Mark Twain popularized the quote that “[Richard] Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” 

I’ve always liked Wagner’s music – its rich harmonies, powerful crescendos, and leitmotifs. But I’m also fascinated by the symbolism behind his operas. 

Last week, my daughter and I attended a performance of “Die Walküre" (The Valkyrie), the second movement of Wagner’s “The Ring of Nibelung, a 10+-hour work based on German and Norse mythology. It was magnificent. 

“Die Walküre” is rooted in pagan mythology. But mythology sometimes conveys timeless truths, “echoes of Eden” reverberating through time since the Fall, or general revelation, the law of nature, the “work of the law … written in their hearts” that Paul speaks of in Romans. As the opera brochure explained, “Die Walküre” speaks to the “human condition” (the authors can’t quite bring themselves to speak of original sin, let alone total depravity), judgment upon immorality, but also the power of love. 

As “Die Walküre” opens, Sigmund the Völsung (an illegitimate child of Wotan, the king of the gods) meets Sieglinde while wandering in the forest. Instantly drawn to one another, they fall in love, later realizing that they are long-separated twins. To keep Siegelinde, Sigmund prepares to do battle with Hunding, her husband by a forced marriage. 

The scene shifts to Walhalla, the fortress of the gods. Wotan is confronted by Fricka, his matronly wife and defender of traditional morality. Fricka is outraged over the Völsungs’ incestuous love and demands that Wotan punish them. Wotan protests that they were blinded by love, but he knows she is right: morality must prevail, or the earth will crumble. 

So Wotan speaks to his beloved daughter Brünnhilde the Valkyrie. The Valkyries (“Choosers of the Slain”) are normally charged with riding over battlefields on winged horses, selecting the bravest of the slain warriors, and bringing their souls to Walhalla where they will fight by day and feast by night, preparing for the final battle Götterdämmerung, the twilight of the gods, at which they will stand with Wotan and the gods against the frost giants and other forces of evil. 

But Wotan gives Brünnhilde different orders: She is to intervene in the battle and ensure that Sigmund is slain by Hunding. But she loves Sigmund as her half-brother and defies Wotan’s command. Wotan appears in battle, overrules Brünnhilde, smashes Sigmund’s sword, and causes his death. Overcome with grief, Sieglinde flees into the wilderness under Brünnhilde’s protection, where she will bear the child Siegfried, the most glorious hero in all history. 

Brünnhilde and her sister Valkyries gather on a mountain to a thrilling rendition of “Ride of the Valkyries” that almost brought me out of my chair. But Wotan is furious at Brünnhilde’s defiance and decrees her punishment: She is to be stripped of godhood and made mortal, falling into a helpless sleep until the first man who comes awakens her and takes her as his wife.  

Brünnhilde protests that this punishment is too harsh because although she disobeyed Wotan’s command, she was following his heart’s desire because she knew Wotan loved Sigmund and chafed at Fricka’s command. Wotan agrees, they embrace, and as he lays Brünnhilde to sleep, he protects her with a ring of fire, so only the bravest of heroes (spoiler: could that be Siegfried in the next installment?) will enter the circle and claim her. As the flames rise around the sleeping Brünnhilde, the opera ends with the powerful and moving “Magic Fire Music.” 

A Christian opera? Not exactly. Wagner probably was not a Christian when he composed “The Ring,” but he later embraced an off-beat form of Christianity reflected in his opera “Parsifal.”  

Still, “Die Walküre” conveys timeless truths, illustrating the limited way in which natural man without divine revelation understands the “human condition.” (Why do I hate that insipid phrase? Because they should call it what it is: sin.) 

Sigmund and Siegelinde, whose love is moving but incestuous, represent the passions of fallen and sinful humanity. The goddess Fricka stands for the Law, which uncompromisingly demands that the Völsung twins be punished for their transgression. Departing from her usual role as Chooser of the Slain, Brünnhilde the Valkyrie pleads for love, mercy, and forgiveness.  

And Wotan is torn between Fricka’s demand for Law and Brünnhilde’s plea for mercy. Although king of the gods, he is not the biblical God. Wotan is powerful but not omnipotent, wise but not omniscient, and well-intentioned but fenced in by his own transgressions (after all, Fricka’s anger is fueled in part by the fact that the Valkyries and the Völsungs are her husband’s illegitimate offspring). Finally, he yields to the demands of the Law, slaying Sigmund and punishing Brünnhilde for defying him. 

And there the matter ends, with Sigmund dead, Siegelinde hiding in the wilderness waiting to give birth to the hero Siegfried, and Brünnhilde sleeping within a wall of flame. More great moments are coming in the third and fourth installments as Siegfried confronts the dragon, but the drama will end with the “Twilight of the Gods” (Götterdämmerung).    

That’s the limit of the general revelation: the Law of Nature can reveal the human condition of sin and the Law’s demand for punishment; it can speak of love and cry for mercy, but it cannot fathom a solution to the dilemma. Man has sinned, the Law requires punishment, and the Law cannot be compromised. 

What’s the solution?  

That’s where God’s special revelation, the Bible, provides the answer that is hidden to the natural man: “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.” (Romans 5:8-9)    

Yes, we have sinned. Yes, we have violated God’s Law and deserve eternal punishment. No, God’s Law cannot be compromised. But Christ has paid the penalty of the Law for us, and we are saved by grace through faith in Him. 

Will there be a sequel to this column? Maybe. Tune in next year after we attend “Siegfried.” 

Colonel Eidsmoe is Senior Counsel for the Foundation for Moral Law ( and Professor of Constitutional Law for the Oak Brook College of Law & Government Policy ( He may be contacted for speaking engagements at

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