The Legacy of the Nibelungenlied
By Gabriel Blanchard
What legacy is there to utter destruction? As it turns out, if it has a poet on its side, quite a substantial one.
Go here for Part I, which gives an outline of the historical background from which the Nibelungenlied was drawn and outlines the plot.
With Etzel’s hall duly burnt and nearly all the principals dead, we may feel satisfied that the story is over. But of course great books, while they have endings, do not simply disappear. They linger among us, both in themselves unveiled and in the ways other authors are shaped by them; a favorite metaphor of the postmodern novelist and scholar Umberto Eco is that “books talk among themselves.”
In its own right, so to speak, the Nibelungenlied is one of the foremost works in German and Scandinavian literature proper, and has influenced the literature of almost all Germanic languages. (English is a curious exception to this trend; this is probably due to the higher influence of classical Roman and Greek material, which would have reached the British Isles early through direct Roman rule and been reinforced by the heavy Medieval influence of French culture upon England.) The plot of the Nibelungenlied is itself pretty sensational, so its popularity is easy to explain. Indeed, several other important versions of the tale exist, some of which contain elements independent of the Nibelungelied proper. The Poetic Edda is one of the most important compilations of Old Norse poetry and mythology, containing some material that dates as far back as the ninth century; it includes a number of lays dealing with Sigurd and Gudrun.* Some provide earlier background information, like the Fáfnismál, which recounts Sigurd slaying the dragon Fáfnir and taking his hoard of gold—though the dragon warns him as it lies dying that the treasure is cursed. Others give very different accounts of the history, all about equally removed from historical fact. Guðrúnarkviða hin forna† or “The Old Lay of Gudrun” is noteworthy both as being probably the oldest poem of the Sigurd cycle contained in the Edda, and as following an extremely different plot. For instance, the mother of Gunnar and Gudrun, the Burgundian dowager Grimhild, plays a role in this version: she extracts a weregild‡ to Gudrun for Sigurd’s death from her sons, gives Gudrun a potion of forgetfulness to relieve her grief, and joins her sons in compelling Gudrun to marry Atli. There is also a fifteenth-century German ballad, Das Lied vom Hürmen Seyfrid (“The Song of Horn-Skinned Siegfried”), which concentrates on Siegfried’s adventures and preserves several plot points lost in the epic. In this version, Siegfried was actually expelled from his father’s court for misconduct, rather than simply happening to wander south to Burgundy; he did not simply slay one dragon in his youth, but a whole thunder§ of them; Hagen is not merely Gunther’s vassal, but actually the brother of Gunther and Kriemhild; and what motivated Kriemhild to forsake her earlier resolve never to marry at all was, at least in part, that she was carried off by a dragon which Siegfried himself rescued her from and slew.
The Nibelungenlied did remarkably well in its day, a fate great works of literature do not always get to enjoy. It seems to have spawned a whole genre of Medieval German epic poetry; like modern “fan fiction,” many focused on unanswered questions or minor characters from the text (one great favorite being Dietrich von Born, a character about as minor in the epic as Horatio is in Hamlet). However, popular taste changed during the Renaissance, and after a career of three hundred years and more, it goes unmentioned even by scholars after the 1560s.
Another two centuries passed, like Kriemhild biding her time between Hagen’s theft of the treasure and the marriage proposal from Etzel. Then, the Nibelungenlied made a dramatic comeback, being republished for the first time in 1755. That its, the fact that it made a comeback is dramatic; it was not met with universal acclaim by any means. The famously cultured Frederick the Great of Prussia, in response to this new publication being dedicated to him, hated it so much that he penned a shockingly rude reply to the publisher, saying that he “would not endure such wretched stuff” in his library, and even signing himself “Your formerly gracious king”!
Then again, one hardly trusts the taste of a man who flavored his coffee with mustard. Notwithstanding an unpromising start, the epic slowly gathered newfound strength among the readers of modernity. The Romantics embraced the Nibelungenlied wholeheartedly, as did German nationalists in the nineteenth century, particularly the composer and librettist Richard Wagner. His cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen is one of the most familiar examples of opera in the world, and has codified opera in the imaginations of millions—though not always as Wagner would perhaps have wished. One selection from it, “The Ride of the Valkyries,” has become a classic theme in film, especially animation, for any person or event whose defining trait is ridiculous pompousness. Ironically, since he was not even aiming to adapt the story, J. R. R. Tolkien succeeded better: without directly reproducing any of the events of the epic, anyone who knows even its outline and then turns to the grim beauties of The Silmarillion—the hopeless duel of High King Fingolfin against Morgoth, the vile mutual loyalty of the Fëanorians, the irrevocable loss of Beleriand—will assuredly taste the ancient Burdgundian steel that gave rise to it.
But the mention of Wagner leads us to another sad turn, and a fairly recent one historically speaking, in the epic’s fate. Like many of the best aspects of German culture, the Nazi Party seized upon both Der Ring des Nibelungen and the Nibelungenlied, but they did something far worse to the epic poem than write rude letters about, worse even than banning it: they adored it. Hitler persistently compared the 1918 armistice to the murder of Siegfried, calling it “the stab in the back” (for which he blamed the usual suspects), and marshaling its heroic, warlike ethos against the idea of democracy.
Yet this too saw a delightful reversal. The Nazis proved unable to understand the epic they had misappropriated. In his essay “First and Second Things,” C. S. Lewis, a devotee of Wagner, crowed with glee on learning in 1942 that the Nazis had declared Hagen (and not Siegfried!) the true symbol of “the Nordic spirit”:
It was a bitter moment when the Nazis took over my treasure and made it part of their ideology. But now all is well. They have proved unable to digest it. They can retain it only by standing the story on its head and making one of the minor villains the hero. … What business have people who call might right to say they are worshippers of Odin? The whole point about Odin was that he had the right but not the might. The whole point about Norse religion was that it alone of all mythologies told men to serve gods who were admittedly fighting with their backs to the wall and would certainly be defeated in the end. … The gods will fall. The wisdom of Odin, the humorous courage of Thor (Thor was something of a Yorkshireman) and the beauty of Balder will all be smashed eventually by the realpolitik of the stupid giants … But that does not in the least alter the allegiance of any free man.
*LEADING CHARACTERS (German tradition, or Norse tradition)
⋅ Siegfried of Xanten, or Sigurd the Völsung. Possibly based on Sigebert I, King of Austrasia (a realm centered in the modern Rhineland) and husband of Brunhilda (reassigned to Gunther in the story).
⋅ Kriemhild, or Gudrun. Wife first of Siegfried and later of Etzel, possibly based on Ildico, the final wife of Attila the Hun, and Fredegund, queen consort of Chilperic I, Sigebert’s brother and King of Neustria (centered in modern Normandy).
⋅ Gunther, or Gunnar. King of the Burgundians and brother of Kriemhild; possibly based on Gundahar, the last king of ancient Burgundy (centered in modern Switzerland).
⋅ Brünhilde, or Brynhild. At first Queen of Iceland (there regnant), later wife of Gunther and Queen of the Burgundians; possibly based on Brunhilda of Austrasia (a princess from the Arian realm of Visigothic Spain, who became a Catholic on marrying Sigebert I).
⋅ Hagen, or Högni. A loyal vassal of Gunther, called “of Tronje” in the story; Tronje may be a fictional location, a slight garbling of a real city (candidates include the Roman city of Ulpia Traiana, the Belgian city of Drongen, or the German city of Dhronecken), or an epithet meaning “of Troy”
⋅ Etzel, or Atli. King of the Huns or of Hungary, based on Attila the Hun (whose realm covered most of Eastern Europe north of the River Danube)
†The letter ð (eth), still used in Scandinavian countries, normally indicates what linguists call the “voiced dental fricative,” i.e. the th-sound in these clothes. The sound and the letter are often transcribed as dh (a convention adopted by Tolkien for his Elvish languages). So if you want to use the original pronunciation for the title Guðrúnarkviða, you will not be far off if you say it goodh-roon-ar-kwee-dha heen for-na, with slightly trilled r‘s.
‡A weregild (literally “man-price”) was the fine a murderer had to pay to the relatives of the victim, in ancient Germanic law. The first element, wer, is also preserved in the word werewolf; it is cognate with the Latin vir. Gild or geld meant “payment, cost, tax”; it is not related to gold, but the verb yield.
§Thunder is apparently the most-accepted term for a group of dragons (like bevy for quail).
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
If you’d like to read more about the history and influence of the great books, take a look at our two-part introduction to Frederick Douglass, our profiles of Mary Shelley and John Milton, or this CLT student’s essay on Edmund Spenser. Thank you for reading the Journal.
Published on 1st August, 2023.