The Nibelungenlied:
A Romance of Disaster and Death

By Gabriel Blanchard

Romance; treachery; vengeance; many unpronounceable names: here we have the ingredients of high epic.

The Nibelungenlied, or Song of the Nibelungs, is one of the seminal works of German literature. In many respects—its period of origin, its elegiac mood, its high cultural stature, and its many retellings—the material is like the Arthurian cycle; but the matter of Britain is lightened by the touch of Faërie, and brightened by the presence of the Holy Graal. The tale of the fortunes and ultimate ruin of the Nibelungs will not be thus leavened, in the name of either whimsy or piety. Its only touch is steel, its light fire, and the red drink it holds is not the Precious Blood.

The story originates with the ancient rulers of the Kingdom of Burgundy, one of the many players in the hopelessly complex fifth-century game Who Wrecked the Roman Empire? Burgundy was destroyed by the Roman general Aëtius with the help of Hun mercenaries in 436; less than twenty years later, the surviving Burgundians (now Roman foederati, something between subjects and allies) fought alongside Aëtius at the Battle of Châlons to stop the advance of Attila the Hun, and won.* Not long thereafter, Attila died in bed: the latest of his many brides, a girl named Hildico, was rumored to have killed him, but a Roman historian relates that in reality he over-drank during the festivities, had a nosebleed while he slept, and choked to death on the blood—quite the ironic and ignominious death for a warlord.

In any case, it is from this core that the Germanic peoples of central and northern Europe spun a tale that outstripped the history. The Nibelungenlied proper was composed around the year 1200, possibly in or near Passau, a Bavarian city on the borders of Austria. The text became a major influence on European literature. Richard Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen is a direct adaptation; J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictitious history, The Silmarillion (the background to The Lord of the Rings), shows many resemblances to the tale of the Nibelungs in characters, plot, and elegiac tone.

Unluckily, it is not the most familiar work of literature nowadays! This is partly thanks to the plot, which is quite a complicated one with several revelations and reversals. That plot is as follows, with a few abridgments.†

After an ominous dream, the Burgundian princess Kriemhild‡ (sister of the king, Gunther) decides in youth never to marry. But a prince from the nearby realm of Xanten comes south to Burgundy to befriend the king. This is Siegfried, owner of the reputedly cursed hoard of the Nibelungs§; by bathing in the blood of a dragon he slew, Siegfried has become like Achilles, with just one vulnerable spot. Despite the surly opposition of Hagen, a vassal of Gunther’s, Siegfried does meet and fall in love with Kriemhild, and she with him.

... Troumte Chriemhilde
Wie si zuge einen valchen starch scoen unt wilde
Den ir zwene aren erchrummen daz si daz muoste sehn ...

... Kriemhild dreamt
She reared a falcon, strong and fair and wild;
But as she looked on, two eagles did tear it ...

Siegfried agrees to help Gunther win the hand of Queen Brünhilde of Iceland—if Gunther in turn promises him the hand of Kriemhild, which he does. The Queen of Iceland possesses magical strength, and has declared she will accept no suitor who cannot outmatch her. To allay suspicion, Siegfried pretends to be Gunther’s vassal; using an invisibility cloak that also bestows the strength of twelve men on the wearer, the pair deceive Brünhilde into thinking Gunther has won her challenges (when in truth he has had Siegfried invisibly aiding him). She consents to marry Gunther, and so, Samson-like, loses her magical strength. Kriemhild then gives up her youthful resolution, and she and Siegfried are married as well. But not all is well, for Queen Brünhilde now-of-Burgundy has a strange intuition that she has been somehow deceived, and that it has something to do with Siegfried.

Years later, a dispute over precedence erupts between Brünhilde and Kriemhild, due to the men’s lies about Siegfried’s rank (lies neither woman was aware of). Thus Brünhilde finally unravels the deceit, and is utterly humiliated. Hagen takes it upon himself to avenge the honor of the king and his queen by killing Siegfried; for the sake of their friendship, Gunther tries at first to resist the plan, but eventually he acquiesces. Hagen accomplishes the murder by pretending to Kriemhild that he is going to guard him in battle—and thus persuading her to disclose his single vulnerable spot. Afterwards, Kriemhild discovers the truth, and vows to avenge Siegfried in turn. She tries to raise an army with the Nibelungs’ treasure, but Hagen steals it, and her plans must be put on hold.

More years pass. King Etzel of Hungary proposes to Kriemhild. She accepts, and when their first child is born, she invites the court of Burgundy to attend the baptism. Despite Hagen’s misgivings, Gunther accepts. When they arrive, Queen Kriemhild publicly reproaches Hagen with his theft and murder, but he only brags of them in reply. Then fighting breaks out between the Hunnish and Burgundian soldiers, and Hagen murders Kriemhild’s young son in her presence. The Burgundians take control of the great hall but are besieged by the Huns. The queen offers her brothers escape, if only they will hand Hagen over; Gunther, whose vows as the suzerain demand that he protect his vassal, refuses; and Kriemhild orders the hall to be burned, with her Burgundian relatives inside.

Gunther and Hagen alone survive. Kriemhild has her brother beheaded and brandishes his head at Hagen, demanding to know where the hoard is, at least; Hagen keeps silence. The enraged queen decapitates Hagen with her own hand. A noble, sickened by her treachery to both her kindred and her guests, then kills Kriemhild, leaving King Etzel and his court to lament the fallen heros and warriors, Hunnish and Burgundian alike.

Comparisons with Game of Thrones rise to modern lips unbidden—even though, logically, it is Game of Thrones which we ought to compare to the Nibelungenlied. But, to do any justice at all to the legacy of this epic that descends to us out of the blackness of time, we must go forward …

Go here for Part II, “The Legacy of the Nibelungenlied.”

*Purely for inconvenience, the name Burgundy refers to three distinct places—the ancient kingdom, a Medieval county, and a Medieval duchy—none of which cover quite the same territory. History does not relate whether there were objections to the rapidly shifting alliances, the Battle of Châlons itself, or anything else, on the specific ground that these partner-swaps and name games were going to make them all look terribly silly in a few hundred years.
†Due to the varied languages in which the story is told, a short dramatis personæ may be useful, even in such a short piece. Shown here are the standard Medieval German names for the chief characters, followed by the Norse names:
Kriemhild/Gudrun, a Burgundian princess (possibly loosely based on Hildico, Attila’s final bride, and Queen Fredegund, wife of the grandson of Clovis)
Gunther/Gunnar, brother of Kriemhild and King of Burgundy (loosely based on Gundahar, the last king of Burgundy)
Siegfried/Sigurd, a heroic prince and owner of the “hoard of the Nibelungs”
Hagen/Högni, a highly protective vassal of Gunther’s
Brünhilde/Brynhild, the Queen of Iceland (possibly based on the Frankish queen Brunhilda of Austrasia)
Etzel/Atli, the King of the Huns and second husband of Kriemhild (loosely based on Attila the Hun)
‡This name is occasionally altered in English to Grimhilde (with the final e pronounced, but short—same vowel as in the word egg). Though often called simply “the evil Queen,” the villain of Snow White was named “Grimhilde” in early drafts of the film.
§Despite their thematic importance, who or what the Nibelungs are is not clear in every version of the tale. In some versions they are a human dynasty (sometimes they are themselves the royal house of Burgundy); later tellings often make the Nibelungs a house or race of dwarves.


Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s non-Burgundian editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD, with his collection of non-magical non-cloak items.

If this piece was of interest to you, you might also enjoy our introductions to Magna Carta, Bartolomé de Las Casas, and Hans Christian Andersen, or to the history of ideas like honor, philosophy, and the soul. Thank you for reading the Journal, and enjoy your day.

Published on 31st July, 2023. Page image of a woodcut by Edward Burne-Jones; created in 1898 for a limited edition of William Morris’s book The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs (which uses the Norse names), it depicts Gudrun setting fire to the hall of Atli.

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