Thursday, 12 May 2016

A Feminist Reading of the Nibelungenlied (c.1190-1204)

Isn't she badass?
Translation of Passage: Nibelungenlied, 23. Aventiure, lines 1384,1 – 1391,4

With very great renown (this is most true),
They lived together for seven years.
During this time the Queen had a son;
Nothing could have brought King Attila more joy.

She would not back down, nor accept any less,
Than that Attila’s child was baptised
After the Christian fashion. They called him Ortlieb.
And there was great joy throughout all Attila’s lands.

Whatever good courtly qualities Frau Helca had possessed
So Frau Kriemhild strove after the same for many a day.
Herrat taught her the land’s customs, Herrat the exiled maid,
She who in secret still grieved bitterly for Helca.

Both strangers and natives knew Kriemhild well.
They used to say that no lady had ever ruled a king’s land
Better and more generously. Everyone found this to be true.
She bore such praise from the Huns until the thirteenth year.

Now she had noticed that no one stood against her,
As still today knights sometimes do to their king’s wife,
And that twelve kings always stood before her.
She thought about the great wrong which had befallen her in her homeland.

She thought, too, about the great honours in the Nibelungenland
Which she had enjoyed, and which Hagen
Had taken away from her with Siegfried’s death,
And whether she could still make him suffer for it.

“That could happen, if only I could bring him to this country.”
She dreamed she often went hand in hand with her brother Giselher
And that she kissed him many a time in sweet sleep.
By and by both of them faced great hardship.

I believe that the wicked devil advised Kriemhild
To part from Gunther on friendly terms,
Who she had in Burgundy kissed with reconciliation.
At this she stained her clothes anew with hot tears.


The 23rd Aventiure of the Nibelungenlied arrives as a fascinating turning-point in the narrative; it is one of the principal instances since the very first Aventiure that the poet has focussed on Kriemhild and, seemingly, Kriemhild alone. Though she has had a significant presence before now – her first meeting with Siegfried, the double wedding, the argument with Brünhild, her concern for her husband’s fate, and her grief and rage at her husband’s murder and the theft of the hoard respectively – these events remain (by and large) in the public sphere, and consistently see her as a figure interacting with, or defined by, others. For the 23rd Aventiure, however, once the matter of her marriage with Attila the Hun is out the way, the stage is to a large extent hers, justifying Grosse’s assessment that she is the “central figure of the Nibelungenlied[1]; furthermore, it is this particular segment of the storyline which sets in motion the events that are to come. The poet allows us to dwell in Kriemhild’s inner life with her, privy to her most painful or most shameful thoughts, in light of her acts of revenge in the future.
This opening passage of the 23rd Aventiure is remarkable in that it exemplifies Kriemhild’s shift from one role to another: however much we may divide the Nibelungenlied’s two halves at the 19th Aventiure, it is here that Kriemhild starts to put the courtly world to which she is accustomed behind her, and incipient dreams of revenge fill her mind. Take, for instance, this passage’s opening line: ‘mit vil grôzen êren, daz ist al wâr’ (1384,1), the narrator asserts about Kriemhild and Attila’s life together for seven years. This is very familiar courtly terminology, redolent of Kriemhild’s initial appearance on the scene in the words ‘ein vil edel magedîn’ (1,1). Everything about this briefly sketched portrait of those seventeen years is exactly as it should be in the höfische Welt, held momentarily as if in some kind of stasis before the Untergang storyline begins. We come across courtly lexis such as ‘tugende’ (1386,1) and ‘fursten’ (1388,2). We have discussion of the line of succession, and the arrival of a son and heir as a joyous emblem of healthy courtliness (‘di zît diu küneginne eines suns was genesen. des kunde der künic Etzel nimmer vrɶlicher wesen’, 1384,3-4), a joy that all Attila’s subjects share (‘des wart vil michel freude uber elliu Etzeln lant’, 1385,4). We have Kriemhild’s righteous insistence on Christian baptism even whilst within the confines of the pagan Hunnic culture, no doubt met with approval by the medieval audience (‘getoufet würde daz Etzeln kint/nâch kristenlichem rehte’, 1385,2-3). Right down to the verse’s form can we see echoes of this utopian harmony: one need merely look at the Abverse or first half-lines of each of the Langzeile or long lines in the opening stanza. The ending words are ‘êren’, ‘mit einander’, ‘küneginne’ and ‘künic Etzel’, symbolising in microcosm their balanced, happy life together by anchoring the middle of each line of the stanza in a lexical field that emphasises the courtly.
And yet by the end of these thirty-two lines of verse, Kriemhild is emotionally distressed to the extent that she weeps hot tears of rage (‘heizen trehen’, 1391,4), she envisages personally putting Hagen through ‘leide’ (1389,4) and we are told she has been called by the very devil himself (‘ich wæne, der ubel vâlant Kriemhilde daz geriet’, 1391,1). The journey down the slippery slope towards the Untergang continues, and the Erzähler makes sure we are aware of it (‘sît wart in arbeiten kunt’, 1390,4). In brief, then, quite the change of tone occurs over the course of this extract, and it is instructive to examine the linguistic, thematic and psychological means by which this transition – the transition from the courtly Kriemhild to the vengeful one – takes place.
Of course, no fully convincing psychological study of so profound a transformation can be conducted in merely thirty-two lines, whatever the quality of poetry; the Nibelungenlied is not primarily concerned with the psychological interiority of its characters, or at least not on any naturalistic plane[2]. Yet, as so often in the Nibelungenlied, such is the richness of verse, such the density of meaning, that a close reading may see the reader compelled, or drawn, toward the seismic emotional ramifications of events, and any doubts as to as subjective a notion as ‘psychological truth’ can be laid to one side.
Earlier in this commentary, the claim was made that the passage focuses on Kriemhild alone at the exclusion of others. This is both demonstrably false and paradoxically not untrue. There are other figures in this passage, certainly, but the Erzähler invariably only shines a light on them so that they reflect back on his principal concern, the lustre that emanates from Kriemhild herself. Perhaps most effective in this regard are the other two women who feature in the passage, albeit briefly: Helca (Attila’s first wife, now deceased) and Herrat (serving as a kind of maid-in-chief to Kriemhild). Helca, fairly obviously, is defined exclusively by her absence, and that absence’s effect on Kriemhild; the ‘guoter tugende’ (1386,1) that she possessed in life are the very same that the new queen is now expected to perform for the court. A lady’s assumed courtly attributes remain the very same from wife to wife, regardless of their individual persona. There is a sense that Kriemhild will not quite live up to the same courtly ideals that Helca embodied; she is not an entirely successful replacement.
Herrat, meanwhile, is ‘diu ellende meit’ (1386,3) – a foreigner in the Hunnish court just like Kriemhild. And, again like her mistress, she is in mourning; mourning the loss of Helca. What is so significant about Herrat’s grief is that her immense distress takes place in secret (‘diu hete tougenliche nâch Helchen grôziu leit’, 1386,4). One can hardly claim this one line as a revolutionary piece of feminist literature, but it is nonetheless very striking. Not only does the Erzähler report on one of the minor cast members, as it were, but he even briefly gives us access to their innermost grief. And yet this is the woman who, in the preceding Aventiure, is merely full of excitement at the arrival of new guests (‘gegen der geste kümfte vreute sich ir muot’, 1379,1). Though they are not identical, the parallels with Kriemhild’s situation are stark: an outsider in a strange land, bereft and forlorn, almost torn apart by grief and yet forced to give a cheerful, courtly performance when on the public stage. By making Herrat’s dilemma so similar to Kriemhild’s own, our focus is actually drawn to the latter; pained and bitter grief as a repeated leitmotif, a set of notes that feels familiar from the first movement of the symphony, leading us to expect its recurrence – as indeed such grief will do in three stanzas’ time. (Herrat's grief, of course, and the fact that she misses her former mistress also points toward Kriemhild's weaknesses.
We see this tension between the exterior Kriemhild and the interior Kriemhild, the peaceable harmony and the soul-crushing grief, replayed several times over throughout the passage. Stanza 1387 describes how ‘den vremden unt den kunden was si vil wol bekant’ (1) and how they speak of their lady with reverence. But the admiration is entirely on their side, not hers. Once again, the Erzähler has craftily shown us her isolation by the very eliding of her experience; by seemingly discussing one thing (how much the populace love the queen), he actually shows us another (how one-way this feeling is, and how her mind lies elsewhere). Hence she is both alone and surrounded by people – by courtly people, no less; twelve kings and countless knights. For all the pomp of Attila’s kingdom, she is hollowed out and raw, and so the shift to vengeance is no unconvincing plot twist, but rather a startling undermining of the happiness that has gone before. The words you don’t use, the characters you don’t discuss, are as important as the ones you do.
Kriemhild’s attention turns to the pain that Hagen caused her, specifically by his taking away her beloved husband; and so from her pain she then dwells on his, on prospective future pain she may be able to cause him. Though we do not hear of concrete plans just yet, her scheme to bring Hagen into Attila’s lands begins here (1390,1). Her courtly attributes (her triuwe towards Siegfried) shift towards her more atavistic, vengeful impulses (her ungetriuwe towards her brothers, Hagen, and her people), just as the Nibelungenlied itself shifts from the courtly world to a primordial, inchoate bloodbath; the one seems to fall prey to the other. And this transition is centred around the persona of Kriemhild: in the story’s first half she is regularly ‘edel, schɶn und rîch’, typically courtly phrases of “die poetischen Atmosphäre des Minnesangs”[3]; from this point on she is ‘arm, arc,’ even a ‘vâlandinne’ (she-demon). Once she feels too impinged-upon, she seizes a sword and abandons the role of the wife; by the time she dies she has left behind the wifely, courtly role altogether. The epic song of the Nibelungs, then, seems to fracture around her into courtly and atavistic even as it is also she who personifies both the best; Hagen may have committed an uncourtly act in the first half, but it is Kriemhild who brings about the terrible Untergang.
I have thus far tried to demonstrate why this passage is one of the most crucial in terms of understanding, and having sympathy for, Kriemhild’s character. Many a critic has denounced her. Haymes thinks she is an utter she-demon[4], while Kuhn judges her to be like the Furies of Greek legend, and writes “der Teufel hat sie dazu angestiftet, zur Teufelin aber ist sie selbst geworden”[5]. Frakes, on the other hand, lambasts these as masculinist critics, discussing the Nibelungenlied in the context of “Frauen-Epen”[6]; and it is his argument which I find most persuasive. So much of the Nibelungenlied finds its pivot in Kriemhild’s character here, at the opening of the twenty-third Aventiure, in its examination of her inner self and her outer ‘performance’. Who cannot sympathise with Kriemhild as, torn apart by grief, planning revenge on the man who has ruined her life, she thinks on her brother Giselher – one of the brothers who allowed her to be taken away to be wed, but her flesh and blood nonetheless – and for all their cruelty towards her she pictures herself kissing him in dreams, and she weeps to think on him and on the horrors that are to come? If she were a male hero, perhaps, the Erzähler may have given her a journey akin to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, ending in military victory and homecoming. “Ob ich ein ritter wære”, she wails not long after this passage (1413,4): if only she were a man, a knight, perhaps the narrative would have gone better for her. But her revenge is not something the Männerwelt can take, neither the male world of the Nibelungs, nor of the poem’s audience, nor indeed of many of the academics who write about it. And so she has to die. Her fate is sealed as surely as the Nibelungenlied must shift from courtly epic to bleak tragedy, because here in the twenty-third Aventiure she commits what is allegedly the worst transgression of all: she threatens the traditional narrative.


Das Nibelungenlied, Reclam, 2011.

Secondary literature:
  1. Frakes, Jerold C., Brides of Doom: Gender, Property and Power in Medieval German Women’s Epic, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.
  2. Grosse, Siegfried, Nachwort to Das Nibelungenlied, Reclam, 2011.
  3. Haymes, Edward R.,
    • Dietrich von Bern im Nibelungenlied, in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur No. 114, 1985.
    • Das Nibelungenlied: Geschichte und Interpretation, UTB (Stuttgart), 1999.
  4. McConnell, Winder (ed.),
    • A Companion to the Nibelungenlied, Camden House, 1998.
    • (with Werner Wunderlich, Frank Gentry, Ulrich Mueller), The Nibelungen Tradition: An Encyclopaedia, Routledge, 2013.
  5. Rupp, Heinz (ed.), Nibelungenlied und Kudrun, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1976.

[1]Grosse, Siegfried, Nachwort to Das Nibelungenlied, Reclam, 2011.
[2]Lionarons, Joyce Tally, “The Otherworld and Its Inhabitants in the Nibelungenlied,” in A Companion to the Nibelungenlied (ed. Winder McConnell), Camden House, 1998.
[3]Grosse, Siegfried, Nachwort to Das Nibelungenlied, Reclam, 2011.
[4]Haymes, Edward R., Dietrich von Bern im Nibelungenlied, in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur No. 114, 1985.
[5]Kuhn, Hans, “Der Teufel im Nibelungenlied”, in  Nibelungenlied und Kudrun (ed. Heinz Rupp), Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1976.
[6]Frakes, Jerold C., Brides of Doom: Gender, Property and Power in Medieval German Women’s Epic, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

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