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their outward poetical garb from alliteration to rhyme and altered
verse-form, till at last in the twelfth century they have become
the cycle of poems from which the great epic of tiie Nibelungen-
lied could be constructed — of all this we may form a faint picture
from the development of the literatiu-e in general, but direct written
record of it is almost completely wanting,

3. Character of the Poem

The twelfth and thirteenth centmies witnessed far-reaching
changes in the social and intellectual life of the German lands,
the leading feature of which is the high developmenE'lTf' all. that
is i ncluded umki ^Jiame of"chivalry. It is marked, too, by a
revival of the native literature such as had not been known before,
a revival which is due almost entirely to its cultivation by the nobility*.
From emperor down to the simple knight they were patrons of
poetry and, what is most striking, nearly all the poets themselves
belong to the knightly class. The drama has not yet begun, but in
the field of epic and lyric there appear about the year 1200 poets
who are among the greatest that German literature even down to
the present time has to show. The epic poetry of that period,
though written almost entirely by the knights, is of two distinct
kinds according to its subject: on the one hand what is called the
Court Epic, on the other hand the National, or Popular, Epic. The
Court Epic follows for the most part French models and deals
chiefly with the life of chivalry, whose ideals were embodied in king
Arthur and his circle of knights; the National Epic drew its sub-
jects from the national German saga, its two great products being
the Nibelungenlied and the poem of Gudrun. Court Epic and
National Epic are further distinct in form, the Court Epic being
written in the rhymed couplets popularized in modem times in
English by Sir Walter Scott, while the National Epic is composed
in four-lined strophes.

Though we know the name and more or less of the life of the
authors of the many court epics of the period, the name of the poet
who gave ihe Nibelungenlied its final form has not been recorded.
As we hare seen, the poem is at bottom of a truly popular, national


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fcharaq^er, having its beginnings in mythology and early national
'histeiy* For centuries the subject had been national property
and connected with the name of no one individual. We ha\'e it
now in the form in which it was remodelled to suit the taste of the
court and the nobility, and like the court epic to be read aloud in
casde hall. That it is written in four-Hned strophes * and not in
the usual rhymed couplets of the court epics is doubtless due to the
fact that the former verse-form had already been used in the earlier
ballads upon which it is based, and was simply taken over by the
final moulder of the poem. This latter was probably a member
of the nobility hke the great majority of the epic poets of the time;
he must at least have been well acquainted with the manners, tastes,
sentiments, and general life of the nobility. Through him the
poem was brought outwardly mqre into line with the literaiy-ideals
of the cpurt circles. This shows itself chiefly in a negative way,
namely, in the almost ^omplete .avoidaace^ of 4he coarse language
and farcical situations^so common with the popular poet, the spiel-
mann. Beyond this no violence is done to the simple form of the
original. The style is still inornate and direct, facts still speak
rather than words, and there is nothing approaching the refined
psychological dissection of characters and motives such as we find
in Wolfram von Eschenbach and the other court writers.

When we look to the inner substance we see that the groimd
ideals are still those of lift oogiBat Germanic heroic age. The
Jchief characters are still those of the first stages of the story — Sieg-
ied, Brunhild, Gimther, Kriemhild, Hagen. The Jaindamentol
themeis the ancient theme of triuwe, ims we rving personal lo yalty
and devotion, which manitests Itselt abo'^lTall in the chara cters
o f iMemhOd^ and Hagen. Kri emhild^s husband Siegfried is
(y'^rea cherously slain: her sorr ow and revenge are the motive s of
•<r^^ th g ^roa^ - Hagen^s mistress has, though wit hjio evil inten t on
% pieg fried^r parfpRCeived an msult to Her Honor: to aveng e that
insu lt is Hagen's ab sorbing duty, which he fulfils with an^ utter
disrei^d of consequences. Over this their fundamental character

tory have received a gloss of outward

♦ For description of the Nibelungen strophe see below, p. xzxiv.




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conduct in keeping with the close of the twelfth century. The
ling in hofschetf, zulU, tugetU. ^r^n^^ntnti^n i# pMiA, tikAiiSi

and the pre paration of fitting apparel for col^ festivities is descri bed
and re-described with w earisome prolixity . A cardinal virtue is
mUte, liberality iir Qie bfest p^iga l of ^ tts. t^ou rtesy toward wo men t
is observed with the careful formality of the age H the minnesinger?.
It was above all Siegfried, the light-hero of the original myth, whose
character lent itself to an idealization of knighthood. R^jgiiger
holds a like place in the latter part of the poem. In the evident
pleasure with which the minstrel-knight Volker of the sword-
fiddlebow is depicted, as well doubtless as in occasional gleams of
broader humor, the hand of the minstrels who wrought on the
story in its earlier ballad stages may be seen. ApH f\i^. whnly prw^m^ ,^^
in kee ping with its form in an aee stron^ f^y 'ITTP^*' ^^"'•'^^ inflnonrA^ '^^^
has been tinged with thfi j^j^al^ r> f rhrisHanj rtv. Not only does the
ordi nary conversation ofall tEe* characfe rs, including even the ^
heathen Etzel, contai n a great number of formal imprecat ions ^

of God, but rhriRtian ipfititiirinng s\^i;it] C^ri^tJan ftthJtTB fSUBt ^^^

qu gidy into play . Mass is suny in the minste r, baptism, marriage ,
bur ial are celebrated in Christian fashion, thft dpvil fg TYi^nti'r^Tt^
acco rding to the Christian conception , we {lear of priest, c haplain , i
am j Dishop ^ JJhristians are contrasted with heathen, and K riemhild, tA
in marrying Etzel, has a ho pe of tuming him to Chnsfaan itv. In
Haggi'sattonpt to drown f^^ gigplam whom the Burgund ians L
have with them as they set out foF the land of the huns we have ^
perhaps^^a n^ expression oi tn e conihct oetween the hq g^ tSeh a nd p^
the Ch r£5an eleme nts, possiDiy also a reflection of th e traditional ^r"
anim osity dt tne s ptetmann to his r^]f >n'rai ny^l ^^^

'lUe Nibeiimgennerand the Iliad of Homer have often been
compared, but after all to no great purpose. The two epics are
alike in having^iiHipjDil^ tfeep in national origins, but beyond
this we have contrasts rather than resemblances. The Hiad is
a more varied and complete picture of the whole Greek world
than the NibelungenHed is of the German, its religious atmosphere
has not been disturbed in the same way as that of the saga of early
Germanic times projected several centuries into a later Christian


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age, and it possesses in every way a greater unity of sentiment
In the varied beauty of its language, its wealth of imagery, its depth
of feeling and copiousness of incident the Hiad is superior to the
Nibelungenlied with its language of simple directness, its few
lyrical passages, its expression of feeling by deeds rftHMr than by
wordi. Homer, too, is in general buoyant, the Nibelimgenlied is
sombre and stem. And in one last respect the two epics differ
most of all: the Hiad is essentially narrative and descriptive, a
series of episodes; th# MiMhmgenlted k «MMiialiy dswMtic,
scene Jri J gwtrv g scene of J i ftftiglg MWj e salty and tJUillllli g '^ilHffily
and inevitably ca tas trophe.

4. Later Forms of the Saga

In the Northern Edda and in the German Nibelungenlied the
Nibelungen saga found its fullest and most poetic expression. But
these were not to be the only literary records of it. Both in Scandi-
navian lands and in Germany various other monuments, scattered
over the intervem'ng centuries, bear witness to the fact that it lived
on in more or less divergent forms. The Danish historian Saxo
Grammaticus of the latter part of the twelfth century has a reference
to the story of Kriemhild's treachery toward her brothers. About
the year 1250 an extensive prose narrative, known as the Thidreks-
saga, was written by a Norwegian from oral accounts given him
by men from Bremen and Miinster. This narrative is interesting
as showing the form the saga had taken by that date on Low Ger-
man territory, and holds an important place in the history of the
development of the saga. It has much more to say of the early
history of Siegfried than we find in the Nibelungenlied, and yet
in the main outHnes of the story of Kriemhild's revenge it corre-
sponds with the German epic and not with the Northern Edda.
A chronicle of the island of Hven in the Sound, dating in its original
form from the sixteenth century, as well as Danish ballads on the
same island that have lived on into modem times, tell of Sivard
(Siegfried), Brynhild, and also of Grimild*s (Kriemhild's) revenge.
In Norway and Sweden traces of the saga have recendy been dis-
covered; while songs that are sung on the Faroe Islands, as an


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accompaniment to the dance on festive occasions, have been
recorded, containing over six hundred strophes in which is related
in more or less distorted form the Nibelungen story.

In Germany the two poems known as the Klage and HUmen
Seyfrid are the most noteworthy additional records of the Nibelun-
gen saga, as offering in part at least independent material. The
Klage is a poem of over four thousand lines in rhymed couplets,
about half of it being an account of the mourning of Etzel, Diet-
rich, and Hildebrand as they seek out the slain and prepare them
for burial, the other half teUing of the bringing of the news to Bech-
elaren, Passau, and Worms. The poem was written evidently
very soon after the Nibelungenlied, the substance of which was
familiar to the author, though he also draws in part from other
sources. Compared with the Nibelungenlied it possesses but little
poetic merit and is written with distinctly Christian sentiment
which is out of harmony with the groimd-tone of the Germanic

The Hiimen Seyfrid is a poem of 179 four-lined strophes which
is preserved only in a print of the sixteenth century, but at least
a portion of whose substance reaches back in its original form to a
period preceding the composition of the Nibelungenlied. It is
evidently, as we have it, formed by the union of two earUer separate
poems, which are indeed to a certain extent contradictory of each
other. The first tells of the boyhood of Seyfrid (Siegfried) and his
apprenticeship to the smith; how he slew many dragons, burned
them, and smeared over his body with the resulting fluid homy
substance (hence his name hiirtien), which made him invulnerable;
how he further found the hoard of the dwarf Nybling, and by ser-
vice to King Gybich won the latter's daughter for his wife. The
second part tells how King Gybich reigned at Worms. He has
three sons, Giinther, Hagen, Gymot, and one daughter, Kriemhild.
The latter is borne off by a dragon, but finally rescued by Seyfrid,
to whom she is given in marriage. The three brothers are jealous
of the might and fame of Seyfrid, and after eight years Hagen
slays him beside a cool spring in the Ottenwald.

The poem BUerolf, written soon after the Nibelungenlied, and
Rosengarten of perhaps a half-century later, represent Dietrich in


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conflict with Siegfried at Worms. The famous shoemaker-poet
Hans Sachs of Nuremberg in 1557 constructed a tragedy, Der hornen
Sewfriedt, on the story of Siegfried as he knew it from the Hilmen
Seyfrid and the Rosengarten, A prose version of the Hiimen Seyfrid,
with free additions and alterations, is preserved in the Volksbuch
vom gehomien Sigfrid, the oldest print of which dates firom the
year 1726. Of the vast number of Fairy Tales, those most genu-
ine creations of the poetic imagination of the people, in which live
on, often to be sure in scarcely recognizable form, many of the
myths and sagas of the nation's infancy, there are several that may
with justice be taken as relics of the Siegfried myth, for instance.
The Two Brothers, The Young Giant, The Earth-Manikin, The
Eling of the Golden Moimt, The Raven, The Skilled Huntsman,
and perhaps also the Golden Bird and The Water of Life; * though
it would seem from recent investigations that Thorn-Rose or the
Sleeping Beauty, is no longer to be looked upon as the counter-
part of the sleeping Brynhild. Finally, it is probable that several
names in Germany and in Northern countries preserve localized
memories of the saga.

$. Poem and Saga in Modern Lxterature

Fimdamentally different from the foregoing natural outgrowths
of the Nibelungen saga are the modem dramas and poems founded
upon it since the time of the romanticists at the beginning of the
nineteenth century.f Nearly all of these have already vanished
as so much chaff from the winnowing-mill of time: only two, per-
haps, are now considered seriously, namely, Hebbel's Die Nibelungen
and Richard Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen, Hebbel in his grandly
conceived drama in three parts follows closely the story as we have
it in our epic poem the Nibelimgenlied, and the skill with which
he makes use of its tragic elements shows his dramatic genius at
its best. But not even the genius of Hebbel could make these

* These will be found in Grimm's M^ux^hen as nimibers 60, 90-93,
III, 57, and 97.

t The curious will find a list of these in the introduction to Piper's
edition, cited below, p. xxxvi.


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forms of myth and saga live again for us upon a modem stage,
and the failure of this work with its wealth of poetic beauty and
many scenes of highest dramatic effectiveness to maintain its
place as an acting drama is sufficient evidence that the yawning
gap that separates the sentiment of the modem world from that
of the early centuries in which these sagas grew is not to be bridged
over by the drama, however easy and indeed delightful it may be
for us to allow ourselves to be transported thither to that romantic
land upon the wings of epic story. Wagner in his music-drama
in three parts and prelude has followed in the main the saga in
its Northern form* up to the death of Siegfried and Brunhild,
but to the entire exclusion of the latter part of the story in which
AtK (Etzel) figures; his work has accordingly hardly any connec-
tion with the Nibelungenlied here offered in translation. Only
the pious loyalty of national sentiment can assign a high place in
dramatic literature to Wagner's work with its intended imitation
of the alliterative form of verse; while his philosophizing gods
and goddesses are also but decadent modem representatives of
their rugged heathen originals.

6. MoDEHN German Tsanslations

The language of the Nibelungenlied presents about the same
difficulty to the German reader of to-day as that of our English
Chaucer to us. Many translations into modem German have
accordingly been made to render it accessible to the average reader
without special study. In the year 1767 Bodmer in Zurich published
a translation into hexameters of a portion of it, and since the inves-
tigations of Lachmann raised it to the position of a national epic of
first magnitude many more have appeared, both in prose and verse.
The best in prose is that by Scherr, of the year i860. Of the metrical
translations that by Simrock, which in its later editions follows
pretty dosely the text of MS. C, is deservedly the most popular
and has passed through a great number of editions. Bartsch

♦ See above, pp. ix-xv.


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has also made a translation based on his edition of MS. B. These
modem versions by Simrock and Bansch reproduce best the metrical
quality of the original strophe. Easily obtainable recent trans-
lations are those by Junghans (in Reclames Universalbibliothek)
of text C, and by Hahn (Collection Spemann) of text A.


Early in last century interest in the Nibelimgenlied began
to manifest itself in England. A synopsis of it, with metrical
translation of several strophes, appeared in the year 1814 in Weber,
Jamieson and Scott's "Illustrations of Northern Antiquities" (Lon-
don and Edinburgh), in which, according to Lockhart, Sir Walter
Scott's hand, may perhaps be seen. Carlyle, laboring as a pioneer to
spread a knowledge of German literature in England, contributed
to the Westminster Review in 183 1 his well-known essay on the
Nibelungenlied which, though containing an additional mass of
rather ill-arranged matter and now antiquated in many particulars,
is still well worth reading for its enthusiastic account of the epic
itself in the genuine style of the author. Carlyle here reproduces
in metrical form a few strophes. He has said elsewhere that one
of his ambitions was to make a complete English version of the
poem. Since then an endless number of accounts of it, chiefly
worthless, has appeared in magazines and elsewhere. The first
attempt at a complete metrical translation was made in 1848 by
Jonathan Birch, who however only reproduces Lachmann's twenty
Hi defy with some fifty-one strophes added on his own accoimt. Hi <?
version of the first strophe runs thus:

Legends of by-gone times reveal wonders and prodigies,
OfTieroes worthy endless fame, — of matchless braveries, —
Of jubilees and festal sports, — of tears and sorrows great, —
And knights who daring combats fought: — the Hke I now relate.

In 1850 appeared William Nansom Lettsom's translation of the

♦ For a complete list of these, also of magazine articles, etc.,
relating to the Nibelimgenlied, see F. E. Sandbach, The Nibelungenl
lied and Gudrun in England and America, London, 1903.


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whole poem according to Braunfels' edition, with the opening
strophe turned as follows:

In stories of our fathers high marvels we are told
Of champions well approved in perils manifold.
Of feasts and merry meetings, of weeping and of wail,
And deeds of gallant daring I'll tell you m my tale.

The next metrical rendering is that by A. G. Foster-Barham in
the year 1887. His first strophe reads:

Many a wondrous story have the tales of old,

Of feats of knightly glory, and of the Heroes bold.

Of the delights of feasting, of weeping and of wail,

Of noble deeds of daring; you may list strange things in my tale.

In the year 1898 follows still another, by Alice Horton (edited by
K Bell). This latest translation is based on Bartsch's text of
MS. B, and is prefaced by Carlyle's essay. First strophe:

To us, in olden legends, is many a marvel told

Of praise-deserving heroes, of labottrs manifold.

Of weeping and of wailing, of joy and festival;

Of bold kmghts* battling shall you now hear a wondrous tale.

Apart from the many faults of interpretation all of the metrical
translations of the Nibelungenlied here enumerated are defective
in one all-important respect: they do not reproduce the poem in
its metrical form. Carlyle and other pioneers we may perhaps
acqmt of any intention of following the original closely in this regard.
None of the translators of the complete poem, however, has retained
in the English rendering what is after all the very essence of a poem, —
its exact metrical quality. Birch has created an entirely different
form of strophe in which all four lines are alike, each containing
seven principal accents, with the caesura, following the foiuth foot.
Lettsom makes the first serious attempt to reproduce the original
strophe. It is evident from the introduction to his translation
(see p. xxvi) that he had made a careful study of its form, and he
does in fact reproduce the first three lines exactly. Of the fourth
line he says: "I have not thought it expedient to make a rale of
thus lengthening the foiurth lines of the stanzas, thou^ I have
lengthened them occasionally "(I). What moved him thus to


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deprive the stanza of its most striking feature — and one, more- ^
over, that is easily preserved in English — he does not make clear.
The versions of Foster-Barham and of Horton and Bell show the
same disfigurement, the latter omitting the extra accent of the
fourth line, as they say, "for the sake of euphony"(!). It is just
this lengthened close of each strophe that gives the Nibelungenlied
its j)eculiar metrical character and contributes not a littie to the
avoidance of monotony in a poem of over two thousand strophes.
In theory the form of the fourth line as it stands in the original
is no more foreign to the genius of the English language than to
that of modem German, and few of the many Germans giving
a modernized version of the epic have been bold enough to lay
sacrilegious hands upon it to shorten it.

A brief account of the Nibelimgen strophe may not be out of
place here, owing to the fact that its character has generally been
misimderstood. The origin and evolution of the strophe have
been the subject of much discussion, the results of which we need
not pause to formulate here. As it appears in actual practice
in our poem of about the year 1200, it was as follows: Each strophe
consists of four long lines, the first line rhyming with the second,
and the third with the fourth. The rhymes are masculine, that
is, rhymes on the end syllable. Each line is divided by a clearly
marked caesura into two halves; each half of the first three lines
and the first half of the fourth line has three accented syllables,
the second half of the fourth line has four accented syllables. The
first half of each line ends in an unaccented syllable — or, strictly
speaking, in a syllable bearing a secondary accent; that is, each
line has what is called a "ringing" caesura. The metrical character
of the Nibelungen strophe is thus due to its fixed number of accented
syllables. Of unaccented syllables the number may vary within
certain limits. Ordinarily each accented syllable is preceded
by an imaccented one; that is, the majority of feet are iambic. The
unaccented syllable may, however, at times be wanting, or there
may, on the other hand, be two or even three of them together.
A characteristic of the second half of the last line is that there is
very frequently no unaccented syllable between the second and
the third accented ones. Among occasional variations of the


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normal strophe as here described may be mentioned the following:
The end-rhyme is in a few instances feminine instead of masculine;
while on the other hand the ending of the first half-lines is occasion-
ally masculine instead of feminine, that is, the caesura is not "ring-
ing." In a few scattered instances we find strophes that rhyme
throughout in the caesura as well as at the end of lines; * occasionally
the first and second lines, or still less frequently the third and fourth,
alone have caesural rhyme.f Rhyming of the caesura may be
regarded as accidental in most cases, but it is reproduced as exactly
• as possible in this translation.

In the original the opening strophe, which is altogether more
regular than the average and is, moreover, one of the few that have
also complete caesural rhyme, is as follows:

Uns ist in alten maeren wunders vil geseit

von heleden lobebaeren, von gr6zer arebeit,

von frouden, hochgezlten, von weinen tind von Idagen,

von kuener recken striten muget ir nu wtinder hoeren sagen.

Here the only place where the imaccented syllable is lacking before
the accented is before wunders at the beginning of the second half
of the first line. A strophe showing more typical irregularities is,
for instance, the twenty-second:

In stnen besten ztten, bi sfnen jtmgen tagen,
man mohte michel wunder von Slvride sagen,
waz firen an im wuehse und wie scoene was sin Up.
sit heten in ze minne diu vil waetlichen wip.

Here the rhyme of the first and second lines is still masculine, tagen
and sagen being pronounced tagn and sagn. The unaccented
syllable is lacking, e.g., before the second accent of the second

Online LibraryGeorge Henry NeedlerThe Nibelungenlied → online text (page 3 of 27)