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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical Introduction by Charles Harvey Genung

By Nibelungenlied (Twelfth Century)

THE ANCIENT epic poetry of the German race was the outcome of the vast migration of the peoples that wrecked the Roman Empire and laid the foundations of modern European civilization. That tremendous cataclysm out of which a new world slowly rose was accompanied by impressive events, profound emotions, and deeds of lofty heroism, which deeply stirred the imagination of a poetic people. It is by an inborn impulse that man seeks to give to his emotions, and to the events that call them forth, poetic expression and permanence. And thus the excited fancy began at once to play about the prominent figures and striking moments of that magnificent drama, and a rich hoard of legendary lore was stored up for future generations. With the material actually furnished by history, the gods and myths of a remoter age were naïvely blended. As the traditions grew old and were seen through the haze of years, successive generations shaped anew their ancestral heritage. All that is best in the epic traditions of the migration, winnowed by the centuries and refined by the ideals of a more polished age, is to be found in the Nibelungenlied. It is the voice of a vigorous and high-hearted people, speaking in the proud consciousness of its own substantial worth. Here beside the cruelties of a rude and martial time are also the rugged virtues which Tacitus praised. Faithfulness, loyalty, integrity, are the ornaments of the primitive Teutonic character. Its adaptability and receptivity are also manifest. In contact with the higher civilization of Rome and the teachings of Christianity, the Germans assimilated the benefits of both with their own national traits. The Nibelungenlied marks the culmination of the great process which had made Rome a German empire, and had transformed the invading hordes into a highly civilized people. Not only by reason of its splendid poetic and dramatic power, but also as a monument in the history of the human race, the Nibelungenlied takes rank among the great national epics of the world’s literature.

If a comparison between the Iliad and the Nibelungenlied as poems would be a futile piece of literary conjuring,—Goethe called it a “pernicious endeavor,”—in a large historical sense they present some interesting points of resemblance. The invulnerability of Siegfried except where the linden leaf had fallen upon his shoulder, and the invulnerability of Achilles except in the heel, have a curious similarity,—from which, however, no sure inference can be drawn. The real points of resemblance lie only in the sources and circumstances out of which the poems arose. The creative power of Homer is incomparably superior to that of the Nibelungen poet; but the obscure events in the dim dawn of history, of which the legendary materials used by the poets were the imaginative product, were in both cases connected with a great migration, in which a young and powerful people overcame an older and finer one, to receive in turn the benefits of contact with the civilization it had overthrown. Both poets had inherited a vast treasury of legends whose historical origin was already faded, and with these they blended the myths of an age still more remote; but the manners and customs and geography are those of their own time, without pretense of antiquarian accuracy. In the Nibelungenlied the conflict between two civilizations is not the theme; there are no fine contrasts such as Homer has drawn between the rude camp life of the Greek warriors and the polished social organization of the citizens of Troy: but the whole poem is in itself a witness of the ancient contact and now almost complete amalgamation between the virtues, customs, and beliefs of an old heathen race, and the softer manners of a cultured, Christianized people. Each poem stands at the beginning of its literature, and each bears evidence that it is the culmination of a long series of efforts in which the poetic genius of the people had been working upon its legendary material, until in the hands of a great artist this material finally took its monumental and lasting form. Each poem, moreover, marks the highest point reached by the folk-poetry of the respective races; with these works art had entered into literature, and thenceforth the simple songs that flowed from the lips of untaught singers lost their former dignity. After Homer, though at a long interval, came the classic age of Greek letters; after the Nibelungenlied, the Minnesingers and the glories of the Hohenstaufen time. It is furthermore interesting to observe how in more recent literary history the two currents of influence represented by the Iliad and by the Nibelungenlied have been brought into contrast. The classicism of French literature in the age of Louis XIV. was a harking back to the form and style of the ancient Greeks, and these French models dominated German literature in the eighteenth century. The revolt of Romanticism against this domination was a harking back to the mediæval and purely Germanic form and style exemplified in the Nibelungenlied. Thirteen centuries after Attila had carried terror to the gates of Rome, the poetry which had its rise in those great invasions was made the basis of a patriotic national revival, and upon it the Romanticists proceeded to create the literature of a new time. Thus it became the mission of the Nibelungenlied, after lying for more than two centuries utterly forgotten, to strengthen anew the hearts of a late generation, which lay prostrate before Napoleon, and to remind the German people of their ancient greatness. It acted as a national liberator. Not only was this epic monument their own, but the heroes whom it celebrates were their ancestors, and in their veins still flowed the blood of the warriors who had vanquished the legions of Rome.

For two centuries and a half the Nibelungenlied lay totally neglected and forgotten. This fact is a witness to the demoralizing nature of the struggles through which Germany was forced to pass during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1500 she stood in the vanguard of the nations; in 1650 she was but the shadow of a once mighty people, now completely exhausted physically and intellectually. Incessant wars, with famine in their wake, had in thirty years reduced a population of sixteen millions to four, and had cowed and brutalized the survivors. All continuity with the fine traditions of the past was broken. In the olden time the legends of the Nibelungen were widely known. Echoes of them are heard even in the Anglo-Saxon ‘Beówulf.’ In the centuries after the Lied had taken the form in which we know it, its popularity was universal. But the rise of the highly elaborated court poetry had already begun to undermine the taste for the elder epic. The gradual petrifaction of the Minnesang into the Meistersang contributed to the same end, and the revival of learning in the brilliant Humanistic movement hastened the process. The intellectual upheaval known as the Reformation, although out of line with the Humanistic Renascence, also helped to subvert the old Germanic traditions, in which so many healthy heathen elements held a still persistent place. The last person who seems to have taken any interest in the Nibelungenlied was the Emperor Maximilian, who had a manuscript of it made. In the sixteenth century there is no mention of the poem, except by a few obscure historians who used it superficially and unintelligently as a historical document. Lazius, the Austrian scholar, quotes several strophes in his ‘History of the Migrations.’ In the seventeenth century, amid the devastations of the Thirty Years’ War, it had passed so entirely from human ken that Opitz, the literary dictator of his threadbare time, had no other knowledge of it than what he had derived from Lazius; and as late as 1752 Gottsched, the literary leader of an equally threadbare period, seems not to have known that such a poem had ever existed. Just four years later the Nibelungenlied was “discovered.” Inspired by Bodmer’s Old German studies, a Swiss physician found at the castle of Hohenems a manuscript of the poem which is now regarded as the oldest form in which the work has come down to us. It contains the famous ‘Klage’ or lamentation for the fallen heroes; and in 1757 Bodmer published the second part under the title of ‘Kriemhild’s Revenge.’ But the work aroused no interest even among those most interested in the folk-lore and poetry of their native land. Neither Herder nor Lessing nor Klopstock recognized the national epic; Wieland too remained untouched, although when the work came out he was in daily intercourse with Bodmer. Indeed, Bodmer himself was not aware that he was dealing with a great poem, but regarded it rather as an antiquarian curiosity. The first complete edition of the Nibelungenlied appeared in 1782. Professor Myller of Berlin included it in his collection of ‘Poems of the Twelfth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Centuries.’ The fact that such a collection had found subscribers at all is evidence that some languid interest in these early ages had begun to manifest itself; but it was still an interest of curiosity rather than one of appreciation. A letter addressed to Myller by Frederick the Great will best illustrate the attitude of many cultivated readers of that time. Myller had sent a copy of his work to the King, who, writing from Potsdam in 1784, said:—“Most learned and faithful subject, dear sir: You think a great deal too much of those poems of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries which you have had printed, and which you consider of so much value for the enrichment of the German language. In my opinion they are not worth a gunshot, and did not deserve to be dragged out of the dust of oblivion. In my own library I should not tolerate such wretched stuff, but throw it away at once. The copy that has been sent to me may therefore await its fate in the great library there [Berlin]. Much demand for it cannot be promised by your otherwise gracious king, Frederick.” Goethe also received a copy of Myller’s work, but it was unbound, and he did not read it; only the warning of the mermaidens to Hagen, which happened to lie on top of one of the loose signatures, attracted his attention for a moment. In after years, however, when in conversation with Eckermann he defined the classic as health and the romantic as disease, he added: “For that reason the Nibelungenlied is classic like Homer, for both are healthy and strong.” In another place he wrote: “The acquaintance with this poem marks a new stage in the history of the nation’s culture.” To this larger appreciation of the importance of the Nibelungenlied in the history of civilization it was still a far cry when Myller issued his first edition; and only after the humiliation of the defeat at Jena in 1806 did the eyes of Germany turn once more to the glories of her heroic age, and to their embodiment in the national epic.

The stimulus to the true appreciation and scientific study of the Nibelungenlied came from the circle of the Romanticists. In 1802 and 1803 A. W. von Schlegel delivered a course of lectures in Berlin in which he treated of the poem in detail. These lectures were not published; but among the hearers was Von der Hagen, who caught the enthusiasm of the lecturer, and began a translation of the Lied which was published in 1807. In 1810 he issued the first critical edition of the original text. He was followed by Lachmann, whose labors in this field were epoch-making. The Nibelungen craze had broken forth in earnest, and with it came the whole unrefreshing controversy over the origins of the poem and the relative antiquity of the manuscripts. It is not to the purpose to review this strife of scholars in detail. Lachmann approached the question from a preconceived viewpoint which had been furnished him by Wolf’s ‘Prolegomena to Homer.’ He differentiated in the Nibelungenlied twenty independent Lieder, all of which had been more or less modified by subsequent transcribers and interpolators. These songs, he maintained, had then been put together by one reviser or arranger, and thus was produced the composite poem which we have. Of the twenty-eight or more manuscripts of which we have knowledge, only three come into consideration; the others are transcriptions. The St. Gallen manuscript, known to scholars as B, and the Hohenems manuscript (C), which Bodmer had used, Lachmann declared to be later revisions; while the oldest form of the poem was to be found in a third manuscript, also discovered at Hohenems, which he denominated A. It was this one that Myller had used for the first part of his edition, though following Bodmer’s C in the second part. All these tenets were held sacred for thirty years by the adherents of Lachmann. In 1854, however, arose one Holtzmann, who ably defended the essential unity of the poem and confuted Lachmann’s reasoning concerning the manuscripts. He declared that C was the oldest; but assumed that the original form was no longer extant, and even went so far as to name its author, Konrad, the secretary of the Bishop Pilgrim of Passau, who is mentioned in the poem. Germany now had not only her Homeric question but her Nibelungen question also. The controversy reached a fierce stage, and the learned uproar tended to discredit the entire matter in the eyes of the lay observer. In 1862 Pfeiffer added new fuel. It is a well-known fact that down to the middle of the thirteenth century it was an unwritten but well-observed law among German singers that the inventor of a new strophe became its exclusive owner. The Nibelungen strophe is that used by the oldest of the Minnesingers, Kürenberg, who flourished in the thirteenth century; him, accordingly, Pfeiffer designated as the author of the original poem. To-day it is the prevailing view that the Nibelungenlied is the work of one poet who in the present stage of our knowledge cannot be named, and that the Hohenems manuscript (C) is probably the oldest form in which it has been preserved. This is the view which the poet Uhland, seeing with clearer vision than his brother philologists, long ago maintained; and we may now be permitted to regard the poem as the product of a single genius shaping the legends of his land.

The Nibelungenlied was called a song because it was intended to be sung; it is an epic because it is a descriptive narrative of momentous events; it is also dramatic because there is a logical development in Kriemhild’s character, an inevitable interaction of motives, and an irresistible and gradually accelerated movement towards the catastrophe. No outline of a work so “gigantic,” to use Goethe’s phrase, can give an adequate idea of its impressiveness. The poem, which is written in Middle High German, consists of two parts: the first contains nineteen Adventures, the second twenty. The first part is joyous with wooings and weddings, with festal preparations and brilliant expeditions, until the quarrel of the queens begins the tragedy which ends in the death of Siegfried. The second part is devoted to Kriemhild’s revenge, which results in the annihilation of all her people. It is somber, ominous, tragic. But from the beginning, and often in the midst of the festivities, the poet sounds the warning note that forebodes this tragic conclusion. The poem opens with a description of fair Kriemhild and the situation at the Burgundian court. Kriemhild is telling her mother of a dream she has had: a falcon which she had trained was torn to death by two fierce eagles. Siegfried’s death is thus foreshadowed. In the second adventure Siegfried is introduced. He has heard of Kriemhild’s beauty, and is determined to win her. Reluctantly his parents prepare an elaborate wardrobe,—a necessary preliminary to every journey, which is several times described in the poem with affectionate detail. Siegfried is cordially received by the Burgundians, whom he assists in a war against the Saxons. He grows popular, and all seek to do him honor. Kriemhild’s shy growing interest in the handsome stranger is delicately indicated. For a whole year he does not reveal his purpose; not until Gunther is seized with a desire to win and wed Brunhild, the strong maiden of the north. This is a perilous enterprise, for every wooer must meet her in various trials of strength, and if unsuccessful lose his life. Siegfried promises to aid Gunther if in return he shall receive Kriemhild for his wife. They undertake the journey to Issland; and Siegfried, rendered invisible by his cloud-cloak, enables Gunther to overcome Brunhild. He then procures thirty thousand of his own Nibelungers as a royal retinue, and at Worms there are soon two bridal couples. Siegfried and Kriemhild are radiantly happy, but Gunther’s difficulties are not yet ended. Siegfried’s supernatural power is again required to subdue the fierce northern maiden to her husband’s will. The symbolic ring and girdle which Siegfried wrests from Brunhild he gives to Kriemhild. The tragedy is now in train. At the portals of the cathedral of Worms arises an unfortunate quarrel between the two high-hearted queens. Each asserts the superiority of her own husband, and claims precedence. In an unguarded moment of wrath Kriemhild reveals to her rival who it was that subdued her, and she displays the girdle and ring. The clouds begin to gather over the scene. The days of innocent merry-making are past, and Siegfried, the impersonation of sunny serenity and human happiness, is doomed. Hagen, the somber figure who moves grim-visaged through the poem, faithful to no one but to his king, learns from Kriemhild the secret of Siegfried’s vulnerable spot. At Brunhild’s instigation, but with his own covetous purposes, he treacherously murders Siegfried. At the solemn funeral Siegfried’s wounds, opening in Hagen’s presence, reveal the murderer to Kriemhild. The Nibelungen hoard is brought to Worms and buried in the Rhine. Only Gunther and Hagen know the spot. Henceforth the Burgundians are called also the Nibelungers. So follows for Kriemhild, after her brief happiness, thirteen years of sorrow and mourning. The first part ends in the midst of gloom. In the second part Attila sends his knight Rudiger to sue for Kriemhild’s hand. She with her purposes concealed becomes his wife, and the scene is transferred to the Hungarian court. Thirteen years more pass, and Kriemhild lives in honor at Attila’s side; but “her home-bred wrongs again she brooded o’er.” She invites her brothers on the Rhine to attend a great festival at her husband’s court. In spite of Hagen’s gloomy forebodings, the Burgundians go to Hungary, and in their progress thither ominous signs announce the coming woe. Hagen is warned by the wise mermaidens, but resolutely he proceeds. The entire army is ferried over the Danube, which none but the king’s chaplain is destined to recross. The events now move with tragic rapidity. Hagen knows his fate and defies it, sitting in Kriemhild’s presence with Siegfried’s sword across his knee. Death follows death, and in the general slaughter the bodies are thrown out of the windows, the hall is set on fire, and the Nibelungers are destroyed to the last man. Kriemhild herself cuts off Hagen’s head with Siegfried’s sword Balmung, and with him is lost forever the secret of the fatal hoard. Incensed at this cruel act, the famous Hildebrand, Dietrich’s man, slays Kriemhild, and so perish utterly the Burgundians of the Rhine.

Such is the briefly outlined story of the Nibelungers’ fall. It is a song of the wrath of Kriemhild. She is the center of interest, and upon her character the poet has bestowed his most loving care. She appeared as the gentle, carefully guarded maid, timidly telling her mother of a dream. Siegfried gave her life new value, and love exalted her powers; proudly she walked by his side a stately queen. With his death joy departed from her life; her tenderness was hardened into a passion for revenge, and to this end she dedicated the whole strength of her character. Thenceforth she moves a threatening figure towards the great catastrophe. Siegfried’s character is less complex; he is radiant, joyous, triumphant. Next to these two, Hagen, Dietrich, and Rudiger are the figures to which the most interest attaches. Hagen is the embodiment of grim fatalistic fidelity; Dietrich, large-souled and noble, preserves all the fine characteristics with which he was invested by the epic cycle of which he is the center; Rudiger is a knight of the chivalric age, and is probably a creation of the Nibelungen poet. He is the most lovable and modern of all the group. The conflict between his duty to the Nibelungers, imposed upon him by the sacred rights of hospitality which he has given and received, and his duty to his king and Kriemhild, is a touch wholly modern. Over all the tragedy hovers mysteriously the power of the hoard, but these reminiscences of the mythical happenings of long ago serve only to create an ominous atmosphere: the course of events could not have been otherwise, for the motives are all human.

The origins of the Nibelungenlied are purely Germanic. The mythical and historical elements are clearly distinguishable. The former have faded into the background and given place to human interests; ethical motives have superseded the mythological. The curse of the hoard, Siegfried’s sword and cloud-cloak, and all the marvels of that elder time, come to us in faint echoes, like the surge of a far-off ocean heard in the shells of the sea. These echoes are of the ‘Elder Edda’; but they are of Germanic origin, for the Eddic myths were not indigenous to the North. The strange old heathen traditions had not altogether lost their vitality, however; for although the fundamental ideas of the Nibelungenlied are on a plane of exalted morality, it is essentially a heathen code that obtains. Nowhere is there a trace of any supreme power controlling the destinies of men. The Christian Church is purely external, and belongs to the scenery and ceremonial. Siegfried and Brunhild have brought with them from the ‘Eddas’ some part of their inheritance from a wonder-working age, but they are human beings; Brunhild has lost her impressiveness and grandeur, Siegfried has gained in sympathetic qualities. In the older sources the Burgundian kings come to their death not through their sister, there named Gudrun, but through Attila, who covets their treasure, and upon whom in turn, according to ancient German usage, Gudrun wreaks blood-vengeance. From historical sources we have Etzel (Attila), Dietrich of Bern (Theodoric of Verona), and Gunther (Gundicar), who with all his Burgundian people was killed in battle with the Huns in the year 437. The Nibelungen poet has of course dealt freely with his materials, for he was a poet and not a chronicler. The fatal encounter with the Huns doubtless took place on the left bank of the Rhine and not on the shores of the Danube. It was probably not Attila who led the Huns, but his brother Bleda, who appears in the Lied as Bloedel. Dietrich is taken from another cycle of epics, of which Theodoric the Great, King of the Visigoths and of Italy, was the center, and he belonged to a later generation than Attila. Gunther’s brother Giselher also has some dim historical existence, and the already mentioned Bishop Pilgrim of Passau can be traced to a real personage. All other attempts to establish a historical basis for the characters and events of the poem have little plausibility. But the skill with which all these elements are united in an organic whole shows that epic narrative had passed out of the realm of folk poetry into the hands of the conscious plastic artist. It is a noble monument erected by a sturdy people upon the threshold of modern history, and was worthy to become a rallying-point for their patriotic posterity.