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'The Nibelungenlied' ('The Song of the Nibelungs') Review

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By David Wiley

In the earlier Middle Ages, before Dante ushered in the cult of the poet as the center of the universe, sagas and epics were almost always anonymous, because they narrated ostensibly true events that the author couldn’t claim to be the “author” of. Great epics such as Beowulf and The Song of Roland and El Cid all recounted heroic deeds that were common cultural and historical currency and that had been told by countless earlier poets, sometimes over the course of centuries. Poets often contended with earlier versions in an attempt to supersede them, but custom demanded that they remain nameless, even in triumph.

Perhaps the greatest of these anonymous epics, The Nibelungenlied (or The Song of the Nibelungs) came at a pivotal shift in poetic modes, when the brutal histories that it recounts needed to be tempered to an age of courtly chivalry, creating a strange and complex web of narrative priorities and strategies.

The author worked in a court somewhere in Austria at around the year 1200, and while his finely attuned courtly sensibilities made for a more sophisticated and nuanced work of art (paving the way for the likes of Dante), it's clearly the poem's outrageous contents that have assured its lasting appeal. In addition to fusing old and new artistic modes, The Nibelungenlied sews together two major narratives, and although it largely holds as a single piece, the seams show quite clearly. The first major part of the poem covers a period thought to be the early fifth century, narrating the marriages of Siegfried to Kriemhild and Gunther to Brünhild.

In brief, the Burgundian King Gunther has a beautiful sister named Kriemhild, and a traveling warrior prince named Siegfried wants to marry her. In order to receive Gunther's permission, Siegfried agrees to accompany Gunther to Iceland to help him win the hand of Queen Brünhild. Pretending to be Gunther's vassal, Siegfried uses his wiles to help conquer the formidable Brünhild, who states that Gunther can only marry her if he beats her in three athletic contests. Donning a cloak that grants him invisibility and great strength, Siegfried helps Gunther win each contest, and Brünhild assents to go back to Gunther's home city, Worms, where she marries Gunther and where Siegfried is allowed to marry Kriemhild. Sensing some sort of deceit, though, Brünhild fights off Gunther in the wedding chamber and ties him up for the night. Again recruiting Siegfried, Gunther tells his new brother-in-law to use the cloak again to subdue Brünhild in his stead, but he warns Siegfried not to sleep with her. Siegfried wrestles Brünhild into submission, and he takes her ring and girdle, which the poet tries to gloss over but which symbolize her lost virginity. Siegfried then secretly presents the ring and girdle to Kriemhild, with the poet keeping mum about anyone's reactions to what this could possibly mean.

As the years pass, something continues to bother Brünhild about her husband and Siegfried, and she eventually convinces Gunther to invite Siegfried and Kriemhild back to visit Worms. Not understanding why Gunther ever allowed his sister to marry Siegfried, whom she thinks of as having a lower rank, Brünhild ends up in a confrontation with Kriemhild over precedence. Arguing over who should enter the cathedral first, Kriemhild is offended and angrily presents Brünhild with the stolen ring and girdle, humiliating the defeated queen. After much ado, Gunther's vassal Hagen kills Siegfried and steals all his treasure. Kriemhild is forced to accept peace, but she holds a very, very long grudge.

In the second part of The Nibelungenlied, Kriemhild is married to King Etzel of Hungary (the historical Attila the Hun), and when they have a son, she invites Gunther and his Burgundian court to the child's baptism. Hagen has grave reservations, but since peace has been agreed upon, they all make the trip to Etzel's castle, where they're all ruthlessly slaughtered, to the last man. The second part has none of the twists and turns of the first part, but its slow and ominous rise to unbelievably bloody heights takes as much poetic space as the entire first part (and with far less padding). Many critics claim The Nibelungenlied to be a kind of medieval Iliad, a quasi-historical epic poem that narrates its founding figures' drama in one massive swoop, but its two very different parts read a little more like the different modes of The Iliad and The Odyssey, on a much smaller scale and with far less artistic integrity. While Homer's two poems contain centuries of embedded lines that come from widely varying sources, The Iliad and The Odyssey hang together with far more seamlessness than The Nibelungenlied, which betrays not just the splicing of its major parts, but the competing sensibilities of its brutal sources and its courtly audience.

Perhaps The Nibelungenlied and its anonymous poet were by design fated to be far secondary to their great Homeric forebears. While earlier medieval epics were much more economical and uncomplicated in their ferocity, in this period of the Middle Ages courtly patronage both allowed and demanded that a poet deal with much more material and on a much more complex scale, and unfortunately the resulting poetic refinements and span of mind and scope of sources ended up being as much of a restraint upon the poem as they were a source of largeness and richness. Perhaps no poet could have juggled so many requirements. Or perhaps the Middle Ages just didn't contain a historical panorama as vastly alive as that of the Greeks.

Or maybe it's simply that Dante hadn't come along yet to limn heaven and hell into the most outrageous poetic system. The Nibelungenlied is merely an earthly poem, with no gods or afterlife, and it's possible that its terrestrial nature is what keeps it from full flower. Whatever the reason for its limitations, it's still an awesome and terrifying work of art, and even though its nameless poet wasn't able to raise it to a transcendent level-even though he wasn't free to make it all his own and to innovate to the point where he might have become an actual named author-it's still the consummate poem of its complex and entangled times, and is perhaps despite itself an obscure portrait of its lost poet.

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