Nibelungenlied Summary



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Nibelungenlied Summary

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The Nibelungenlied, or The Song of the Nibelungs, is an epic poem originally written in the dead language of Middle High German. Written by an unknown poet between the years 1180 and 1210, it focuses on the tale of Siegfried the dragon-slayer, his time at the court of the Burgundians, his murder, and the revenge of his wife, Kriemhild. Based on pre-Christian Germanic heroic motifs, as well as on oral traditions dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries, it is considered one of the remaining classics of middle-ages European literature. Although the authorship is unknown, it has been speculated to be the work of multiple early German poets, including Bligger von Steinach and Walther von der Vogelweide. However, most historians believe there is no way to determine the author. Elements of The Nibelungenlied have influenced later works including the Icelandic Volsunga Saga as well as the Old Norse Prose Edda and Poetic Edda. In 2009, the three main manuscripts of The Nibelungenlied were inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. It has been adapted into stage productions, movies, and television miniseries. It is also considered to be the inspiration for Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

The Nibelungenlied is divided into two parts. The first part, “Siegfried and Kriemhild,” opens by introducing the court of Burgundy. Kriemhild, the sister of King Gunther, has a dream that is interpreted as a prophecy regarding the death of her future husband. Kriemhild vows to remain unmarried, but she soon meets Siegfried, crown prince of the principality of Xanten. He arrives to woo Kriemhild, although King Gunther’s vassal Hagen von Tronje is suspicious of him. He tells the king stories of Siegfried’s brutal youth, where he killed a dragon and supposedly gained the power of invulnerability—save for one spot on his back—from its blood. Despite this, the King allows him to stay in the kingdom, but does not allow him to meet the princess. When Siegfried helps Gunther defeat the invading Saxons, he wins the king’s favor. The king asks Siegfried to sail with him to help him win the heart of the queen of Iceland, Brunhild. Siegfried takes the opportunity to ask Gunther for Kriemhild’s hand. Brunhild is unimpressed by Gunther, and challenges him to feats of strength. If he wins, she will marry him, but if he fails, he and his men will be sentenced to death.

Brunhild proves to be immensely strong, but Siegfried cheats and retrieves a magic cloak he has from an earlier adventure. Using his cloak, which gives him the power of invisibility and the strength of a dozen men, Siegfried is able to help Gunther through the trials and defeat Brunhild. By her own terms, Brunhild agrees to marry Gunther. However, Gunther becomes paranoid and believes that Brunhild is plotting against him. He asks Siegfried to conquer the neighboring kingdom of Nibelgunenland and bring it under his rule. With thousands of new vassals working for him, Siegfried leads them against Brunhild’s kingdom in order to ensure Gunther’s safety. Soon Brunhild and Gunther, as well as Siegfried and Kriemhild, are married in a grand ceremony in Gunther’s court. That night, Brunhild becomes suspicious of her new husband, when she is able to easily overpower him despite his supposed strength. When Gunther tells Siegfried of this, Siegfried offers to help him by using his invisibility cloak. Gunther agrees, but orders Siegfried not to sleep with Brunhild in the process. Siegfried ignores this request, and as a result of being deflowered, Brunhild loses her massive strength. Siegfried takes Brunhild’s ring and belt and gives them to Kriemhild.

Years later, Brunhild still feels that she has been deceived, and convinces Gunther to invite Siegfried and Kriemhild to their kingdom. They are friendly at first, but an argument over which of their husbands has a higher rank escalates, and soon Brunhild finds out that Kriemhild has possession of her belt and ring. Brunhild is humiliated, and this has the potential to create a massive rift between Siegfried and Gunther. Hagen, who has always distrusted Siegfried, convinces Gunther to allow him to assassinate Siegfried. They concoct a fake military threat that Siegfried agrees to face in battle. They convince Kriemhild to mark the vulnerable spot on Siegfried back with a cross, then kill him with a javelin while he is bent over drinking, and steal the treasure of Nibelgunenland. Kriemhild finds out about this betrayal, and vows revenge against all the responsible parties.

In part two, widowed and robbed of her treasure, Kriemhild puts her revenge into effect. Many years later, she is proposed to by King Etzel of the Huns. She marries him and invites her family, the Burgundians, to Etzel’s castle. Although Hagen suspects a trap, he is mocked, and Gunther takes his army. A monk delivers a prophecy that they will all die, but Hagen tries to drown him to shut him up. The Burgundians are welcomed to the castle, though they are warned by an ally of Etzel’s, Dietrich of Bern, to keep their weapons on them. Kriemhild confronts Hagen, but he is unmoved and mocks her with her late husband’s sword. Outside the castle, a fight breaks out between the Huns and Burgundians, and the castle is soon enveloped in mayhem. Hagen flies into a rage, killing Kriemhild and Etzel’s young son in front of them. As the Burgundians storm the hall, Etzel’s warriors hold them off and Kriemhild offers her brothers their lives if they turn over Hagen. When they refuse, she orders the hall burned with the Burgundians inside. Eventually, all are killed except for Gunther and Hagen. Kriemhild orders Gunther decapitated, but Hagen still stubbornly refuses to tell Kriemhild the location of the treasure he stole from her husband. She kills Hagen in a rage. Old Hildebrand, an elderly wise man in Etzel’s castle, is enraged by the carnage and attacks her with a sword, but it has no effect. However, when she bends over to pick up a ring, her body falls to pieces in the same position Siegfried died in. Dietrich and Etzel mourn the death of so many in their castle as the epic poem ends.