The material that forms the subject matter of the Germanic heroic epics is derived from historical events that became part of an oral tradition and were passed down, sometimes for centuries, in the form of sagas, before being established in written form. The historical events that lie behind the Nibelung saga are to be found in the fifth and sixth centuries, the period of the tribal wanderings at the end of the Roman Empire. The Burgundians, under King Gundahari, whose capital was at Worms, were in fact destroyed by the Huns in 437. The Siegfried figure is probably of Merovingian origin and may derive from an intermarriage between the Burgundian and Frankish royal houses. The record of these events, mingled with purely legendary elements, is preserved in a number of works: Besides The Nibelungenlied, the Scandinavian Poetic Edda (ninth to twelfth centuries) is important. It was upon this latter source rather than the Germanic version that Richard Wagner based his four-part music drama, The Ring of the Nibelung (1876). There are four main themes in the work that reflect the saga tradition: the adventures of the young Siegfried, Siegfried’s death, the destruction of the Burgundians, and the death of Etzel. These elements occurred as separate works in the early stages of composition. In the present version of the saga, composed by an anonymous German author around the year 1200, the various elements are woven together into a unified plot, linking the death of Siegfried with the destruction of the Burgundians through the motive of revenge. Traces of the older separate versions are evident, however, in such inner inconsistencies as the transformation of the character of Kriemhild, who appears initially as a model courtly figure but becomes the bloodthirsty avenger of her husband’s death in the second part. It is a mark of the artistic talent of the anonymous author that he fuses the core episodes with such care and achieves a plausible and aesthetically satisfying work.
The Nibelungenlied is the product of a brilliant period of the Hohenstaufen dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire, a time when the courtly culture of Germany was at its height. The poet was probably of Austrian origin. The importance of the splendid court at Vienna and the noble figure of Bishop Pilgrim of Passau indicate that the poet may have enjoyed the patronage of these courts. That the poet...
(The entire section is 983 words.)