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...
(This entire section contains 1684 words.)
cannot omit the constant, tragic foreshadowing which follows Kriemhild throughout the story. She never stops mourning Siegfried's death, and her grief grows into bitterness, vengeance, and a truly epic blood-lust. Charles Moorman, in his article on "TheNibelungenlied" suggests that Kriemhild develops "from obstinate maiden to charming bride to grief-stricken widow to revengeful devil." W. A. Mueller in The Nibelungenlied Today has suggested that the author of this story subscribes to a "tragic view of life." This causes the characters to initiate their "own sorrows in spite of the potentials of greatness, happiness, and innocence." This certainly describes Kriemhild's results. But can she be "judged" according to modern standards for her actions? This is a question that readers must determine for themselves.
Whatever Kriemhild's persona represents, it seems clear that the event of Siegfried's death is the catalyst which spurs all further action. Thus two questions arise. First, what led to Siegfried's death in the first place? Next, what events led to the subsequent downfall of the Burgundian dynasty? With respect to the first question, the reader must ask what event "triggered" the murder. Was it Siegfried's initial decision to help Gunther win Brunhild? His pride and arrogance in taking the girdle and ring from Brunhild? Or his foolishness in giving them to Kriemhild, who used them to goad Brunhild? Moreover, what role does Brunhild really play in the Nibelungenlied? Is she a pawn used to further the action? The question can be raised, but perhaps not sufficiently answered. What is clear, however, is that Kriemhild's evolution in character is a unifying force in the story.
Now for the second question. What led to the downfall of the Burgundian dynasty? Before attempting to answer (and there is not necessarily a "correct" answer to this question either), it must be remembered that, by killing Siegfried, Hagen was technically only fulfilling his feudal oath of loyalty to Brunhild. He could not have known the tragedy which would ensue. Or could he? Nevertheless, his actions instigate what amounts to an international incident. But is Hagen "responsible" in the modern sense? Moreover, what role does Etzel ultimately play in the tragedy which ensues? Is he used as a pawn as well? Let us first consider the events which followed Siegfried's death.
The events at Siegfried's funeral were enough to plant the seeds of vengeance in Kriemhild, seeds which grew into a plan of all-encompassing devastation. But several questions arise with regards to the unfolding story. First, why does Gunther himself not acknowledge the portent of Siegfried's bleeding corpse? It is perhaps because he himself was complicit in the death of Siegfried, the very man who won Brunhild for the king? If Gunther at this point were to agree with Kriemhild that Hagen was the murderer, would he not open himself to similar charges for his own involvement? Hagen himself is an enigma. He on the one hand does not at first admit the deed; nor does he deny it. In fact, he is silent on the matter. It is Gunther who speaks in Hagen's defense. But is Gunther's authority so absolute that his word goes unquestioned? It has not seemed so thus far. These are all loose ends, questions and puzzles which scholars have for centuries tried to reconcile.
Perhaps the tragic events merely provide a forum in which the author can explore the issue of heroism. W. A. Mueller in The Nibelungenlied Today believes that although some of the "heroes" in the story epitomize "the concept of heroic death as glory and fulfillment, the poet does not dwell upon the triumph which they voice; instead, we are reminded of the tragic aspects of their death and of the sorrow of their surviving friends and king." It is true that death and destruction are paramount in the story. Charles Moorman in his article on "The Nibelungenlied" believes that there are no heros in the Nibelungenlied. Moorman suggests that even though a character like Hagen may represent the ideals of chivalry, integrity and loyalty, the ideals are reduced to "barbarous cruelty." The same might be said for Kriemhild, Hagen's only equal in the story. Moorman suggests that "like integrity in Kriemhild, fidelity in Hagen breeds barbarity rather than heroic valor."
Gunther himself has come under much critical fire. Lynn Thalen has suggested that Siegfried's wooing of Kriemhild serves as a foil for Gunther's wooing of Brunhild. She suggests that by "juxtaposing Siegfried's valorous feats with Gunther's anxious inactivity, the author effects a devastating portrayal of the Burgundian king." This is indeed a scathing commentary on Gunther, but not an uncommon one. The reader might find it disturbing that the king and leader of a conquering dynasty should be portrayed as weak and ineffectual; unless, of course, the author's purpose is to highlight the deeds and personalities of Siegfried and Hagen, which he does. Thus the issue of "heroism" arises again. Lynn Thalen further criticizes Gunther for his weak nature in the scenes where he welcomes guests: "Gunther is challenged and each time he responds in awed silence, necessitating the quick wits of others to preserve his honor." These are not the actions of a hero, nor a "leader" in either the medieval or the modern sense.
And what of Rudiger's moral struggle at the end? How does one reconcile the two conflicting worlds he has found himself between? Rudiger in many senses represents the best of both worlds. He is an exemplary feudal vassal and a loyal and trustworthy friend. These two ideals should not have to conflict, and yet they do.
So what is the reader left with? A "testament of despair" as Charles Moorman suggests? A mixed bag of history, legend, myth with only tragic threads to connect it all? What is the "message" of the Nibelungenlied, or does it have one? In reading a text which admits so many contradictions and critical disagreement, each reader is placed in his or her own critical position. Nonetheless, perhaps the merging of two genres, epic and romance, both raises and answers all of the above questions. It should not be necessary for the author to "choose" between writing an epic and writing a romance. Nor should it be necessary for Rudiger to "choose" between feudal bonds and friendship. With this in mind, the reader should try to reconcile the merging of two literary ideals, romance and epic, and try to determine how and why they work together in this tragic story.
Source: Laurelle LeVert, for Epics for Students.Gale Research, 1997.
Nothing is known about the poet beyond what we learn from his work. It was evidently a convention that the authors of heroic poems, which were written in a more traditional and popular style than the fashionable romances of the knights, should remain anonymous. No author of a heroic poem names himself during the earlier history of medieval German poetry. On the evidence of the Nibelungenlied alone we can only guess at the poet's status, and there is no agreed-upon guess.
Some think that the poet may have been a ministerialis, or "unfree" knight bound to the service of a lord, that is a man of the same status as his great contemporaries Hartmann von Aue and Wolfram von Eschenbach. Others think of him as a menial cleric with a turn for poetry in his mother tongue. Yet others take him to be a superior sort of "minstrel," a type of poet that whether in fact or theory, belonged to the nondescript class of wayfarers or strolling entertainers, somewhat suspect, because rootless, plebeians. Yet there are well-authenticated instances of "minstrels" who were not only members of the households of lords, lay or spiritual, but also sometimes settled owners of fiefs, well-to-do, valued men capable of discharging a variety of useful offices for their masters. These guesses virtually exhaust the possibilities, for it is unthinkable that the Nibelungenlied was the work of a secular lord, an ecclesiastic, a monk, a merchant, or a peasant.
Despite forthright and even ill-tempered assertions that our poet must have been a knight, the evidence for this claim is weak. Interest in courtly customs, ceremonies, and dress is of course not decisive, since courtly patrons at this time will have expected it. Our poet's sensitive outlook may have matured below the salt. A man of humbler origins than a ministerialis could have had ample opportunity of conversing with his betters as Haydn and others would in a later age, had he been as gifted. But if, against probability, he was indeed a ministerialis, we may be thankful that he kept any enthusiasm he had for the new French fashions of chivalry within such reasonable bounds, since he might easily have ruined his theme. There is, however, a powerful argument, hitherto overlooked, why the poet is unlikely to have been a knight of any sort. It applies to his idea of a hunt. No nobleman who wished to be accepted as such by his fellows would have concocted so absurd a sequence of events as those narrated in Chapter 16, for no student of the hunt can take them seriously. It is quite the flimsiest affair of the chase among all the more respectable narratives of the German Middle Ages. This is at one with the remarkable fact that in an epic in which there is so much fighting there is not a single military technicality such as one finds in other heroic epics like the Iliad and the Song of Roland, or even in contemporary Arthurian narratives like Parzival.
Perhaps the best reason for thinking of the poet as a cleric is that he could cope with over two thousand quatrains on parchment. Yet there are grounds for believing that non-clerical poets could do the same—competition was growing keen in the field of literary entertainment. This would justify us in thinking of the poet as "semi-clerical," if we like, that is as having enjoyed some schooling. Another reason for thinking him a cleric might be his assumed connection with the Bishop's City of Passau. Yet the very bishop in whom many would see his chief patron, Wolfger, later Patriarch of Aquilea, generously supported lay poets, the most famous of whom was Walther von der Vogelweide. But if the poet was in fact a cleric, which of course does not necessarily mean a priest, he had a remarkable capacity for thrusting ecclesiastical considerations aside and abandoning himself to the ethos of his subject-matter, which, as we have seen, is far from Christian. We have reviewed the argument that the Nibelungenlied may be a sermon on the Fall of Pride, and found that if it is, it is a very unclerical sermon. The most clerical touches in the whole epic, perhaps, are two instances in which the poet praises natural at the expense of counterfeit complexions (pp. 83,206), and a passage in which he dwells, with much tolerant humour and even complacency, on the long-drawn-out greetings of the ladies (p. 83). This is all, and it amounts to very little. On the other hand, God, the Devil, Church, and the mass are mere narrative conveniences to this poet, or they are part of the normal social background. The warning in Chapter 31 should be heeded, for surely we know where we stand when a man of Hagen's stamp, having dragged a chaplain from the sacred utensils of his mobile altar and thrown him into the Danube without provocation, reminds the Burgundians to confess their sins. Nor is there a note of zeal or disapproval when he tells of Christian living cheek-by-jowl with pagan at Etzel's Court. If the poet was indeed a cleric he doffed his cassock and folded it neatly away before taking up his quill. He would have been the most facile cleric in medieval German literature, had he in fact been a priest. Much has been said above on his astonishing lack of candor in attributing motives for the deeds he narrates.
We are left with the least hazardous surmise, that the author of the Nibelungenlied was a lay poet of plebeian status who had acquired the art of letters at a school and then considerable personal culture in the household of a lord. Are there any positive arguments in favor of this conception?
There is the general argument that heroic poetry in German during this period was purveyed by the miscellaneous and not easily definable "minstrel" class, and we shall see that what can be reconstructed of our poet's main sources was strongly marked by the "minstrel" style, which he adopts and refines. There is in the narrative of our poem some very special pleading on behalf of superior minstrels, in part inherited and retained from a minstrel predecessor, in part our poet's contribution. King Etzel sends a leading vassal, the Margrave Rudiger, to Burgundy to sue for the hand of Kriemhild, yet to invite her royal brothers to Hungary he dispatches the minstrels Werbel and Swemmel, highly favored men within their own class, but very small fry beside Rudiger. One might be tempted to explain this away by arguing that minstrels were the accepted go-betweens, secret agents, and tools for dirty work of their day, and that this pair were appropriately chosen to lure the Burgundians to their doom (for which, incidentally, one of them paid with his hand) (p.243). But however this may have been in the poet's source, as he tells the story they were chosen for their mission not by Kriemhild but by Etzel, and in good faith. Another explanation offered is that the Burgundians might have harboured less suspicion towards an invitation conveyed by men of so peaceful a profession. In real life they are unthinkable as royal ambassadors for such an occasion, and it is best to ascribe them to the wistful and perhaps ironic imaginings of a poet on the fringe of high society. And here, no doubt, is the point: what gifts were lavished on Werbel and Swemmel, going and coming on their embassy! It is both amusing and touching to see in what princely fashion these minstrels—already worth a thousand marks each from the takings at Kriemhild's wedding—live for the brief space of their royal mission. The same theme of largesse is touched on with a rather personal show of impersonality when Kriemhild rewards the messenger for his news of the Saxon war: "Such gifts encourage one to tell such news to great ladies." And then there is the enigmatic figure of Volker, Hagen's comrade-in-arms. We know for sure that the poet inherited Volker from his source for the second part of his poem, and there are some grounds for believing that Volker may have been of minstrel status in it. Our poet, however, presents Volker as a nobleman who brings thirty of his own vassals to the wars, and he gives him prominence in battle. Volker nevertheless retains his viol and his title of "Fiddler" and "Minstrel" as a sobriquet, and he plays the army to sleep. He is further distinguished by being made to sing to Lady Gotelind to his own accompaniment, earning the favor of a rich reward. Thus the poet by implication thrice advances the claims to honour of "minstrels": in diplomacy, at court before the ladies, and on the field of battle. It is hard to imagine either a poor knight or a menial cleric doing this for his professional rivals.
The safest guess is, then, that the strange genius who wrote the Nibelungenlied was a semi-clerical poet by profession, technically of the order of vagi or wayfarers, though probably sedentary for much of his life.
Source: A T. Hatto, in an Appendix to The Nibelungenlied, translated by A. T. Hatto, Penguin, 1969, pp. 354-57.
The Nibelungenlied has on occasion been compared to the Iliad. The fact that Germans have been impelled to make, and foreigners disposed to deride, such a comparison, is revealing in itself, for it shows the veneration both works have suffered. Assessment of their literary merit has been geographically conditioned, with Homer belonging to western civilization as a whole, and the Nibelungenlied for the most part only to Germany. But in both cases scholars have painstakingly erected a barrier between heritage and inheritors. The occasional whiff of vanished glory that came over has been made to serve the literary and political establishment. The interesting circumstance that both works deal with events and customs that must have appeared exotic, if not bizarre, to their authors, is not emphasized. The suggestion that the virtues of our Achaean or Germanic ancestors could have been held up to bardic ridicule is discouraged. And yet they obviously are. Agamemnon, as Robert Graves points out in the introduction to his recent translation, The Anger of Achilles (1959), is completely out of his depth throughout most of the Iliad.
What poet, after all, would wish to identify himself with a bloodthirsty, conceited and obstinate king, who is not successful even by his own standards, and eventually comes to a sticky end? And the career of King Gunther in the Nibelungenlied is no more exemplary. Like Agamemnon, he is killed in ignominious circumstances, by a woman. Admittedly she is only his sister. But his wife shows little respect for his kingly person either: she removes him from their conjugal bed on the first night, and hangs him on a convenient nail till morning. It seems that the whole concept of royal infallibility was at least questionable in the eyes of these two poets.
The Nibelungenlied goes further in this direction than Homer, and the efforts of its scholarly guardians not to notice the fact have been correspondingly stronger. Unfortunately, the increase in narrative detachment seems to have involved a deterioration in traditional cliches, so that the recitals of bloody deeds and barbaric splendors are even more perfunctory in the Nibelungenlied than in the Iliad. Stripped of its irony, the Nibelungenlied is tedious in the extreme, and can only be taken seriously by someone in desperate need of a heroic past. The blond Germanic beast marching bravely towards bis fate is not to everyone's taste. Nor, for that matter, is the hidebound medieval court, obsessed with power and protocol. As long as these two elements were kept isolated, and regarded with bovine earnestness, the Nibelungenlied was guaranteed a cool reception by most people, and in most ages. It was offered, and rejected, as a work extolling two self-contradictory orthodoxies, neither of which is very interesting in itself. Luckily, however, orthodoxies are seldom sacred in literature and the Nibelungenlied is no exception to this rule. Positions are certainly taken up in the work, but they clash, sometimes comically, sometimes tragically, and very little is left of any of them at the end. The particular pretensions chosen for undermining were historically conditioned. Instead of Trafalgar, the sanctity of the home and the royal family, for instance, they had their heroic past, the sanctity of woman and an ideal of courtly behaviour. Instead of the hydrogen bomb, or sex, they had mythical figures like Siegfried and Brunhild on which to focus their hopes and fears.
Much work has been devoted to finding out something about the author, and the literary tradition in which he worked.... The yield is meager: he was an unknown poet, probably of knightly (i.e. unexceptionable) status, writing at the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. He was probably Austrian, and may have worked for a certain Bishop of Passau. He must have known earlier versions of parts (perhaps the whole) of the material he was using, because variations on the same characters and situations are found scattered throughout Scandinavian and German literature. Any attempt to achieve greater precision on this score must be speculative. All the Scandinavian sources are later than the Nibelungenlied, although parts of them must be based on much earlier material.... In Germany there is the Hildebrandslied (written down at Fulda in the nineth century), which treats the story of Dietrich, Hildebrand and his son in archaic and highly idiosyncratic language. It is possible that the Nibelungenlied poet was familiar with a version of this poem, but if so he made no use of it. The Walther story referred to by Hildebrand in stanza 2344 is similarly unexploited, apart from this one mention.
The truth is there are no immediate sources; and those who need something to compare with the finished product have been reduced to reconstructing earlier versions for themselves. The process is circular, and the result unverifiable.... It seems reasonably certain that there were in existence a number of short episodic lays clustering round such figures as Siegfried, Brunhild, Dietrich, Hagen and Kriemhild; and perhaps an extended narrative treating the downfall of the Burgundians. Nothing is established for these works beyond the bare probability of their existence.
The ultimate sources of the Nibelungenlied are much easier to discern. They are: legend (from a heroic past in the fourth to sixth centuries), chivalry (an orthodoxy from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries) and myth. The wars and great migrations following the advent of the Huns in eastern Europe threw up legendary heroes like Theoderic (Dietrich) of Verona, Hildebrand, Hagen and Gundaharius (Gunther), King of the Burgundians. Some of these men actually existed, as Theodoric, who ruled over Italy from 493 to 526, and Gundaharius, whose kingdom by the Rhine was in fact destroyed by the Huns (though not under Attila) in 435. Others, like Hildebrand, are just prototypes of the Germanic fighting hero. These figures carry their legendary past with them, and their social unit is the family or tribe. As might be expected from their origins, there is often something of the landless knight or exile about them, especially when heroic exploits are involved. But the details of their dress, speech, eating and courting habits, public rituals and, in the case of Rudiger at least, of their moral preoccupations, are taken from medieval courtly society. These details constitute the second, or chivalric, element. The third, or mythological, element is embodied in figures like Siegfried, Brunhild and Alberich the dwarf, who stand out as belonging to no society at all, as being in some way subhuman or superhuman.
So much for the ingredients. The mixture seems to have gone down well, to judge from the number of manuscripts which have survived, and it is not difficult to see why. Past greatness, present pretensions and the possibility of rejuvenation (or destruction) from outside—this is a combination which must exercise a perpetual fascination for all self-conscious societies. It is true that an expansive community may believe for short periods that sophistication is an irreversible process; but recent history has shown how easily the most complex network of relationships can be reduced to primitive posturing, given the right circumstances. And this is exactly what happens in the Nibelungenlied, where a highly developed society reverts under strain.
We are shown, first of all, the court at Worms. It is presided over by the brothers Gunther, Gernot and Giselher, and actually run by Hagen. Everyone knows his place, and there are set procedures for every situation. They are, on the whole, a tedious and complacent company. Their sister Kriemhild is outwardly an exemplary Burgundian lady, but she shows signs of being self-willed about her emotional life (stanza 17), and has an ominous future foretold for her (stanza 14).
The court at Santen is much the same. As at Worms, the homogeneity extends to the names Siegbert and Sieglinde, but their son Siegfried is even more of a misfit than Gunther's sister. Not only is his name wrong (just as Kriemhild refuses to alliterate with her brothers), but he has a rather unorthodox past. As we later learn from Hagen, he is invulnerable, has slain a dragon and owns a magic treasure.
The court at Isenstein, by contrast, is dominated by a single remarkable woman, determined to rely on her own strength until the right man arrives. Her demands are quite simple: he must be the best (i.e. the strongest and bravest) man available. This is not perhaps so very different from the standard applied at Worms, where the king is by definition endowed with both these qualities. But the really anti-social thing about Brunhild is that she insists on putting royal pretensions to the test, and killing all the mighty monarchs who fail. She is a challenge to people like Gunther to justify their title. Of course Gunther himself is no fool, and would never dream of exposing himself to such a blast of reality; but the arrival of Siegfried opens up new possibilities. Here, suddenly, is a man who equates kingship with conquest (stanzas 108 ff.), just like Brunhild, and who is eminently capable of meeting the challenge. Moreover he wants to marry Gunther's sister, and is prepared to go to any lengths to do so. Presented with this happy circumstance, it is an easy matter for the practiced diplomat to manipulate Siegfried into satisfying all Brunhild's demands incognito, leaving all the credit, and the tangible prize, to Gunther. There is the rather intimate question of the bed, but after that has been solved and hushed up the glory of Burgundy seems assured.
The thing which destroys the foundations, if not at first the complacency of Worms, is the tension between inflated appearance and mean reality. The qualities in Siegfried and Brunhild that eventually uncover this tension are precisely those which the Burgundians have tried to use for their own aggrandizement. Brunhild is too honest and uncompromising to accept the official version of Siegfried's status, and once again she insists on putting appearances to the test. The quarrel between the two queens and the ritual murder of Siegfried are the result. Siegfried's own crime is simply to behave in character. He is quite willing to let the Burgundians use his strength, but he makes no attempt to disguise his superiority. He is quite blandly indifferent to all the jealousies, rules and compromises which hold the society together. He is not interested in money (stanzas 558, 694-5), status (stanza 386), face-saving ceremony (stanzas 748-9) or political etiquette (stanzas 314—15). And, worst of all, he seems to have forgotten all about the sanctity of women as soon as he married Kriemhild (stanzas 858, 894). Such innocence is in itself provocative. His one vulnerable spot is known only to Kriemhild, and she, like a good Burgundian, betrays it to Hagen.
With Siegfried dead, and his treasure hastily dumped in the Rhine, it is left to Kriemhild and Hagen to fight it out. In the process, the whole way of life at Burgundy is inexorably deflated and destroyed. The last magnificent tournament ends in a brutal killing; the elaborate political speeches are reduced to childish defiance; the subtly interlocking loyalties and prohibitions to blind tribal solidarity; the splendid feasting and drinking to the final macabre meal of blood, with corpses for benches. The mighty king is trussed up, and slaughtered by his sister. The crown of courtly womanhood is carved up by Dietrich's retainer.
Loyalty and good faith, made for security, are turned to destruction, so that allegiance to either side is the equivalent of a death sentence. Neutrality, on the other hand, is impossible, as even Dietrich discovers. He does, it is true, survive, but stripped of all the relationships which he and Hildebrand had built up round themselves (stanza 2319). Rudiger, a much weaker and more dependent character, is pathetically caught in a dilemma of his own making. His hospitality and his readiness to oblige a lady, both excellent social qualities, have tied him equally to the Burgundians and to Kriemhild. Obsessive generosity, designed to win lifelong friends, provides the instrument of his death. The bonds that once held society together now destroy it. At Etzel's court everyone is an exile.
Source: D. G Mowatt, in an introduction to The Nibelungenlied, translated by D. G. Mowatt, Dent, 1962, pp v-x.
The Nibelungenlied, like the Beowulf, is a poem embodying materials drawn from Germanic history, mythology, and legend, a story of "old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago..." It contains the story of Siegfried, dragon-slayer and winner of the treasure of the Nibelungs; his courtship of Kriemhild, sister of Gunther, King of the Burgundians, and their marriage; his winning of Brunhild, by a trick, for Gunther; the feud between Brunhild and Kriemhild; the murder of Siegfried by Gunther's vassal, Hagen; the marriage of Kriemhild to Etzel, King of the Huns, and Etzel's invitation to the Burgundians; the death of Gunther and Hagen in Etzel's hall; and finally, the death of Kriemhild.
We recognize parts of this story from our knowledge of its most recent version, that found in Wagner's operas called the Ring of the Nibelungs. We notice, also, that Wagner's version is in many respects quite different from that of the Nibelungenlied. Wagner saw the story as one in which the most important personages were Siegfried and Brunhild, and, like many Germans of his time, he thought of them as figures drawn from the Germanic pantheon: a culture-hero, almost a demigod, and a Valkyr, a battle-maiden, the chooser of the slain destined for Valhalla. In order to attain his artistic objective, he wrote two operas, Das Rheingold and Die Walkiire, which tell of the events preceding the story of Siegfried and the rival queens found in the Nibelungenlied. In the central opera, Siegfried, he tells the story of the dragon-slaying and the winning of the hoard, and includes an event scarcely glanced at in the Nibelungenlied, the betrothal of Siegfried and Brunhild. And in the final opera of the cycle Die Gotterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods), he tells of the murder of Siegfried and the self-immolation of Brunhild on his funeral pyre. This last incident also not found in the Nibelungenlied.
Wagner's version, also, makes much more use of Germanic mythology than does the Nibelungenlied. The Middle High German poem, written in a thoroughly Christian atmosphere, could not well bring in Wotan, the principal deity of the Germanic pantheon; but Wagner's presentation of the story demanded the presence of these gods. For such materials he went to the versions of the story current in medieval Scandinavia, preserved in the Eddas, and, most completely, in the thirteenth-century Icelandic Volsungasaga.
The Volsungasaga tells a story very like that found in the Nibelungenlied, but it contains also other elements not found in the Germanic poem, especially the story of the birth of Siegfried (called Sigurd in the Norse), and the events which took place after the death of Gunther (Gunnar) and Hagen (Hogni). Although it was written down some two hundred years after the Nibelungenlied, it was not in the least influenced by that poem; rather, it is another version of the same story, drawn from the same source.
And here we must repeat what we said earlier, that the Nibelungenlied is a poem embodying elements drawn from Germanic mythology, legend, and history. In the Nibelungenlied, it is true, the mythological elements are of the slightest, if indeed, strictly speaking, they exist at all. Folklore material is there in plenty: the slaying of the dragon, for instance, and the Tarnkappe, the hood of invisibility, are matters met with in many fairy tales. Basically, however, the story is legend founded on history.
The historical fact underlying the legends, found widely throughout the Germanic-speaking areas, is the destruction of the Burgundian capital at Worms, in 437, by the Huns, whose king was Attila. We recognize that this must be the same name as Etzel, found in the Nibelungenlied, and Atli, in the Volsungasaga. The Burgundian princes, was we know from an early document called the "Law of the Burgundians," were named Gibica, Gundahari, and Gislahari: and these must be the same names as Gibich, father of Gunther, Gernot and Giselher. The treacherous invitation of Etzel at his wife's prompting, and his killing of Gunther and Hagen, must be a legendary reflection of the defeat of the Burgundians, for people do not celebrate their defeats in their stories; rather, they adapt history to legend in order to explain their defeats. Modern examples of this phenomenon are not lacking.
The adaptation of history to legend is the prerogative of the epic poet, who need have no concern with fact as such. Theodoric of Verona, or Dietrich von Bern, another famous German legendary and historical figure, died in 526; yet the Nibelungenlied-poet has him present at the death of Kriemhild, which must have been nearly a century earlier. Probably the poet was not in the least aware that he was mixing up his centuries, for he was a poet, not a historian, and, just as Wagner was to do many centuries later, he used whatever material he had as his artistic necessities demanded.
The Germanic values of the Nibelungenlied still prevail, beneath the courtly facade. Gunther is a medieval prince, adept in political intrigue; but it is not difficult to see in him, as in King Siegfried, the earlier "bestower-of-rings" and "shield-of-knights." This courtliness, however, owes something to the expanding influences of French models. None of the earlier Germanic stories takes any great interest in romantic love; and love between man and woman is one of the primary forces of the Nibelungenlied. In this the epic is the product of its time, the late Middle Ages; for romantic love was not earlier a source of the question of loyalties.
The Nibelungenlied-poet could have found easy scope for lyricism in the magical background of the poem. The ring and girdle of Brunhild, the winning of the Hoard, the awakening of Brunhild within the circle of fire—these episodes, and many more, could have carried him from his artistic purpose. Fortunately, these temptations were not victorious; perhaps, if they had prevailed, the Nibelungenlied would be only another interesting lay of medieval Germany. As in other poetry of epic stature, however, the mythological tradition behind the creation of the work is either told in episodic, narrative fashion, or implied. In the Nibelungenlied, most of this material is implied. It is very difficult to trace the mechanical techniques by which the effect is accomplished. Why does Brunhild tower over Kriemhild, in spite of their mutual ownership of the magical objects of power, and the greater number of lines which are given to Kriemhild and her revenge? Why, without a single explicit line of proof, does Hagen tower above Gunther, worthy to be the nemesis of Siegfried and the last of the men of Nibelung to die in battle? Even without any knowledge of the Eddas or the Volsungasaga, any perceptive reader can feel their stature.
Keeping the mystic elements in the background, the poet of the Nibelungenlied saves his lyric power for more human and personal topics, as does Dante in the episode of Paolo and Francesca in the Divine Comedy. The German poet's description of Siegfried's first meeting with Kriemhild is scarcely to be rivaled:
Even as the full moon stands before the stars, so pure in her radiance that all clouds must run away before her, so did she stand in beauty among her ladies.
For Dante's Francesca,"the greatest pain of all is remembrance of past happiness in present woe;" for Kriemhild, "all pleasure, no matter how sweet, must at last turn to pain." But, whether the emphasis be upon fate or upon the Christian eternity, the sweetest passages in both epics are those of human love.
Scholarly search for the author of the Nibelungenlied has, to date, been inconclusive. A bishop of the late tenth century—Pilgrim of Passau—had created most of the main incidents of the story, as his own version of popular legend; he is accepted as a main source for the poem. A Minnesinger known as Der Kurenberger is known to have written at least fifteen detached stanzas in the same metre. Yet, although the "folk-epic" theory of the nineteenth century has long been in disrepute, no valid scholarship has established the identity of the poet. The uniformity of style, as well as the method of incorporating myth, points to a single author. Karl Lachmann, the Germanic scholar, has found at least twenty lays of ancient origin which seem to form a part of the poem; his research, although of the "folk-epic" school, has indicated to many modern critics the probability of individual authorship; it is unlikely, they argue, that these vastly rich background sources could have been coordinated in such a manner by a "folk-author." Furthermore, his nineteen "twelfth-century additions" would appear to indicate a uniformity too great for a "folk epic." It is, in fact, unlikely that any poem of epic stature could have been other than individual in authorship. An epic cannot have "the quality of growth, rather than of authorship," although centuries of growth may lie behind it.
Some critics believe that the Nibelungenlied was, in its earliest form, meant to be sung rather than read. Its verse-form, a four-line strophe, instead of the couplet-form of the later romantic epics, seems to corroborate this theory. There can be little doubt that the early lays of which it is formed were sung in courtly circles. But the music of the German epic is not the music of the Minnesinger; there is now little question that it was meant to be read. There were, as we have seen, many versions of the story available, but this does not mean that it grew by itself from the songs of minstrels. The story of the fall of the Burgundian kingdom must have inspired many poets, even as the absorption of the Geats led to the creation of the semi-mythological Beowulf. But, as the Beowulf is now accepted as the creation of an individual, so must the Nibelungenlied have been a unification of many poetic tales by one author. Its simplicity and uniformity of diction, its classical richness, so well disciplined, seem ample testimony, combined with the usual linguistic and literary tests, of its single authorship. But it is very pleasant to think of the poem as recited to the sound of harps. Its meter, with the marked caesura, the measured half-line of three feet, with the last half-line of each strophe extended to four feet, seems admirably suited to such presentation. However, the careful artistic variation of accent indicates that it was meant to be read.
Source: Arthur E. Hutson and Patricia McCoy, "Nibelungenlied," in Epics of the Western World, J B Lippencott Company, 1954, pp. 297-336.