Saturday, February 17, 2007


After having a Penguin Classics edition of "The Nibelungenlied" for about ten years, I'm finally reading it.
For those not in the know, "The Nibelungenlied" is one of those classic works by dead white European males that is considered a classic piece of literature, even though no one ever reads it. You can find "The Odyssey" and "The Iliad" at the corner bookstore, but if you want "The Nibelungenlied," you probably will have to special order it. It is, after all, one of those classic pieces of literature, the sort that you read either because a teacher has assigned it and Cliff's Notes are not available, you feel you ought to read it because it is a "classic" work, or because you just really enjoy old stories by dead people, and you like tracing their twisting paths of literary antecedents.
I more or less fall into the last category. I read the unabridged "Brothers Karamazov" and "Les Mis√©rables" for kicks, I enjoy watching Shakespeare, and I read Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" to my girls for a bedtime story. And when I find a story I really like, I'm inclined to follow its literary roots as far back as I can without losing the recognizable story.
I once did that with Stephen R. Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle, back in college. As Arthurian retellings go, they're about average, but they were enough to pique my interest. I knew Lawhead was drawing on the Welsh poems of "The Mabinogion," so I snagged a copy of that, before eventually searching out other, more modern renditions by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Sir Thomas Mallory, T.H. White, Tennyson, and John Steinbeck, among others.
Written down by an anonymous poet, "The Nibelungenlied" is a Medieval German poem that is connected to some widely enjoyed works of the last century, not least of which is Richard Wagner's opera of the same title. The opera in turn in some ways shaped J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and of course was the inspiration for the Chuck Jones piece de resistance, "What's Opera, Doc?", in which Elmer Fudd uses his spear and magic helmet to "kill da wabbit."
The plot is fairly straightforward: The hero Siegfried, having set his heart on marrying the beautiful Kriemhild, travels to Burgundy to win the consent of her brother Gunther to give her to him in marriage. Gunther for his part has decided to woo the lovely Brunhild. (All together now: "Oh, Brunhilda, you're so lovely!" / "Yes I know it, I can't help it.") The downside is that, as with the Greek beauty Atalanta, Brunhild has executed every one of her suitors so far, as they have failed to best her in three contests of strength. So Siegfried proposes a deal: By means of trickery, he will best Brunhild at these feats, but make it appear that Gunther has done it. In turn, when they return to Burgundy, Siegfried gets to marry Kriemhild.
To pull this off, Siegfried, Gunther and Co. find it necessary to tell Brunhild that Siegfried is Gunther's vassal. Gunther also ends up needing Siegfried's help consummating the marriage; when he tries to do it himself on his wedding night -- the poet notes that his bride had no interest in being party to it, and he therefore tried to force himself on her -- Brunhild overpowers him, ties him up in her girdle, and leaves him hanging from the doornail. Quite amusing, really. I laughed out loud at that part. The next night, Siegfried -- who, like Brunhild, possesses superhuman strength -- disguises himself as Gunther, trades places with him, and wrestles Brunhild into submission so that Gunther can have sex with her, which in turn ends her superhuman strength.
An important plot point here is that when Siegfried wrestled Brunhild into submission for Gunther's pleasure, he took from her both her girdle and her ring, as trophies. This is probably representative of an earlier version of the story in which Siegfried raped her, although in this version of the story, he gives them to Kriemhild.
Ten years later, Brunhild -- still believing that Siegfried is Gunther's vassal -- convinces her husband to send for his sister and brother-in-law for a visit. Brunhild accuses Kriemhild of overstepping her bounds by trying to enter church at the same time as her, as though their husbands were equals, and Kriemhild, incensed by the claim that Siegfried is a vassal and that she was debased to marry him, pulls out the girdle and the ring and shows them as evidence that Brunhild was not a virgin when she married Gunther, and in fact had been Siegfried's paramour.
That causes a major and rather public row, and one of Gunther's advisers or vassals, a stalwart fellow named Hagen, decides that he must avenge the insult to Brunhild's honor by killing Siegfried. This he does, through trickery, and then he conspires to take from Kriemhild the treasure of the Niebelungs, which Siegfried had gained by conquest and gave to her as a dowry.
In the part I'm just starting to read, Kriemhild marries King Etzel, known elsewhere as Atilla the Hun, and gets the weregild she is owed for her husband's murder by systematically killing every male protagonist in the book. By the time "The Nibelungenlied" is finished, the abattoir in "Hamlet" is supposed to look like a pleasant day in the park feeding pigeons and eating ice cream.
It's been a little difficult to get into the book, mostly because of the distance between me and the poet's original audience. Reading one superlative description after another gets old to the modern eye, although I'm aware it was the practice of the day to describe the fantastic rainment of kings, the superhuman ability and bravery of the heroes, and the beauty of the women, which surpasses the sunrise over the lake. And of course everyone is a "noble king," a "gay knight" and so on. If it weren't for heartwarming thoughts of Elmer Fudd crying, "I'll kill the wabbit!" to avenge his own humiliation, I don't know if I would have made it to the part where it started to pick up, with the confrontation outside the church, nearly halfway through.
I will say I really dislike the treatment of women in the poem, which isn't surprising, considering that this is a Medieval poem, and women at that time either were valued as objects of beauty or as bearers of strapping male heirs. It angered me to read about how casually Gunther and his men make free with Brunhild's treasure, the deceit that went into winning her hand in marriage (and then in consummating it, although I definitely think Gunther got his when Brunhild hung him up for the night), and I got really pissed off when Kriemhild says something about how Siegfried beat her for humiliating Brunhild in front of the church, and how she deserved it. Ugh. I shudder just thinking about that line.
On the other hand, now that the plot is moving toward its tragic conclusion, I can see why the story has endured. Just about every significant male character so far has been a grade-A scumbag in how they treated the two main female characters, and from what I know, every single one of them is going to snuff it pretty miserably. "The Nibelungenlied" is a story of betrayal, murder, and revenge ... especially revenge, and that can't help but appeal to anyone who knows what it is like to be wronged.
At some point, I hope to follow the thread of "The Nibelungenlied" into other areas of Nordic and Icelandic literature. A similar tale is told in "The Elder Edda," one of the few legitimate remaining sources we have of Norse mythology, and as noted, it has decedents in modern literature as well. Wagner's "Nibelungenlied" cycle of operas has the hero forging a ring from the gold of the Nibelungs which makes him supreme in power but costs him the love of women, and it ends with the destruction of the gods and the emergence of a new, grander world ruled by men. Tolkien has a similar theme in his own Ring story, but when that Ring is destroyed, the elves leave the world and a new, grimmer world of less beauty emerges, one ruled by men. And of course there's always Elmer. (And, as my children know, his "spear and magic helmet.")
The literature buff in me enjoys not just these obvious paths of descent and influence, but I also get a kick out of the odd parallels and recurring motifs that show up in these ancient works. The Greek hero Achilles, protagonist of "The Iliad," was dipped in the River Styx when he was an infant; as a result, he is impervious to harm, except for one spot: his heel, where his mother held him as she dipped him into the river. It is throught this point that the Trojan Paris shoots him with an arrow and kills him. So I was greatly interested to learn that Siegfried, after he killed a dragon, bathed in its blood and made himself invincible. Except there was one spot on his back, between his shoulders, where a leaf fell on him so that the blood never touched him there. And that is of course how Hagen kills him.
I expect to finish with the book in another week or so, depending on whether I can maintain my current pace, which in turn depends upon how frequently my computer crashes, since I read while it reboots. Once I finish it, I have other books to turn to, also classics in the dead white male sense of the word, such as "Egil's Saga," an Icelandic tale that I bought for reasons beyond my recall; and "Parzival," a German version of the quest for the Holy Grail, or sangraal, as its author calls it, coming some time after the French poet Cretien de Troyes started the whole mess with his poem "Perceval, or the Story of the Grail." There's also Dante's "Paradisio," which remains the only part of "The Divine Comedy" I never finished. (Why is it that writers always make hell sound exciting, but put you to sleep when they journey through heaven? Milton had the same problem -- I never knew the war in heaven could be so appallingly dull, until I read "Paradise Lost." And now that I think about it, I probably should re-read that, since I never managed to get to the end.) Most likely, though, my next read is going to be a seminary text or two that I've borrowed from a friend, by N.T. Wright.
The conclusion? If you want a nice, easy read, stick with Spider-man and don't follow my habits. I wouldn't know John Grisham if I tripped over him.

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