Composed: ca. 1180-1210 CE
Earliest extant manuscript: ca. 1220 CE
Although copied down in manuscripts around 1200 on behalf of the Passau Bishop Wolfger von Erla, the Nibelungenlied evokes many historical events from the time when the Huns under the leadership of Attila (here Etzel) threatened Western Rome, until they were defeated in the Battle on the Catalaunian Fields (west of Metz) in 451. This Middle High German epic poem, rightfully regarded as one of the major contributions to world literature, inspired medieval poets and artists alike (including Old Norse legends about Dietrich) and enjoyed tremendous popularity far into the sixteenth century. Its renown picked up again after its rediscovery in 1755 by the physician and writer Jacob Hermann Obereit, and it came to be regarded as the central German national epic, a characterization that the National Socialists later badly abused for their own ideological purposes. When the poem was created, the heroic era had already long passed, having given way to the world of courtly culture, with its love poetry and romances. Nevertheless, the Nibelungenlied held its own position, almost like an erratic block in the history of medieval German literature.
The text is oddly framed because the narrator tells us already in the first stanza that the outcome will be horrific, and the conclusion then confirms this most ominously when the great court festival in the land of the Huns to which the Burgundians had been invited concludes with everyone being slaughtered. Although the poem breaks off at this point without attention to the aftermath of the events, most manuscripts containing the Nibelungenlied include a follow-up poem, Diu Klage (The Lament), that bewails the death of these scores of mighty warriors. When the corpses are lifted up from the river of blood, the three mournful survivors, Etzel and his two vassals, Dietrich and Hildebrand, break out in tears and retell the heroes’ stories.
The Nibelungenlied recounts the history of the Burgundians, at that point ruled by King Gunther, alongside his two brothers, Gernot and Giselher, residing in the city of Worms on the Rhine River. In the first aventiure (chapter), their sister Kriemhilt has a terrible nightmare about the killing of her future husband, the hero Siegfried, son of the Netherlandish king Sigemunt. Nevertheless, her mother Uote dismisses the prophetic message and urges her daughter to look forward to married life, which will, however, not turn out the way Uote imagines it.
Siegfried represents a liminal figure, possessing superhuman strength and being basically undefeatable, but oddly naïve and arrogant as well. When he arrives at court acting as a undauntable usurper, his nemesis, Gunther’s seneschal Hagen (almost equally strong and a truly mighty, deeply informed, though dark and brutal figure), tells everyone that the young hero had defeated the dwarf warriors and had thus become the ruler of the underworld (Nibelungen), subsequently killing a dragon and taking a bath in its blood which made his body impenetrable to any weapon. There is, however, one unprotected spot on his shoulder blade whereupon the leaf of a linden tree – symbolizing love – had dropped while he was taking the bath. This is, hence, Siegfried’s metaphorical and literal Achilles’ heel, and Hagen will later kill him by hurling his spear through that spot into his body. (Hagen learns about its precise location from Kriemhilt by pretending that he wants to protect Siegfried during a war campaign.)
When Siegfried arrives in Worms in a rather pompous fashion and demands complete control over Gunther’s kingdom, no violence breaks out despite angry exchanges. With the promise that he might later win Kriemhilt’s hand, Siegfried becomes subdued and is quickly integrated into the court, always carrying out Gunther’s wishes whether they are to his own advantage or not. He wins the war against the Saxons on Gunther’s behalf, and he also helps him defeat the Icelandic Queen Brunhilt in a set of three competitions, something no normal man had yet been able to accomplish. To achieve victory, Siegfried dons his cloak of invisibility that gives him the extra strength of twelve men. Siegfried thus helps Gunther best the queen in the competition, thereby forcing Brunhilt, basically a matriarch, to accept Gunter as her future husband.
Once they are back in Worms, Brunhilt continues to question her husband’s true strength and abilities, and during their wedding night humiliates him by tying him up and hanging him on a nail so that he cannot touch her. When Gunther begs Siegfried for help the next night, the youth again puts on his invisibility cloak and can thus defeat, though only with great difficulty, this mighty woman. The narrator does not explicitly say that Siegfried raped her, but the circumstances strongly insinuate that. This later leads to a conflict between Kriemhilt and Brunhilt over their respective ranks, and the former then reveals what Siegfried (now her husband) had done to her opponent, calling her a concubine. When the mortified Brunhilt cries in public, Hagen swears to avenge his queen. In reality, of course, he wants to use this opportunity to kill his nemesis, which he actually manages to do through a series of skillful pretenses and operations. Even though the three royal brothers at first object to this plan, ultimately they are all in agreement and secretly condone Hagen’s action.
Kriemhilt realizes immediately afterwards that Hagen is the murderer, but she cannot avenge this terrible deed because the warrior is too powerful and well protected. After years of waiting, having tried in vain to use the gold from the hoard of the Nibelungen to oblige warriors to fight for her cause – Hagen eventually steals the gold and dumps it into the Rhine – Kriemhilt agrees to marry the Hunnish King Etzel, but only because one of his mighty vassals, Ruedeger, promises to be her loyal servant and to avenge any wrong-doing which she might experience. While he is thinking about future events, she reads it as a blanket promise, covering also past injuries. Later, when the fighting between the Burgundians (by then called Nibelungs) and Etzel’s men has already cost the lives of thousands of warriors and squires, she calls upon Ruedeger and forces him to live up to his feudal pledge. The killing thus continues, and no one survives except for Hagen and Gunther who are placed in a prison. Kriemhilt then has her brother decapitated and kills Hagen herself with his sword, which used to belong to Siegfried. However, Hildebrand, witnessing this horrible dead, slays Kriemhilt, which ends the epic poem.
Three major motifs still need to be mentioned which underscore the monumental and universal character of this heroic epic. When Hagen leads the Burgundians on their journey to the Hunnish kingdom, they have to cross the Danube River, where flooding has destroyed all the bridges. Searching for an alternative, Hagen comes across a pond with three nixies who prophesize the doom of everyone except the chaplain. While Hagen then transports the entire army to the other side of the river, he tosses the chaplain into the water although the poor man cannot swim. Hagen even tries to push him deeper into the water in order to test the prophecy. With God’s help, the chaplain manages to reach the shore and thus to survive, which convinces Hagen that they are all indeed doomed to die. He therefore destroys the ferry boat after the transport of the Burgundian army is complete. Although Hagen claims that this would serve to prevent any of the men from fleeing during battle, in reality it powerfully represents that they are all on their march to certain death.
Secondly, at one point during the battle at the Hunnish court, the hall, in which the Burgundians hold out defending themselves against ever new fighters, is set on fire, but the heroes survive even this hellish scenario because Hagen urges them to kneel down and to drink the blood from their fallen companions. As scholars have recognized, this scene transforms the Burgundians, or Nibelungs, into animals; they lose their humanness as they fight to the very bitter end with no survivor left.
The third significant episode occurs almost at the conclusion of the battle when Ruedeger is forced to take up his sword against the Burgundians, who are actually members of his own (Germanic) people. Although he had treated them as honored guests on their way to the Hunnish court and had even granted the engagement of his daughter to Giselher, he now has to fight the Burgundians, many of whom he will kill until he also dies in the battle. Ruedeger’s dilemma is illustrated through a scene that takes place just when the fighting is about to break loose: appealing to their kinship and friendship, Hagen begs him to give him his shield because his own has been hacked to pieces. Ruedeger does so because those men are his friends even though he himself is bound by his feudal oath to Kriemhilt to confront them. The handing over of the shield at this critical moment moves even those hardened warriors to tears, indicating their realization that they are all victims of the fundamental flaws of feudalism, of the principles of revenge, and maybe even of heroism itself. This sentiment, however, finds its most vivid expression only in the subsequent Lament poem.
There are many critical questions regarding the ultimate message contained in the Nibelungenlied. Why would a bishop and the broader audiences long trained in courtly values and ideals enjoy such a crude, bloody, horrifying epic poem? The answer can only rest in the negative outcome, the fateful apocalypse with no survivors. The story is thus a strong warning about the consequences of heroic, military ideals and values which ultimately make it impossible for happiness and even survival. But there are also major issues and questions concerning the nature of heroism, the conflict between the two protagonists Siegfried and Hagen, Siegfried’s connection with the netherworld of the dwarfs, Hagen’s exchange with the mysterious nixies, the catastrophic consequences of rape, murder, treason, revenge, and warfare, and the supreme value of friendship which is ultimately destroyed by the strictures of feudalism.
The Nibelungenlied, with its ominous heroes and their nefarious actions leading to the elimination of an entire people, has not lost its original fascination. In the nineteenth century, Richard Wagner drew heavily from this epic poem when he created his opera Der Ring (1857), and in the early twentieth century Fritz Lang transformed the Nibelungenlied into his two-part movie with the same title (1924/1925). The dark and deadly elements in this epic poem have also inspired many modern artistic representations, such as Anselm Kiefer’s The Sorrow of the Nibelungen (1973).
The University of Arizona
Munich Cgm 34 (Manuscript A of the Nibelungenlied)
Codex Sangallensis 857 (Manuscript B of the Nibelungenlied)
Berlin, mgf 855 (Manuscript b of the Nibelungenlied, written between 1436 and 1442, b is the only illustrated medieval manuscript of the Song.)
Facsimile of Manuscript C, Badische Landes-Bibliothek. Digitized manuscript C now in Karlsruhe.
Edwards, Cyril, translator. The Nibelungenlied. Translated with an Introduction and Notes, Oxford UP, 2010.
Hatto, Arthur E., translator. The Nibelungenlied. A New Translation, Penguin, 1965.
Whobrey, William T, translator. The “Nibelungenlied” with “The Klage.” Hackett, 2018.
A Companion to the Nibelungenlied, ed. by Winder McConnell, Rochester: Camden House, 1998.
Die Nibelungen. Sage – Epos – Mythos, ed. by Joachim Heinzle, Klaus Klein and Ute Obhof, Wiesbaden: Reicher, 2003.
Jan-Dirk Müller, Rules for the Endgame: The World of the Nibelungenlied, translated by William T. Whobrey. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.
Nibelungenlied und Nibelungensage. Kommentierte Bibliographie 1945 – 2010, ed. by Florian Kragl, Berlin: Akademie, 2012.
Die Rezeption des Nibelungenstoffes in Literatur, Kunst, Musik und Wissenschaft. A regularly updated timeline on reception and interpretation of the Nibelungenlied.
Die Rezeption mittelalterlicher deutscher Dichtung. Eine Bibliographie ihrer Übersetzungen und Bearbeitungen seit der Mitte des 18. Jahrhunderts. A compendium listing all modern translations and adaptations of MHG texts available for registered users of the platform. Printed version: Siegfried Grosse and Ursula Rautenberg, Die Rezeption mittelalterlicher deutscher Dichtung. Eine Bibliographie ihrer Übersetzungen und Bearbeitungen seit der Mitte des 18. Jahrhunderts, Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1989.
Bibliographie zur Rezeption des Nibelungenstoffs – von der Neuzeit bis zur Gegenwart. Bibliography listing all modern adaptations including newer ones which are not covered by Grosse/Rautenberg (2019).
The above bibliography was supplied by Stefan Seeber, Freiburg University (Germany).
Die Rezeption des Nibelungenstoffes. Extensive material on the the Nibelungenlied‘s major illustrators, including Johann Heinrich Füssli, Peter von Cornelius, and Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Karl Schmoll von Eisenwerth.
Siegfried’s Death, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld.
Der Saalbrand Hundeshagenscher Kodex. Nibelungenlied. Hundeshagenscher Kodex.
Ergänze eine einzeilige Erklärung, was diese Datei darstellt, Nibelungenlied. Hundeshagenscher Kodex.
Homepage of the Nibelungen Society in Worms.
Nibelungenlied. Heroic Tales of the Middle Ages. UNESCO. World Document Heritage in Germany.
The Song of the Nibelungs to go. A 12 minute version of the Nibelungenlied performed using Playmobil-toys. Sommer’s World Literature to go. “Michael Sommer and his Playmobil cast offer a compact and entertaining short version of the life of Siegfried, Kriemhild and company.”
Aventiure (Das Nibelungenlied) by Eberhard Kummer (1999):
Danilo Alimo, “Das Nibelungenlied – Song of Nibelungs”:
German Oak, Nibelungenlied (Witch & Warlock, 1992):
Elena Park, The Ring Transformed. An article examining the Met’s groundbreaking staging of Wagner’s four-part Ring cycle by Robert Lepage (premiered over the course of the 2010–11 and 2011–12 seasons).
Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen (operatic cycle including Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung), 1876,
Fritz Lang, Die Nibelungen: Siegfried, 1924,
Fritz Lang, Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache, 1924,
Harald Reinl, Die Nibelungen, 1966.
Uli Edel, Ring of the Nibelungs, 2004.
Eva Strange, “Medieval Epic Poetry for Rebel Girls: The Nibelungenlied” (2019):