Tag Archives: nibelungenlied

The 12th century


The Ambulatory at St-Denis, the birth of Gothic architecture

Every once in a while you are confronted with ‘important’ periods in history — 135 BC to AD 14, for example, takes us through the collapse of the Roman Republic to the death of Augustus, the first Emperor. Or the fourth century, with the continuation of Diocletian’s reforms, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, the various church councils and associated theologians, all culminating in what Peter Brown calls the ‘second’ Golden Age of Latin literature. Or the 16th century, an age of Reformation and print and philosophy and war.

The 12th century is similarly important, especially its middle decades.

The final year of the 11th century is the year the Crusaders took Jerusalem. The final decades of 1000s also saw the Investiture Controversy and the Gregorian Reform, which continued beyond 1100 and adjusted the balance of secular and ecclesiastical power in Europe. In the midst of this is St Anselm (1033-1109), whose Cur Deus Homo was completed in the year 1100; this brilliant logician and theologian was to die in 1109.

Not that Latin theology was left with no new lights in the upcoming decades — St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) helped drive forward the new Cistercian Order and is a high point in western mysticism, particularly his sermons on the Song of Songs, begun in 1135; he is often called the Last of the Fathers and is a ‘Doctor’ of the church. Bernard sharpened his wit in intellectual combat against Peter Abelard (1079-1142), who is an early ‘scholastic’ theologian (whereas Bernard was a monk) who was more given over to Aristotle than to Plato, to logic than to mysticism, and who was involved in the methodological revolution in the universities that we call ‘Scholasticism’.

Abelard was important and is known even to non-medievalists today, often because of his relationship with Heloise and their illegitimate son, Astrolabe (we have even a Penguin Classics translation of their letters!). However, some of his controversial conclusions were rejected by the succeeding tradition; one of his successors, Peter Lombard (1100-1160), on the other hand, wrote what would become the standard textbook of theology for the Middle Ages, the Sentences (1147-50), on which the luminaries of the next century, such as St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), would write commentaries. Although his orthodoxy, like Abelard’s, was challenged, his memory was acquitted at the Lateran Council of 1215.

Around the same time as Peter Lombard’s greatest work and the mystical masterpieces of St Bernard, but in the final years of Abelard, Gratian wrote his Decretum — or, rather, ‘Concord of Discordant Canons’. This is one of the most influential works of canon law from the Middle Ages, drawing together the various sources of the law under systematised headings and providing Gratian’s own dicta to sort out the discrepancies between. It is at once a source for canon law, a juristic text for legal principles, as well as a study in Christian sacraments. The Decretum is a wondrous piece of 12th-century learning, born in the university at Bologna in 1139 with final edits in the 1140s. Like Lombard’s Sentences it would become a standard textbook for the rest of the Middle Ages.

These are what initially inspired me to write this post. Nonetheless, this is also the century of the birth of Gothic art under the vision of Abbot Suger of St-Denis; the great architecture of Norman Sicily comes this century as well. Towards the end of the century the Nibelungenlied — Germany’s great vernacular epic — was written (I’ve blogged on it here often in the past). The latter half of the century also sees Chrétien de Troyes (1130-1191), Marie de France (fl. 1160-1215), and Hartmann von Aue (1160-1210s). This the century of that medieval stereotype, the troubadour.

No piece about the twelfth century should go without mentioning the dubiously historical work of Geoffrey of Monmouth (1095-1155), that famous History of the Kings of Britain was written, including many famous tales of King Arthur. More reliable was William of Malmesbury (1095-1143), who wrote several important works of English history in Latin prose.

One could go on. It’s interesting to see these convergences, especially the significant pieces written 1140-60.

Njal’s Saga

Not that this book is about Viking fleets, mind you

I recently read the 13th-century literary masterpiece Njal’s Saga — it will prove to be the last piece of Norse literature of this year in which I’ve read more Norse literature than any before. Some call Njal’s Saga the greatest of the Icelandic sagas. It is certainly, at least compared with the others I’ve read, the longest.*

Besides being long — or perhaps because of it — Njal’s Saga is a tale that spans the world of Icelanders at the turn of the Millennium. It has great sweep and great scope. The main characters are all farmers, most of whom are not lords of any variety, but all of whom have some degree of local power and personal, if not vested/legal/judiciary, power.

Like most lengthy mediaeval narratives, this is not a single story.** There is no single, tightened plot with setting, problem, rising tension, climax, resolution, dénouement.*** This helps contribute to the scope of the saga. We have a multitude of Althings (Iceland’s yearly assembly of free, adult males where law was enacted and transacted) spanning most of the lifetime of our title character, Njal, and then beyond. Various people get married, occasionally divorced, more often widowed, remarried, have children, and so forth. Friendships are forged, murders are plotted, revenge is served cold, and compensation made, time and again. People voyage to Norway, the Baltic, Orkney, Scotland (of which Orkney was not then a part), Ireland.

To try and discuss a work with such a vast number of episodes in terms of its ‘plot’ is very difficult. To do so would basically be to retell the entire saga. Therefore, I mention only one, although Gunnar’s Viking expedition, the conversion of Iceland, and the burning of Njal and family are as or more worthy of discussion, the last being the tightest of them all, a saga within the saga that ties a number of threads together and carries the plot forward for the last third of the book.

Instead, to save space, there is a series of murders of retainers/slaves/farmhands on the part of Hallgerd, wife of Gunnar, and Bergthora, wife of Njal, while the menfolk are at the Althing for several summers running. Each year, a wife gets a dependent to murder one of the other family’s dependants, and the next year the murderer is slain in turn. Each year, either Gunnar or Njal makes compensation for the killing, for Gunnar and Njal are great friends. Their wives, it is clear, are not. Eventually, this series of yearly killings escalates until the murderers are Njal’s sons. Hallgerd does not provoke revenge, and the saga moves on.

This bit of the story interests me because it reminds me of how Brunhilde and Kriemhilde’s petty jealousy in the Nibelungenlied (also 12th-13th-century) escalates first to Siegfried’s death and then the slaughter of all of the Nibelungs at Atli’s home, events I discuss here and especially here. The jealousy and envy of women leads to the death and downfall of men. Not a theme I’m willing to see represented in history any more than its inverse about men ruining women, but I do wonder how common it is in other Germanic literature of the Middle Ages.

And what is the main theme that drives Njal’s Saga? Fate. Inevitability. One of the main characters is warned that if he does not leave Iceland after he kills a man, he will die. The day he is meant to disembark, he decides to stay home instead. He is burned to death in his house. Fate seized him. Throughout the saga, Njal has prescient knowledge and tells people, ‘If you do x, y will be the result.’ At one point he tells his friend Gunnar, ‘This is the beginning of your career of killing.’ When his time finally comes, Njal, his wife, and their foster son go and lie down in bed as their house is burned in retaliation for their sons’ crimes. This attitude is summed up by one Icelander who states something to the effect that death is something all men meet.**** It is a prevailing theme in much Old English and Old Norse literature, one which Peter Jackson stole from The Hobbit, as I’ve said.

Njal’s Saga has everything — romance, violence, love, hate, farming, raiding, adventure, war, miracles, fate, doom. Try it out. You won’t be disappointed.

Available on archive.org in the Everyman’s Library translation. Or find the Penguin translation from a local independent bookseller or public library!

*If Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, of which King Harald’s Saga is but a part, counts as a saga, it probably is. Perhaps it counts as a history? I dunno how these genre divisions break down in Norse literature.

**See my first post on Beowulf and The Hobbit.

***Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, says that this is a trait of oral ‘literature’ and has a long hold on storytelling in societies that where literacy is still the domain of but a few.

****Only it was poetic, like ‘a friend’ or ‘a foe’ or ‘a game’, but I was reading on a train and didn’t note the exact quote.

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.



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.

The Nibelungenlied: Betrayal

Four thousand throats may be cut in one night by a running man.
-Klingon Proverb

Death of Sigurd from Neuschwanstein Castle

Siegried’s deception, discussed last time, brought the hero to his doom. For when that deception became known, the honour and dignity of two proud women was disturbed. And so the violent, vengeful Brunhilde decides to take Siegfried down. She goes to her husband and his retainers and successfully recruits Hagen of Tronege to her cause. The Lord of Tronege convinces Gunther to join him in the next deception of the epic. This time, it is Siegfried and Kriemhilde who will be deceived.

First, Hagen tricks Kriemhilde into revealing unto him Siegfried’s weakness. You see, when Siegfried bathed in Fafnir’s blood and his skin grew hard and uncuttable, a linden leaf was on his back between his shoulder blades. This is basically a Germanic Achilles’ heel. Like Kryptonite. Sort of. Anyway, on the grounds that Hagen wants to protect Siegfried in an upcoming faux-battle, he acquires this information from Kriemhilde. After the battle fails to materialise, everyone goes hunting. After Siegfried pretty much clears the forest of all its fauna, the most famous part of the epic occurs:

Siegfried’s death from Fritz Lang’s silent film ‘Nibelungen’

The Death of Siegfried. The death of, as one documentary puts it, the Germanest hero of all. I’m not, mind you, sold on the idea that Siegfried is the deutschster hero and the Nibelungenlied the deutschster epic. But that’s what they say. This scene, this episode, was the basis for the first of the operas Wagner composed for the Ring Cycle. Originally to be The Death of Siegfried, it is now Götterdämmerung.

This betrayal cuts deep and its aftermath is the entire second half of the epic.

It is also a direct consequence of the deception in last post. When modern critics of the poem praise Siegfried to the sky, they fail to miss this. They fail to notice that it is not simply the betrayal of his friends, of Hagen and Gunther, that brings about Siegfried’s death. It is not just the jealousy and envy of a powerful woman. It is his own action. Siegfried’s death is a consequence of Siegfried’s life. Once again, although he qualifies as one of the great and mighty men of epic and heroic literature, is he meant to be a shining beacon of light, truth, and virtue? Or are the deception on his part and the subsequent betrayal meant to subvert the vision of the mighty man? Do we actually have, embedded in this undoubtedly heroic epic, a criticism of the typical construction of masculinity in heroic literature? Does our ‘final poet’ – or his predecessors – subvert, just a little, the great epic hero to make us rethink what virtus, ‘manliness’, really is?

For Hagen, the betrayer, proves himself as cunning and mighty in battle as Siegfried throughout the epic, especially in the second half. Yet he is the one who literally stabs Siegfried in the back. He is otherwise a loyal, proud warrior, who is a fantastic jouster in the book’s many, many jousts, and a skilled swordsman. But when the terrible vengeance and slaughter of the second half of the epic play out, Hagen of Tronege falls prey to the consequences of his own actions as well. His betrayal of Siegfried and his attempts to escape his fate drive the rest of the book. But he knows that he, too, will die. All of our actions have consequences, and no matter how mighty a warrior a man is, those consequences can catch up to him.

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.

The Nibelungenlied: History

This is the second post in a series on the Middle High German epic The Nibelungenlied. The first is here.

Theoderic the Great

One of the fun facts about the Nibelung story cycle is that many of the main characters seem to be inspired by real people, great heroes of yore. Here’s a list for your reading pleasure, in chronological order of history (lifted partly from Cyril Edwards):

  • Jormunrek (third husband of Gudrun/Kriemhilde — following Atli/Etzel, not in the Nibelungenlied) = Ermanaric (OE Eormenric), a Gothic ruler in Scythia who, when his land was invaded by a joint force of Alans and Huns, committed suicide in the 370s.
  • Gunther = Gundaharius, a Burgundian ruler killed c. 436 in battle against the Roman general Aetius within the Rhineland territory of the Burgundians whose capital was centred at Borbetomagus, aka Worms, which is Gunther’s capital in the Nibelungenlied.
  • Bloedelin = Bleda, older brother of Attila who murdered him c. 445.
  • Etzel/Atli = Attila the Hun, the ruler of a Hunnish Empire that stretched throughout what is now Germany from somewhere to its East, and who famously invaded both the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire at different occasions; he died c. 453.
  • Dietrich of Bern = Theoderic the Great, who lived 454-526; he ruled Italy (and a growing powerbase nearby) as king from Ravenna from 488, although he was officially a vassal (for lack of a better, less mediaeval word springing to mind) of the Eastern Emperor.
  • Brunhilde = Brunhild, a Visigothic queen, who was married to the Frankish Merovingian King Sigebert I of Austrasia; involved in various palace intrigues, she was tortured to death in 613.

But what about Siegfried/Sigurd? This is a question of much speculation, as the introduction to Byock’s translation of The Saga of the Volsungs makes clear. There are many ‘heroes’ of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages whose names begin with the ‘Sig-’ prefix. Is any of them our man? Are all of them our man? Is he a complete fiction? Maybe the real hero was the Sigimund of Beowulf, the son of Waels (thus a Waelsing – Volsung?), who slew the dragon and was the most famous person on earth. So maybe the dragon part is true?

As for the actual events of the poems and sagas, they are fiction. The historical persons lived in too varying moments of history to have been able to have done what the stories say. One could possibly wonder if the Norse Gudrun (that version’s Kriemhilde) is inspired by the rumour that Attila was slain in his bed by his young wife (Ildiko/Hildico), but that is all speculation. Instead of finding history in these stories, we see the power of oral storytelling – and apparently the Nibelungenlied is ‘textbook’ oral poetry when compared with Lord and Parry’s work that opened our eyes to the oral nature of Homer.

In the oral culture that sustained this story until its unknown poet of the 1200s in Germany and its similarly unknown recorder (or, I guess, Snorri Sturluson) in the 1200s in Iceland, persons grow together, brief episodes extend, a half-memory becomes a full story, a man of renown becomes a legend. Attila becomes Etzel (Atli in Norse), still a Hun, still a king. He is remembered for his power and ability to command so many men. In the Norse, he is also remembered as being a wolf, hungry and greedy and scheming. In the Nibelungenlied he is remembered as a man of great power, a pagan who can commend the respect even of the Christians around him.

These are residual memories of the impact Attila had on western and central Europe during his brief reign at the head of empire. It is a process we see also in the Roland and Charlemagne of history and their heroic counterparts in romance and epic. I have no doubt that the same is the case with whatever people may have inspired Arthur and Achilles.

My final thought on the Nibelungenlied and history is the fact that these people are all basically Late Antique. Brunhilda dies in 613. Most of them are far earlier, going back to the late 300s, but most are fifth-century figures – and the fifth century is my playing ground, after all. We have characters here who encountered Aetius, who for a time was second only to the emperor, if not more powerful. And Attila even met my dear Leo on one occasion. Late Antiquity, when the western Roman Empire is dismembered and scattered (disiecti membra imperii), is where the later kingdoms and peoples of the Middle Ages, of northern Europe, look back to see themselves emerging and find their greatest heroes.*

That is a thought of note.

*Not subscribing that this is actually what was going on, but that the nascent nation-states of Late Mediaeval and Early Modern Europe – and sometimes their contemporary successors – looked back to this era and saw themselves being born in it.

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.


I just watched the third act of Siegfried tonight, having watched Acts 1 & 2 earlier in the week.  Siegfried is Wagner’s coming-of-age opera, wherein a young, brave warrior raised in the woods by dwarf slays a dragon and learns the meaning of fear when he encounters his first woman– Brunnhilde.

I enjoyed Siegfried’s encounter with Brunnhilde.  Look at the shiny armour.  It’s a man!  Here, I’ll take off his helm, it must be heavy.  Gee, that breastplate looks heavy, too.  This is not a man! And thus he is filled with fear at the sight of a woman.

I’ve never read any Wagnerian scholarship, so I may be off the mark on some of my observations, but very telling in this opera, this third act of the third act (Siegfried is the third of the four operas of the famous Ring Cycle), is Siegfried’s encounter with Wotan, Der Wanderer, his great-grandfather.  In this encounter, Siegfried shatters the Runestaff, which was both symbol and reality of Wotan’s power over the universe, as we had previously learned in Act 1 when Wotan tells Mime, the dwarf who raised Siegfried, all about it.

With the breaking of the runestaff comes the shattering of Wotan’s power.  We have learned already that this same staff when up against this same sword (Notung, which Siegfried reforged at the end of Act 1) on a previous occasion (Die Walkure) shattered the sword, leading to the death of Siegmund, Siegfried’s father.

How can Notung break the runestaff now?  All I can think of is the Ring.  Siegfried, having slain the dragon Fafnir, took the Ring of the Nibelung from Fafnir’s hoard in Act 2 (along with the Tarnhelm, of course — the Tarnhelm that had enabled Fafnir to turn into a dragon in the first place).

With the Ring, we were told in Act 2, Siegfried can rule the world.  And so the power of man rises as the power of the gods falls.  The gods diminish, as Wotan prophesied to the all-knowing Wala, Brunnhilde’s mother, at the beginning of the Act.

After Siegfried got over being afraid of Brunnhilde, he revived her with a kiss (true love’s kiss?).  Eventually, he convinces this shieldmaiden who has dropped her shield to drop the whole maiden bit as well.  With her loss of virginity will come Brunnhilde’s loss of power.  The gods diminish.

This diminishing of the gods is brought to these old myths by Wagner.  It is not present in the Nibelungenlied or Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.  From the synopsis I’ve read, it doesn’t seem to be in the Volsunga Saga, either.  The rise of man and the subsequent (necessary?) fall of the gods is Wagner’s 19th-century German humanism, not ancient or mediaeval heathenism.

Why need we have a Gotterdammerung?  Do the gods really need a twilight? Can man not rise without necessarily supplanting the divine?  I understand that the Gutrune story needs to be told, but it doesn’t mean twilight for the gods.  Rather, it means twilight for Siegfried and Brunnhilde.

I know that this theme of man’s rise vs. the gods exists elsewhere.  We see it in Zeus’ resistance to humanity gaining fire, to note the Classical example.  But could not humanity rise with the gods?  Could we not rise with the assistance of the gods?  (The Augustinian way.)  Or rise without their assistance but as a testimony to their power as the creators and sustainers of the universe?  (The Pelagian way.)