The Nibelungenlied, translated as The Song of the Nibelungs, is an epic poem in Middle High German. It tells the story of dragon-slayer Siegfried at the court of the Burgundians, his murder, and of his wife Kriemhild's revenge.
The Nibelungenlied is based on pre-Christian Germanic heroic motifs (the "Nibelungensaga"), which include oral traditions and reports based on historic events and individuals of the 5th and 6th centuries. Old Norse parallels of the legend survive in the Völsunga saga, the Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda, the Legend of Norna-Gest, and the Þiðrekssaga.
Prevailing scholarly theories strongly suggest that the written Nibelungenlied is the work of an anonymous poet from the area of the Danube between Passau and Vienna, dating from about 1180 to 1210, possibly at the court of the bishop of Passau, Wolfger von Erla (in office 1191–1204). Most scholars consider it likely that the author was a man of literary and ecclesiastical education at the bishop's court, and that the poem's recipients were the clerics and noblemen at the same court.
The "Nibelung's lament" (Diu Klage), a sort of appendix to the poem proper, mentions a "Meister Konrad" who was charged by a bishop "Pilgrim" of Passau with the copying of the text. This is taken as a reference to Saint Pilgrim, bishop of Passau from 971–991.
The search for the author of the Nibelungenlied in German studies has a long and intense history. Among the names suggested were Konrad von Fußesbrunnen, Bligger von Steinach and Walther von der Vogelweide. None of these hypotheses has wide acceptance, and mainstream scholarship today accepts that the author's name cannot be established.
Though the preface to the poem promises both joyous and dark tales ahead, the Nibelungenlied is by and large a very tragic work, and these four opening verses are believed to have been a late addition to the text, composed after the body of the poem had been completed.
Uns ist in alten mæren wunders vil geseit
von helden lobebæren, von grôzer arebeit, von freuden, hôchgezîten, von weinen und von klagen, von küener recken strîten muget ir nu wunder hœren sagen
Full many a wonder is told us in stories old, of heroes worthy of praise, of hardships dire, of joy and feasting, of weeping and of wailing; of the fighting of bold warriors, now ye may hear wonders told.
The original version instead began with the introduction of Kriemhild, the protagonist of the work.
The epic is divided into two parts, the first dealing with the story of Siegfried and Kriemhild, the wooing of Brünhild and the death of Siegfried at the hands of Hagen, and Hagen's hiding of the Nibelung treasure in the Rhine (Adventures 1-19). The second part deals with Kriemhild's marriage to Etzel, her plans for revenge, the journey of the Nibelungs to the court of Etzel, and their last stand in Etzel's hall (Adventures 20-39).
Adventure 1 introduces the court of Burgundy. Kriemhild, the virginal sister of King Gunther and his brothers Gernot and Giselher, has a dream of a falcon that is killed by two eagles. Her mother interprets this to mean that Kriemhild's future husband will die a violent death, and Kriemhild consequently resolves to remain unmarried.
Adventure 2 tells of the background of Siegfried, crown prince of Xanten. His youth is narrated with little room for the adventures later attributed to him. In Adventure 3, Siegfried arrives in Worms with the hopes of wooing Kriemhild. Upon his arrival, Hagen tells Gunther about Siegfried's youthful exploits that involved winning a treasure and lands from a pair of brothers, Nibelung and Schilbung, whom Siegfried had killed when he was unable to divide the treasure between them and, almost incidentally, the killing of a dragon. After killing the dragon, he had bathed in its blood rendering him invulnerable. Unfortunately for Siegfried a leaf fell onto his back from a linden tree as he was bathing and the tiny patch of skin that it covered did not come into contact with the dragon's blood, so that Siegfried remains vulnerable in that one spot (much as the ancient Greek hero Achilles was vulnerable on on his heel.) In spite of Hagen's threatening stories about his youth, the Burgundians welcome him, but do not allow him to meet the princess. Disappointed, he nonetheless remains in Worms and helps Gunther defeat the invading Saxons (4). Siegfried finally meets Kriemhild (5), and is allowed to marry her after he helps Gunther to defeat Brünhild, the queen of Iceland, with his heroic strength and the aid of a cloak which lets him become invisible (6-8). On a visit to Iceland, Siegfried had posed as a vassal of Gunther's, and Brünhild thinks King Gunther, not Siegfried, defeated her. She is persuaded to marry Gunther by this trickery.
But on their wedding night, Brünhild's great strength and unwillingness are too much for Gunther, who overcomes her only with the aid of an invisible Siegfried, who then takes her ring and belt (symbols of defloration) as presents for his own wife Kriemhild (10).
Years later, Siegfried and Kriemhild are on visit to Worms. Brünhild is still under the impression that Gunther married off his sister to a low-ranking vassal, while Gunther and Siegfried are in reality of equal rank. Before entering the Worms Cathedral, Kriemhild and Brünhild argue who should have precedence, according to their husbands' ranks. To Brünhild it is obvious that she should go first. Kriemhild, unaware of the deception involved in Brünhild's wooing, insists that they are of equal rank, and as the dispute escalates, she shows Brünhild the belt which Siegfried took from Brünhild on her wedding night, and calls her Siegfried's kebse (mistress or concubine).
The argument between the queens is both a risk for the marriage of Gunther and Brünhild and a possible cause for a rivalry between Gunther and Siegfried. Hagen von Tronje, the dark, cruel and faithful vassal of Gunther, decides to kill Siegfried to protect the honor and reign of his king. Although it is Hagen who does the deed, Gunther and his brothers know of the plan and quietly assent. Hagen persuades Kriemhild to mark Siegfried's vulnerable spot with a cross so he can protect Siegfried in battle. Hagen then uses the cross as a target, killing Siegfried with a spear as he is drinking from a brook during a hunt. Hagen also steals the hoard from Kriemhild and throws it into the Rhine (Rheingold), to prevent Kriemhild from using it to establish an army of her own.
Siegfried and Kriemhild
Kriemhild swears to take revenge for the murder of her husband and the theft of her treasure. Many years later, King Etzel of the Huns (Attila the Hun) proposes to Kriemhild, she journeys to the land of the Huns, and they are married. For the baptism of their son, she invites her brothers, the Burgundians, to a feast at Etzel's castle in Hungary. Hagen does not want to go, but is taunted until he does: he realises that it is a trick of Kriemhild in order to take revenge and kill them all. As the Burgundians cross the Danube, this fate is confirmed by Nixes, who predict that all but one monk will die. Hagen tries to drown the monk in order to render the prophecy futile, but he survives.
The Burgundians arrive at Etzel's castle and are welcomed by Kriemhild "with lying smiles and graces". But the lord Dietrich of Bern, an ally of Etzel's, advises the Burgundians to keep their weapons with them at all times, which is normally not allowed. The tragedy unfolds. Kriemhild comes before Hagen, reproaches him for her husband Siegfried's death, and demands the return of her Nibelungenschatz. Hagen answers her boldly, admitting that he killed Siegfried and sank the Nibelungen treasure into the Rhine, but blames these acts on Kriemhild's own behaviour.
King Etzel then welcomes his wife's brothers warmly. But outside a tense feast in the great hall, a fight breaks out between Huns and Burgundians, and soon there is general mayhem. When word of the fight arrives at the feast, Hagen decapitates Kriemhild's and Etzel's little son before his parents' eyes. The Burgundians take control of the hall, which is besieged by Etzel's warriors. Kriemhild offers her brothers their lives if they hand over Hagen, but they refuse. The battle lasts all day, until the queen orders the hall to be burned with the Burgundians inside.
All of the Burgundians are killed except for Hagen and Gunther, who are bound and held prisoner by Dietrich of Bern. Kriemhild has the men brought before her and orders her brother Gunther to be killed. Even after seeing Gunther's head, Hagen refuses to tell the queen what he has done with the Nibelungen treasure. Furious, Kriemhild herself cuts off Hagen's head. Old Hildebrand, the mentor of Dietrich of Bern, is infuriated by the shameful deaths of the Burgundian guests. He hews Kriemhild to pieces with his sword. In a fifteenth century manuscript, he is said to strike Kriemhild a single clean blow to the waist; she feels no pain, however, and declares that his sword is useless. Hildebrand then drops a ring and commands Kriemhild to pick it up. As she bends down, her body falls into pieces. Dietrich and Etzel and all the people of the court lament the deaths of so many heroes.
A possible archetype for the dragon-slayer Siegfried might have been the historical figure of Arminius, who defeated the Roman imperial legions (clad in scale armour) at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD.
A historical nucleus of the saga lies in events of the Germanic Migration Period, in particular the defeat of the Burgundians by Flavius Aëtius with the aid of Hunnic mercenaries near Worms in ca. AD 436. Other possible influences are the feud between the 6th century Merowingian queens Brunhilda and Fredegunde, as well as the marriage of Attila with the Burgundian princess Ildikó in AD 453.
These events became conflated with common Germanic mythological material concerning Niflheim and the Nibelungs, originally likely a race of dwarfs guarding treasure, but from the evidence of Waltharius also a name for a Frankish or Burgundian dynasty. The Nibelungenlied combines a first mythological part dealing with the Gunther's wooing of Brünhild, with a second political part taking place in specific locations like Worms, the capital of Burgundy, describing the journey of the Nibelungs east across the Danube to Etzelburg, the residence of Attila the Hun (Etzel), the location of the catastrophe.
The Nibelungenlied arranges these traditional materials in a composition aiming at a High Medieval audience that was familiar with the epics Matter of Britain and Matter of France, casting the inherited Germanic theme in his contemporary terms of courtly Christian chivalry. Consequently, Siegfried changes from a dragon killer to a courting man who will express his love to Kriemhild explicitly only after he has won the friendship of the Burgundian king Gunther and his brothers, Gernot and Giselher. Some situations, which exaggerate the conflict between the Germanic migrations and the chivalrous ethics (such as Gunther's embarrassing wedding night with Brunhild) may be interpreted as irony. The notoriously bloody end that leaves no hope for reconciliation is far removed from the happy ending of typical courtly epics.
An early critic labeled it a German "Iliad", arguing that, like the Greek epic, it goes back to the remotest times and unites the monumental fragments of half-forgotten myths and historical personages into a poem that is essentially national in character. However, others criticised the work for being inferior to the Greek classics and not worthy of the status of 'National Epic'.
Despite its many critics, imagery from the Nibelungelied was used in many poems, essays, posters and speeches at every stage in the development of German nationalism, from the Befreiungskriege (Wars of Liberation) to the period of Nazi rule, to less jingoistic interpretations and references today.
For example, the faithfulness among the Burgundian king and his vassals, ranked higher than family bonds or life, is called Nibelungentreue. This expression was used in Germany, prior to World War I to describe the alliance between the German Empire and Austria-Hungary, as well as by Nazi Propaganda, e.g. when referring to the Battle of Stalingrad.
The word Nibelungen is transferred from a legendary race of Germanic dwarfs and their treasure, to the followers of Siegfried and finally to the Burgundians which are portrayed in the poem.
In October of 2006 USA Today listed Siegfried as #7 on their list of Imaginary Luminaries: the 101 most influential people who never lived.
However, it is very difficult to separate the influence of the Nibelungenlied itself from that of other works of art and propaganda dealing with the Siegfried myths. Often, images which clearly refer to part of this story differ in some way. For example, one famous poster from the 1930s links Siegfried's death with the 'Dolchstosslegende' (the idea that German soldiers were stabbed in the back by the peace treaties of 1918) and shows a Siegfried-like figure stabbed with a dagger, not a spear.
Essentially, the Nibelungenlied provides a wealth (a great hoard, as it were) of emotive and instantly recognisable images applicable to almost any political event.
The Nibelungenlied, Thidreks saga and the Völsunga saga served as source materials for Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (English: The Ring of the Nibelungs), a series of four music dramas popularly known as the "Ring Cycle".
In 1924, Austrian-American director Fritz Lang made a duology of silent fantasy films of the epic: Die Nibelungen: Siegfried and Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache. Lang and Thea von Harbou wrote the screenplay for the first film; von Harbou has the sole screenwriting credit on the second. Remakes were made in 1966.
The premise of the Nibelungenlied was made into a [mini-series] called Ring of the Nibelungs (also called Sword of Xanten) in 2004. It uses the title of the series by Wagner and, like the Ring Cycle, is in many ways closer to the Norse legends of Siegfried and Brunhild than to the Nibelungenlied itself. Like many adaptations, it only deals with the first half of the epic, ignoring Kriemhild's revenge. On the SciFi Channel, it is broadcast with title Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King (2006).
The narrative structure of the Nibelungenlied has been compared to the one in the chanson de geste and in creole legends by Henri Wittmann