Engulfed by Pure “Northernness”—Siegfried and The Twilight of the Gods

Bibliophilist Society, C.S. Lewis

Rebecca Reese

C.S. Lewis in his schooldays developed a love for many sections of the arts: writing, music, and art. One set of illustrations introduced him to a man who would become one of his favorite artists.

What I had read was the words Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods. What I had seen was one of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations to that volume…Pure ‘Northernness’ engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity…

Lewis became enthralled with Rackham’s illustrations and Wagner’s compositions. He would read a magazine called The Soundbox which did synopses of great operas every week and did the whole Ring, the opera which Twilight of the Gods is a part of. Then that summer his cousin, H., asked him and his brother to spend some time with her over the season.

There, on her drawing-room table, I found the very book which had started the whole affair and which I had never dared to hope I should see, Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods illustrated by Arthur Rackham. His pictures, which seemed to me then to be the very music made visible, plunged me a few fathoms deeper into my delight. I have seldom coveted anything as I coveted that book; and when I heard that there was a cheaper edition at fifteen shillings…I knew I could never rest till it was mine.

Of course, Lewis did finally buy his own copy of the book, but why was he so obsessed with it? In 34th Volume of The Bookman, this was said about Rackham’s illustrations:

Here Mr. Arthur Rackham’s illustrations enter into competition with some of the finest and most adequate stage realisations ever witnessed. But Mr. Rackham need not fear the comparison. It is sufficient to say to anyone who saw last year the first volume of the Trilogy that the high standard of excellence there reached is here maintained. To those who did not one may mention enthusiastically the vigour and splendid movement, the largeness of conception and subtle atmosphere, and the grotesque, fanciful, or grandiose “feeling” for his subject which most of them show. Everything Mr. Rackham does has distinction and is within its intention almost always well done. Such intelligent illustration is a rare delight.

Rackham was able to create illustrations that would take the observer into the world of the story. His illustrations were realistic and beautiful. Lewis became infatuated with his work just like many others have done, because Rackham has that effect on people. So, what story was he portraying that Lewis fell in love with?

Götterdämmerung, also known as Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods, is the final piece of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung or just The Ring). This collection is made up of four music dramas, and the whole drama first premiered at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus on August 17, 2876. It is traditionally sung in German, but it has also been translated into English and Spanish, more for reading than for singing because the rhythms would change with the language change.

The piece contains a Prologue and three Acts. In the Prologue, the daughters of Erda, known as the three Norns, gather together by Brünnhilde’s cave to weave the rope of Destiny from which they gain all of their wisdom. They sing songs, remember their past, and look forward to a future where Wotan will bring an end to the old order of the gods. But then suddenly the rope of Destiny snaps, which means their wisdom has ended. Filled deeply with sorrow, the Norns disappear into the earth. The next morning, Siegfried and Brünnhilde come out from the cave, and Siegfried is sent off onto new adventures; however, before he leaves, he gives Brünnhilde the powerful ring that he stole from Fafner as a promise that he will stay true to her. He then rides off on his horse, Grane, as the orchestra begins an interlude.

In Act I, Siegfried is tricked into drinking a potion which makes him forget Brünnhilde. Gunther and Gutrune Gibichung gave it to him, so that they could strengthen their own family line. Their half-brother, Hagen, suggested the plan so that Gunther could get Brünnhilde and Gutrune could get Siegfried. The first part of their plan works since Siegfried forgets Brünnhilde and falls in love with Gutrune. Next, Gunther talks Siegfried into helping him get to Brünnhilde, since their cave is surrounded by fire and only certain people can get through. Back at the cave, the Valkyrie Waltraute beg for Brünnhilde’s help: in order to save Valhalla and the gods Brünnhilde must give up the ring that Siegfried gave her. Brünnhilde refuses, and Waltraute leaves distraught. Soon after this, Brünnhilde hears Siegfried’s horn in the distance and becomes overjoyed for his return. However, Siegfried is not the one who meets her at the cave; instead, a stranger rips the ring from her finger and declares her Gunther’s bride.

In Act II, Hagen is reminded by Alberich that he must get the ring back; soon after this, Siegfried returns with Gunther and Brünnhilde. Brünnhilde is furious with Siegfried and accuses him of deceiving her, but since he is still under the influence of the potion, he does not remember her and tells her that she will marry Gunther. Then she notices that he has the ring on his finger and becomes even more angry. Siegfried denies that he is a thief and leaves with Gutrune. However, Brünnhilde begins to plan her vengeance. Hagen overhears and offers his services to her. Brünnhilde explains that Siegfried is completely invincible, because she covered him with a protecting magic, except for his back, but he would never show to an enemy. Hagen talks Gunther into joining his murder conspiracy after finding out this weakness in Siegfried.

In Act III, Siegfried is confronted by the three Rhinemaidens while he is out hunting. They beg him to return the ring to him, but he refuses. Angry by this rejection, the Rhinemaidens prophesy his death, just as Hagen, Gunther, and the others of his hunting group arrive. Hagen coaxes Siegfried to talk about his youth and his adventures and gives him wine mixed with the potion’s antidote. Siegfried remembers Brünnhilde and how he had to walk through the fire around her cave to get to her. Hagen suddenly stabs Siegfried and declares that he has avenged a false oath. Siegfried dies as he thinks about Brünnhilde. When Gutrune finds out about Siegfried’s death, she accuses her brother of the deed, but he announces that Hagen committed the crime. Hagen and Gunther fight, and Gunther is killed. Brünnhilde orders a funeral pyre to be built by the water and agrees to return the ring to the Rhinemaidens after she curses the gods. But as the funeral pyre is lit, she joins Siegfried’s body in the flames. Hagen attempts to steal the ring, but the Rhinemaidens drag him, along with the ring, into the water. In the background, Valhalla and the gods can be seen being consumed by fire.

With all the romance, family drama, and betrayal in this story, Rackham had a difficult job of incorporating all of those themes. However, he was able to do it seamlessly. His art explains the story with so much emotion that it is almost musical. It is no wonder this piece is what made Lewis fall in love with operas and art.