(Also known as Der Nibelunge Nôt and Lay of the Nibelungen.) German poem.
c. 1190-c. 1204.
The Nibelungenlied is the most celebrated heroic epic of German Medieval literature. In its home country, the tale of honor, murder, and revenge is still read by the general public as well as students. A favorite of critics, the Nibelungenlied is praised for its symmetrical form and its mingling of fiction and history, encompassing Germany's ancient heroic songs, the fall of the Burgundian Empire in 437, and the courtly romance tradition of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Europe. Scholars have been unable to identify its author but linguistic studies and historical references date the poem's composition to sometime between 1190 and 1204, with the year 1203 being cited traditionally. Its literary roots reach back to the Vikings and Scandinavia, possibly to the ninth century, but some scholars believe that the ultimate source was Germany and that the tale spread northward before it came back home in altered form. The message of the Nibelungenlied—if indeed there is a message—is hotly debated by critics. Some of the poem's wide modern appeal is likely due to the fact that it fits equally well with many different interpretations.
Plot and Major Characters
The Nibelungenlied is neatly divided into two parts by most critics. The first focuses on the mythic hero Siegfried and his murder, while the second part, largely historical, concerns the fall of the Burgundians, a tribe residing in the southern part of Germany. The poem opens in Worms, at the Burgundian court of three royal brothers—Gunther, Gernôt, and Gîselher—and their sister Kriemhild. Siegfried, a prince from the Netherlands, travels to Worms with the intention of marrying Kriemhild but must wait a year before seeing her. In the meantime, he distinguishes himself in numerous battles, partly through his own strength and partly through magic. He conquers the Nibelungs (a name meaning “inhabitants of the mist”) and wins their treasure—a sword, and a cloak that makes its wearer invisible. Gunther wishes to marry Brunhild, who is an Icelandic queen of fantastic strength, and persuades Siegfried to wear the magic cloak on his behalf and win Brunhild through a series of duplicitous physical contests in which the invisible Siegfried actually performs the feats that appear to be accomplished by Gunther. For his help, Siegfried is given Kriemhild's hand in a double wedding ceremony that includes the exchange of vows between Gunther and Brunhild. Once Brunhild realizes she has been tricked into marrying Gunther she employs Hagen, Gunther's vassal, to murder Siegfried. On a hunting trip, Hagen stabs Siegfried in the back and kills him, after which he sinks the treasure of the Nibelungs in the Rhine, significantly decreasing Kriemhild's power and influence. The second part of the Nibelungenlied begins ten years later. Kriemhild marries Etzel (Attila the Hun) on the promise of his vassal, Rüdiger, that he will defend her against her enemies. Years pass and Kriemhild invites her brothers and their party to Etzel's court with the intention of avenging Siegfried's death. Kriemhild persuades some of Etzel's lords to attack the Burgundians and, after a bloody battle, all the Burgundians are slain save for Gunther and Hagen, who are brought to the Queen by Dietrich of Bern. When Hagen refuses to tell Kriemhild where he has sunk the Nibelung treasure, she has Gunther beheaded. Hagen still refuses to divulge the location and Kriemhild, furious, cuts off his head with Siegfried's sword. Hildebrand, Dietrich's vassal, is outraged by the Queen's ruthlessness and kills her.
Kriemhild provides a theme for the Nibelungenlied when she states that “all joy must end in sorrow.” By no means is this accepted by everyone as the main theme, however. Some scholars read the poem in terms of the code of chivalry, represented by Siegfried, or in terms of Christianity, exemplified by Rüdiger. Still others interpret the poem as a tragedy of godless self-will, a revival of Germanic spirit, or a warning against pride. Certainly, elements of fatalism, heroism, guilt, honor, faithfulness, and justice abound in the epic. Many modern critics decry what they perceive as a tendency towards over-analysis, arguing that there may not be a hidden purpose—or any purpose—in the Nibelungenlied beyond the telling of a simple yet exciting tale.
Popular in Medieval times, the Nibelungenlied gradually lost favor with readers until it was rediscovered in 1755 in a castle in Tirol by J. H. Obereit, and translated from Middle High German into German in 1757. In the early 1800s, the Nibelungenlied was embraced by the German Romantics as part of their national legacy and often favorabley compared with the Iliad. Scholars have also debated whether or not the poem truly is distinctively German; many feel that concentration on the Nibelungenlied as a national work is misguided. The Nibelungenlied has inspired diverse areas of study. Examining the structure of the poem involves oral formulism, semantics, and syntactic analysis. Through this type of work, much has been learned about the development of the oral tale which served as the basis for the written version. Another popular field of study is comparing and contrasting the Nibelungenlied with its Norse versions and studying its mythic elements. Scholars find little argument that the impetus for the second half of the tale was the defeat of the Burgundians by the Huns, but many critics believe that taking a historical approach in analysis is too limiting, and they prefer to study the Nibelungenlied purely as literature. The nature of the poem lends itself to various interpretations since the author incorporates little commentary beyond stock phrases, simply letting the tale unfold without clarifying the motives of the characters. The individual reader is thus left to decide whether or not Hagen is a hero or a villain, for example, or whether the tale promotes honor or warns against it. Frank G. Ryder states the poem is “a true work of world literature, faithful to its time but not bound by it, comprehensible and of significance to an audience centuries removed.”