Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 983
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 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,...
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