Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2057
The Nibelungenlied is a heroic epic which tells the story of the knight Siegfried's marriage to Kriemhild and his subsequent death at the hands of Kriemhild's kinsman, Hagen. In the second part of the story, Kriemhild marries Etzel, King of the Huns. She uses her new position to exact revenge on Hagen for her husband's death; her own brothers and many more of her kinsmen die in the process.
Chivalry was a code of behavior which evolved in the Middle Ages. It is associated with the tradition of mounted knights in armor, lords and ladies, feasts, jousts, and war games. In fact, "knights" arose from the development of new military techniques. The behavior of a knight both on the battlefield and in everyday life was expected to follow a certain set of rules—a moral, social and religious code of conduct. The notion of chivalry encouraged knights to foster the virtues of courage, honor, and service to their lord or kinsmen. Part of this code prescribed respectful treatment of women, who had few legal rights in the Middle Ages. For instance, in the Nibelungenlied, Siegfried's respectful treatment of Kriemhild and their closely-regulated courtship followed the code of chivalry. Chivalry is also associated with class, noble rank, and social standing as well as expertise on the battlefield. For instance, when the kings Liudeger and Liudegast surrender in battle, they and their men are brought back to Worms. There, they are not treated like prisoners of war, but as guests. The wounded knights receive care and medical treatment, and the others are housed and fed. This treatment adheres to the chivalric code.
Clothing and Appearances
For the characters in the Nibelungenlied appearances and first impressions are very important. One way this concern is manifested is through clothing and personal adornment. Clothing, in fact, sends certain messages that, within the courtly culture depicted, can be easily read. When Siegfried first decides to visit Worms to seek Kriemhild's hand in marriage, much effort is put into describing his attire and that of his companions. When they arrive at Worms in Chapter 3, the narrator tells us that they are assumed to be "either princes or princes' envoys, judging by their handsome chargers and splendid clothes." Nobility, honorable status, good breeding, and class are judged by appearance. Gifts of fine clothes can also be a way to honor a guest. It is also interesting to note that as the story progresses, less time is spent discussing splendid garments, and more on fine armor and weapons, keeping with the tone of the story.
Courtly love is as much a literary convention as it was a behavioral code. Courtly love represented the relationship between a suitor and his lady, and sometime, between a courtier or leigeman and the wife, sister, or daughter, of the lord whom he served. This does not mean that extramarital affairs were a part of courtly love. Such relationships were confined to the suitor's pledges of devotion and service. Sometimes such relationships between relative social equals would develop and lead to marriage. Other times, the suitor would plead for his lady's love in vain. This behavior was conventional. The suitor always treated his lady with respect and admiration, sometimes even adoration. An example of courtly love in the Nibelungenlied is Siegfried's unspoken devotion to Kriemhild and then his respectful wooing of her through Gunther over more than a year. Similarly, the vassals and knights of Etzel's army pledge themselves to avenging Kriemhild's honor because she is married to their lord.
The Nibelungenlied is as much a story of political and social disintegration as it is about heroes and revenge. By the end of the story, the Burgundian rulers are all dead, and many of Etzel's own vassals have been killed as well. Essentially, two kingdoms have been destroyed. The roots of this disintegration are a series of deceptions in which many characters participate. The theme of deception is problematic, since some of the instances of deception can also be seen as examples of courage, bravery, or skill. When Siegfried helps Gunther win Brunhild by taking part in the sporting events under the cover of his magic cloak, he is contributing to a marriage based on a false premise—Gunther's superior strength and skill. Then, when Siegfried subdues Brunhild after the wedding, he essentially "tames" her for Gunther. Hagen, too, is deceitful. He engages in the decepion of Siegfried's death, and Gunther himself is complicit in the deed. Many scholars justify Hagen's actions by maintaining that he acts according to his feudal obligations. His queen, Brunhild, is insulted and publicly humiliated, and it is his duty to avenge the wrongs done to her. Nevertheless, the planning that goes into Siegfried's death, including determining his "weak spot," was deceitful.
Dreams and Prophecies
Dreams and prophecies occur at various points throughout the story, and add to the constant element of foreshadowing that the narrator uses. Subsequent events of the story then represent the events of the dreams, either directly or indirectly. At the very beginning of the Nibelungenlied, Kriemhild has a dream which portends her marriage to Siegfried and his death. Other dreams occur at important transition points in the story. Kriemhild has two dreams before Siegfried's hunting trip that seem to foretell his death. Later, Kriemhild dreams of her brother Giselher before she invites her kinsmen to visit her in Hungary. Shortly thereafter, her mother, Uote, dreams that all the birds in Burgundy are dead, and takes it to mean that her sons should not journey to Hungary, which of course turns out to be true as they all perish there.
The Nibelungenleid poet uses prophecy in other ways. Hagen is warned by the Danube water-faeries that the Burgundians' trip to Hungary will end in destruction. Such "foretellings," the type of imagery used, and the way that dreams are then represented in the subsequent actions of the story constitute an important element of the poet's use of foreshadowing.
The Nibelungenlied is set at a time when feudal obligations represented the socio-political foundation of society. Feudalism prevailed in Europe from about the ninth to the thirteenth centuries. It was an interdependant relationship of "lord" and "vassal" established through an oath of loyalty. The lords (for instance, Gunther and Etzel) owned the land in their respective kingdoms, but they allowed "vassals" to live on the land, and to engage in farming, hunting, fishing, trade, and other forms of livelihood. Vassalage does not imply mere servitude or peasantry: vassals were often of noble blood and—and is often the case with characters in the Nibelungenlied—included high-ranking and influential men. In exchange for military and political protection for his family and property, a vassal paid tithes, or yearly sums of money, to his lord, and was pledged to military service when needed. It is the relationship of lord and vassal which causes much of the tragedy in the Nibelungenlied. In Chapter 14, Brunhild criticizes Siegfried for not performing his financial obligations as a "vassal." She had been told that Siegfried was Gunther's vassal, or "liegeman;" and so she believes that Kriemhild, being of lesser social status, should not enter the cathedral before her. Kriemhild objects, and claims that she is a "free noblewoman," that is, the wife of a lord, not a vassal. This argument instigates the events which will lead to the death of Siegfried and then of many Burgundians.
The Status of Women
During the Middle Ages women did not enjoy great freedom, security, or legal protection. They could not inherit land, and husbands commonly controlled household wealth. The code of chivalry encouraged the respectful treatment of a small strata of women of the upper classes and nobility, but did nothing to grant them autonomy or personal power. Even Kriemhild, the wife of a king, has difficulty persuading the vassals who owe her husband allegiance to fight for her honor. Women of the upper classes were expected to marry and bear children; their marriages were often arranged by their families for social or political purposes. Entering a convent was another of the limited choices available to women of the upper classes. The vast majority of women performed hard physical labor, either as workers or simply in running a household, for their entire lives. Most were not educated beyond practical training in weaving, spinning, and cooking; women of the nobility were taught to play musical instruments and to dance.
Heroism in the Middle Ages was somewhat different from what we imagine it to be today. In the Middle Ages, heroism represented brave or exemplary actions, but not necessarily actions that were looked upon approvingly by the audience. A person's heroism is defined largely by how that individual comes to terms with fate. This often entails making difficult decisions. Sometimes one has no favorable alternatives from which to choose. For instance, Hagen is sometimes considered a moral villain, but must also be recognized as a hero like Siegfried, despite the differences in their characters. A "hero" was recognized as such not by the individual himself, but by the other members of his society. Heroism is also associated with wealth and class status. Heroism in the Nibelungenlied encompasses not only brave deeds on the battlefield, but other feats which represent strength of character, such as Siegfried's willingness to help Gunther win Brunhild's hand in marriage and his expertise in the hunting scene. Deeds such as this create an image of a character for whom status is reliant on noble characteristics such as honor, bravery, and justice. Even Kriemhild is heroic in her unwavering loyalty toward Siegfried. By the force of her will, she seeks revenge for his death, and even though the final result is death and destruction for many, she does not waver from her purpose; this is seen as essentially heroic. Rudiger represents yet a different type of hero. He is distinguished from the others by his deeply moral character, his gentility, and his tragic inner struggle at the end, when he must decide between his feudal oath to Etzel and his vow of friendship and kinship to the Burgundians.
Hospitality and Gift-giving
The giving of gifts and the granting of hospitality to guests and friends are very important and interrelated elements in the Nibelungenlied. The granting of hospitality was integral to the establishment of bonds of loyalty and trust among equals. In an age in which visitors to one's kingdom might be friends or enemies intent on war, it was important to ensure that one's identity, reputation, and intent be clearly known. Thus when Siegfried first arrives at Worms, word of his exploits has preceded him; when he challenges Gunther for his kingdom to show his strength and noble heritage, there are a few tense moments before a bond of friendship is established. This friendship is based on an agreement of peace, loyalty and honor. Gunther extends hospitality to his guest to show him honor. To give gifts represents the bestowing of honor, and is also part of the bond of friendship.
Romance as a literary genre treats topics which are similar to those treated in the "epic" genre. First, it must be rememberd that "romance" here is referring to a literary genre which arose in the Middle Ages, not to modern conventions of flowers and chocolates! "Romance" in the Middle Ages was perhaps equivalent to the historical romance novel today, but with complex plots, and highly developed and often "tragic" or "lovesick" characters. Romance is, in this sense, motivated by the plot development and the characters. Romance and epic both used set "conventions." Conventions were, and still are, literary devices or forms which both author and reader understand to be fitting to a certain type of literature. Thus in a "romance," the knight fighting dragons, engaged in battles or travelling on a perilous journey would be doing so not for the glory of the deed alone, but in order to win the favor of his beloved lady. Thus even Siegfried's generous offer to fight the Saxons and the Danes arises less from a desire to show Gunther his prowess in battle than to convince Gunther that he is a suitable husband for Kriemhild. In turn, Kriemhild, hearing of Siegfried's victory, falls even deeper in love with him. This is one of the conventions of romance.
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