The Nibelungenlied: Variations

Siegfried and Kriemhilde

In April I was walking through the Universitätsbibliothek here in Tübingen and saw that there was a little display about the Nibelungs there, including some really fake-looking treasure to represent the hoard of the Nibelungs. I looked through it, at copies of editions and translations of the Prose Edda (blogged about here) and the Poetic Edda and the Nibelungenlied as well as a discussion of Richard Wagner and silent film director Fritz Lang.

This made me think, ‘Aha! I should re-read the Nibelungenlied!’ You see, I have a habit of reading literature of the country I am visiting. Plato in Athens, Maupassant in Paris, Ambrose in Milan, Dante in Florence, Burns in Edinburgh. So – why not the Nibelungenlied in Tübingen? To my delight, the uni library has a copy of this mediaeval epic in English, so I took it out (the Oxford World’s Classics translation by Cyril Edwards)!* And I recently finished it.

This is by no means my first contact with this familiar tale of Siegfried and Brunhilde, Etzel and Kriemhilde, Hagen and Gunther. Like oh-so-many people, it was through Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle (to which I am listening as I write), the glorious music and plot synopses, followed by watching Die Walküre live in Toronto with my uncle and a friend as well as, much later, Siegfried on DVD (my post on that here). At some stage, after having read the Nibelungenlied, I read Roy Thomas’ graphic novel of the Ring Cycle as well. I was a bit disappointed with the stylised vision of the Aesir, whom I would have made more early mediaeval, ‘Nordic’, as in Gareth Hinds’ excellent Beowulf. Wagner’s vision is most people’s primary, first, and very often sole encounter with this tale.

However, because of Wagner, many people like me exist! I thought to myself, ‘Hmph. I should read this Nibelungenlied someday, fan of Wagner that I am.’ In my fourth year of uni, I found a copy of the Penguin Classics translation at this fabulous used book store in Ottawa called ‘All Books’ but resisted. My then-girlfriend (now wife!) bought it for me! So I read it.

The Nibelungenlied is not Wagner. I like it, though. It is a High Mediaeval tale of Deception, Betrayal, and Vengeance. There are no Aesir. Fafnir is a mere reference in describing Siegfried’s background. There are jousts and large amounts of single-handed combat. And a cloak of invisibility. And full-scale slaughter. But it is not actually, despite the name of Wagner’s operatic cycle – Der Ring des Nibelungen – the main source of inspiration for those four famousest of operas.

Like all great tales, especially ones transmitted orally, as the heroic epic of the Nibelungenlied was, there are variations, equally aged, each a bit different, each worth investigating. And Wagner’s main inspiration came not from the continental, ‘German’ epic but the Icelandic/Old Norse versions of the story, encapsulated in The Saga of the Volsungs, various poems of The Poetic Edda, and The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson. These were all written down after or around the time that the Nibelungenlied was but sometimes contains strata of story that go back much farther.

These I have read since moving to Scotland, first The Poetic Edda, much of which I have to admit I forgot because it’s so dense a read, and then The Saga of the Volsungs, and in April upon arrival in Germany, The Prose Edda. This version is the one with Otter’s Ransom, with cursed gold, with Fafnir, with Sigurd (Siegfried) and Brynhilt and that burning ring of fire (into which Sigurd fell; actually, he jumped with a horse – sorry Johnny Cash). Of the three, if you’re really into things Nibelung, I recommend The Saga of the Volsungs. It is a fairly easy read, and has much adventure, and is self-contained; it’s also shorter than the Nibelungenlied. The others contain a lot of other material from Norse myth, which is itself interesting and well worth a read. But if you’re looking just for the story of Siegfried, that saga is the place to go.

Between reading the Nibelungenlied and the mediaeval Norse versions, I read J R R Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (about which I’ve blogged here). This is a fabulous attempt at weaving a coherent narrative of the competing versions in modern English following Old English versification. It can get heavy at times, but I like it. This book was where I first actually encountered the Norse version un-Wagnerised, and with the Norse names Sigurd and Gudrun, rather than Siegfried and Kriemhilde.

I hope to soon see Fritz Lang’s silent films about Siegfried. Then, all that will remain will be seeing, rather than listening to over and over and over again, Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung.

Each telling, whether ancient or modern, brings a different angle and flavour to this tale, and I like that. Sometimes what is omitted by one is fully stated in another, and so they make sense together. Sometimes I prefer the motivations of one plot over another. That sort of thing. This is the fun of the competing tellings of these old stories, whether of Troy or Arthur or Siegfried.

My Nibelungenlist – Editions/Translations of Variations

The Nibelungenlied. I’ve read both A T Hatto’s translation for Penguin as well as Cyril Edwards’ for Oxford. I don’t recall how the Penguin holds up to the Oxford, but I remember liking it!

The Saga of the Volsungs. Translated by Jesse L Byock for Penguin Classics. As noted above, this is a volume devoted to nothing but a Norse version of this story. It is heroic and big and wonderful. And a quick read.

The Prose Edda. By Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse L Byock for Penguin Classics. This is our major source for Viking myths and worth reading for that alone; along the way, the tale of Sigurd (Siegfried) is told. Like Byock’s translation of the Saga of the Volsungs, this is readable.

The Poetic Edda. Translated by Carolyne Larrington for Oxford World’s Classics. Our other major source for Viking myths, this is a dense volume of shorter poems covering the full range of the tales, including – again – Sigurd.

The Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen) by Richard Wagner. Numerous recordings of this exist. I am listening to the Metropolitan Opera’s from 1989(?). For DVDs, my opera-loving uncle with whom I saw Die Walküre recommends the Toronto production and last year’s production from the Met.

  • As a subsection of the above, do not forget the graphic novel by Roy Thomas for DC. There is another, multivolume graphic novel by P. Craig Russell, but I haven’t read it. If Eric Shanower ever finishes Age of Bronze, I’d like to see him do something similar for the scattered hoard of the Nibelungs.

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by J R R Tolkien. I cannot say it better than I already have.

*Sadly, they lack Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival in English.

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