Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Nibelungenlied: Prose Translation by Anonymous

After visiting Worms a couple of weeks ago I was inspired to read The Nibelungenlied.  Worms is a medieval town on the Rhine river where legend has it the saga of Siegfried and the Rhine gold took place.  There is an interesting museum in Worms that is housed in a remnant of the old city wall. Josh and I learned of the original tale (not much like Wagner's Ring cycle opera) and saw an eerie silent film of the Nibelung story made by Austrian Director, Fritz Lang. 

As I said in a previous post, I had quite a bit of time to read while waiting in airports.  The Nibelungenlied, however, I read while floating on the Rhine after a day's cycling from one Medieval village to the next.  I thought this was appropriate.

The Nibelungenlied is a very old saga dating all the way back to the fifth century and the Burgundian rule in Northern Europe.  The Bergundians were the people of the "long-haired" kings, where we get our fairy-tale image of kings and queens.

My translation had very good foot notes about the origins of the story.  Originally it was German but over the years, parallel Norse and Dutch stories attached themselves to it.  It is also clear that the story predates any serious Christian conversions on part of the nations but Christian terminology has obviously been inserted at a later date.  As a result it sticks out in an awkward, incongruous fashion.

Because the story was told orally for hundreds of years - the first written source can be traced to the thirteenth century - there are different versions. This is the story based on the book I downloaded from Amazon:

Sigfried, son of King Siegmund of the Netherlands is educated by a dwarf, Alberich, who later tries to kill him.  He fails, however, and Siegfried attempts to kill Alberich.  Alberich promises to show him his gold and give him a cloak of invisibility as well as an indestructible sword.

Siegfried takes these things and Alberich shows him the gold which is guarded by a dragon, who is actually Alberich's brother.  Siegfried kills both Alberich and the dragon and becomes possessor of the gold.

Through his travels, Siegfried learns of Kriemhild, sister of King Gunther of the Nibelungen, which is a part of the Bergundian empire.  Siegfried asks for Kriemhild's hand in marriage but King Gunther insists that he must help him first win over Brunhild, Queen of Iceland. They travel with their army of Burgundians to Brunhild's capital city.  Siegfried poses as Gunther's vassal.

Brunhild. What a battle ax if ever there was one.  Why any man in his right mind would want such a barbaric, violent, STRONG woman for a wife is beyond me.  I came to the conclusion that Gunther was a bit of a dunderhead.

They arrive at Brunhild's domain where she is on a tower throwing boulders and shooting javelins at all invaders.  No one can over come her power or strength. Brunhild challenges Gunther to a trial of strength, the prize being her hand in marriage.  Gunther wins only because Siegfried, wearing the cloak of invisibility that gives him the strength of ten men, actually performs all the deeds while making it look as if Gunther is doing them.

So Brunhild marries Gunther.  But the wedding night is less than romantic.  Brunhild defies that she shall ever lose her maidenhood by Gunther and ties him up and hangs him on a hook in the bedroom.

Again, Siegfried comes to the rescue.  Wearing his cloak he subdues Brunhild, causing her to lose her superhuman strength.

Returning home, Siegfried marries Kriemhild.

One would think that all's well that ends well.  Well, of course not.  What happens next is the pivotel point for the rest of the story.

Brunhild can't abide the thought that her sister-in-law is married to her husband's vassal and she gives Kriemhild no peace about it.  Finally, Kriemhild can contain herself no longer and reveals that Siegfried is actually prince of the Netherlands and furthermore, he is the one to subdue her and take away her strength.

In revenge Brunhild has a man, Hagan, kill Siegfried.  In some accounts, Hagan is Gunther's brother.  In the story I read he appears to be a main soldier or general in his army.  Through cunning Hagan has Kriemhild reveal that there is one spot on Siegfried's back that can kill him.  Kriemhild is apparently as bright as her brother. While hunting, Hagan throws a javelin at Siegfried and kills him. The story is not a third over and Sigfried is out of the picture.

Kriemhild chooses to lament and grieve for years, spending a lot of the gold Siegfried possessed on pious works and prayers in church for him.  This part I believe was inserted later because there's no mention of God or prayers prior to this.  Except the confrontation between Kriemhild and Brunhild which took place at a church.  However, earlier versions have it happen at a stream where the women are washing their hair.  Strangely enough, this is the end of any mention of Brunhild for the rest of the tale. And the story is not half over yet.

This is what happens for the rest of the book:

Some years' later Kriemhild marries Attila the Hun.  Hagan wants the gold which he confiscates and throws into the Rhine river.  Here he meets three mermaids that prophecy his fate to him.

Other than he dwarf, dragon, and these mermaids, there is no other mention of any type of fairy tale supernatural characters in the story.  They seem as incongruous as the occasional mention of God.

The rest of the story is one long tedium of revenge.  Kriemhild offers the gold to the Huns if they will kill Hagan and his army.  They can't do it.  Long descriptions of Hagan's and his comrades' heroic valor and mass murder of the Huns ensue. 

This also seems incongruous and perhaps a not so seamless addition of earlier tales to later ones.  At the beginning of the book, Hagan starts out as a cunning little weasel and by the end is portrayed as some Achilles type warrior that no one can defeat.

On and on the carnage goes.  Page after page. I read through the rest of the book just to see what happened to everybody.  This is what does:

Hagan finally is captured by Atilla and Kriemhild.  Her brother, Gunther, is also captured.  She threatens to kill them both if they don't reveal to her where the gold is hidden.  Neither does, both are killed, Hagan is cut up by Kriemhild herself.

In the end, all are sick of it.  The rest of the Nibelung (those that are left) hack Kriemhild to pieces. Ta da.  The end.

What fascinated me about the story was how it showed the lust for revenge turns people insane.  At first Kriemhild is presented as almost a Virgin Mary type.  She is happily married to a honorable and heroic hero.  When tragedy strikes her, she changes into a she-troll (figuratively speaking) who is willing for armies of men to lose their lives just so she can kill one man who hurt her.  Surely there was another way.  But perhaps this reveals a belief in doom and fate by this old Germanic culture.  Everything must eventually turn evil and never can hope offer peace.  This would certainly make these nations ripe for a Christian conversion.

In Heidelberg, Josh and I took a tour led by a middle aged German lady.  She seemed fixated on telling us how the poor German women were oppressed in the past and aren't we ladies all glad we live today.

Well, yes.  I'm certainly glad I live in a more enlightened era, but after reading The Nibelungenlied, I have serious doubts about the helplessness of German woman of a bygone era.  Their folktales certainly don't reflect weak and helpless females.

 One final point:  William Morris wrote a Scandinavian version of the Nibelungs titled, The Volsungs.  Norse and Icelandic parallel sagas are The Prose Edda; Sigurd the Dragon Slayer.  JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is also based on the Nibelungen legend. And, of course, we've all heard of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle.  It lasts a mere three days and is fifteen hours long.

Next I hope to have photos up of our trip along the Rhine.

For those of you that want to see the silent film:
Fritz Lang's Nibelung 1924

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kindle reading at Airports

Want an impetus to read all those books that have been accumulating on your Kindle?  Spend hours waiting for your flights at airports.  The last two weeks I have been traveling to Europe and back with my new husband, Josh.  Thanks to layovers, long flights, cancelled flights, more layovers and rescheduled flights, I had quite a bit of time on my hands.

That's where a Kindle really comes in handy.  I read seven books, five of which I am going to review in this post.

The first book I read was during our layover in Charlotte, North Carolina, and flying across the Atlantic to Ireland.  It was the perfect prelude to our vacation.  Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad describes Twain's own travels to Germany (our final destination) and all the idiosyncrasies of German culture from an American's perspective.  He describes university life at Heidelberg, with the customs and practices of students (they enjoy dueling and have their own prison for miscreants), Wagnerian Opera (he doesn't hide his distaste for what he considers a lot of incomprehensible screaming), the various Germans he meets while he floats along the Rhine, climbs the Alps, and tries to communicate in very bad German.  His funniest chapter is devoted to "That Awful German Language" in which he describes how miserably different German is to English and how long it would take an American to master the German language ("about thirty years").  Twain enjoys mocking other people but he balances it out by mocking himself just as much.

After a couple of days in Dublin, we rushed to the airport at 3
am only to discover our 5:45am flight had been canceled.  Over the next ten hours, in between dozing and conversing with Josh, I read a enjoyable book titled, The Best American Humorous Short Stories, by various authors of the nineteenth century.  Most of the authors I had never heard of but a few like O Henry, Bret Harte, and Oliver Wendall Holmes were familiar to me. It also includes Mark Twain's The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Much of the interest I had in these stories was the time period in which they were set (post civil war).  Some would seem antiquated to a twentieth century reader but I found them funny and many of them endearing.  One such story was about two boys who try to court the same girl but haven't got the nerve and WI Lampton's How the Widow Won the Deacon.  In this story, a widow finally wins a man over by sacrificing her dignity by jumping out of his wagon as he races his horse against another man's in order to lighten the load.

By the time I finished that book we had finally arrived in Frankfort and were on the boat, floating down the Rhine River.  We spent most of our time in Germany biking down the Rhine  and visiting the medieval towns there.  After spending an afternoon in Worms at the Nibelungen Museum I spent the evening on our boat reading The Nibelungenlied by Anonymous.  I want to do full justice to reviewing this book, so I'll save my comments for the next book review post.

Two more books I read while we were in Frankfort and while spending a long, uncomfortable night back in the Dublin airport.  They are by R.C. Sproul.  The first was Five Things Every Christian needs to Grow.  The five things are:  Bible Study, Prayer, Worship, Service and Stewardship.  My own beliefs most closely align with Reformed Theology so I found a lot of useful insight in Sproul's discussion of these various topics and how to implement them in your life.

The other book by Sproul was The Prayer of the Lord.  Here Sproul takes the reader step by step through each statement in the Lord's prayer, what they mean, and how to use each in sentence personally when applying it to our own prayers.

One last book I read on the flight back across the Atlantic was by Ralph Adams Cram:  Black Spirits and White: A Book of Ghost Stories.  This collection, while written by Cram, are based on stories he heard during his world travels.  They include a demon possessed house in Paris, the wandering spirit of a nun in Italy and a horror tale told by a Swede that is worthy of Lovecraft.  Interestingly, Cram was a theologian a hundred years ago, so while his stories are interesting they are from a perspective that the supernatural and evil are real, unlike Lovecraft who attempts to apply naturalistic causes to the horrific beings he creates in his stories. 

One final book I read from Charlotte to Dallas was A Confession by Leo Tolstoy.  This book also deserves a longer review so I will wait to post it as well.

Next post I hope to have photos of our Honeymoon trip to an 1830 log cabin in central Texas and also our trip to Europe.