While the last of my posts for German Literature Month (coming up later this week) has been set for a good while now, I did have one gap in my schedule. Candidates included another of Wolfgang Hilbig’s novellas, Anna Seghers’ novel Das siebte Kreuz (The Seventh Cross) and Eugen Ruge’s Cabo de Gata, a book I’ve been wanting to try for ages. As is often the case, though, fate lent a hand in the form of my previous read, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kein Roman (Not a Novel). You see, one of her essays took as its starting point a certain Germanic legend, and when I remembered that I had a little book lying neglected on my shelves… well, I’m sure you can guess the rest 😉
Die Nibelungensage (‘The Nibelung Saga’) is a modern(ish) retelling of the Nibelungenlied, an epic poem dating from the start of the thirteenth century blending two aspects of Germanic myth and history: the betrayal of the great hero Siegfried and the subsequent annihilation of the Burgundy nobles behind his death. This version takes the original epic verse and converts it into prose, making for a smooth, entertaining read in a style akin to the Robin Hood or King Arthur books you may have read as a child. It isn’t the longest of books, but it manages to pack a fair amount in, including (imminent trigger warning) a great deal of bloodshed…
The first part of the story introduces Siegfried, legendary hero, slayer of ogres and the owner of the Nibelung treasure (which includes lots of gold, a big sword and a magical invisibility cap that provides him with great strength). Having decided that it’s time to seek a bride, he sets off for King Gunther’s court in the ‘Burgundy’ region (on the Rhine) to see if the king’s sister, Kriemhilde, is the woman he will marry. As it turns out, Gunther needs assistance with his own marital issues, and Siegfried’s happy to help out – on one condition:
Als Gunther aber nicht darauf hörte, riet Hagen, sich der Hilfe Siegfrieds zu versichern, da er Brunhilde gut kannte. Da bat König Gunther diesen, ihm beizustehen, und Siegfried antwortete: “Das will ich gern tun, wenn Ihr mir Eure Schwester zur Frau gebt. Das sei mein Lohn, sonst benötige ich keinen Dank.”
p.11 (Hamburger Lesehefte Verlag, 2010)
When Gunther refused to listen to this (suggestion), however, Hagen advised him to secure the aid of Siegfried, as he knew Brunhilde well. Whereupon King Gunther asked the hero to stand by him, and Siegfried replied: “I will be happy to do so if Your Highness allows me to marry your sister. That is my wage, I require no other thanks.
*** (my translation)
The thing is, Brunhilde and Siegfried have a history (even if he can’t remember it…), and while the plan goes smoothly at first, the new queen soon realises that she’s been duped. She’s a woman scorned, and there are plenty of people around who will help her take revenge.
The second half then continues the story after Siegfried’s death. Kriemhilde fumes away, waiting for a chance to avenge her late husband, which eventually comes in the form of another marriage, this time to Attila the Hun (I kid you not…). With years having passed, her family and friends are only too happy to accept an invitation to visit her new kingdom, and despite the odd dissenting voice, the unsuspecting Burgundians set off on the long journey to Hungary, and their doom. Have you heard of the Red Wedding? That’s a kids’ party by comparison with what happens in the land of the Huns…
As you can see, it’s all great fun. This is a story that I’d heard bits of before, but never really knew. It’s a classic tale with classic themes, with the characters passing through stages of friendship, betrayal and revenge, with an inevitable fate hanging over them all the while. The familiar feel to the structure is offset by the setting, with the heroes traipsing through Mitteleuropa (the Rhine, the Danube, Bavaria, Austria, Hungary) rather than Camelot or Sherwood Forest, and there’s even an excellent battle scene to top it all off. What’s not to like?
Siegfried himself is a familiar kind of hero. He’s Achilles-like in more than the sense of having one vulnerable spot (for the River Styx and a thumb read dragon blood and a leaf!). Strong and kind, but also a bit dumb, he’s far too trusting for his own good. You suspect that a smarter (or less confident) man would have seen it all coming. Certainly, the signs are there early on that not everyone is happy to have him at King Gunther’s court.
Surprisingly, the Nibelungenlied isn’t really about him, though, with two of the other characters stealing the spotlight. As the story progresses, Kriemhilde comes ever more into the foreground. Initially, she’s your run-of-the-mill passive royal woman, happy to have been allowed to marry the handsome prince, but we soon see a nasty streak to her in her determination to put Brunhilde in her place. Once Siegfried is gone, her grief brings this dark side into the open as she transforms into a psychopath bent on revenge. Even those around her (including her legendary second husband) are appalled at the lengths she will go to avenge her man’s death.
The other major character here is Siegfried’s slayer, Hagen von Tronje, the dark figure behind all the violence. If Siegfried is an Achilles, Hagen is a mix of the cunning of Ulysses, the strength of Ajax and the pride of Agamemnon. The writer brings this across well, particularly when we get to the arrival of the Burgundians at the castle of the Huns:
So ritten sie das letzte Stück zur Hunnenburg, viel bestaunt von allen Menschen. Vor allem der große und starke Hagen erregte ihre Aufmerksamkeit, von dem manches kühne Abentuer und manche Heldentat bekannt war, vor allem, dass er den stärksten aller Helden, Siegfried von Niederland, bezwungen hatte. Seine düstere Erscheining, sein grimmiges Gesicht und sein ergrautes Haar unter dem starken Eisenhelm flößten ihnen Furcht ein. (p.48)
Thus they rode the last stretch on to the castle of the Huns, while everyone looked on in awe. Above all, the mighty, imposing Hagen caught their attention, of whom many a bold adventure and many a heroic deed was known, above all that he had defeated the mightiest of all heroes, Siegfried of the Netherland. His sombre appearance, his fierce countenance and the grey hair under his great iron helmet instilled a fear in them. ***
Hagen is the only one that realises the depth of Kriemhilde’s anger, knowing that none of them are likely to make it back alive, but he does his best to make sure that this suicide mission will turn out to be nothing more than a Pyrrhic victory for the enraged queen. Comparing the two characters, the beauty of the story is that somehow the tables are turned as the story develops. It’s fair to say that the reader is likely to sympathise more with the murderer than with the wife of the victim…
It makes for a rollicking story, and I enjoyed it immensely, with a couple of caveats. Firstly, this is essentially a kids’ retelling of a classic text. There are versions out there more faithful to the original poem, and I’d like to take a look at one of them one day. Secondly, as mentioned, the Nibelungenlied is just one part of a wider story. Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen focuses on the mythic part of the story, providing more of Siegfried and Brunhilde’s backstory, and I’d love to learn more about that side of the tale (here, Siegfried is dispatched very early on).
Still, I’d certainly recommend it, an entertaining tale that all lovers of German literature should check out (I’m not quite sure how, though), and there is a moral behind all the bloodshed. The writer is attempting to make clear that the old Germanic idea of revenge can often be disastrous for all concerned. The consequences of fealty and blind loyalty mean you should really think carefully before stabbing someone in the back…