24 Aug The Song of the German Dragon Slayer
Original author unknown: Das Nibelungenlied. Richard Wagner commemorative edition, transferred by Karl Simrock.
Published in Berlin at Askanischer Verlag Carl Albert Kindle, 1940.
Most of us know at least one scene from the Nibelung saga: Siegfried kills the dragon and bathes in his blood to become immortal – however, a leaf falls on his back and his plan fails as he remains vulnerable in this very spot, which is to become his undoing. But how did this literal bloodbath come about in the first place? And why did Siegfried have to die?
These and many other questions are answered by the so-called Song of the Nibelungs. It is the most important high medieval tradition of the Nibelung saga, whose original author – as is usual for heroic epics – remains unknown to this day. This underlines the mystical aura that encompasses the mammoth, centuries-old work and multiplies the numerous theories and speculations that surround the historical origins of the characters and events. In fact, the roots of the Nibelung saga go back to Germanic late antiquity, because it is assumed that one of the key plots of the saga is based on Attila defeating the Burgundian Empire in AD 436. Due to the Nibelung saga, this period is called the “Heroic Age” of Germany, and the work has been considered the national epic of the Germans for the last two centuries.
Of Dreams, Dragons, Love and Murder
With a total of 39 chapters and 2400 stanzas, The Song of the Nibelungs is sure to overwhelm curious first-time readers at first glance, which is why it is divided into two parts: the first one (adventure 1-19) deals with the marriage of Kriemhild and Siegfried and his assassination, the second part (adventure 20-39) with Kriemhild’s revenge. The situation becomes even more dramatic and intricate because the assassins of her husband are Kriemhild’s own brothers.
The poem is written in four-line stanzas, but the rhythm and the melody are nothing we are familiar with anymore today. Therefore, they are referred to as a poetic form in its own right, the so-called Nibelungen stanza. Due to numerous and very different oral traditions of the saga, there was much confusion regarding the plot and the characters when it was first written down, and many changes were made. Many important scenes, such as Siegfried’s fight with the dragon, were only briefly mentioned, while the main plot focused on the development of Kriemhild’s character.
Indeed, this development is the decisive plotline of The Song of the Nibelungs and can also be interpreted as a shift toward a modern image of the woman and an attempt at emancipation. Kriemhild is first oppressed and ordered around by her male relatives, she refuses to fall in love and marry due to a sinister dream vision and would rather remain a virgin forever. However, when she meets young Siegfried and marries him, she demands to obtain the same share of her deceased father’s inheritance as her brothers got, which triggers a lot of misogynistic reactions from all sides, which is why she eventually subordinates herself again. But when her husband is murdered by her brothers and her fortune is taken from her, Kriemhild’s had enough: she cuts off her brother Hagen’s head with a sword, whereupon her other brother Hildebrand slays her. However, he didn’t do this because he was upset about Hagen’s death (actually, he had intended to kill Hagen himself), but because in his eyes it was a disgrace for a “hero” to be killed by a woman.
The Legacy of the Age of Heroes
Our edition of this book is something special for various reasons. It’s a so-called commemorative edition for the 50th anniversary of the death of Richard Wagner (1813-1883). He was a conductor, writer, composer, playwright and director who is still famous today. In addition to his numerous pieces and works, he also created the four-part opera cycle “The Ring of the Nibelung” between 1848 and 1874, a stage drama that is one of the most extensive pieces of all time. The performance itself lasted a total of 16 (!) hours and was spread over several days. Before he began to work on this drama, he is said to have already studied the Nibelung saga intensively around 1843, while also researching other sagas such as the Nordic Edda and Greek mythology. The preface by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Golther deals with Wagner and his “Ring of the Nibelung”.
Despite Wagner’s fame, his works and statements should be regarded critically; during his lifetime, he held anti-Semitic views which reflect his environment, where such opinions were still “common”. At the same time, he was friends with Jewish individuals, which is why the question remains as to what extent his statements really influenced his works and his behaviour.
Whereas the preface explains the dedication and gives more details about the drama, the introduction by Max von Boehm deals with the “Nibelung in art”, i.e., various artistic representations like paintings, sculptures and architecture. Since many people in the early Middle Ages were unable to read, paintings helped them to understand the story anyway. The lovingly designed illustrations for the individual chapters, some of which can be seen below, fulfil the same purpose and summarise the content of the respective chapter. Sculptures, on the other hand, often served as monuments in honour of Siegfried, who was celebrated as a national hero for his deeds and his tragic death. In the early 20th century, they even constructed the so-called Nibelung Hall on the slope of the Drachenfels – the mountain where Siegfried is said to have slain the dragon. Therefore, a large stone dragon statue at the end of the “Dragon’s Lair” commemorates the epic battle. By the way, I grew up near the Drachenfels and visited the site several times. To this day, I find it extremely fascinating how the building keeps the Nibelung saga alive.
All in all, it can be stated that The Song of the Nibelung is an extremely important testimony to the historical development of Germany over the centuries. The book presented in this article reproduces the narrative and, what’s more, deals with the most important modern adaptations and interpretations of the tale. And even if the saga and what it means to us have constantly changed over time, it’s still an extremely thrilling and tragic story, which hopefully will continue to attract many curious readers in the future.
Other Things You Might Be Interested in:
How Richard Wagner’s other world-famous opera “Tristan and Isolde” came about…
… and what Wagner’s opera was based on: Tristan and Isolde, the (second) most famous love affair of the Middle Ages.