The Nibelungenlied by Anonymous (trans. A. T. Hatto)

The Nibelungenlied is a medieval German epic often known best for its influence on Richard Wagner’s opera cycle and magnum opus, The Ring of the Nibelung. The poet probably composed his epic sometime between 1195 – 1205 A.D for a medieval German court. The poem itself is not an entirely original creation in that it consists of older tales fused together into a longer work.

The mighty hero Siegfried, heir to the throne of the Netherlands, travels to Burgundy in order to woo the beautiful Kriemhild. To gain access to her, Siegfried befriends King Gunther, her brother, assisting him in fighting off his enemies and winning Queen Brunhild of Iceland to be Gunther’s bride. To win the hand of Queen Brunhild, any suitor must best her in three competitions of strength or forfeit their lives. Gunther lacks the ability to win these trials on his own and relies on Siegfried’s strength.

Siegfried hides himself under a magical cloak, which turns him invisible, and beats Brunhild in her competitions, while Gunther takes credit for the success. They return back to Burgundy where Gunther is married to Brunhild and Siegfried marries Kriemhild. However, Brunhild is disturbed by the fact that Kriemhild, the sister of a king, is being married to someone she believes to be a lowly vassal. She believes this due to Siegfried deceiving her and pretending to be Gunther’s vassal, rather than his equal, back when she first meets them in Iceland.

Brunhild refuses to sleep with Gunther, until she can unravel this mystery about Siegfried’s status. When Gunther attempts to force the issue on his wedding night, Brunhild uses her manly strength to tie him up and leave him hanging on a nail all night long. A miserable Gunther convinces Siegfried to help him the next night. The hero comes in with his invisible cloak, wrestles with Brunhild, until she wastes all her strength, and then Gunther takes his pleasure and consummates the marriage, which robs Brunhild of her manly strength. Before leaving, Siegfried steals Brunhild’s ring and girdle as a token of his victory. After these events, Siegfried departs with Kriemhild back to his kingdom.

Ten years later, Gunther invites Siegfried and Kriemhild back for a festival at the urgings of Brunhild who is perplexed with the same question of Siegfried’s status. Why have they not seen Siegfried for ten years when he is Gunther’s vassal and thus owes the king service? How can Kriemhild be so content married to a lowly vassal when she is a princess? They accept the invitation and everyone is having a great time. Then Brunhild and Kriemhild start bickering about their husbands and which one is superior. Brunhild taunts Kriemhild that her husband is a vassal, which offends Kriemhild, and leads her to retaliate that Siegfried is the one who took her maidenhood, not Gunther. She offers the ring and girdle that Siegfried stole as proof. In tears, Brunhild accuses Siegfried before Gunther and the rest of the Burgundian court. Siegfried denies having slept with Brunhild and that seems to be the end of it. Nevertheless, Gunther, Hagen, and the rest of Burgundy’s major nobles conspire to kill Siegfried in order to avenge Brunhild’s hurt feelings and lost honor. On the false pretense that he only wants to protect Siegfried in battle, Hagen learns from Kriemhild the location of Siegfried’s vulnerable spot. On a hunting trip, Hagen rams a spear through the vulnerable spot when Siegfried is bending down to get some water and kills him.

After years of mourning and desiring revenge for her husband’s death, Kriemhild gets remarried to King Etzel of Hungary. She bides her time, plots her revenge, and invites King Gunther and his retinue to a festival. Gunther goes in the belief that their reconciliation was sincere and he has nothing to fear, despite Hagen’s warning that it is a bad idea. Once inside the boundaries of her kingdom, Kriemhild tries to have them killed, but the Burgundians manage time and again to fight off thousands of Hungary’s knights. There is mass slaughter with the Burgundians eventually losing all their lives, Kriemhild finally getting revenge on Hagen and Gunther for Siegfried’s death, at the expense of her own life and most of the knights in Hungary.

There are at least two source that the poet brought together to create the first half of his poem, while the second half is based on an older epic, Diu Not. The poet’s achievement was his ability to harmonize the two plots and successfully add some original material of his own creation not found in any older sources (1).  Due to the fusing of different earlier narratives, however, there are a lot of inconsistencies, repetitions, non sequiturs, characters shifting their personalities, and confusing “stage directions” (sometimes it seems like a certain character is in a room, then they magically disappear without the reader being told they left it, only to be called back three paragraphs later), etc. This seems to be a tendency of many ancient narratives, but usually these discrepancies are minor details, and for the most part there is a relatively coherent plot line. Most of these discrepancies seem to be between the first half of the narrative (Siegfried’s death) and the second half (revenge in Hungary). One example that immediately comes to mind is that in the first half of the narrative Gunther comes off as a coward, afraid initially to have Siegfried murdered, unable to win Brunhild with his own strength, unable to even consummate his own marriage without Siegfried’s help, and afraid of the invading armies that Siegfried helps him defeat, etc. Then in the second half, he suddenly becomes a “doughty warrior” and is able to take out thousands of knights on his own! The abilities of Gunther of the first half seems completely different from the Gunther that appears in the second half.

There are many elements that remind one of the ancient heroes of Greek Epic. For example, Siegfried is invulnerable due to his body being washed in the blood of a dragon he slew. His only weak spot is a tiny part on his back, which the blood missed. He is considered the greatest warrior of his time and could easily have defeated all of the Burgundian Knights on his own, despite the fact that in the second half of the narrative they are major heroes in their own right and manage to take on thousands of knight. This is reminiscent of Achilles being one of the greatest warriors and his Achilles’ heel. Gunther is reminiscent of Agamemnon, except he is cowardly in the first half. Hagen plays an advisor role in the first half (to also become an undefeatable warrior in the second), reminding me a bit of Odysseus and Nestor.

Thematically the story warns against the dangers of pride. Siegfried might be the greatest warrior in the world, but he is a proud one. When he first meets the Burgundians he threatens to take their kingdom by force, all by himself. On the hunting trip, which leads to his fatal death, he easily outperforms every other knight attending and kills significantly more animals than them. Even stealing Brunhild’s ring and girdle is a matter of pride. Kriemhild’s inability to keep her mouth shut and bragging about her husband during her verbal squabble with Brunhild is also a matter of pride. Everywhere in the tale, excessive pride leads to nasty consequences.

Footnote

1) Hatto, Arthur Thomas. “An Introduction to a Second Reading.” The Nibelunglied. Great Britain: Penguin Books Ltd., 1969. 346. Print.

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4 thoughts on “The Nibelungenlied by Anonymous (trans. A. T. Hatto)

  1. What a magnificent commentary on this epic. I am a fan of Wagner’s operas and have seen the Ring Cycle twice so I guess it is about time I read this epic. You have piqued my interest and I’ll be adding it to my summer book list.

    • Glad you enjoyed the commentary. I’ve always been hit or miss with Opera. I enjoyed individuals arias, but I’m not sure I could make it through an entire opera. Although I suppose I’ve never tried.

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