The Enigma of Das Nibelungenlied (ht)
So begins the first stophe of the Nibelungenlied, a long verse epic in middle High German that dates from the beginning of the thirteen century, presents something of an anomaly among great works of world literature:
Viel Wunderdinge melden die Mären alter Zeit
Von preiswerthen Helden, von großer Kühnheit,
Von Freud und Festlichkeiten, von Weinen und von Klagen,
Von kühner Recken Streiten mögt ihr nun Wunder hören sagen.
Many wonderful things are told by tales from times of yore,
Of worthy heroes, of great boldness,
Of joy and festivities, of crying and lamenting.
Of bold knights’ fighting you may now hear much to be said.
Unlike contemporary works in the Arthurian tradition it evinces nothing of the essentially Christian high idealism and romance of those works. Rather it accords with the dismal cultural pessimism one associates with the legendary Götterdämmerung (the Twilight of the Gods) in Nordic mythology. It evinces no strong evidence of a belief in the ultimate conquest of divine providence that mitigates even those narratives that are based on the theme of the biblical apocalypse. The bitter rivalry between two queens, Brunhild and Kriemhild, and the consequent slaughter of Siegfried, Kriemhild’s husband, leads to an orgy of treachery and revenge that ends in the bloodbath that befalls the Burgundian guests of Attila (Etzel) at the end of the story.
In the Nibelungenlied we find archetypal motifs in the fatal attraction of gold, the inseparability of eros and thanatos, the fragility of the social order in a fusion of historic memories and Nordic mythology. Brunhild recalls a so-named ruler of Burgundy when a province of the Merovingian empire, who was embroiled in the battles and violence that broke out in the sixth century. Other characters likewise recall historical figures living in the same period, Dietrich of Bern (Theodoric of Verona), and Gunther (Gundicar), or in Attila’s case shortly before, during the final decades of Western Roman Empire. In the story Brunhild begins life as an Icelandic queen, an indication that the narrative poses a merging of two worlds, that of the Merovingian empire and that of Scandinavian mythology.
The figure of Siegfried stands out from those of other characters in the story. He might be seen as a transfiguration of another historically attested contemporary of Brunhild and the others, King Sieghurt II, while some scholars and researchers object that Siegfried’s special status as a superman, well nigh a demigod, demands a commensurately illustrious provenance and this, they argue, can none but Arminius provide as the victorious German leader who defeated the legions of Varus at the battle of the Teutoburger Forest in 9 AD. Parallels between the historical events associated with Arminius and events narrated in the Nibelungenlied abound. The image of the fearful dragon slain by Siegfried arguably corresponds to the visual effect created by winding column of Roman soldiers in their glinting armour. Matthias Schulz in his article Die Spur des Drachen (published in Der Spiegel, 14.05.2005) adduces an impressive number of items of evidence in support of his thesis that Siegfried evokes collective memories of Arminius. He points out that the German name of Arminius was not Hermann, this being simply a Germanization of his Roman name. He notes that the prefix Sieg- commonly appeared in the German personal names in Roman times, including in that of Arminius’s father. Furthermore he relates the account of the immense wealth of the Nibelungen dwarfs that Hagen cast into the Rhine to an impressive finding of Roman artifacts in the region of Hildesheim, this being putatively but a small portion of the loot that must have fallen into the hands of Arminius and his men after the Battle of the Teutoburger Forest
Does the lapse of time between 9 AD and the twelfth century rule out any conscious attempt to evoke the memory of Arminius as a superhero? Schulz cites Tacitus’s report that the German victory was frequently celebrated in song and verse throughout the lands of the Germanic tribes. German minstrels and singers spread the fame of Arminius to the coasts of Norway and elsewhere in Scandinavia where the message underwent a process of transformation and blending with tales about Brunhild, Krimhild and Gunther.as a consequence of which Brunhild was relocated to Iceland. The Edda, the upshot of this process in the form of a collection of poems which incorporate lays dedicated to the theme of the Nibelungen legend and many others found its way back to the lands of the Frankish empire, providing the writer of Nibelungenlied with all the material he required.
Speculations about the origins of the narrative apart, what motivated its author to write it? No desire of the anonymous author for personal fame evidently. Thus we are left with the writer’s strong inner drive and perhaps his sense of mission. He seems to have been under no compunction to compose another epic in the Arthurian vein. His apparent homage to fair ladies and worthy knights evident in the opening verses proves in the end to be charged with irony. He may even have purposed to write an expressly anti-Arthurian epic. What in the mood of his times could have induced such a decision?
At this time a sense of German solidarity was emerging, this being evidenced by lines by Walter von der Vogelweide’s poem ‘ir sult sprechen willekommen,’ a eulogy of all things German (‘tiusch’), a word that previously referred to the speech of the common people in any of the various Germanic dialects that were spoken within and even beyond the Merovingian empire. Walter’s verses betray a strong aversion to the pope of the day on the basis of his alleged financial exploitation of the wealth of German-speaking peoples The absence of a compendium of explicitly German poetry had resulted from the suppression of local folkloric traditions by Louis the Pious, the son of Charlemagne, in compliance with his understanding of ‘edifying’ literature.
Throughout subsequent history interest or the lack thereof in the Nibelungenlied has reflected the mood of the times. Almost forgotten in the Late Middle Ages, the period of the Reformation and the Thirty Years War, the Nibelungenlied aroused heightened interest in times of cultural self-assurance, particularly in the period of the Romantic revival and the lead-up to German unification during the nineteenth century. After all, the worldwide fame of the Nibelungenlied is largely attributable to Wagner’s operas. Events in the twentieth century have given Siegfried a bad name as a result of its abuse by National-Socialist propaganda. Authors, whether Friedrich von Schiller as he wrote the Wallenstein trilogy or Goethe when writing Goetz von Berlichingen, and possibly Shakespeare when composing Richard III, explored the dark corners of their respective national or cultural past in pursuit of a therapeutic aim, even a form of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (subjugation of the past, a term applied to the obligation of postwar Germany to confront the aftermath of the Nazi period).
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