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Originally appearing in Volume V19, Page 640 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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NIBELUNGENLIED, or DER NIBELUNGE NOT, an heroic epic written in a Middle High German dialect. The story on which the poem is based belongs to the general stock of Teutonic saga and was very widespread under various forms, some of which are preserved. Thus it is touched upon in Beowulf, and fragments of it form the most important part of the northern Eddas, the poets of which evidently assumed that the tale as a whole was well known and that their hearers would be able to put each piece in its proper place. In the prose Edda, or Volsungasaga, which, though largely primitive in spirit, dates froisi the 13th century, it is set forth in full. The substance of this Norse version is as follows: The three Anses—Odin, Loki and Hornir—saw an otter devouring a salmon beside a waterfall. They killed and skinned the otter and, taking the skin with them, sought shelter for the night with Rodmar the giant. But Rodmar recognized the skin as that of his son, and demanded as weregild gold enough to cover it completely. Loki thereupon went back to the stream, where Andvari in the form of a pike was guarding a great treasure, caught him in a net, and forced him to surrender his hoard. But the piled-up gold left one hair exposed ; in order to cover it Loki returned to Andvari and forced him to surrender a magic ring which had the virtue of breeding gold. Thereupon Andvari, enraged, laid upon the hoard and all who should possess it a curse. This curse, the Leitmotif of the whole story, began to operate at once. Rodmar, for the sake of the treasure, was slain by his sons Fafnir and Regin; and Fafnir, seizing the whole, retired to a desolate heath and, in the form of a snake or dragon, brooded over the hoard. Regin, cheated of his share, plotted vengeance and the conquest of the treasure. To Regin, a notable smith, was sent Sigurd—son of the slain hero Sigmundr the Volsung and his wife Hiortis, now wife of the Danish king Alf—to be trained in his craft. To him Regin told of Fafnir and' the hoard, and the young hero offered to go out against the dragon if Regin would weld him a sword. But every brand forged by the smith broke under Sigurd's stroke; till at last he fetched the fragments of the sword Gram, Odin's gift to his father, which Hiortis had carefully treasured. These Sigurd forged into a new sword, so hard that with it he could cleave the anvil and so sharp that it would sever a flock of wool floating against it down stream; and, so armed, he sought and slew the dragon. But while roasting Fafnir's heart, whi'-h Regin had cut out, Sigurd burned his finger with the boiling fat and, placing it to his lips, found that he could understand the language of birds, and so learned from the chattering of the wood-peckers that Regin was planning treachery. Thereupon he slew the smith and loading the treasure on the magic steed Grani, given to him by Odin, set out upon his travels. On the summit of a fire-girt hill Sigurd found the Valkyrie Brunhild in an enchanted sleep, and ravished by her beauty awakened her; they plighted their troth to each other and, next morning, Sigurd left her to set out once more on his journey. Coming to the court of Giuki, a king in the Rhine country, Sigurd formed a friendship with his three sons, Gunnar, Hogni and Guthorm; and, in order to retain so valuable an ally, it was determined to arrange a match between him and their sister Gudrun. Queen Grimhild, skilled in magic, therefore gave him an enchanted drink, which caused him to forget Brunhild. Gunnar, on the other hand, wished to make Brunhild his wife, and asked Sigurd to ride with him on this quest, which he consented to do on condition of receiving Gudrun to wife. They set out; but Gunnar was unable to pass the circle of fire round Brunhild's abode, the achievement that was the condition of winning her hand. So Sigurd, assuming Gunnar's shape, rode through the flames on his magic horse, and in sign of troth exchanged rings with the Valkyrie, giving her the ring of Andvari. So Gunnar and Brunhild were wedded, and Sigurd, resuming his own form, rode back with them to Giuki's court where the double marriage was celebrated. But Brunhild was moody and suspicious, remembering her troth with Sigurd and believing that he alone could have accomplished the quest. One day the two queens, while bathing in the river, fell to quarrel-ling as to which of their husbands was the greater. Brunhild taunted Gudrun with the fact that Sigurd was Gunnar's vassal, whereupon Gudrun retorted by telling her that it was not Gunnar but Sigurd who rode through the flames, and in proof of this held up Brunhild's ring. which Sigurd had given to her. Then Brunhild " waxed as wan as a dead woman, and spoke no word the day long." Maddened by jealousy and wounded pride, she now incited the three kings to murder Sigurd by exciting their jealousy of his power. The two elder, as bound to him by blood-brotherhood, refused; but the youngest, Guthorm, who had sworn no oaths, consented to do the deed. Twice he crept into Sigurd's chamber, but fled when he found the hero awake and gazing at him with flashing eyes. The thirdhad just strength enough to hurl his sword at the murderer, whom it cut in two. Brunhild, when she heard Gudrun wailing, laughed aloud. But her love for Sigurd was great as ever, and she determined not to survive him; distributing her wealth to her hand-maidens, she mounted Sigurd's funeral pyre, slew herself with his sword, and was burnt with him. In course of time Gudrun married Atli (Attila), king of the Huns, Brunhild's brother. Atli, intent on getting hold of the hoard, which• Gudrun's brothers had seized, invited them to come to his court. In spite of their sister's warnings they came, after sinking the treasure in the Rhine. On their refusal to surrender the hoard, or to say where it was concealed, a fierce fight broke out, in which all the followers of Gunnar and Hogni fell. Atli then once more offered to spare Gunnar's life if he would reveal his secret; but Gunnar refused to do so till he should see the heart of Hogni. The heart of a slave was laid before him, but he declared that that could not be Hogni's, since it quaked. Hogni's heart was then cut out, the victim laughing the while; but when Gunnar saw it he ,cried out that now he alone knew where the hoard was and that he would never reveal the secret. His hands were then bound, and he was cast into a den of venomous serpents; but he played so sweetly on the harp with his toes that he charmed the reptiles, except one adder, by which he was stung to death. Gudrun, however, avenged the death of her brothers by slaying the sons she had borne to Atli and causing him unwittingly to drink their blood and eat their hearts. Finally, in the night, she killed Atli himself and burned his hall; then, leaping into the sea, she was carried by the waves to new scenes, where she had adventures not connected with those recorded in the Nibelungenlied. This story, in spite of the late date of the Volsungasaga and of added elements due to the imagination of its author, evidently represents a very primitive version. In the Nibelungen story, on the other hand, though its extant versions are of much earlier date, and though it contains elements equally primitive not found in the other, the spirit and the motives of the earlier story have to a large extent been transmuted by later influences, the setting of the story being—though by no means consistently—medieval rather than primitive. Thus the mysterious hoard is all but lost sight of; no mention is made of the curse attached to it; and it is only as an afterthought that Siegfried (Sifrit) is described as its master. Everywhere the supernatural elements are eliminated or subordinated, and the story becomes a drama of human motives, depending for its development on the interplay of human passions and activities. To us in ancient story wonders great are told Of heroes rich in glory and of adventures bold, Of feast and joyous living, of wailing and of woe, Of gallant warriors striving may ye now many marvels know.l That is all he gives by way of preface. The gods have vanished from the scene; there is nothing of Loki and his theft of Andvari's hoard, nothing of Odin and his gifts of the sword Gram and the magic horse Grani; and not till the third Aventiure, when Siegfried comes to Worms, are we given even a hint that such things as the sword and treasure exist. On the other hand, in the very next stanza we are introduced to what is to be the leading motive of the plot: Kriemhild, the Burgundian princess, on whose account " many a noble knight was doomed to perish." For, as in the legend of Sigurd the Volsung, the plot had turned upon the love and vengeance of Brunhild, so in the song of the Nibelungs it is the love and vengeance of Kriemhild, the Gudrun of the northern saga, that forms the backbone of the story and gives it from first to last an artistic unity which the Volsungasaga lacks. Of the story itself it is impossible here to give anything but the barest outline, sufficient to show its contrast with the northern version. We may note at the outset the spirit of pessimism which, like the curse on the hoard, pervades the whole. It appears in the very first Aventiure, when Kriemhild, in answer to her mother's interpretation of her dream, declares that she will never marry, since " it has been proved by the experience of many women that joy is in the end rewarded by sorrow "; it is repeated in the last stanza but one of the long poem: " As ever joy in sorrow ends and must end alway." This tragic contrast is emphasized by the pomp and circumstance that surround the ill-fated hero of the story at the beginning. i Uns ist in alten maeren wunders vil geseit Von heleden lobebaeren von grozer arebeit Von freude unt h8chgeziten von weinen unde klagen Von keener recken strften muget it nun wunder hoeren sagen. The primitive setting of the northern version has vanished utterly. Sigmund is king of the Netherlands; the boy Siegfried is brought up by " wise men that are his tutors " (Avent. ii.); and when, attracted by the fame of Kriemhild's beauty, he rides to Worms to woo her, it is as the typical handsome, accomplished and chivalrous king's son of medieval romance. It is at this point (Avent. iv.) that some of the primitive elements of the story are suddenly and awkwardly introduced. As Siegfried approaches Worms, Kriemhild's brothers, the Burgundian kings Gunther, Giselher and Gernot watch his coming, and to them their faithful retainer, " the grim Hagen," explains who he is. This, he exclaims, can be no other than the hero who slew the two kings of the Nibelungs, Schilbunc and Nibelunc, and seized their treasure, together with the sword Balmunc and the tarnkappe, or cape of darkness, which has the virtue of making him who wears it invisible. Another adventure, too, he can tell of him, namely, how he slew a dragon and how by bathing in its blood his skin became horny, so that no weapon could wound him, save in one place, where a linden leaf had fallen upon him as he stooped, so that the blood did not touch this spot.' In spite of Hagen's distrust and misgivings, Siegfried now fights as the ally of the Burgundians against the Saxons (Anent. iv.), and undertakes, on condition of receiving Kriemhild to wife, to help Gunther to woo Queen Brunhild, who can only be won by the man who can overcome her in three trials of strength (Avent. vi.). Siegfried and Gunther accordingly go together to Brunhild's castle of Isenstein in Iceland, and there the hero, invisible in his tarnkappe, stands beside Gunther, hurling the spear and putting the weight for him, and even leaping, with Gunther in his arms, far beyond the utmost limit that Brunhild can reach (Avent. vii.). Brunhild confesses herself beaten and returns with the others to Worms, where the double marriage is celebrated with great pomp (Aven.t. x.). But Brunhild is ill content; though she saw Siegfried do homage to Gunther at Isenstein she is not convinced, and believes that Siegfried should have been her husband; and on the bridal night she vents her ill humour on the hapless Gunther by tying him up in a knot and hanging him on the wall. " I have brought the evil devil to my house!" he complains to Siegfried next morning; and once more the hero has to intervene; invisible in his tarnkappe he wrestles with Brunhild, and, after a desperate struggle, takes from her her girdle and ring before yielding place to Gunther. The girdle and ring he gives to his wife Kriemhild (Avent. x.). One day, while Siegfried and his wife were on a visit to the Burgundian court, the two queens fell to quarrelling on the question of precedence, not in a river but on the steps of the cathedral (Avent. xiv.). Kriemhild was taunted with being the wife of Gunther's vassal; whereupon, in wrath, she showed Brunhild the ring and the golden girdle taken by Siegfried, proof that Siegfried, not Gunther, had won Brunhild. So far the story is essentially the same as that in the Volsungasaga; but now the plot changes. Brunhild drops out, becoming a figure altogether subordinate and shadowy. The death of Siegfried is compassed, not by her, but by the " grim " Hagen, Gunther's faithful henchman, who thinks the glory of his master unduly over-shadowed by that of his vassal. Hagen easily persuades the weak Gunther that the supposed insult to his honour can only be wiped out in Siegfried's blood; he worms the secret of the hero's vulnerable spot out of Kriemhild, on pretence of shielding him from harm (Avent. xv.), and then arranges a great hunt in the forest, so that he may slay him when off his guard. The 16th Aventiure, describing this hunt and the murder of Siegfried, is perhaps the most powerful scene in all medieval epic. To heighten the effect of the tragic climax the poet begins with a description of the hunting, and describes the high spirits of Siegfried, who captures a wild boar, rides back with it to camp, and there lets it loose to the great discomfiture of the cooks. When the hunters sat down to feast, it was found that the wine had been forgotten. Hagen thereupon proposed that they should 1 Compare the heel of Achilles. race to a spring of which he knew some way off in the forest. Siegfried readily agreed, and though handicapped by carrying shield, sword and spear, easily reached the goal first, but waited, with his customary courtesy, until the king had arrived and drunk before slaking his own thirst. Then, laying aside his arms, he stooped and drank. Hagen, seizing the spear, thrust it through the spot marked by Kriemhild on Siegfried's surcoat. The hero sprang up and, finding that his sword had been removed, attacked Hagen with his shield. Though to death he was wounded he struck so strong a stroke That from the shattered shield-rim forthwith out there broke Showers of flashing jewels; the shield in fragments lay? Then reproaching them for their cowardice and treachery, Siegfried fell dying " amid the flowers," while the knights gathered round lamenting. At this point two stanzas may be quoted as well illustrating the poet's power of dramatic characterization: The king of the Burgundians he too bewailed his death: Then spake the dying hero: " Nay, now you waste your breath! You weep for an ill fortune that you yourself have wrought: That is a shameful sorrow: it were better you said nought!" Then out spake the grim Hagen: " I know not why ye plain: This is for us the ending of sorrow and of pain. Full few are left of foemen that dare withstand us now. Glad am I that the hero was by this hand of mine laid low ! " This account of the death of Siegfried, which embodies the ancient German tradition, is far finer than the northern version, according to which Hogni murders the hero in his bed. The whole spirit of this Aventiure, too, is primitive Teutonic rather than medieval. The same is true, indeed, of the whole of the rest of the poem. Siegfried, to be sure, is buried with all the pomp of medieval Catholic rites; but Kriemhild, while praying for his soul like a good Christian, plots horrible vengeance like her pagan prototype. With this significant difference, however: Gudrun revenged upon her husband the death of her brothers; Kriemhild seeks to revenge upon her brothers the death of her husband. The Catholic bond of marriage has become stronger than the primitive Teutonic bond of kinship. Mistress now of the inexhaustible hoard of the Nibelungs, Kriemhild sought to win a following by lavish largesses; but this Hagen frustrated by seizing the treasure, with the consent of the kings, and sinking it in the Rhine, all taking an oath never to reveal its hiding-place, without the consent of the others, so long as they should live (Avent. xix.). At last, however, after thirteen years, Kriemhild's chance came, with a proposal of marriage from Etzel (Attila) king of the Huns, whom she consented to marry on condition that he would help her to vengeance (Avent. xx.). Then more years passed; old feuds seemed to be forgotten; and the Burgundian kings, in spite of Hagen's warnings, thought it safe to accept their sister's invitation to visit her court (Avent. xxiii. xxiv.). The journey of the Burgundians into Hunland is described by the poet at great length (Avent. xxv.-xxvii.). The story is full of picturesque detail and stirring incident, full also of interesting problems in folk-lore and mythology; and throughout it is dominated by the figure of the grim Hagen, who, twitted with cowardice and his advice spurned, is determined that there shall be no turning back and that they shall go through with it to the bitter end. With his own hands he ferries the host over the Danube and then, when the last detachment has crossed, destroys the boat, so that there may be no return. At Attila's court (Avent. xxviii.) it is again Hagen who provokes the catastrophe by taunting Kriemhild when she asks him if. he has brought with him the hoard of the Nibelungs: " The devil's what I bring you ! " Hagen then replied, " What with this heavy harness and my shield beside, I had enough to carry: this helmet bright I brought; My sword is in my right hand, and that, be sure, I bring you not! " The sword was Siegfried's. It is Hagen, too, who after the 2 This last fight with the shield seems to have belonged to the common stock of heroic story. Cf. the account of the death of Hereward " the Wake " given by Geoffrey Gaimar in the Chronicon Anglo-Norm. and adopted by Freeman in his Norman Conquest (1871), iv. 486. first onslaught of the Huns strikes off the head of Ortlieb, the son of Etzel and Kriemhild, and who, amid the smoke and carnage of the burning hall, bids the Burgundians drink blood if they are thirsty. Besides Hagen, during the ride into Hunland and in the final fight, another figure comes to the front, that of Volker the Fiddler, so far only mentioned as a hero of the Saxon war in Avent. ii. He rides fiddling at the head of the host; he plays to the weary warriors in the intervals of the battle in the court of Etzel's palace; but he is also expert at performing other music, with " a strong fiddle-bow, mighty and long, like to a sword, exceeding sharp and broad." He is the type of the medieval knightly minstrel of the age of the Minnesang. But for all their prowess, after a prolonged struggle (Avent. xxix.-xxxvii.), the Burgundians were at last overwhelmed. Most of the chief figures of heroic saga had come up against them: Attila, Hildebrand, the Ostrogoth Theodoric (Dietrich von Bern). To the last-named even Hagen armed with Siegfried's sword had to yield (Avent. xxxviii.). Kriemhild came to him as he lay in bonds and demanded the Nibelung treasure. He refused to reveal its hiding-place so long as Gunther, also a prisoner, should live. Gunther was accordingly slain by the queen's orders and his head was brought to Hagen, who cried out when he saw it that all had been accomplished as he had foretold: " Now none knows where the hoard is save God and I alone: That to thee, devil-woman, shall nevermore be known ! " Whereupon Kriemhild slew him with Siegfried's sword. But Kriemhild was not destined, like Gudrun, to set out on further adventures. Hildebrand, horrified at her deed, sprang forward and cut her to pieces with his sword. In sorrow now was ended the king's high holiday, As ever joy in sorrow ends and must end alway. To some MSS. of the Nibelungenlied is added a supplementary poem called the Klage or Lament, a sequel of 216o short-line couplets, describing the lament of the survivors—notably Etzelover the slain, the burying of the dead, and the carrying of the news to the countries of the Burgundians and others. At the end it is stated that the story was written down, at the command of Bishop Pilgrim of Passau, by a writer named Konrad (Kuonrat) in Latin, and that it had since been sung (getichtet) often in the German tongue. Sources of the Story.—The origin and nature of the various elements that go to make up the story of the Nibelungenlied have been, and continue to be, the subject of very lively debate. The view at one time most generally accepted was that first propounded by Karl Lachmann in his " Kritik der Sage von den Nibelungen " (Rheinisches Museum fur Philologie, Num. 249, 250, 1829, republished in his Zis den Nibelungen . . . Anmerkungen in 1836), namely, that the story was originally a myth of the northern gods, modified into a heroic saga after the introduction of Christianity, and intermingled with historical elements. This view is maintained by Richard von Muth in his Einleitung in das Nibelungenlied (Paderborn, 1877), who thus sums up the result of his critical researches: " The basis of all is an old myth of a beneficent divine being (Siegfried), who conquers daemonic powers (the Nibelungen), but is slain by them (the Burgundians turned Nibelungen); with this myth was connected the destruction of the Burgundian kingdom, ascribed to Attila, between 437 and 453, and later the legend of Attila's murder by his wife; in this form, after Attila and Theodoric had been associated in it, the legend penetrated, between 555 and 583, to the North, where its second part was developed in detail on the analogy of older sagas, while in Germany a complete change of the old motif took place." To this theory the objection is raised that it is but a theory; that it is unsupported by any convincing evidence; and that the process which it postulates, that, namely, of the transformation of the gods into heroes by the popular imagination, is contrary to all that we know of the fate of dethroned deities, who are apt to live on in fairy stories in very unheroic guise. So early as 1783 Johannes von Muller of Gottingen had called attention to the historical figures appearing in the Nibelungenlied, identifying Etzel as Attila, Dietrich of Bern as Theodoric of Verona, and the Burgundian kings Gunther, Gisel.her and Gernot as the Gundaharius, Gislaharius and Godomar of the Lex Burgundiorum; in 1820 Julius Leichtlen (Neuaufgefundenes Bruchstiick des Nibelungenliedes, Freiburg-im-Breisgau) roundly declared that " the Nibelungenlied rests entirely on a historical foundation, and that any other attempt to explain it must fail." This view was, however, overborne by the great authority of Lachmann, whose theory, in complete harmony with the principles popularized by the brothers Grimm, was accepted and elaborated by a long series of critics. It is only of late years that criticism has tended to revert to the standpoint of Muller and Leichtlen and to recognize in the story of the Nibelungen as a whole a misty and confused tradition of real events and people. Mythical elements it certainly contains; and to those figures which—like Siegfried, Brunhild, Hagen and the " good margrave " Ruedeger of Bechla ren—cannot be traced definitively to historical originals, a mythical origin is still provisionally ascribed. But criticism is still busy attempting to trace these also to historical originals, and Theodor Abeling (Das Nibelungenlied, 1907) makes out a very plausible case for identifying Siegfried with Segeric, son of the Burgundian king Sigimund, Brunhild with the historical Brunichildis, and Hagen with a certain Hagnericus, who, according to the Life of St Columban, guided the saint (the chaplain of the Nibelungenlied), who had incurred the enmity of Brunichildis, safe to the court of her grandson Theuderich, king of the West Franks. Herr Abeling's theory of the sources of the Nibelungen story is one among many; but, as it is one of the latest and not the least ingenious, it deserves mention. That the Icelandic Eddas contain the oldest versions of the legend, though divided and incomplete, is universally admitted. It is equally well established, however, that Iceland could not have been its original home. This Herr Abeling locates among the Franks of what is now southern France, whence the stories spread, from the 6th century onwards, on the one hand across the Rhine into Franconia, on the other hand westwards and northwards, by way of Ireland—at that time in close intercourse with continental Europe—and the northern islands, to Iceland. Hence the two traditions, the German and the Icelandic, of which the latter alone is preserved in something of its primitive form,' though primitive elements survive in the Nibelungenlied. The basis of the story is then, according to this view, historical, not mythical: a medley of Franco-Burgundian historical traditions, overlaid with mythical fancies.2 The historical nucleus is the overthrow of the Burgundian kingdom of Gundahar by the Huns in 436; and round this there gathered an accretion of other episodes, equally historical in their origin, however distorted, with a naive disregard of chronological possibility: the murder of Segeric (c. 525), the murder of Sigimund by the sons of Chrothildis, wife of Clovis (identified by Abeling with Kriemhild), the murder of Attila by his Bur b-undian wife Ildico (see KRIEAIHILD). In the Eddas the identity of the original Franco-Burgundian sagas is fairly preserved. In the Nibelungenlied, on the other hand, the influence of other wholly unconnected stories is felt: thus Hildebrand appears during the final fight at Etzel's court, and Theodoric the Great (Dietrich von Bern; see THEODORIC), for no better reason than that the Dietrich legend had sent him into exile there, and that he must have been there when the Burgundians arrived. Origin of the Poem.—The controversy as to the underlying elements of the Nibelung legend extends to the question of the authorship and construction of the poem itself. Was it from the first—whatever additions and interpolations may have ' The Eddas were first written down, as is commonly assumed, by Bishop Saemund Sigfusson (1056-1133). 2 The process of this overlaying is easy to realize if we remember how usual it was to transfer characteristics and episodes drawn from immemorial folk-lore to successive historical personages. A good example is the " Swan-maiden " myth connected with the house of Bouillon (see LOHENGRIN). See also other interesting cases cited in the chapter on the " Geste of John de Courci " in Mr J. H. Round's Peerage and Pedigree (London, 191o). NICAEA—NICAEA, COUNCIL OF 1907) gives a full bibliography, embracing 1272 references from 1i56 to '9o5. There are English translations of the poem by A. G. Foster-Barham (1887), Margaret Armour (prose, 1897) and Alice Horton (1898). (W. A. P.)

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