One evening, while the two queens sit watching the warriors at their sports, Kriemhild remarks that her husband, Siegfried, is of such merit that he could rule over all the kingdoms of the region. “How could that be?” Brunhild retorts. She argues that as long as Gunther is alive, this could never come about.
Despite the fact that it’s Brunhild who has been brooding over Siegfried, it’s Kriemhild who first brings the subject into the open—in a provocative, pointed way that can’t help seeming calculated.
Kriemhild persists in saying that splendid Siegfried is fully Gunther’s equal. Brunhild replies that, when the knights came to Iceland, she heard them both say that Siegfried was Gunther’s vassal, so she considers him to be her liegeman. Kriemhild is offended, since her brothers would not have married her off to a liegeman. She asks Brunhild, in friendship, to stop saying such things.
The two queens argue over the very deception that Gunther’s men had put in motion ten years ago in Brunhild’s court. The “insult” of Siegfried’s status cuts both ways.
Brunhild retorts, “[W]hy should I renounce my claim to so many knights who owe us service through Siegfried?” At this, Kriemhild loses her temper and tells Brunhild that Siegfried in fact ranks above Gunther, so Brunhild can expect no services or dues from him as her liegeman.
In a culture structured around lord-vassal relationships, the implication that Siegfried owed service to Gunther as lord (including the charge that Siegfried had been remiss in discharging that service) would have been very offensive to Kriemhild.
Both ladies are very angry. Kriemhild declares that, since Brunhild thinks Siegfried to be her liegeman, the King’s vassals must witness whether Kriemhild dares enter the church before Brunhild, giving visible proof that she is a free noblewoman. She claims to be “of higher station than was ever heard of concerning any Queen that wore a crown.” Fierce hate grows between the two.
As anger flares between the two queens, Kriemhild throws down a challenge before her rival. The matter of precedence in entering church, raised publicly before Gunther’s knights, gives it the feel of one proud knight challenging another to a duel.
Kriemhild instructs her maidens to dress well so that they won’t be put to shame in front of Brunhild. Soon, she and a train of 43 ladies-in-waiting make their way to the cathedral, dressed in cloth-of-gold from Arabia. Everyone wonders why the two queens arrive at church separately, contrary to their custom. They also marvel at the splendor of the ladies’ appearance, since “thirty queens could not have found the wherewithal” to dress so richly.
Here, again, opulence of dress symbolizes status. The apparently daring luxury displayed by Kriemhild’s entourage draws attention to the fact that they are breaking established custom—an intentional move. Kriemhild is deliberately making a spectacle of herself to further provoke Brunhild.
At the church entrance, Brunhild harshly orders Kriemhild to stop, since a liegewoman may not enter before a queen. Kriemhild retorts that Brunhild should have held her tongue, since she has brought dishonor on her own head. “How,” she asks, “could a vassal’s paramour ever wed a King?”
By ensuring that their standoff is public, Kriemhild makes sure that Brunhild’s “dishonorable” claim about her status is public, too—as is the charge she makes in response, that Brunhild is Siegfried’s paramour, or lover. While Brunhild has been characterized as the more formidable figure in the past, Kriemhild has clearly seized control of this situation.
Brunhild asks whom Kriemhild is calling a paramour. Kriemhild claims that it wasn’t Gunther who took Brunhild’s maidenhead, but Siegfried. If Siegfried was indeed Brunhild’s vassal, Kriemhild jeers, then why did she let him make love to her?
Neither Brunhild nor Kriemhild knows about Siegfried’s invisible wrestling with Brunhild ten years ago (at least as far as the poem has revealed). But Kriemhild clearly suspects something about the night Siegfried abruptly disappeared, and she’s using it to turn Brunhild’s mockery around on her.
Brunhild swears to tell Gunther of Kriemhild’s charge and begins to weep. Kriemhild proceeds into the church before her. “Thus,” the poet says, “great hatred arose and bright eyes grew very moist and dim from it.” During the church service, Brunhild broods on Kriemhild’s accusation. If indeed Siegfried has boasted of having slept with her, she decides, it will cost him his life.
Brunhild is humiliated, both by Kriemhild’s jeer and her pointed entrance into the church. It’s the turning point in their relationship—Kriemhild has gained the upper hand, and in her flagrant insults could now be considered the “barbarous” one in contrast to the earlier Brunhild. Meanwhile, Brunhild wants Siegfried to pay for having shamed her in this way.
Outside the church, Brunhild demands proof of Kriemhild’s charge. Kriemhild proves it by displaying the gold ring on her finger, which, she claims, was brought to her by Siegfried after he first slept with Brunhild. She also wears a silk, jewel-encrusted belt which Brunhild had worn that same night. Brunhild is agitated at the sight of the stolen ring and girdle, and, weeping, she summons Gunther.
Though it hadn’t been revealed earlier, the destiny of Brunhild’s stolen accessories is now revealed. It’s easy to believe that Kriemhild slipped on these items, along with her showy outfit, in order to throw them in Brunhild’s face. To Kriemhild, they are sufficient evidence that Siegfried did, in fact, sleep with Brunhild that night. She doesn’t seem particularly disturbed by the possibility of her husband’s adultery; rather, it’s one more weapon she can use against Brunhild.
Gunther asks Brunhild what is the matter. Brunhild explains that Kriemhild has tried to rob her of her honor. She formally accuses Kriemhild of saying that Siegfried made her his concubine. Gunther is cautious and noncommittal in his response. He summons Siegfried.
Brunhild makes a formal, public accusation of Kriemhild for putting her honor in question, but Gunther seems wary.
Gunther tells Siegfried of Kriemhild’s accusation. Siegfried denies it, and Gunther lets him offer an oath in the presence of the knights. Gunther acquits him of Kriemhild’s allegation on the basis of his trust in Siegfried. Siegfried says that women “should be trained to avoid irresponsible chatter,” and that he is ashamed of his wife’s behavior.
Recall Siegfried’s promise, after Gunther’s wedding night, that he won’t sleep with Brunhild when he steps in to subdue her strength. The story gives no indication that he actually did sleep with her; in any case, Gunther is reluctant to press the matter, lest the full story of that night come into the open. It’s far easier to fault the women’s chatter.
The women depart the scene in silence. Later, Hagen comes upon Brunhild, sees that she is crying, and asks her what is the matter. As soon as he hears the story, he vows that Siegfried must pay. Ortwin, Gernot, and Hagen begin plotting Siegfried’s death. When Giselher comes upon this discussion, he defends Siegfried and asks why they are going to such drastic lengths over a women’s quarrel. Hagen insists that Brunhild’s honor is at stake.
When Hagen hears Brunhild’s account of the situation, he doesn’t waste any time, but seizes on the opportunity to eliminate Siegfried. His haste gives the reader the feeling that he has only been biding his time. Giselher seems to have the same impression, wondering if Brunhild’s complaint really rises to the level of exacting revenge through blood.
Gunther also argues in favor of Siegfried’s loyalty. But the rest of the knights, “though he had done them no wrong,” declare themselves Siegfried’s enemies. Hagen points out to Gunther that, if Siegfried were taken out of the picture, then Gunther would be the lord of many kingdoms. Gunther is despondent.
Gunther tries to stand up for Siegfried. It becomes clear that, for Hagen at least, an ulterior motive is present beyond simple revenge—a desire to seize Siegfried’s power and wealth.
As they watch the sports, many of the vassals continue to nurse resentment. Gunther reminds them of Siegfried’s commitment to the honor of Burgundy, and anyway, Siegfried is so strong and brave that it would be foolish to oppose him. Hagen replies that he will always be Siegfried’s enemy, and that he will carry out a plot against him in secret by having a fake “war” declared on Burgundy. Hagen will learn from Kriemhild where Siegfried is vulnerable, and, in the course of the fictitious campaign, Siegfried will lose his life.
Gunther continues to oppose the plan, seeing it as dishonorable (not to mention foolish) to oppose someone who’s been so valiant in Burgundy’s defense. But Hagen already has an elaborate plot in mind, which he believes will guard the plotters from suspicion and will also indirectly implicate Kriemhild herself.
Gunther follows Hagen’s instructions, “to evil effect,” and the betrayal is underway. “Thanks to the wrangling of two women,” the poet concludes, “countless warriors met their doom.”
Gunther is ultimately swayed by Hagen, despite his feeble attempts to mount an opposition. The poet glosses over various factors in his conclusion: he doesn’t necessarily absolve the plotters of their complicity, but chooses to emphasize the feuding queens’ role in what will unfold.