(ca. 1200)
   Although we know of several heroic epics that were composed in Middle High German before 1200, the anonymous Nibelungenlied is the most famous representative of this genre, sharing many of its monumental, tragic elements with epics like BEOWULF and CANTAR DE MÍO CID. Composed and later copied down around 1200, probably in Passau on behalf of Bishop Wolfger of Erla, the Nibelungenlied reflects historical events dating back to the fifth century when the Huns under Attila attacked western Europe. In a battle against Roman and Hunnish forces around 436/437, the Burgundian kingdom in the Rhine Valley under King Gundahari was destroyed. The king and thousands of his troops were killed, and the remaining Burgundians were settled by the Romans in the area now known as Burgundy. After the Western Roman Empire ultimately collapsed in 476, the Ostrogothic king Theodoric (called Dietrich in the epic) established his rule over Italy with the approval of the Eastern emperor Zeno in 493 and ruled until 526, but his successors could not maintain control and were eventually defeated by Byzantine forces.
   The Nibelungenlied poet combined many of these historical elements to create a mythical account, best reflected by the initial stanza, which also indicates that he drew from oral sources: “We have been told in ancient tales many marvels of famous heroes of mighty toil, joys, and high festivities, of weeping and wailing, and the fighting of bold warriors.” The epic consists of two major portions connected through the figure of Kriemhild, sister of the three Burgundian kings Gunther, Gernôt, and Giselher, and wife of the hero Siegfried. Siegfried, whose father Sigemunt is king of the Netherlands, arrives in Worms to woo Kriemhild, whom he has never seen before but whose beauty is famous. Gunther’s court steward, Hagen, relates that Siegfried has accomplished many heroic deeds, especially the slaying of a dragon. Siegfried bathed in its blood and acquired an impenetrable skin, except for one spot on his shoulder blade where a leaf from a linden tree had fallen. Siegfried at first demands that Gunther hand over his lands, but the young hero, pacified by the thoughts of Kriemhild, is soon mollified and inducted into the courtly lifestyle. Nevertheless Hagen becomes his mortal enemy, out of envy and fear of Siegfried’s superior strength as displayed in warfare and at hunting. Despite his glamorous appearance, Siegfried quickly demonstrates an irrational and weak character, easily influenced by others and blind in the machinations in his surroundings. In order to win Kriemhild’s hand, Siegfried foolishly assists Gunther in winning the Icelandic queen Brunhild by resorting to deception and cunning, utilizing his magical cloak of invisibility. Brunhild, who thought she was to be Siegfried’s, distrusts her husband and rejects him on the wedding night, humiliating him by binding his hands and feet and hanging him on a nail. Again, Siegfried’s help is requested, and again he takes Gunther’s place, using the magical cloak to defeat Brunhild. Having subdued her, Siegfried takes her ring and belt, symbolically raping her, and practically robbing her of all her superhuman strength. Siegfried gives these two objects to his wife. Later when the couple has returned to Worms for a visit, Kriemhild and Brunhild quarrel over their ranks while arranging their Mass procession. Brunhild assumes that Siegfried is nothing but Gunther’s vassal, which would give her the superior rank over her sister-in-law. But Kriemhild produces Brunhild’s ring and belt. Calling her opponent Siegfried’s whore, she triumphantly walks into the church ahead of her competitor.Brunhild, deeply upset, appeals to Hagen, who convinces Gunther that Siegfried has become a liability and must be killed. During a hunting episode, he stabs Siegfried in the back at the only spot where he is vulnerable, unwittingly revealed to him by Kriemhild. Although Kriemhild immediately realizes who killed her husband and proves Hagen’s guilt when Siegfried’s wound begins to bleed again in Hagen’s presence, she has no means to avenge herself, especially after Hagen takes from her Siegfried’s famous Nibelung treasure and sinks it into the Rhine.
   After 13 years of mourning,Kriemhild is wooed by the Hunnish king Etzel (Attila), and although he is a heathen, finally accepts his offer of marriage. Her motives, however, are transparent: She hopes Etzel will provide her the military and monetary means to realize her revenge. Most important, her relative,Margrave Rüedeger, Etzel’s vassal, secretly negotiates to protect her and to take revenge on anyone who might threaten Kriemhild (1256–57). Seven years later, Kriemhild invites her Burgundian family to visit and insists that Hagen accompany them.
   Gunther and his men accept the invitation and travel to Hungary, but after they have crossed the Danube, Hagen destroys their boat to ensure that no coward among them dare flee for home. This is in response to the “water nixes’ ” prophecy that none but their chaplain will return alive. Hagen tests the prophecy by throwing the chaplain overboard into the Danube.When the latter reaches shore despite his inability to swim, Hagen knows the warning is accurate.
   Although King Etzel tries to treat his guests hospitably, Kriemhild incites hostilities, quickly leading to massive slaughters on both sides. Finally Kriemhild reminds Etzel of his promise, and after killing many warriors Rüedeger is confronted by Gernôt: Tragically, they slay each other, although Rüedeger’s daughter and Gernôt’s brother Giselher had been engaged. Finally Kriemhild incites Dietrich, another exiled Germanic warrior at Etzel’s court, to assist her, but all his men are killed except his master-at-arms, Hildebrand. Ultimately Dietrich himself battles the sole survivors among the Burgundians,Hagen and Gunther, taking both prisoners without slaying them. Kriemhild, in her insatiable desire for revenge, has Gunther killed, and decapitates Hagen with her own hand when he refuses to return the Nibelung treasure, a metonymic symbol of Siegfried. Hildebrand, witnessing this horrible scene, leaps at her and cuts her into pieces.
   The Nibelungenlied poet gravely laments the catastrophic outcome, but he refrains from telling us anything about the subsequent events. An anonymous poet later picked up this narrative thread and composed a lengthy poem, Die Klage (The Lament), which describes the enormous grief affecting all survivors, their relatives, and friends, until Gunther’s son is crowned as his successor. Many other heroic poems in various languages later drew from the Nibelungenlied, demonstrating its enormous popularity and powerful literary messages regarding the consequences of violence, revenge, hatred, jealousy, irrational discourse, lack of communication, and the tragic implications of absolute bonds of blood fealty.
   Since the publication of its first modern edition in 1782, the Nibelungenlied has been a major source for mythical reflections about the Middle Ages and was abused as a treasure house for modern nationalistic, even Nazi ideology, especially when concepts such as honor, supreme loyalty, leadership, and absolute heroism in the name of the fatherland were evoked. Hermann Göring’s perverse comparison of the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943 with the Burgundians’ final battle at the court of King Etzel stands out.More spiritual approaches informed Friedrich Hebbel’s drama Nibelungen (1862) and Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (1876). The profound and continuous influence of the poem can be documented by a vast number of modern retellings, translations, movies, paintings, and dramatizations.
   ■ Classen, Albrecht. “The Downfall of a Hero: Siegfried’s Self-Destruction and the End of Heroism in the Nibelungenlied,”German Studies Review 26, no. 2 (2003): 295–314.
   ■ Das Nibelungenlied. After the edition by Karl Bartsch. 22nd ed. by Roswitha Wisniewski. Mannheim, Germany: Brockhaus, 1988.
   ■ Gentry, Francis G., Winder McConnell, Ulrich Müller, and Werner Wunderlich, eds. The Nibelungen Tradition: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2002.
   ■ Hatto, A. T., trans. The Nibelungenlied. London: Penguin, 1965.
   ■ Haymes, Edward R., and Susann T. Samples. Heroic Legends of the North: An Introduction to the Nibelung and Dietrich Cycles. New York: Garland, 1996.
   ■ McConnell,Winder, ed. A Companion to the Nibelungenlied. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House and Boydell and Brewer, 1998.
   Albrecht Classen

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Nibelungenlied — Ni be*lung en*lied , n. [G. See {Nibelungs}; {Lied}.] A great medieval German epic of unknown authorship containing traditions which refer to the Burgundians at the time of Attila (called Etzel in the poem) and mythological elements pointing to… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Nibelungenlied — (Der Nibelunge Not), deutsches Heldengedicht, die Krone der mittelalterlichen volksmäßigen Poesie und die einzige epische Dichtung der Welt, die an Bedeutung den Homerischen Epen einigermaßen vergleichbar ist. Der stoffliche Inhalt des in 39… …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Nibelungenlied — (Der Nibelunge Nôt), das bedeutendste mittelhochdeutsche Volksepos, erzählt mit Benutzung alter Mythen und histor. Sage in seinem ersten Teile die Werbung Siegfrieds von Niederlanden um Kriemhild, die Schwester des Burgundenkönigs Gunther, seine… …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • Nibelungenlied — Nibelungenlied, das Lied der, das älteste Erzeugniß deutscher Volkspoesie, reicht, wie man annimmt, zwei Jahrhunderte über Karl d. Gr. hinaus, und bestand, wie alle Uranfänge der Dichtung, wahrscheinlich aus einzelnen Volks und Heldengesängen,… …   Damen Conversations Lexikon

  • Nibelungenlied — Nibelungenlied, der Nibelunge Not (Nibelungen, das Volk am Mittelrhein), die größte Dichtung aus der Zeit des sog. Minnesangs, ein Epos, in welches altnordische Mythen (deren Bedeutung den christlichen Germanen verloren gegangen war, daher sie in …   Herders Conversations-Lexikon

  • Nibelungenlied — German epic poem of 13c., lit. song of the Nibelungs, a race of dwarves who lived in Norway and owned a hoard of gold and a magic ring, lit. children of the mist, related to O.H.G. nebul mist, darkness, O.E. nifol (see NEBULA (Cf. nebula)) …   Etymology dictionary

  • Nibelungenlied — [nē′bə looŋ΄ən lēt΄] n. [Ger, lit., song of the Nibelungs] a Middle High German epic poem by an unknown author, written in the first decade of the 13th cent. and based on Germanic legends: see SIEGFRIED …   English World dictionary

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  • Nibelungenlied — The Nibelungenlied, translated as The Song of the Nibelungs, is an epic poem in Middle High German. The story tells of dragon slayer Siegfried at the court of the Burgundians, how he was murdered, and of his wife Kriemhild s revenge. The… …   Wikipedia

  • Nibelungenlied — Ni|be|lụn|gen|lied 〈n. 12; unz.; Lit.〉 mhd., strophisches Heldenepos von unbekanntem Verfasser aus dem 13. Jh. * * * Nibelungenlied,   mittelhochdeutsches Heldenepos eines namentlich nicht bekannten Dichters um 1200 im Donaugebiet (Passau?), das… …   Universal-Lexikon

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