"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Thursday, August 28, 2008

13th. Century Literature: Part II

I was going to begin with a grand paean in praise of The Nibelungenlied, extolling it as the great epic of German legendary history. But that sort of thing is boring to most people including myself. In fact, the very name of The Nibelungenlied, if it sparks any recognition at all, is not likely to kindle a flame of interest. Stories with Homeric battles, lengthy and improbable speeches, all written in (or translated into) archaic language, are not likely to rivet the attention of most people. So instead I’ll briefly describe some of the characters.


Though my knowledge of ancient and medieval literature is limited, it seems to me that Sigfried, Kriemhild and others are delineated with a clearness and realism lacking in most old texts. A notable exception is Hagen, but of him later. First, who is Sigfried? Before this story opens in the mythical past of Germanic Europe he was reputed to have won a fabulous treasure by killing a dragon. Those who have read The Hobbit or the end of Beowulf will have a good grasp on this dragon/treasure principle in literature. Unlike Beowulf, who is slain, Sigfried survives and rubs the blood of the dragon all over his skin. Except for a small spot on his back. If you reach one arm over your shoulder and twist the other behind your back you will notice that (besides being uncomfortable and looking stupid) it is extremely difficult to make your hands touch somewhere between your shoulder blades. This is Sigfried’s Achilles Heel; the one spot not made invulnerable by virtue of the dragon’s blood. It is though this, and the cunning of Hagen, that Sigfried is treacherously murdered.


From the beginning his death is hinted at. It is really the focus of the whole story. It seems odd that the hero of a story should die halfway through the book, but if Sigfried had not died early on in the story there would be no Nibelungenlied; his death sets into motion a host of other evils: lies, greed, revenge, and lastly, war. Sigfried's death is a tragedy but it is not the last, nor even, I think, the greatest, tragedy in this story.


Who is most grieved over the death of Sigfried? Who but his wife, the lovely Kriemhild. And good reason she has to be grieved; not only over Sigfried, but also over the way her kinsmen and Hagen treat her after his death. How right it is to sympathize with Kriemhild yet how wrong to support her later actions. To understand this claim will require explaining the further events of the story. Kriemhild eventually remarries a distant king; however, rather than causing her to forget Sigfried, this only elevates her into a position powerful enough to avenge his death. It takes awhile, but finally she lures Hagen and her kinsmen to her new husband’s realm with pretended overtures of friendliness. Her intention is to start a conflict on some pretext and slaughter them. Her kinsmen and Hagen seem almost equally inclined to belligerence and demonstrate it by their disrespect and arrogance. It is, therefore, almost irrelevant who struck the first blow.


The men of Hagen and G√ľnther (Kriemhild’s brother) easily get the upper hand in the first bout. They barricade themselves into the main hall and fight off every assault launched against them. All day they fight till Kriemhild, with the logic (and cruelty) of a woman, orders the hall burnt down. Somehow a few of them survive the flames and fight on the next day amid the charred rubble. At this point the fighting reaches Hollywood quality but it tops Hollywood (as most books do) by searching out what drives good and bad men to war. Rudiger and Dietrich, unwilling warriors, are perhaps the most human and the most heroic, and therefore the best, characters in the story apart from Sigfried himself. How and why they fight is both tragic and glorious, but mostly tragic. Even Dietrich’s victory over Hagen is no cause for joy.


So who is the hero in this tale? All through the book I was looking for a hero (after Sigfried died anyway). While there are many noble and heroic characters scattered throughout, the main conflict centers between Kriemhild and Hagen. Hagen, as the murderer of Sigfried, was obviously out, but the bloodthirsty revenge of Kriemhild went beyond simply a desire for justice as well. In the end I did not know what to think. I tinkered with the idea that this was a postmodern book (written, of course, around 1200 A.D) with no good guy/bad guy distinctions. Yet while no one was right, it does not follow postmodern epistemology that no one was wrong. Both were wrong. There may be different degrees of wrongness, but the central fact remains: both Hagen and Kriemhild were wrong. The consequence of their actions was the slaughter and decimation of entire Kingdoms.

4 comments:

Aaron said...

Great synopsis of the story. I noticed the same thing (the lack of a clear "moral hero", or even "moral point") when I read Gunnar's Daughter by Sigrid Undset. Maybe that feature is common to that genre of literature.

Still, maybe it's better that way. When a book is black and white, we tend to just snap it shut and assume that we've got it, whereas when the story is more complicated, we think about it longer and probably learn more in the end.

David said...

Your account piques my interest in this blank space in my knowledge of heroic literature. But have you checked out the Battle of Maldon, yet.

Moral ambiguity in literature is a defect in my book, but it is tolerable in literature written for adults whose moral compass presumably--for better or worse--has already been formed. But what of a children's fantasy in which the maximum hero is a habitual liar with a vindictive streak so ingrained that he uses an illegal form of torture after he seems to have reformed. And in which the "wisest" and "bravest" wizards conspire to execute a murder-suicide pact to give the series its mind bending surprise ending. The three culprits of the most popular children's fantasy in history are, of course, Harry, Dumbledore and Severus Snape. (My satire on Rowling's Hogwarts School is on my blog.)

Brian Carpentier said...

I had always thought that the epic or heroic tale always had clear moral heroes like "The Lord of the Rings" and all fairie tales, so I was surprised that the "Nibelunenlied" left the hero so ambiguous. When vice is lauded and the good ridiculed in a story there is obviously a problem, yet I tend to agree with you, Aaron, that a story can be very useful and thought provoking if it does not put people in tidy little boxes. Othello in Shakespeare's play starts as an admirable hero but ends up murdering his wife over unfounded jealousy. Obviously, his action is wrong yet a strong message is illustrated of how even Othello's best virtues of loyalty and honor can be twisted into a snare. Kriemhild's case is the same: An injustice was practiced against her that in fairness her ememies should have been punished for, but her desire for revenge became such a consuming passion that she would do anything to get it. Including directly and indirectly sending tens of thousands of Warriors to their death. Tales of this sort then can be used as object lessons to detour us from following the course of a certain character. Both these examples are tragedies: that is, the result of these moral defects is that the people who sin die and the story ends badly for all involved. In Harry Potter I understand that he gets away scott free or in some way benefits from his lies and other faults.

Yes, I read the Battle of Maldon a couple years back. It was sad but grand. I should read it again sometime.

David Haddon said...

Harry sometimes pays for his misdeeds as when his organizing an independent raid on the Ministry of Magic to keep Voldemort from getting a copy of a crucial prophecy stored there. When the Order of the Phoenix has to come to his rescue, his godfather Sirius Black is killed. But yeah, the lies seldom have negative consequences and sometimes are his salvation. But Rowling views children as "naturally good" so that they don't need exemplary characters as role models.

Yikes! Have you read Grimm's Fairy Tales lately? Or even Tolkein's "Farmer Giles of Ham" or something like that. Shrewdness instead of moral rectitude often wins the day.