Thursday, 28 April 2016

On Supernatural Elements in the Nibelungenlied (c.1190-1204)

The Nibelungenlied, the Germanic Heroic Epic or Heldenepos thought to have been first written down at an indeterminate date between 1190 and 1204, has over the course of its more than eight hundred years of existence attained a supernatural, almost mythical power of its own. This may be true of all texts of a certain distinction, especially those of a more venerable age than others, but few if any have been accorded the same reverence and respect. That it has at certain points in its history attained the quality of, and indeed classification as, a national epic speaks to this tragic story’s continued ability to provoke a response. As John Evert Härd says, “die Wirklichkeit wird ein Teil des Mythos; sie bestätigt ihn.[1]
We may find a certain discrepancy, then, in turning to the Nibelungenlied, to find that for all this mythologizing, it is the story of mortals, of mere men and women. There is no descent into Inferno, no thunderbolts from Olympus, no duels with Grendel-like monsters. That is not to say that supernatural elements are not present, but rather to stress that, at first sight, they exist around the edges, and that the story is never dominated by warring gods or trickster demons or magical incantations. With certain exceptions, the plot is driven forward by human desires, actions and mistakes, while the world of the supernatural has an auxiliary function.

The pre-Christian Germanic beliefs and fables (the “Nibelungensaga”) from which much of the story is drawn are the predominant source of the more supernatural elements (Hermann Reichert, in The Nibelungen Tradition: An Encyclopaedia, suggests it is more useful to define these aspects not so much as “mythical” but as “fabulous”, in the sense of oral history[2]). These traditional materials from earlier centuries – dragons, dwarves, magical gold – then have the höfisch or courtly world of medieval knights superimposed on top of them, like new additions to an old palimpsest.
In some respects, the supernatural world is subordinate to, and continuously subjected to force or trickery by, representatives of the “real”, historical world. In only the third Âventiure we are told by Hagen von Tronje that the Norse hero Siegfried in his youth bested a fearsome “lintrachen” or dragon (98,2), and has bathed in its blood, gaining much-admired invulnerability in the process. We also learn that at roughly the same point in his life he won ownership of the Nibelungenhort, an apparently uncountable and indivisible collection of riches, and employed a dwarf named Alberich in his service. This standard, if brief, recounting of the Norse “Sigurd” legend is contradicted, however, by the poet’s account of the hero’s youth told earlier in the second Âventiure; the archaic storytelling of swords, sorcery and dragons is recounted orally by one of the story’s main characters, whereas it falls to the narrator himself to detail Siegfried’s courtly upbringing. Much of what occurs in Hagen’s brief exposition regarding the adventures of young Siegfried is the material of which whole epics had been built in the past yet here it is curiously “demoted” (dragons, in particular, creatures at the top of the mythical food-chain, seem especially ill-served by a mere mention in passing). While one must be careful not to be too prescriptive about a “hierarchy” of modes of storytelling, it is nonetheless of interest that, as Jan-Dirk Müller points out, the supernatural world is explicitly associated with that which is “mündlich”, with fables[3], whereas the written words of the Erzähler – indisputably the “leading voice” of the sung lines of the Nibelungenlied – prioritises the courtly demographic who would have been the audience at the start of the 13th century.
Once this distinction has been drawn, the extent to which it recurs throughout the Nibelungenlied is of great interest. “Traditional”, oral-heroic segments of Siegfried’s story are recounted by another character briefly, whereas whole swathes of the epic’s first half are handed over to his involvements and interactions with historical characters such as King Gunther of the Burgundians, who did in reality die at the hands of the Hunnic forces in 436 AD – characters who have been “hofisiert” or gentrified. Particularly anti-climactic is the reference made to “von golde ein rüetelîn/der daz hat erkumet, der mohte meister sîn/wol in aller werld über einen ietslichen man” (1121, 1-3). This is the ultimate Chekhov’s Gun: a rod so magical that it can help you rule the world, yet it remains on the mantelpiece and is never fired – it is assumed that we will be simply content with it having been referenced in passing, rather than made an active presence in the story.
Note that this does not mean that all supernatural imagery is rendered unimportant, but rather that it is supplementary. Hagen’s encounter with the “merwîp” (1532, 1) in the River Danube, for example, is certainly significant, serving a similar function to the Oracle at Delphi in Greek mythology, but the entire weight of the scene revolves around Hagen as a man and military leader, marching to his doom. We are meant to be interested in the merwîp not for their own sake, not because we as an audience are presumed to be fascinated by mermaids or water-sprites, but because they can furnish us with tension-building, anticipatory future revelations about this dynamic antihero. These supernatural beings appear on the “stage”, as it were, for seventeen Strophen, and then promptly vanish back into the river, having delivered their oracular advice – advice which one might well call “mündlich” or indeed fabulous, since it has all the cautionary power of a fable.
If that were the full extent of the supernatural presence in the Nibelungenlied, we could perhaps draw a straightforward dividing line between that which is “supernatural” – remnants of an archaic tradition helpfully included as a storytelling technique, or to pass judgment on the unfolding events – and that which is “actual”, the real meat of this drama about human figures. But at every turn, such an oversimplification is likely to be frustrated, for the Nibelungenlied blends courtly with otherworldly with reckless abandon, merging them ever more closely until the gory tragic ending sees a total dismantling of the demarcation.
Take, for instance, Kriemhild’s three dreams, a sequence for which we can do no better than turn to the detailed exegesis of Jerold C. Frakes[4]. This element, too, is supernatural, but it is nonetheless of the medieval tradition; oneirocriticism, the study of dreams and their meanings, may go back to the Greeks, but was also regarded as important in medieval understanding, especially as a prediction of future events. In other words, long before the appearance of the merwîp, we have future developments hinted at by supernatural means – the first a familiarly medieval (in Frakes’ terms, “hypercourtly”[5]) image of a woman and her lover being compared to a falcon just as in the well-known Falkenlied; the second develops into a courtly hunt of wild boar that goes devastatingly wrong; and the third recounts the hero being utterly pulverised by two mountains (“wi ob dir ze tal vielen zwêne berge” (921, 2-3)). This last, Frakes notes, is inexorable, unknowable, practically existential; in her dream she can no longer see Siegfried, for he is utterly gone. The frame of reference is no longer courtly, but the archaic image of mountains in which the dead are said to dwell (a literal journey to the Underworld, as in mountains of southern Sweden named Valhǫll/Valhalla, or “hall of the slain”[6]). Kriemhild’s interior world focuses on vivid, symbolic representations of what she feels is going to happen, as though aware of her own role within the Erzähler’s story.
Remaining on this idea of an “interior world”, Joyce Tally Lionarons makes perhaps the most fascinating reading of the function of the supernatural in the Nibelungenlied[7]. Pointing out the difference between Siegfried’s two childhoods, she identifies that in the courtly one he rides out accompanied by clever scholars who are bothered about such matters as honour (“wîsen, den êre was bekant”, (25, 3)), whereas in the otherworldly version in which he first visits Nibelungenland, he rides out “al eine” (88,1). The Nibelungenland, and its side-plots like the duel with the dwarf Alberich, is thus a private enterprise for the hero. It is not an especially dramatic leap to suggest that the latter is concerned with “eine traumhafte, psychiche Innenwelt”[8], not just the world on the other side, but the world within, which is perhaps where all or most of the poem’s most supernatural events take place. This elides the otherwise too rigorous dichotomy between “archaic” and “medieval”, since a symbolic, psychological reading of the supernatural can encompass both Hagen’s sense of doom as he approaches Attila’s court in Hungary (represented by the warning of the vividly supernatural merwîp) but also Kriemhild’s increasing distress as to the safety of her husband being represented in “hypercourtly” dream sequences that shift ever more toward the imagery of Norse sagas.
If this is the case, though, is it not immediately problematized by Brünhild’s kingdom of Isenstein – the nature of which is never fully explained, simply that it is “über sê” (324,1)? How does Siegfried get there? Why do Alberich and the tarnkappe, his cloak of invisibility, vanish from the storyline when no longer needed? How can Siegfried transport thousands of warriors in one boat, and Hagen later do the same? Where does Brünhild get her superhuman strength? These questions and more are not obviously answered by an “Innenwelt”, but they do not necessarily indicate that a symbolic understanding of the supernatural elements is without worth. Brünhild’s phenomenal and otherworldly strength, for example, disappears with the loss of her virginity; it is again no great leap to suggest, as Lionarons does, that this is indicative of her needing to accommodate her behaviour to a male-dominated society, learning duplicity and machination instead, since these are the meat and drink of how the female characters are “supposed” to operate in the Nibelungenlied and its real, historical world of political intrigue. Whether her sinews were in actuality of Herculean proportions is beside the point; our interest lies in the humiliation which the poet conveys.
It is highly unlikely that a satisfactory account of the supernatural elements of the Nibelungenlied will ever be reached – why some are accorded so little weight that they are merely thrown aside (Siegfried’s briefly recounted adventures, the golden rod) and others so much that they are key in terms of narrative devices (Brünhild’s strength). But what we can do, faced with such a vast text full of instabilities and illogicalities, is ask ourselves whether or not this tussle between the supernatural and the real, between archaic and medieval, is the central question with which the Erzähler, too, is grappling. As the story goes on, and we become increasingly aware of the doomed, otherworldly atmosphere (the ‘wyrd’ or inexorable fate, to borrow from Beowulf and the Hildebrandslied), one almost gains the impression that the narrator is telling us this is how such stories have to end – and not just because of historical precedent, given he is happy to deviate when it comes to almost every other historical detail. When humans fight over supernatural gold, when a supernatural queen is forcibly tamed and even raped and made to acquiesce to a weak, human king, when even invulnerable knights are killed in the most un-courtly of fashions, when a woman who would otherwise inhabit a courtly sphere is pushed far, far beyond breaking point… is there any other possible end aside from destruction? Hagen and his company cross over the Danube into a change of tone, into an Underworld from which everyone involved (Figuren, Erzähler, Publikum) knows they will not return – they are still living, but in one sense they are already dead. The Untergang of the Burgundians with which the Nibelungenlied famously closes is a vivid, grisly thing – Kriemhild is called a vâlandinne or ‘she-devil’ (1745, 4; 2371,4) and the halls of Attila the Hun are so stained with flowing blood that the warriors are practically wallowing in it, to the point that Hagen advises them to drink the blood of the slain to give them strength: “ir edlen ritter guot/swen der durst twinge, der trinke hie daz bluot” (2111, 1-2). The tone of the piece has now gone far beyond courtly and into the “Tier-Werdens des Menschen”[9], of proper dehumanising, despite the fact that it is all taking place in the actual court of a king.
Perhaps we can see this turn to the apocalyptic as the Erzähler’s despair at having to reconcile the supernatural and the real; at trying to unite lofty courtly ideals with the world as it existed before those ideals, the world of the familiar with the world of the strange. In the end, they do not seem compatible. The Erzähler knew the doom for which we are heading right from the start, of course – “dar umbe muosen degene vil verliesen den lîp” (1, 4). Returning us briefly to what we might call the Erzähler’s Problem, and to the central tension of what kind of story this is, we may even ask ourselves if the Nibelungenlied becomes wholly a matter for the “Innenwelt”: a private relationship between us and this dysfunctional fable. The Erzähler has set everything in motion by grappling with his take on the material, by trying to understand a world in which archaic and modern, atavistic and refined, otherworldly and worldly, can all coexist. Now the baton has been passed to us, and in turn we have to try and understand it; it is not as though the Erzähler’s Problem is any less pressing today.


Das Nibelungenlied, Reclam, 2011.

Secondary literature:
  1. Curschmann, Michael, “Nibelungenlied und Nibelungenklage: Über Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit im Prozeß der Episierung,” in Deutsche Literatur im Mittelalter; Kontakte und Perspektiven; Hugo Kuhn zum Gedenken, ed. Christoph Cormeau, J. B. Metzler, 1979.
  2. Edwards, Cyril, Introduction to The Nibelungenlied: The Lay of the Nibelungs, Oxford University Press, 2010.
  3. Ehrismann, Otfrid, Nibelungenlied: Epoche – Werk – Wirkung, C.H. Beck, 2002.
  4. Frakes, Jerold C., “Kriemhild’s Three Dreams: A Structural Interpretation,” in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur No. 113, 1984.
  5. Göhler, Peter, Das Nibelungenlied: Erzählweise, Figuren, Weltanschauung, literaturgeschichtliches Umfeld, Akademie-Verlag, 1989.
  6. Gosse, Siegfried, Nachwort to Das Nibelungenlied, Reclam, 2011.
  7. Haymes, Edward R., "Dietrich von Bern im Nibelungenlied," in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur No. 114, 1985.
  8. Haymes, Edward R.,  Das Nibelungenlied: Geschichte und Interpretation, UTB (Stuttgart), 1999.
  9. Knapp, Fritz Peter (ed.), Nibelungenlied und Klage: Sage und Geschichte, Struktur und Gattung, Carl Winter, 1987.
  10. McConnell, Winder (ed.), A Companion to the Nibelungenlied, Camden House, 1998.
  11. McConnell, Winder (ed.) (with Werner Wunderlich, Frank Gentry, Ulrich Mueller), The Nibelungen Tradition: An Encyclopaedia, Routledge, 2013.
  12. Müller, Jan-Dirk, Spielregeln für den Untergang: die Welt des Nibelungenliedes, Niemeyer, 1998.
  13. Müller, Jan-Dirk, Das Nibelungenlied, Erich Schmidt Verlag, 2002.
  14. Rupp, Heinz (ed.), Nibelungenlied und Kudrun, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1976.
  15. Wilson, H.B., ‘Blood and Wounds in the Nibelungenlied,’ in The Modern Language Review, Vol 55 No 1, 1960.
  16. Wolf, Alois, Heldensage und Epos: zur Konstituierung einer mittelalterlichen volkssprachlichen Gattung im Spannungsfeld von Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit, Gunther Narr Verlag, 1995.

[1]Härd, John Evert, Das Nibelungenepos. Wertung und Wirkung von der Romantik bis zur Gegenwart, trans. from the Swedish by Christine Palm, Francke, 1996.
[2]Reichert, Hermann, Myth, in The Nibelungen Tradition: An Encyclopaedia, (eds. Winder McConnell, Werner Wunderlich, Frank Gentry, Ulrich Mueller), Routledge, 2013.
[3]Müller, Jan-Dirk, Spielregeln für den Untergang: die Welt des Nibelungenliedes, Niemeyer, 1998.
[4]Frakes, Jerold C., “Kriemhild’s Three Dreams: A Structural Interpretation,” in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur No. 113, 1984
[6]Lionarons, Joyce Tally, “The Otherworld and Its Inhabitants in the Nibelungenlied,” in A Companion to the Nibelungenlied (ed. Winder McConnell), Camden House, 1998.
[7]Lionarons, Joyce Tally, “The Otherworld and Its Inhabitants in the Nibelungenlied,” in A Companion to the Nibelungenlied (ed. Winder McConnell), Camden House, 1998.
[8]Walter Falk, cited in Lionarons above.
[9]Müller, Jan-Dirk, Spielregeln für den Untergang: die Welt des Nibelungenliedes, Niemeyer, 1998.

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