Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1684
The Nibelungenlied is a work which has elicited both critical acclaim and literary frustration. W. A. Mueller in The Nibelungenlied Today suggests that the Nibelungenlied "reflected the Germanic concepts of strife, misfortune, death as fate...which he must meet with courage and defiance to triumph over them." These issues do pervade the story, as do the characters' abilities to deal effectively with them. Many heroic deeds are performed in the name of honor. Friends even kill friends in the name of honor. But is the Nibelungenlied a story which celebrates honor and heroic deeds? As an epic, yes, it is. But the question deserves a more complex answer.
As an epic which encompasses strong elements of the romance genre, the Nibelungenlied has sometimes been accused of trying to be neither, and yet both. However, several factors must be taken into account before readers can make such a judgment. First, the elements treated in both genres are largely similar. They both deal with the adventures of knights and ladies, fierce battles, and a code of honorable conduct which pervades the lives of everyone. The difference between epic and romance is in how the author treats the elements at hand. It is perhaps due to a combination of these two approaches that the Nibelungenlied at times seems unable to decide what it wants to be, or what it wants to say. The epic genre was more concerned with the deeds of knights and noblemen, with "heroic" issues of nobility of spirit, fortitude of character, and physical displays of strength. These are all discussed in a very "grandiose" style. The deeds are performed in battle, on perilous journeys, while fighting dragons and monsters, and always with extensive commentary and long speeches by the characters or narrator himself.
In addition to the Nibelungenlied's merging of the literary genres of both epic and romance, the tale attempts to develop its characters into a tragic framework which complements both genres. A tragic figure is one whose misfortunes arise not out of an evil personality, and not necessarily out of a character flaw. Rather, tragedy often strikes "good" characters who make some tragic error in judgment. If this is a suitable working definition, then the reader must ask what error in judgment instigates the final tragedy of the Nibelungenlied.
Many scholars suggest that Kriemhild is the protagonist who sets the tragic consequences in motion. The evolution of Kriemhild's character in the Nibelungenlied is certainly the force which wreaks havoc at the end of the story, and indeed, throughout. Perhaps she herself is the tragic "flaw." She certainly evolves, or perhaps devolves, from innocent child-bride to avenging queen. This is an example of how epic and romance merge, and perhaps conflict. Kriemhild's motives are perhaps in keeping with an "epic" character. She does, after all, seek vengeance for a murdered husband. Nonetheless, Kriemhild's "just vengeance" is not an ideology that all the characters agree with. Here there are inconsistencies in the literary text itself. For instance, when Siegfried's corpse begins to bleed at Hagen's approach, why do Siegfried's Nibelungs not immediately seek the justice that Kriemhild had promised earlier would be theirs? Why does not Kriemhild herself not give the order to attack? Perhaps because the story would have to stop right here and now! But perhaps it is because Kriemhild's development has just begun.
Does Kriemhild utterly lose her feminine,"romantic" image? It would seem so. Indeed, Kriemhild could perhaps be seen as a character who evolves from a "romantic" to an "epic" character. This evolution is seen throughout the Nibelungenlied . Even the narrator's objective tone cannot omit the constant, tragic foreshadowing which follows Kriemhild throughout the...
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