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Why You Should Read 'The Nibelungenlied'
A reminder that it is only a modern accident which has rendered “fairy tales” as being fit for children.
The Lay of the Nibelungs (or The Nibelungenlied, as it is often translated) has been affectionately called the German Odyssey, and for good reason. There are certainly preserved elements of the Greek mythology strung throughout the tale. But their is a uniquely endearing quality to this Germanic myth as if some great rugged, northern spirit had spun a yarn of charming brutality.
Ofttimes otherworldly, The Nibelungenlied contains legendary swords, cloaks of invisibility, giants, dwarves, sprites, and nigh-invulnerable heroes. In that regard, Sivirt, the story’s early protagonist, is said to have bathed in dragon’s blood to protect himself from ever suffering injury in battle; though a leaf had fallen between his shoulder blades during that legendary bath, preventing a small patch of his flesh from receiving the same treatment — harkening the readers mind back to the hero Achilles of Greek mythology.
But much of this story’s charm rests not in its magic or relics, but within its pageantry which is distinctly medieval. Honorary games and jousting tournaments erupt spontaneously, as many seek to advance the cause of chivalry.
“Many shields were hewn to pieces by the lances borne by the warrior’s hands in chivalrous pursuits.”
And in keeping with the pageantry due to lords and ladies, the heroes of The Nibelungenlied are always sure that they dress to impress.
“You worthy knights one thing I would tell you: you must wear most sumptuous clothes at court there, for many lovely women will be there to see us. Therefore you must adorn yourselves with good garments.”
Mythology’s Greatest Wingman
Though a harsh enemy, Sivirt proves to be an even stronger friend, turning him into what is perhaps mythology’s greatest wingman. You see, Gunther had offered his beautiful sister Kriemhild as a wife to his love-sick friend Sivirt, in exchange for the warrior’s aid in securing a marriage for himself to the fair Prunhilt. However, this would be no easy task, since Prunhilt was essentially an Amazonian-like queen of Iceland, and effectively out of Gunther’s league.
Sivirt would find himself resorting to magic relics to cheat at games in order to deceive the fair queen and woo her for his brother-in-law, soon-to-be. It is this treachery which would become Sivirt’s undoing. Such is the way with ill-gotten gain, it takes away the life of those who possess it (see Proverbs 10:2).
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The Real Housewives of The Rhineland
But modern reader’s may be surprised to find that, as The Nibelungenlied unfolds, the tale becomes dominated by a female protagonist, that is Sivirt’s wife Kriemhild. You see, since her first impression of Sivurt was as Gunther’s subordinate, it pained the now-married Prunhilt to see that Sivurt’s wife Kriemhild wasn’t living like her vassal. She should know her role, thought the beautiful Prunhilt. This of course led to considerable tension between maidens in the Rhineland courts.
“Many of the fair women were no longer on speaking terms.”
In what would invariably be caricaturized today as The Real Housewives of The Rhineland, the two queens vie for rank and position over one another. And their spat quickly becomes a sharp-tongued feud which threatens to tear apart the allied kingdoms of best-buddies, Sivurt and Gunther.
But the best kept secrets of their husbands, particularly Sivurt’s true role in winning Gunther his bride, simply could not be revealed by either of these men. Such a revelation would be in breach of the unspoken rules of their friendship. No, both must simply reprimand their wives. But leaving their hot anger to simmer would prove most unwise. Indeed, if mythology could be juicy, The Nibelungenlied would be dripping.
But as much as The Nibelungenlied commences on epic footing, tragedy so thoroughly pivots its tone from heroism toward revenge. If ever there was a story told in two acts, this would be it. It is Kriemhild’s thirst for vengeance which starts a domino effect that would threaten to topple many of Europe’s scattered and distant kingdoms. And so emerges two of the rudest heroes to ever wet the sword, Hagen and his good buddy Volker, the fiddler. Their entourage proves ever valiant, but never chivalrous.
Its been said that one who seeks revenge should prepare to dig two graves. Who ever said so may not have been familiar with Kriemhild’s particular brand of vengeance, for the body count surely reaches the thousands.
Truly, The Nibelungenlied is a reminder that it is only a modern accident which has rendered “fairy tales” as being fit for children. And this story is certainly worthy of its Homeric comparisons, only it is perhaps more endearing to the modern reader.
Though this epic poem had fallen into obscurity over the centuries, it received renewed attention when a manuscript was re-discovered in 1755. Since then, for better and for worse, the Nibelungenlied has been an inspiration to many. For one, The Lord of the Rings takes clear inspiration from the virtues in this tale. And in admiration of the heroic qualities of The Nibelungenlied, Richard Wagner had composed one of classical music’s most iconic pieces (Der Ring des Nibelungen) as a tribute to the epic poem. You can listing to that by clicking here.
But of course, I gloss over a lot when I used the phrase “for better or for worse,” in the above context. Unfortunately the Nazi party had sought to leverage The Nibelungenlied to create a new German identity around a perverted ideal. But this dark stain upon the story’s legacy should by no means deter a reader from exploring all that this epic poem has to offer, for a story should not be judged by its abuses.
Finally, I cannot speak highly enough for the accessibility of the translation which I read, which was completed by Cyril Edwards, made available by Oxford University Press.