Germany’s Vigorous Heroes and Heroines
Directions: The following excerpts from The Nibelungenlied suggest insights into Germany’s heroic
figures and epic writing. Read the passages and answer the questions.
We have been told in ancient tales many marvels of famous heroes, of mighty toil, joys, and high festivities, of weeping and wailing, and the fighting of bold warriors-of such things you can now no hear wonders unending!
In the land of the Burgundians there grew up a maiden of high lineage, so fair that none in any of the land could be fairer. Her name was Kriemhild. She came to be a beautiful woman, causing many knights to lose their lives. This charming girl was as if made for love’s caresses: she was desired by brave fighting men and none was her enemy, for her noble person was beyond all measure lovely. Such graces did the young lady possess that the noble kings, the renowned warriors Gunther and Gernont, and young Giselher, a splendid knight, and she was sister to these princes who had the charger of her. These lords were of high race, magnanimous, strong, and brave beyond measure, altogether rare warriors. Their country was called Burgundy, and in days to come they wrought mighty wonders in Etzel’s land. They held sway at Worms beside the
Rhine, and were served in high honour by many proud knights from their territories till their dying day, when the enmity of two noble ladies was to bring them to a sad end…
Living in such magnificence, Kriemhild dreamt she reared a falcon, strong, handsome, and wild, but that two eagles rent it while she perforce looked on , the most grievous thing that could give the good maiden no better reading than this: “The falcon you are rearing is a noble man who, unless God preserve him, will soon be taken from you.”
How Gunther Sailed to Iceland for Brunhild
Tidings never heard before had crossed the Rhine,m telling how, beyond it, there lived many lovely maidens. Good King Gunther conceived the idea of winning one, and his heart thrilled at the thought of it.
Over the sea there dwelt a queen whose like was never known, for she was of vast strength and surpassing beauty. With her love as the prize, she vied with brave warriors at throwing the javelin, and the noble lady also hurled the weight to a great distance and followed with a long leap; and whoever aspired to her love had, without fail, to win these three tests against her, or else, if he lost but one, he forfeited his head.
The maiden had competed in this way times out of number; and having heard this report in his kingdom on the Rhine, the handsome knight turned his thoughts to winning the lovely woman, for which brave warriors had to die in the end.
“Whatever fate is in store for me,” said the lord of the Rhenish land, “I shall sail down to the seea and go to Brunhild. To win her love I mean to stake my life and indeed I shall lose it if I fail to make her mine.”
“I would advise against that,” said Siegfried. “This queen has such terrible ways that it costs any man dear who woos her, so that truly you should forgo this journey.”
“In that case,” interposed Hagen, “I should advise you to ask Siegfried to share these perils with you, seeing that he is so knowledgeable about Brunhild’s affairs.”
“Will you help me woo this handsome woman, noble Siegfried?” asked Gunther. “If you do as I ask, and I win her for my love, I will stake my life and honour for you in turn.”
“I will do it, if you will give me your sister fair Kriemhild, the noble princess,” answered Siegfried, Siegmund’s son. “I wish no other reward for my trouble.”
“I agree to that,” replied Gunther. “Siegfried, here is my hand on it! If fair Brunhild comes to this country, I will give you my sister to wife, and you can live in joy with the lovely girl always.”…
They now made preparations for their voyage. Siegfried would have to take him the magic cloak which he had won so manfully from the dwarf Alberich, and at such peril. Wearing it, he gained the strength of twelve beyond that of his own powerful frame. He wooed the splendid woman with great subtlety, since the cloak was of such a kind that without being seen any many could do as he pleased in it. In this way, he won Brunhild, though he had cause to rue it later….
Their lordships withdrew after taking kind leave of Princess Kriemhild, who then summoned from her apartments thirty of her maidens that were gifted for such work. They threaded precious stones into snow-white silk from Arabia or into silk from Zazamanc as green as clover, making fine robes, while noble Kriemhild cut the cloth herself. Whatever handsome linings they could lay hands on from the skins of strange water-beasts, wondrous to see, they covered with silk, just as the knights would wear them. And now hear some marvelous things about their dazzling clothes.
The ladies were well supplied with the best Moroccan and Libyan silk that a royal family ever acquired, and Kriemhild let it be seen clearly that these knights enjoyed her favour. And now that they had set their hearts on this voyage with its lofty goal, furs of ermine no longer seemed good enough: their linings were covered instead with coal-black brocades all spangled with brilliant stones set in Arabian gold such as would well become brave warriors on festive occasions today.
How Gunther Won Brunhild
The horses and robes of this gay pair of knights were of the very same dazzling snow-white hue; their fine shields shone in their grasp; their gem-studded saddles and narrow poitrels were hung with bells of lustrous red gold; thus magnificently did they come riding up to Brunhild’s hall. These handsome knights arrived in her country, as their high courage demanded, with newly ground spear-heads and splendid swords that reached down to their spurs and were both broad and sharp. Such weapons did they wear, and non e of this was lost on noble Brunhild.
With them came Dancwart and Hagen, and we are told that these warriors wore rich clothes as black as the raven, with fine great shields. You could see the Indian jewels they were wearing on their robes move in gorgeous ripples as they walked…
The ring was marked out in which the games were to be witnessed by over seven hundred bold fighting-men that were seen there under arms and would declare who had won the contest.
And now Brunhild had arrived, armed as though about to contend for all the kingdoms in the world and wearing many tiny bars of gold over her silk, against which her lovely face shone radiantly. Next came her retainers, bearing a great, broad shield of reddest gold, with braces of hardest steel, under which the enchanting maiden meant to dispute the issue. For its baldric her shield had a fine silk cord studded with grass-green gems whose variegated luster vied with the gold of their settings. The man whom she would favour would have to be a very brave one: for this shield which the girl was to carry was (so we are told) a good three spans thick beneath the boss; it was resplendent with steel and with gold, and even with the help of three others her chamberlain could scarce raise it.
“What now, King Gunther?” stalwart Hagen of Troneck asked fiercely, on seeing the shield brought out. “We are done for—the woman whose love you desire is a rib of the Devil
They thereupon carried out for the lady a great spear, both sharp and heavy, which she was accustomed to throw—it was strong, and of huge proportions, and dreadfully keen at its edges. And now listen to this extraordinary thing about the weight of that spear: a good three-and-a-half ingots had gone into its forgin, and three of Brunhild’s men could scarcely lift it, so that noble
Gunther was deeply alarmed. “What will come of this?” he wondered. “How could the Devil from Hell survive it? If I were safe and sound again in Burgundy, she would not be bothered by my wooing till Doomsday!”…
Brunhild’s strength was clearly tremendous, for they brought a heavy boulder to the ring
for her, round, and of monstrous size—twelve lusty warriors could barely carry it!—and this she
would always hurl after throwing her javelin. The Burgundians’ fears rose high at the sight of it.
“Mercy on us!” said Hagen. “What sort of lover has the King got here? Rather should she be the Devil’s drab in Hell!”
She furled her sleeves over her dazzling white arms, took a grip on her shield, snatched her spear aloft, and the contest was on! Gunther and Siegfried went in fear of her enmity, and she would have taken the King’s life, had not Siegfried come to his aid. But Siegfried went up to him unseen and touched his hand, startling him with his magic powers. “What was it that touched
me?” the brave man wondered, looking all around him, yet finding no one there. “It is I, your dear friend Siegfried,” said the other. “You must not fear the Queen. Give me your shield, and let me bear it, and take careful note of what I say to you. Now, you go through the motions, and I shall do the deeds.” Gunther was relieved when he recognized him. “Keep my wiles a secret,” continued Siegfried, “and tell nobody about them, then the Queen will get little of the glory which
she nevertheless hopes to win from you. Just see how coolly she faces you!”
Thereupon the noble maiden let fly with great power at the large, new shield which the son of Sieglind bore, so that sparks leapt up from the steel as though fanned by the wind, while the blade of the stout javelin tore clean through the shield, and a tongue of fire flared up from Gunther’s mailshirt. Those strong men reeled under the shock, and, but for the magic cloak, they would have died there and then. Blood spurted from Siegfried’s mouth, but he quickly rebounded,
and, taking the spear which she had cast through his shield, the powerful warrior sent it back at her. “I do not wish to wound or kill the lovely girl,” he thought, and reversing the spear so that its points was now behind him, he hurled the shaft with such manly vigor that it went straight through to her corselet with a mighty clang, and sent the sparks flying from the chain-mail as though driven by the wind. Siegmund’s son put such lusty strength into his throw that, for all her might,
she failed to keep her feet under its impact—an exploit, I swear, which King Gunther would never
Siegfried was a valiant man. He was tall, and of powerful buld. He hurled the boulder farther, and he surpassed it with his leap; and thanks to his wonderful magic powers, he had the strength as he sprang to take King Gunther with him.
The leap was done; the stone had come to rest. None was to be seen other than doughty King Gunther, from whom Sigfried had warded off death. Fair Brunhild flushed red with anger. Seeing the warrior unscathed at his side of the ring, she said to her retainers in a voice not altogether quiet: “Come forward at once, my kinsmen and vassals! You must do homage to King Gunther.” Then those brave men laid down their weapons and knelt before the great King Gunther of Burgundy in large numbers, in the belief that it was he who with his unaided strength had performed those feats.”
The Nibelungenlied. Hatto. The Center for Learning. 53-68. 2011.
1. What characteristics does The Nibelungenlied share with other epics?
2. In what ways does it seem to contrast with them?
3. What cultural values does the Germanic epic seem to express?