Nibelungenlied Background

Nibelungenlied Background

Translated into English, the title of this epic Germanic poem means “Song of the Nibelungs.” A fact that is utterly meaningless, of course, unless you know that the Nibelungs were an ancient dynasty whose conquering by the hero is the subject of the narrative. That hero goes by the name Siegfried. As for the song part of the poem, that refers to the last four letters of the title proper: The Nibelungenlied. “Lied” means song or, less precisely, poem or epic tale in lyric.

The Nibelungenlied can be found in various libraries around the world in at least 35 different manuscripts, which all vary from one another from very slightly to significantly. The story that is most often told—including the one told in Wagner’s extraordinarily long opera featuring the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” used in the helicopter cavalry attack in Apocalypse Now are primarily derives from three of those versions. In addition to being translated into opera, some of those editions transform the tale from epic poetry into epic prose.

While not exactly based on verified historical events, like many folk tales, legends and myths, The Nibelungenlied does have some basis in fact. Around 437 A.D., the Huns arrived in the kingdom of Burgundy situated on the Rhine and lay waste. Characters that routinely show in those three most common versions are also historically situated: the king of Burgundy was named Gunther and it is routinely assumed that Theodoric the Ostrogoth is the model for the character of Dietrich. And, most famous, Etzel the Hun is none other than Attila the Hun.

That history being a given, however, it must also be admitted that the narrative is far more than just retelling of historical events. Myth and legend became intertwined with the historical basis of the story over time to the point where it became almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. Far more important from a historical perspective is the way that The Nibelungenlied reveals much about the manners of the medieval court and even that takes a back seat to sheer thrilling romance of its multilayered plot where deceptions and vengeance take the narrative and its huge cast of characters in directions sure to shock and awe those coming to it fresh.

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