Thursday, March 15, 2012
The title of "Nibelungenlied" is quite a mouthful to say aloud. Nearly as complex is its story, woven together from two independent and loosely related sources. The first half relates the story of Siegfried wooing his future wife, Kriemhild. In order to secure her hand in marriage, he has to help Kriemhild's brother, King Gunther, woo his own infatuation, Brunhild, Queen of Iceland.
In order for Gunther to gain Brunhild's permission for marriage, Gunther must beat the incredibly strong Brunhild in a series of strength tests so difficult that only one man could pass: Siegfried. So Siegfried dons his cloak of invisibility and lends a hand to Gunther. With the aid of his friend, Gunther is able to win the fearsome yet stunning Brunhild as his bride. They sail back to Gunther's homeland and have a double wedding ceremony: Gunther and Brunhild alongside Siegfried and Kriemhild.
Marriage problems arise early on for Gunther and Brunhild. The source of Brunhild's incredible strength is her virginity, and in order for Gunther to consummate his marriage, he must overcome Brunhild by force. It is her final test to ensure her husband is the worthy man she requires. After being tied up all night by his new wife, Gunther again enlists the help of Siegfried, who in the guise of his invisibility cloak, holds Brunhild down so that Gunther may finally consummate his marriage (in the original source, it is likely that Siegfried himself deflowered the new queen). Unbeknownst to Gunther or Brunhild, Siegfried take one of Brunhild's rings, a symbol of her virginity, and gifts it to his own new bride.
Everything is going fine, except that Brunhild erroneously believes Siegfried to be Gunther's vassal (for that is how he was introduced to Brunhild during the contest for her hand in marriage), and she is appalled at how Siegfried and his wife do not show enough honor and respect to Gunther and Brunhild. It finally erupts into a public arguement between the two wives, each fighting for respect and honor for their own husband. Kriemhild, in full view of everyone around, displays the ring that Siegfried gave her, showing the court that Gunther was not man enough to consummate his marriage by himself.
Shamed, Brunhild begs Gunther to avenge her dishonor by killing Siegfried, the man who was responsible for saving Gunther's kingdom and winning Gunther his bride. Gunther finally concedes, and helps to ambush Siegfried while they are on a hunting party. Hagen, one of Gunther's best men, had previously tricked Kriemhild into revealing the one spot on Siegfried's body where his skin was not impenetrable.
Kriemhild is overcome with grief and every thought is consumed with getting revenge for her fallen husband. Eventually, she is approached by a powerful king named Etzel. History better knows him as Attila the Hun. His first wife has died, and he has heard that Kriemhild's beauty is surpassed by none. Finally, she agrees and leaves her Germanic homeland for that of Poland. While there, she rules well, but is still consumed with revenge. She is able to trick her brothers and Hagen into coming to Poland. While there, she entices one of her vassals to slaughter the squires of Gunther and his knights; she also manipulates her son into striking Hagen. In retaliation, Hagen decapitates the boy, and with the prince brutally executed in front of everyone, all out war begins. King Etzel's forces are completely outdone; their superior numbers mean nothing. Finally Dietrich, a displaced Gothic king, comes to Etzel's aid and finally captures the two remaining foes: Gunther and Hagen. He delivers them bound to Etzel. Kriemhild, out of enraged over her lost treasure and murder of her first husband, decapitates her brother Gunther. She brings his head to Hagen, whom she then decapitates. Furious at the shameful treatment of guests, Hildebrand, mentor of Dietrich, kills Kriemhild, thus completing the cycle of vengeance and murder.
"Nibelungenlied" is a fairly long poem, longer than Beowulf--the classic by which most other Teutonic epics are compared to. It is a very finely polished poem, though there are areas where you can see the final author debating between tradition and plot element which his Christian audience will not find offensive, such as whether or not Siegfried raped Brunhild and Kriemhild knowingly throwing her son's life away to start a fight with Hagen.
It is a masterpiece to be sure, but there are a few places where the story lags. That's really my only criticism of the piece. Anyone interested in medieval Germanic literature beyond that of Beowulf will find this entertaining. If Beowulf is not to your liking, however, then you will probably find this rather boring.
"Nibelungenlied" has been compared to a German Iliad for its portrayal of ancient, semi-forgotten mythical characters. This story was the basis for Wagner's famous Ring Cycle. In my opinion, it's worth the read.