The Nibelungenlied
By George Henry Needler, Translator

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I. The Nibelungen Saga

1. Origin of the Saga

All the Aryan peoples have had their heroic age, the achievements of which form the basis of later saga. For the Germans this was the period of the Migrations, as it is called, in round numbers the two hundred years from 400 to 600, at the close of which we find them settled in those regions which they have, generally speaking, occupied ever since. During these two centuries kaleidoscopic changes had been taking place in the position of the various Germanic tribes. Impelled partly by a native love of wandering, partly by the pressure of hostile peoples of other race, they moved with astonishing rapidity hither and thither over the face of Europe, generally in conflict with one another or buffeted by the Romans in the west and south, and by the Huns in the east. In this stern struggle for existence and search for a permanent place of settlement some of them even perished utterly; amid the changing fortunes of all of them deeds were performed that fixed themselves in the memory of the whole people, great victories or great disasters became the subject of story and song. We need only to recall such names as those of Ermanric and Theodoric to remind ourselves what an important part was played by the Germanic peoples of that Migration Period in the history of Europe. During it a national consciousness was engendered, and in it we have the faint beginnings of a national literature. Germanic saga rests almost entirely upon the events of these two centuries, the fifth and sixth. Although we get glimpses of the Germans during the four or five preceding centuries, none of the historic characters of those earlier times have been preserved in the national sagas.

With these sagas based on history, however, have been mingled in most cases primeval Germanic myths, possessions of the people from prehistoric times. A most conspicuous example of this union of mythical and originally historical elements is the Nibelungen saga, out of which grew in course of time the great national epic, the Nibelungenlied.

The Nibelungen saga is made up of two parts, on the one hand the mythical story of Siegfried and on the other the story, founded on historic fact, of the Burgundians. When and how the Siegfried myth arose it is impossible to say; its origin takes us back into the impenetrable mists of the unrecorded life of our Germanic forefathers, and its form was moulded by the popular poetic spirit. The other part of the saga is based upon the historic incident of the overthrow of the Burgundian kingdom by the Huns in the year 437. This annihilation of a whole tribe naturally impressed itself vividly upon the imagination of contemporaries. Then the fact of history soon began to pass over into the realm of legend, and, from causes which can no longer be determined, this tradition of the vanished Burgundians became united with the mythical story of Siegfried. This composite Siegfried-Burgundian saga then became a common possession of the Germanic peoples, was borne with many of them to lands far distant from the place of its origin, and was further moulded by each according to its peculiar genius and surroundings. In the Icelandic Eddas, the oldest of which we have as they were written down in the latter part of the ninth century, are preserved the earliest records of the form it had taken among the northern Germanic peoples. Our Nibelungenlied, which is the chief source of our knowledge of the story as it developed in Germany, dates from about the year 1200. These two versions, the Northern and the German, though originating in this common source, had diverged very widely in the centuries that elapsed between their beginning and the time when the manuscripts were written in which they are preserved. Each curtailed, re-arranged, or enlarged the incidents of the story in its own way. The character of the chief actors and the motives underlying what we may call the dramatic development assumed widely dissimilar forms. The German Nibelungenlied may be read and appreciated as one of the world’s great epic poems without an acquaintance on the part of the reader with the Northern version of the saga. In order, however, to furnish the setting for a few episodes that would in that case remain either obscure or colorless, and with a view to placing the readers of this translation in a position to judge better the deeper significance of the epic as the eloquent narrative of a thousand years of the life of the people among whom it grew, the broad outlines of the saga in its Northern form will be given here.

2. The Northern Form of the Saga

Starting at the middle of the fifth century from the territory about Worms on the Rhine where the Burgundians were overthrown, the saga soon spread from the Franks to the other Germanic peoples. We have evidence of its presence in northern Germany and Denmark. Allusions to it in the Anglo-Saxon poem, the Wanderer, of the seventh century and in the great Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf of a short time later, show us that it had early become part of the national saga stock in England. Among the people of Norway and Iceland it took root and grew with particular vigor. Here, farthest away from its original home and least exposed to outward influences, it preserved on the whole most fully its heathen Germanic character, especially in its mythical part. By a fortunate turn of events, too, the written record of it here is of considerably earlier date than that which we have from Germany. The Eddas, as the extensive collection of early Icelandic poems is called, are the fullest record of Germanic mythology and saga that has been handed down to us, and in them the saga of Siegfried and the Nibelungen looms up prominently. The earliest of these poems date from about the year 850, and the most important of them were probably written down within a couple of centuries of that time. They are thus in part some three centuries older than the German Nibelungenlied, and on the whole, too, they preserve more of the original outlines of the saga. By bringing together the various episodes of the saga from the Eddas and the Volsung saga, a prose account of the mythical race of the Volsungs, we arrive at the following narrative.

On their wanderings through the world the three gods Odin, Honir, and Loki come to a waterfall where an otter is devouring a fish that it has caught. Loki kills the otter with a stone, and they take off its skin. In the evening they seek a lodging at the house of Hreidmar, to whom they show the skin. Hreidmar recognizes it as that of his son, whom Loki has killed when he had taken on the form of an otter. Assisted by his sons Fafnir and Regin, Hreidmar seizes the three gods, and spares their lives only on the promise that they will fill the skin, and also cover it outwardly, with gold. Loki is sent to procure the ransom. With a net borrowed from the sea-goddess Ran he catches at the waterfall the dwarf Andvari in form of a fish and compels him to supply the required gold. Andvari tries to keep back a ring, but this also Loki takes from him, whereupon the dwarf utters a curse upon the gold and whosoever may possess it. The ransom is now paid to Hreidmar; even the ring must, on Hreidmar’s demand, be given in order to complete the covering of the otter’s skin. Loki tells him of the curse connected with the ownership of the gold. When Hreidmar refuses Fafnir and Regin a share in the treasure, he is killed by Fafnir, who takes possession of the hoard to the exclusion of Regin. In the form of a dragon Fafnir dwells on Gnita Heath guarding the hoard, while Regin broods revenge.

From Odin is descended King Volsung, who has a family of ten sons and one daughter. The eldest son is Sigmund, twin-born with his sister Signy. King Siggeir of Gautland sues for the hand of Signy, whom her father gives to Siggeir against her will. In the midst of King Volsung’s hall stood a mighty oak-tree. As the wedding-feast is being held there enters a stranger, an old man with one eye, his hat drawn down over his face and bearing in his hand a sword. This sword he thrusts to the hilt into the tree, saying that it shall belong to him who can draw it out again; after which he disappears as he had come. All the guests try their strength in vain upon the sword, but Sigmund alone is able to draw it forth. He refuses to sell it to Siggeir for all his proffered gold. Siggeir plans vengeance. He invites Volsung and his sons to Gautland, and returns home thither with his bride Signy, who before going warns her father to be upon his guard.

At the appointed time King Volsung and his sons go as invited to Gautland. In spite of Signy’s repeated warning he will not flee from danger, and falls in combat with Siggeir; his ten sons are taken prisoners, and placed in stocks in the forest. For nine successive nights a she-wolf comes and devours each night one of them, till only Sigmund remains. By the aid of Signy he escapes. The she-wolf, it was said, was the mother of Siggeir.

To Sigmund, who has hidden in a wood, Signy sends her eldest boy of ten years that Sigmund may test his courage and see if he is fit to be a helper in seeking revenge. Neither he, however, nor his younger brother stands the test. Signy sees that only a scion of the race of Volsung will suffice, and accordingly disguises herself and lives three days with Sigmund in the wood. From their union a son Sinfiotli is born, whom also, after ten years, she sends out to Sigmund. He stands every test of courage, and is trained by Sigmund, who thinks he is Siggeir’s son.

Bent on revenge, Sigmund repairs with Sinfiotli to Siggeir’s castle. After Sinfiotli has slain the king’s two sons, he and Sigmund are overpowered and condemned to be buried alive. With Sigmund’s sword, however, which Signy has managed to place in their hands, they cut their way out, then set fire to Siggeir’s hall. Signy comes forth and reveals to Sigmund that Sinfiotli is their own son; and then, saying that her work of revenge is complete and that she can live no longer, she returns into the burning hall and perishes with Siggeir and all his race.

Sigmund now returns home and rules as a mighty king. He marries Borghild, who later kills Sinfiotli with a poisoned drink, and is cast away by Sigmund. He then marries Hjordis. Lyngvi, the son of King Hunding, was also a suitor and now invades Sigmund’s land. The latter hews down many of his enemies, until an old man with one eye, in hat and dark cloak, interposes his spear, against which Sigmund’s sword breaks in two. Sigmund falls severely wounded.

In the night Hjordis seeks the scene of the combat and finds Sigmund still alive. He refuses to allow her to heal his wounds, saying that Odin no longer wills that he swing the sword. He tells Hjordis to preserve carefully the pieces of the broken sword; the son she bears in her womb shall yet swing the sword when welded anew, and win thereby a glorious name. At dawn Sigmund dies. Hjordis is borne off by Vikings and, after the birth of her son, she becomes the wife of the Danish prince Alf.

The son of Hjordis was called Sigurd. He grew up a boy of wondrous strength and beauty, with eyes that sparkled brightly, and lived at the court of King Hjalprek, the father of Alf. Regin, the dwarfish brother of Fafnir, was his tutor. Regin welds together the pieces of the broken sword Gram, so sharp and strong that with it Sigurd cleaves Regin’s anvil in twain. With men and ships that he has received from King Hjalprek Sigurd goes against the sons of Hunding, whom he slays, thereby avenging the death of his father. Regin has urged him to kill Fafnir and take possession of the hoard. On the Gnita Heath he digs a ditch from which, as the dragon Fafnir passes over it, he plunges the sword into his heart. The dying Fafnir warns him of the curse attached to the possession of the gold; also that Regin is to be guarded against. The latter bids him roast the heart of Fafnir. While doing so he burns his finger by dipping it in the blood to see if the heart is done, and to cool his finger puts it into his mouth. Suddenly he is able to understand the language of the birds in the wood. They warn him to beware of Regin, whom he straightway slays. The birds tell him further of the beautiful valkyrie Brynhild, who sleeps on the fire-encircled mountain awaiting her deliverer. Then Sigurd places Fafnir’s hoard upon his steed Grani, takes with him also Fafnir’s helm, and rides away to Frankenland. He sees a mountain encircled by a zone of fire, makes his way into it and beholds there, as he deems it, a man in full armor asleep. When he takes off the helmet he finds that it is a woman. With his sword he cuts loose the armor. The woman wakes and asks if it be the hero Sigurd who has awakened her. In joy that it is so, Brynhild relates to him how Odin had punished her by this magic sleep for disobedience, and how that she had yet obtained from him the promise that she should be wakened only by a hero who knew no fear. She now teaches Sigurd many wise runes, and tells him of harm to fear through love of her. In spite of all, however, Sigurd does not waver, and they swear an oath of mutual faithful love.

Next Sigurd comes to King Gjuki at the Rhine, and joins in friendship with him and his sons Gunnar and Hogni. Queen Grimhild gives Sigurd a potion which causes him to forget Brynhild and be filled with love for her own daughter Gudrun, whom he marries. Gunnar now seeks Brynhild for wife, and Sigurd goes with him on his wooing-journey. They come to the castle encircled by fire, where Brynhild lives. She will be wooed only by him who will ride to her through the flames. Gunnar tries in vain to do this, even when mounted on Sigurd’s steed Grani. Sigurd and Gunnar then exchange shapes and the former spurs Grani through the flames. He calls himself Gunnar the son of Gjuki, and finally Brynhild consents to become his wife. Three nights he shares her couch, but always his sharp sword lies between them. He takes the ring from her finger and places in its stead one from Fafnir’s treasure. Then he exchanges form again with Gunnar, who is soon after wedded to Brynhild. Only now does Sigurd recollect the oath that he once swore to Brynhild himself.

One day Brynhild and Gudrun are bathing in the Rhine. A quarrel arises between them when Brynhild takes precedence of Gudrun by going into the water above her in the stream, saying that her husband is a braver and mightier man than Gudrun’s. Gudrun retorts by revealing the secret that it was Sigurd in Gunnar’s form, and not Gunnar himself, who rode through the flame, and in proof thereof shows her the ring taken by Sigurd from Brynhild’s finger. Pale as death, Brynhild goes quietly home: Gunnar must die, she says in wrath. Sigurd tries to pacify her, even offering to desert Gudrun. Now she will have neither him nor another, and when Gunnar appears she demands of him Sigurd’s death. In spite of Hogni’s protest Gunnar’s stepbrother Gutthorm, who has not sworn blood-friendship with Sigurd, is got to do the deed. He is given the flesh of wolf and serpent to eat in order to make him savage. Twice Gutthorm goes to kill Sigurd, but cowers before the piercing glance of his eyes; at last he steals upon Sigurd asleep and thrusts his sword through him. The dying Sigurd hurls the sword after the fleeing murderer and cuts him in two. To Gudrun, who wakes from sleep by his side, he points to Brynhild as the instigator of the crime, and dies. Brynhild rejoices at the sound of Gudrun’s wailing. Gudrun cannot find relief for her grief, the tears will not flow. Men and women seek to console her by tales of greater woes befallen them. But still Gudrun cannot weep as she sits by Sigurd’s corpse. At last one of the women lifts the cloth from Sigurd’s face and lays his head upon Gudrun’s lap. Then Gudrun gazes on his blood-besmirched hair, his dimmed eyes, and breast pierced by the sword: she sinks down upon the couch and a flood of tears bursts at length from her eyes.

Brynhild now tells Gunnar that Sigurd had really kept faith with him on the wooing journey; but she will live with him no longer and pierces herself with a sword, after foretelling to Gunnar his future fate and that of Gudrun. In accord with her own request she is burned on one funeral-pyre with Sigurd, the sword between them as once before.

Atli,[1] king of the Huns, now seeks Gudrun for wife. She refuses, but Grimhild gives her a potion which causes her to forget Sigurd and the past, and then she becomes the wife of Atli. After Sigurd’s death Gunnar had taken possession of the Niflungen hoard, and this Atli now covets. He treacherously invites Gunnar and the others to visit him, which they do in spite of Gudrun’s warnings, first of all, however, sinking the hoard in the Rhine. On their arrival Atli demands of them the hoard, which, he says, belongs of right to Gudrun. On their refusal he attacks them. Hosts of fighters on both sides fall and in the end Gunnar and Hogni, the only two of their number remaining, are bound in fetters. Gunnar refuses Atli’s command to reveal the hiding-place of the hoard, bidding them bring to him the heart of Hogni. They kill a servant and bring his heart to Gunnar; but Gunnar sees how it still quivers with fear, and knows it is not the heart of the fearless Hogni. Then the latter is really killed, and his heart is brought to Gunnar, who cries exultingly that now only the Rhine knows where the hoard lies hidden. In spite of Gudrun Atli orders that Gunnar be thrown into a den of serpents. With a harp communicated to him by Gudrun he pacifies them all but one, which stings him to the heart, and thus Gunnar dies. Gudrun is nominally reconciled with Atli, but in secret plans revenge for the death of her brothers. She kills Atli’s two sons, gives him at a banquet their blood to drink and their hearts to eat. In the night she plunges a sword into his own heart, confesses herself to him as his murderer, and sets fire to the castle, in which Atli and all his remaining men are consumed.

[1] That is, Attila; the Etzel of the Nibelungenlied.

3. The Saga as preserved in the Nibelungenlied

The saga as we find it in the German Nibelungenlied differs very widely in form and substance from the Northern version which has just been outlined, though the two have still enough points of similarity to indicate clearly a common origin. Each bears the stamp of the poetic genius of the people among whom it grew. Of all the sagas of the Germanic peoples none holds so prominent a place as the Nibelungen saga, and it may safely be said that the epic literature of the world, though offering poems of more refined literary worth, has none that are at the same time such valuable records of the growth of the poetic genius of two kindred peoples through many centuries of their early civilization as the Edda poems of this saga and the Nibelungenlied. It is impossible here to undertake a comparison of the two and point out in detail their parallelism and their respective significance as monuments of civilization; suffice it to indicate briefly the chief points of difference in the two stories, and note particularly those parts of the Nibelungenlied that have, as it were, suffered atrophy, and that point to earlier stages of the saga in which, as in the Northern version, they played a more important role.

First, as to the hoard. The Nibelungenlied knows nothing of its being taken by Loki from Andvari, of the latter’s curse upon it, and how it came finally into the possession of Fafnir, the giant-dragon. Here it belongs, as we learn from Hagen’s account (strophes 86-99), to Siegfried (Sigurd), who has slain the previous owners of it, Schilbung and Nibelung, and wrested it from its guardian the dwarf Alberich (Andvari). From this point onward its history runs nearly parallel in the two versions. After Siegfried’s death it remains for a time with Kriemhild (Gudrun), is treacherously taken from her by Gunther (Gunnar) and Hagen (Hogni), and finally, before their journey to Etzel (Atli), sunk in the Rhine.

The protracted narrative of Sigurd’s ancestry and his descent from Odin has no counterpart in the Nibelungenlied. Here we learn merely that Siegfried is the son of Siegmund. His father plays an entirely different part; and his mother’s name is not Hjordis, as in the Edda, but Siegelind.

Of Siegfried’s youth the Nibelungenlied knows very little. No mention is made of his tutelage to the dwarf smith Regin and preparation for the slaying of the dragon Fafnir. The account of him placed in the mouth of Hagen (strophes 86-501), how he won the hoard, the tarnkappe, and the sword Balmung, and slew the dragon, is evidently a faint echo of an earlier version of this episode, which sounds out of place in the more modern German form of the story. From the latter the mythical element has almost entirely vanished. It is worthy of note, moreover, that the very brief account of Siegfried’s slaying of the dragon is given in the Nibelungenlied as separate from his acquisition of the hoard, and differs in detail from that of the Edda. Of Sigurd’s steed Grani, his ride to Frankenland, and his awakening of Brynhild the Nibelungenlied has nothing to tell us. Through the account of Siegfried’s assistance to Gunther in the latter’s wooing of Brunhild (Adventures 6 and 7) shimmers faintly, however, the earlier tradition of the mythical Siegfried’s awakening of the fire-encircled valkyrie. Only by our knowledge of a more original version can we explain, for example, Siegfried’s previous acquaintance with Brunhild which the Nibelungenlied takes for granted but says nothing of. On this point of the relation between Sigurd and Brynhild it is difficult to form a clear account owing to the confusion and even contradictions that exist when the various Northern versions themselves are placed side by side. The name of the valkyrie whom Sigurd awakens from her magic sleep is not directly mentioned. Some of the accounts are based on the presupposition that she is one with the Brynhild whom Sigurd later wooes for Gunnar, while others either know nothing of the sleeping valkyrie or treat the two as separate personages. The situation in the Nibelungenlied is more satisfactorily explained by the theory that they were originally identical. But we see at once that the figure of Brunhild has here lost much of its original significance. It is her quarrel with Kriemhild (Gudrun) that leads to Siegfried’s death, though the motives are not just the same in the two cases; and after the death of Siegfried she passes unaccountably from the scene.

But it is in the concluding part of the story–the part which, as we shall see, has its basis in actual history–that the two accounts diverge most widely. So strange, indeed, has been the evolution of the saga that the central character of it, Kriemhild (Gudrun) holds a diametrically opposite relation to her husband Etzel (Atli) at the final catastrophe in the two versions. In the Nibelungenlied as in the Edda the widowed Kriemhild (Gudrun) marries King Etzel (Atli), her consent in the former resulting from a desire for revenge upon the murderers of Siegfried, in the latter from the drinking of a potion which takes away her memory of him; in the Nibelungenlied it is Kriemhild who treacherously lures Gunther and his men to their destruction unknown to Etzel, in the Edda the invitation comes from Atli, while Gudrun tries to warn them to stay at home; in the former Kriemhild is the author of the attack on the guests, in the latter Atli; in the former Kriemhild is the frenzied avenger of her former husband Siegfried’s death upon her brother Gunther, in the latter Gudrun is the avenger of her brothers’ death upon her husband Atli.

4. Mythical Element and Historical Element

A sifting of the Nibelungen saga reveals a mythical element (the story of Siegfried) and a historical element (the story of the Burgundians and Etzel). How, when, and where these two elements were blended together must remain largely a matter of conjecture. This united central body received then from time to time accessions of other elements, some of them originally historical in character, some of them pure inventions of the poetic imagination.

The Siegfried myth is the oldest portion of the Nibelungen saga, and had already passed through a long period of development before its union with the story of the Burgundian kings. Like so many others of its kind, it is part of the spiritual equipment of our Germanic ancestors at the dawn of their recorded history. It grew gradually with the people themselves and has its counterpart among other peoples. Such myths are a record of the impressions made upon the mind of man by the mighty manifestations of the world of nature in which he lives; their formation may be likened to the unconscious impressions of its surroundings on the mind of the child. And just as the grown man is unable to trace back the formation of his own individuality to its very beginnings in infancy, so is it impossible for the later nation in its advanced stage to peer back beyond the dawn of its history. It is in the gloom beyond the dawn that such myths as this of Siegfried have their origin.

Though modern authorities differ greatly in their conjectures, it is generally agreed that the Siegfried story was in its original form a nature-myth. The young day slays the mist-dragon and awakens the sun-maiden that sleeps on the mountain; at evening he falls a prey to the powers of gloom that draw the sun down again beneath the earth. With this day-myth was probably combined the parallel myth of the changing seasons: the light returns in spring, slays the cloud-dragon, and frees the budding earth from the bonds of winter.[2]

[2] For the Siegfried saga in general see Symons in Paul’s Grundriss der germanischen Philologie, 2d ed., vol. III, pp. 651-671.

In the course of time this nature-myth became transformed into a hero-saga; the liberating power of light was humanized into the person of the light-hero Siegfried. This stage of development had already been reached at the time of our earliest records, and the evidences point to the Rhine Franks, a West Germanic tribe settled in the fifth century in the country about Cologne, as the people among whom the transformation from nature-myth to hero-saga took place, for it is among them that the saga in its earliest form is localized. By the Rhine Siegfried is born, there he wins the Nibelungen hoard, and in Frankenland he finds the sleeping valkyrie. By the Rhine, too, he enters into service with the Nibelungen kings and weds their sister.

The Franks had as neighbors up-stream in the first half of the fifth century the Burgundians, an East Germanic tribe. These Burgundians, who were closely allied to the Goths, had originally dwelt in the Baltic region between the Vistula and the Oder, whence they had made their way south westward across Germany and settled in the year 413 in Germania prima on the west bank of the Rhine about Worms. Here a tragic fate was soon to overtake them. In the year 435 they had already suffered a reverse in a conflict with the Romans under Aetius, and two years later, in 437, they were practically annihilated by the Huns. Twenty thousand of them, we are told, fell in battle, the remainder were scattered southward. Beyond the brief record by a contemporary, Prosper, we know but little of this event. It has been conjectured that the Huns were on this occasion acting as auxiliaries of Aetius. At any rate it is fairly certain that Attila was not personally on the scene.

We can easily imagine what a profound impression this extinction of the Burgundians would produce upon the minds of their neighbors the Rhine Franks. Fact, too, would soon become mingled with fiction. This new feat was ascribed to Attila himself, already too well known as the scourge of Europe and the subduer of so many German tribes. A very few years later, however, fate was to subdue the mighty conqueror himself. With the great battle of Chalons in 451 the tide turned against him, and two years afterwards he died a mysterious death. The historian Jordanes of the sixth century relates that on the morning after Attila’s wedding with a German princess named Ildico (Hildiko) he was found lying in bed in a pool of blood, having died of a hemorrhage. The mysteriousness of Attila’s ending inspired his contemporaries with awe, and the popular fancy was not slow to clothe this event also in a dress of fiction. The attendant circumstances peculiarly favored such a process. Historians soon recorded the belief that Attila had perished at the hands of his wife, and it was only a step further for the imagination to find the motive for the deed in the desire of Hildiko to avenge the death of her German kinsmen who had perished through Attila. The saga of Attila’s death is before long connected with the growing Burgundian saga, Hildiko becomes the sister of the Burgundian kings Gundahari, Godomar, and Gislahari, and her deed is vengeance taken upon Attila for his destruction of her brothers. As is seen at once from the outline I have already given (Chapter 2.) of the saga as we find it in the Edda, this is the stage of development it had reached when it began to find its way northward from the Rhine country to Norway and Iceland.

It is unnecessary here to record the speculations–for beyond speculations we cannot go–as to how the union of this historical saga of the Burgundians and Attila with the Siegfried saga took place. In the course of time, and naturally with greatest probability among the Rhine Franks who followed the Burgundians as occupants of Germania prima, the two were brought together, and the three Burgundian kings and their sister were identified with the three Nibelungen kings and their sister of the already localized Siegfried saga. It is also beyond the scope of this introduction to follow the course of the saga northward or to note its further evolution during its wanderings and in its new home until it was finally recorded in poetic form in the Edda. We have now to consider briefly the transformation it passed through in Germany between this date (about 500) and the time (about 1200) when it emerges in written record as the Nibelungenlied.

An account has already been given (Chapter 3.) of the chief features in which the Nibelungenlied differs from the Northern form. As we saw there, the mythical element of the Siegfried saga has almost entirely evaporated and the historical saga of the Burgundian kings and Attila has undergone a complete transformation. That the originally mythical and heathen Siegfried saga should dwindle away with the progress of civilization and under the influence of Christianity was but natural. The character of the valkyrie Brynhild who avenges upon Sigurd his infidelity to her, yet voluntarily unites herself with him in death, as heathen custom demanded, is no longer intelligible. She recedes into the background, and after Siegfried’s death, though she is still living, she plays no further part. The Nibelungenlied found its final form on Upper German, doubtless Austrian, territory. Here alone was it possible that that greatest of all transformations could take place, namely, in the character of Attila. The Franks of the Rhine knew him only as the awe-inspiring conqueror who had annihilated their neighbors the Burgundians. In Austrian lands it was quite otherwise. Many Germanic tribes, particularly the East Goths, had fought under the banner of Attila, and in the tradition handed down from them he lived as the embodiment of wisdom and generosity. Here it was impossible that epic story should picture him as slaying the Burgundian kings through a covetous desire for their gold. The annihilation of the Burgundians is thus left without a motive. To supply this, Kriemhild’s character is placed upon an entirely different basis. Instead of avenging upon Attila the death of her brothers the Burgundian kings, Kriemhild now avenges upon her brothers the slaying of her first husband Siegfried. This fundamental change in the character of Kriemhild has a deep ethical reason. To the ancient heathen Germans the tie of blood-relationship was stronger than that of wedlock, and thus in the original version of the story Attila’s wife avenges upon him the death of her brothers; to the Christianized Germans of later times the marriage bond was the stronger, and accordingly from the altered motive Kriemhild avenges upon her brothers the slaying of her husband. In accordance, too, with this ethical transformation the scene of the catastrophe is transferred from Worms to Attila’s court. Kriemhild now looms up as the central figure of the second half of the drama, while Etzel remains to the last ignorant of her designs for revenge.

This transformation of the fundamental parts of the saga was accompanied by another process, namely, the addition of new characters. Some of these are the product of the poetic faculty of the people or individuals who preserved and remoulded the story in the course of centuries, others are based upon history. To the former class belong the Margrave Ruediger, the ideal of gentle chivalry, and Volker the Fiddler-knight, doubtless a creation of the spielleute. To the second class belong Dietrich of Bern, in whom we see the mighty East Gothic king, Theodoric of Verona; also Bishop Pilgrim of Passau, a very late importation, besides several others in whom are perpetuated in more or less faint outline actual persons of history. This introduction of fresh characters from time to time as the saga grew has led to some strange anachronisms, which however are a disturbing element only to us readers of a modern day, who with sacrilegious hand lift the veil through which they were seen in a uniform haze of romance by the eye of the knights and ladies of seven centuries ago. They neither knew nor cared to know, for instance, that Attila was dead before Theodoric was born, and that Bishop Pilgrim flourished at Passau the trifling space of five hundred years later still.[3]

[3] Attila lived from about 406 to 453; Theodoric, 475 to 526. Pilgrim was Bishop of Passau, 971 to 991.


Preface  •  I. The Nibelungen Saga  •  II. The Nibelungenlied  •  The Nibelungenlied - First Adventure - Kriemhild’s Dream  •  Second Adventure - Siegfried  •  Third Adventure - How Siegfried came to Worms  •  Fourth Adventure - How Siegfried fought with the Saxons  •  Fifth Adventure - How Siegfried first saw Kriemhild  •  Sixth Adventure - How Gunther fared to Isenland to Brunhild  •  Seventh Adventure - How Gunther won Brunhild  •  Eighth Adventure - How Siegfried fared to his Knights, the Nibelungen  •  Ninth Adventure - How Siegfried was sent to Worms  •  Tenth Adventure - How Brunhild was received at Worms  •  Eleventh Adventure - How Siegfried came home with his Wife  •  Twelfth Adventure - How Gunther bade Siegfried to the Feast  •  Thirteenth Adventure - How they fared to the Feast  •  Fourteenth Adventure - How the Queens Berated Each Other  •  Fifteenth Adventure - How Siegfried was Betrayed  •  Sixteenth Adventure - How Siegfried was slain  •  Seventeenth Adventure - How Kriemhild mourned for Siegfried, and How he was Buried  •  Eighteenth Adventure - How Siegmund fared Home Again  •  Nineteenth Adventure - How the Nibelungen Hoard was Brought to Worms  •  Twentieth Adventure - How King Etzel sent to Burgundy for Kriemhild  •  Twenty-First Adventure - How Kriemhild fared to the Huns  •  Twenty-Second Adventure - How Etzel kept the Wedding-feast with Kriemhild  •  Twenty-Third Adventure - How Kriemhild thought to avenge her Wrong  •  Twenty-Fourth Adventure - How Werbel and Schwemmel brought the Message  •  Twenty-Fifth Adventure - How the Knights all fared to the Huns  •  Twenty-Sixth Adventure - How Gelfrat was Slain by Dankwart  •  Twenty-Seventh Adventure - How they came to Bechelaren  •  Twenty-Eighth Adventure - How the Burgundians came to Etzel’s Castle  •  Twenty-Ninth Adventure - How He arose not before Her  •  Thirtieth Adventure - How they kept Guard  •  Thirty-First Adventure - How they went to Mass  •  Thirty-Second Adventure - How Bloedel was Slain  •  Thirty-Third Adventure - How the Burgundians fought with the Huns  •  Thirty-Fourth Adventure - How they cast out the Dead  •  Thirty-Fifth Adventure - How Iring was Slain  •  Thirty-Sixth Adventure - How the Queen bade set fire to the Hall  •  Thirty-Seventh Adventure - How the Margrave Ruediger was Slain  •  Thirty-Eighth Adventure - How all Sir Dietrich’s Knights were Slain  •  Thirty-Ninth Adventure - How Gunther and Hagen and Kriemhild were Slain