The Nibelungenlied

a summary in English prose by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2009-2012


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Part One: Siegfried and Kriemhild

1

Ancient tales relate the marvels of great heroes -- their victories and, in some instances, their tragic deaths. Hear now one such tale: the story of the noble King Siegfried and of the fair Kriemhild, who caused the death of many brave knights.

Kriemhild, with her three brothers Gunther, Gernot, and Giselher, grew up in Burgundy. Their father, King Dancrat, and their mother, Queen Uote, held court at Worms on the Rhine. Dancrat, no longer young, had passed the kingship to his three sons.

Also featured in this tale is the vassal Hagen of Troneck, a valiant warrior.

Kriemhild once dreamed that she reared a falcon, but that two eagles tore it apart. She related this event to her mother, who interpreted the dream: "The falcon is a noble man, whom you will marry, but soon afterward he will be taken from you."

"No," replied the daughter, "I intend to remain a virgin. I will not let my life be ruined through the love of a man."

"Be careful before making such a vow," replied Uote. "True happiness comes only from a man's love."

The mother's prediction did come true. With time Kriemhild did indeed marry a noble warrior, only to lose him through treachery. Her vengeance for this wicked act brought death to many, including her closest kinsmen.

2

We turn now to the great hero Siegfried, who grew up in the city of Xanten on the Rhine, in the Netherlands. He was the son of King Siegmund and Queen Sieglind. The young prince was knighted at midsummer. Part of the celebration was a mass, sung to the glory of God. Afterward a glorious tournament was held. Never before had there been such a gathering of brave and chivalrous knights. A glorious feast followed the jousting, with wandering minstrels entertaining everyone royally. They received generous payment for their service: horses, clothes, and other rich gifts were presented in abundance.

3-4

Meanwhile, tidings of Princess Kriemhild's beauty and nobility spread abroad, and Prince Siegfried resolved that he would marry no one but her. Thus he set forth for Burgundy, accompanied by twelve warriors. Outfitted with the best armor and weapons, the wooing party made a great impression on the Burgundians.

Although Hagen had never before seen him, he knew immediately who the foreign knight was. "This is mighty Siegfried," he said. "I do not know his purpose here, but we must treat him with respect. He is the great warrior who slew the Nibelungs, then took possession of their treasure, a hoard so immense that it filled a hundred freight wagons. In addition to gold and precious stones, the treasure also included the famous sword Balmung. The dwarf Alberich, keeper of the Nibelung treasure, attempted to avenge his former masters by attacking Siegfried, but to no avail. The brave prince overpowered him forthwith, then took from him the magic cloak of invisibility. Thereupon Alberich swore loyalty to Siegfried, the new lord of the Nibelung treasure, and thus continued his post as keeper of the treasure."

Hagen continued telling what he knew about Siegfried: "Furthermore, the great hero slew a dragon and bathed in its blood, which made him invincible against all weapons. No mortal can defeat him in combat. We must receive him with chivalry and honor, and seek his friendship."

Siegfried accepted the Burgundians' hospitality and lived at their court for an entire year, but not once during this time did he see the beautiful Princess Kriemhild.

The royal Burgundian household often sponsored jousting tournaments, and Siegfried, time and again, proved his knightly abilities. An even greater test came when news arrived that the Saxons planned to attack the Burgundians. Siegfried came to the aid of his new allies and led the counter-attack against the Saxons, defeating them decisively. He returned to Burgundy to a hero's welcome.

5

King Dancrat ordered a great festival in celebration of the Burgundians' victory. It was here that Siegfried first saw the beautiful Kriemhild, standing at her window and observing the festivities below. Her beauty shone incomparably forth. Siegfried knew at once that this was the maiden of his dreams. He now found cause to visit her every day, and they passed the time together with great pleasure, but also with a painful foreboding of tragic events to come.

6

A new person now enters our story: Queen Brunhild of Iceland. Tidings of her great beauty had extended as far as Worms, and King Gunther resolved to win her as his wife. However, Brunhild was renowned not only for her beauty, but also for her vast strength, as well as for her skill at throwing the javelin, hurling a weight, and leaping a great distance. Any man who sought to marry her was required to better her in these three contests. The prize for victory would be Brunhild herself; but the penalty for defeat was the loss of one's head. Many would-be suitors had challenged the fair Brunhild in these three contests, but until now no one had defeated her, and all had lost their heads.

Gunther announced his intention to woo fair Brunhild, but Siegfried, who knew well how powerful she was, advised against this undertaking. Gunther could not be dissuaded, so Siegfried, out of loyalty to his future brother-in-law (as he hoped) agreed to assist him in this dangerous venture. Making preparations for the journey, Siegfried carefully packed the magic cloak that he had taken from Alberich. Not only did this cloak make its wearer invisible, but it gave him the strength of twelve additional men. Yes, with the aid of this cloak he did win Brunhild for Gunther, but in the end he came to rue this act.

A stout boat was built to carry the party downstream to the open sea, and Siegfried, who knew these waters well, was chosen as captain. On the twelfth day, we are told, they arrived at the great fortress of Isenstein. Siegfried recognized this at once as Brunhild's domain.

7-8

Wary of Brunhild's great power, Siegfried insisted that his own identity not be revealed. To preserve his anonymity he introduced himself as Gunther's vassal.

Brunhild received the wooing party with outward courtesy, accompanied by the severe warning that should Gunther fail to defeat her in the contest, everyone accompanying him would die.

As preparations were being made for the fateful event, Siegfried secretly returned to the ship and put on the magic cloak. Now invisible to all, he returned to the group.

The first contest was to hurl a great spear, so heavy that three of Brunhild's men together could barely lift it. The fair queen lifted it with ease, then threw it at Gunther, who stood some distance from her. The spear struck his shield, piercing it with a shower of sparks. The invisible Siegfried stood next to Gunther and whispered instructions into his ear. Siegfried then picked up the spear (although Gunther appeared to be the one doing this) and hurled it back at Brunhild. Her shield and chain-mail protected her from the deadly blow, but it came with such force that the impact knocked her off her feet.

Leaping up, she congratulated Gunther on the unexpectedly powerful return, then turned to the next event. Picking up a huge boulder, she hurled it a good twenty-four yards, then with one powerful bound, leaped even further. Gunther, approached the boulder, put his hands on it, but it was the invisible Siegfried who lifted it into the air and threw it an even greater distance than the one achieved by Brunhild. Then he took Gunther into his arms and leaped still further, carrying Gunther with him.

9

Brunhild now had no choice but to accept Gunther's marriage proposal, and she agreed to return to Burgundy with him. As the party approached Worms, Siegfried was sent ahead to announce the success of Gunther's venture.

10

Befitting her nobility, fame, and beauty, Brunhild was welcomed in Worms with great celebration. Jousting matches, feasts, and other ceremonies were held in her honor. Queen Uote and Princess Kriemhild were especially munificent in their reception of their new daughter-in-law and sister-in-law.

Preparations were made for two royal weddings: Queen Brunhild of Iceland with King Gunther of Burgundy; and Princess Kriemhild of Burgundy with Prince Siegfried of Xanten. However, Brunhild did not see in Siegfried a man of royalty. She knew him only as Gunther's vassal, as he had been introduced to her in Iceland.

"Why," she asked her future husband, "is your royal sister engaged to marry a mere vassal?"

"He is a mighty king, as noble as myself," replied Gunther. "He has enormous power and great holdings."

This answer quieted Brunhild, but it did not still the uneasiness within her heart.

The two royal weddings transpired with equal splendor, but the two wedding nights were not at all the same.

Brunhild, disquieted by suspicions about Siegfried's rank, refused to share Gunther's bed, unless he were to tell her all that he knew about Siegfried. Gunther insisted that there were no secrets to reveal. Alone in their bedroom, the two continued to quarrel. "Unless you tell me the truth about Siegfried, I shall remain a virgin," she threatened.

Gunther grew angry, and forgetting her great strength, he attempted to take her by force. She resisted his awkward advances with ease. Taking the cord from her waist, she bound him hand and foot, then hung him from a nail on the wall, where he remained the entire night.

The next morning the two royal bridegrooms greeted one another, and Gunther confessed that his wedding night had not at all met his expectations. With great embarrassment he revealed the misadventure to his new brother-in-law Siegfried. Once again Siegfried agreed to come to the aid of his hapless relative. That night, hidden under the cloak of invisibility, Siegfried entered the bed chamber of Gunther and Brunhild.

"Stop rumpling my shift!" commanded the virgin queen, thinking that Gunther was once again harassing her. But this time it was not Gunther. It was the invisible Siegfried, and he wrestled her onto the bed and held her fast until she finally submitted to Gunther.

This would have settled the issue, but the invisible Siegfried, whether from pride or some other motivation, took a golden ring from Brunhild's finger and an elaborately embroidered girdle from her waist, then left Gunther and his now subservient wife lying together.

Later Siegfried gave these trophies to Kriemhild, but he came to rue the day that he did so.

11

Time passed. Siegfried returned with Kriemhild to the great city of Xanten. His aging father named him king, and his mother having recently died, his wife became queen. Here the two lived magnificently for ten years. Their marriage was blessed with a son, whom they named Gunther. In Worms Gunther and Brunhild had also had a son, and they named him Siegfried.

12

Meanwhile, Brunhild still suffered from the suspicion that her sister-in-law had married beneath her station. Siegfried, she believed, was merely her husband's vassal, and thus not entitled to marry into royalty. Eager to set her mind at ease, she proposed to her husband that Siegfried and Kriemhild be invited to a great festival. Gunther, not suspecting his wife's ulterior motives, agreed, and the invitation was extended.

13-14

Siegfried and Kriemhild returned to Worms, where they were greeted with every courtesy. However, in spite of outward friendship, Brunhild's jealousy toward Kriemhild soon manifested itself, and they fell to quarrelling about the rank and merits of their respective husbands.

"Your husband calls himself a king," taunted Brunhild, "but he is nothing more than a vassal to my husband, a real king."

"Your husband is neither a real king nor a real man," replied Kriemhild. "Your so-called husband was not even man enough to take your maidenhead on your wedding night. It was my husband who had to do that job for him!"

"Prove it!" stammered Brunhild with anger.

"Prove it I shall!" replied Kriemhild. "Here is the ring that he took from your finger that night, and here is the girdle that he took from your waist!" So saying, she took from her own finger and from her own waist the trophies that Siegfried secretly had taken from Brunhild on her wedding night.

Brunhild, once a proud and powerful queen, now dissolved into tears. She confronted her husband with Kriemhild's accusations, but nothing that he said could comfort her.

Hagen, King Gunther's faithful vassal, seeing his queen's distress swore revenge against the man who, as he saw it, had caused her this grief. "I shall kill him," he promised.

15

It was well known that Siegfried, having bathed in a dragon's blood was invincible against all normal weapons. However, it was rumored that in bathing he may have missed one spot, and if an enemy could discover its location, he would have a chance to mortally wound the famous warrior. Hagen vowed to discover Siegfried's one vulnerable spot. If it did indeed exist, his wife Kriemhild would know where it was.

Sometime later Hagen approached Kriemhild. He directed their conversation to any apprehension that she might have about the dangers that Siegfried might face in time of war.

"Because of the dragon's blood he is quite safe against any foe," replied the queen, with assurance.

"Nonetheless," said the crafty Hagen, "I feel ill at ease for his sake. It is my responsibility to protect him from any danger, and I could better do this if I knew of any way that he might be wounded."

"Perhaps you are right," responded the unsuspecting queen. "He does have one small vulnerable spot. While he was bathing himself in the dragon's blood a leaf fell from a tree onto his back, directly between his shoulder blades, keeping the blood from that one spot. He might be vulnerable there."

"Could you sew a little mark on his clothing at that spot, so that I can shield him in the event of danger?" asked Hagen.

Seeing no harm in this request, Kriemhild did indeed sew a tiny cross, too small for anyone to notice, at the critical spot on Siegfried's back.

16

Soon afterward the treacherous Hagen proposed a hunt for bear and boar in a nearby forest. He revealed to Gunther what his plans were concerning Siegfried.

The night before the hunt Kriemhild dreamed that two boars had chased Siegfried over the heath, and that the wildflowers there had been dyed with blood. Relating this frightening dream to her husband, she urged him to stay with her, but he assured her that he was quite safe. Alas, in this he was quite wrong. She would never again see him alive.

At first the hunt proceeded in an accustomed manner, and a number of game animals were slain. As the day advanced, everyone became thirsty from heat and exertion. Coming to a cool, rushing brook, they stopped to quench their thirst. Siegfried unstrapped his sword and leaned his spear against a tree, then bent over the brook to quench his thirst. Hagen pushed Siegfried's sword from his reach, picked up the spear, and hurled it at the cross embroidered on Siegfried's back. Blood spurted from the wound, splashing against Hagen's clothes. The dying hero reached for his sword, but not finding it, he attacked Hagen with his shield, nearly killing him with blows. Siegfried's strength faded quickly, and he soon fell among the wildflowers, blood still pouring from his wound.

Together the hunters conspired to conceal what had actually happened. "Siegfried rode off by himself," they would claim, "and was killed by robbers."

17

They waited for nightfall to return to Worms. Then the cruel and vengeful Hagen had Siegfried's body laid on the threshold of Kriemhild's apartment so that she would discover it when she left for matins. The prayer bells rang, and Kriemhild saw her husband's body, red with gore. The wretched queen first fell speechless into a swoon, then coming to herself, she screamed aloud, "Hagen committed this bloody crime, and it was Brunhild who urged him to do so! The guilty ones shall surely die!"

Hagen denied all guilt, and King Gunther supported his plea. "He was killed by robbers. Hagen did nothing wrong," he stated.

This deceitful claim, however was soon proven to be false. After Siegfried's body had been placed on a bier in the cathedral, Kriemhild demanded that Hagen swear his innocence in the presence of the murdered man. It frequently happens even today that when a murderer approaches his victim's corpse, the dead man's wounds begin to bleed afresh. This miracle also occurred with Hagen and Siegfried. When the guilty Hagen approached the bier, blood flowed anew from Siegfried's wound.

Kriemhild now knew without doubt who had killed her husband. Surrounded by Hagen's and Gunther's allies and relatives, she was powerless to achieve justice at this time, but she swore in her heart to avenge Siegfried's death, however long it might take.

18-19

Kriemhild remained at Worms, and on the surface her relationship with the Burgundians improved. Always plotting revenge against Hagen, she extended kindness to her in-laws, and they, in turn, returned the friendship, hoping thus to gain control over the immense Nibelung treasure that was now hers. Recognizing that wealth brings power, Kriemhild ordered that the treasure be brought to her from Nibelungland. So great was this hoard of gems and gold that it required a dozen wagons fully loaded four days and nights, making three trips each day to transport the treasure from the mountain where the dwarf Alberich had kept it safely hidden.

With this immense treasure now at her disposal, Kriemhild began making generous gifts to many Burgundian knights, thus gaining their allegiance and favor. Hagen, sensing danger in these new alliances, urged the Burgundian kings to confiscate the treasure. Disregarding their natural allegiance to their widowed sister, the succumbed to Hagen's urging and took the vast hoard from Kriemhild.

Soon afterward the three kings had a journey to make, and during their absence Hagen took the treasure and sank in the Rhine at Locheim. He intended to return someday and recover it, but this never happened.

Part Two: Kriemhild's Revenge

20

The story now turns to Hungary, the domain of the great King Etzel. His wife having recently died, King Etzel desired to take a new queen. Tidings of the beautiful widow Kriemhild had reached his land, and he resolved to woo her, although he was a heathen and she was a Christian.

Rüdiger, Margrave of Pöchlarn and a member of Etzel's court had known Kriemhild since childhood, and he volunteered to carry Etzel's marriage proposal to the widowed queen in Worms.

Accompanied by 500 knights, Rüdiger made his way from Hungary to Vienna, then to his home at Pöchlarn, and from thence across Bavaria to the Rhine. Their journey lasted twelve days, and not once were they attacked by robbers.

The Hunnish knights were received in Worms with great courtesy, their leader Rüdiger being well known to the three kings. They received King Etzel's marriage proposal with great favor.

Only Hagen spoke out against it. "I predict," he warned, "that if Kriemhild marries King Etzel, she will use her newly gained power to do us great harm."

However, the Burgundian kings saw only benefits in a marriage between their sister and the Hunnish king, and they urged her to accept the proposal.

At first Kriemhild was reluctant, she being a Christian and Etzel being a heathen, but she soon came to see a great benefit in this marriage for her as well. Etzel's great power would help her avenge the death of her late husband. She accepted the proposal and forthwith made preparations for the trip to Hungary.

21

Their journey took them first to Pföring on the Danube, then to Passau (where the Inn joins the Danube), then onward toward Etzel's castle Etzelnburg by way of Eferding, Enns, Pöchlarn, Melk, Mautern, Traisenmauer, Tulln, Vienna, Old Hainburg, and Wieselburg.

22-23

Etzel and his entire court received their new queen with splendor, granting her every courtesy and honor. Etzel and Kriemhild married and they lived together in great luxury. In their seventh year together Kriemhild gave birth to a son, whom they named Ortlieb.

Outwardly, Kriemhild was content in her queenship, but inwardly she never ceased brooding over the wrongs that had been committed against her at home, and in her mind she plotted revenge against those who had been responsible.

To this end she decided to invite her brothers to visit her in Hungary. She selected two trusted minstrels, Werbel and Swemmel, to carry the invitation to Worms, instructing them that they must not tell her kinsmen that they had ever seen her sorrowing, and also that they must insist that Hagen accompany her brothers to Hungary.

24

Werbel and Swemmel, accompanied by twenty-four warriors, journeyed up the Danube as far as Passau, where they called on Bishop Pilgrim. I do not know what route they took from there to the Rhine, but no one robbed them of their goods underway. The Burgundians received them with courtesy and honor, presenting the two minstrels with generous gifts.

King Gunther and most of his associates were inclined to accept the invitation to visit King Etzel and Queen Kriemhild in Hungary. Only Hagen spoke out against the venture: "I killed Kriemhild's husband with my own hand," he confessed, "and she will be seeking revenge against us all."

"Our sister is no longer angry," replied Gunther.

Giselher then added the taunt, "If you lack the courage to go with us, then you can stay here in safety."

"I have never lacked courage," answered Hagen angrily. "I shall go with you." He then assembled an army of three thousand or more knights to accompany them on their journey.

25

Little did the Burgundians know the tragedy that awaited them, although they were forewarned by Queen Uote. "Do not go," she implored. "Last night I dreamed that all the birds in this land had died."

Hagen answered, "We are moved by honor, not by dreams," and they continued their preparations for the journey ahead.

The Nibelungs (as the Burgundians were now called) rode through Swabia, and no one robbed them. On the twelfth day they arrived at the Danube. The great river had overflowed its banks, and no ferries could be found.

While looking for a possible fording place Hagen came upon a group of water-fairies bathing in the water. As he approached they fled, leaving their clothes behind, and the warrior immediately took possession of their garments.

One of the nixies called to him, "Noble knight, give us back our clothes, and we will tell your fortune."

He agreed to this, and one of the fairies said, "You can ride on with confidence. Great glory will come to you in Etzel's land."

Satisfied with this prediction, Hagen returned the clothing to them. No sooner had they put on their marvelous garments than one of the fairies taunted, "My cousin lied to you. You are riding into a trap. None of you shall return alive from Hungary. Only King Gunther's chaplain shall be spared."

Soon afterward the Nibelungs found a ferryman, but he was unwilling to take them across the swollen Danube. This angered Hagen, who struck off the ferryman's head, then confiscated his boat. One boatload at a time, he ferried the travelers across the river. Their horses swam across, and although the current carried them far downstream, not one of them was lost.

The royal chaplain was in the last boat. Seeing him, Hagen remembered the nixie's prediction. "I shall prove her wrong," he said to himself, and threw him overboard. Others tried to rescue him, while Hagen repeatedly pushed him underwater. The struggling chaplain turned back toward the shore, although he could not swim. Miraculously he safely made his way to the bank.

Seeing this, Hagen now knew that he and his fellow knights were doomed to die. After the ferryboat had been unloaded the last time, Hagen smashed it to pieces.

The Nibelungs loaded their gear onto their horses and continued onward toward Hungary. The royal chaplain made his way back to Burgundy on foot.

26-28

Many days later the Nibelungs arrived in Hungary, and they were received, for the most part, with expected courtesy. When Kriemhild greeted the royal party she kissed only Giselher, her youngest brother. Hagen responded to this slight by tightening his helmet straps.

Kriemhild then addressed Hagen, "What have you brought me from the Rhine? Where is the treasure of the Nibelungs? It is rightfully mine. That is what you should have brought here!"

"My lords commanded that it be sunk in the Rhine," replied Hagen, "and there it shall remain forever!"

29-30

Tension between the Nibelungs and the Hungarians increased at every turn. Hagen, especially, became ever more reckless and provocative. He appeared in public wearing Siegfried's sword Balmung, which Kriemhild recognized at once.

She confronted him forthwith. "Why did you slay my husband?" she demanded.

"Yes, it was I who killed Siegfried. I did so for the pain that you caused my mistress Brunhild," admitted Hagen openly, then added, "And if anyone dare avenge this act, man or woman, then let him or her try!"

31

Meanwhile, King Etzel had prepared a jousting festival in honor of his guests. The celebration commenced on Midsummer's Day with a mass in the cathedral. However, being heathens, the Hungarians sang the mass differently than did the Christians.

Then the jousting began, and at one of the first events a Burgundian knight named Volker, armed with a pointed spear (not a blunted one, as peaceful jousting requires), ran his Hunnish opponent through, killing him instantly. The dead knight's countrymen responded with a great outcry, and would have attacked the Burgundians forthwith had King Etzel not held them back. His sense of honor would not allow guests at his court to be harmed. "It was an accident," he insisted. "Volker's horse stumbled, causing the mishap."

32

Counter to her husband's attempts at peacemaking, Kriemhild continued to plot means to bring the Burgundians and the Hungarians into a full-pitched battle, and thus punish her brothers and Hagen for their complicity in the death of her husband and the theft of her treasure. Seeing no other way to start a fight between the two armies, she had her son Ortlieb brought forth. She knew that Hagen would react violently against the young prince, seeing in him a future enemy with great power, and one who would carry out his mother's wishes for revenge.

33-39

Kriemhild's dreadful prediction came true. For the reasons foreseen by her, Hagen flew into a rage when he saw her son. He drew his sword and with one blow cut off the boy's head.

A great slaughter ensued: Hungarians and Nibelungs battled against each other. Each side lost many brave warriors, but the Nibelungs were greatly outnumbered, and in the end every one of them was killed. Gunther and Hagen were the last to die. Both were captured by the Hungarians. Kriemhild ordered that Gunther's head be cut off and then delivered to Hagen. Following this grisly act, Kriemhild herself, now armed with the sword Balmung, struck off Hagen's head. Her revenge was complete, although it had come at a terrible price.

One old knight, Hildebrand by name, serving at Etzel's court, was horrified that such a brave warrior as Hagen be killed by a woman. He drew his own sword and killed Kriemhild.

King Etzel mourned deeply.

I do not know what happened afterward. Here ends the story of the Nibelungs' last stand.



Persons Included in both the Prose Edda and the Nibelungenlied

Prose Edda Nibelungenlied
Sigurd Siegfried
Brynhild Brunhild
Andvari Alberich
Gjuki Dancrat
Grimhild Uote
Gudrun Kriemhild
Gunnar Gunther
Hogni Gernot
Gotthorm Giselher
Atli Etzel



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Revised December 15, 2012.