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Literature / Nibelungenlied

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Hagen spears Siegfried in the Back during a Hunt — A 15th Century Manuscript of the Nibelungenlied

No warrior will ever do a darker deed.

The Nibelungenlied, translated literally as "The Song of the Nibelungs", is an epic poem in two parts, telling the story of Siegfried, his murder by the Burgundians, and the revenge taken by his widow Kriemhild. Dating back to the early 13th century, its authorship is unknown, but it is thought to have been written by an Austrian author from between Passau and Vienna for recitation in the Austrian court. The Nibelungenlied is the earliest complete telling of the legend, though other versions of the story exist, including the Norse Völsunga saga and passages in the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, which, though written down later, are thought to preserve earlier elements of the story that had become obscured in the mediævalized German poem. Brief allusions to the Siegfried story also exist in much earlier works, such as Waltharius and Beowulf.

Technically, the poem is written in four line roughly hexameter stanzas, with strong pauses in the middle of each line, rhyming AABB, and with the final line of each stanza usually lengthened by an extra foot. The language of the poem is Middle High German, i.e., the language spoken in what is now southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, from about the 11th to the 14th centuries. Modern Germans will be able to guess roughly what a sentence is about, but without training they won't be able to make out details, let alone pronounce it correctly, much as with modern English-speakers in regard to Chaucer (though the Nibelungenlied is some two hundred years more removed from the modern language even than The Canterbury Tales). Thus:

Ez wuohs in Burgonden | ein vil edel magedîn.
Daz in allen landen | niht schœners mohte sîn,
Chriemhilt geheizen. | si wart ein scœne wîp:
Darumbe muosen degene | vil verliesen den lîp.

Ir pflâgen drîe künege, | edel unde rîch:
Gunther unde Gêrnôt, | di rechen lobelîch,
unt Gîselher der iunge, | ein ûzerwelter degen.
Diu frouwe was ir swester, | di fürsten hetens in ir pflegen.

In Burgundy grew up a maiden called Kriemhild, so noble that none fairer might exist in any lands. She was a lovely woman — and for that many warriors had to lose their lives. Three kings, noble and rich, were her guardians: Gunther and Gernot, the praiseworthy fighters, and the young Giselher, an exceptional warrior. This lady was their sister, whom the princes had in their care.

The first section details the life, exploits, and death of the hero Siegfried (MHG “Sîfrit”), son of King Siegmund and Queen Sieglinde of Xanten, who achieves near-invincibility by bathing in the blood of a freshly-slain dragon, but retains a point of weakness in a place which the blood fails to cover, in this case the shoulder, part of which remains covered by a linden leaf during his gory baptism.

Siegfried marries Kriemhild (Chriemhilt), the sister of the Burgundian king Gunther of Worms, whom he assists in his ritual courting of the Icelandic queen Brunhild (Prunhilt). Siegfried's assistance is to use his supernatural strength (also gained through his earlier proximity to dragon blood) to complete the challenges in an Invisibility Cloak while Gunther mimes the same actions to give the illusion that he is accomplishing these tasks.

The political relationship of the two men, though fortified by Siegfried's services and his marriage to Kriemhild, is soured when an argument between Brunhild and Kriemhild reveals the truth about the secret arrangement and the security of the state is threatened. Gunther's solution to this comes about through his scheming vassal Hagen, who, with Gunther, plots the assassination of the hero.

The second part of the poem tells of how Kriemhild, now bereft not only of her husband but also her status and fortune (Hagen steals the hoard Siegfried had won from Schilbung and Nibelung, [the sons of King Nibelung] and deposits it in the Rhine to prevent her from raising an avenging army), she sets about to avenge her husband's death. Her first action to this end is the political marriage to King Etzel (Attila the Hun), a move which helps to rebuild her status but is regarded as an ideological dishonour, her new husband being a pagan. Later, her brother and his followers are invited to Etzel's kingdom in order to compete in the various courtly traditions of feasting and jousting, yet it is revealed to be a guise for an assassination for Gunther and Hagen. Nevertheless, they manage to abuse Etzel's hospitality with impunity until they go too far by slaying his child, and there ensues an enormous battle inside the hall, which is set alight by Kriemhild in the process. Gunther, Hagen, and their followers manage to defend themselves against insurmountable odds, until they are at last overcome by the Ostrogothic King Dietrich (Theodoric the Goth), who happens to be present at the festivities. He brings Hagen bound to Kriemhild, who personally strikes him dead — to the disgust of Dietrich's old companion-in-arms, Hildebrand, who slays her for striking down an unarmed man. Thus her bloody revenge is achieved at the cost of her own destruction.

Judging by the number of manuscripts, the poem was hugely popular in mediæval Germany. After The Renaissance, however, it lost favour and sank from view — to the point that, when the poem was rediscovered and published in a critical edition by Christoph Heinrich Müller, Frederick the Great, to whom Müller had dedicated it, famously remarked that the poem was "not worth a shot of powder" and that he wouldn't have such trash in his library. Nevertheless, the poem regained its stature in the Romantic era, and it is still regarded by many as Germany's national epic.

The Nibelungenlied is one of the sources for Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, though Wagner's work draws much more from Scandinavian sources; for instance, Wagner practically abandons the entire second half of the poem, and substantially ignores Kriemhild.

The epic has had a number of film adaptations, perhaps most notably Fritz Lang's two part, four and a half hour epic, Die Nibelungen (1924), starring Paul Richter as Siegfried and Margarete Schön as Kriemhild, which was highly faithful to the original epic and deliberately avoided Wagner's famous version. There's also the surprisingly popular if slightly cheesy 1966 remake directed by Harald Reinl and starring Olympic hammer-thrower Uwe Beyer as Siegfried; and the 2004 TV film Curse of the Ring (AKA Ring of the Nibelungs; Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King; The Nibelungs — The Curse of the Dragon; and The Sword of Xanten), directed by Uli Edel and starring Benno Fürmann as Siegfried.

The last named takes considerable liberties with the plot in order to emphasise a more consciously pagan agenda, which some may consider a reversal of what the Nibelungenlied represented to its own original material. On the other hand, the Lied's (possibly clerical) author himself had imposed Christianity rather awkwardly on a decidedly paganish story — as none other than Goethe once remarked, the Nibelung heroes seem to go to church largely in order to get into another fight.

Nibelungenlied provides examples of:

  • Achilles' Heel: Siegfried's shoulder, the only part of him which wasn't made invulnerable by the dragon's blood.
  • Anachronism Stew: In a manner common to many works of mediæval art and literature, characters are depicted in garb of the date of the manuscript, like the late Burgundian (ca. 1480-1490) costumes of the page illustration, rather than the 5th century costume appropriated to the historical King Gunthahari. People in The Middle Ages had an entirely different sense of historical accuracy.
    • Similarly, the characters that seem to correspond to historical figures (Etzel being Attila the Hun, Dietrich von Bern being Theodoric the Great, the latter being born a year after the former's death) do not share any conceivable time-frame.
  • Anyone Can Die: Just three men (Etzel, Dietrich von Bern, Hildebrand) survive.
  • Artistic License – Biology: Kriemhild finds out Hagen killed Siegfried through cruentation, an old belief that the body of the victim would spontaneously bleed in the presence of the murderer.
  • Bed Trick: The final stage of Siegried's winning of Brunhild for Gunther. Gunther's, Hagen's, and Kriemhild's suspicions about whether he went all the way or not lead to the succession of killings that make up the rest of the plot.
  • Best Her to Bed Her: Queen Brunhild will only marry a man who can defeat her in javelin-throwing, boulder-tossing and long jump.
  • Blood Bath: Siegfried becomes nearly invulnerable after bathing in the blood of the dragon — except for a spot on his shoulder that was covered by a leaf. Siegfried's blood bath predates the legends of Elizabeth Bathory (the Trope Maker) by over 500 years.
  • Blood Knight: Hagen and Hildebrand.
  • Bound and Gagged: Gunther's initial, failed, sexual advances on the night of his marriage to Brunhild end with him being overpowered, bound and suspended from a nail in the ceiling (famously depicted in Henry Fuseli's drawing of the scene). Subsequent critics have done little to downplay the various erotic implications of this scene.
  • Bowdlerise: Siegfried inexplicably taking Brunhild's girdle and ring "out of high spirits" after he subdues her so that Gunther can rape her, which causes Gunther, Kriemhild and Hagen to assume that he actually had sex with her, is a bowdlerisation of earlier Norse versions of the legend, in which they actually did have a previous relationship. Still counts as bowdlerisation by 13th-century standards, however abhorrent to contemporary views rape being considered morally preferable to adultery is.
  • Burning the Ships: After ferrying the entire Burgundian army across the Danube, Hagen hacks the boat to pieces and casts them into the river. Asked why he did that, he replies they will not need the boat again, and that he wishes any deserters who might turn back should drown in the river. A little later he reveals that three river-women have already predicted that they will all die in Hunland.
  • Canon Welding: As the original versions of the stories have been lost and had to be speculatively reconstructed by scholars from the evidence of the various German and Scandinavian versions, it is hard to tell, but it is quite clear that the Nibelungenlied is an amalgam of some quite different stories, and it is a matter of conjecture to decide when the welding of the elements occurred and which ones are to be attributed to the author of the Nibelungenlied. The story of the dragonslayer called Siegfried or Sigurd accounts for the first half of the main plot, and the originally unrelated story of the death of the Burgundian kings at the hands of the Huns and their king Atli (Attila) for the second. The welding necessitated some changes; thus, in the Scandinavian epics that contain just the Atli saga, the sister of Gunther, who is married to Atli, kills her husband to avenge her brothers. In the Nibelungenlied, Kriemhild kills her brother using the army of her second husband Etzel (Attila) to avenge the murder of her first husband Siegfried.
    • A canon welding that does seem to be the idea of the writer of the Nibelungenlied is the inclusion of Dietrich and his knights in the finale, which fuses the Nibelungen story to the cycle of epics about Dietrich of Bern (Theoderic the Great). In that cycle Attila was presented essentially as a sympathetic character and generous host, not the kind of treacherous and cold-blooded killer as in the Atli sagas.
  • Conflicting Loyalty: One of the main motifs of the epic. A quick overview of the major instances:
    • Kriemhild: Loyalty to her brothers vs. vengeance for her husband Siegfried.
    • Gunther: Blood Brotherhood & general indebtedness to his brother-in-law Siegfried vs. his beloved wife Brunhild's demand to have Siegfried killed to restore her honor. Then, Kriemhild's and Etzel's demand to turn in the killer Hagen vs. Gunther's loyalty to his vassal Hagen.
    • Etzel: Loyalty to his wife Kriemhild vs. the loyalty of a host to his invited guests, the Burgundians.
    • Rüdiger: Loyalty to his liege Etzel & his vow of allegiance to Kriemhild vs. loyalty to his recent guests and friends the Burgundians, and his daughter's fiancée Giselher.
    • Giselher: Loyalty to his sister Kriemhild & his intended father-in-law Rüdiger vs. loyalty to his brothers and Hagen.
  • The Consigliere: Hagen is the chief advisor to the Burgundian kings (as well as their single most competent and powerful vassal).
  • Conspicuous Consumption: The buhurt (spellings vary) is a jousting tournament in which the knights wear fine clothing instead of armor. Even with blunted lances, this clothing will usually be ripped to shreds, thereby demonstrating the knight's talent for conspicuous waste.
  • Crusading Widow: Kriemhild after Siegfried's murder.
  • Diagonal Cut: Hildebrand does this to Kriemhild in certain late MSS. of the poem.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Whoever the author of Nibelungenlied was, he (or she) must have enjoyed shocking the audience with streams of blood.
  • Death by Adaptation: Kriemhild's Norse counterpart Gudrun from the Völsunga saga survived the ordeal to get broken even more, thus resulting in two more rampages before she finally dies.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Siegfried, who gets killed halfway the work.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Kriemhild is sent on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge after Siegfried's death drives her to this.
  • Double Standard: Hildebrand kills Kriemhild because she killed Hagen, and neither Dietrich nor Etzel (Kriemhild's husband!) object or rebuke Hildebrand. No one cares about all the people Hagen killed, even though most of them were innocent. And while it's not okay for a woman to kill a man even if he deserved it, it is obviously okay for a man to kill a woman. In fact, Kriemhild's sudden death by Hildebrand is so ill-motivated that it can be regarded as a last-minute contrivance just to kill her off. The need to kill her off probably arose from the expectations of the audiences, who by the end of the poem would have seen her as a pure villainess who could not go unpunished.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Kriemhild foresaw Siegfried's death twice through dreams. First was way before the two met in a dream where she saw a falcon be torn a part by two eagles, and second was the day before he did die in a dream where he was chased by two boars over the heath and with the wildflowers there being dyed with blood.
  • Fantastic Medicinal Bodily Product: The hero Siegfried becomes invulnerable by bathing in a dragon's blood.
  • Give Me a Sword: An interesting variant: Hagen faces the heroic Rüdiger von Bechlarn, to whom he had previously sworn friendship . Hagen requests a shield, as his is broken, and Rüdiger offers his.
    • Since Hagen could easily have picked up a shield belonging to the many corpses lying around the hall, this has been interpreted as Hagen providing a way out of his Conflicting Loyalty dilemma. As Etzel's vassal, Rüdiger had to fight against the Burgundians, yet he had also sworn friendship to them when his daughter was betrothed to Gunther's brother Giselher, which entailed an obligation to aid them in a fight - which he now could fulfil by giving Hagen his shield.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: No single character is either truly good nor motivated by evil; the drama of the epic concerns the moral conflicts of each character attempting to fulfill their duties. Of course, plenty of their acts are unnecessarily malicious, motivated by vengeance, plain dishonest, or otherwise inviting violence.
  • Hat of Power: Almost everyone imagines the Tarnkappe (which grants its wearer invisibility) as such. However in the original the tarnkappe is not a hat but a cloak: since the Middle Ages, the word kappe (from Latin cappa) has shifted its meaning from "cape" to "cap".
  • Heel–Face Turn: An unusual example - everyone (except perhaps Siegfried) does either this or a Face–Heel Turn, as the first half of the epic is strongly sympathetic to Siegfried and Kriemhild, while the finale lionizes the Burgundians to such an extent that they appear heroic. Similarly Kriemhild goes from sympathetic victim of her family to blood crazed villainess.
  • Hero of Another Story: Dietrich and Hildebrand, both of whom are the main figures of their own eponymous epics.
  • Historical Domain Character: Though barely recognisable under the accretions of legend, Gunther (originally Gunthahari, king of Burgundians, killed by the Huns in 437 A.D.), his subordinate Hagen (real life Hogina), Etzel (the famous Attila the Hun, 406–453 A.D.), Dietrich von Bern (Theodoric the Great, 454–526 A.D.), and perhaps other characters as well, are all based on real historical figures — though not necessarily contemporaneous ones.
    • The theory that Siegfried and Brünhilde are based on the Merovingian Frankish king Sigebert I (died 575 A.D.) and his queen, the Visigoth princess Brunichild (died 613 A.D.) has now fallen out of favour, though. Another minority theory is that Siegfried is based on Arminius of the Cheruscii (also known as Herman the German), that the fight against the dragon started out as a metaphor for the defeat of the Roman army in the battle of the Teutoburg Forest (9 A.D.), and that "Siegfried" was actually (a corruption of) the Germanic name of the man the Romans called Arminius.
  • Hunting "Accident": What supposedly happened to Siegfried. Kriemhild is not fooled.
  • Instrument of Murder: Volker the Minstrel is so named because of his use of a sword that doubles as a violin bow.
  • Invisibility Cloak: The Tarnkappe (aptly translatable as "camouflage cape") that Siegfried takes from the dwarf Alberich and uses to defeat Brunhild. Its whereabouts after the death of Siegfried are unknown.
  • Kick the Dog: Hagen kills a grumpy old ferryman merely to get his boat. Though Hagen personally may interpret it as Shoot the Dog. Then, he tries to murder Gunther's chaplain out of spite, because the chaplain was foretold to be the only Burgundian to survive the trip to the Hunland. Later, he kills Etzel and Kriemhild's son in front of them, after Hun knights had attacked Burgundian squires on Kriemhild's orders. Hagen has a thing for this trope.
  • Last Villain Stand: The last stand of the Nibelungs in Etzel's burning hall.
  • Locked Out of the Loop: Poor king Etzel appears to be the only character who doesn't know Kriemhild is plotting murder in his feast. He doggedly believes he's making her happy by inviting her dear brothers to visit her, and even offers his son to be fostered in Burgundy. Moments later, the Burgundians kill said son...
  • The Low Middle Ages
  • Manly Tears: Dietrich's vengeful rampage which terminates Gunther and Hagen's valiant perseverance is preceded by this trope. Previously reluctant to enter battle, he learns that several family members and also countless retainers of his have been slain and sheds a great many before setting about to avenge their deaths.
  • Marital Rape License: Gunther and Brunhild's second, "successful", wedding night.
  • Mutual Kill: Wolfhart and Giselher, as well as Rüdiger and Gernot.
  • Named Weapons: Balmung, Siegfried's sword (later appropriated by Hagen). Also Waske, Iring's sword.
  • Nasty Party: What Etzel's shindig turns into, thanks to the inveterate hatred of Kriemhild and Hagen.
  • Nigh-Invulnerability: Siegfried's skin became impenetrable when he bathed in the blood of the dragon — except for the spot on his shoulder.
  • Obviously Evil: In illustrations and movies, Hagen will almost invariably be dressed in an all-black outfit, including black armor, a black cape and (very often) a ridiculous winged helmet, all of which he will hardly ever take off. This appearance, worthy of a cartoon villain, seems to have originated with illustrators of the 19th century and has little basis in the original text.
  • Perspective Flip: Basically the Völsunga saga told from Krimhild's point of view.
  • Prophecy Twist: Some Nixes tell Hagen that only the chaplain accompanying the Nibelungs will return home, so when he ferries them over, he throws the chaplain into the Danube in an attempt to drown him. However, the chaplain safely makes it back to the northern shore and returns to Worms.
  • Revenge: Essentially a dark, pitiless exploration of the lengths one has to go to and the lines one has to cross to conduct revenge.
  • Sacred Hospitality: Observed more in breach than anything else. The expectation of it is important, however, as it explains many of the characters' reactions, such as on the one hand certain characters' reluctance to oppose guests even after they start causing mayhem, and on the other hand some characters' extreme reactions to Kriemhild's revenge plot.
    • Hagen murders Siegfried while he's visiting Worms for a feast.
    • Kriemhild summons the Burgundians to a feast to kill them all.
    • Rüdeger very nearly breaks his vow to serve Kriemhild, because he had brought the Burgundians to Etzel's castle under his protection, and turning against them in this situation was extremely shameful for him.
    • Earlier in the story, during the time Gunther, Siegfried, Hagen and Dankwart spend in Iceland while Gunther was proposing to Brunhild, they feared she might have them killed, but after Siegfried summons the Nibelungs' knights, no one dares threaten them.
  • Spared by the Adaptation:
    • The mermaids who predict to Hagen the incoming slaughter. In the original version, Hagen kills them out of anger.
    • Brunhild is last mentioned when Gunther leaves Worm to go to Etzel. In the Norse version, she commits suicide, but the German poet knew that would have been too shocking for his audience.
  • Super-Strength: Most of the leading characters, though none more so than Siegfried and Brunhild.
  • Take Up My Sword: Kriemhild avenged Siegfried's death by using his sword Balmung to kill Hagen.
  • A Taste of Their Own Medicine: The Hun knights who attack the Burgundian squires tell Dankwart that they're going to kill him and dump his corpse at his brother Hagen's feet to let Hagen know the grief of seeing family members slain (in resemblance of the earlier scene where Siegfried's corpse was left for Kriemhild and her maids to find). Dankwart proves a bit too hard to kill, however.
  • Tears of Blood: Kriemhild weeps them after Siegfried's murder.
  • Undying Loyalty: Hagen to Gunther and later also Brunhild; the root of his endless hatred for Kriemhild is that Kriemhild made Brunhild cry. (In German, even the trope namer: "Nibelungentreue". Fell out of fashion due to abuse by Those Wacky Nazis and is used exclusively as a negative since.)
  • Untranslated Title: The poem has no title in the manuscripts. The modern title is drawn from the last line of the poem, which in the earliest surviving manuscripts reads, Daz ist der Nibelunge liet — "That is the song of the Nibelungs." However, other manuscripts, though not so old themselves, are believed to preserve an older, more correct reading, Diz ist der Nibelunge not — so the correct title should perhaps be, The Doom of the Nibelungs.
  • Virgin Power: Queen Brunhild has superhuman strength, but only so long as she stays a virgin.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Several characters have problems with Kriemhild's planned revenge, which spills out on thousands of more or less innocent people. Most notably Giselher asks her why he too must die in Etzel's feast, despite always having been on Kriemhild's side.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: By the beginning of the first part, Kriemhild is a tender and meek Princess Classic. By the end of the second part, she is a merciless angel of vengeance who has sacrificed thousands of lives, extirpated her own clan, ruined a kingdom and heavily decimated another in her quest for justice.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Hagen has no qualms to decapitate Kriemhild's and Etzel's son, the six-year-old Ortlieb.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Some mermaids living in the Danube tell Hagen that only the chaplain accompanying the Burgundians will return home, so when Hagen ferries the Burgundian army across the Danube, he throws the chaplain overboard to drown to thwart the prophecy. However, the chaplain can swim and makes it back to the shore, thus assuring Hagen that the prophecy was right and that they are all doomed.