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The Nibelungenlied is based on pre-Christian
Germanic heroic motifs (the
"Nibelungensaga"), which include oral
traditions and reports based on historic
events and individuals of the 5th and 6th
centuries. Old Norse parallels of the legend
survive in the Völsunga saga, the Prose Edda,
the Poetic Edda, the Legend of Norna-Gest,
and the Þiðrekssaga.
It is an epic poem in Middle High German.
The story tells of dragon-slayer Siegfried at
the court of the Burgundians, how he was
murdered, and of his wife Kriemhild's
The story begins with an
introduction of the main characters.
Kriemhild is described in all
her beauty; she is sister to King
Gunther, Gernot and Giselher, rulers
of the land of Burgundy. Their home
is Worms on the Rhine. The
attention then switches north to
the Netherlands, son of King
Siegmund and Sieglind. He is
already well renowned for his
Siegfried one day comes to the realization that he
wishes to have Kriemhild. He thus takes 12 warriors
to Worms and threatens King Gunther, exclaiming
that he plans to wrest his lands from him by force.
Hagen informs Gunther that this man before him is
Siegfried, a mighty warrior who slew a dragon and
bathed in its blood, and who won a large hoard of
treasure including a cloak of invisibility by slaying
thousands of men, and that it would be foolish to
challenge him. Gunther then offers to share
everything with Siegfried freely; hearing this, the
prince is pleased and stays with them for an
extended period of time.
After a long episode of befriending via jousting, hunting, and
feasting, the men are like brothers. It is then that messengers
from Liudeger, king of Saxony, and Liudegast, king of
Denmark, arrive and proclaim the impending invasion of
Burgundy by a force of 30,000 Danes and Saxons. Siegfried
implores Gunther to let him defend Burgundy, and Gunther
agrees. Siegfried leads an army of 1,000 men and then gains
great honor by singlehandedly killing 30 Danes and taking King
Liudegast hostage. After a good bit of bloody battling, King
Liudeger recognizes Siegfried in the mayhem and immediately
surrenders. Siegfried, his remaining soldiers, and the
many hostages then return to Worms. Six months later, a
festival is held to celebrate victory and let the prisoners go free.
It is at this festival that Siegfried finally meets Kriemhild.
"Siegfried Arriving in Worms"
After some time, Gunther comes to
desire Queen Brunhild of Iceland; she
is renowned for her remarkable
Knowing that this is a dire,
Gunther, considering some one
thousand suitors have lost their lives
up to this point, Siegfried agrees
to help him win the queen in
exchange for Kriemhild’s hand in
With this agreement, they and two others take a
ship to Iceland.
Upon arrival in Brunhild’s domain, Siegfried
pretends to be one of Gunther’s vassals,
though they are equals. Queen Brunhild’s wooingtask is as follows: the suitor, wagering his head,
must best her in the throwing of the javelin, the
hurling of a boulder, and leaping a great distance.
It is only with Siegfried’s help, who hides under his
invisible cloak, which gives the wearer the strength
of 12 men, that Gunther is able to beat Brunhild.
Upon being beaten, Brunhild agrees to marriage, and
she and thousands of her people sail back with the
Burgundians and Siegfried. They are welcomed
extravagantly outside of Worms, as is custom, and a
huge festival is held to celebrate the marriage of
Gunther and Brunhild. At this festival also, Gunther gives
Kriemhild to Siegfried, and they are married as well.
"Siegfried Bows Before Kriemhild"
Siegfried and Kriemhild have a wonderful time, but
Brunhild is upset about something and does not want to
sleep with Gunther, and when Gunther tries to subdue
her, she ties him up and hangs him from the ceiling.
Gunther confides in Siegfried the details of
this embarrassing event, and Siegfried
agrees once again to help Gunther by using
his cloak of invisibility. So the next night,
Siegfried sneaks into the royal bed chamber
and wrestles Brunhild into submission so
that Gunther could have her. While doing this
task, Siegfried steals her girdle and ring (it is
unclear whether he takes her virginity or
not). After this night, Brunhild loses her
strength and everyone seems to be content.
Siegfried and Kriemhild then
return to Xanten, Siegfried’s
home, and Siegmund declares
his son king. The two have a son
and name him Gunther, while
Gunther and Brunhild have a son
and name him Siegfried. Queen
Sieglind dies and Kriemhild
Important digression: During these years,
Brunhild is stewing over the uncertainties in
her knowledge of Siegfried and Kriemhild.
She believes Siegfried to be Gunther’s vassal,
and therefore sees both of them as below
her. She is incredibly annoyed and angered
by the fact that Siegfried pays no homage to
them, and that Kriemhild seems to hold
herself as an equal. She is also repulsed by
the fact that Kriemhild seems happier than
her, though she is married to a lower man.
As part of her plan to know the truth, Brunhild begs
Gunther to invite his sister and her husband to Worms.
Since Siegfried and Kriemhild wish to see their friends
and family, they agree and bring a group of 1,200
soldiers, as well as Siegmund; they are warmly received.
During some festivities, the queens begin to argue about
the ranks of their husbands, and Kriemhild ends up
telling Brunhild that it was Siegfried that took her
virginity on her wedding night, and then shows the girdle
and ring, which Siegfried had given to her. Brunhild is so
distraught, dishonored, indignant, and horrified that
when Hagen speaks to her, he vows to avenge her.
"Siegmund Crowns Siegfried King"
The following is Hagen’s plan, which
Gunther, Gernot, and Giselher all knew
about; Giselher was the only one who
spoke out against the murder of such a
good friend and ally. They would make
it look as if Liudeger was invading
again, Siegfried would opt to lead the
battle, Hagen would then go to
Kriemhild, feigning good intentions,
and ask to know about Siegfried’s
one weak spot so that he could always
protect it. This plan was carried out and
Hagen learned of Siegfried’s weak spot,
right below his shoulder blade.
The next morning, the royal party went on a
friendly hunt, and once many creatures had
been killed, Siegfried was thirsty and went to
drink from a stream. As he bent down to drink,
Hagen threw a spear through the weak spot on
his back, thereby cowardly murdering the great
Hagen then dumped the body in front of
Kriemhild’s door so that she would discover it.
Her wails can be heard throughout the castle.
At the funeral, when Hagen approached the dead body,
the wound begins to bleed anew, a sign of the guilty
party. Gunther swears upon Hagen’s innocence, but
Kriemhild knows that it was Hagen.
Siegmund and his knights returned to Xanten
dejectedly, but Kriemhild stayed with her
family. Kriemhild attempts to retrieve the Nibelung
treasure, but Hagen dumps it in the Rhine.
"Hagen Kills Siegfried"
It is at this point that the story swings over to Hungary,
to King Etzel who has just lost his wife Helche. He sends
messengers to Worms asking for Kriemhild’s hand.
Kriemhild agrees (in her head she is still planning
revenge) and goes to Hungary. They marry, and after
seven years she gives birth to a son, Ortlieb.
After a few more years, Kriemhild urges Etzel to invite
her brothers to Hungary. Both parties agree and
Gunther, Giselher, Hagen, and 3,000 soldiers head to
Queen Uote warns them all of their impending
deaths. Along the way, Hagen comes across some
water-fairies who also warn that this is a trap and
only the Chaplains will be spared.
Upon their arrival in Hungary, Kriemhild kisses
only Giselher. To befriend his new guests,
Etzel holds a friendly joust. Hagen, to make
Kriemhild angry, wears Siegfried’s sword
Balmung, and admits that he murdered her
Kriemhild wants to rile the warriors and start a
fight between the Burgundians and Huns, so she brings
her son Ortlieb out. Upon seeing the boy, Hagen goes
into a rage and beheads him. Battle ensues and all of the
Burgundians die, except Gunther and Hagen.
Kriemhild decapitates Gunther and presents his head to
Hagen; she then cuts Hagen’s head off with Balmung.
Her revenge is complete. Hildebrand, horrified at seeing
Hagen slain by a woman, kills Kriemhild.
King Etzel mourns deeply and the saga ends.