Though the preface to the poem promises both joyous and dark tales ahead, the Nibelungenlied is by and large a very tragic work, and these four opening verses are believed to have been a late addition to the text, composed after the body of the poem had been completed.
|Middle High German original||Modern German||Shumway translation|
Uns ist in alten mæren wunders vil geseit von helden lobebæren, von grôzer arebeit, von freuden, hôchgezîten, von weinen und von klagen, von küener recken strîten muget ir nu wunder hœren sagen
Uns wird in alten Erzählungen viel Wunderbares berichtet, von rühmenswerten Helden, großer Kampfesmühe, von Freuden, Festen, von Weinen und von Klagen; von den Kämpfen kühner Helden könnt ihr nun Wunderbares erzählen hören.
Full many a wonder is told us in stories old, of heroes worthy of praise, of hardships dire, of joy and feasting, of weeping and of wailing; of the fighting of bold warriors, now ye may hear wonders told.
The original version instead began with the introduction of Kriemhild, the protagonist of the work.
The epic is divided into two parts, the first dealing with the story of Siegfried and Kriemhild, the wooing of Brünhild and the death of Siegfried at the hands of Hagen, and Hagen's hiding of the Nibelung treasure in the Rhine (Chapters 1–19). The second part deals with Kriemhild's marriage to Etzel, her plans for revenge, the journey of the Burgundians to the court of Etzel, and their last stand in Etzel's hall (Chapters 20–39).
Siegfried and Kriemhild
The first chapter introduces the court of Burgundy. Kriemhild (the virgin sister of King Gunther, and his brothers Gernot and Giselher) has a dream of a falcon that is killed by two eagles. Her mother interprets this to mean that Kriemhild's future husband will die a violent death, and Kriemhild consequently resolves to remain unmarried.
The second chapter tells of the background of Siegfried, crown prince of Xanten. His youth is narrated with little room for the adventures later attributed to him. In the third chapter, Siegfried arrives in Worms with the hopes of wooing Kriemhild. Upon his arrival, Hagen von Tronje, one of King Gunther's vassals, tells Gunther about Siegfried's youthful exploits that involved winning a treasure and lands from a pair of brothers, Nibelung and Schilbung, whom Siegfried had killed when he was unable to divide the treasure between them and, almost incidentally, the killing of a dragon. Siegfried leaves his treasure in the charge of a dwarf named Alberich.
After killing the dragon, Siegfried then bathed in its blood, which rendered him invulnerable. Unfortunately for Siegfried, a leaf fell onto his back from a linden tree, and the small patch of skin that the leaf covered did not come into contact with the dragon's blood, leaving Siegfried vulnerable in that single spot. In spite of Hagen's threatening stories about his youth, the Burgundians welcome him, but do not allow him to meet the princess. Disappointed, he nonetheless remains in Worms and helps Gunther defeat the invading Saxons.
In Chapter 5, Siegfried finally meets Kriemhild. Gunther requests Siegfried to sail with him to the fictional city of Isenstein in Iceland to win the hand of Iceland's Queen, Brünhild. Siegfried agrees, though only if Gunther allows him to marry Gunther's sister, Kriemhild, whom Siegfried pines for. Gunther, Siegfried and a group of Burgundians set sail for Iceland with Siegfried pretending to be Gunther's vassal. Upon their arrival, Brünhild challenges Gunther to a trial of strength with her hand in marriage as a reward. If they lose, however, they will be sentenced to death. She challenges Gunther to three athletic contests, throwing a javelin, tossing a boulder, and a leap. After seeing the boulder and javelin, it becomes apparent to the group that Brünhild is immensely strong and they fear for their lives.
Siegfried quietly returns to the boat on which his group had sailed and retrieves his special cloak, which renders him invisible and gives him the strength of 12 men (Chapters 6–8). Siegfried, with his immense strength, invisibly leads Gunther through the trials. Unknowingly deceived, the impressed Brünhild thinks King Gunther, not Siegfried, defeated her and agrees to marry Gunther. Gunther becomes afraid that Brünhild may yet be planning to kill them, so Siegfried goes to Nibelungenland and single-handedly conquers the kingdom. Siegfried makes them his vassals and returns with a thousand of them, himself going ahead as messenger. The group of Burgundians, Gunther and Gunther's new wife-to-be Brünhild return to Worms, where a grand reception awaits them and they marry to much fanfare. Siegfried and Kriemhild are also then married with Gunther's blessings.
However, on their wedding night, Brünhild suspects something is amiss with her situation, particularly suspecting Siegfried as a potential cause. Gunther attempts to sleep with her and, with her great strength, she easily ties him up and leaves him that way all night. After he tells Siegfried of this, Siegfried again offers his help, proposing that he slip into their chamber at night with his invisibility cloak and silently beat Brünhild into submission. Gunther agrees but says that Siegfried must not sleep with Brünhild. Siegfried slips into the room according to plan and after a difficult and violent struggle, an invisible Siegfried defeats Brünhild. Siegfried then takes her ring and belt, which are symbols of defloration. Here it is implied that Siegfried sleeps with Brünhild, despite Gunther's request. Afterwards, Brünhild no longer possesses her once-great strength and says she will no longer refuse Gunther. Siegfried gives the ring and belt to his own newly wed, Kriemhild, in Chapter 10.
Years later, Brünhild, still feeling as if she had been lied to, goads Gunther into inviting Siegfried and Kriemhild to their kingdom. Brünhild does this because she is still under the impression that Gunther married off his sister to a low-ranking vassal (while Gunther and Siegfried are in reality of equal rank) yet the normal procedures are not being followed between the two ranks combined with her lingering feelings of suspicion. Both Siegfried and Kriemhild come to Worms and all is friendly between the two until, before entering Worms Cathedral, Kriemhild and Brünhild argue over who should have precedence according to their husbands' perceived ranks.
Having been earlier deceived about the relationship between Siegfried and Gunther, Brünhild thinks it is obvious that she should go first, through custom of her perceived social rank. Kriemhild, unaware of the deception involved in Brünhild's wooing, insists that they are of equal rank and the dispute escalates. Severely angered, Kriemhild shows Brünhild first the ring and then the belt that Siegfried took from Brünhild on her wedding night, and then calls her Siegfried's kebse (mistress or concubine). Brünhild feels greatly distressed and humiliated, and bursts into tears.
The argument between the queens is both a risk for the marriage of Gunther and Brünhild and a potential cause for a lethal rivalry between Gunther and Siegfried, which both Gunther and Siegfried attempt to avoid. Gunther acquits Siegfried of the charges. Despite this, Hagen von Tronje decides to kill Siegfried to protect the honor and reign of his king. Although it is Hagen who does the deed, Gunther – who at first objects to the plot – along with his brothers knows of the plan and quietly assents. Hagen contrives a false military threat to Gunther, and Siegfried, considering Gunther a great friend, volunteers to help Gunther once again.
Under the pretext of this threat of war, Hagen persuades Kriemhild, who still trusts Hagen, to mark Siegfried's single vulnerable point on his clothing with a cross under the premise of protecting him. Now knowing Siegfried's weakness, the fake campaign is called off and Hagen then uses the cross as a target on a hunting trip, killing Siegfried with a javelin as he is drinking from a brook (Chapter 16). Kriemhild becomes aware of Hagen's deed when, in Hagen's presence, the corpse of Siegfried bleeds at the site of the wound (an old Norse legend held that the corpse of a murdered person would bleed in the presence of the murderer). This perfidious murder is particularly dishonorable in medieval thought, as throwing a javelin is the manner in which one might slaughter a wild beast, not a knight. We see this in other literature of the period, such as with Parsifal's unwittingly dishonorable crime of combatting and slaying knights with a javelin (transformed into a swan in Wagner's opera). Further dishonoring Siegfried, Hagen steals the hoard from Kriemhild and throws it into the Rhine (Rheingold), to prevent Kriemhild from using it to establish an army of her own.
Kriemhild swears to take revenge for the murder of her husband and the theft of her treasure. Many years later, King Etzel of the Huns (Attila the Hun) proposes to Kriemhild, she journeys to the land of the Huns, and they are married. For the baptism of their son, she invites her brothers, the Burgundians, to a feast at Etzel's castle in Hungary. Hagen does not want to go, suspecting that it is a trick by Kriemhild in order to take revenge and kill them all, but is taunted until he does. As the Burgundians cross the Danube, this fate is confirmed by Nixes, who predict that all but one monk will die. Hagen tries to drown the monk in order to render the prophecy futile, but he survives.
The Burgundians arrive at Etzel's castle and are welcomed by Kriemhild "with lying smiles and graces." But the lord Dietrich of Bern, an ally of Etzel's, advises the Burgundians to keep their weapons with them at all times, which is normally not allowed. The tragedy unfolds as Kriemhild comes before Hagen, reproaching him for her husband Siegfried's death, and demands that he return her Nibelungenschatz. Hagen answers her boldly, admitting that he killed Siegfried and sank the Nibelungen treasure into the Rhine, but blames these acts on Kriemhild's own behavior.
King Etzel then welcomes his wife's brothers warmly. But outside a tense feast in the great hall, a fight breaks out between Huns and Burgundians, and soon there is general mayhem. When word of the fight arrives at the feast, Hagen decapitates the young son of Kriemhild and Etzel before their eyes. The Burgundians take control of the hall, which is besieged by Etzel's warriors. Kriemhild offers her brothers their lives if they hand over Hagen, but they refuse. The battle lasts all day, until the queen orders the hall to be burned with the Burgundians inside.
All of the Burgundians are killed except for Hagen and Gunther, who are bound and held prisoner by Dietrich of Bern. Kriemhild has the men brought before her and orders her brother Gunther to be killed. Even after seeing Gunther's head, Hagen refuses to tell the queen what he has done with the Nibelungen treasure. Furious, Kriemhild herself cuts off Hagen's head. Old Hildebrand, the mentor of Dietrich of Bern, is infuriated by the shameful deaths of the Burgundian guests. He hews Kriemhild to pieces with his sword. In a fifteenth-century manuscript, he is said to strike Kriemhild a single clean blow to the waist; she feels no pain, however, and declares that his sword is useless. Hildebrand then drops a ring and commands Kriemhild to pick it up. As she bends down, her body falls into pieces. Dietrich and Etzel and all the people of the court lament the deaths of so many heroes.