According to Jesse Byock (The Prose Edda, Norse Mythology, 2005) the Edda “recounts the Norse creation epic and the subsequent struggles of the gods’ tragic realization that the future holds one final cataclysmic battle, Ragnarok, when the world will be destroyed.”
There is much more of a Christian influence on the Germanic prose of the Nibelungenlied than the Norse. While Snorri Sturluson does ground his mythology in the guise of Christianity, there is actually very little apparent Christian influence outside the prologue:
“In the beginning, almighty God created heaven and earth and all that pertains to them…[short discussion on Adam and Eve and Noah and worldly ambition etc.] …they abandoned their obedience to God, going so far that they no longer desired to name God. Who was able to tell their sons about God’s wondrous deeds? Thus they lost God’s name, and nobody could be found anywhere in the world who knew his maker.”
King Gylfi goes on a quest to understand the origins of the world, and ends up in a hall reminiscent of Valhalla where he sits down with three figures, High, Just-as-High and Third (all of which are names for Odin), to discuss cosmology.
The narrative then progressive with a question and answer session between Gylfi, disguised as an old man, and Odin disguised as three mortals. Gylif is curious about the origin of the gods; who for example is the oldest? Or the highest? What was the beginning or how did things start?
“Early of ages, when nothing was. There was neither sand nor sea nor cold waves. The earth was not found not the sky above. Ginnungagp [the great void before creation] was there, but grass, was nowhere.” (The Sibyl’s Prophecy. 3)
While there are Christian themes ameliorated into the narrative, for example the concept of a Trinitarian God, the Christian elements are subtle and the Edda reads more like a “Just So” story or Ovid’s Metamorphoses than a treatise on faith.
The Nibelungenlied by comparison chooses to keep a Germanic and barbaric epic narrative (lots of blood and gore and descriptive decapitations) with a sprinkling of the catholic rite and ritual. In fact, I think the most suspenseful scene in the Nibelungenlied is when Hagen and his warriors, suspicious of Kriemhild’s very evident plan to murder them, choose to wear their armor and carry their swords into mass. It’s all very edge of your seat.
The world of the Edda is comprised of dwarfs and elves and Middle Earth etc., It is not hard to see the influence the Edda had on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In fact, I think you could probably insert a paragraph from either book into the other without much discontinuity. Besides the fact that Tolkein uses many of the same names and concepts of the Edda, probably the most emblematic comparison is that of the ‘ring’. While we are all probably familiar with the role the ‘ring’ played in Tolkein’s trilogy, Snorri’s version is not too dissimilar: the ring will ultimately harm its owner and bring death and destruction wherever it goes.
King Gylfi asks: ‘Why is gold called Otter’s ransom?’ And in response Odin tell the following story:
Loki, Odin and Hoenir are traveling throughout the world, Loki as usual is contemplating some sort of mischief to enact on the gods, when the trio stumble upon an otter taking a bath in a river. Loki kills the otter and a salmon and as they make their way through the forest they are pleased with their catch and anticipated lunch. Unbeknownst to them, they have actually killed the son of the magical woodsman Hreidmar. When Hreidmar realizes this is what has happened, he calls his sons, Fafnir and Regin and they bind the three gods preparing to kill them.
The gods beg for their lives and promise a ransom. After a bit of contemplation, the woodsmen agree: the gods must fill the sack, made with the skin flayed from the otter, with red gold. The gods agree and Odin sends Loki to go find the dwarf Andvari, who has a predilection for turning himself into a fish, and lives in a rock cave filled with a hoard of gold. As Andvari hands over the gold, he hides a little ring in his hand, not wishing to part with it, but Loki having seen the subtle gesture demands that the ring be turned over. The words ‘my precious’ may not have been used, but it’s the same general gist. As Loki grabs the ring and heads back to the woodsmen, the dwarf screams out a warning and a curse that the ring will be the death of whoever possesses it.
The curse of the ring begins its malevolent work immediately. As Loki unburdens himself of the gold, Hreidmar casts his eyes over the compensation for his son’s death, again the words “my precious” might not actually be spoken in so many words, but you can sense the sentiment. Fafnir and Regin ask for their part of the gold and when their father refuses to part with even a single gold coin, Fafnir kills him. Then Regin turns to Fafnir; now that their father is dead, the most rational decision would be to split the gold evenly down the middle, but Fafnir laughs, after he killed his own father for the gold does Regin actually think he is about to share it? As Regin decides maybe he will leave and take that vacation he’s always promised himself. Fafnir, now wearing the Aegis-Helm (the Helm of Dread) makes himself a lair in the Gnita-Heath, and turning himself into a dragon lays down on his hoard of gold.
Enter our hero from the Nibelungenlied, Siegfried, who in the Norse version has become Sigurd.
Rigen is annoyed at his brother just because he killed his father first and then turned himself into a dragon etc. doesn’t mean he gets to keep the gold. Not fair! He makes his way to Thjod and finds Sigurd, the strongest warrior in the land renowned for his strength and courage, and bates him with treasure (the hoard of the Nibelungelied). We are forced to read between the lines, but the discussion must have gone something like this: A dragon is lying on my pile of gold, want to kill it? My translation says: “Regin told him where Fafnir lay on the gold and urged him to seek the treasure.” I’m emphasizing this because what happens next can only be described as foul play.
Sigurd, the brilliant and cunning warrior that he is, digs a pit in the path that Fafnir always takes and then hides himself in it waiting for the dragon to pass by. As Fafnir crawls along the path inattentive to his surroundings, probably thinking something along the lines of “my precious”, he passes over the pit and Sigurd thrusts his sword into his belly killing him instantaneously. At this point, Regin rushes forward crying “you just killed my brother!”
“As settlement between him and Sigurd, he asked Sigurd to take Fafnir’s heart and roast it on the fire. Then Regin lay down, drank Fafnir’s blood and went to sleep.”
There are some deeply disturbing familial issues at play here, but Sigurd seems unfazed. He busies himself with cooking up some dragon heart and as it is roasting nicely on the stick he touches it to find out if it is still raw, when the boiling blood from the heart drips onto his finger scalding him. He quickly puts his finger in his mouth and immediately can understand the language of birds. (Not quite as cool as the immortality Siegfried got for killing his dragon…but still pretty cool.) Lucky for Sigurd, the birds are poets and apparently mind readers for they warn Sigurd of the nefarious plans of Regin in iambic pentameter.
Sigurd kills Regin, hops on his horse Grani, and makes his way to Fafnir’s lair where he loads up the gold and heads home for praise and adoration.
On the way he finds Brynhild, (or Brunhild of the Nibelungenlied), unlike her Germanic counterpart she is not a giantess obsessed with track and field events but a Valkyrie, trapped in a sleep inducing helmet and mail coat. Sigurd cuts the mail coat away and removes the helmet and frees Brynhild from her stupor and then makes his way to the Gjukungs, where he marries the princess Gudrun (or Kriemhild of the Nibelungenlied.)
In the Norse version Brynhild is the sister of Attila the Hun, and Gudrun’s brother Gunnar has his eye on her. Brynhild after being rescued by Sigurd has established herself on the top of a mountain surrounded by a “wavering flame.” She has taken an oath that she will only marry a man capable of riding through flames for her. Gunnar, with the best of intentions, tries to ride his horse Goti through the flames, but Goti won’t have it. Sigurd changes form with Gunnar and rides through the flame and marries Brynhild on Gunnar’s behalf. That evening as they get into bed, Sigurd draws his sword, Gram, and lays it between them, as a sign of protecting her virginity, which is a much more chivalrous version of the marriage night than the Nibelungenlied.
The next morning, as payment for the ‘linen fee’ Sigurd gives Brynhild the gold ring that Loki had taken from Andvari and she gives him one of her rings in exchange. He then jumps on his horse, rides back to his companions, presumably with Brynhild in tow, quickly changes form with Gunnar and the now happy party makes their way back to Gjuki to live happily ever after.
Except this is an epic. And there’s that dastardly ring involved, so no one actually lives for long and whether their short lives are happy is questionable.
We now come to the infamous quarrel between the two brides. Once again, a version of ‘my husband’s stronger than your husband’ is played out, but this time as the women are washing their hair in a nearby stream. Brynhild refuses to have her hair washed with water that has already run through Gudrun’s hair because hers is the more courageous husband. Makes sense. Predictably, as these things go, Gudrun then has to wade farther out from shore saying her husband is more valiant and courageous and as proof she offers the anecdotal evidence: her husband (obviously much stronger than any mortal living including Gunner etc.) has killed Fafnir the dragon and Regin the nefarious woodsman and taken both their inheritances.
That’s pretty impressive, but didn’t Gunnar ride gloriously through hell flame and fire to marry Brynhild, while Sigurd was hardly man enough to stand guard? Obviously Brynhild wins. Fire beats dragon.
Gudrun laughingly says “Do you think it was Gunnar who rode through the wavering fire? This I know: the one who came into your bed was the one who gave me this gold ring. Further, the gold ring you have on your hand, which you received as the morning gift, is called Andvaranaut, and I do not believe that Gunnar was the one to get it at Gnita- Heath.”
Brynhild says nothing. Or at least Snorri doesn’t allow her a retort. Instead she makes her way home and urges her husband to kill Sigurd, which he does with little prompting. (Actually, to be more accurate, since he took an oath not to harm Sigurd, he tells his brother Gothram to kill Sigurd, which he immediately does by thrusting a sword threw the sleeping Sigurd).
(I like the immortal Siegfried of the Nibelungenlied a bit better. With only a small pervious section of his back grounding him in mortality there’s much more intrigue and planning involved than: sword in the back while sleeping.)
Brynhild then grabbing the sword from Gothram thrusts it into herself. Sigurd and Brynhild are then burnt together on a pyre. We are given nothing about Gunnar’s emotional state, having just lost his wife and brother-in-law, he seems less distraught than one would imagine. He quickly takes the gold from Sigurd and the ring from Brynhild and heads back home to rule over the lands.
Gudrun then decides to marry Brynhild’s brother, King Attila. One sentence later it’s time for a visit from Gunnar, for good measure he decides to hide his hoard of gold in the Rhine, where it remains to be found (the same place it was hidden in the Nibelungenlied). King Attila is waiting for Gunnar and his men and within 2 sentences has cut out the heart of Gunnar’s side kick and thrown Gunnar into a pit of snakes. Luckily, Gunnar was secretly given a harp which he was forced to play with his toes, since his hands were bound. As he plays his melody the snakes begin to fall asleep, all except one:
“This one glided towards him and struck just below the breastbone so that she buried her head into his flesh, grabbing hold of his liver until he died.”
It is now Gudrun’s turn to wreak havoc on the life of her husband, King Attila. She murders her two sons and makes goblets from their skulls. At the funeral procession for her brother she presents her husband with these macabre goblets filled with the blood of their sons. And then just in case he doesn’t get the memo that she is truly psychotic, she has her sons hearts roasted and given to the king to eat. Um what?! She shouts and yells and with “foul” language tells her one dimensional husband what she has done. This is the next sentence:
“There was no lack of strong mead at the feast and most people feel asleep where they were sitting.”
Gudrun does not fall asleep. Instead she murders her husband as he slept (what?!) and then burns the hall so that all the guests burn to death.
As a whole, if one can compare these two entirely different pieces of literature I think the Nibelungendlied is more…readable?