Courtly love, painful death, honor challenged and restored. Today’s post is a close up view on the great Germanic Epic. The Song of the Nibelung’s. Written sometime in the 13th century but surely from an older accounting, this tale leaps off the page and takes you there. You cannot help but to be overcome by the words, the poetry of it all. Here is a public domain photo of the manuscript believed to be from the year 1230 A.D.
Make no mistake, this High Germanic poem has certainly been rewritten by Christian monks. The pagan elements were not entirely removed, but are held in reserve. The origin of the tale is most likely 5th-7th century. Do not let that distract you from reading this though. It’s an important work if you are trying to understand how monks held the knowledge of Europe and brought it forward to us. I still am not convinced that they did this out of malice. I’ve yet to come across a secret Vatican document that reads, “You must erase all hints of pagan tradition and quickly, for the celebration of Christmas is upon us soon.” Unless of course, my secret papal node-link has been damaged, and I’m not receiving my orders from the Vatican properly.
If you are looking for doughty knights, fair maidens, courtly love, brutal warfare, and an interesting way of peering into the past, you should already be reading this book, and skipping this blog. If for some reason you’re still here I thank you and will try to present the best case for why you should put this in your reading rotation.
The translation from Margaret Amour written in 1897 (Women were never allowed to do anything ever until modernity!!!!!!!!11111one) opens with a lovely poem she herself wrote. It encapsulates the tale-at-large quite well.
The heroes shook the world
With trample of their steeds,
With din of lances hurled.
And song of deathless deeds.
Their hands, I trow, were fashioned
Mighty and strong to move;
Their hearts were high, and passioned
With God-like hate and love.
And so they won their glory,
And, dying, perished not;
So ‘mid the newer story.
The old is unforgot.
Still in the silent places.
They mingle tears and mirth.
And still the vanished faces
Are young upon the earth.
Still winds the fabled river
Far by the storied strand.
And poets, crowned forever,
Sing through a summer land.
Around the rose of laughter
Is planted still the rue,
And joy brings weeping after.
And love till death is true.
If you don’t have a raised pulse right now, you may have been tampered with. That poem removes itself from language, and rescues my mind from reality, if only for a moment. I digress, the river referred to, is of course, The Rhine. As far as Germanic folklore is concerned, you could just say ‘The RIVER’, and it’s about The Rhine for sure. So much happened in this area which has been a hub of civilization for so long we will never have it’s full accounting.
The tale is set in motion called the, ‘First Adventure’. Where it describes the maiden Kriemhild. She was considered the most beautiful woman in the world. Dear to all, yet wed to none. It gives us a description of the splendor of her household, the strength and honor of her brothers and father. Theirs is a small kingdom set at Worms, by the Rhine
She lived in sadness as no man could claim her. (THEY WAS ABUSED UNTIL 2017 FOR SERIOUS!!!!111) Though many knights tried, they failed to woo her. Not because they lacked anything. All were worthy, for lesser maidens. Not this one. She was without peer, and demanded an equal. This sets an interesting tone, as I’m sarcastically referring to in bold. Here we have a prized woman of intelligence, mirth, and great beauty, yet she was not ‘given’ to anyone by her father. She is a heroic character that is typically identified in archetypal form as the virtuous woman.
Hither came Siegfried, who before coming to Worms by The Rhine attacked and defeated the Nibelungs, a race of powerful dwarfs who lived in the Netherlands and had knelt to him and his prowess. Such was his renown that goodly men from all over the realm traveled to see him knighted, an event called Hightide, that lasted for seven days.
He was deemed the best of the Netherlands; strong and fierce, handsome and honorable, chaste and humble. Without blemish (That’s a monk getting some extra ale that night from the abbot.) He could not be defeated in tournament nor in any other area. Yet he too longed for a maiden that was of great worth. For he, like Kriemhild, was obviously not mortal, if you are reading between the lines here. These were mythic heroes.
So hearing of Kriemhild, he came to the riverlands and the first thing he does, is talk shit to her dad. In modern terms he rode up with 12 men and said, “I’m the baddest motherfucker you’ve ever seen. Try and tell me I’m not.” The father was not pleased, but accorded the knight great courtesy to stay in his hall for tourney, which of course Siegfried won day after day. Yet the king never participated and Siegfried had only heard of Kriemhild, not seen her.
She had not met him, but watched with great interest from her tower. This may be a man worthy of her she considers. It is revealed that a group of Saxons have landed and are preparing to march in force on Worms by The Rhine. Siegfried gets tired of not seeing the king and asks him what it is that troubles him.
The king lets him know, that the mighty Saxons have come, and the matter weighs heavily on his heart. To which Siegfried replies, “Be not sorrowful for that, be of good cheer and do now as I say. I will win for thee honor and profit before ever thy foemen reach this land. Had these stark adversaries thirty thousand warriors at their back and I had but one thousand, I would withstand them – trust me for that.”
And this friends is a harsh reminder of what we as a people did to each other for thousands of years. The war is brutal, and if you think Game of Thrones is tough, you have no idea. That’s what makes the epic poem so damn interesting. Here we have this wonderful language, love and honor. Followed by the sheer brutality that the men of Europe visited upon each other.
That summary is only the first four ‘Adventures’. There are THIRTY NINE. Filled with beautiful moments like, “the fairest thing on earth he declared was to simply behold her eyes.”
also “Who hath done this?” “Sir Bloedel and his men. He paid for it bitterly, I can tell thee. I smote off his head with my hands.” “Then he paid too little.“
There is a tremendous difference between this version of the tale and the earlier works. For example, the Saxons send envoys to warn the king, “Hey we are attacking, get ready.” “Oh, thank you I shall.” This was written in the height of the courtly era. Again, don’t let this steer you away from it. It’s an excellent time capsule. Once you’ve finished it, find the source material for an even better time!
This tale amongst others were ones that Tolkien would have grown up reading. His appendix N as it were. You can already see themes of noble love, hidden treasure and deeds done well forming here. Things that would echo strongly in Tolkien’s works.
Now go get the book and get on it.