The Poem

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In Burgundy there lives a noble family that numbers three brothers and a sister. The sons are Gunther, who wears the crown, Gernot, and Giselher. The daughter is Kriemhild. About them is a splendid court of powerful and righteous knights, including Hagen of Trony, his brother Dankwart, and mighty Hunold. Kriemhild dreams one night that she rears a falcon that then is slain by two eagles. When she tells her dream to Queen Uta, her mother’s interpretation is that Kriemhild should have a noble husband but that unless God’s protection follows him he might soon die. Siegfried is born in Niderland, the son of King Siegmund and Queen Sieglind. In his young manhood he hears of the beautiful Kriemhild, and, although he has never seen her, he determines to have her for his wife. Undeterred by reports of her fierce and warlike kinsmen, he makes his armor ready for his venture. Friends come from all parts of the country to bid him farewell, and many of them accompany him as retainers into King Gunther’s land. When he arrives at Gunther’s court, Hagen, who knows his fame, tells the brothers the story of Siegfried’s first success, relating how Siegfried killed great heroes and won the hoard of the Nibelung, a treasure of so much gold and jewels that five score wagons cannot carry all of it. He also tells how Siegfried won the cloak of invisibility from the dwarf Albric and how Siegfried became invulnerable from having bathed in the blood of a dragon he slew. Gunther and his brothers admit Siegfried to their hall after they hear of his exploits, and the hero stays with them a year. In all that time, however, he does not once see Kriemhild.

The Saxons, led by King Ludger, threaten to overcome the kingdom of the Burgundians. Siegfried pledges to use his forces in overcoming the Saxons, and in the battle he leads his knights and Gunther’s troops to a great victory. In the following days there are great celebrations at which Queen Uta and her daughter Kriemhild appear in public. On one of these occasions Siegfried and Kriemhild meet and become betrothed. King Gunther, wanting to marry Brunhild, Wotan’s daughter, tells Siegfried that if he will help him win Brunhild, then he might wed Kriemhild. Gunther sets out at the head of a great expedition, all of his knights decked in costly garments in order to impress Brunhild. Her preference for a husband, however, is not a well-dressed prince but a hero. She declares that the man who will win her must surpass her in feats of skill and strength. With Siegfried’s aid Gunther overcomes Brunhild, and she agrees to go with Gunther as his wife.

Siegfried is sent on ahead to announce a great celebration in honor of the coming marriage of Gunther to Brunhild. A double ceremony takes place, with Kriemhild becoming the bride of Siegfried at the same time. At the wedding feast Brunhild bursts into tears at the sight of Kriemhild and Siegfried together. Gunther tries to explain away her unhappiness, but once more, Gunther needs Siegfried’s aid, for Brunhild determines never to let Gunther share her bed. Siegfried goes to her chamber and there overpowers her. Thinking she is overcome by Gunther, she is thus subdued. Brunhild gives birth to a son who is named for Siegfried. As time passes she wishes once more to see Siegfried, who returned with Kriemhild to his own country. Therefore, she instructs Gunther to plan a great hunting party to which Siegfried and Kriemhild should be invited.

At the meeting of the two royal families, there is great rivalry between Brunhild and Kriemhild. They vie with each other by overdressing their attendants and then argue as to the place each should have in the royal procession. Finally, Kriemhild takes revenge when she tells Brunhild the true story of Brunhild’s wedding night. Accusing Brunhild of acting the part of a harlot, she says that Brunhild slept first with Siegfried, then with her husband, Gunther. For proof, she displays Brunhild’s ring and girdle, both of which Siegfried won from Brunhild the night he overcame her. Brunhild, furious and desirous of revenge, seeks out her husband and confronts him with the story of her humiliation and betrayal. Gunther and Siegfried soon settle to their own satisfaction the quarrel between the two women, but Hagen, the crafty one, stirs up trouble among Gunther’s brothers with his claim that Siegfried stained the honor of their house. They plot to trap Siegfried and to destroy him. When it is reported that the Saxons are to attack Gunther’s knights, Kriemhild unwittingly reveals Siegfried’s one vulnerable spot. While bathing in the dragon’s blood, he failed to protect a portion of his body the size of a linden leaf because a leaf fell down between his shoulders. The villainous Hagen asks her to sew a token on the spot so that he can protect Siegfried during the fighting. Hagen sends men to say that the Saxons gave up the attack. Then, the fear of battle over, Gunther rides out to hunt with all of his knights. There, deep in the forest, as Siegfried is bending over a spring to drink, he is struck in the fatal spot by an arrow from Hagen’s bow. Before he dies, Siegfried curses the Burgundians and their tribe forever. Indifferent to the dying man’s curse, Hagen carries home the body of the dead hero.

He places Siegfried’s body in the path where Kriemhild will see it on her way to church, but a chamberlain discovers the body before she passes. Kriemhild knows instinctively whose hand did the deed. A thousand knights headed by Siegmund, his father, mourn the dead hero, and everyone claims vengeance. The widow gives vast sums of money to the poor in honor of Siegfried. When Siegmund prepares to leave for Niderland, he asks Kriemhild to go with him. She refuses but allows him to take Siegfried’s son with him. She is determined to stay with the Burgundians. Queen Brunhild, however, offers no compassion. The Nibelungen hoard is given to Kriemhild because it is her wedding gift. By order of Hagen, who plans to get possession of the treasure, all of it is dropped to the bottom of the Rhine. In the years that follow Kriemhild remains in mourning for Siegfried.

At last the mighty Etzel, king of the Huns, seeks to marry Kriemhild. After a long courtship he wins Kriemhild and takes her to his land to be his wife. Etzel is rich and strong, and after her long years of mourning, Kriemhild again occupies a position of power and honor. Now she begins to consider how she might avenge herself for the death of Siegfried. Hoping to get Hagen in her power, she sends a messenger to her brothers, saying that she longs to see all of them again. When they receive her message, the brothers and Hagen set out. Old Queen Uta tells them that in a dream she saw a vision of dire foreboding, but the Burgundians refuse to heed her warning. Hagen receives a token from some mermaids, who say none of the knights will return from Hunland. He disregards the prediction. Then a quarrel breaks out among the Burgundians, and Dankwart slays Gelfrat. Three evil omens now attend the coming journey, but still the brothers refuse to turn back. At last the Burgundians come to Etzel’s castle. Gunther and his brothers are put into separate apartments. Dankwart and Hagen are sent to other quarters. Warned by Sir Dietrich that Kriemhild still plots vengeance for Siegfried’s death, Hagen urges them all to take precautions. When Kriemhild asks them to give her their weapons, Hagen replies that it could not be. The Burgundians decide to post a guard to prevent a surprise attack while they sleep. The court goes to mass. At the services the Huns are displeased to see that Gunther and his party jostle Queen Kriemhild.

In honor of the Burgundians, a great tournament is held for all the knights. The feeling between the Burgundians and the Huns is so bad that King Etzel is forced to intervene in order to keep the peace. To appease the brothers, Etzel gives them Kriemhild’s small son, Ortlieb, as a hostage. Sir Bloedel, however, presses into Dankwart’s quarters demanding justice for Kriemhild. In a few minutes he arouses the anger of Dankwart, who rises from his table and kills Bloedel. For this deed the angered Huns killed Dankwart’s retainers. Dankwart, at bay, runs to Hagen for help. Hagen, knowing that he will not live to seek his vengeance on Kriemhild later, slaughters the little prince, Ortlieb. Then a mighty battle follows in which Hagen and Gunther manage to kill most of their adversaries.

Kriemhild now urges her heroes to kill Hagen. The first to take up the challenge is Iring. After he wounds Hagen, he rushes back to Kriemhild for praise. Hagen recovers quickly and seeks Iring to kill him. The battle continues, and many knights from both sides fall in the bloody combat. Outnumbered, the Burgundians fall one by one. Kriemhild herself slays Hagen, the last of the Burgundians to survive. He dies without revealing the location of the treasure.

King Etzel grieves to see so many brave knights killed. At a sign from him, Hildebrand, one of his retainers, lifts his sword and ends the life of Kriemhild as well. In this way dies the secret of the new hiding place of the Nibelungen treasure.

Places Discussed

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*Castle of Worms

*Castle of Worms. Castle by the Rhine River in northern France’s historic Burgundy region. It is the home of Kriemhild and her family, who face much hardship and death as a result of Kriemhild’s great love for Siegfried. This place represents the unmarred beauty and happiness of a young woman, while it also symbolizes her maturity and the bitterness that follows betrayal, which eventually leads to death and destruction—her own and those of innumerable others.

*Netherlands

*Netherlands. Homeland of Siegfried that signifies his power, as well as his own evanescent nature. In certain instances within the poem, Norway and Nibelungenland seem to be synonymous with the Netherlands, which is analogous to the relationship that Siegfried has with his own people and those of other nations—that of a known origin, but of an indistinct nature.

Isenstein

Isenstein. Location of Brunhild’s court. For a long while, this place was thought to be in Iceland because it is described as having been along the coast. However, that is no longer considered the case. Brunhild may also correspond with her place of origin, for just as she has enormous power that is eventually taken from her by an act of betrayal, so is her court.

Nibelungenland

Nibelungenland. Mythical setting in which Siegfried is believed to have won his cloak of invisibility and the gold hoard. It represents that which is inscrutable for humans, unknown power and wealth, and those possessions to which everyone in this epic aspires but never attains.

*Hungary

*Hungary. Homeland of King Etzel, the heathen. Although Etzel himself is not portrayed in a negative light, Hungary is associated with the dark deeds of Kriemhild, who remains there until her death for the sole purpose of revenge.

Historical Context

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Socio-historical Context of the Nibelungenlied
While the version of the Nibelungenlied known to twentieth-century readers was written around 1200, it deals loosely with historical and legendary events which occurred or were first recounted several hundred years before. The Huns (Etzel's people in the Nibelungenlied) were originally a nomadic tribe from Asia. They invaded Europe around 360. They eventually settled most of their kingdom in what is now Hungary. Attila (Etzel in the Nibelungenlied) became King of the Huns in 433. In Latin legends he was given the nickname of "Scourge of the Gods" for his cruelty, and this is the image that has survived most widely regarding Attila. However, in the Germanic legends, he is portrayed as hospitable and fair.

The kingdom at Worms is believed to have been founded in the year 406 by the Burgundians, a Germanic people. They were conquered by the Huns under Attila in a battle in which the entire Burgundian royal family was killed. After this, what remained of the Burgundians settled in the area of France known today as Burgundy. It was after this that the names of Gunther, Giselher, and Gernot appear in their records.

The character of Dietrich of Verona is based on the historical figure of Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths from around the year 475. As ruler of Italy from 493 he implemented legal, social, and economic reforms. He appears in the Nibelungenlied as Dietrich of Verona because of his historical connection to Italy.

Legends about the mythical dragon-slayer Siegfried somehow came to be associated with the tale of the overthrow of the Burgundian kingdom by the Huns. The same stories about a dragon-killing knight or warrior named Siegfried also appears in the Icelandic epic tales (called "Eddas"). These northern versions of the story differ somewhat from the Germanic versions, although they are thought to have originated from common sources. The source stories were popular throughout the regions that are now Iceland, Denmark, Norway and England.

Critical to an understanding of what motivates the characters in the Nibelungenlied is an understanding of the bonds of feudalism, family, and friendship. In Germanic culture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, these issues were of compelling importance. The loyalty bond of a vassal to a lord, the bonds of blood kinship and of friendship, and the bond between husband and wife are all crucial; many conflicts in the text arise when a character is torn between conflicting demands of these varied obligations. For instance, Hagen feels honor-bound as a vassal of Brunhild's husband Gunther to defend Brunhild's honor by killing Siegfried, but since Siegfried is Kriemhild's husband and Kriemhild is Gunther's sister, he is also violating an implied bond not to hurt her. Kriemhild, in turn, betrays her husband Etzel by using him as a pawn to draw the Burgundians to their slaughter in Hungary. Rudiger is torn between his sworn loyalty to his lord, Etzel, and his bond of friendship and kinship with the Burgundians.

Such brutal behavior is rarely offset by the sometimes-explicit reminders that these events take place in a Christian culture, bound by the rules of Christian conduct. Christianity began to spread throughout Europe in the early Middle Ages. The historical figure of Dietrich (Theodoric) was a Christian, although he belonged to an alternative, heretical sect of Christianity known as Arianism. Attila remained a pagan, but we are not certain how soon the Burgundian tribes were converted. The prevalence of Christian culture in the Nibelungenlied was probably the invention of the anonymous author, who was writing in the twelfth or thirteenth century, when western Europe had become almost entirely Christian. These two worlds—pagan and Christian—collide in the Nibelungenlied when Kriemhild, a Christian, marries Etzel, a pagan. Christian beliefs in the story are, however, given only scant treatment. There is less tension between pagan and Christian beliefs than there is within the Christian culture of the Burgundians regarding the conflicting demands of feudal obligations and self-interest.

Literary Style

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Nibelungenlied as Epic
The Nibelungenlied draws on two important literary traditions, that of the epic, and that of the romance. As an epic, it celebrates the adventures and achievements of several noble, admirable people. It draws on history, mythology, and legend for its details, and the story is largely advanced through action. The Nibelungenlied also employs elements drawn from the literary romance: the quests of knights, chivalry, and complicated love relationships worked out over time. The romance genre is largely driven by plot or character, as are the romantic sections of the Nibelungenlied. In fact, this work is often regarded as one of the first examples of a new, hybrid form of literature, encompassing elements of both epic and romance. It has also been suggested that the Nibelungenlied also draws on a type of story associated with the romance genre known as the "bridal-quest." This literary model encompasses several typical episodes: the report of a distant and eligible princess; a man moved to woo and win her in marriage; her initial resistance to him; commonly, a series of tasks each potential bridegroom must undertake; and finally, a triumphant bridal journey ending in a wedding. These events—which are familiar to many readers through the traditions of nineteenth-century folk and fairy tales—are played out in the relationships between both Siegfried and Kriemhild and of Gunther and Brunhild.

Point of View
The Nibelungenlied is told from the point of view of an omniscient, or "all-knowing" narrator. The narrator is aware of all the events as they unfold, and also those that are about to occur. To portray a unified story to the reader, the narrative unfolds with little personal commentary and employs repetitive or stock phrases: the character of Volker, for example, is often referred to as "the valiant minstrel" in order to recall both his valor and his role as a musician to the reader. Since the basic Nibelungenlied story was well known long before it was ever written down, the narrator trusts that the audience knows what is going to happen. This is commonplace of medieval literature and of epic stories, which drew from existing bodies of shared cultural knowledge.

Foreshadowing
In the literary technique of foreshadowing, events that are to come later in the narrative are "foreshadowed" or hinted at in advance. Foreshadowing occurs throughout the Nibelungenlied, for example, through the interpretations that Uote offers of her own dream and that of her daughter, the prophecy of the water-faeries to Hagen, and the narrator's frequent interpolations that doom is about to befall certain characters or that terrible things will result from whatever has just happened. This type of foreshadowing adds both structural unity and interest to the story: it ensures a steady tragic tone while it keeps the reader wondering, not exactly what will happen next, but how the inevitable tragic events will play themselves out.

Structure
The Nibelungenlied partakes of a twofold structure. The story is divided into two sections: the first encompassing Kriemhild's marriage to Siegfried and his subsequent death (Chapters 1-19); the second covering Kriemhild's marriage to Etzel and her quest to revenge Siegfried's death (Chapters 20-39). The second part builds upon and fulfills the events of the first (a type of structural foreshadowing). There is also an internal symmetry corresponding to these two parts. For instance, both parts begin with a bride-quest and a marriage, and end with death. In keeping with the literary technique of building on and expanding on events, the first part ends with the death of a single individual, while the second part concludes with depictions of massive loss of life on both sides of a great conflict between peoples. Gift-giving, invitations to visit, arrivals, leave-taking, and battles are represented in both parts as well. In another example of building on what has come before in the narrative, the battles depicted in Part One are largely the mock fights of pageants and war games, while the fighting that concludes the epic is deadly earnest.

Compare and Contrast

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Middle Ages: During the Middle Ages, laws and punishments varied from country to country, sometimes even from city to city. The type of justice and the punishments inflicted in the Middle Ages often "fit" the crime in very literal ways.

Late twentieth century: Modern legal systems eschew "eye for an eye'' retributive justice. The legal systems of most nations purport to be fair and objective, with rehabilitation being a primary goal.

Middle Ages: Vengeance—revenge for a wrong done—is seen as an equitable form of justice.

Late twentieth century: Justice is commonly interpreted as punishment for the guilty and preservation of the innocent. Revenge is not supposed to be a reason for seeking justice.

Middle Ages: Kingship was hereditary. Rulers in the Middle Ages had almost unlimited power and control over their subjects.

Late twentieth century: Most monarchs are primarly figureheads who live under the same laws and enjoy the same rights as all citizens.

Media Adaptations

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Die Nibelungen was made into a two-part black-and-white silent movie in 1924. It was produced in Germany, and directed by Fritz Lang. It is now available on Laser Disc (Disc Format CLV) as well as on 16mm film. The two parts are "Siegfried's Death" and "Kriemhild's Revenge." The movie elaborates on the tales of Siegfried's youth, and is quite faithful to the story of the Nibelungenlied.

German composer Richard Wagner turned the story of the Nibelungs into the four operas of Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelungs). Separately, the four operas are: Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), Die Walkure (The Valkyries), Siegfried and Gotterdamerung (The Twilight of the Gods). He drew from both the Nibelungenlied and on the Norse Eddas to compose his plots. Many versions of the operas are available on CD, video, and laser disk.

J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, a fantasy tale that focuses on the early accomplishments of Siegfried the dragon-slayer, is available in a 1978 animated film. It was directed by Ralph Bakshi, and produced by Republic Pictures. It is available on video.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources for Further Study
Andersson, Theodore M. A Preface to the Nibelungenlied. Stanford University Press, 1987. Andersson discusses the Nibelungenlied in the context of the development of epic poetry, focusing on the rise of the romance genre and the ways that the Nibelungenlied participates in both genres. He provides extensive bibliographic entries for each of his chapters, and deals with the sources, literary context, and critical history of the Nibelungenlied.

Boggs, Roy A. "The Popular Image of Brunhilde," in The Roles and Images of Women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, edited by Douglas Radchff-Umstead. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975. Boggs discusses the various interpretations of Brunhilde's role in the Nibelungenlied and in other works. She is primarily seen as the "noble but betrayed queen of Iceland," but her character does appear and take other roles in some Scandinavian epics such as the Volsunga Saga and the Poetic Edda.

Gentry, Francis G. "Hagen and the Problem of Individuality in the Nibelungenlied." Monatshefte, Vol 68,1976, pp. 5-12. Gentry attempts to determine the attitudes of the anonymous author of the Nibelungenlied toward the legal and moral demands of feudalism made on characters in the work.

Hatto, A. T. Foreword to The Nibelungenlied, translated by A. T. Hatto, Penguin Books, 1969. Brief introduction to the work and its place in world epic literature. This useful edition also includes "An Introduction to a Second Reading," "A Note on the the Translation," and appendices consisting of essays on "The Status of the Poet," "The Manuscript Tradition, Bishop Wolfger of Passau, and the Homeland of the Last Poet," "The Date of the Poem," "The Genesis of the Poem," "The Geography of the Poem," and "A Glossary of the Characters' Names."

Haymes, Edward R. The Nibelungenlied: History and Interpretation. University of Illinois Press, 1986. Discusses the relevance of medieval literature to a modern audience, and discusses the genesis of oral and written culture in the Middle Ages. He deals with the structural and thematic issues presented in the Nibelungenlied.

Haymes, Edward R. and Susann T. Samples. Heroic Legends of the North: An Introduction to the Nibelung and Dietrich Cycles. Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996. Haymes and Samples provide a comprehensive historical look at the sources from which the Nibelungenlied drew. They discuss the history and development of heroic poetry and epic, and the legends of the germanic peoples. This text also deals with the evolution of heroic legends from oral transmission to written literature.

Mowatt, D. G., In an introduction to "The Nibelungenlied," translated by D. G. Mowatt, Dent, 1962, pp. v-x. Mowatt discusses the Nibelungenhed's role as a historical national epic of Germany.

Mueller, Werner A. The Nibelungenlied Today: Its Substance, Essence, and Significance. AMS Press Inc., 1966. Mueller discusses some of the dominant themes in the Nibelungenlied, such as honor, loyalty, gentility, and the role of family and social relationships and oaths.

Thelen, Lynn D. "The Internal Source and Function of King Gunther's Bndal Quest." Monatshefte, Vol 76 (1984): pp. 143-155. Thelen suggests that Gunther's wooing of Brunhild is problematic in the story of the Nibelungenlied, and provides the reader with reason to doubt Gunther's strength as a leader. She suggests that the bridal games in which Siegfried takes part on Gunther's behalf serve to entertain the reader, to further characterize Gunther, and to "underscore the theme of real versus claimed power."

Bibliography

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Bekker, Hugo. The Nibelungenlied: A Literary Analysis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971. Deals at length with the four main characters and with numerous parallelisms in the epic. Bekker’s main point is that Brunhild is offended not because Siegfried overpowers her in bed but because he breaches the rules of kingship by not consummating the sexual act.

Haymes, Edward R. The Nibelungenlied: History and Interpretation. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1986. Discusses how the epic would have been received around the year 1200, when it was written. Interprets it as an argument for the stability of the old feudal structure and against new elements from chivalric literature.

McConnell, Winder. The Nibelungenlied. Boston: Twayne, 1984. An excellent discussion of the epic, with strong historical cultural background information and an interesting overview of the reception of the work in Germany. Well-organized interpretations of the major characters. Emphasizes the anonymous author’s style of presenting the events without passing judgment.

Mowatt, D. G., and Hugh Sacker. The Nibelungenlied: An Interpretative Commentary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967. Includes maps and a genealogical diagram. A good general introduction followed by more than one hundred pages of commentary that closely follows the original text. Most useful in conjunction with an English translation that retains the stanza numbers.

The Nibelungenlied. Translated by A. T. Hatto. New York: Penguin Books, 1969. In addition to the translation, Hatto provides more than one hundred pages of information on the epic. He points out many discrepancies in the work. A useful glossary of the characters’ names.

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