Nibelungenlied/Introductory Sketch

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Nibelungenlied by Unknown, translated by Daniel Bussier Shumway
Introductory Sketch

There is probably no poem of German literature that has excited such universal interest, or that has been so much studied and discussed, as the "Nibelungenlied". In its present form it is a product of the age of chivalry, but it reaches back to the earliest epochs of German antiquity, and embraces not only the pageantry of courtly chivalry, but also traits of ancient Germanic folklore and probably of Teutonic mythology. One of its earliest critics fitly called it a German "Iliad", for, like this great Greek epic, it goes back to the remotest times and unites the monumental fragments of half-forgotten myths and historical personages into a poem that is essentially national in character, and the embodiment of all that is great in the antiquity of the race. Though lacking to some extent the dignity of the "Iliad", the "Nibelungenlied" surpasses the former in the deep tragedy which pervades it, the tragedy of fate, the inevitable retribution for crime, the never-dying struggle between the powers of good and evil, between light and darkness.

That the poem must have been exceedingly popular during the Middle Ages is evinced by the great number of Manuscripts that have come down to us. We possess in all twenty-eight more or less complete MSS., preserved in thirty-one fragments, fifteen of which date from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Of all these MSS., but nine are so well preserved that, in spite of some minor breaks, they can be considered complete. Of this number three, designated respectively as A, B, C, are looked upon as the most important for purposes of textual criticism, and around them a fierce battle has been waged, which is not even yet settled. [1] It is now generally conceded that the longest MS., C, is a later redaction with many additional strophes, but opinions are divided as to whether the priority should be given to A or B, the probabilities being that B is the more original, A merely a careless copy of B.

In spite of the great popularity of the "Nibelungenlied", the poem was soon forgotten by the mass of the people. With the decay of courtly chivalry and the rise of the prosperous citizen class, whose ideals and testes lay in a different direction, this epic shared the fate of many others of its kind, and was relegated to the dusty shelves of monastery or ducal libraries, there to wait till a more cultured age, curious as to the literature of its ancestors, should bring it forth from its hiding places. However, the figures of the old legend were not forgotten, but lived on among the people, and were finally embodied in a popular ballad, "Das Lied vom Hurnen Segfrid", which has been preserved in a print of the sixteenth century, although the poem itself is thought to go back at least to the thirteenth. The legend was also dramatized by Hans Sachs, the shoemaker poet of Nuremberg, and related in prose form in a chap book which still exists in prints of the eighteenth century. The story and the characters gradually became so vague and distorted, that only a trained eye could detect in the burlesque figures of the popular account the heroes of the ancient Germanic Legend.

The honor of rediscovering the "Nibelungenlied" and of restoring it to the world of literature belongs to a young physician by the name of J.H. Obereit, who found the manuscript C at the castle of Hohenems in the Tirol on June 29, 1755; but the scientific study of the poem begins with Karl Lachmann, one of the keenest philological critics that Germany has ever produced. In 1816 he read before the University of Berlin his epoch-making essay upon the original form of the "Nibelungenlied". Believing that the poem was made up of a number of distinct ballads or lays, he sought by means of certain criteria to eliminate all parts which were, as he thought, later interpolations or emendations. As a result of this sifting and discarding process, he reduced the poem to what he considered to have been its original form, namely, twenty separate lays, which he thought had come down to us in practically the same form in which they had been sung by various minstrels.

This view is no longer held in its original form. Though we have every reason to believe that ballads of Siegfried the dragon killer, of Siegfried and Kriemhild, and of the destruction of the Nibelungs existed in Germany, yet these ballads are no longer to be seen in our poem. They formed merely the basis or source for some poet who thought to revive the old heroic legends of the German past which were familiar to his hearers and to adapt them to the tastes of his time. In all probability we must assume two, three, or even more steps in the genesis of the poem. There appear to have been two different sources, one a Low German account, quite simple and brief, the other a tradition of the Lower Rhine. The legend was perhaps developed by minstrels along the Rhine, until it was taken and worked up into its present form by some Austrian poet. Who this poet was we do not know, but we do know that he was perfectly familiar with all the details of courtly etiquette. He seems also to have been acquainted with the courtly epics of Heinrich von Veldeke and Hartman von Ouwe, but his poem is free from the tedious and often exaggerated descriptions of pomp, dress, and court ceremonies, that mar the beauty of even the best of the courtly epics. Many painstaking attempts have been made to discover the identity of the writer of our poem, but even the most plausible of all these theories which considers Kurenberg, one of the earliest of the "Minnesingers", to be the author, because of the similarity of the strophic form of our poem to that used by him, is not capable of absolute proof, and recent investigations go to show that Kurenberg was indebted to the "Nibelungen" strophe for the form of his lyric, and not the "Nibelungenlied" to him. The "Nibelungen" strophe is presumably much older, and, having become popular in Austria through the poem, was adopted by Kurenberg for his purposes. As to the date of the poem, in its present form it cannot go back further than about 1190, because of the exactness of the rhymes, nor could it have been written later than 1204, because of certain allusions to it in the sixth book of "Parzival", which we know to have been written at this date. The two Low German poems which probably form the basis of our epic may have been united about 1150. It was revised and translated into High German and circulated at South German courts about 1170, and then received its present courtly form about 1190, this last version being the immediate source of our manuscripts.

The story of Siegfried, his tragic death, and the dire vengeance visited upon his slayers, which lies at the basis of our poem, antedates the latter by many centuries, and was known to all nations whose languages prove by their resemblance to the German tongue their original identity with the German people. Not only along the banks of the Rhine and the Danube and upon the upland plains of Southern Germany, but also along the rocky fjords of Norway, among the Angles and Saxons in their new home across the channel, even in the distant Shetland Islands and on the snow- covered wastes of Iceland, this story was told around the fires at night and sung to the harp in the banqueting halls of kings and nobles, each people and each generation telling it in its own fashion and adding new elements of its own invention. This great geographical distribution of the legend, and the variety of forms in which it appears, make it difficult to know where we must seek its origin. The northern version is in many respects older and simpler in form than the German, but still it is probable that Norway was not the home of the saga, but that it took its rise in Germany along the banks of the Rhine among the ancient tribe of the Franks, as is shown by the many geographical names that are reminiscent of the characters of the story, such as a Siegfried "spring" in the Odenwald, a Hagen "well" at Lorsch, a Brunhild "bed" near Frankfort, and the well-known "Drachenfels", or Dragon's Rock, on the Rhine. It is to Norway, however, that we must go for our knowledge of the story, for, singularly enough, with the exception of the "Nibelungenlied" and the popular ballad, German literature has preserved almost no trace of the legend, and such as exist are too late and too corrupt to be of much use in determining the original features of the story.

Just when the legend emigrated to Skandinavia we do not know, but certainly at an early date, perhaps during the opening years of the sixth century. It may have been introduced by German traders, by slaves captured by the Northmen on their frequent marauding expeditions, or, as Mogk believes, may have been taken by the Heruli on their return to Norway after their defeat by the Langobardi. By whatever channel, however, the story reached the North, it became part and parcel of Skandinavian folklore, only certain names still pointing to the original home of the legend. In the ninth century, when Harald Harfagr changed the ancient free constitution of the land, many Norwegians emigrated to Iceland, taking with them these acquired legends, which were better preserved in this remote island because of the peaceful introduction of Christianity, than on the Continent, where the Church was more antagonistic to the customs and legends of the heathen period.

The Skandinavian version of the Siegfried legend has been handed down to us in five different forms. The first of these is the poetic or older "Edda", also called Saemund's "Edda", as it was assigned to the celebrated Icelandic scholar Saemundr Sigfusson. The "Codex Regius", in which it is preserved, dates from the middle of the thirteenth century, but is probably a copy of an older manuscript. The songs it contains were written at various times, the oldest probably in the first half of the ninth century, the latest not much before the date of the earliest manuscript. Most of them, however, belong to the Viking period, when Christianity was already beginning to influence the Norwegians, that is, between the years 800 and 1000. They are partly heroic, partly mythological in character, and are written in alliterative strophes interspersed with prose, and have the form of dialogues. Though the legends on which these songs are based were brought from Norway, most of them were probably composed in Iceland. Among these songs, now, we find a number which deal with the adventures of Siegfried and his tragic end.

The second source of the Siegfried story is the so-called "Volsungasaga", a prose paraphrase of the "Edda" songs. The MS. dates from the beginning of the thirteenth century, but the account was probably written a century earlier. The adventures of Siegfried and his ancestors are here related in great detail and his ancestry traced back to Wodan. Although a secondary source, as it is based on the "Edda", the "Volsungasaga" is nevertheless of great importance, since it supplies a portion of the "Codex Regius" which has been lost, and thus furnishes us with the contents of the missing songs.

The third source is the prose "Edda", sometimes called the "Snorra Edda", after the famous Icelander Snorri Sturluson (1178-1241),to whom it was ascribed. The author was acquainted with both the poetic "Edda" and the "Volsungasaga", and follows these accounts closely. The younger "Edda" is not really a tale, but a book of poetics; it relates, however, the Siegfried saga briefly. It is considered an original source, since it evidently made use of songs that have not come down to us, especially in the account of the origin of the treasure, which is here told more in detail and with considerable differences. The "Nornagestsaga" or "Nornageststhattr", the story of "Nornagest", forms the fourth source of the Siegfried story. It is really a part of the Olaf saga, but contains the story of Sigurd and Gunnar (the Norse forms of Siegfried and Gunther), which an old man Nornagest relates to King Olaf Tryggvason, who converted the Norwegians to Christianity. The story was written about 1250 to illustrate the transition from heathendom to the Christian faith. It is based on the "Edda" and the "Volsungasaga", and is therefore of minor importance as a source.

These four sources represent the early introduction of the Siegfried legend into Skandinavia. A second introduction took place about the middle of the thirteenth century, at the time of the flourishing of the Hanseatic League, when the story was introduced together with other popular German epics. These poems are products of the age of chivalry, and are characterized by the romantic and courtly features of this movement. The one which concerns us here, as the fifth source of the Siegfried story, is the so-called "Thidreksaga", which celebrates the adventures of the famous legendary hero, Dietrich of Berne, the historical Theodorich of Ravenna. In as far as it contains the adventures of the Nibelungs, it is also called the "Niflungasaga". The "Thidreksaga" was written about 1250 by a Norwegian who, as he himself tells us, heard the story from Germans in the neighborhood of Bremen and Munster. Since it is thus based on Saxon traditions, it can be considered an independent source of the legend, and, in fact, differs from the earlier Norse versions in many important details. The author was acquainted, however, with the older versions, and sought to compromise between them, but mostly followed his German authorities.

The story, as given in the older Norse versions, is in most respects more original than in the "Nibelungenlied". It relates the history of the treasure of the Nibelungs, tracing it back to a giant by the name of "Hreithmar", who received it from the god "Loki" as a compensation for the killing of the former's son "Otur", whom Loki had slain in the form of an otter. Loki obtained the ransom from a dwarf named "Andwari", who in turn had stolen it from the river gods of the Rhine. Andwari pronounces a terrible curse upon the treasure and its possessors, and this curse passes from Loki to the Giant Hreithmar, who is murdered when asleep by his two sons "Fafnir" and "Regin". The latter, however, is cheated out of the coveted prize by Fafnir, who carries it away to the "Gnita" heath, where he guards it in the form of a dragon.

This treasure, with its accompanying curse, next passes into the hands of a human being named Sigurd (the Norse form of Siegfried, as we have seen), a descendant of the race of the Volsungs, who trace their history back to Wodan and are especially favored by him. The full story of Siegfried's ancestry is far too long to relate here, and does not especially concern us, as it has little or no influence on the later development of the story. It is sufficient for our purpose to know that Siegfried was the son of Siegmund, who was slain in battle before the birth of his son. Sigurd was carefully reared by his mother "Hjordis" and the wise dwarf Regin, who taught him the knowledge of runes and of many languages. [2] At the suggestion of Regin, Sigurd asks for and receives the steed "Grani" from the king, and is then urged by his tutor to help him obtain the treasure guarded by the latter's brother Fafnir. Sigurd promises, but first demands a sword. Two, that arc given him by Regin, prove worthless, and he forges a new one from the pieces of his father's sword, which his mother had preserved. With this he easily splits the anvil and cuts in two a flake of wool, floating down the Rhine. He first avenges the death of his father, and then sets off with Regin to attack the dragon Fafnir. At the advice of the former Sigurd digs a ditch across the dragon's peth and pierces him from below with his sword, as the latter comes down to drink. In dying the dragon warns Sigurd against the treasure and its curse, and against Regin, who, he says, is planning Sigurd's death, intending to obtain the treasure for himself.

When Regin sees the dragon safely dead, he creeps from his place of concealment, drinks of the blood, and, cutting out the heart, begs Sigurd to roast it for him. While doing so, Sigurd burns his fingers, and, putting them in his mouth, understands at once the language of the birds and hears them say that Sigurd himself should eat the heart and then he would be wiser than all other men. They also betray Regin's evil designs, and counsel the lad to kill his tutor. This Sigurd then does, cutting off Regin's head, drinking the blood of both brothers, and eating Fafnir's heart. [3] On the further advice of the birds Sigurd first fetches the treasure from the cave, and then journeys to the mountain "Hindarfjall", where he rescues the sleeping Valkyrie, "Sigrdrifu" ("Brynhild", "Brunhild"), who, stung by the sleep thorn of Wodan, and clad in full armor, lies asleep within a castle that is surrounded by a wall of flame. With the help of his steed Grani, Sigurd succeeds in penetrating through the fire to the castle. The sleeping maiden awakes when he cuts the armor from her with his sword, for it was as tight as if grown fast to the flesh. She hails her deliverer with great joy, for she had vowed never to marry a man who knew fear. At Sigurd's request she teaches him many wise precepts, and finally pledges her troth to him. He then departs, after promising to be faithful to her and to remember her teachings.

On his journeyings Sigurd soon arrives at the court of "Giuki" (the Norse form of the German "Gibicho", "Gibich"), a king whose court lay on the lower Rhine. Giuki has three sons, "Gunnar", "Hogni", and "Guthorm", and a daughter "Gudrun", endowed with great beauty. The queen bears the name of Grimhild, and is versed in magic, but possessed of an evil heart. [4] Sigurd is received with great honor, for his coming had been announced to Gudrun in dreams, which had in part been interpreted to her by Brynhild. The mother, knowing of Sigurd's relations to the latter, gives him a potion which produces forgetfulness, so that he no longer remembers his betrothed, and accepts the hand of Gudrun, which the king offers him at the queen's request. The marriage is celebrated with great pomp, and Sigurd remains permanently attached to Giuki's court, performing with the others many deeds of valor.

Meanwhile Grimhild urges her son Gunnar to sue for the hand of Brynhild. Taking with him Sigurd and a few others, Gunnar visits first Brynhild's father "Budli", and then her brother-in-law "Heimir", from both of whom he learns that she is free to choose whom she will, but that she will marry no one who has not ridden through the wall of flame. With this answer they proceed to Brynhild's castle, where Gunnar is unable to pierce the flames, even when seated on Sigurd's steed. Finally Sigurd and Gunnar change forms, and Sigurd, disguised as Gunnar, rides through the wall of fire, announces himself to Brynhild as Gunnar, the son of Giuki, and reminds her of her promise to marry the one who penetrated the fire. Brynhild consents with great reluctance, for she is busy carrying on a war with a neighboring king. Sigurd then passes three nights at her side, placing, however, his sword Gram between them, as a bar of separation. At parting he draws from her finger the ring, with which he had originally pledged his troth to her, and replaces it with another, taken from Fafnir's hoard. Soon after this the marriage of Gunnar and Brynhild is celebrated with great splendor, and all return to Giuki's court, where they live happily for some time.

One day, however, when the ladies go down to the river to take a bath, Brynhild will not bathe further down stream than Gudrun, that is, in the water which flows from Gudrun to her, [5] giving as the reason, that her father was mightier and her husband braver, since he had ridden through the fire, while Sigurd had been a menial. Stung at this, Gudrun retorts that not Gunnar but Sigurd had penetrated the flames and had taken from her the fateful ring "Andvaranaut", which she then shows to her rival in proof of her assertion. Brynhild turns deathly pale, but answers not a word. After a second conversation on the subject had increased the hatred of the queens, Brynhild plans vengeance. Pretending to be ill, she takes to her bed, and when Gunnar inquires what ails her, she asks him if he remembers the circumstances of the wooing and that not he but Sigurd had penetrated the flames. She attempts to take Gunnar's life, as she had pledged her troth to Sigurd, and is thereupon placed in chains by Hogni. Seven days she sleeps, and no one dares to wake her. Finally Sigurd succeeds in making her talk, and she tells him how cruelly she has been deceived, that the better man had been destined for her, but that she had received the poorer one. This Sigurd denies, for Giuki's son had killed the king of the Danes and also Budli's brother, a great warrior. Moreover, although he, Sigurd, had ridden through the flames, he had not become her husband. He begs her therefore not to harbor a grudge against Gunnar.

Brynhild remains unconvinced, and plans Sigurd's death, and threatens Gunnar with the loss of dominion and life, if he will not kill Sigurd. After some hesitation, Gunnar consents, and, calling Hogni, informs him that he must kill Sigurd, in order to obtain the treasure of the Rhinegold. Hogni warns him against breaking his oath to Sigurd, when it occurs to Gunnar, that his brother Gutthorm had sworn no oath and might do the deed. Both now proceed to excite the latter's greed, and give him wolf's and snake meat to eat to make him savage. Twice Gutthorm makes the attempt, as Sigurd lies in bed, but is deterred by the latter's penetrating glance. The third time he finds Sigurd asleep, and pierces him with his sword. Sigurd, awakening at the pain, hurls his own sword after his murderer, fairly cutting him in two. He then dies, protesting his innocence and designating Brynhild as the instigator of his murder. Brynhild at first laughs aloud at Gudrun's frantic grief, but later her joy turns into sorrow, and she determines to share Sigurd's death. In vain they try to dissuade her; donning her gold corselet, she pierces herself with a sword and begs to be burned on Sigurd's funeral pyre. In dying she prophesies the future, telling of Gudrun's marriage to "Atli" and of the death of the many men which will be caused thereby.

After Brynhild's death Gudrun in her sorrow flees to the court of King "Half" of Denmark, where she remains seven years. Finally Grimhild learns of the place of her daughter's concealment, and tries to bring about a reconciliation with Gunnar and Hogni. They offer her much treasure, if she will marry Atli. At first she refuses and thinks only of revenge, but finally she consents and the marriage is celebrated in Atli's land. After a time Atli, who is envious of Gunnar's riches, for the latter had taken possession of Sigurd's hoard, invites him to his court. A man named "Vingi", who was sent with the invitation, changes the runes of warning, which Gudrun had given him, so that they, too, read as an invitation. The brothers determine to accept the invitation, and, though warned by many dreams, they set out for Atli's court, which they reach in due time. Vingi now breaks forth into exultations, that he has lured them into a snare, and is slain by Hogni with a battle axe.

As they ride to the king's hall, Atli and his sons arm themselves for battle, and demand Sigurd's treasure, which belongs by right to Gudrun. Gunnar refuses to surrender it, and the fight begins, after some exchange of taunting words. Gudrun tries at first to reconcile the combatants, but, failing, arms herself and fights on the side of her brothers. The battle rages furiously with great loss on both sides, until nearly all of the Nibelungs are killed, when Gunnar and Hogni are forced to yield to the power of numbers and are captured and bound. Gunnar is asked, if he will purchase his life with the treasure. He replies that he first wishes to see Hogni's bleeding heart. At first the heart of a slave is cut out and brought to him, but Gunnar recognizes it at once as that of a coward. Then they cut out Hogni's heart, who laughs at the pain. This Gunnar sees is the right one, and is jubilant, for now Atli shall never obtain the treasure, as Gunnar alone knows where it is hid. In a rage Atli orders Gunnar to be thrown to the snakes. Though his hands are bound, Gunnar plays so sweetly with his toes on the harp, which Gudrun has sent him, that all the snakes are lulled to sleep, with the exception of an adder, which stings him to the heart, so that he dies.

Atli now walks triumphantly over the dead bodies, and remarks to Gudrun that she alone is to blame for what has happened. She refuses his offers of peace and reconciliation, and towards evening kills her two sons "Erp" and "Eitil", and serves them at the banquet, which the king gives for his retainers. When Atli asks for his sons, he is told that he had drunk their blood mixed with wine and had eaten their hearts. That night when Atli is asleep, Gudrun takes Hogni's son "Hniflung", who desires to avenge his father, and together they enter Atli's room and thrust a sword through his breast. Atli awakes from the pain, only to be told by Gudrun that she is his murderess. When he reproaches her with thus killing her husband, she answers that she cared only for Sigurd. Atli now asks for a fitting burial, and on receiving the promise of this, expires. Gudrun carries out her promise, and burns the castle with Atli and all his dead retainers. Other Edda songs relate the further adventures of Gudrun, but they do not concern us here, as the "Nibelungenlied" stops with the death of the Nibelungs.

This in brief is the story of Siegfried, as it has been handed down to us in the Skandinavian sources. It is universally acknowledged that this version, though more original than the Gorman tradition, does not represent the simplest and most original form of the tale; but what the original form was, has long been and still is a matter of dispute. Two distinctly opposite views are held, the one seeing in the story the personification of the forces of nature, the other, scouting the possibility of a mythological interpretation, seeks a purely human origin for the tale, namely, a quarrel among relatives for the possession of treasure. The former view is the older, and obtained almost exclusively at one time. The latter has been gaining ground of recent years, and is held by many of the younger students of the legend. According to the mythological view, the maiden slumbering upon the lonely heights is the sun, the wall of flames surrounding her the morning red ("Morgenrote"). Siegfried is the youthful day who is destined to rouse the sun from her slumber. At the appointed time he ascends, and before his splendor the morning red disappears. He awakens the maiden; radiantly the sun rises from its couch and joyously greets the world of nature. But light and shade are indissolubly connected; day changes of itself into night. When at evening the sun sinks to rest and surrounds herself once more with a wall of flames, the day again approaches, but no longer in the youthful form of the morning to arouse her from her slumber, but in the sombre shape of Gunther, to rest at her side. Day has turned into night; this is the meaning of the change of forms. The wall of flame vanishes, day and sun descend into the realm of darkness. Under this aspect the Siegfried story is a day myth; but under another it is a myth of the year. The dragon is the symbol of winter, the dwarfs of darkness. Siegfried denotes the bright summer, his sword the sunbeams. The youthful year grows up in the dark days of winder. When its time has come, it goes forth triumphantly and destroys the darkness and the cold of winter. Through the symbolization the abstractions gain form and become persons; the saga is thus not a mere allegory, but a personification of nature's forces. The treasure may have entered the saga through the widespread idea of the dragon as the guardian of treasure, or it may represent the beauty of nature which unfolds when the season has conquered. In the last act of the saga, Siegfried's death, Wilmanns, the best exponent of this view, sees again a symbolic representation of a process of nature. According to him it signifies the death of the god of the year in winter. In the spring he kills the dragon, in the winter he goes weary to his rest and is foully slain by the hostile powers of darkness. Later, when this act was connected with the story of Gunther's wooing Brunhild, the real meaning was forgotten, and Siegfried's death was attributed to the grief and jealousy of the insulted queen.

Opposed now to the mythological interpretation is the other view already spoken of, which denies the possibility of mythological features, and does not seek to trace the legend beyond the heroic stage. The best exponent of this view is R. C. Boer, who has made a remarkable attempt to resolve the story into its simplest constituents. According to him the nucleus of the legend is an old story of the murder of relatives ("Verwandienmord"), the original form being perhaps as follows. Attila (i.e., the enemy of Hagen under any name)is married to Hagen's sister Grimhild or Gudrun. He invites his brother-in-law to his house, attacks him in the hope of obtaining his treasure, and kills him. According to this view Hagen was originally the king, but later sinks to a subordinate position through the subsequent connection of the story with the Burgundians. It is of course useless to hunt for the date of such an episode in history. Such a murder could have frequently occurred, and can be localized anywhere. Very early we find this Hagen story united with the Siegfried legend. If the latter is mythological, then we have a heterogeneous combination, a mythical legend grafted on a purely human one. This Boer thinks unlikely, and presents a number of arguments to disprove the mythical character of the Siegfried story, into which we cannot enter here. He comes, however, to the conclusion, that the Siegfried tale is likewise purely human, and consisted originally of the murder of relatives, that is, a repetition of the Hagen title. Siegfried is married to Hagen's sister, and is killed by his brother-in-law because of his treasure. The kernel of the legend is, therefore, the enmity between relatives, which exists in two forms, the one in which the son-in-law kills his father-in-law, as in the "Helgi" saga, the other in which Hagen kills his son-in-law and is killed by him, too, as in the "Hilde" saga. The German tradition tries to combine the two by introducing the new feature, that Kriemhild causes the death of her relatives, in order to avenge her first husband. Boer is of the opinion that both the Norse and the German versions have forgotten the original connection between the two stories, and that this connection was nothing more nor less than the common motive of the treasure. The same treasure, which causes Hagen to murder Siegfried, causes his own death in turn through the greed of Attila. There was originally, according to Boer, no question of revenge, except the revenge of fate, the retribution which overtakes the criminal. This feeling for the irony of fate was lost when the motive, that Hagen kills Siegfried because of his treasure, was replaced by the one that he does it at the request of Brunhild. This leads Boer to the conclusion, that Brunhild did not originally belong to the Siegfried story, but to the well-known fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty ("Erlosungsmurchen"), which occurs in a variety of forms. The type is that of a hero who rescues a maiden from a magic charm, which may take the form of a deep sleep, as in the case of Sleeping Beauty, or of being sewed into a garment, as in No. 111 of Grimm's fairy tales. By the union of the two stories, i.e., the Hagen-Siegfried saga with the Sleeping Beauty tale, Siegfried stands in relation to two women; on the one hand his relation to Sigrdrifa-Brynhild, the maiden whom he rescues on the rock, on the other his marriage with Grimhild-Gudrun and his consequent death. This twofold relation had to be disposed of, and since his connection with Grimhild was decisive for his fate, his relation to Brunhild had to be changed. It could not be entirely ignored, for it was too well known, therefore it was given a different interpretation. Siegfried still rescues a maiden from the rock, not for himself, however, but for another. The exchange of forms on the part of Siegfried and Gunther is a reminiscence of the older form. It gives the impression, that Siegfried, and yet not Siegfried, won the bride. This alteration probably took place when the Burgundians were introduced into the legend. With this introduction an unlocalized saga of unknown heroes of ancient times became one of events of world-wide importance; the fall of a mighty race was depicted as the result of Siegfried's death. To render this plausible, it was necessary on the one hand to idealize the hero, so that his death should appear as a deed of horror demanding fearful vengeance, and on the other, to make the king of the Burgundians an active participator in Siegfried's death, for otherwise it would not seem natural, that the whole race should be exterminated for a crime committed by the king's brother or vassal. As the role of Brunhild's husband had become vacant, and as Gunther had no special role, it was natural that it should be given to him. Boer traces very ingeniously the gradual development of this exchange of roles through the various sources.

Another method of explaining away Siegfried's relation to two women is to identify them, and this has been done by the Seyfrid ballad. Here the hero rescues Kriemhild from the power of the dragon, marries her, and then is later killed by her brothers through envy and hatred. As Brunhild and Kriemhild are here united in one person, there is no need of a wooing for the king, nor of vengeance on the part of Brunhild, accordingly the old motive of greed (here envy) reappears.

As to the fight with the dragon, Boer believes that it did not originally belong to the saga, for in none of the sources except the popular ballad is the fight with the dragon connected with the release of Brunhild. If the Siegfried-Hagen story is purely human, then the dragon cannot have originally belonged to it, but was later introduced, because of the widespread belief in the dragon as the guardian of treasure, and in order to answer the question as to the provenience of the hoard. This is, however, only one answer to the question. Another, widespread in German legends, is that the treasure comes from the Nibelungs, that is, from the dwarfs. Many identify the dwarfs and the dragon, but this finds no support in the sources, for here the dwarfs and Fafnir are never confused. The "Nibelungenlied" describes an adventure with each, but the treasure is only connected with the dwarfs. The "Thidreksaga" knows only the dragon fight but not the dwarfs, as is likewise the case with the Seyfrid ballad. Only in the Norse sources do we find a contamination. The story of Hreithmar and his sons, who quarrel about the treasure, resembles that of Schilbung and Nibelung in the "Nibelungenlied", and probably has the same source. One of the sons, because of his guarding the treasure, is identified with the dragon, and so we read that Fafnir becomes a dragon, after gaining the treasure. Originally, however, he was not a dragon, but a dwarf. These two independent forms can be geographically localized. The dwarf legend is the more southern; it is told in detail in the "Nibelungenlied". The dragon legend probably originated in the Cimbrian peninsula, where the "Beowulf" saga, in which the dragon fight plays such an important part, likewise arose.

There thus stand sharply opposed to each other two theories, one seeing in the Siegfried saga a personification of natural forces, the other tracing it back to a purely human story of murder through greed. It may be, that the true form of the original saga lies half way between these two views. The story of the fall of the Nibelungs, that is, their killing at Etzel's court, may go back to the tale of the murder of relatives for money. On the other hand it is hard to believe that the Siegfried saga is nothing but a repetition of the Attila motive, for this is too brief a formula to which to reduce the long legend of Siegfried, with its many deeds. Even if we discard the mythological interpretation, it is the tale of a daring hero, who is brought up in the woods by a cunning dwarf. He kills a dragon and takes possession of his hoard, then rescues a maiden, imprisoned upon a mountain, as in the older Norse version and the popular ballad, or in a tower, as in the "Thidreksaga", and surrounded either by a wall of fire, as in the Norse, or by a large body of water, as in the "Nibelungenlied". After betrothing himself to the maiden, he sets forth in search of further adventures, and falls into the power of an evil race, who by their magic arts lure him to them, cause his destruction, and then obtain his treasure and the maiden for themselves. By her very name Sigrdrifa belongs to Siegfried, just as Gunther and Gudrun-Grimhild belong together, and it seems hardly possible that she should have entered the story later, as Boer would have us believe. After all, it is largely a matter of belief, for it is impossible to prove positively that mythical elements did or did not exist in the original.

To the combined Siegfried-Nibelung story various historical elements were added during the fifth century. At the beginning of this period the Franks were located on the left bank of the Rhine from Coblenz downward. Further up the river, that is, to the south, the Burgundians had established a kingdom in what is now the Rhenish Palatinate, their capital being Worms and their king "Gundahar", or "Gundicarius", as the Romans called him. For twenty years the Burgundians lived on good terms with the surrounding nations. Then, growing bolder, they suddenly rose against the Romans in the year 436, but the rebellion was quietly suppressed by the Roman general Aetius. Though defeated, the Burgundians were not subdued, and the very next year they broke their oaths and again sought to throw off the Roman yoke. This time the Romans called to their aid the hordes of Huns, who had been growing rapidly in power and were already pressing hard upon the German nations from the east. Only too glad for an excuse, the Huns poured into the land in great numbers and practically swept the Burgundian people from the face of the earth. According to the Roman historians, twenty thousand Burgundians were slain in this great battle of the Catalaunian Fields. Naturally this catastrophe, in which a whole German nation fell before the hordes of invading barbarians, produced a profound impression upon the Teutonic world. The King Gundahar, the Gunther of the "Nibelungenlied", who also fell in the battle, became the central figure of a new legend, namely, the story of the fall of the Burgundians.

Attila is not thought to have taken part in the invasion, still, after his death in 454, his name gradually came to be associated with the slaughter of the Burgundians, for a legend operates mainly with types, and as Attila was a Hun and throughout the Middle Ages was looked upon as the type of a cruel tyrant, greedy for conquest, it was but natural for him to play the role assigned to him in the legend. Quite plausible is Boer's explanation of the entrance of Attila into the legend. The "Thidreksaga" locates him in Seest in Westphalia. Now this province once bore the haute of "Hunaland", and by a natural confusion, because of the similarity of the names, "Huna" and "Huns", Attila, who is the chief representative of Hunnish power, was connected with the legend and located at Seest. This would show that the original extension of the legend was slight, as Xanten, the home of Hagen, is but seventy miles from Seest. The original form would then be that Hagen was slain by a king of "Hunaland", then because history relates that the Burgundians were slain by the Huns, the similarity of the names led to the introduction of Attila and the identification of the Nibelungs with the Burgundians. The fact, too, that the Franks rapidly took possession of the district depopulated by the crushing defeat of the Burgundians likewise aided the confusion, and thus the Franks became the natural heirs of the legend concerning the death of Gunther, and so we read of the fall of the Nibelungs, a name that is wholly Frankish in character. This identification led also to Attila's being considered the avenger of Siegfried's death. Poetic justice, however, demands that the slaughter of the Burgundians at the hands of Attila be also avenged. The rumor, that Attila's death was not natural, but that he had been murdered by his wife Ildico ("Hildiko"), gave the necessary features to round out the story. As Kriemhild was the sister of the Burgundian kings, it was but natural to explain her killing of Attila, as described in the Norse versions, by her desire to avenge her brothers.

In our "Nibelungenlied", however, it is no longer Attila, but Kriemhild, who is the central figure of the tragedy. Etzel, as he is called here, has sunk to the insignificant role of a stage king, a perfectly passive observer of the fight raging around him. This change was brought about perhaps by the introduction of Dietrich of Berne, the most imposing figure of all Germanic heroic lore. The necessity of providing him with a role corresponding to his importance, coupled with a growing repugnance on the part of the proud Franks to acknowledge defeat at the hands of the Huns, caused the person of Attila to dwindle in importance. Gradually, too, the role played by Kriemhild was totally changed. Instead of being the avenger of her brothers, as depicted in the Norse versions, she herself becomes the cause of their destruction. Etzel is not only innocent of any desire to harm the Nibelungs, but is even ignorant of the revenge planned by his wife. This change in her role was probably due to the feeling that it was incumbent upon her to avenge the murder of Siegfried.

Our "Nibelungenlied" knows but little of the adventures of Siegfried's youth as depicted in the Norse versions. The theme of the poem is no longer the love of Sigurd, the homeless wanderer, for the majestic Valkyrie Brunhild, but the love idyll of Siegfried, the son of the king of the Netherlands, and the dainty Burgundian princess Kriemhild. The poem has forgotten Siegfried's connection with Brunhild; it knows nothing of his penetrating the wall of flames to awake and rescue her, nothing of the betrothal of the two. In our poem Siegfried is carefully reared at his father's court in the Netherlands, and sets out with great pomp for the court of the Burgundians. In the Norse version he naturally remains at Gunther's court after his marriage, but in our poem he returns to the Netherlands with his bride. This necessitates the introduction of several new scenes to depict his arrival home, the invitation to the feast at Worms, and the reception of the guests on the part of the Burgundians.

In the "Nibelungenlied" the athletic sports, as an obstacle to the winning of Brunhild, take the place of the wall of flames of the older Norse versions. Siegfried and Gunther no longer change forms, but Siegfried dons the "Tarnkappe", which renders him invisible, so that while Gunther makes the motions, Siegfried really does the work, a thing which is rather difficult to imagine. The quarrel of the two queens is likewise very differently depicted in the "Nibelungenlied" from what it is in the Norse version. In the latter it takes place while the ladies are bathing in the river, and is brought on by the arrogance of Brunhild, who refuses to stand lower down the stream and bathe in the water flowing from Gudrun to her. In the "Thidreksaga" it occurs in the seclusion of the ladies' apartments, but in our poem it culminates in front of the cathedral before the assembled court, and requires as its background all the pomp and splendor of medieval chivalry. With a master hand and a wonderful knowledge of female character, the author depicts the gradual progress of the quarrel until it terminates in a magnificent scene of wounded pride and malignant hatred. Kriemhild, as usual, plays the more important part, and, while standing up for her rights, tries in every way to conciliate Brunhild and not to hurt her feelings. At last, however, stung by the taunts of the latter, she in turn loses her patience, bursts out with the whole story of the twofold deception to which Brunhild has been subjected, and then triumphantly sweeps into the church, leaving her rival stunned and humiliated by the news she has heard. In the Norse tradition the scene serves merely to enlighten Brunhild as to the deception played upon her. In the "Nibelungenlied" it becomes the real cause of Siegfried's death, for Brunhild plans to kill Siegfried to avenge the public slight done to her. She has no other reason, as Siegfried swears that there had been no deception. Brunhild appeals to us much less in the "Nibelungenlied" than in the Norse version. In the latter she feels herself deeply wronged by Siegfried's faithlessness, and resolves on his death because she will not be the wife of two men. In our poem she has no reason for wishing his death except her wounded pride. In the "Nibelungenlied", too, she disappears from view after Siegfried's death, whereas in the Norse tradition she ascends his funeral pyre and dies at his side.

The circumstances of Siegfried's death are likewise totally different in the two versions. In the Norse, as we have seen, he is murdered while asleep in bed, by Gunnar's younger brother Gutthorm. In our poem he is killed by Hagen, while bending over a spring to drink. This is preceded by a scene in which Hagen treacherously induces Kriemhild to mark the one vulnerable spot on Siegfried's body, on the plea of protecting him. This deepens the tragedy, and renders Kriemhild's misery and self-reproaches the greater. After Siegfried's burial his father, who had also come to Worms with his son, vainly endeavors to persuade Kriemhild to return with him to the Netherlands. Her refusal is unnatural in the extreme, for she had reigned there ten years or more with Siegfried, and had left her little son behind, and yet she relinquishes all this and remains with her brothers, whom she knows to be the murderers of her husband. This is evidently a reminiscence of an earlier form in which Siegfried was a homeless adventurer, as in the "Thidreksaga".

The second half of the tale, the destruction of the Nibelungs, is treated of very briefly in the early Norse versions, but the "Nibelungenlied", which knows so little of Siegfried's youth, has developed and enlarged upon the story, until it overshadows the first part in length and importance and gives the name to the whole poem. The main difference between the two versions is that in the older Norse tradition it is Attila who invites the Nibelungs to his court and attacks them in order to gain possession of the treasure, while Gudrun (Kriemhild) first tries to reconcile the warring parties, and, not succeeding in this, snatches up a sword and fights on the side of her brothers and later kills her husband as an act of revenge. In the "Thidreksaga" and the "Nibelungenlied", however, she is the instigator of the fight and the cause of her brothers' death, and finally suffers death herself at the hands of Master Hildebrand, who is furious that such noble heroes should fall at a woman's hand. The second part of the poem is grewsome reading at best, with its weltering corpses and torrents of blood. The horror is relieved only by the grim humor of Hagen and by the charming scene at Rudeger's court, where the young prince Giselher is betrothed to Rudeger's daughter. Rudeger is without doubt the most tragic figure of this part. He is bound on the one hand by his oath of allegiance to Kriemhild and on the other by ties of friendship to the Burgundians. His agony of mind at the dilemma in which Kriemhild's command to attack the Burgundians places him is pitiful. Divided between love and duty, the conviction that he must fulfill his vow, cost what it may, gradually forces itself upon him and he rushes to his death in combat with his dearest friends.

Towering above all others in its gloomy grandeur stands the figure of Hagen, the real hero of the second half of the poem. Fully aware that he is going to his death, he nevertheless scorns to desert his companions-in-arms, and awaits the fate in store for him with a stoicism that would do honor to a Spartan. He calmly accepts the consequences of his crime, and to the last mocks and scoffs at Kriemhild, until her fury knows no bounds. No character shows so little the refining influences of Christianity as does his. In all essential respects he is still the same old gigantic Teuton, who meets us in the earliest forms of the legend.

As to the various minor characters, many of which appear only in the "Nibelungenlied", space will not permit of their discussion here, although they will be treated of briefly in the notes. Suffice it to say, that the "Nibelungenlied" has introduced a number of effective scenes for the purpose of bringing some of them, especially Folker and Dankwart, into prominence. Among the best of these are, first, the night watch, when Folker first plays the Burgundians to sleep with his violin, and then stands guard with Hagen, thus preventing the surprise planned by Kriemhild; further, the visit to the church on the following morning, when the men of both parties clash; and lastly the tournament between the Huns and the Burgundians, which gives the author an excellent chance to show the prowess of the various heroes.

Let us pass now to the consideration of the strophic form of the "Nibelungenlied". The two Danish ballads of "Grimhild's Revenge" ("Grimhild's Haevn"), which are based upon the first combination of the Low German, i.e., Saxon, and the Rhenish traditions, prove that the strophe is considerably older than the preserved redactions of our poem, and that it was probably of Saxon origin. The metrical form goes back most probably to the four-accented verse of the poet Otfrid of the ninth century, although some have thought that Latin hymns, others that the French epic verse, may have been of influence. The direct derivation from Otfrid seems, however, the most plausible, as it accounts for the importance of the caesura, which generally marks a pause in the sense, as well as in the verse, and also for its masculine ending. The "Nibelungen" strophe consists of four long lines separated by a caesura into two distinct halves. The first half of each line contains four accents, the fourth falling upon the last syllable. This last stress, however, is not, as a rule as strong as the others, the effect being somewhat like that of a feminine ending. On this account some speak of three accents in the first half line, with a feminine ending. The fourth stress is, however, too strong to be thus disregarded, but because of its lighter character is best marked with a grave accent. The second half of each line ends in a masculine rhyme. The first three lines have each three stresses in the second half, while the second half of the fourth line has four accents to mark the end of the strophe. This longer fourth line is one of the most marked characteristics of the "Nibelungen" strophe. The rhymes are arranged in the order of "a", "a", "b", "b", though in a few isolated cases near the end of the poem but one rhyme is used throughout the strophe.

The opening lines of the poem may serve to illustrate the strophic form and scansion, and at the same time will give the reader an idea of the Middle High German language in which the poem is written:

Uns ist in alten maeren wunders vil geseit
von heleden lobebaeron, von grozer arebeit,
von froude und hochgeziten, von weinen und von klagen,
von kuener recken striten muget ir nu wunder hoeren sagen.

Ez wuochs in Burgonden ein edel magedin,
daz in allen landen niht schoeners mohte sin,
Kriemhild geheizen; si wart ein scoene wip,
darambe muosen degene vil verliesen den lip.

Der minneclichen meide triuten wol gezam,
ir muotten kuene recken, niemen was ir gram,
ane ma zen schoene so was ir edel lip;
der iunevrouwen tugende zierten anderiu wip.

Ir pilagen drie kilnege edel unde rich,
Ganther ande Geruot, die recken lobelieh,
und Giselher der iunge, ein uz erwelter degen,
diu frouwe was ir swester, die fu'rsten hetens in ir pflegen.

Die herren waren milte, von arde hohe erborn,
mit kraft unmazen kuene, die recken uz erkorn,
dazen Burgonden so was ir lant genant,
si framden starkiu wunder sit in Etzelen lant.

Ze Wormze bidem Rine si wenden mit ir kraft,
in diende von ir landen stolziu ritterscaft
mit lobelichen eren unz an ir endes zit,
sit sturben si inemerliche von zweier edelen frouwen nit.

Some of the final rhymes with proper names, such as "Hagene" : "degene" (str. 84) or "Hagene" : "tragene" (str. 300) appear to be feminine, but it is really the final "e" that rhymes, and a scansion of the line in question shows that the three accents are not complete without this final "e". In this respect our poem differs from most of the Middle High German poems, as this practice of using the final "e" in rhyme began to die out in the twelfth century, though occasionally found throughout the period. The rhymes are, as a rule, quite exact, the few cases of impure rhymes being mainly those in which short and long vowels are rhymed together, e.g. "mich" : "rich" or "man" : "han". Caesural rhymes are frequently met with, and were considered by Lachmann to be the marks of interpolated strophes, a view no longer held. A further peculiarity of the "Nibelungen" strophe is the frequent omission of the unaccented syllable in the second half of the last line of the strophe between the second and third stresses. Examples of this will be found in the second, third, and fifth strophes of the passage given above.

The language of the "Nibelungenlied" is the so-called Middle High German, that is, the High German written and spoken in the period between 1100 and 1500, the language of the great romances of chivalry and of the "Minnesingers". More exactly, the poem is written in the Austrian dialect of the close of the twelfth century, but contains many archaisms, which point to the fact of its having undergone a number of revisions.

In closing this brief study of the "Nibelungenlied", just a word or two further with reference to the poem, its character, and its place in German literature. Its theme is the ancient Teutonic ideal of "Treue" (faithfulness or fidelity), which has found here its most magnificent portrayal; faithfulness unto death, the loyalty of the vassal for his lord, as depicted in Hagen, the fidelity of the wife for her husband, as shown by Kriemhild, carried out with unhesitating consistency to the bitter end. This is not the gallantry of medieval chivalry, which colors so largely the opening scenes of the poem, but the heroic valor, the death-despising stoicism of the ancient Germans, before which the masters of the world, the all-conquering Romans, were compelled to bow.

In so far as the "Nibelungenlied" has forgotten most of the history of the youthful Siegfried, and knows nothing of his love for Brunhild, it is a torso, but so grand withal, that one hardly regrets the loss of these integral elements of the old saga. As it is a working over of originally separate lays, it is not entirely homogeneous, and contains not a few contradictions. In spite of these faults, however, which a close study reveals, it is nevertheless the grandest product of Middle High German epic poetry, and deservedly the most popular poem of older German literature. It lacks, to be sure, the grace of diction found in Gottfried von Strassburg's "Tristan und Isolde", the detailed and often magnificent descriptions of armor and dress to be met with in the epics of Hartman von Ouwe; it is wanting in the lofty philosophy of Wolfram von Eschenbach's "Parzival", and does not, as this latter, lead the reader into the realms of religious doubts and struggles. It is imposing through its very simplicity, through the grandeur of the story, which it does not seek to adorn and decorate. It nowhere pauses to analyze motives nor to give us a picture of inner conflict as modern authors are fond of doing. Its characters are impulsive and prompt in action, and when they have once acted, waste no time in useless regret or remorse.

It resembles the older "Spielmannsdichtung", or minstrel poetry, in the terseness and vigor of its language and in the lack of poetic imagery, but it is free from the coarseness and vulgar and grotesque humor of the latter. It approaches the courtly epic in its introduction of the pomp of courtly ceremonial, but this veneer of chivalry is very thin, and beneath the outward polish of form the heart beats as passionately and wildly as in the days of Herman, the Cheruscan chief. There are perhaps greater poems in literature than the "Nibelungenlied", but few so majestic in conception, so sublime in their tragedy, so simple in their execution, and so national in their character, as this great popular epic of German literature.

Endnotes[edit]

  1. A is a parchment MS. of the second half of the thirteenth century, now found in Munich. It forms the basis of Lachmann's edition. It is a parchment MS. of the middle of the thirteenth century, belonging to the monastery of St. Gall. It has been edited by Bartsch, "Deutsche Klassiker des Mittelalters", vol. 3, and by Piper, "Deutsche National-Literatur", vol. 6. C is a parchment MS., of the thirteenth century, now in the ducal library of Donauesehingen. It is the best written of all the MSS., and has been edited by Zarncke.
  2. The "Thidreksaga" differs from the other Norse versions in having "Sigfrod", as he is called here, brought up in ignorance of his parents, a trait which was probably borrowed from the widespread "Genoveva" story, although thought by some to have been an original feature of our legend.
  3. The "Thidreksaga", which has forgotten the enmity of the brothers, and calls Sigurd's tutor "Mimr", tells the episode in somewhat different fashion. The brothers plan to kill Sigurd, and the latter is attacked by the dragon, while burning charcoal in the forest. After killing the monster with a firebrand, Sigurd bathes himself in the blood and thus become covered with a horny skin, which renders him invulnerable, save in one place between the shoulder blades, which he could not reach. This bathing in the blood is also related in the Seyfrid ballad and in the "Nibelungenlied", with the difference, that the vulnerable spot is caused by a linden leaf falling upon him.
  4. The fact that all but one of these names alliterate, shows that the Norse version is here more original. Gunnar is the same as Gunther (Gundaharius), Hogni as Hagen; Gutthorm (Godomar) appears in the German version as Gernot. In this latter the father is called Danerat, the mother Uote, and the name Grimhild is transferred from the mother to the daughter.
  5. In the prose "Edda", in the water which drips from Gudrun's hair.