(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Das Nibelungenlied

(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 Scholars have been unable to identify its author but linguistic studies and historical references date the poem's composition to sometime between 1190 and 1204, with the year 1203 being cited traditionally.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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

The Nibelungenlied (translated by Daniel B. Shumway) (poetry) 1909

“Song of the Nibelungs:” A Verse Translation from the Middle High German “Nibelungenlied” (translated by Frank G. Ryder) (poetry) 1962

The Nibelungenlied (translated by A. T. Hatto) (poetry) 1965

The Nibelungenlied (translated by D. G. Mowatt) (poetry) 1965

The Nibelungenlied (translated by William Nanson Lettsom) (poetry) 1977

The Nibelungenlied (translated by Robert Lichtenstein) (poetry) 1991

German Epic Poetry: “The Nibelungenlied,” the “Older Lay of Hildebrand,” and Other Works (edited by Francis G. Gentry et al.) (poetry) 1995

Otto L. Jiriczek (essay date 1902)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Saga of the Niblungs” in Northern Hero Legends, J. M. Dent & Co., 1902, pp. 10-61.

[In the following excerpt, Jiriczek discusses the historical and mythical foundations of the Nibelungenlied, and the development, continuance, and extinction of the saga.]


In German and Norse sources mention is made of a Burgundian king Gibich, Norse Gjuki [in the Nibelunlied his name is Dancrât] who is said to have three sons, Gunther, Gernot, Giselher; in Norse, Gunnar, Guthormr, Hogni [Hagen stands for Giselher in the Seyfriedslied also]. The historical origin of some of these...

(The entire section is 4958 words.)

Frances E. Sandbach (essay date 1903)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Influence on English Literature” in The Nibelungenlied and Gudrun in England and America, David Nutt, 1903, pp. 118-35.

[In the following excerpt, Sandbach explores Middle English and Modern English literary works that may have been influenced by or adapted from the Nibelungenlied.]

…—In the literature of the Middle English period there is, so far as I know, only one reference to the Nibelungen story that can be looked upon as at all certain. This was pointed out by Professor W. P. Ker in Folk Lore, ix. 372, and occurs in the metrical romance of “Sir Degravant,” in the following passage (vv. 525 ff.):—


(The entire section is 3290 words.)

George Fenwick Jones (essay date 1960)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Rüdiger's Dilemma,” Studies in Philology, Vol. LVII, No. 1, January, 1960, pp. 7-21.

[In the following essay, Jones explains how the Germanic ethics of the Nibelungenlied differ from modern values, and urges that the reader be aware of these differences in trying to understand the motivation of the characters in the work.]

We smile at jousts before the walls of Troy in medieval epics and at cannons in early illustrations of Old Testament battlefields; yet we tend to be less critical of modern thoughts and sentiments attributed to historical characters by recent novelists and even by historians and literary critics. Restricted as we are to our own...

(The entire section is 6258 words.)

D. G. Mowatt (essay date 1961)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Studies Towards an Interpretation of the Nibelungenlied,” German Life & Letters, New Series Vol. XIV, No. 4, July, 1961, pp. 257-70.

[In the following essay, Mowatt explains why taking a historical approach in analyzing the Nibelungenliedis unsatisfactory; Mowatt then offers suggestions for studying it using a structural approach.]


The Nibelungenlied is a work of medieval literature, and is usually interpreted historically. There are good reasons why this has been, and will no doubt continue to be so. The Court Epic and Lyric are not easily accessible...

(The entire section is 6861 words.)

Hugh Sacker (essay date 1961)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “On Irony and Symbolism in the Nibelunglied: Two Preliminary Notes,” German Life & Letters, New Series Vol. XIV, No. 4, July, 1961, pp. 271-81.

[In the following essay, Sacker examines examples of irony in the Nibelungenlied and points out some previously overlooked uses of symbolism.]


It has always been recognized that irony plays some part in the Nibelungenlied,1 but so far as I know attention has been concentrated on those instances which make the person or deed appear more heroic and not upon those which tend to undermine the heroic appearance. That this latter possibility also exists...

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Werner A. Mueller (essay date 1962)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Essence” and “The Significance” in The Nibelungenlied Today: Its Substance, Essence, and Significance, The University of North Carolina Press, 1962, pp. 59-92.

[In the following excerpt, Mueller explains that the Nibelungenlied's main theme is man himself, particularly how he responds to a dilemma. Mueller also explores the poet's concerns and his relation to his work and contends that the poem, without promoting specific religious values, nevertheless affirms man's need for faith.]

“Die Kunst ist eine Vermittlerin des Unaussprechlichen; darum scheint es eine Torheit, sie wieder durch Worte vermitteln zu wollen. Doch...

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Hugo Bekker (essay date 1971)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Conclusion: Structural Devices and Their Consequences” in The “Nibelungenlied”: A Literary Analysis, University of Toronto Press, 1971, pp. 149-65.

[In the following excerpt, Bekker examines the function of the Nibelungenlied's imagery and symbolism and discusses the epic's abundant symmetry and varied pace.]

The previous chapters have attempted to draw attention to some of the building materials used in the Nibelungenlied, and to the nature of their distribution. What the total structure amounts to is a different matter. In order to attempt an evaluation of the epic as a whole, it is necessary to deal with some devices that are akin to...

(The entire section is 7164 words.)

Harold D. Dickerson, Jr. (essay date 1975)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hagen: A Negative View,” Semasia, Vol. 2, 1975, pp. 43-59.

[In the following essay, Dickerson argues against viewing Hagen as heroic, contending instead that he should be regarded as an evil character.]

Much progress has been made in recent years toward a modern and comprehensive view of the Nibelungenlied. The pioneering studies of D. W. Mowatt,1 Hugh Sacker2 and Hugo Bekkar3—to choose only three—have suggested new solutions to the problem of the work's inconsistencies which up to now have either been left unexplained or attributed to the “postulate” that the poet was courtly but his subject matter was...

(The entire section is 5734 words.)

Francis G. Gentry (essay date 1976)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Hagen and the Problem of Individuality in the Nibelungenlied,” Monatshefte, Vol. 68, No. 1, 1976, pp. 5-12.

[In the following essay, Gentry maintains that the Nibelungenlied explores the issue of feudal bonds while it instructs its audience that an individual moral decision can override law and custom.]


The history of Nibelungenlied* scholarship is a fascinating chapter within the larger scope of Germanic philology.1 More than any other work of the Blütezeit the Nibelungenlied has attracted researchers for reasons other than purely aesthetic. Only in the last thirty years has the...

(The entire section is 3956 words.)

Michael Curschmann (essay date 1977)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Concept of the Oral Formula as an Impediment to Our Understanding of Medieval Oral Poetry,” Medievalia et Humanistica, No. 8, 1977, pp. 63-76.

[In the following essay, Curschmann contends that dogmatic advocates of the theory of oral-formulaic composition have rendered a disservice to Nibelungenlied studies by, among other things, relying too much on scientific analysis and failing to take proper notice of the nature of literature in the Middle Ages.]

Over the past quarter-century or so, the Theory of Oral-Formulaic Composition has exerted the most profound influence in several disciplines that have to do with epic literature and related...

(The entire section is 6551 words.)

D. R. McLintock (essay date 1977)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Reconciliation in the Nibelungenlied,” German Life and Letters, Vol. XXX, No. 2, January, 1997, pp. 138-49.

[In the following essay, McLintock explains that the Nibelungenlied is best approached aesthetically, for its literary qualities.]

Recent years have seen numerous interpretations of the Nibelungenlied. Scholars have sought to elicit its ‘meaning’ or ‘message’ and imagined they could divine the author's ‘intention’: he was contrasting ‘pagan’ and ‘Christian’ values, deploring revenge, finding fault with old-style ‘demonic’ heroism, or demonstrating the baleful effects of lay arrogance. Some of these...

(The entire section is 6460 words.)

Berta Lösel-Wieland-Engelmann (essay date 1980)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Feminist Repercussions of a Literary Research Project,” Atlantis, Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall, 1980, pp. 84-90.

[In the following essay, Lösel-Wieland-Engelmann provides a personal account of her experiences in promoting the idea of female authorship for the Nibelunglied.]

The following experiences may show how a woman who never was much involved in feminism can suddenly be made aware of a multiplicity of problems that are peculiar to women.

Up to a quiet day in August 1977 I fulfilled my usual duties as a middle-aged part-time secretary to a small number of professors of German. Then I was given some lecture notes to type, the contents of which...

(The entire section is 4232 words.)

Winder McConnell (essay date 1984)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Reception of the Nibelungenlied in Germany from the Klage to the Twentieth Century” in The Nibelungenlied, Twayne Publishers, 1984, pp. 84-101.

[In the following essay, McConnell offers an overview of the Nibelungenlied's influence on German literature.]

If the number of popular and artistic works based on the Nibelungenlied may be considered evidence of the attraction the epic held for subsequent generations of readers and theatergoers, then we may certainly conclude that the poem has proved to be one of the most inspiring “sources” in the history of German literature. I have already considered in the Introduction the...

(The entire section is 8367 words.)

Edward R. Haymes (essay date 1986)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Conclusion: The Alternative to Heroism” in The “Nibelungenlied”: History and Interpretation, University of Illinois Press, 1992, pp. 101-14.

[In the following excerpt, Haymes explores the conflicts between the heroic, the courtly, and the diplomatic in the Nibelungenlied and contends that the tale serves as a warning against the abuse of new values.]

The Nibelungenlied presents us with two fatally flawed heroes, Siegfried and Hagen, representing two sharply contrasted literary and ethical patterns. The first half of the poem demonstrates the problems that arise when social order becomes blurred and the false ideals of chivalric...

(The entire section is 6532 words.)

Theodore M. Andersson (essay date 1987)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “Interpretations” in A Preface to the “Nibelungenlied”, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987, pp. 144-66.

[In the following excerpt, Andersson summarizes the new approaches taken in critical analyses of the Nibelungenlied during the last half of the twentieth century.]

Two publications by Nelly Dürrenmatt and Friedrich Panzer in 1945 marked a turning point in the analysis of the Nibelungenlied and ushered in a period of postwar criticism that differed distinctly from the work done during the forty years before the war.1 These earlier years were dominated by Andreas Heusler, whose pertinent studies appeared from 1902...

(The entire section is 12431 words.)

Joyce Tally Lionarons (essay date 1998)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Otherworld and Its Inhabitants in the Nibelungenlied” in A Companion to the “Nibelungenlied”, edited by Winder McConnell, Camden House, 1998, pp. 153-71.

[In the following essay, Lionarons explores the relationship between mythical characters and humans in the Nibelungenlied.]

Every reader of the Nibelungenlied soon recognizes that there are at least two different worlds, and perhaps two different times, coexisting within the poem. The first is the “real,” historically conceived society of Worms and Xanten: this is a chivalric, courtly world in which normal human beings—albeit sometimes kings and princesses—are born, live,...

(The entire section is 8567 words.)

Winder McConnell (essay date 1998)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Nibelungenlied: A Psychological Approach” in A Companion to the “Nibelungenlied”, edited by Winder McConnell, Camden House, 1998, pp. 172-205.

[In the following essay, McConnell applies analytical psychology to an exploration of the motivations and dreams of the Nibelungenlied's main characters and their relationships, finding much evidence of repression.]

Science, particularly as evinced in the work of the British biologist, Rupert Sheldrake, as well as in the research of the Swiss physician and psychoanalyst, Willy Obrist, has produced yet further evidence of the validity of core ideas postulated almost a century ago by Carl Gustav...

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Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


Bäuml, Franz H. “Transformations of the Heroine: From Epic Heard to Epic Read.” The Role of Woman in the Middle Ages, edited by Rosmarie Thee Morewedge, pp. 23-40. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1975.

Historical study that considers three different types of transmission for the Nibelungenlied.

———, and Eva-Marie Fallone. A Concordance to the “Nibelungenlied” (Bartsch-De Borr Text). Leeds: W. S. Maney and Son Ltd, 1976, 901p.

Includes index to structural patterns, a frequency ranking list, and a reverse index.

Bostock, J. K. “The Message of the...

(The entire section is 591 words.)