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 remains anonymous is a tradition of the heroic epic form, evolving from the anonymous court singer of the wandering Germanic tribes. Whereas the writers of Arthurian epics and religious epics name themselves and often discuss their work in a prologue, the composer of the heroic epic remains outside his work, presenting his material more as history and without the self-conscious comments and digressions found in works such as Parzival (c. 1200-1210) or Tristan and Isolde (c. 1210), both of whose poets name themselves and go into some detail regarding their intentions and artistic conceptions. The Nibelungenlied, written in four-line stanzas, bears the signs of its history of oral presentation—frequent repetition of rhyme words, the use of formulaic descriptions and filler lines, and general looseness of composition. The poem was not conceived as a written work. It represents a written record of an oral performance tradition. Even after assuming written form, for centuries the work was read aloud to audiences, books being a scarce and expensive commodity during the Middle Ages.
The purpose of the work, like that of courtly poetry in general, is to mirror courtly society in its splendor, color, and activity. It presents images of an idealized world in which larger-than-life...
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figures act out the social rituals of the time and provide for the audience models of courtly behavior. The work instructs in codes of honor, fortitude, and noble bearing under stress. Repeatedly in the work one observes long passages devoted to description of the court festivities—banquets, tournaments, processions—all filled with details of clothing and jewelry, splendid utensils, and weapons. Questions of etiquette and precedence provide some of the central conflicts of the work, while the lyrical episodes of the love between Siegfried and Kriemhild may be seen as an embodiment of the idealized conception of love. Although the grim events of the old dramatic saga material at times conflict with the more cultivated ideal of the thirteenth century, the poet succeeds even here in transforming the traditional material. Elements related to fairy-tale tradition—the stories of Siegfried’s youth, the battle with the dragon, the magic aura surrounding Brunhild on her island—are largely suppressed.
Idealizing elements are, on the other hand, strongly developed. In the first part, Siegfried and Kriemhild stand out against the menacing forces of the Burgundian court, especially Hagen. In the second part, despite the atmosphere of betrayal and carnage, the high points are moments of fortitude and courage and the preservation of ethical integrity. Rudiger, who finds himself torn between feudal loyalty to King Etzel and his loyalty and friendship for the Burgundians, to one of whom his daughter is engaged, is one of the noblest figures. The episode in which he finds himself obliged to fight against the Burgundian Gernot, to whom he gives the sword that now will kill him, is one of the most poignant scenes in the work.
The chain of crime and revenge finds resolution only in the lament for the fallen warriors, and it is in this tragic sense of the inevitable suffering that follows joy that the work preserves its links to the ancient Germanic heroic outlook, establishing its individuality against the more generally optimistic outlook of the Arthurian sagas. Here the fatalistic confrontation with destructive forces is opposed to the affirmation of order and the delight of life. This is typical of much literature of the Hohenstaufen period. The tension between these two attitudes provides much of the power of the work and lifts it into the realm of universal validity.