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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.


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.)