ago went out, so we had to do something else to entertain her. " Did you want to know more about the Daughter of the God and the Hero who knew no fear?" I said. " Well, I can see them both now, just where we saw them last on the mountain top, with the fire burning around them as it did before, but not so high and fierce as before, because it is not needed for a guard so much as it was.

" The Daughter of the God is telling her hero that he ought to go to seek more adventures. Perhaps he may find other things for his magic sword to kill besides dragons and wicked dwarfs, and the more such things he does the better she will love him when he comes back. Oh, she knows all about heroes and what they ought to do. He does not like to leave her at all, but if he knows that she really wants him to seek adventures, you may be sure he will seek them. Before he goes, he gives her the ring that he got from the dragon's cave, with the curse upon it, but they are not the sort of man and woman to trouble themselves about curses. In return she gives him her horse and her shield, not that he will need it much against his enemies, with that magic sword, and besides she knows how to cast a spell upon him so that he cannot be wounded in battle; but the shield may keep off the rain, if he has to sleep out of doors. So he goes away down the mountain and she waits for him to come back.

" Now all the fire changes to a shining river. It is the same river where the treasure was once kept by the nymphs, only now we are above it instead of under it. On the bank is the hall of a king and I see the king himself sitting on his throne, with his sister, a beautiful princess, beside him. With them too is their half-brother. He is a strange fellow and you ought to know him. His father is the dwarf who stole the treasure, and his father has told him all about it many times and has taught him to hope that some time he may get it again, so that they two may divide all the riches between them, and with the ring and the helmet may rule the world. He is just as wicked as his father, all he cares for in the world is to get that treasure, and you may be sure that he will try to get it in every way that he can find, good or bad.

" He is trying at this very moment, and in rather a strange way, you may think at first.

He is telling the king that he ought to have a wife, and that ^his sister ought to have a husband. The king asks, just as everybody always asks when he is told that, ` Whom do you want me to have ?'

" ` The most beautiful and the most royal of all women,' says the half-brother, `lives upon a rock with fire all around it for a guard, and who-ever shall break through the fire and come to her shall win her for his wife.'

" This does not encourage the king at all. He never walked through a fire or did anything of the sort, and he does not even care to try. You see the difference between a king and a hero. But the half-brother says that he knows of a hero who would be glad to go through the fire and get this woman for the king, if only he might have the king's sister for himself. The princess is not displeased at all at the notion of a husband who is so brave and can do such wonderful things, but she fears that such a hero must long ago have seen and loved some woman more beautiful than she, and that he will not care for her at all. But the half-brother answers : ` There is a magic drink which you shall give him, and it will make him forget any other woman he has ever seen, no matter who she is.'

" The half-brother knows very well, I believe, that the hero already loves the. Daughter of the God, and it is she that he means to make him forget before he sends him to get her for the king. Of course the king and his sister know nothing about this, or they would have nothing to do with such a wicked plan, for they are reasonably good people. The half-brother says that the hero is going about the world to find adventures and is sure to come here before long, and true enough, even while he is speaking they see him coming with his horse in a little boat on the river. They call to him to come on shore, and they welcome him as if they were never so glad to see anybody before in their lives.

" Perhaps, indeed, they never were so glad to see anybody, and I am sure the princess never was. A form so full of life and action and vigor, or a face so full of freedom and courage and cheer surely she has never seen. The fine frankness of his ways and the young grace of his motion are new to her too, and that she can hope to win him at once for herself is almost more than she can believe. She would not think of such a thing at all if she knew how little he thought or cared about her. He is charming and polite enough, of course, but as often as he thinks of her or of anything else once he thinks of the Daughter of the God twice, and when his thoughts are not especially drawn away he thinks of her all the time. But now the princess offers him a horn filled with the magic drink that is to make him forget. Oh, if only that clever little bird were here now to warn him, as it did when the dwarf mixed the drink for him, how much trouble might be saved ! But, you know, he never thinks of danger, so he drinks, and then he thinks of nothing at all—nothing at all but the princess.

" Well, that is not surprising, for you know she is only the second woman he ever saw and he has forgotten the first. You would scarcely believe how much he has forgotten her. Why, if the king were to tell him at this moment that a woman slept under a shield, guarded by fire, that a young man came through the fire, cut open her armor, kissed her, awakened her, and vowed that he would love her forever, he would not remember that he had ever known of any-thing of the kind or had ever heard of such a young man. For him there is no woman in the world now but the princess.

"The king does tell him a little of this story, when the hero asks him, still thinking of the princess, whether he has a wife as well a sister. ` No,' the king answers, ` I have no wife. The woman I want for my wife I fear I never can win; she is far away upon a mountain and a fire burns all around her. He who could pass through the fire and come to her might win her, but I could never do it.'

" It is just as I told you. This absurd young man does not know that he ever heard of a woman in the middle of a fire before ; he does not know that he ever learned to fear, so he says : ` I am not afraid of a little fire ; I will go and get your bride for you if you will give me your sister for mine.'

"' I will give you my sister gladly,' says the king ; ' but how is my bride to be made to think that it is I who come to her and win her, instead of you?'

" `That is easy,' says the half-brother ; ' with that helmet which he wears he can take any form he will, and he can make himself look exactly like you. He shall bring the woman away through the fire and then he shall leave her to you, and she will never know that it was not you who came to her rock.'

" Now, the hero, you know, never knew what could be done with that helmet. He only took it with him from the dragon's cave because the little bird told him it was good for something. Now that he has learned its use everything that he and the king want to do seems simple enough, and they set off in the little boat for the rock with the fire around it. The half-brother stays on the shore and looks after them, with his pale face and his wicked eyes. The woman far away on that rock has the magic ring. When the king brings her here as his bride he will find some way to get the ring, and then what will he care for kings or brides, for princesses or heroes? He and the wicked dwarf, his father, will rule the world.

" The fire burns up high and clear again and within its circle sits the Daughter of the God. She does not sleep now ; she sits and gazes at the ring her hero gave her, thinking nothing of the curse upon it, and wonders when he will come back to her. Ah, when will her hero come back to her? Do you remember how once on this very rock the daughters of the god met to ride together to his castle, and how they came each riding on her flying horse, racing with the driving wind and the hurrying clouds ? With just such a leap and a flash of a sudden flame up into the smoke I can see one of them riding now. So quickly she gallops through the sky that I can scarcely see what she is till she reaches the rock, springs from her horse, and stands before her sister. Her sister runs to meet her and to ask if their father is still angry with her.

" The war goddess has sad things to tell of their father. He sits in his castle with the gods and his heroes around him. They do not go out to fight and kill each other, and to be made alive and well again at sunset any more. The Father of the Gods only sits there and looks at his broken spear, and the rest, full of dread, look only at him. He is weary of ruling the world, weary of all the trouble that has come from the wrong that he did in not giving that treasure back to the river nymphs. He is not sorry that his spear is broken and he would gladly hasten the end of all. He has made his heroes cut down the great ash tree from which his spear was made, the tree that spread its branches over all his castle, and they have piled the wood high around the walls. When the end comes it will help the castle to burn. And now the Father of the Gods says that, if the woman who has the magic ring whose curse has been so heavy would but give it back to the river nymphs, all his great sorrows would be over.

" This his daughter, the war goddess, heard, and hastened here to tell it to his daughter, the woman. Will she give up the ring ? Will she help the gods to find the rest that they long for? Ah, but a war goddess knows as little of women as she does of men. No, no, the woman loves the man who gave her the ring and she would not lose it for a moment to gain ages of peace for the gods whose homes she shares no more. She cares nothing for weary gods ; she has a hero. The war goddess cannot under.. stand her sister. She leaves her and is away again, toward the castle of the gods, riding on her flying horse, galloping against the driving wind and the hurrying clouds.

"A horn sounds down in the valley. There is only one horn in the world like that, and the woman springs joyfully up to meet her hero. He comes and walks through the fire as he did before, but oh ! how different he is from what he was before ! Then his face was young and fresh and noble and his form was graceful and light ; now his face and his form are those of the king. Is this the promise that the Father of the Gods made to his daughter ? He said that none should ever come to her or win her but the bravest of heroes. Yes, this is indeed the promise and this the hero, but how sadly for her the promise is kept ! When he saw her before he gently lifted off her helmet and kissed her and learned to fear before her; now he thinks only of the princess, away there by the river, and he tells the Daughter of the God that he is the king and that she must come with him and be his bride.

" She resists him, and he seizes her to force her. She holds out her hand to him with the ring and bids him beware its power, which will protect her from him ; he seizes her hand and pulls the ring from her finger. She is helpless ; she faints in his grasp ; he carries her through the fire and down the mountain to where the real king is. He leaves them together and goes back alone to the hall by the river and to the princess.

" Very glad is the princess, you may be sure, to see him come back so quickly and so safely, and glad too is the half-brother, but for a different reason, for he sees the ring on his finger. Now they call all the people together to greet the king and his bride as they come in their boat on the river. There are shouts and cheers, and men with waving banners and women who scatter flowers ; the king smiles upon his people and thanks them for their greeting, and there is only one who is not merry and glad. And whom do you think the king's new bride sees in all this happy crowd ? Only her hero, in his own form again, and, if her heart was wounded and sad before, it dies within her now, when she sees him leading the princess out to meet them and knows that he thinks no longer of her. She turns pale and faint at first and then angry and fierce. She cries out that this man was her lover, that he has betrayed her for the princess and that he has betrayed the king too.

" Of course, nobody can understand that at all—nobody but the half-brother—but you can think how everybody must be shocked and astonished, and how everybody tries to make out what she means, and fails. To be sure, she understands it herself as little as the rest. She knows nothing about the magic drink that made her lover forget her ; she knows only that he swore always to love her and that now he loves the princess. The king does not know that the hero ever saw his bride till he went to her mountain to bring her for him, so he supposes that, if he ever told her that he loved her, it must have been then; that would be betraying the king, his friend, in a most cruel way, of course. The princess knows only just what the king knows, and if the king has been deceived and betrayed, she must have been deceived and betrayed a great deal more. As for the poor hero himself, he does not remember that he ever saw this woman before, he does not know how he can have done any wrong, and he is more puzzled than any of the rest. Only the half-brother knows all about it, that nobody is to blame at all except himself, and it is he whom nobody thinks of suspecting. The hero lays his hand on the half-brother's spear and swears that he has never wronged anyone here ; if he has, he says, may this very spear slay him.

" Now is the time for the half-brother to work the hero's ruin and to try to get the ring that he wears. When all have gone but him and the king and his bride, he whispers to her that he will help her, and will kill the hero to revenge the wrong that he has done her. ` You kill him ! ' she cries. ` If he once looked at you, you would not dare come near him.'

" ` Yet,' he says, ` there must be some way that I could do it; tell me what it is and you will be revenged.'

" ` I cast a spell upon him,' she says, ` so that he could not be wounded in battle, but I knew that he would never turn his back upon an enemy, so I set no spell there ; )70U may strike him in the back.'

" Now, he tells the king that nothing but the hero's death can restore the honor that he has lost. ' To-morrow,' he says, ` we will go hunting ; I will kill him with my spear, and we will tell the princess that it was a wild boar that did it.'

" ` It shall be so,' they all cry ; ` he must die.'

" And whom do you think I see now ? The river nymphs again. Not before the king's house, where we have been so long, but in an-other part of the river, all shut in by wild woods and rocks. They are swimming and playing on the water, just as they did under it when we saw them first, and they seem just as careless and happy as they did then, but they are still mourning for their lost treasure and longing to get it back again. If they could only get the ring it would do as well as the whole treasure, for the ring is the magic part of it. And now to this very spot comes the hero, who wears the ring on his finger. He has wandered away from the king and his men, who were hunting with him; and as soon as the nymphs see him they beg him to give them back their ring.

" He says that he will not, at first ; it was too much trouble for him to win it from the drag-on. But he really does not care so very much about it, and I think he would let them have it in the end if it were not for a great mistake that they make in asking for it. They tell him about the curse of the ring, and that if he keeps it he will be killed this very day. Now, you can see easily enough that that is the very worst thing they could say if they hoped to get the ring from him, for he is not in the least afraid of being killed, and he will not have any-body believe that he is afraid. They shall not have it, he says, happen what will. They will have it, they call back to him, and this very day ; and so they dive down under the water and leave him.

" Now come the rest of the huntsmen and sit about in a circle to rest here in the shade and to talk. The king is gloomy, thinking still of the wrongs that have been done him. His half-brother asks the hero if it is true that he knows what the birds say. ` I listen to them no more,' he answers ; ` but to cheer the king I will tell you some stories of the things that I have seen and the things that I have done.'

" He tells them of the dwarf who kept him and brought him up that he might fight the dragon ; he tells how he mended the magic sword, how he killed the dragon with it, and took the helmet and the ring from the cave. A bird then sang to him, he says, and told him that the dwarf would try to kill him, but he killed the dwarf instead. Here he stops, for he cannot remember anything about the mountain top with the fire around it, or the Daughter of the God, or even what the bird sang to him next. But the king's half-brother squeezes something into his wine and tells him to drink it and it will make him remember better.

" He drinks, and it does make him remember better. He tells of the lovely woman who slept with the fire all around her, and how he kissed her and awoke her. Then suddenly the king understands it all ; he remembers the drink of forgetfulness that they gave the hero, and he knows that nobody has done any wrong but his wicked half-brother ; he it was who told him of the woman in the fire who should be his wife, he who said that the hero should bring her to him, he who bade them give him the drink to make him forget, he who first said that the hero must die. The king would gladly save the hero now, but it is too late.

" It is too late, for of a sudden two ravens fly up from beside the river and away over the heads of them all. They are the ravens that fly all over the world and then to the Father of the Gods, to tell him all that they see and all that they hear. They are going now to tell him that the end of the gods, the end that he longs for, is near. The hero starts up to hear what they say. He turns his back to the others, and the half-brother, before the king can stop him, thrusts his spear into his back. The hero turns for an instant to rush against the murderer, but his strength is gone, and he falls helpless upon the ground. All the rest cry out in horror, and the half-brother turns from them and strides away.

"And what now of the hero? He speaks no word to those who stand about him as he lies here dying on the ground. Where are his thoughts now ? He is thinking of the only time he ever feared. He is back again upon the rock, with the flames curling and whirling all around him. Before him once more lies the Daughter of the God. Again he kisses her lips. She awakes. He sees again those deep, blue, wonderful eyes. He does not see the rocks, or the trees, or the sunlight—only her. Again for one last moment he knows that in all the world there cannot be another woman such as this. They look each into the other's eyes and into the other's heart. He is dead.

" They lay him on his shield and lift it upon their shoulders, and so they bear him back to the king's house by the river. The half-brother is there before them and tells the princess that her lover has been killed by a wild boar. She does not believe him, and when the others come she calls the king and all the rest his murderers. The king indeed wished his death once, but he is sorry enough for it now, and says that it was his half-brother alone who did it. ` Well, then,' cries the murderer, ` it was I, and now I will have my reward ; I will take the ring.'

" The king cries out that he shall not have it, and draws his sword. The half-brother draws his own and rushes upon him, and before the men can run between them the king too lies dead upon the ground. Then again the murderer turns toward the body of the hero to take the ring, but, as he comes near it, the hand that wears the ring rises of itself, as if it were not dead and would ward him off. He falls back in terror, and so do all the rest.

" But now comes the Daughter of the God. She bids them all stand back from her hero. ` He was mine, not yours,' she says to the princess; ` he loved me and I loved him before you ever saw him.'

" ` Then it was all the fault of this wicked man who has murdered him,' the princess answers he gave me the drink for him that made him forget you.'

" She turns away from the hero and bends over the king, her brother. The Daughter of the God understands now ; he was never faith-less to her of himself. She tells the men to build a funeral pyre. They pile up the wood and the women scatter flowers upon it. Then she takes the ring from her hero's hand. While they lay his body on the pyre she bids them bring his horse, the horse that once was hers, that flew with her through the clouds when she was a goddess, and slept on the mountain top with the fire around it where she slept. With a torch she lights the pyre. See how the flames leap up and catch at the wood and stream and grow. Once more the ravens fly up from the river bank and away into the sky. Now the end for the gods comes indeed.

" The Daughter of the God springs upon the horse and with one bound they leap into the middle of the flames. Yet, as soon as they are there, they are gone, nor can I see the hero there any more. The pyre all falls together ; but in the middle of its hot, red embers I see something brighter than all the rest. It is the ring. The water of the river rises and rises till it flows over the fire and puts it out. Then on the surface, swimming and playing about as always, I see the river nymphs. They have found the ring, and their treasure is their own again. But the wicked half-brother of the king, the son of that dwarf who stole it at first long ago, tries one last time to gain it. He .plunges into the river to seize it from the nymphs, but one of them holds it up high in her hand and swims away from him, and the others twine their arms around him and draw him down and down under the water and he is seen no more. The river sinks back to its old bed. The treasure that was stolen is restored. All the evil and the punishment that came from the curse of the ring is done."

A big stick that had been burning brightly and steadily for a long time suddenly fell in two and the quick flames and the sparks sprang high up into the chimney. " See, it is the castle of the gods itself that is burning and lighting up all the sky. The wrong that they have done and the sorrow that they have suffered are past, and their end has come. But the fire burns fiercer still. It seizes upon everything, in the sky and on the earth. Perhaps it is bet-ter that it should. The world that we have seen in our fire here grew so selfish and cruel and bad after the gold was stolen from the river that it may be best for it to end in these flames. They will last for only a moment. Even now they are not so fierce. I can see the sky again. There is a beautiful brightness in it, like the coming of the morning ; yet it is more than that, for it streams and flashes like the northern lights. I can see the earth again too, but it is not as it was before. It is a new world. It has all the beautiful things that the old one had, the green pastures and plains, the silver rivers, the blue mountains. Some of the gods have come back, but not those who did such wrong and made the old world so wicked. The God of Summer, who died long ago when the evil began, has come again ; and if he and all who were good and beautiful before are to be here still, I am sure that the Daughter of the God and the hero who knew no fear must find their way here somehow. A new world that is to be all unselfish and brave and true needs such a woman and such a hero."

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