01 Aug 2009
Believed to have been written in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, Nibelungenlied was written by an anonymous poet, believed to have been from the region of the Danube River southeast of Passau (southeast Germany). In part, this assumption is based on the mention of “Meister Konrad” being charged with the poem’s copying by the bishop of Passau. The poet was perhaps an educated man in residence at the bishop’s court. Though many have been proposed as the possible author of the poem, mainstream scholars accept that the author cannot be positively identified.
Nebelungenlied is considered a part of the Rhinegold trilogy. This example of classic German literature is the tale of Siegfried, son of Sigmund and Hiordis (aka Sieglind) and the crown prince of Xanten, a city of western Germany. Siegfried travels Worms (roughly half way between Passau and Xanten) seeking to wed Kriemhild, the virgin sister of King Gunther. Siegfried strikes a deal with Gunther to assist him in winning the hand of Brünhild, Queen of Iceland. Using a cloak of invisibility, Siegfried leads Gunther through the trials demanded to win Brünhild’s hand. Brünhild resists Gunther and Siegfried intercedes, using his cloak to enter Brünhild’s chambers and beat her into submission. He then takes her ring and belt, an act scholars argue indicates his defloration of her as they are symbols of such an act.
This act sets the stage for the conflicts between Gunther and Siegfried which culminate in Gunther’s acquittal of Siegfried in order to keep the peace between the kingdoms, yet Gunther is complacent when his brother, Hagen, plots to kill Siegfried. Tricking Kriemhild into revealing Siegfried’s one point of vulnerability (similar to the legend of Achilles) Hagen slays Siegfried. Later, Kriemhild plots revenge for this murder and Hagen’s theft of her fortune.
Nibelungenlied stands as an eternal classic of German literature. Though many dislike the tale due to the assumed rape of Brünhild by Siegfried, it is difficult to apply modern social mores to a tale as old as this. Comparisons can be drawn between the social values of the era in which this tale was written and our modern society and can reveal stark contrasts, particularly in the role of women in society.
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