The Mourning Bride - William Congreve 1697
In a nutshell, the Nibelungenlied is an epic Germanic poem about a catfight; the lengths both women go to destroy each other and the ultimate carnage left in the wake of their fury.
Germanic poetry in the twelfth and thirteenth century can be divided into two classes: Court Epic and National Epic. The Court Epic for the most part followed the French model and primarily dealt with chivalry, their hero and penultimate example being embodied in the legend of Arthur and his circle of knights. A good example of this class would be the Prison of Love.
The other class, The National Epic drew it’s subject matter from the national Germanic saga and were written in four-lined strophes rather than couplets. Rather than chivalry being the underlying theme, this class (which would include the Iliad) tends to emphasize loyalty and unswerving devotion to a personal cause despite all odds often using a historical backdrop to ground the mythology into a national hero saga. While Siegfried was popular as the hero of the nature-myth in many differing versions, the Nibelungenlied tries to address the mass annihilation of the Burgundians in 437.
According to George Henry Needler, who translated this incredible version, the Iliad far surpasses the Nibelungenlied in its depth of feeling, wealth of imagery, and the beauty of its language. By contrast the Nibelungenlied is episodic and blunt, and there is little character development or dimension. It’s also an interesting hybrid of pagan mythology and christianity, with the characters fighting dragons and taking each others chastity but stopping regularly to go to mass.
Our heroines are Kriemhild and Brunhild, both notorious for their beauty and strength of character. Kriemhild is the princess of Burgundy and an echelon above mere mortals. Her brother Gunther is King, and she lives with her three brothers and mother in the palace, apparently sewing, participating in court rituals and having premonitions.
“Amid this life so noble did dream the fair Kriemhild,
How that she reared a falcon, in beauty strong and wild,
That by two eagles perished; the cruel sight to see
Did fill her heart with sorrow as great as in this world might be”
Basically Kriemhild has a disturbing nightmare, and after describing it to her mother, Queen Ute, they come to the conclusion that the falcon must be her future spouse, who will ultimately come to a cruel and heinous demise at the hand of evil henchmen. Horrified, Kriemhild decides the best defense is a good offense. She will remain chaste and unmarried for the rest of her life; and she dutifully disappears from the court, burying herself in a hermitage of needlework and fear.
Brunhild is more of a track and field kind of girl. She has come up with a way to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to her matrimonial prospects and has orchestrated an elaborate “field event” of strength and valor. If her suitor can beat her at three events (“shaft hurling”, the discus and shot put) she will take her place by his side, the subsequent “taming of the shrew” being voluntary. If, by chance, her suitor does not win in all three events then she gets to cut off his head.
And so as the epic opens, it would seem that fate is stacked against these women, for what knight could conquer the dragon of nightmares or beat a valkyrie at a field event (in the Icelandic version of this epic, the Prose and Poetic Edda, Brynhild is a valkyrie asleep on the top of a fire-encircled mountain waiting for her deliverer, here she is in fact a mortal with an unjustifiable amount of superhuman strength.)
Luckily, or rather unluckily, there does in fact exist such a knight.
There grew likewise in Netherland a prince of noble kind,
Siegmund hight his father, his mother Siegelind-
Within a lordly castle well known the country o’er,
By the Rhine far downward: Xanten was the name it bore.
Siegfried they did call him, this bold knight and good;
Many a realm he tested, for brave was he of mood.
He rode to prove his prowess in many a land around:
High-ho! what thanes of mettle anon in Burgundy found.
Siegfried is the Germanic equivalent of Achilles. Like his counterpart he even has a small section of pervious skin, a thumbprint of mortality. In Siegfried’s case, rather than his heel it is a small spot on his back where the blood of the dragon he had slain did not fully cover him.
After somehow capturing the hoard of the Nibelungen, Siegfried decides he needs another challenge. He has heard of the unsurpassable beauty of Kriemhild and makes his way to Worms where he will try his hand at wooing a fair maiden.
His plan is to walk into the castle and present himself to Kriemhild’s brother, King Gunther, and basically overwhelm him with his grandeur and strength. He immediately challenges king Gunther to a duel, in the genre of Eric Carle’s ladybug that wants to fight.
“And art thou then so valiant as hath to me been told,
I reck not, will he nill he thy best warrior bold,
I’ll wrest from thee in combat whatever thou mayst have;
Thy lands and all thy castles shall naught from change of masters save.”
Gunther and his men are perplexed. They tell him he’s going about this all wrong and after a brief tête-à-tête they all agree to be friends, fight each others battles and let bygones be bygones. Siegfried, then decides to quietly and valiantly imbed himself in the fabric of Gunther’s court until he sees an opportunity to ask for Kriemhild’s hand in marriage.
After many heroic adventures, his opportunity presents itself. Gunther has heard of that strong and buxomy heroine, Brunhild. He is intrigued. It’s not every day a fair maiden is offering a challenge of feats of strength or death. Would he be a man if he could sit idly by and not try his hand at discus throwing? He asks Siegfried for his help, and Siegfried strikes up a bargain: If Siegfried can help Gunther win the hand of Brunhild, then in exchange he will get to marry Kriemhild. Gunther loves this idea. The agreement is settled and the men go off in search of their WWE champion.
As they approach Isenland, they come up with a plan: Siegfried will dress as Gunther’s vassal, then when the challenge is about to begin, he will sneak off and put on his invisibility cloak, then sneak into the arena and fight against Brunhild. Their plan works for the most part flawlessly, Siegfried does end up with a bloody nose, but he’s invisible so no harm no foul.
Brunhild senses some sort of untoward behavior is underfoot, but she can’t quite put her finger on it. Since Gunther has traveled to her country and beaten her at her own field games, she will hold up her end of the bargain and marry him. She packs her bags and says good bye to her people and her country.
Finally they arrive in Burgundy and Gunther presents his sister to Siegfried to marry. They agree to have a joint wedding as soon as possible and as plans are underway, Brunhild ruminates over these bizarre happenings. Gunther is a King, Brunhild is a Queen; Kriemhild is a princess…Siegfried is a vassal? Something doesn’t quite compute. Why would the king marry off his sister to a vassal? As the wedding night is upon them and Gunther and Brunhild are getting into (or out of their pjs) Brunhild asks Gunther why he would marry his sister to a vassal. Gunther tries to play the “silence woman! let’s make a baby” card…but he quickly realizes that he is no match for Brunhild. When he refuses to answer her, she ties him up in the bed linens and hangs him from a nail in their bedroom and then goes to bed.
Gunther, humiliated spends the night whispering conciliatory remarks like “come on baby, you’re so strong, I just love your muscles…but can you please untie me before the servants come in and bring us our breakfast…did I mention you’re gorgeous?” Brunhild has gotten her point across. The way things stand she wears the pants in this family and things bode poorly for their future…unless…
Siegfried pats his friend on the back the next morning, winking about their presumed exploits…when he realizes Gunther looks somewhat defeated. Gunther tells Siegfried how he spent his wedding night hung on a nail on the wall and Siegfried is stunned. This will not do. They will teach that shrew a lesson once and for all…so that evening Siegfried once again dons his invisible cloak and sneaks into the honeymoon suit. When the lights are turned out and Brunhild begins to edge away from Gunther’s advances, invisible Siegfried takes it upon himself to subdue the wench…with a wrestling match.
“He did there as if Gunther the mighty king he were,
And in his arms he pressed her, the maiden debonair.
Forth from the bed she hurled him, where a bench there stood ,
And head of valiant warrior against a stool went ringing loud.”
Finally, exhausted and subdued, Brunhild cries “uncle”:
She spake: “O noble monarch, take not my life away.
The tram that I have done thee full well will I repay.
No more thy royal embraces by me shall be withstood,
For now I well have seen it, thou canst be lord o’er woman’s mood.
Satisfied, Siegfried creeps out of the bedchamber, but not before he has taken a souvenir. He removes a ring from Brunhild’s finger and takes her richly woven girdle and gives them to Kriemhild. This was a terrible idea. Eventually, as the two Queens sit side by side, bored and watching the monotonous acts of knightly valor that seem to be everyone’s favorite pastime, the conversation turns into the genre of “my husband is stronger than your husband”. Brunhild, somewhat condescendingly suggests, that no matter how great Siegfried is…he will always be a vassal.
The spat devolves into name calling, Kriemhild calls Brunhild a whore. Shocked and perplexed at such an accusation she asks what right does Kriemhild have for making such an accusation, Kriemhild, the bile practically dripping from her tongue, says it was her own husband Siegfried that took her virginity and she has the ring and garter belt to prove it. Not only that, but this is the second time her husband has tricked her, using his deceptive cape to cunningly outmaneuver her.
Brunhild is devastated, as one could imagine. She has spent her life being strong and capable, and maybe deep down behind all those protruding muscles she’s really just a romantic at heart, looking for a soulmate in the only way she knows how. Sure maybe the stakes were a little high, maybe cutting off the heads of her competitors was a little excessive, but love makes us do crazy things. And now, to realize that every moment has been steeped in deception, that this man she respected as an equal is a liar and a coward needing to call in the muscle even on his own wedding night rather than lose face and risk getting tied up and hung on a nail in their bedroom.
She walks around in a daze. Heartbroken. She is a stranger in a strange land, who will avenge her honor? Slowly the story makes the rounds among Gunther’s men and everyone is moved to pity. Hagen of Tronje vows to make amends. Siegfried thinks he can do whatever he wants. Just because he slew a dragon and has a cloak that makes him disappear he thinks he’s hot stuff. Hagen makes it his personal mission to destroy his life.
A hunting trip is planned and Hagen wanders into the sitting room to chat with Kriemhild. He’s worried about Siegfried getting into trouble, now that his recent exploits have been exposed, he doesn’t want someone to try to kill him or anything like that. Kriemhild smiles, Siegfried is practically immortal, she says, there is absolutely no reason to worry! There is just the tiniest place in the center of Siegfried’s back where an arrow could mortally wound him, but luckily no one knows that! She goes back to her sewing and Hagen, armed with his vital tidbit of information gets ready for the hunt, preparing for slightly bigger game than his companions.
And of course, everything goes smoothly. Siegfried unsuspectingly walks into the trap and Hagen, knowing exactly where that tiny piece of pervious skin on his back is, murders him in cold blood. Then he brings the body of the slain warrior back and leaves it on the threshold of Kriemhild’s door, where she will find it as she makes her way to vespers.
Kriemhild trips over the prone body of her husband and into a new devastating reality. She is untethered from her anchor, from her soulmate and she faints only to wake up screaming that Brunhild and Hagen have done this to her. Hagen swears that he is innocent, but his lie causes the wounds on Siegfried's mutilated body to open up and start bleeding anew. Classic medieval proof of a crime.
Armed with this information she swears she will avenge her husband.
Avenging her husband proves to be more complicated that she expected. She is a woman in a medieval court with little agency or power. She is left incredibly wealthy by the death of her husband, but when the Nibelungens bring her their hoard of wealth which she has inherited as her bridal portion, Hagen convinces everyone to “accidentally” sink it in the Rhine.
She is emotionally vanquished. They have stripped her of both a husband and her wealth. She has nothing and no way to concoct a plan surrounded by a court that secretly despise her for her cruelty to Brunhild. She waits. Dressed in her widows weeds for years she waits for an opportunity.
Eventually a somewhat distasteful opportunity is presented. A marriage proposal from the king of Hungary, King Etzel. He is a recent widower himself and has heard of the remarkable beauty and piety of Kriemhild. He sends an envoy to persuade her to marry him on his behalf. At first Kriemhild is unenthusiastic about this idea. Etzel is a heathen Hun, she a pious christian…everything about this is distasteful, what about remaining faithful to the dead? What about her faith?
Her old friend and ambassador for King Etzel, Rudiger suggests there is always the possibility of missionary dating/marriage and what’s more…doesn’t she have her honor to avenge and the death of her husband to requite? She ponders this for about a second. Revenge does sound good. So she accepts and makes her way from Burgundy to Hungary, shaking the dust of her birthplace from her feet. They are dead to her. She is alone in the world, and she will make it her personal mission to destroy everyone who has ever been loosely associated with the death of her husband.
Thirteen years after her arrival, she makes her case to King Etzel. Isn't it maybe time for a visit from her brothers and in particular their faithful knight Hagen? Etzel is surprised, has she been pining for them all this time? Of course they must visit. He immediately sends out an invitation which her brothers trustingly accept, despite a premonition that everything will go terribly wrong from their mother Ute. But they assure their mother it must be fine, Kriemhild must have finally forgiven them!
Hagen dismissively says: we are men of valor- we are moved by honor not by dreams!
And it is settled. They will go.
And all is going smoothly until they come to a river. The boatman seems to be missing and Hagen goes in search of a way to cross and happens upon a group of mermaids bathing in an inlet, their clothes strewn about the grass. Hagen sneaks up and grabs their clothes, his objective being somewhat ambiguous. The mermaids laughingly beg him for their clothes, one shouts out “I’ll tell your fortune in exchange for our clothes!” And Hagen, flirtatiously accepts the exchange, “You will live a long life filled with fortune and beautiful women and wealth and rainbows and roses etc.” Hagen tosses them their clothes and turns to leave chuckling to himself about what a mensch he is and how great his life is going to be, when another mermaid pipes up: “just kidding! My cousin here just wanted to get back our clothes, but you are all going to die. The only one who will survive is your chaplain. He will make it back, but the rest will die agonizing and horrific deaths.”
Hagen is the type of guy that never really believes the siren song of a bunch of mermaids. Didn’t they just tell him he was going to be rich and famous and well loved by beautiful women? He’ll stick with his first prediction. With only the slightest tinge of concern and a background level of angst he makes his way to find his men and ferry them across the river on a skiff he has found lying about.
On the last trip he sees the chaplain, squished in among the men and horses. Not that he believed those mermaids, but it would make him feel a bit better to drown the chaplain and prove that they were little more than paranoid schizophrenics with fins. He grabs the chaplain and throws him overboard attempting to pantomime something that looks like an attempt at a rescue while purposefully holding his head under the water. His soldiers push him aside and the chaplain, choking and sputtering, weighed down by his inability to swim but propelled by his fear of death, graspingly makes his way back to the shore. He pulls himself out of the water and as his eyes rest on Hagen, Hagen thinks: “we’re screwed. We’re literally all going to die.” As the last man disembarks he destroys the skiff. Their only option is to die fighting. There is no turning back.
The rest of the narrative is suspense intermingled with heads being cut off. Everyone does die including Kriemhild, her son Ortlieb and all her brothers. (Kriemhild does get to cut off Hagen’s head, but then a nanosecond later his last remaining henchmen jumps out of the woodwork screaming about the dishonor of being killed by a woman and cuts off Kriemhild’s head.)
“So all those warriors fated by hand of death lay strewn,
And e’en the queen full lofty in pieces eke was hewn.
Dietrich and royal Etzel at length to weep began,
And grievously they mourned kinsmen slain and many a man.
Who late stood high in honor now in death lay low,
And fate of all the people weeping was and woe.
To mourning now the monarch’s festal tide had passed,
As falls that joy to sorrow turneth ever at the last.
Nor can I tell you further what later did befall,
But that good knights and ladies saw ye mourning all,
And many a noble squire, for friends in death laid low.
Here hath the story ending, - that is the Nibelungen woe.