Nibelungenlied Review

Well, I finally finished The Nibelungenlied. All I can say is, "Wow, what a bloodbath!" Prior to this, I've read the Volsungasaga which conveys basically the same legend but written in Iceland rather than Germany, so I knew what to expect. And though my expectations were pretty high, I was not disappointed.

That being said, there were a few things that caught me by surprise. First of all, the way Attila the Hun is portrayed in the two versions is extremely different. In the Volsungasaga, Atli (Attila) is a bloodthirsty barbarian who wants the famous treasure and cuts out hearts and throws men into a pit of snakes to get his way. In the Nibelungenlied, Etzel (Attila) is one of the most Christian characters in the story, despite the fact that we are told he is not a Christian. He is honorable and noble in all of his dealings with others, and shows mercy and restraint when others hunger for blood.

The main female protagonist is likewise very different. In the Volsungasaga, Atli's wife Gudrun warns her brothers not to come to Atli's court. Though they were responsible for her husband Sigurd's death, she would rather side with them than her new husband Atli. She takes up arms and fights Atli when he launches an attack against her brothers to get the treasure. After her brothers die, she kills her own children by Atli and feeds them to him for dinner.

In the Nibelungenlied, her character is the opposite. Kriemhild invites her brothers to come to Etzel's court so that she may get revenge for her husband Sigfried's death and learn the location of the treasure. It is she who brings about the death of her brothers, while King Etzel is blissfully unaware that anything is amiss until it is too late.

It's difficult to compare the two, as their worldviews are so different. The worldview of the Volsungasaga is that of the pagan, pre-Christian era. Fate determines all things, and the characters are portrayed as amoral. Often their destinies are not earned by their actions, but are the result of intervention by Odin, who wants to kill whom he does not like. The Nibelungenlied, on the other hand, portrays everything that happens as a result of unchecked sin, from the deception of Brunhild to the final gory climax. Sin begets sin, and sinners always get their due. In this way, the Nibelungenlied is a far more Christian story than the Volsungasaga. However, as a piece of literature, I think that the Volsungasaga comes out ahead. It is clear from internal inconsistencies that the Nibelungenlied was pieced together from a large number of ballads and songs, and that one editor did not sit down and attempt to harmonize all the different accounts. The Volsungasaga is much more unified, though it too is pieced together from many of the same stories and legends.

I would recommend both of these books to anyone interested in the mythology and folklore of Northern Europe, as well as to any fan of Tolkien. For in these works can be found many of the seeds of Middle Earth that would come to fruition in Tolkien's epic Lord of the Rings.

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