With what a truly savage din did all those swords ring out as shield-braces flew from their housing with the gems dropping smashed into the blood! They fought with such ferocity that men will never fight so again.
The Nibelungenlied is an epic poem written around 1200 by an anonymous writer. This Penguin edition, translated into English prose by A.T. Hatto, was first published in 1965. It is an epic tale of murder and revenge that ends in one almighty bloodbath—which has hopefully piqued your interest—or possibly disgust. Although there is a lot of fighting at the end, the rest of the book contains similar elements to the contemporary, or near contemporary, Arthurian legends from France and England. It is not as bleak as I have made out: there is even some humour.
Written around 1200 The Nibelungenlied covers fictional events from around six or seven hundred years earlier. It begins with Kriemhild, a beautiful Burgundian maiden, sister of three warrior knights, Gunther, Gernot and Giselher. One day she dreamt she had reared a falcon which was attacked by two eagles. When her mother explains that the falcon represents her future husband Kriemhild declares that she intends never to marry. We are then introduce to Siegfried, from Xanten in the Netherlands, son of Siegmund and Sieglind, who is a handsome knight. Siegfried hears about Kriemhild’s beauty and sets off to Worms, Burgundy to take Kriemhild as his wife. Full of bravado, Siegfried threatens to take the King Gunther’s land from him: I will wrest from you by force all that you possess! Gunther and his vassals are amazed but manage to defuse the situation and Siegfried hangs around hoping to meet Kriemhild. It is revealed that in his past adventures Siegfried fought the Nibelungs and seized their vast treasure as well as a cloak of invisibility. Siegfried had also fought a dragon and bathed in its blood which made his skin so hard that no weapon could pierce it. Oh, and he’s incredibly strong as well. Gunther is a rather ineffectual king and relies on the advice of his vassal, Hagen, lord of Troneck, who is a Machiavellian character. Gunther makes use of Siegfried’s warlike nature to fight some of his wars for him. Gunther has heard of a beautiful and incredibly strong maiden queen from Iceland, called Brunhild, who will marry the man who can beat her at three physical feats of strength; those that fail are killed. Siegfried offers to help Gunther win Brunhild’s hand if Gunther agrees to Siegfried marrying Kriemhild. Gunther doesn’t have a chance on his own against the formidable Brunhild and so with Siegfried’s help, whilst wearing his cloak of invisibility, Gunther manages to win the hand of Brunhild.
Gunther arrives back at Worms with Brunhild and a lavish celebration is organised. At the dinner Brunhild is surprised to see that Siegfried, whom she believes to be Gunther’s vassal, is to marry Gunther’s sister, Kriemhild. Although Gunther tells Brunhild that Siegfried is also a king she does not believe him; this confusion over Siegfried is the cause of much of Brunhild’s actions throughout the rest of the story as well as the following amusing scene on their wedding night.
He would have lavished caresses and endearments, had the Queen suffered him to do so, but she flew into a rage that deeply shocked him — he had hoped to meet with ‘friend’, yet what he met was ‘foe’!
‘Sir,’ she said, ‘you must give up the thing you have set your hopes on, for it will not come to pass. Take good note of this: I intend to stay a maiden till I have learned the truth about Siegfried.’
Gunther grew very angry with her. He tried to win her by force, and tumbled her shift for her, at which the haughty girl reached for the girdle of stout silk cord that she wore about her waist, and subjected him to great suffering and shame: for in return for being baulked of her sleep, she bound him hand and foot, carried him to a nail, and hung him on the wall. She had put a stop to his love-making! As to him, he all but died, such strength had she exerted.
When Gunther confides these events to Siegfried, Siegfried offers to help him, with the aid of his cloak again, to overpower Brunhild in the bedroom, but Gunther insists that Siegfried musn’t make love to her first. Whether Siegfried does or not is left ambiguous but he does take Brunhild’s ring and girdle as a prize which he later presents to Kriemhild as a gift. Gunther is now happy and Siegfried returns to the Netherlands with his wife to live together.
Brunhild continues to wonder how Siegfried is allowed to marry Kriemhild. She obviously doesn’t believe that Siegfried is a true king—why she doesn’t believe this is one of the mysteries of this story—and she probably suspects that she was duped by Gunther. Brunhild wishes to see Kriemhild and thrash this out. In a brilliant chapter, with the heading How the queens railed at each other, they do exactly that: they argue and Kriemhild reveals that she has Brunhild’s ring and girdle and that they were obtained by Siegfried when he made love to her. Siegfried tries to smooth things over by denying this, but now those loyal to Brunhild feel that Siegfried should pay for boasting that he had made love to their queen. Hagen now plots to murder Siegfried. He inveigles information from Kriemhild concerning Siegfried’s ‘impenetrable skin’—it turns out that when Siegfried was bathing in the dragon’s blood a leaf got stuck on his back between the shoulder blades, leaving a vulnerable spot on his skin à la Achilles. Siegfried is murdered by Hagen whilst out on a hunt. n.b. the vulnerable spot is marked on his clothing with a cross. Kriemhild thinks at this point that Hagen is an ally and by telling him about this vulnerability of Siegfried’s, Hagen can help protect him.
Then, as Siegfried bent over the brook and drank, Hagen hurled the spear at the cross, so that the hero’s heart’s blood leapt from the wound and splashed against Hagen’s clothes. No warrior will ever do a darker deed. Leaving the spear fixed in Siegfried’s heart, he fled in wild desperation, as he had never fled before from any man.
The lady Kriemhild’s lord fell among the flowers, where you could see the blood surging from his wound. Then—and he had cause—he rebuked those who had plotted his foul murder.
Events so far only cover about half of the book. The second half is quite different to the first. Kriemhild marries King Etzel from Hungary and has a son but she is determined to get her revenge on Hagen. She entices him, along with her brothers and an accompanying army, to visit her in Hungary. The story now follows the Burgundians as they travel to Hungary and once they arrive it is not long before they are attacked by forces friendly to Kriemhild, who has been transformed into a fascinating avenging she-devil. She does not care who dies as long as Hagen is amongst the dead. At one point Kriemhild orders a hall, which is occupied by the Burgundian knights, to be guarded and set on fire. Most die, but a few, including Hagen, manage to hold out by taking desperate measures.
‘Alas, alas!—We had far rather be killed fighting,’ a number of them cried. ‘God have mercy on us!—We are lost! This is monstrous vengeance that the Queen is taking on us!’
‘It is all over with us,’ said another of those within. ‘Of what use to us is the friendly welcome we had from the King? This fierce heat has given me such a terrible thirst that I fear I shall soon expire amid all these perils.’
‘You worthy knights,’ cried Hagen, ‘if any of you are plagued with thirst let them drink the blood here—in such heat it will be better than wine! In present circumstances it is the best that can be done.
One of the warriors then went over to a corpse and, removing his helmet and kneeling over a wound, began to drink the blood that oozed from it and, little used to it though he was, he thought it very good. ‘Heaven reward you, lord Hagen,’ said the weary man, ‘for having taught me such an excellent beverage! I have never had better wine poured for me. If I live for any time, I shall always have a friendly regard for you.’
I must admit I was a bit wary about reading this book at first but as I had enjoyed reading some Arthurian books a few years ago I felt I was prepared for it. Medieval literature is, of course, quite different from modern novels; we don’t really get to understand why characters do certain things and they have different morals, sensibilities and prejudices to us—but that is also what makes it interesting in my view. Hatto’s translation was very readable though some readers may find it a bit too old-fashioned. I am glad that it was translated into prose rather than verse—Hatto mentions that it would be virtually impossible to translate into verse but I have seen some editions about. This edition also contains a fifty page essay at the back of the book called An Introduction To a Second Reading together with several appendices. Have you read The Nibelungenlied?