German Hero-Sagas and Folk-Tales Critical Essays

Barbara Leonie Picard


(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Almost nothing is known about the poets who wrote the hero-sagas included in this collection. In the case of the Nibelungenlied, there is a likelihood that the author had some connection to the bishop of Passau (1194-1204), but whether the poet was a courtier, a commoner, or a monk, for example, must regrettably remain a matter of conjecture. Since certain strands of the story circulated in various forms in other medieval sagas as well, there is no doubt that the poet drew on earlier sources. The formulaic features characteristic of the epics point to their origins in the oral traditions of the remote past, although the precise point at which the oral forms were transformed into written documents cannot be determined. Because the ancients did not draw clear distinctions between factual history on the one hand and poetic genres on the other, it is difficult to determine exactly where in each saga history gives way to literary fantasy. The second part of the Nibelungenlied has its basis in verifiable historical fact—the annihilation of the Burgundians by the Huns in the year 435. Yet, the core of the story centers on the revenge motif, which is acutely personal.

To a certain extent, then, these verse epics may be viewed as forerunners of the modern historical novel: While the conversations and many of the events in the lives of the leading personages are largely fictionalized, the epics nevertheless portray accurately the ethics, customs, and social norms of a society. Even in Picard’s modern rendering, readers can gain a sense of how such highly prized values as honor, loyalty, and lavish magnanimity combine with jealousy and vengeance to bring about the demise of heroes and their peoples. The sagas place in the foreground above all heroism and grandeur in the face of tragedy, and the intensely tragic dilemma invariably results from a conflict of cherished values. Thus, Kriemhild’s predicament arises when she is forced to choose between her strong loyalty toward her brothers and the rigidly formalized requirements compelling her to avenge Siegfried’s death.