The Nibelungenlied, or Making a Medievalist

Ahead of OGN’s annual German literature reading groups, we’ll be introducing the texts that will form the basis for each of the four sessions over the coming weeks. Dr Mary Boyle will be leading the first group on 8 July. Here, she ‘macht uns für den Startschuss bereit’ by introducing our first text: the Middle High German epic poem, the Nibelungenlied…

Uns ist in alten mæren wunders vil geseit

von heleden lobebæren, von grôzer arebeit,

von fröuden, hôchgezîten, von weinen und von klagen,

von küender recken strîten muget ir nu wunder hœren sagen°

[In ancient tales many marvels are told us: of renowned heroes, of great hardship, of joys, festivities, of weeping and lamenting, of bold warriors’ battles–now you may hear such marvels told!*]

Nibelungenlied Manuscript C, Folio 1r, about 1220-1250
A page from the Nibelungenlied, Manuscript C  (ca.1220-50)

I was first given the Nibelungenlied in English translation when I was sixteen or seventeen. I used to read it in the car on the way to and from guitar lessons. Perhaps my seventeen-year-old self would be disappointed that it was the Nibelungenlied I kept up with, and not the guitar, but after another twelve years of medieval studies, I think it was the right call.

The Nibelungenlied was written down by an anonymous poet around the year 1200. The story was not of his own creation; he wove together centuries’ worth of legends about the hero Siegfried, his betrayal and murder, and his wife’s bloodthirsty and comprehensive revenge. These myths and half-forgotten histories were not just popular in German, but also circulated in Old Norse.  Medieval gore is not exclusive to twenty-first-century fantasy film and TV!

Siegfried's murder Nibelungenlied Manuscript K 1480-1490
Siegfried’s murder, as shown in Manuscript K (1480-1490)

I am going to use an extract from the Nibelungenlied for my Oxford German Network Reading Group session, as an introduction to the literature of the German Middle Ages. The text as a whole covers almost everything that a twenty-first-century reader might expect to find in medieval literature: castles, romance, knights, queens, quests, dreams, and lots and lots of blood. It provides fodder for any number of conversations you might equally have about modern literary texts: gender politics, the role of religion, the use of violence, space and place, narrative construction, love and loss, and many more. It wasn’t the first medieval text I encountered, but it fixed itself firmly into my mind.

It’s not a ‘perfect’ text, but it is never less than compelling. At times we see how the poet struggled in combining these semi-connected myths into a single narrative. Characters remain inexplicably youthful for decades. There are abrupt changes in the figures who are expected to attract our sympathy. We hear conflicting accounts of backstory, and characters behave in ways which can appear illogical. On top of that, we have inherited three distinct versions of the text. But the Nibelungenlied has taken hold of the imagination of generations of readers (and, initially, listeners). The reception of the text is a branch of study on its own. It has been reshaped and reinterpreted: used by the Romantics, refashioned by Wagner, and, unfortunately, co-opted by the Nazis.†

I began by quoting the famous opening stanza of the Nibelungenlied with its promise of heroes and of wonders, of toils and of weeping. I will close with the final stanza, when all of those things have been laid bare. The wonders have passed, and all that remains are consequences.

Ine kán iu niht bescheiden, waz sider dâ geschach:

wan ritter vnd vrouwen weinen man dâ sach,

dar zvo di edeln knehte ir lieben frivnde tôt.

hie hât daz mære ein ende: daz ist der Nibelunge nôt.°

[I can’t tell you what happened afterwards there, except that knights and ladies were seen to weep, and noble squires, too, for the death of their dear friends. Here this tale is at an end–that is The Nibelungs’ Doom.*]

Mary Boyle, University of Oxford


° Karl Bartsch and Helmut de Boor (eds.), Siegfried Grosse (trans.), Das Nibelungenlied (Stuttgart: Reclaim, 2002, repr. 2006).

* Cyril Edwards (trans.), The Nibelungenlied: The Lay of the Nibelungs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

† For more information, see Werner Hoffman, ‘The Reception of the Nibelungenlied in the Twentieth Century’ in A Companion to the Nibelungenlied ed. by Winder McConnell (Columbia: Camden House, 1998), pp. 127-152.


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