The Nibelungenlied: Deception

This post is the third in a series on the Middle High German epic, The Nibelungenlied. The first is on variation, and the second about history. Two more will follow, one on betrayal, and the last on vengeance.

You can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.
-Attrib. Abraham Lincoln

When Siegfried strides into the Nibelungenlied and gets the plot flowing, he goes to the court of Gunther, King of Burgundy, to woo the king’s sister, Kriemhilde. He has already slain Fafnir and bathed in the dragon’s blood. He also seems to have already encountered Brunhilde, although this is left vague in the epic; according to the Norse tradition, he and Brunhilde have already been intimate and have pledged their undying love with a promise from the hero to marry her. This might explain why Brunhilde is so displeased with him when she meets Siegfried in this version, since he turns up at her court (in Iceland, of all places) accompanying Gunther who is there to woo her – and he does so because Gunther will give him Kriemhilde’s hand in marriage if he helps.

I think I got ahead of myself there, but here is where the deception comes in. Siegfried, Gunther, Hagen, and Dancwart set off to win Gunther the fierce ‘Amazonian’ (as the blurb on the back of the Oxford translation calls her) queen Brunhilde. In order to win this woman’s hand, a warrior must defeat her in certain contests of skill and strength – the javelin and the hurling of the gigantic rock. Gunther is not actually able to defeat Brunhilde in this, but Siegfried helps using his cloak of invisibility.

The second deception comes later, after Gunther and Brunhilde’s marriage. The queen will not have relations with her husband unless he can physically subdue her by force. When he cannot do this, she ties him up and hangs him from a hook by the end of the bed. In great shame, Gunther tells Siegfried about this. Siegfried once again employs his cloak of invisibility to overcome Brunhilde, although this time it is unclear how he is able to go through with the feat without actually making love to her. In the course of this second deception, Siegfried steals a ring and a girdle from Brunhilda, which he later gives to his wife, Kriemhilde.

These deceptions of Brunhilde prove to be the source of Siegfried’s downfall – although one could argue that it is Brunhilde’s excessive pride, since she mistook Siegfried, who accompanied Gunther to Iceland as a friend, for a vassal of the Burgundian King, and no one except Siegfried’s proud wife tried to correct her error. Anyway, the two queens started quarrelling one day about whose husband was the greater, and Kriemhilde showed to Brunhilde the tokens of his conquest of her – not Gunther’s.

Siegfried’s fate was sealed. He was bound for Betrayal. But that for another day.

What I think of interest here is how all our secrets will out. We cannot escape them. Everything that is hidden will be made known. One lie leads to another, and the intricate web of deception people produce for themselves is actually very delicate, and can be destroyed, bringing down the deceivers themselves. I feel that this is one of the major themes of the first half of the poem. Deception will get you nowhere. It may win you friends (for a while), it may get you the girl of your dreams (for a while), but it ultimately brings dishonour.

Siegfried’s deception dishonoured Brunhilde. Hagen was well aware of this in his statement, ‘Are we to breed bastards?’ As in – what exactly was Siegfried up to? What more will he do to further his interests? One may protest that he was only helping Gunther, but his help of Gunther was also help for himself. A man who wins a bride by helping another man is not exactly a selfless hero when he helps that friend.

One of the things that poems like this reflect is the idea of a hero, the concept of chivalry. Is deception heroic? Is a knight ‘supposed’ to deceive? I don’t think so, unless it is to save a life. Siegfried had no truly noble, higher-than-self reason to deceive on behalf of Gunther. He may have been a dragon-slayer, he may have been extraordinarily strong and skilled with the sword, he may have been an excellent huntsman, he may have been handsome – but those other things that comprise chivalric manliness (or, to use the Latin, virtus) are also to be present. And being a deceiver disqualifies one from being the perfect chivalric knight.

And so Siegfried meets his doom.

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