The Nibelungenlied: Vengeance

This is the final post in series on the Middle High German epic The Nibelungenlied. We began with variations, then moved on to history followed by deception and betrayal. We now come to vengeance.

Revenge is a dish best served cold.
-Klingon Proverb quoted by Khan Noonien Singh

Kriemhild from part 2 of Fritz Lang’s ‘Nibelungen’

Siegfried, for all his might and glory, spends much of the action in the first half of the Nibelungenlied deceiving Brunhilde, getting betrayed, and lying about dead in a very fancy coffin. His wife Kriemhilde cannot overcome his death. When Etzel (Atli; Attila the Hun) sends someone to woo her for him, she refuses until she realises that she can use the power of this faroff pagan king to work for her advantage and avenge the death of Siegfried.

So she marries Etzel and has some kids.

After several years, she decides it’s time to kill off the rest of the cast of the epic. So she invites her brothers and their entourage to Hungary to hang out with them there. Hagen of Tronege, Siegfried’s betrayer, knows that she hasn’t forgiven him for that or for stealing the treasure of the Nibelungs from her and then sinking it in the Rhine. So he tells everyone this is a bad idea. But everyone thinks him a coward, so to save his pride, he goes with them to Hungary. As they cross the Rhine, Hagen’s fears are confirmed by some water sprites who say that everyone except the chaplain will die.

They have some fun along the way, meet some people, marry off one of Kriemhilde’s (innocent) brothers, have some jousts. The usual sort of thing. Then, about halfway through the second half, they arrive in Hungary. There’s some more jousting. Then they have a feast. And then everyone dies.

It takes about one quarter of the epic for Kriemhilde to exact her revenge. Not only the guilty Gunther and Hagen die, but her innocent brothers Giselher and Gernot, almost all of Etzel’s men, and people who have nothing in stake in the dispute such as most of Dietrich of Bern’s men. It takes a long time to kill that many people, let me tell you.

I have to confess, I have never read a piece of literature so devoted not simply to revenge but to full-scale slaughter as the Nibelungenlied. You would think the Iliad would come close, but there’s a lot of fighting there that doesn’t end up with ten, twenty, a hundred people dead in five lines of poetry. I mean, this is the atreia of Achilles writ large, but with no Homeric similes or random anecdotes about someone’s father or the gods to break the sheer slaughter of the thing. I thought things were going to slow down when Kriemhilde set the banquet hall on fire – like in Icelandic sagas, you know? But no. We still had to kill off Dietrich of Bern’s men.

This butchery has understandably turned some people off the Nibelungenlied. They’d rather read a love story like Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan if they’re going to read a mediaeval German epic. Nonetheless, set in the wider context of the poem as a whole, I can’t help but wonder if we once again have a combination of moralism and subversion. Siegfried’s deception is moralistic in showing how lack of moral virtue can lead to a hero’s downfall, regardless of his other manly qualities. Hagen’s betrayal subverts the invincible hero – despite his might, Siegfried gets stabbed in the back. At least Beowulf saved his country upon his death! (Although there’s some subtle genre subversion in that epic as well.)

Here we see the pointlessness of revenge. Revenge is often central to heroic conceptions of virtus, of manliness. The primeval code it comes from is, ‘Help your friends, harm your foes.’ Thus the Iliad. Thus Medea’s murder of Jason’s second wife. Thus Roman military practices across the Rhine-Danube frontier. Thus The Count of Monte Cristo. Thus Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. As with Khan, vengeance consumes Kriemhilde. Hagen even refers to her as a she-devil. Vengeance is all there is left to Kriemhilde in the years following Siegfried’s death as she broods alone in Burgundy and then pretends to play the life of a happy queen in Hungry.

And who are Kriemhilde’s true enemies?

  • Hagen of Tronege.
  • Her (penitent) brother, Gunther of Burgundy.
  • Her proud sister-in-law Brunhilde.
  • Ortwin of Metz.

That is the.

complete.

list.

And who dies because of Kriemhilde’s vengeance? Her two other, beloved brothers. Thousands of other Burgundians. Thousands of Huns. Rüedeger and his court. Dietrich of Bern’s men. Thousands slaughtered because of one woman’s revenge.

I believe that Dietrich’s presence in the Nibelungenlied is meant to underscore the futility and destructiveness of Kriemhilde’s vengeance. Almost all of his men are slain, solely because of feudal loyalty and Kriemhilde’s insistence that they get involved in a quarrel not their own.

Gold solidus from reign of Theoderic

Now, as you may recall, Dietrich of Bern is inspired by the long-distant memory of Theoderic the Great, Ostrogothic King of Italy in the early 500s. His presence in this poem ties the Nibelungenlied to the world of wider Germanic heroic literature, much the way Hercules voyaging with Jason connects the Argonautica to the world of wider Greek literature. You see, Dietrich of Bern has a whole series of epic poems about himself that predate the writing down of the Nibelungenlied. In this poem he may be an incidental character, but in those others, guessing from Cyril Edwards’ notes to his translation of the Nibelungenlied, he is not simply a major figure but a central liege with many heroes surrounding him, much like King Arthur or King Hrolf Kraki (who only gets one saga, though).

For this mighty man to lose so many of his mighty warriors, then, points to the sheer, utter destructiveness of vengeance. These deaths are harmful and ruinous, pointless and senseless.

The sheer pointlessness and senselessness of their deaths underscores the futility of revenge. A cold dish, it is not very palatable and does not warm the heart. It leaves you empty and alone, stained with the blood of your loved ones. Thus, again, does the Nibelungenlied subvert our expectations of heroic poetry even as it fulfils them.

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