In the stately town of Worms, in Burgundy, dwelt the noble and beauteous maiden Kriemhild, under the care of her mother Ute, and her brothers Gunther, Gernot, and Giselher. Great was the splendour and state which they maintained, and many and brave were the warriors who drank wine at their board. Given to martial exercises were those men of might, and day by day the courts of the palace rang to the clangor of sword-play and manly sport. The wealth of the chiefs was boundless, and no such magnificence as theirs was known in any German land, or in any land beyond the German frontiers.
But with all this stateliness and splendour Kriemhild, the beautiful, was unhappy. One night she had had an ominous dream. She dreamed that she had tamed a falcon strong and fierce, a beauteous bird of great might, but that while she gazed on it with pride and affection two great eagles swooped from the sky and tore it to pieces before her very eyes. Affected by this to an extent that seemed inexplicable, she related her dream to her mother, Ute, a dame of great wisdom, who interpreted it as foretelling for her a noble husband, "whom God protect, lest thou lose him too early." Kriemhild, in dread of the omen, desired to avert it by remaining unwed, a course from which her mother attempted to dissuade her, telling her that if ever she were destined to know heartfelt joy it would be from a husband's love.
Siegfried, of the Netherlands, son of Siegmund and Sieglind, a warrior bold as he was young and comely, having heard of the great beauty of Kriemhild, desired to visit Worms that he might see the far-famed princess for himself. Until this time he had been wandering through the world doing great deeds: he had won the sword and treasure of the Nibelungs, had overcome their monarchs, had conquered a dwarf Alberich, gaining possession of his cloak of darkness. Hagen, a mighty Burgundian paladin (in a passage which is obviously adapted from another version for the purpose of recounting Siegfried's previous adventures), tells how "he had slain a dragon and made himself invulnerable by bathing in its blood. We must receive him graciously, and avoid making him our enemy." Siegfried sojourned at Worms for over a year, distinguishing himself in all the martial exercises of the Burgundians and rendering them splendid service in their wars against the Saxons and Danes. A year passed without his having been allowed to meet Kriemhild, who in secret cherished the utmost admiration for him. Chagrined at the treatment meted out to him, he finally made up his mind to depart. But his hosts did not desire to lose such a valuable ally, and brought about a meeting between him and the lady of his dreams. The passage describing their first sight of one another is full of the essence of romance.
We are told that Kriemhild appeared before his eyes as does the rosy flush of dawn breaking from sombre clouds. As he beheld her his heart was soothed and all his trouble vanished, for there stood she who had cost him many a love-pang, her eyes sparkling with pleasure, brighter than the rich jewels which covered her raiment, her cheeks suffused with the blushes of maidenhood. No one had, he thought, ever seen so much beauty before. As the silver moon obscures the light of the stars by its superior splendour, so did Kriemhild obscure the beauty of the ladies who surrounded her.
When he beheld her each hero drew himself up more proudly than ever and appeared as if ready to do battle for such a paragon of beauty. She was preceded by chamberlains in rich attire, but no ushers might keep back the knights from sight of her, and they crowded about her to catch a glimpse of her face. Pleased and sad was Siegfried, for, thought he, "How may I ever hope to win so peerless a creature? The hope is a rash one. Better were I to forget her--but then, alas, my heart would have ceased to beat, and I should be dead!" Pale and red he grew. He recked not of his own great worth. For all there agreed that so handsome a warrior had never come to the Rhineland, so fair of body, so debonair was he.
The Wooing of Brunhild
Siegfried now resolved to win Kriemhild, and on Gunther's asking him to accompany him on an adventure the purpose of which is to gain the hand of Queen Brunhild of Isenstein, he accepted on condition that on their return he should be rewarded by the hand of his sister. To this Gunther gave assent, and they set out, accompanied by Hagen and his brother Dankwart. But the Nibelungenlied proper is silent regarding Siegfried's previous relations with Brunhild. In Scandinavian versions--such as the Volsunga Saga, where this legend, originally a German one, is preserved in its pagan form--Brunhild was a Valkyr, or war-maiden of Odin, who sent her to sleep with a prick of a magic thorn and imprisoned her within a circle of flame, through which Siegfried (in this version almost certainly the god of nature, springtide, and the sun) broke, delivered the captive, and took her as his bride, soon, however, departing from her. In the Nibelungenlied this ancient myth is either presupposed or intentionally omitted as unfitting for consumption by a Christianized folk, but it is hinted that Brunhild had a previous claim upon Siegfried's affections.
Brunhild had made it a condition that the hero whom she would wed must be able to overcome her in three trials of prowess, losing his head as a penalty of failure. Siegfried, donning the magic cloak of invisibility he had won from Alberich, king of the dwarfs, took Gunther's place and won the three trials for him, Gunther going through a pantomime of the appropriate actions while Siegfried performed the feats. The passage which tells of the encounter is curious. A great spear, heavy and keen, was brought forth for Brunhild's use. It was more a weapon for a hero of might than for a maiden, but, unwieldy as it was, she was able to brandish it as easily as if it had been a willow wand. Three and a half weights of iron went to the making of this mighty spear, which scarce three of her men could carry. Sore afraid was Gunther. Well did he wish him safe in the Burgundian land. "Once back in Rhineland," thought he, "and I would not stir a foot's distance to win any such war-maid."
But up spake Dankwart, Hagen's valiant brother: "Now is the day come on which we must bid farewell to our lives. An ill journey has this been, I trow, for in this land we shall perish at the hands of women. Oh, that my brother Hagen and I had but our good swords here! Then would these carles of Brunhild's check their laughter. Without arms a man can do nothing, but had I a blade in hand even Brunhild herself should die ere harm came to our dear lord."
This speech heard the warrior-maid. "Now put these heroes' swords into their hands," she commanded, "and accoutre them in their mail."
Right glad was Dankwart to feel iron in his hand once more and know its weight upon his limbs. "Now I am ready for such play as they list," he cried. "Since we have arms, our lord is not yet conquered."
Into the ring of contest mighty men bore a great stone. Twelve of them it took to carry it, so ponderous it was.
Woe were they of Burgundy for their lord at sight of the same.
Brunhild advanced on Gunther, brandishing her spear. Siegfried was by his side and touched him lightly to give him confidence, but Gunther knew not it was he and marvelled, for no one saw him there.
"Who hath touched me?" said he.
"'Tis I, Siegfried," replied his friend. "Be of good cheer and fear not the maiden. Give me thy shield and mark well what I say. Make thou motions as if to guard and strike, and I will do the deeds. Above all hearken to my whispered advice."
Great was Gunther's joy when he knew that Siegfried was by him. But he had not long to marvel, for Brunhild was on him, her great spear in hand, the light from its broad blade flashing in his eyes. She hurled the spear at his shield. It passed through the iron as if it had been silk and struck on the rings of Gunther's armour. Both Gunther and Siegfried staggered at the blow. But the latter, although bleeding from the mouth with the shock of the thrown weapon, seized it, reversing the point, and cast it at Brunhild with such dreadful might that when it rang on her armour she was overthrown.
Right angry was Brunhild. But she weened that the blow was Gunther's, and respected him for his strength. Her anger, however, overcame her esteem, and seizing the great stone which had been placed in the ring of combat, she cast it from her twelve fathoms. Leaping after it, she sprang farther than she had thrown it. Then went Gunther to the stone and poised it while Siegfried threw it. He cast the stone farther than Brunhild had done, and so great was his strength that he raised King Gunther from the earth and leapt with him a greater distance than Brunhild had leapt herself. Men saw Gunther throw and leap alone.
Red with anger grew Brunhild when she saw herself defeated. Loudly she addressed her men.
"Ho, ye liegemen of mine," she cried, "now are ye subject to Gunther the King, for, behold, he has beaten me in the sports."
The knights then acclaimed Gunther as the victor. By his own strength of arm had he won the games, said they, and he in turn greeted them lovingly. Brunhild came forward, took him by the hand, and granted to him full power throughout her dominions. They proceeded to her palace and Gunther's warriors were now regaled with better cheer than before. But Siegfried carefully concealed his magic cloak.
Coming to where Gunther and Brunhild sat, he said: "My lord, why do you tarry? Why are the games of which Queen Brunhild doth speak not yet begun? I long to see how they may be played." He acted his part so well that Brunhild really believed that he was not aware the games were over and that she was the loser.
"Now, Sir Siegfried," said she, "how comes it that you were not present when the games, which Gunther has won, were being played?"
Hagen, fearing that Siegfried might blunder in his reply, took the answer out of his mouth and said: "O Queen, the good knight Siegfried was hard by the ship when Gunther won the games from you. Naught indeed knew he of them."
Siegfried now expressed great surprise that any man living had been able to master the mighty war-maid. "Is it possible," he exclaimed, "is it possible, O Queen, that you have been vanquished at the sports in which you excel so greatly? But I for one am glad, since now you needs must follow us home to the Rhineland."
"You are speedy of speech, Sir Siegfried," replied Brunhild. "But there is much to do ere yet I quit my lands. First must I inform my kindred and vassals of this thing. Messengers must be sent to many of my kinsmen ere I depart from Isenstein."
With that she bade couriers ride to all quarters, bidding her kinsmen, her friends, and her warriors come without delay to Isenstein. For several days they arrived in troops: early and late they came, singly and in companies. Then with a large escort Brunhild sailed across the sea and up the Rhine to Worms.
Siegfried and Brunhild
It now became increasingly clear that Siegfried and Brunhild had had affectionate relations in the past. [Indeed, in the Volsunga Saga, which is an early version of the Nibelungenlied, we find Grimhild, the mother of Gudrun (Kriemhild), administering to Sigurd (Siegfried) a magic potion in order that he should forget about Brunhild.] On seeing Siegfried and Kriemhild greet each other with a kiss, sadness and jealousy wrung the heart of the war-maiden, and she evinced anything but a wifely spirit toward her husband Gunther, whom, on the first night of their wedded life, she wrestled with, defeated, and bound with her girdle, afterward hanging him up by it on a peg in the wall! Next day he appealed to Siegfried for assistance, and that night the hero donned his magic cloak of invisibility, contended with Brunhild in the darkness, and overcame her, she believing him to be Gunther, who was present during the strife. But Siegfried was foolish enough to carry away her ring and girdle, "for very haughtiness." These he gave to Kriemhild, and sore both of them rued it in after-time. Brunhild's strength vanished with her maidenhood and thenceforth she was as any other woman.
Siegfried and Kriemhild now departed to the capital of Santen, on the Lower Rhine, and peace prevailed for ten years, until Brunhild persuaded Gunther to invite them to a festival at Worms. She could not understand how, if Siegfried was Gunther's vassal, as Gunther had informed her, he neither paid tribute nor rendered homage. The invitation was accepted cordially enough. But Kriemhild and Brunhild quarrelled bitterly regarding a matter of precedence as to who should first enter church, and at the door of the minster of Worms there was an unseemly squabble. Then Kriemhild taunted Brunhild with the fact that Siegfried had won and deserted her, and displayed the girdle and ring as proof of what she asserted.
Siegfried, confronted with Brunhild, denied that he had ever approached her in any unseemly way, and he and Gunther attempted to make peace between their wives. But all to no avail. A deadly feud had sprung up between them, which was to end in woe for all. Hagen swore a great oath that Siegfried should pay for the insult his wife had put upon Brunhild.
The Plot against Siegfried
Now, but four days after, news came to Gunther's court that war was declared against him. But this was merely a plot to draw Siegfried from the court and compass his death. The heroes armed for war, among them Siegfried. When Hagen bade farewell to Kriemhild she recommended Siegfried to his care. Now, when Siegfried slew the dragon which guarded the treasure of the Nibelungs, he bathed in its blood and became, like Achilles, invulnerable, save at a spot where a linden leaf had fallen between his shoulders as he bathed, and so prevented contact with the potent stream. Hagen inquired of Kriemhild the whereabouts of this vulnerable spot, pretending that he would guard Siegfried against treachery in battle; and she, fully believing in his good faith, sewed a silken cross upon Siegfried's mantle to mark the place.
On the following morning Siegfried, with a thousand knights, took horse and rode away, thinking to avenge his comrades. Hagen rode beside him and carefully scanned his vesture. He did not fail to observe the mark, and having done so, he dispatched two of his men with another message. It was to the effect that the King might know that now his land would remain at peace. This Siegfried was loath to hear, for he would have done battle for his friends, and it was with difficulty that Gunther's vassals could hold him back. Then he rode to Gunther, who thanked him warmly for having so quickly granted his prayer. Gunther assured him that if need be he would at any time come to his aid, and that he held him the most trusty of all his friends. He pretended to be so glad that the threat of war was past that he suggested that they should ride hunting to the Odenwald after the bear and the boar, as they had so often done before. This was the counsel of the false Hagen.
It was arranged that they should start early for the greenwood, and Gunther promised to lend Siegfried several dogs that knew the forest ways well. Siegfried then hurried home to his wife, and when he had departed Hagen and the King took counsel together. After they had agreed upon the manner in which they would compass the destruction of Siegfried, they communicated their plans to their comrades. Giselher and Gernot would not take part in the hunt, but nevertheless they abstained from warning Siegfried of his danger. For this, however, they paid dearly in the end.
The morning dawned bright and clear, and away the warriors cantered with a clatter of hoofs and a boasting of bugles.
Siegfried's Farewell to Kriemhild
Before departing Siegfried had said farewell to Kriemhild, who, she knew not why, was filled with dark forebodings.
"God grant I may see thee safe and well again," said Siegfried. "Keep thou a merry heart among thy kin until I return."
Then Kriemhild thought on the secret she had betrayed to Hagen, but she could not tell Siegfried of it. Sorely she wept, wishing that she had never been born, and keen and deep was her grief.
"Husband," she said, "go not to the hunt. A baleful dream I had last night. You stood upon the heath and two wild boars approached. You fled, but they pursued you and wounded you, and the blossoms under your feet were red with blood. You behold my tears. Siegfried, I dread treachery. Wot you not of some who cherish for us a deadly hate? I counsel you, I beg you, dear lord, go not to the greenwood."
Siegfried tried to laugh her fears away, "It is but for a few days that I leave thee, beloved," he said. "Who can bear me hate if I cherish none against them? Thy brothers wish me well, nor have I offended them in any wise."
But Kriemhild would not be comforted. "Greatly do I dread this parting," she wailed, "for I dreamed another dream. You passed by two mountains, and they rocked on their bases, fell, and buried you, so that I saw you no more. Go not, for bitterly will I grieve if you depart."
But with a laugh and a kiss Siegfried was gone. Leaping on his steed, he rode off at a gallop. Nevermore was she to see him in life.
Into the gloomy forest, the abode of the bear, the wolf, and the wild boar, plunged the knights in their lust of royal sport. Brilliant, brave, and goodly of cheer was the company, and rich was their entertainment. Many pack-horses laden with meats and wines accompanied them, and the panniers on the backs of these bulged with flesh, fish, and game, fitting for the table of a great king.
On a broad meadow fringing the greenwood they camped, near to the place where they were to begin the hunt, and watchers were sent round the camp, so that no one with a message of warning on his lips might win to the ears of Siegfried.
Siegfried waxed restless, for he had come not to feast but to hunt, and he desired to be home again with Kriemhild. "Ha, comrades," he cried; "who will into the forest with me and rouse the game?"
"Then," said the crafty Hagen, "let us find who is the best sportsman. Let us divide the huntsmen and the hounds so that each may ride alone where he chooses; and great praise shall be to him who hunts the best and bears off the palm."
To this Siegfried agreed, and asked only for one hound that had been well broken to the chase to accompany him.
This was granted. Then there came an old huntsman with a limehound and led the sportsmen to where there was an abundance of game. Many beasts were started and hunted to the death, as is ever the way with good huntsmen.
Nothing that the limehound started could escape Siegfried. Swift was his steed as the tempest, and whether it was bear or boar he soon came up with it and slew it. Once he encountered a stark and mighty lion. Aiming an arrow at the monster, he shot it through the heart. The forest rang with acclaim at the deed.
Then there fell by his hand a buffalo, an elk, four grim aurochs, and a bear, nor could deer or hind escape him, so swift and wight was he. Anon he brought a wild boar to bay. The grisly beast charged him, but, drawing his sword, Siegfried transfixed it with the shining blade.
"I pray thee, lord," said the huntsman, "leave to us something living, for in truth thy strong arm doth empty both mountain and forest."
Merrily rang the noise of the chase in the greenwood that day. The hills and the leafy aisles of the forest resounded with the shouts of the hunters and the baying of dogs. In that hunting many a beast met its death-day and great was the rivalry. But when the hunting was over and the heroes met at the tryst-fire, they saw that Siegfried had proved himself the greatest huntsmen of them all.
One by one they returned from the forest to the trysting-place, carrying with them the shaggy fell of the bear, the bristly boar-skin, and the grey pelt of the wolf. Meat abounded in that place, and the blast of a horn announced to the hungry knights that the King was about to feast.
Said Siegfried's huntsman to him: "I hear the blast of a horn bidding us return to the trysting-place," and raising his bugle to his lips, he answered it.
Siegfried was about to leave the forest, ambling quietly on horseback through the green ways, when he roused a mighty bear. The limehound was slipped and the bear lumbered off, pursued by Siegfried and his men. They dashed into a ravine, and here Siegfried thought to run the beast down, but the sides were too steep and the knight could not approach it on horseback. Lightly he sprang from his steed, and the bear, seeing his approach, once more took flight. So swift, however, was Siegfried's pursuit that ere the heavy beast could elude him he had caught it by its shaggy coat and had bound it in such a manner that it was harmless; then, tying it across his horse's back, he brought it to the tryst-fire for pastime.
Proudly emerged Siegfried from the forest, and Gunther's men, seeing him coming, ran to hold his horse. When he had dismounted he dragged the bear from his horse's back and set it loose. Immediately the dogs pursued it, and in its efforts to escape into the forest it dashed madly through a band of scullions who were cooking by the great fire. There was a clatter of iron pots, and burning brands were strewed about. Many goodly dishes were spoiled. The King gave order to slip the hounds that were on leash. Taking their bows and spears, the warriors set off in chase of the bear--but they feared to shoot at it through fear of wounding any among the great pack of dogs that hung upon its flanks. The one man who could keep pace with the bear was Siegfried, who, coming up with it, pierced it with his sword and laid it dead on the ground. Then, lifting the carcass on his shoulders, he carried it back to the fire, to the marvel of all present.
Then began the feasting. Rich meats were handed around, and all was festive and gay. No suspicion had Siegfried that he was doomed, for his heart was pure of all deceit. But the wine had not yet been brought from the kitchen, whereat Sir Siegfried wondered.
Addressing Gunther, he said: "Why do not your men bring us wine? If this is the manner in which you treat good hunters, certes, I will hunt no more. Surely I have deserved better at your hands."
And the false Gunther answered: "Blame me not, Siegfried, for the fault is Hagen's. Truly he would have us perish of thirst."
"Dear master," said Hagen of Trony, "the fault is mine--if fault it be--for methought we were to hunt to-day at Spessart and thither did I send the wine. If we go thirsty to-day, credit me I will have better care another time."
But Siegfried was athirst and said: "If wine lacks, then must we have water. We should have camped nearer to the Rhine."
The Slaying of Siegfried
And Hagen, perceiving his chance, replied: "I know of a cool spring close at hand. If you will follow me I will lead you thither."
Sore athirst was Siegfried, and starting up from his seat, he followed Hagen. But the crafty schemer, desiring to draw him away from the company so that none else would follow them, said to him as they were setting out for the spring: "Men say, Siegfried, that none can keep pace with you when you run. Let us see now."
"That may easily be proved," said Siegfried. "Let us run to the brook for a wager, and see who wins there first. If I lose I will lay me before you in the grass. Nay, I will more, for I will carry with me spear, shield, and hunting gear."
Then did he gird on his weapons, even to his quiver, while the others stripped, and off they set. But Siegfried easily passed them and arrived at the lime-tree where was the well. But he would not drink first for courtesy, even although he was sore athirst.
Gunther came up, bent down to the water, and drank of the pure, cool well. Siegfried then bent him to drink also. But the false Hagen, carrying his bow and sword out of reach, sprang back and gripped the hero's mighty spear. Then looked he for the secret mark on his vesture that Kriemhild had worked.
As Siegfried drank from the stream Hagen poised the great spear and plunged it between the hero's shoulders. Deeply did the blade pierce through the spot where lay the secret mark, so that the blood spurted out on the traitor's garments. Hagen left the spear deep in Siegfried's heart and flew in grim haste from the place.
Though wounded to the death, Siegfried rose from the stream like a maddened lion and cast about him for a weapon. But nothing came to his hand but his shield. This he picked up from the water's edge and ran at Hagen, who might not escape him, for, sore wounded as he was, so mightily did he smite that the shield well-nigh burst and the jewels which adorned it flew in flinders. The blow rang across the meadow as Hagen fell beneath the stroke.
It was Siegfried's last blow. His countenance was already that of a dead man. He could not stand upright. Down he crashed among the flowers; fast flowed his blood; in his agony he began to upbraid those who had contrived his death.
"Cowards and caitiffs," he cried, "is this the price you pay me for my fealty to you? Ill have you done by your friends, for sons of yours as yet unborn will feel the weight of this deed. You have vented your spite on my body; but for this dastard crime all good knights shall shun you."
Now all surrounded him, and those that were true among them mourned for him. Gunther also wept. But the dying man, turning to him, said: "Does he weep for the evil from whom the evil cometh? Better for him that it had remained undone, for mighty is his blame."
Then said false Hagen: "What rue ye? Surely our care is past. Who will now withstand us? Right glad am I that Siegfried is no more."
Loud was Siegfried's dole for Kriemhild. "Never was so foul a murder done as thou hast done on me, O king," he said to Gunther. "I saved thy life and honour. But if thou canst show truth to any on earth, show it to my dear wife, I beg of thee, for never had woman such woe for one she loved."
Painfully he writhed as they watched him, and as he became weaker he spake prophetically.
"Greatly shall ye rue this deed in the days to come," he groaned, "for know, all of ye, that in slaying me ye have slain yourselves."
Wet were the flowers with his blood. He struggled grimly with death, but too deep had been the blow, and at last he spake no more.
They laid his body on a shield of ruddy gold and took counsel with one another how they should hide that the deed had been done by Hagen.
"Sure have we fallen on evil days," said many; "but let us all hide this thing, and hold to one tale: that is, that as Siegfried rode alone in the forest he was slain by robbers."
"But," said Hagen of Trony, "I will myself bear him back to Burgundy. It is little concern of mine if Kriemhild weep."
Great was the grief of Kriemhild when she learned of the murder of her husband, whose body had been placed at her very door by the remorseless Hagen. He and the rest of the Burgundians pretended that Siegfried had been slain by bandits, but on their approach the wounds of Siegfried commenced to bleed afresh in mute witness of treachery. Kriemhild secretly vowed a terrible revenge and would not quit the land where her beloved spouse was buried. For four years she spake never a word to Gunther or Hagen, but sat silent and sad in a chamber near the minster where Siegfried was buried. Gunther sent for the Nibelungen treasure for the purpose of propitiating her, but she distributed it so freely among Gunther's dependents that Hagen conceived the suspicion that her intention was to suborn them to her cause and foment rebellion within the Burgundian dominions; therefore he seized it and sank it in the Rhine, forcing Kriemhild's brethren never to divulge its whereabouts.
It is a circumstance of some importance that when this treasure enters the land of the Burgundians they take the name of Nibelungs, as Siegfried was called Lord of the Nibelungs on first possessing the hoard, and for this reason that part of the poem which commences with the Burgundian acquirement of the treasure was formerly known as the Nibelungen Not.
The confiscation of the treasure was another sharp wound to Kriemhild, who appears to have bitterly cherished every hostile act committed against her by her uncle Hagen and her brothers, and to have secretly nursed her grievances throughout the remainder of her saddened existence.
Kriemhild Marries Attila
Thirteen years after the death of Siegfried, Helche, wife of Attila, or Etzel, King of the Huns, having died, that monarch was desirous of marrying again, and dispatched his faithful councillor, Rüdiger, Margrave of Bechlarn, to the Burgundian court to ask for the hand of Kriemhild. Her brethren, only too anxious to be rid of her accusing presence, gladly consented to the match, but Hagen had forebodings that if she gained power she would wreak a dreadful vengeance on them all. But he was overruled, and Rüdiger was permitted to interview Kriemhild. At first she would not hear of the marriage, but when Rüdiger expressed his surprise at the manner in which she was treated in her own country, and hinted that if she were to wed with Etzel she would be guarded against such insulting conduct, she consented. But first she made Rüdiger swear to avenge her wrongs, and this he did lightly, thinking it merely a woman's whim which would pass away after marriage. She accompanied Rüdiger to the court of Etzel, stopping at his castle of Bechlarn, where dwelt his wife Gotelind and his daughter Dietlinde. The journey to Vienna is described in detail. At length they met Etzel at Tulna with twenty-four kings and princes in his train and a mighty retinue, the greatest guest present being Dietrich of Bern, King of the Goths, who with his band of Wolfings was sojourning at the court of Etzel. The nuptials took place at Vienna amid great magnificence, but through all Kriemhild sorrowed only for Siegfried and brooded long and darkly on her schemes of vengeance.
Seven years passed, during which Kriemhild won the love of all Etzel's court. She bore the King a son, Ortlieb, and gained the confidence and respect of his advisers. Another six years passed, and Kriemhild believed that the time for vengeance had now arrived. To this end she induced Etzel to invite her brethren and Hagen to his court at Vienna. At first the Burgundians liked the hospitable message well, but suspicion of it was sown in their minds by Hagen, who guessed that treachery lurked beneath its honeyed words. In the end they accepted the invitation and journeyed to the land of the Huns, a thousand and sixty knights and nine thousand soldiers. On the way they encountered many ill omens.
Through Eastern Frankland rode Gunther's men toward the river Main, led by Hagen, for well he knew the way. All men wondered when they saw the host, for never had any seen such lordly knights or such a rich and noble retinue. Well might one see that these were princes. On the twelfth day they came to the banks of the Danube, Hagen riding in the van. He dismounted on the river's sandy shore and tied his steed to a tree. The river was swollen with rains and no boats were in sight. Now the Nibelungs could not perceive how they were to win over the stream, for it was broad and strong.
And Hagen rebuked the King, saying: "Ill be with you, lord. See ye not that the river is swollen and its flood is mighty? Many a bold knight shall we lose here to-day."
"Not greatly do thy words help, Hagen," spake the King.
"Meeter were it for thee to search for a ford, instead of wasting thy breath."
But Hagen sneered back: "I am not yet weary of life, O king, and I wish not to drown in these broad waves. Better that men should die by my sword in Etzel's land. Stay thou then by the water's edge, whilst I seek a ferryman along the stream."
To and fro he sought a ferryman. Soon he heard a splash of water and hearkened. In a spring not far off some women were bathing. Hagen spied them and crept stealthily toward them. But they saw his approach and went swiftly away. Hagen, approaching, seized their clothes.
Now these women were swan-maidens, or mermaids, and one of them, Hadburg, spake to him. "Sir Hagen," she said, "well wot I that ye wish to find a ferry. Now give to us our garments and we will show you where one is." They breasted the waves like swans. Once more spake Hadburg: "Safely will ye go to Etzel's land and great honours will ye gain there; aye, greater than hero ever rode to find."
Right joyous was Hagen at this speech. Back he handed to the maidens their weeds.
Then spake another mermaid, Sieglind: "Take warning from me, Hagen. Believe not the word of mine aunt, for she has sore deceived thee. Go not to Etzel's land, for there you shall die. So turn again. Whoso rideth onward hath taken death by the hand."
"I heed not thy words," said Hagen, "for how should it be that all of us die there through the hate of anyone?"
"So must it be," said Sieglind, "for none of you shall live, save the King's chaplain, who alone will come again safe and sound to Gunther's land."
"Ye are wise wives," laughed Hagen bitterly. "Well would Gunther and his lords believe me should I tell him this rede. I pray thee, show us over the stream."
"So be it," replied Sieglind; "since ye will not turn you from your journey. See you yonder inn by the water's side? There is the only ferry over the river."
At once Hagen made off. But Sieglind called after him: "Stay, Sir Knight; credit me, you are too much in haste. For the lord of these lands, who is called Else, and his brother, Knight Gelfrat, will make it go hard with you an ye cross their dominions. Guard you carefully and deal wisely with the ferryman, for he is liegeman unto Gelfrat, and if he will not cross the river to you, call for him, and say thou art named Amelrich, a hero of this land who left it some time agone."
No more spake Hagen to the swan-maidens, but searching up the river banks, he found an inn upon the farther shore. Loudly he called across the flood. "Come for me, ferryman," he said, "and I will bestow upon thee an armlet of ruddy gold."
Now the ferryman was a noble and did not care for service, and those who helped him were as proud as he. They heard Hagen calling, but recked not of it. Loudly did he call across the water, which resounded to his cries. Then, his patience exhausted, he shouted:
"Come hither, for I am Amelrich, liegeman to Else, who left these lands because of a great feud." As he spake he raised his spear, on which was an armlet of bright gold, cunningly fashioned.
The haughty ferryman took an oar and rowed across, but when he arrived at the farther bank he spied not him who had cried for passage.
At last he saw Hagen, and in great anger said: "You may be called Amelrich, but you are not like him whom I thought to be here, for he was my brother. You have lied to me and there you may stay."
Hagen attempted to impress the ferryman by kindness, but he refused to listen to his words, telling the warrior that his lords had enemies, wherefore he never conveyed strangers across the river. Hagen then offered him gold, and so angry did the ferryman become that he struck at the Nibelung with his rudder oar, which broke over Hagen's head. But the warrior smote him so fiercely with his sword that he struck his head off and cast it on the ground. The skiff began to drift down the stream, and Hagen, wading into the water, had much ado to secure it and bring it back. With might and main he pulled, and in turning it the oar snapped in his hand. He then floated down stream, where he found his lords standing by the shore. They came down to meet him with many questionings, but Gunther, espying the blood in the skiff, knew well what fate the ferryman had met with.
Hagen then called to the footmen to lead the horses into the river that they might swim across. All the trappings and baggage were placed in the skiff, and Hagen, playing the steersman, ferried full many mighty warriors into the unknown land. First went the knights, then the men-at-arms, then followed nine thousand footmen. By no means was Hagen idle on that day.
On a sudden he espied the king's chaplain close by the chapel baggage, leaning with his hands upon the relics, and recalling that the wise women had told him that only this priest would return and none other of the Nibelungs, he seized him by the middle and cast him from the skiff into the Danube.
"Hold, Sir Hagen, hold!" cried his comrades. Giselher grew wroth; but Hagen only smiled.
Then said Sir Gernot of Burgundy: "Hagen, what availeth you the chaplain's death? Wherefore have ye slain the priest?"
But the clerk struck out boldly, for he wished to save his life. But this Hagen would not have and thrust him to the bottom. Once more he came to the surface, and this time he was carried by the force of the waves to the sandy shore. Then Hagen knew well that naught might avail against the tidings which the mermaids had told him, that not a Nibelung should return to Burgundy.
When the skiff had been unloaded of baggage and all the company had been ferried across, Hagen broke it in pieces and cast it into the flood. When asked wherefore he had done so, and how they were to return from the land of the Huns back to the Rhine, Hagen said:
"Should we have a coward on this journey who would turn his back on the Huns, when he cometh to this stream he will die a shameful death."
In passing through Bavaria the Burgundians came into collision with Gelfrat and his brother Else, and Gelfrat was slain. They were received at Bechlarn by Rüdiger, who treated them most hospitably and showered many gifts upon them, bestowing upon Gernot his favourite sword, on Gunther a noble suit of armour, and on Hagen a famous shield. He accompanied the strangers to the court of Etzel, where they were met first of all by Dietrich of Bern, who warned them that Kriemhild prayed daily for vengeance upon them for the murder of Siegfried. When Kriemhild beheld Hagen, her archenemy, she wept. Hagen saw, and "bound his helmet tighter."
"We have not made a good journey to this feast," he muttered.
"Ye are welcome, nobles and knights," said Kriemhild. "I greet you not for your kinship. What bring ye me from Worms beyond the Rhine that ye should be so welcome to me here? Where have ye put the Nibelung treasure? It is mine as ye know full well, and ye should have brought it me to Etzel's court."
Hagen replied that he had been ordered by his liege lords to sink it in the Rhine, and there must it lie till doomsday.
At this Kriemhild grew wroth. Hagen went on to say that he had enough to do to carry his shield and breastplate. The Queen, alarmed, desired that all weapons should be placed in her charge, but to this Hagen demurred, and said that it was too much honour for such a bounteous princess to bear his shield and other arms to his lodging.
Kriemhild lamented, saying that they appeared to think that she planned treachery against them; but to this Dietrich answered in great anger that he had forewarned Gunther and his brothers of her treacherous intentions. Kriemhild was greatly abashed at this, and without speaking a word she left the company; but ere she went she darted furious glances upon them, from which they well saw with what a dangerous foe they had to deal. King Etzel then asked who Hagen might be, and was told his name and lineage and that he was a fierce and grim warrior. Etzel then recognized him as a warrior who had been a hostage with him along with Walthar of Spain and who had done him yeoman service.
This last passage connects the Nibelungenlied with the Latin poem of Walthar of Aquitaine. Indeed, the great German epic contains repeated allusions to this work of the ninth or tenth century, which is dealt with later in this book. Events now march quickly. Kriemhild offered gold untold to him who would slay Hagen, but although her enemy was within her grasp, so doughty was the warrior and so terrible his appearance that none dared do battle with him. A Hun was killed by accident in a tournament, but Etzel protected his Burgundian guests. At length Blodelin was bribed by Kriemhild to attack Dankwart with a thousand followers. Dankwart's men were all slain, but he himself made good his escape by fighting his way through the closely packed Hunnish ranks. Dankwart rushed to the hall where the Burgundians were feasting with the Huns, and in great wrath acquainted Hagen with the treacherous attempt which had been made upon his life.
"Haste ye, brother Hagen," he cried, "for as ye sit there our knights and squires lie slain in their chambers."
"Who hath done this deed?" asked Hagen.
"Sir Blodelin with his carles. But he breathes no longer, for myself I parted his head from his body."
"If he died as a warrior, then it is well for him," replied the grim Hagen; "but, brother Dankwart, ye are red with blood."
"'Tis but my weeds which ye see thus wet," said Dankwart carelessly. "The blood is that of other men, so many in sooth that I could not give ye tale of the number."
"Guard the door, brother," said Hagen fiercely; "guard it yet so that not a single Hun may escape. I will hold parley with these brave warriors who have so foully slain defenceless men."
"Well will I guard the doorway," laughed Dankwart; "I shall play ye the part of chamberlain, brother, in this great business."
The Beginning of the Slaughter
Hagen, mortally incensed at the slaughter of the Burgundians by the Huns, and wrongly suspecting Etzel of conspiracy in the affair, drew his sword, and with one blow of the weapon smote off the head of young Ortlieb, the son of Etzel and Kriemhild. Then began a slaughter grim and great. The Huns fought at first in self-defence, but as they saw their friends fall they laid on in good earnest and the combat became general. At length Dietrich of Bern, as a neutral, intervened, and succeeded in bringing about a half-truce, whereby Etzel, Kriemhild, and Rüdiger were permitted to leave the hall, the remainder of Etzel's attendants being slaughtered like sheep. In great wrath Etzel and Kriemhild offered heavy bribes to any who would slay Hagen. Several attempts were made, but without avail; and the terrible conflict continued till nightfall, when a truce was called. From his place of vantage in the hall Giselher reproached his sister with her treachery, and Kriemhild offered to spare her brothers if they would consent to give up Hagen. But this offer they contemptuously refused, holding death preferable to such dishonour. Kriemhild, in her bitter hate, set the hall on fire, and most of the Burgundians perished in the conflagration. Kriemhild and the Huns were astounded, however, when in the morning they discovered six hundred of the Burgundians were still alive. The queen appealed to Rüdiger to complete the slaughter, but he, aghast at the idea of attacking friends whom he had sworn to protect, was about to refuse, when Kriemhild reminded him of his oath to her. With sorrow he proceeded to fulfil his promise, and Giselher, seeing his approach, imagined he came as an ally. But Rüdiger promptly disillusioned him. The Burgundians were as loath to attack Rüdiger as he them, and Hagen and he exchanged shields. The combat recommenced, and great was the slaughter of the Burgundians, until Gernot and Rüdiger came together and slew one another. At this, Wolfhart, Dietrich of Bern's lieutenant, led his men against the Burgundians to avenge Rüdiger's death, and Giselher and Wolfhart slew one another. Volker and Dankwart were also slain. At length all were dead save Gunther and Hagen, whom Dietrich accosted and whom he offered to save. But this offer Hagen refused. Then the Lord of Bern grew wroth.
Dietrich then donned his armour and was assisted to accoutre himself by Hildebrand. He felt a heroic mood inspire him, a good sword was in his hand, and a stout shield was on his arm, and with the faithful Hildebrand he went boldly thence.
Hagen espied him coming and said: "Yonder I see Sir Dietrich. He desires to join battle with us after his great sorrow. To-day shall we see to whom must go the palm. I fear him not. Let him come on."
This speech was not unheard of Dietrich and Hildebrand, for Hagen came to where he found the hero leaning against the wall of the house. Dietrich set his shield on the ground and in woeful tones said: "O king, wherefore have ye treated me so? All my men are gone, I am bereft of all good, Knight Rüdiger the brave and true is slain. Why have ye done these things? Never should I have worked you such sorrow. Think on yourselves and on your wrongs. Do ye not grieve for the death of your good kinsmen? Ah, how I mourn the fall of Rüdiger! Whatsoever joy I have known in life that have ye slain. It is not for me to sorrow if my kin be slain."
"How so, Dietrich?" asked Hagen. "Did not your men come to this hall armed from head to heel with intent to slay us?"
Then spake Dietrich of Bern. "This is fate's work and not the doing of man," said the hero. "Gunther, thou hast fought well. Yield thee now as hostage, no shame shall it be to thee. Thou shalt find me true and faithful with thee."
"Nay, God forbid," cried Hagen; "I am still unfettered and we are only two. Would ye have me yield me after such a strife?"
"Yet would I save thy life, brave and noble Hagen," said Dietrich earnestly. "Yield thee, I beg, and I will convoy thee safe home to Rhineland."
"Nay, cease to crave this thing," replied Hagen angrily. "Such a tale shall never be told of me. I see but two of ye, ye and Hildebrand."
Hildebrand, addressing Hagen, then said that the hour would come when he would gladly accept the truce his lord offered, but Hagen in reply twitted Hildebrand with the manner in which he had fled from the hall. Dietrich interrupted them, saying that it ill beseemed heroes to scold like ancient beldams, and forbade Hildebrand to say more. Then, seeing that Hagen was grim of mood, Dietrich snatched up his shield. A moment later Hagen's sword rang on his helm, but the Lord of Bern guarded him well against the dreadful blows. Warily did he guard him against Hagen's mighty falchion Balmung. At last he dealt Hagen a wound deep and wide. But he did not wish to slay him, desiring rather to have such a hero as hostage. Casting away his shield, in his arms he gripped Hagen of Trony, who, faint from loss of blood, was overthrown. At that Gunther began to wail greatly. Dietrich then bound Hagen and led him to where stood Kriemhild and gave him into her hand. Right merry was she at the sight and blessed Dietrich, bowing low before him, telling him that he had requited her of all her woes, and that she would serve him until death.
But Dietrich begged Hagen's life of the Queen, telling her that he would requite her of all that he had done against her. "Let him not suffer," said he, "because you see him stand there bound." But she ordered that Hagen be led away to durance.
Dietrich then went to where Gunther stood in the hall and engaged him in strife. Loudly rang the swords as the two heroes circled in fight, dealing mighty blows on each other's helm, and men there had great wonder how Sir Dietrich did not fall, so sorely angry was Gunther for the loss of Hagen. But the King's blood was seen to ooze through his armourings, and as he grew fainter Dietrich overcame him as he had done Hagen and bound him. Then was he too taken before Kriemhild, and once again the noble Dietrich begged a life from the Queen. This she gladly promised, but treachery was in her heart. Then went she to Hagen and said to him that if he would return the Nibelungs' treasure to her he might still go home safe and sound to Burgundy. The grim champion answered that she wasted her words, and that he had sworn an oath not to show the hoard while any of his lords still lived. At that answer a terrible thought entered the mind of Kriemhild, and without the least compunction she ordered that her brother Gunther's life be taken. They struck off his head like that of a common malefactor, and by the hair she carried it to the Knight of Trony. Full sorrowfully he gazed upon it, then turning his eyes away from the haggard and distorted features, he said to Kriemhild:
"Dead is the noble King of Burgundy, and Giselher, and Gernot also. Now none knoweth of the treasure save me, and it shall ever be hid from thee, thou fiend."
The Death of Hagen and Kriemhild
Greatly wroth was Kriemhild when she heard that her stratagem had come to naught. "Full ill have ye requited me, Sir Hagen," she cried fiercely, and drawing the sword of Siegfried from its sheath, she raised it with both hands and struck off the Burgundian's head.
Amazed and sorrowful was King Etzel when he saw this. "Alas," cried he, "that such a hero should die bound and by the hands of a woman. Here lieth the best of knights that ever came to battle or bore a shield. Sorely doth this deed grieve me, however much I was his foe."
Then spake old Hildebrand, full of horror that such a thing had come to pass, "Little shall it profit her that she hath slain him so foully," he cried; "whatever hap to me, yet will I avenge bold Hagen."
With these words he rushed at Kriemhild. Loudly did she cry out, but little did that avail her, for with one great stroke Hildebrand clove her in twain. The victims of fate lay still. Sorely wept Dietrich and Etzel. So ended the high feast in death and woe. More is not to be said. Let the dead rest. Thus fell the Nibelungs, thus was accomplished the fate of their house!
The place of origin of the Nibelungenlied is much disputed, a number of scholars arguing for its Scandinavian genesis, but it may be said that the consensus of opinion among modern students of the epic is that it took its rise in Germany, along the banks of the Rhine, among the Frankish division of the Teutonic folk. Place-names lend colour to this assumption. Thus in the Odenwald we have a Siegfried Spring; a Brunhild Bed is situated near Frankfort; there is a Hagen Well at Lorch, and the Drachenfels, or Dragon's Rock, is on the banks of the Rhine. Singularly enough, however, if we desire a full survey of the Nibelungenlied story, we have to supplement it from earlier versions in use among the peoples of Scandinavia and Iceland. These are distinctly of a more simple and early form than the German versions, and it is to be assumed that they represent the original Nibelungenlied story, which was preserved faithfully in the North, whereas the familiarity of its theme among the Southern Teutons caused it to be altered again and again for the sake of variety, until to some extent it lost its original outline. Moreover, such poems as the Norse Volsunga Saga and Thidreks Saga, not to speak of other and lesser epics, afford many details relating to the Nibelungenlied which it does not contain in its present form. It may be interesting to give a summary of the Volsunga Saga, which is a prose paraphrase of the Edda Songs.
The Volsunga Saga
The epic deals with the history of the treasure of the Nibelungs, and tells how a certain Hreithmar had it given him by the god Loki as a weregild for the slaying of the former's son, Otur or Otter, who occasionally took the shape of that animal. Loki in his turn obtained the ransom from the dwarf Andwari, who had stolen it from the river-gods of the Rhine. The dwarf, incensed at losing the treasure, pronounced a most dreadful curse upon it and its possessors, saying that it would be the death of those who should get hold of it. Thus Hreithmar, its first owner, was slain in his sleep by his son Fafnir, who carried the treasure away to the Gnita Heath, where, having taken the form of a dragon, he guarded it.
The treasure--and the curse--next passed into the keeping of Sigurd (the Norse form of Siegfried), a descendant of the race of the Volsungs, a house tracing its genealogy back to the god Woden. The full story of Sigurd's ancestry it is unnecessary to deal with here, as it has little influence on the connexion of the story of the Volsungs with the Nibelungenlied. Sigurd came under the tutelage of Regin, the son of Hreithmar and brother of Fafnir, received the magic steed Grani from the king, and then was requested by Regin to assist him in obtaining the treasure guarded by Fafnir. After forging a sword for himself out of the fragments of a blade left by his father Siegmund, he avenged his father's death and then set out to attack Fafnir. Meeting Woden, he was advised by the god to dig a ditch in the dragon's path. Encountering Fafnir, he slew him and the dragon's blood ran into the ditch, without which he would have been drowned by the flood of gore from the monster. As the dragon died he warned Sigurd against the treasure and its curse and against Regin, who, he said, was planning Sigurd's death.
When Regin saw that the dragon was quite dead, he crept from his hiding-place and quaffed its blood. Then, cutting out the heart, he begged Sigurd to roast it for him. In this operation Sigurd burnt his fingers and instinctively thrust them in his mouth, thus tasting of the dragon's blood, whereupon he was surprised to find that he comprehended the language of the birds. Hearkening intently to the strange, new sounds, he learned that if he himself should eat the heart, then he would be wiser than anyone in the world. The birds further betrayed Regin's evil intentions, and advised Sigurd to kill him. Seeing his danger, Sigurd went to where Regin was and cut off his head and ate Fafnir's heart. Following once again the advice of the birds, he brought the treasure from the cave and then journeyed to the mountain Hindarfjall, where he rescued the sleeping Valkyr, Brynhild or Brunhild, who had been pierced by the sleep-thorn of Woden and lay in slumber clad in full armour within a castle, surrounded by a hedge of flame. Mounting his horse Grani, Sigurd rode through the fiery obstacle to the gate of the castle. He entered it, and, finding the maiden asleep, cut the armour from her with his sword--for during her long slumber it had become very tight upon her. Brunhild hailed him with joy, for she had vowed never to marry a man who knew fear. She taught Sigurd much wisdom, and finally they pledged their troth. He then departed, after promising to remain faithful to her.
On his travels he arrived at the court of Giuki or Gibicho, a king whose domains were situated on the Lower Rhine. Three sons had he, Gunnar, Hogni, and Gutthorm, and a daughter Gudrun, a maiden of exquisite beauty. His queen bore the name of Grimhild, and was deeply versed in magical science, but was evil of nature.
They received Sigurd with much honour. Grimhild knew of his relations with Brunhild, and gave him a potion which produced forgetfulness of the war-maiden, so that he accepted the hand of Gudrun which Giuki offered him. The marriage was celebrated with great splendour, and Sigurd remained at Giuki's court, much acclaimed for his deeds of skill and valour.
Grimhild meanwhile urged upon her son Gunnar to sue for the hand of Brunhild. He resolved to accept her advice and set out to visit her, taking with him Sigurd and a few other friends. He first visited Brunhild's father Budli, and afterward her brother-in-law Heimir, from whom he heard that Brunhild was free to choose the man she desired, but that she would espouse no one who had not ridden through the hedge of flame. They proceeded to Brunhild's castle. Gunnar attempted to pierce the flames, but was unable to do so even when seated on Sigurd's horse, for Grani would not stir, knowing well that it was not his master who urged him on. At last they made use of a potion that had been given them by Grimhild, and Sigurd, in the shape of Gunnar, rode through the wall of fire. He explained to the war-maiden that he was the son of Giuki and had come to claim her hand. The destiny laid upon her by Woden compelled her to consent, but she did so with much reluctance. Sigurd then passed three nights at her side, placing his sword Gram between them as a bar of separation; but at parting he drew from her finger the ring with which he had originally plighted his troth to her, and replaced it with another taken from Fafnir's hoard. Shortly afterward the wedding of Gunnar and Brunhild was celebrated with lavish splendour, and they all returned to Giuki's court.
The Quarrel of Brunhild and Gudrun
Matters progressed happily for some time, until one day Brunhild and Gudrun went to bathe in the river. Brunhild refused to bathe farther down the stream than Gudrun--that is, in the water which flowed from Gudrun to her--asserting that her husband was the son of a king, while Sigurd had become a menial. Gudrun retorted to her sister-in-law that not Gunnar, but Sigurd had penetrated the hedge of fire and had taken from her the ring, which she then showed to Brunhild in proof of her words. A second and even more disturbing conversation followed, which served only to increase the hatred between the women, and Brunhild planned a dreadful vengeance. She feigned illness, retired to her bed, and when Gunnar inquired what ailed her, asked him if he recalled the circumstances of their wooing, and how Sigurd, and not he, rode through the flames to win her. So furious was she at the dreadful insult which had been placed upon her by Gudrun that she attempted to take Gunnar's life. She still loved Sigurd, and could never forgive Gunnar and his sister for robbing her of him. So terrible was her grief that she sank into a deep slumber in which she remained for seven days, no one daring to waken her. Finally Sigurd succeeded in doing so, and she lamented to him how cruelly she had been deceived; she declared that he and she had been destined for one another, and that now she had received for a husband a man who could not match with him. Sigurd begged her not to harbour a grudge against Gunnar, and told her of his mighty deeds--how that he had slain the king of the Danes, and also the brother of Budli, a great warrior--but Brunhild did not cease to lament, and planned Sigurd's death, threatening Gunnar with the loss of his dominions and his life if he would not kill Sigurd. Gunnar hesitated for a long time, but at length consented, and calling Hogni, ordered him to slay Sigurd that they might thus obtain the treasure of the Rhinegold. Hogni was aghast at this, and reminded him that they had pledged their oaths to Sigurd. Then Gunnar remembered that his brother Gutthorm had sworn no oath of loyalty to Sigurd, and so might perform the deed. They plied him with wolf and snake meat to eat, so that he might become savage by nature, and they tried to excite his greed with tales of the Rhinegold treasure. Twice did Gutthorm make the attempt as Sigurd lay in bed, but twice he was deterred from slaying him by the hero's penetrating glance. The third time, however, he found him asleep and pierced him with his sword. Sigurd awoke and hurled his own sword after Gutthorm, cutting him in two. He then died, stating that he knew Brunhild to be the instigator of the murder. Gudrun's grief was frantic, and at this Brunhild laughed aloud as if with joy; but later she became more grief-stricken than Sigurd's wife herself, and determined to be done with life. Donning her richest array, she pierced herself with a sword. As she expired she requested to be burned on Sigurd's funeral pyre, and also prophesied that Gudrun would marry Atli, and that the death of many heroes would be caused thereby.
Gudrun in her great sorrow fled to the court of King Half of Denmark, at which she tarried for seven years. Her mother Grimhild learned of her place of concealment and attempted to bring about a reconciliation between her and Gunnar. She was offered much treasure if she would marry Atli, King of the Huns, and finally she consented. Atli became covetous of Gunnar's wealth--for the latter had taken possession of the Rhinegold--and invited him to his court. But Gudrun sent a message of warning to her brother. The runes which composed this, however, were so manipulated by Vingi, one of the messengers, that they read as a harmless invitation instead of a warning, and this Gunnar and Hogni determined to accept. They reached Atli's court in due season, and as they arrived Vingi disclosed his true character, stating that he had lured them into a snare. Hogni slew him, and as they rode to Atli's dwelling the Hunnish king and his sons armed themselves for battle and demanded Sigurd's treasure, which they declared belonged by right to Gudrun. Gunnar refused to part with it, and a great combat began. Gudrun armed herself and fought on the side of her brothers. A fierce battle raged with great loss on both sides, until nearly all the Nibelungs were slain, and Gunnar and Hogni, forced to yield to the power of numbers, were captured and bound.
Gunnar was now asked if he would purchase his life with the treasure, and he replied eventually that he would do so if he were given Hogni's heart. To humour his request the Huns cut out the heart of a slave and brought it to him; but Gunnar saw through the stratagem and recognized the heart as that of a coward. They then cut out Hogni's heart, and Gunnar, seeing that this was indeed the heart of a prince, was glad, for now he alone knew where the treasure of the Rhinegold was hid, and he vowed that Atli should never know of its whereabouts. In great wrath the Hunnish monarch ordered Gunnar to be thrown into a pit of snakes. His hands were bound, yet the hero from the Rhine played so exquisitely with his toes on a harp which Gudrun had sent to him that he lulled to sleep all the reptiles--with the exception of an adder, which stung him to the heart so that he died.
Atli, spurning the bodies of the fallen, turned to Gudrun, saying that she alone was to blame for what had happened. That evening she killed her two sons, Erp and Eitil, and served their flesh at the banquet which the King was giving for his warriors. When Atli asked for the boys to be brought to him, he was told that he had drunk their blood in his wine and had eaten their hearts.
That night, while he slept, Gudrun took Hogni's son Hnifling, who desired to avenge his slaughtered father, and entering Atli's chamber, the young man thrust a sword through the breast of the Hunnish king. He awoke through the pain of his wound, and was informed by Gudrun that she was his murderess. He bitterly reproached her, only to be told that she cared for no one but Sigurd. Atli's last request was that his obsequies should be such as were fitting for a king, and to ensure that he had proper funeral rites Gudrun set fire to his castle and burnt his body together with those of his dead retainers.
The further adventures of Gudrun are related in certain songs in the Edda, but the Volsunga Saga proper ends with the death of Atli.
Comparisons between the Epics
We see from this account that the Volsunga Saga presents in many respects an older form of the Nibelungenlied story. Sigurd is the same as Siegfried; Gunnar, Hogni, and Gudrun are parallels with Gunther, Hagen, and Kriemhild--although, strangely enough, that name is also borne by Gudrun's mother in the Volsunga Saga. We will recall that the events detailed in the first part of the lay of the Volsungs are vaguely alluded to in the Nibelungenlied, which assures us that the connexion we have thus drawn is a correct one.
Myth or History?
We come now to the vexed question as to whether the Nibelungenlied is mythical or historical in origin. This question has been approached by certain scholars who, because of their lack of mythological knowledge, have rendered themselves ridiculous in attempting elucidations on a purely historical basis. An entirely mythological origin is not here pleaded for the Nibelungenlied, but it should surely be recognized, even by the historian who is without mythological training, that no story of any antiquity exists which does not contain a substantial substratum of mythical circumstance. So speedy is the crystallization of myth around the nucleus of historical fact, and so tenacious is its hold, that to disentangle it from the factors of reality is a task of the most extreme difficulty, requiring careful handling by scholars who possess a wide and accurate knowledge of mythological processes. Even to-day, when students of history have recovered from the first shock of the intrusion into their domain of the mythologist and the folklorist, so much remains to be effected in the disentanglement of what is believed to be absolute historical fact from the mythical growths which surround it that, were they conscious of the labour which yet remains in this respect, even the most advanced of our present-day historians would stand aghast at the task which awaits their successors.
In the Nibelungenlied we have a case in point. What the exact mythological elements contained in it represent it would indeed be difficult to say. Students of the Müllerian school have seen in Siegfried a sun-god, who awakens Brunhild, a nature goddess. This aspect is not without its likelihood, for in one passage Brunhild tells how Odin thrust into her side a thorn--evidently the sharp sting of icy winter--and how the spell rendered her unconscious until awakened by Siegfried. There are many other mythological factors in the story, and either a diurnal or seasonal myth may be indicated by it. But it would require a separate volume to set forth the arguments in favour of a partial mythological origin of the Nibelungenlied. One point is to be especially observed--a point which we have not so far seen noted in a controversy where it would have seemed that every special circumstance had been laboured to the full--and that is that, besides mythological matter entering into the original scheme of the Nibelungenlied, a very considerable mass of mythical matter has crystallized around it since it was cast into its first form. This will be obvious to any folklorist of experience who will take the trouble to compare the Scandinavian and German versions.
The Historical Theory
Abeling and Boer, the most recent protagonists of the historical theory, profess to see in the Nibelungenlied the misty and confused traditions of real events and people. Abeling admits that it contains mythical elements, but identifies Siegfried with Segeric, son of the Burgundian king Sigismund, Brunhild with the historical Brunichildis, and Hagan with a certain Hagnerius. The basis of the story, according to him, is thus a medley of Burgundian historical traditions round which certain mythological details have crystallized. The historical nucleus is the overthrow of the Burgundian kingdom of Gundahar by the Huns in A.D. 436. Other events, historical in themselves, were torn from their proper epochs and grouped around this nucleus. Thus the murder of Segeric, which happened eighty-nine years later, and the murder of Attila by his Burgundian wife Ildico, are torn from their proper historical surroundings and fitted into the story. Boer, on the other hand, will not have it that there is any mythology at all in the Nibelungenlied, and, according to him, the nucleus of the legend is an old story of the murder of relatives. This became grafted on the Siegfried legend according to some authorities, but Boer will not admit this, and presents a number of arguments to disprove the mythical character of the Siegfried story. The reasoning is ingenious, but by no means valuable. We know that the mythologies of the ancient Germans and the Scandinavians were in many respects, though not in all, one and the same system, and we find many of the characters of the Nibelungenlied among the divine beings alluded to in the Edda. It is unlikely that the dramatis personae of a German murder story would find its way into even the most decadent form of Scandinavian belief. There is every reason to conclude that a great many historical elements are to be discovered in the Nibelungenlied, but to discount entirely those which are mythical is absurd and even more futile than it would be to deny that many of the incidents related in the great epic reflect in some measure historical events.
The Klage, a sequel to the Nibelungenlied, recounts somewhat tamely the events which follow upon the dire catastrophe pictured in the great German epic. It is on the whole more modern than the Lied, and most critics ascribe it to a period so late as the fourteenth century. It is highly artificial and inartistic, and Grimm points out that it is obvious that in penning it the author did not have the Nibelungenlied, as we know it, before him. As it is practically unknown to English-speaking readers, a résumé of it may not be out of place here. It describes the search among the dead bodies in the house of slaughter, the burying of them, the journey of Etzel's "fiddler," Swemmelin, to the Rhine by way of Bechlarn and Passau to give the tidings of the massacre to Queen Brunhild, his return, and the final parting from Etzel of Dietrich and his wife Herrat, who also take Bechlarn on their way. Level and poor as the narrative is, it reaches pathos in the description of the arrival of the messengers at Bechlarn. To spare his niece (Gotelint) Dietrich tells them not to mention the terrible events which have happened, but to say that he and Rüdiger will soon come to see her, or at all events himself. They are received with great rejoicing--Gotelint and her daughter think "both to receive love without sorrow, as often before, from beloved glances." The young margravine has a foreboding of evil at seeing the messengers so few--only seven. Then her mother tells her of an evil dream which she has had, and she in turn has to tell of another which has come to herself. Meanwhile the messengers are at hand, and are observed to be sad. They give to Rüdiger's wife the false tidings of peace which they have been instructed to relate, and the younger lady wonders that her father should have sent no message to herself specially. The ladies continue to question the messengers about Kriemhild: how has she received her brother? what did she say to Hagen? what to Gunther? How is it, asks the younger one, that Giselher has sent her never a message? Each lying answer costs the speaker more and more sorrow, and at last his tears begin to flow. The young margravine exclaims that there must be ill news, that evil has befallen them, and that the guests and her father must be dead. As she speaks one of the messengers can contain himself no longer, and a cry breaks with blood from his mouth. All his companions burst into tears at the same time. The margravine conjures them by their troth to tell how they parted from her husband, saying that the lie must have an end. "Then spake the fiddler, Swemmelin the messenger: 'Lady, we wished to deny to you that which we yet must say, since no man could conceal it; after this hour, ye see Margrave Rüdiger no more alive.'" The margravine, we are afterward told, dies of grief at the news, as does old Queen Ute at her abbey of Lors. Brunhild survives, and is prevailed upon by her vassals to have her son crowned. Etzel, after parting with Dietrich, loses his mind; according to another version, his fate remains altogether uncertain. Dietelint, the young margravine, is taken under Dietrich's protection, who promises to find her a husband. Bishop Pilgrin has the story written out in Latin letters, "that men should deem it true." A writer, Master Konrad, then began to set it down in writing; since then it has been often set to verse in Teuton tongues; old and young know well the tale. "Of their joy and of their sorrow I now say to you no more; this lay is called Ein Klage."
Walthar of Aquitaine
One of the grandest and most heroic epics of the great age of romance is that of Walthar of Aquitaine. It is indissolubly connected with the Rhine and with the city of Worms because in the vicinity the hero whose feats of arms it celebrates fought his greatest battle. It was written in monkish Latin at any time between the eighth and ninth centuries, and is connected with later versions of the Nibelungenlied, which contains numerous allusions to it. Founded upon traditional materials collected and edited by some gifted occupant of the cloister, it opens in the grand manner by telling how the empire of the Huns had already lasted for more than a thousand years, when Attila invaded the territory of the Franks, ruled over by Gibicho. Gibicho, trembling for his throne, by the advice of his counsellors determined to pay tribute and give hostages to the terrible Hun; but as his son Gunther was too young to be sent as a hostage, he put in his place a noble youth named Hagen, and paying the invaders a great indemnity in treasure, thus secured the safety of his kingdom. The Huns then turned their attention to the Burgundians, whose king Herric had an only daughter, the beautiful Hildegund. Herric shut himself up in the town of Châlons, and calling together his ministers imparted to them his deliberations.
"Since the Franks, who are so much stronger than we, have yielded," he said, "how can we of Burgundy hope to triumph against such a host? I will give my daughter Hildegund as a hostage to the Huns. Better that one should suffer than that the realm should be laid waste." The Huns accepted Hildegund as a hostage, and with much treasure turned their faces westward to the kingdom of Aquitaine, whose king, Alphere, had an only son, Walthar, who was already affianced to Hildegund. He, too, had to give up his son as hostage and pay tribute.
Although ruthless as an invader and cruel as a conqueror, Attila displayed the utmost kindness to the children. He treated them in every way as befitted their rank, and handing the girl over to the queen, had the boys trained in martial exercises and intellectual arts, till in a few years' time they easily surpassed all of the Huns in every accomplishment that becomes a knight. So greatly did Attila's queen trust the maiden, Hildegund, that she placed in her charge all the treasures Attila had won in war. Life was pleasant for the youthful hostages, but one day news came to the ear of Attila that Gibicho was dead and that Gunther was his successor. Learning this, Hagen succeeded in making his escape by night, and fearing that Walthar would follow his example, Attila's queen suggested to her husband that he should marry the youthful warrior, who had greatly distinguished himself at the head of the Huns, to a Hunnish maiden. But Walthar had no mind for such a match and declared himself unworthy of marriage, urging that if wedded he might neglect his military duties, and declaring that nothing was so sweet to him as for ever to be busy in the faithful service of his lord. Attila, never doubting him, and lulled from all suspicion by further victories won by him over a rebellious people, dismissed the matter from his mind; but on returning from his successful campaign Walthar had speech with Hildegund on the subject of their betrothal, hitherto untouched between them.
At first she thought that he merely mocked her, but he protested that he was weary of exile, was anxious to escape, and would have fled ere this but that it grieved him to leave her alone at the Hunnish court. Her reply is one characteristic of women in medieval days.
"Let my lord command," she said; "I am ready for his love to bear evil hap or good."
She then provided him, out of the treasure-chests of Attila, with helm, hauberk, and breast-plate. They filled two chests with Hunnish money in the shape of golden rings, placed four pairs of sandals on the top and several fish-hooks, and Walthar told Hildegund that all must be ready in a week's time.
On the seventh day after this Walthar gave a great feast to Attila, his nobles, and his household. He pressed food and wine on the Huns, and when their platters were clear and the tables removed, he handed to the king a splendid carven goblet, full to the brim of the richest and oldest wine. This Attila emptied at a draught, and ordered all his men to follow his example. Soon the wine overcame the Huns, who, pressed by Walthar, caroused so deeply that all were at last rendered unconscious.
Walthar gave the sign to Hildegund, and they slipped from the hall and from the stable took his noble war-horse Lion, so named for his courage. They hung the treasure-chests like panniers on each flank of the charger, and taking with them some food for the journey, set off. Hildegund took the reins, Walthar in full armour sitting behind her. All night they did not draw rein, and during the day they hid in the gloomy woods. At every breath, at the snapping of a twig, or the chirping of a bird, Hildegund trembled. They avoided the habitations of men and skirted the mountains, where but few faces were to be seen, and so they made good their flight.
But the Huns, roused from their drunken sleep, gazed around stupidly and cried loudly for Walthar, their boon companion as they thought, but nowhere was he to be found. The queen, too, missed Hildegund and, realizing that the pair had escaped, made loud wail through the palace. Angry and bewildered, Attila could touch neither food nor drink. Enraged at the manner in which he had been deceived, he offered great gifts to him who would bring back Walthar in chains; but none of the Hunnish champions considered themselves fit for such a task, and at length the hue and cry ceased, and Walthar and Hildegund were left to make their way back to Aquitaine as best they could.
Full of the thought that they were being pursued, Walthar and the maiden fled onward. He killed the birds of the wood and caught fish to supply them with food. His attitude to Hildegund was one of the deepest chivalry, and he was ever mindful for her comfort. Fourteen days had passed when at last, issuing from the darkness of the forest, they beheld the silver Rhine gleaming in the sunlight and spied the towers of Worms. At length he found a ferry, but, fearing to make gossip in the vicinity, he paid the ferryman with fishes, which he had previously caught. The ferryman, as it chanced, sold the fish to the king's cook, who dressed them and placed them before his royal master. The monarch declared that there were no such fishes in France, and asked who had brought them to Worms. The ferryman was summoned, and related how he had ferried over an armed warrior, a fair maiden, and a great war-horse with two chests. Hagen, who sat at the king's table, exclaimed full joyfully:
"Now will I avow that this is none other than my comrade Walthar returning from the Hunnish land."
"Say ye so?" retorted King Gunther. "It is clear that by him the Almighty sends me back the treasure of my father Gibicho."
So ordered he a horse to be brought, and taking with him twelve of his bravest chiefs besides Hagen, who sought in vain to dissuade him, he went in search of Walthar.
Journeying from the banks of the Rhine, Walthar and the maiden had by this time reached the forest of the Vosges. They halted at a spot where between two hills standing close together is situated a pleasant and shady cave, not hollowed out in the earth, but formed by the beetling of the rocks, a fit haunt for bandits, carpeted with green moss. But little sleep had Walthar known since his escape from the Hunland, so, spying this cool retreat, he crept inside it to rest. Putting off his heavy armour, he placed his head on Hildegund's lap, bidding her keep watch and wake him by a touch if she saw aught of danger. But the covetous Gunther had seen his tracks in the dust, and ever urging on his companions soon came near the cave where Walthar reposed. Hagen warned him of Walthar's powers as a champion, and told him that he was too great a warrior to permit himself to be despoiled easily.
Hildegund, noticing their approach, gently aroused Walthar, who put on his armour. At first she thought the approaching band were Huns pursuing them, and implored him to slay her; but Walthar smilingly bade her be of good cheer, as he had recognized Hagen's helm. He was evidently aware, however, of the purpose for which he had been followed, and going to the mouth of the cave, he addressed the assembled warriors, telling them that no Frank should ever return to say that he had taken aught of his treasure unpunished.
Hagen advised a parley in case Walthar should be ready to give up the treasure without bloodshed, and Camillo, the prefect of Metz, was sent to him for this purpose. Camillo told him that if he would give up his charger, the two chests, and the maiden, Gunther would grant him life; but Walthar laughed in his face.
"Go tell King Gunther," he said, "that if he will not oppose my passage I will present him with one hundred armlets of red metal."
Hagen strongly advised the king to accept the offer, for on the night before he had had an evil dream of a bear which tore off one of the king's legs in conflict, and put out one of his own eyes when he came to Gunther's aid. Gunther replied with a sneer, and Hagen, greatly humiliated, declared that he would share neither the fight nor the spoil.
"There is your foe," he said. "I will stay here and see how you fare at his hands."
Now only one warrior could attack Walthar at a time. It is needless to go into details of his several conflicts, which are varied with very considerable skill and fancy, but all of which end in his triumph. The sixth champion he had to meet was Patavrid, sister's son to Hagen, who vainly endeavoured to restrain him, but who also was worsted, and after the fall of the next warrior the Franks themselves urged Gunther to end the combat; but he, furious at his want of success, only drove them to it the more vehemently.
At last four of them made a combined attack on Walthar, but because of the narrowness of the path they could not come at him with any better success than could one single warrior, and they too were put out of the fight.
Then Gunther was left alone and, fleeing to Hagen, besought him to come to his aid. Long did Hagen resist his entreaties, but at last he was moved by Gunther's description of the manner in which his kinsfolk had been slain by Walthar. Hagen's advice was to lure Walthar into the open, when both should attack him, so Hagen and the king departed and selected a spot for an ambush, letting their horses go loose.
Uncertain of what had passed between Hagen and the king, Walthar decided upon remaining in the cave till the morning, so after placing bushes around the mouth of the cave to guard against a surprise, he gave thanks to heaven for his victory.
Rising from his knees, he bound together the six horses which remained, then, loosing his armour, comforted Hildegund as best he might and refreshed himself with food, after which he lay down upon his shield and requested the maiden to watch during his sleep. Although she was tired herself, Hildegund kept awake by singing in a low tone. After his first sleep Walthar rose refreshed, and bidding Hildegund rest herself, he stood leaning upon his spear, keeping guard at the cave-mouth. When morning had come he loaded four of the horses with spoils taken from the dead warriors, and placing Hildegund on the fifth, mounted the sixth himself. Then with great caution he sent forward first of all the four laden horses, then the maiden, and closed the rear with the horse bearing the two treasure-chests.
For about a mile they proceeded thus, when, looking backward, Hildegund espied two men riding down the hill toward them and called to Walthar to flee. But that he would not do, saying: "If honour falls, shame shall attend my last hour." He bade her take the reins of Lion, his good charger, which carried the gold, and seek refuge in the neighbouring wood, while he ascended the hill to await his enemies.
Gunther advanced, hurling insulting epithets at the champion, who ignored him, but turned to Hagen, appealing to their old friendship and to the recollections of the many hours of childhood they had spent together. He had thought that Hagen would have been the first to welcome him, would have compelled him to accept his hospitality, and would have escorted him peacefully to his father's kingdom. If he would break his fealty to Gunther, said Walthar, he should depart rich, his shield full of red gold. Irritated at such an offer, Hagen replied that he would not be deluded, and that for Walthar's slaying of his kinsmen he must have vengeance. So saying, he hurled his spear at Walthar, which the latter avoided. Gunther then cast a shaft which was equally harmless. Then, drawing their swords and covering themselves with their shields, the Franks sought to close with the Aquitainian, who kept them at bay with his spear. As their shorter swords could not reach past Walthar's mighty shaft, Gunther attempted to recover the spear which he had cast and which lay before the hero's feet, and told Hagen to go in front; but as he was about to pick it up from the ground Walthar perceived his device and, placing his foot upon it, flung Gunther on his knees, and would have slain him had not Hagen, rushing to his aid, managed to cover him with his shield.
The struggle continued. The hot sunshine came down, and the champions were bathed in sweat. Walthar, tired of the strife, took the offensive, and springing at Hagen, with a great stroke of his spear carried away a part of his armour. Then with a marvellous blow of his sword he smote off the king's leg as far as the thigh. He would have dispatched him with a second blow, but Hagen threw himself over Gunther's body and received the sword-stroke on his own head. So well tempered was his helm that the blade flew in flinders, shivered to the handle.
Instantly Walthar looked about him for another weapon, but quick as thought Hagen seized the opportunity and cut off his right hand, "fearful to peoples and princes." But, undismayed, the hero inserted the wounded stump into the shield, and drawing with his left hand a Hunnish half-sword girt to his right side, he struck at Hagen so fiercely that he bereft him of his right eye, cutting deep into the temple and lips and striking out six of his teeth. But neither might fight more: Gunther's leg, Walthar's hand, and Hagen's eye lay on the ground. They sat down on the heath and stanched with flowers the flowing stream of their blood. They called to them Hildegund, who bound up their wounds and brought them wine.
Wounded as they were, they cracked many a joke over their cups, as heroes should.
"Friend," said Hagen, "when thou huntest the stag, of whose leather mayest thou have gloves without end, I warn thee to fill thy right-hand glove with soft wool, that thou mayest deceive the game with the semblance of a hand. But what sayest thou to break the custom of thy people in carrying thy sword at thy right side and embracing thy wife with thy left arm?"
"Ha," retorted Walthar, laughing grimly, "thou wilt have to greet the troops of heroes with a side glance. When thou gettest thee home, make thee a larded broth of milk and flour, which will both nourish and cure thee."
Then they placed on horseback the king, who was in sore pain. Hagen bore him back to Worms, whilst Walthar and Hildegund pursued their way to Aquitaine, and, on arrival, magnificently celebrated their wedding.
For thirty years did Walthar rule his people after his father's death. "What wars after this, what triumphs he ever had, behold, my blunted pen refuses to mark. Thou whosoever readest this, forgive a chirping cricket. Weigh not a yet rough voice but the age, since as yet she hath not left the nest for the air. This is the poem of Walthar. Save us, Jesus Christ."
'Gunther's leg, Walthar's hand, and Hagen's eye lay on the ground'....