1902 Encyclopedia > Nibelungenlied


NIBELUNGENLIED, or NIBELUNGE NOT, a great epic poem written in a Middle High German dialect. The story told in this poem belonged in its primitive form to the whole Teutonic race, and was composed originally of purely mythological elements. It is touched upon in Beowulf, and forms the most important subject of the old Norse poems, in which it is presented in fragments,—the poets having apparently assumed that the tale as a whole was known to every one, and that their hearers would be able to put each incident in its proper place. It is also set forth in the prose Edda and in the Thidrekssaga, which belongs to the 13th century. The substance of the story in its Norse form is as follows. Beside a waterfall the three Anses—Odin, Loki, and Honir—see an otter devour-ing a salmon. They kill it, and taking its skin with them seek shelter for the night in the house of Bodmar. He recognizes the skin as that of his son Otter, and demands that as much gold as is necessary to cover it shall be de-livered to him as " wergild." In a net Loki catches the dwarf Andwari in the shape of a p>ike, and compels him to pay for his ransom a great treasure, which covers the whole of the skin except one hair. In order to cover this hair Loki takes from the dwarf a magic ring which breeds gold, and Andwari, enraged, curses the hoard. His curse attends it to the last, and begins to operate immediately, for Bodmar, who claims for himself the whole of the "weregild," is slain by his sons, Fafnirand Begin. Fafnir takes possession of the hoard, and in the form of a snake guards it on Glistenheath. Begin, indignant at being deprived of his share, calls to his aid Sigurd, a young hero for whom he makes the sharp sword Gram ; and, armed with Gram, Sigurd goes to Glistenheath and kills Fafnir. While Sigurd is roasting Fafnir's heart, which Begin has cut out, the fat dropping into the fire burns his finger, and putting the hurt part into his mouth, he finds that he has suddenly obtained the power of understanding the language of birds. He thus learns that Begin intends to act treacherously towards him. Sigurd therefore slays Begin, and rides away with the hoard in two bundles on his horse Grani. In a house on a hill he finds the Walkyrie Brunhild in an enchanted sleep, from which she awakes, and plights her troth to Sigurd, who loves her ardently. Coming to the court of Giuki, a king of the Bhineland, Sigurd forms a friendship with Giuki's sons, Gunnar, Hogni, and Guthorm. Gudrun, Giuki's daughter, being fascinated by the stranger, gives him an enchanted drink which causes him to forget Brunhild, and then he and Gudrun are married. Gunnar wishes to make Brunhild his wife, and asks Sigurd to go with him in quest of her. Flames encompass her tower; and she will accept as her husband only the hero who shall succeed in riding through them. Gunnar makes the attempt in vain ; but Sigurd, mounted on Grani, has no difficulty in passing to Brun-hild, with whom he exchanges rings, giving her the ring of the dwarf Andwari. Sigurd, however, has assumed the form of Gunnar, and Brunhild supposes that it is by Gunnar she has been won. All of them return to Giuki's court, Sigurd having taken his own form again, and Brunhild having become Gunnar's wife. Here a quarrel breaks out between Brunhild and Gudrun, the former contending that Sigurd's, position is inferior to that of her husband, while Gudrun retorts by telling her rival that it was Sigurd who rode through the flames. Brunhild, maddened by jealousy, in-cites Guthorm, Gunnar's brother, to murder Sigurd; and twice Guthorm glides into Sigurd's chamber to accomplish her will, but departs when he finds Sigurd awake and gazing at him with flashing eyes. The third time Sigurd is asleep, and Guthorm stabs him. Sigurd, before dying, has just strength enough to throw his sword after the murderer, whom it cuts in two. Brunhild laughs at the desolation she has wrought, but all the time she has loved Sigurd, and she kills herself with the sword that has slain him, and is burned with him on his pyre. By and by Gudrun takes as her second husband Atli, Brunhild's brother, king of the Huns. Atli asks her brothers, Gunnar and Hogni,. to visit him; and, notwithstanding her warnings, they accept his invitation. He demands of them Sigurd's hoard, which he claims as Gudrun's pro-perty; but before leaving home they have buried it beneath the Bhine, and they refuse to say where it is con-cealed. After a fierce contest in which all the followers of Gunnar and Hogni fall, Atli renews his demand, promising to spare Gunnar's life if he will reveal the secret. Gunnar declines to do so until he sees the heart of his brother Hogni. The heart of a slave is laid before him, but he declares that it cannot be Hogni's, since it quakes. Hogni's heart is then cut out, the victim laughing in the midst of his pain; but Gunnar is still resolute, proclaim-ing that he alone knows where the hoard is, and that no one shall share the knowledge with him. His hands being bound, he is put into the court of serpents, where he plays so sweetly on a harp with his toes that he charms all the reptiles except an adder, by which he is stung to death. Gudrun avenges the murder of her brothers by killing the sons she has borne to Atli, and causing him unwittingly to drink their blood and eat their hearts. In the night she kills Atli himself, burns his hall, and leaps into the sea, by the waves of which she is carried to new scenes, where she has adventures not connected with those recorded in the Nibelungenlied.

The tale of which this is one version, pieced together from many poetical fragments, assumed different forms until it was put into its final shape in the Nibelungenlied. The heroine of the German poem is Kriemhild, who repre-sents Gudrun. She lives at Worms, the capital of the Burgundian kingdom, with her brothers Gunther, Gemot, and Giselher, of whom the eldest, Gunther, is king of the Burgundians. To Worms comes Siegfried (an older form than Sigurd), the son of Siegemund and Siegelind, the king and queen of the Netherlands. Siegfried possesses the magic hoard, but he does not obtain it as Sigurd obtains it in the Norse form of the tale. He takes it from two princes of Nibelungen-land, to whom it has been bequeathed by their father, King Nibelung. Quarrelling as to their respective shares, they appeal to Siegfried to decide between them; and he, irritated by their unreasonableness, kills them and seizes the treasure, together with the sword Balmung and the Tarnkappe, or cloak of darkness, which renders the wearer invisible and gives him the power of twelve men. Although this is how the hoard comes into his hands, he is still represented as slaying a dragon, in whose blood he bathes, being thus rendered invulnerable except in one spot between the shoulders, on which a leaf fails before the blood is dry. At the Burgundian court Siegfried wins the hand of Kriemhild; but before their marriage he establishes a claim to the gratitude of King Gunther, the lover of Brunhild, the young and stalwart queen of Iceland, who requires that any one wishing to be her husband shall surpass her in thrse games. Gunther and Siegfried with their followers sail to Iceland; and with the aid of Siegfried, who during the trial of skill and vigour makes himself invisible by donning the Tarnkappe, Gunther overcomes the powerful maid. On the night of the wedding Brunhild scoffs at Gunther, struggles with him, binds him, and lets him hang on the wall ignominiously until the morning. Next night, with-out the knowledge of Brunhild, Siegfried goes to the help of his friend, and as a token of his conquest takes her ring and girdle, after which she is incapable of giving Gunther further trouble. Siegfried and Kriemhild then go to the Netherlands, where they live for some years in perfect happiness and with great splendour, the Nibelungen hoard being sufficient to provide them with the means of lavish display. Invited to visit the Burgundian court, they quit Santen, the capital of the Netherlands and Siegfried's birthplace, and, attended by a brilliant retinue, make for Worms. Up to this point the tone of the poem is bright and cheerful; we now begin to see the working of tragic forces which from petty complications lead to strife and disaster. Brunhild, who is of a proud and sullen temper, has always shown bitter animosity towards Siegfried, whom she is represented as recognizing when they meet in Iceland. She insalts Kriemhild by vaunting the superior greatness of Gunther, and by claiming precedence. Kriemhild resents these pretensions, and in an animated scene before the cathedral of Worms asserts her right to enter first with her attendants. The quarrel becoming furious, Kriemhild pretends that Siegfried had taken an unfair advantage of Brunhild on the night when he had fought with her in her bridal chamber, and produces the girdle and ring (of the seizure of which Brunhild had been unconscious) as evidences of her disgrace. In vain Siegfried tries to restore harmony by rebuking his wife for this malicious invention: Brunhild is too deeply wounded to forgive so bitter a wrong, and meditates a fearful vengeance. At last she decides that Siegfried shall die ; and Hagen, one of Gunther's bravest warriors, under-takes to do her bidding. Inducing Kriemhild to tell him where her husband is vulnerable, he achieves his purpose during a hunting expedition, from which Kriemhild, warned by a dream, has entreated Siegfried to stay away. Kriemhild is overwhelmed with grief and rage, and the rest of the story relates chiefly to her thirst for revenge, and the manner in which she slakes it., For thirteen years she remains quietly at Gunther's court. Then Biidiger, margrave of Bechlaren, appears as the ambassador of Etzel (Attila), king of the Huns, and entreats Kriemhild to be-come Etzel's wife. She consents, and again thirteen years pass without any important incident. At the end of that time Gunther and his followers are invited by Etzel and Kriemhild to the land of the Huns; and, despite super-natural intimations and Hagen's presentiments, they resolve to go. The ultimate result is that in a terrible conflict the Burgundian visitors are destroyed. When all of them have fallen save Gunther and Hagen, these survivors are overcome by Dietrich, a resident at Etzel's court, and delivered by him to Etzel and Kriemhild. The closing scenes are complicated by reference to the hoard of the Nibelungen, wdiich had been taken after Siegfried's death by Gunther as Kriemhild's brother. In virtue of his pos-session of it he and his people are called Nibelungen; but he possesses it only in name, for Hagen, who had brought it to Worms, fearing that it would work evil, had buried it (as Gunnar and Hogni are represented to have done) beneath the Bhine. Kriemhild commands Hagen to reveal its resting-place, but he answers that he has sworn not to tell the secret as long as the king lives. The head of Gunther being exhibited to him, he still refuses; where-upon, snatching the sword Balmung, which Hagen has used since Siegfried's death, Kriemhild rids herself of her enemy by beheading him. Immediately afterwards she herself is killed by Hildebrand, a Hunnish warrior, who is. horrified by her savage cruelty.

Many elements embodied in the Norse rendering of the primitive tale are retained in the Nibelungenlied; and, indeed, it is impossible to understand the latter thoroughly without reference to the former. For instance, the recognition of Siegfried by Brunhild in Iceland, and her misery in beholding his happiness with Kriemhild, are unintelligible until we know that Siegfried and Brunhild are supposed to have been lovers before the action of the poem begins. Again, we cease to be puzzled by the malign power of the hoard only when we learn how an evil fatality has been associated with it by the wrath of Andwari. After all, however, the points in which the later version agrees with the earlier one are not more remarkable than those in which they differ. In the Norse poems the only historical character is Atli or Attila; but in the Nibelungenlied Attila (Etzel) is associated with Theodoric the East Goth (Dietrich), while the relations of Gunther to Siegfried seem to be a reminiscence of the absorption of tlie Burgundian kingdom by the Franks. Moreover, almost all the mythological features of the tale have dis-appeared, ethical influences having become more prominent. The curse on the hoard is little more than a picturesque survival, for although it symbolizes, sometimes very effec-tively, a kind of mysterious fate in the background, the destinies of the various characters would not have been different if it had been altogether omitted. If the characters are less grand, they are more human; and their motives have a closer resemblance to those represented in modern poetry. It is true that Kriemhild works as much desolation as Gudrun, but her cruelty is not so revolting, and it does not spring, like Gudrun's, from passions ex-cited by a blood-feud, but from wounded love.

The Nibelungenlied is composed of stanzas of four lines, the first line rhyming with the second, the third with the fourth. Each line is divided into two parts by the caesura, the first part having four accents, the second part three, except in the last line, where the second part has also four accents. Some of the rhymes indicate poverty of resource, and the diction is very simple; but the poet displays much artistic skill in the handling of the traditions which it was his task to weave into a continuous narrative. He selects his incidents with fine tact, and almost invariably places them in relations which are fitted to bring out their full significance. Character he is able to conceive powerfully and vividly. Ferhaps the only character who loses anything by his mode of treatment is Brunhild, who is certainly far less impressive in the Nibelungenlied than in the Norse poems. Kriemhild, on the other hand, is a splendid creation of imaginative genius. First we see her as a simple maid, gentle and modest; then her powers are awakened by love; and when the light of her life is suddenly quenched all her tenderness dies. She has then but one end, to avenge her husband's death; and for its accomplishment she sacrifices everything—repose, the possibilities of new happiness, and at last existence itself. The transitions are startling, but not unnatural in a rude age; and in the earlier stages of Kriemhild's career they are lightly and delicately touched. Towards the close, when her vengeance is being sated, the style is intensely concentrated,- vivid, and impassioned ; but the change does not take the reader by surprise, for he is prepared for it even in the brightest scenes of the poem by hints of inevitable ruin. Siegfried is less complex than Kriemhild, but not less poetically presented. He is a flawless hero, strong, brave, loyal, and generous; and it is possible, as some critics suppose, that in the original myth he personified the radiance of summer in conflict with the approaching gloom of winter. Hagen is as sombre and tragic a figure as Siegfried is bright and genial; and, notwithstanding his guilt, he commands a certain admiration, for his crimes are only a manifestation of his fidelity to the royal house he serves. Another character wrought with great imagina-tive power is Biidiger, who was probably introduced into the tale for the first time by the author of the Nibelungenlied. His part is subordinate, but it suffices to evoke the expression of all the most brilliant and attractive qualities of the age of chivalry.

There are twenty-eight manuscripts of the Nibelungenlied, some of them complete, others in fragments, and they date from the 13th to the 16th century, so that the poem must have been studied until about the time of the Keformation. It had been entirely for-gotten when, in the middle of the 18th century, Bodmer, the Swiss poet and critic, issued some portions of it along with the "Klage," a poem of the same period describing the lamentations at Etzel's court over the fallen heroes. In 1782 C. H. Myller published the first full edition, using in the latter part Bodmer's text. Very little attention, however, was given to the recovered epic until the writers of the Romantic school began to interest themselves in mediaeval literature. Then the Nibelungenlied was read with enthusiasm; and in 1807 Von der Hagen provided an improved text with a glossary. An epoch in the study of the poem was marked by Lachmann, who in various writings contended that it consisted of twenty ancient ballads, that these ballads had been put together about 1210, that the collector or editor had connected them by stanzas of his own composition, and that in the ancient ballads themselves he had inserted unauthentic verses. Lachmann held that the Munich manuscript (A), which is the shortest, contains the purest text, and that it was extended by the authors of the texts in the St Gall manuscript (B) a*nd the Lassberg manuscript (C). This view guided his labours in preparing his edition of the Nibelungenlied (1826); and the theory was for some time generally accepted. Hahn, however, in 1851, and Holtzmann, in 1854, suggested doubts whether the critical canons by which Lachmann had distinguished authentic from unauthentic stanzas were valid ; and Holtzmann sought to prove that C, the longest manuscript, not A, the shortest, is nearest the original form of the poem. This occasioned an animated controversy, in which many eminent scholars took part. In 1862 Pfeiffer gave a new aspect to the question by maintaining that in the 12th and the early part of the 13th century every poet considered it a point of honour to invent a new kind of stanza, and that, as we possess lyrics by the Austrian poet Von Kiirenberg, which are in the same measure as the Nibelungenlied, we are bound to conclude that he was the author of the poem. Developing this hint, Bartsch argues that the Nibelungenlied was written about 1140 ; that in its original form the lines ended not in rhymes but in assonances ; that about 1170 a younger poet introduced the principle of rhyme, although imper-fectly, into his predecessor's work ; that between 1190 and 1200, when rhyme was considered essential, two poets, independently of one another, completed the transformation which the second poet had begun ; and that the work of the one is represented by manu-script C, the work of the other by manuscript B, of which A is an abbreviated form. Bartsch regards B (entitled Nibelunge Not) as that which approximates most closely to the work of the first poet; and this he has made the basis of his admirable critical edition, published separately in two volumes, and in one volume in the series of Deutsche Classiker des Mittelalters. If Bartsch's view be correct, the poem must have been greatly injured by its successive transfor-mations. His theory is supported by the facts that assonances survive in all the manuscripts, and that the rhymes are not nearly so good as might have been expected from the creative energy with which the general scheme of the work is conceived.

The Nibelungenlied has been rendered into modern German, among others, by Simrock, Bartsch, Marbach, and Gerlach. See H. Fischer, Die Forschungen über das Nibelungenlied seit K. Lachmann ; and Paul, Zur Nibelungenfrage. A full and interesting resume of the poem occurs in the works of T. Carlyle (Misc., vol. iii.). (J. SI.)

The above article was written by: James Sime.

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