The Nibelungenlied is an epic poem in Middle High German that takes Burgundian kings as its subject matter. It is the work of an anonymous poet from the Danube, dating from about 1190/1200. He re-worked various pre-Christian Teutonic and Nordic heroic motifs and oral traditions into a work of courtly poetry.

An early critic labelled 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. The Nibelungenlied is pervaded by deep tragedies, the tragedy of fate, the inevitable retribution for crime, the unending struggle between the forces of good and evil, of light and darkness.

There is also a somewhat less modified Old Norse version, known as the Volsunga saga. In this, the adventures of Sigurd, (the Scandinavian equivalent of the Germanic Siegfried, the hero of the Nibelungenlied), and his ancestors are told in detail tracing his ancestry back to Wodan.

The word Nibelung has several meanings, referring to the Burgundian kings portrayed in the poem, to the followers of Siegfried, and to a legendary race of Germanic dwarfs.

Time and place

One of the main problems of the Nibelungenlied lies in its transmission of a Germanic subject matter. It has been handed down over a long time in a certain poetic language aiming at an audience that already knew the epics of King Arthur's court by Hartmann von Aue – a completely different kind of literature emphasizing detailed Christian chivalrous ethics. Accordingly, the Nibelungenlied has been inopportune from the beginning. Furthermore, with its long Germanic lines it differs formally from contemporary courtly literature, such as Hartmann von Aue, Gottfried von Strassburg and Wolfram von Eschenbach.

Despite its contradictions, the poet puts the Germanic heroes and Valkyries into a Christian noble context. Consequently, Siegfried changes from a dragon killer to a shy courting man who will express his love to Kriemhild explicitly only after he has won the friendship of the Burgundian kings Gunther, 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 also far removed from the happy ending of courtly epics.

Despite the inevitable breaks, the merit of the poet of the Nibelungenlied does not only lie in the tradition of the epic. Several scenes testify to a dense atmosphere and psychology of the characters.


Siegfried is crown prince of Xanten, and has accomplished many feats, including the slaying of a dragon and the taking of a giant hoard of treasure. After killing the dragon, he baths in its blood, making him invulnerable. Unfortunately for him, while he is bathing, a leaf falls off a lime tree above him and covers part of his skin, making that particular patch his weak spot, as with the story of Achilles's heel.

Siegfried proposes to Kriemhild, the beautiful sister of Gunther, Gernot and Giselher, three Burgundian kings. He is allowed to marry her after he helps Gunther to defeat Brnhild, the queen of Iceland, with his heroic strength and the aid of a cloak which lets him become invisible. Brnhild becomes Gunther's wife when her great strength and unwillingness are overcome, again by Siegfried, who enters her room under cover of darkness to take her maidenhead, her strength, and her belt as proof of husbandry for Gunther.

Kriemhild lets the secret slip in a row with Brnhild, and Hagen decides to kill Siegfried. He finds Siegfried's vulnerable spot (see earlier) and kills him while they are hunting. Although it is Hagen who does the deed, Gunther and his brothers know of the plan and quietly assent. Surprisingly perhaps, from this moment on, Kriemhild is portrayed as increasingly vindictive and with decreasing sympathy.

Many years later, Attila the Hun (here called Etzel) proposes to Kriemhild, and she invites the Burgundians to a feast in Hungary. Hagen does not want to go, but is taunted until he does: he realises that it is a trick of Kriemhild's and that they will all die, but resigns himself to that. Their fate is confirmed by mermaids as they cross the Rhine. On their arrival, there is a huge fight (precipitated by Hagen decapitating Kriemhild & Etzel's son), and everyone is killed except Gunther and Hagen who are captured by Dietrich of Bern. (The nugget of history embodied in this is the battle between Burgundians and Huns that ended with the Hun victory and the destruction of the capital of Gundahar (Gunther) at Worms in A.D. 437.)

Kriemhild demands the return of the Nibelungen treasure, which has been stolen by Hagen. Hagen strangely refuses to reveal its location as long as Gunther is alive, so Kriemhild arranges for Gunther to be killed. Knowing that he alone knows the location now, Hagen refuses to tell Kriemhild either, so she cuts off his head with Siegfried's sword. Appalled that a hero such as Hagen be killed by a woman, Hildebrand, Dietrich's armourer, then kills Kriemhild.

The two versions, Nibelungenlied and the Volsunga saga, served as source materials for Richard Wagner's "Ring Cycle" (Der Ring des Nibelungen also known as The Ring of the Nibelung), and they also served as inspiration for J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

External links

da:Nibelungens Ring de:Nibelungenlied eo:La Kanto de la Nibelungoj es:El Cantar de los Nibelungos ja:ニーベルンゲンの歌 nl:Nibelungenlied pt:Nibelungenlied fi:Nibelungein laulu sv:Nibelungenlied CZ:Pseň o Nibelunzch


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