Saturday, September 07, 2019

The Nibelungenlied


Opening Passage: The first sentence is the usual opening sentence, but it does not appear in all manuscripts, and is thought to be a later addition:

We have been told in ancient tales many marvels of famous heroes, of mighty toil, joys, and high festivities, of weeping and wailing, and the fighting of bold warriors -- of such things you can now hear wonders unending!

In the land of the Burgundians there grew up a maiden of high lineage, so fair that none in any land could be fairer. Her name was Kriemhild. She came to be a beautiful woman, causing many knights to lose their lives.... (p. 17)
Summary: The beautiful Kriemhild resolves never to marry after a dream suggesting that her husband will die a violent death. But soon the prince Siegfried comes along to woo her, and this upends her world, for Siegfried is the greatest hero of an age of heroes. He helps her brother Gunther fight the Saxons and, on condition that he would then be able to marry Kriemhild, journeys with Gunther to woo the mighty maiden-warrior, Brunhild. Brunhild agrees to marry Gunther if Gunther can defeat her in contests of strength, but it becomes clear that her own strength is superhuman. But Siegfried, who has been pretending to be Gunther's vassal, has a cloak of invisibility, and using it he secretly adds his own great strength to Gunther's, and together they defeat Brunhild, who marries Gunther thinking that he defeated her alone. However, she is bothered by the relationship between Gunther and Siegfried -- something about her entire situation seems off, and Siegfried seems to be at the center of it. She demands Gunther tell her the secret, and when he refuses, she refuses to sleep with him on their wedding night, and when he tries to press the matter forcibly, she uses her strength to tie him up and hang him on the wall all night. Needless to say, he is humiliated, but Siegfried manages to get him to tell the shameful secret, and offers to help again with subduing Brunhild. Gunther accepts, on condition that Siegfried not actually sleep with her. Siegfried uses his cloak of invisibility to sneak into their room in the dark of night, and Brunhild finds that her strength, great as it is, is no longer able to subdue (as she thinks) Gunther. Gunther sleeps with her, and despoiled of her maidenhood, loses her great strength. Very fatefully, however, Siegfried took from Brunhild her ring and her belt -- usually a sign of sexual conquest.

Siegfried and Kriemhild marry, but Brunhild is still very suspicious; she puzzles aloud to Gunther about how he married his sister to one of his vassals. The translator in the edition I read reads this straight, and notes that it is an oddity that Brunhild never figures out that Siegfried is a great prince, despite all of the signs. But I think you could very well read it as a case of Brunhild, suspicious of the Gunther-Siegfried relationship from the beginning, harping on one of the odd things that she, rightly, sees connected to the source of her suspicion, and obsessively pressing it -- we know that she is quite stubborn -- until finally the whole truth comes out, Kriemhild supporting her case by the ring and belt. In any case, she pushes Kriemhild on the subject until Kriemhild in retaliation lets out the whole tale of Brunhild's humiliation. From that point on, Kriemhild and Brunhild are enemies. Both Siegfried and Gunther try to avoid any trouble arising from this, but one of the great knights in Gunther's court, Hagen of Tronje, who is ruthlessly loyal to Burgundy, avenges Brunhild by murdering Siegfried. When Siegfried's corpse bleeds in Hagen's presence, Kriemhild learns the truth, and meditates revenge in her heart. Hagen is no fool, and he takes steps to prevent her ever getting into the position of retaliating, which infuriates her further.

Kriemhild eventually marries Etzel, the romanticized version of Attila the Hun, and as Queen of the Huns sets a trap to destroy Gunther and Hagen. Many knights, both Hun and Burgundian, will lose their lives because of it.

The author clearly sees the tale as having an ensemble cast; he is pulling together a number of different hero stories into a single tale, mostly successfully. But you could also see the tale as the tragedy of Kriemhild, with event mounting on event to an end of ever greater violence and destruction. The author does a very good job of building this, both in terms of plotting and in terms of foreshadowing. Throughout the work, someone will do something apparently innocuous or only somewhat serious, and the author will remark that it will later be rued or that many people will lose their lives because of it. These warnings do not always pan out, at least in a straightforward way, but their cumulative effect is to give a doomward tendency to even the smallest things done, until finally the whole cumulative tone of warning is satisfied by a doom that is entirely adequate to the whole incremental anticipation.

Favorite Passage: Brunhild and Gunther have their unconventional wedding night:

'Sir,' she said, 'you must give up the thing you have set your hopes on, for it will not come to pass. Take good note of this: I intend to stay a maiden till I have learned the truth about Siegfried.'

Gunther grew very angry with her. He tried to win her by force, and tumbled her shift for her, at which the haughty girl reached for the girdle of stout silk cord that she wore about her waist, and subjected him to great suffering and shame: for in return for being baulked of her sleep, she bound him hand and foot, carried him to a nail, and hung him on the wall. She had put a stop to his love-making! As to him, he all but died, such strength had she exerted.

And now he who had though to be master began to entreat her. 'Loose my bonds, most noble Queen. I do not fancy I shall ever subdue you, lovely woman, and I shall never again lie so close to you.'

She did not care at all how he fared, since she was lying very snug. He had to say hanging there the whole night through till dawn, when the bright morning shone through the windows. If Gunther had ever been possessed of any strength, it had dwindled to nothing now. (p. 88)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


The Nibelungenlied, Hatto, tr., Penguin (New York: 2004).

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