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


  1. Wonderful commentary on this Sharon.

    I really want to read this sooner then later. The portrayal of strong women is is so interesting. Literature often does not present a stereotyped and simplistic view of the world. I wonder how folks living in those times viewed the characters.

    I am a little bit of an old film buff but I have not seen the silent film. I must catch that too.

    1. Brian: I did enjoy reading it, although the carnage got heavy, but I suppose it's no more than any of them for the time period. It's definitely a prototype of the Arthurian legends.
      The film is very interesting. Just for the acting and cinematography.

  2. Goodness! - That's one hell of a story! Very different, as you say, from Wagner's version.Apart from a few Arhurian stories, I am really not familiar at all with European mythology and folklore, so thank you for that.

    1. Hello Himradi! You're welcome. Folk tales and sagas have always been a favorite literature genre of mine. I especially am interested in the history of Europe between the Roman empire the high middle ages.
      Arthurian legend seems to have Christianized and cleaned up the savagery of those earlier sagas somewhat.

    2. Himadri I apologize for misspelling your name. I thought I could spell it from memory but I was mistaken.

  3. I just bought this a few weeks ago - I'd never heard of it before, just happened to see it sitting there in a charity shop. I'm looking forward to it! :)

    1. O: I hope you enjoy it. It certainly gives insight as to where the later Arthurian legends developed from.

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