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Painting illustrating The Nibelungenlied: Hagen orders servants to sink the hoard in the Rhine river

Song of the Nibelungs: The Epic Germanic Tale of Love, Death, and Revenge

The Nibelungenlied , or "The Song of the Nibelungs", is a Middle High German epic poem first written sometime in the thirteenth century.  Though its author is unknown, The Nibelungenlied remains one of the premiere Germanic texts appreciated for its literary style, contrasting the themes of emotion and violence, and its recollection and assimilation of older Germanic tales. 

The tale of the Nibelungs is told in two parts, however both center on Kriemhild, the primary female protagonist.  The story of the Nibelungs begins by introducing Kriemhild, a Burgundian princess of Worms, and Siegfried, a prince from the lower Rhine region. Kriemhild has three brothers—Gunther, Gernot, and Giselher—but the first is the only one who takes precedence throughout the story. Gunther’s actions and desires lead the tale as much as Kriemhild's do, and he is often spurred to action by the advice and forethought of his vassal Hagen.

First page from Manuscript C (ca. 1230)

First page from Manuscript C (ca. 1230) Public Domain

At the start of the tale, the kingdom of Worms has passed to Kriemhild's three brothers, as her father's age has made it difficult to reign, and Kriemhild herself has chosen never to wed. She had a dream that implied that whomever she married would die a painful death at the hands of her family.  Enter here Siegfried, the prince from Xanten, who—upon hearing of Kriemhild's overwhelming beauty—decides to wed her in spite of her decision. 

Arriving in Worms, Siegfried first meets Gunther and Hagen, but not yet Kriemhild.  Hagen recognizes Siegfried as more than just a prince from the Netherlands, and he recounts Siegfried's heroic deeds for the court—Siegfried's conquest of the Nibelungs (potentially a race of dwarves) and his subsequent acquisition of their treasure; his subjugation of the Nibelungs' loyal dwarf Alberich who, unable to defeat Siegfried himself instead swore his loyalty to the prince; and his slaying of a dragon, after which Siegfried became invincible by bathing in its blood. 

All these deeds established Siegfried in the tale, as well as in Gunther's eyes, as the strongest, most powerful male figure to whom the Burgundians rather quickly offer their fealty. He leads them in a decisive victory against the invading Saxons.

Kriemhild reenters the poem after Siegfried’s triumph, and she and Siegfried begin to fall in love. They are not wed, however, until Gunther's role in the tale takes place.

Siegfried and Kriemhild. 1914

Siegfried and Kriemhild. 1914. Public Domain

When news reaches the Burgundian court that Brunhild, queen of Iceland, will marry a man of pure strength and force equal to her own, Gunther beseeches Siegfried's aid in marrying Brunhild, promising in return that Siegfried can wed his sister if they are successful.  Siegfried agrees and performs the tasks for Gunther under Alberich's invisibility cloak so that it appears as though Gunther is acting on his own.  Impressed and thoroughly defeated, Brunhild agrees to wed Gunther, though she remains suspicious of the man who bested her.

When Siegfried weds the princess Kriemhild, Brunhild becomes more suspicious as she had been led to believe the Siegfried is a mere vassal and thus not worthy of Kriemhild's hand.  She denies Gunther entrance into her bed until he is truthful, and that night Gunther and Brunhild's marriage is not consummated.  She leaves him bound and hanging by a nail in their bedchamber.

Gunther's wedding night (Johann Heinrich Füssli 1807).

Gunther's wedding night (Johann Heinrich Füssli 1807). Public Domain

In the morning, Gunther then shares his woes with Siegfried who again agrees to fix the other man’s predicament. Siegfried sneaks into their bedchamber that night under the invisibility cloak once more, and forces Brunhild into submission so Gunther can have his way with her. When they are finished, Siegfried steals Brunhild's girdle and golden ring, and in doing so, seals his own fate.

For ten years, Siegfried and Kriemhild live happily ruling Xanten while Brunhild and Gunther rule Worms.  Brunhild, however, remains incredibly distrustful of Siegfried (though she is unaware of his actions in her and Gunther's bedroom).  Brunhild invites the king and queen of Xanten to visit Worms, and an unpleasant conversation between queens leads to the revelation of Siegfried's thievery and, by extension, the terrible role he played in Brunhild's marriage.  Distressed, she vows with the help of Hagen to kill him.

At this point in the tale, however, Brunhild's vengeance becomes overshadowed by Hagen's. In fact, the queen of Worms and Iceland seemingly disappears from the text altogether as Hagen's own desire to put Siegfried in his place fuels the latter's undoing.

Hagen sneakily wins Kriemhild's confidence and learns of the spot Siegfried missed while bathing himself in dragon blood—his Achilles' heel, for all intents and purposes. This, Kriemhild at length reveals, was the space between his shoulder blades, unknowingly protected from the blood by a fallen leaf. Hagen decides this knowledge could easily be used to his advantage, and invites both Gunther and Siegfried out on a hunting trip, revealing only to Gunther his true motives. Gunther, despite all the aid Siegfried once gave him, chooses his wife's vengeance over his friend's protection. Siegfried willingly goes despite his wife's warnings, and is slain by Hagen's spear. 

"Siegfried's Death" (Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1847).

"Siegfried's Death" (Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1847). Public Domain

Though both Hagen and Gunther try, they cannot hide their guilty roles in Siegfried's death, and Kriemhild swears to avenge her fallen husband. She remains at Worms for the time being, estranged from Hagen and Gunther, though outwardly extending false kindness until the time she can gain control of her dead husband's Nibelung treasure hoard. With this hoard, she begins to bestow great gifts upon the Burgundian knights, until Hagen realizes her motive for such generosity is to gain strong men on her side to slay Hagen and Gunther. Hagen takes the Nibelung treasure and sinks it, Kriemhild's last worldly possession of Siegfried's, in the Rhine.

Read Part II of The Song of the Nibelungs

Featured image: Painting illustrating The Nibelungenlied: Hagen orders servants to sink the hoard in the Rhine river (Peter von Cornelius, 1859). Public Domain

References

Ashliman, D.L. "The Nibelungenlied" A Summary in English Prose. 2012. Accessed May 10, 2015. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/nibelungenlied.html

Encyclopædia Britannica Online , s. v. "Nibelungenlied", accessed May 10, 2015, Available here.

Unknown. The Nibelungenlied . trans. A. T. Hatto (Penguin Books: London, 1969.)

By Ryan Stone

Comments

And no one has done a better job of bringing this lore to life than Wagner in his monumental Ring cycle.

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