German epic poem
(German: “Song of the Nibelungs”) Main
Middle High German epic poem written about 1200 by an unknown Austrian
from the Danube region. It is preserved in three main 13th-century
manuscripts, A (now in Munich), B (St. Gall), and C (Donaueschingen);
modern scholarship regards B as the most trustworthy. An early Middle
High German title of the work is Der Nibelunge Not (“The Nibelung
Distress”), from the last line of the poem. The superscription on one of
the manuscripts from the early 14th century is “The Book of Kriemhild.”
The story has a long history and, as a result, contains a number of
disparate elements. For example, the word Nibelung itself presents
difficulties. In the first part of the poem, it appears as the name of
Siegfried’s lands and peoples and his treasure, but, throughout the
second, it is an alternate name for the Burgundians.
The poem’s content falls into two parts. It begins with two cantos
(aventiuren) that introduce, respectively, Kriemhild, a Burgundian
princess of Worms, and Siegfried, a prince from the lower Rhine.
Siegfried is determined to woo Kriemhild despite his parents’ warning.
When he arrives in Worms, he is identified by Hagen, a henchman of
Kriemhild’s brother King Gunther. Hagen then recounts Siegfried’s former
heroic deeds, including the acquisition of a treasure. When war is
declared by the Danes and Saxons, Siegfried offers to lead the
Burgundians and distinguishes himself in battle. Upon his return, he
meets Kriemhild for the first time, and their affections develop during
his residence at court.
At this point a new element is introduced. News reaches the court
that a queen of outstanding strength and beauty may be won only by a man
capable of matching her athletic prowess. Gunther decides to woo
Brunhild with the aid of Siegfried, to whom he promises the hand of
Kriemhild if successful. Siegfried leads the expedition to Brunhild’s
abode, where he presents himself as Gunther’s vassal. In the ensuing
contests, Gunther goes through the motions of deeds actually performed
by Siegfried in a cloak of invisibility. When Brunhild is defeated, she
accepts Gunther as her husband. Siegfried and Kriemhild are then married
as promised, but Brunhild remains suspicious and dissatisfied. Soon the
two queens quarrel; Brunhild ridicules Kriemhild for marrying a vassal,
and Kriemhild reveals Siegfried’s and Gunther’s deception.
Now Hagen becomes a prominent figure as he sides with Brunhild and
takes the initiative in plotting vengeance. He wins Kriemhild’s
confidence and learns Siegfried’s one vulnerable spot and then strikes
the fatal blow.
During these events, Brunhild drops almost unnoticed out of the
story, and the death of Siegfried does not appear to be so much
vengeance on her part as an execution by Hagen, who is suspicious of
Siegfried’s growing power. Siegfried’s funeral is conducted with great
ceremony, and the grief-stricken Kriemhild remains at Worms, though for
a long time estranged from Gunther and Hagen. Later they are reconciled
in order to make use of Siegfried’s treasure, which is brought to Worms.
Kriemhild begins to distribute it, but Hagen, fearing that her influence
will grow, sinks the treasure in the Rhine.
The second part of the poem is much simpler in structure and deals
basically with the conflict between Hagen and Kriemhild and her
vengeance against the Burgundians. Etzel (Attila), king of the Huns,
asks the hand of Kriemhild, who accepts, seeing the possibilities of
vengeance in such a union. After many years, she persuades Etzel to
invite her brothers and Hagen to his court. Though Hagen is wary, they
all go to Etzel’s court, where general combat and complete carnage
ensues. Kriemhild has Gunther killed and then, with Siegfried’s sword,
she slays the bound and defenseless Hagen, who to the last has refused
to reveal where Siegfried’s treasure is hidden. Kriemhild in turn is
slain by a knight named Hildebrand, who is outraged at the atrocities
that she has just committed.
In the Nibelungenlied some elements of great antiquity are
discernible. The story of Brunhild appears in Old Norse literature. The
brief references to the heroic deeds of Siegfried allude to several
ancient stories, many of which are preserved in the Scandinavian Poetic
Edda (see Edda), Vǫlsunga saga, and Thidriks saga, in which Siegfried is
called Sigurd. The entire second part of the story, the fall of the
Burgundians, appears in an older Eddaic poem, Atlakvida (“Lay of Atli”;
see Atli, Lay of). Yet the Nibelungenlied does not appear to be a mere
joining of individual stories but, rather, an integration of component
elements into a meaningful whole.
It is the second part of the poem that suggests the title “The Book
of Kriemhild.” The destruction of the Burgundians (Nibelungen) is her
deliberate purpose. The climax of the first part, the death of her
husband, Siegfried, prepares the ground for the story of her vengeance.
Furthermore, Kriemhild is the first person introduced in the story,
which ends with her death; and all through the story predominating
attention is paid to Hagen. This concentration on Kriemhild and on the
enmity between her and Hagen would seem to suggest that it was the
poet’s intention to stress the theme of Kriemhild’s vengeance.
The Nibelungenlied was written at a time in medieval German
literature when the current emphasis was on the “courtly” virtues of
moderation and refinement of taste and behaviour. The Nibelungenlied,
with its displays of violent emotion and its uncompromising emphasis on
vengeance and honour, by contrast looks back to an earlier period and
bears the mark of a different origin—the heroic literature of the
Teutonic peoples at the time of their great migrations. The poem’s basic
subject matter also goes back to that period, for it is probable that
the story of the destruction of the Burgundians was originally inspired
by the overthrow of the Burgundian kingdom at Worms by the Huns in ad
437, and the story of Brunhild and Siegfried may have been inspired by
events in the history of the Merovingian dynasty of the Franks in about
ad 600. Much of the heroic quality of the original stories has remained
in the poem, particularly in the author’s conception of Hagen as the
relentless protector of King Gunther’s honour.
Probably no literary work has given more to Germanic arts than the
Nibelungenlied. Many variations and adaptations appeared in later
centuries. The most significant modern adaptation is Richard Wagner’s
famous opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (1853–74).