245. The Nibelungenlied (c. 1200)

The leading Germanic medieval epic that inspired Wagnerian opera is a mess of love, war and revenge, ending in a mass slaughter. This is not much of a spoiler as the narrator foreshadows the tragedy and destruction on almost every page.

Siegfried, prince of the Netherlands hears of the beauty of Kriemhild, princess of the Rhine and falls in love with her by reputation (13th century had reality TV!!). He wins her by fighting heroic battles against the Rheinish enemies, and on condition he helps the Rheinish King Gunther to woo Brunhild, Queen of Iceland. Part of the deception of Brunhild involves Siegfried appearing as Gunther’s vassal, and defeating Brunhild in a number of physical challenges using his cloak of invisibility and pretending to be Gunther.

Once all are married and settled, Kriemhild and Brunhild have a spat over their husbands’ and their own seniority, Brunhild still believing that Siegfried is Gunther’s vassal. This leads to Hagen, a stubborn and vocal warrior stabbing Siegfried in the back with Gunther’s approval, and stealing all the treasure rightfully belonging to Kriemhild and dumping it in the Rhine.

The second half has Kriemhild suffering overwhelming grief and anger, but accepting the wedding proposal of King Etzel of Hungary, oherwise known as Atilla the Hun (!!!!!) to give her the wealth and power to extract her revenge on Gunther and Hagen. The Rheinish Kings and Lords are invited to Hungary for a reunion and festival, and things soon get bloody.

Apart from the constant reminders that doom is approaching, the story switches the reader’s sympathies and expectations quite a lot. What starts as a fairy tale turns to tragedy, and then to bloody massacre. Hagen is a loyal and brave lord in battle alongside Siegfried until he hears of Brunhild’s insult and changes into a traitorous villain and heartless assassin, and then a doomed warrior who sees the evil that Kriemhild is planning but cannot make the others believe. Kriemhild is a beautiful and gentle princess who becomes a scheming and avenging monster. It is almost as if the second half of the poem were created by a different author who deliberately chose to contradict the impressions of the reader.

My source was the Penguin Classic The Nibelungenlied, translated by A. T. Hatto, published 1969.

Favourite quotes/scenes:

“We are done for – the woman whose love you desire is a rib of the Devil himself ……. rather should she be the Devil’s drab in Hell”

Hagen tries to dampen King Gunther’s desire for Brunhild, pages 65 and 66

Also the introduction of Attila the Hun “the scourge of all lands”, as a courtly but naive medieval ruler actually made me laugh out loud, so I had to read up a little more on him to separate truth from rumour.

Personal rating:  4/10

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