The Burgundians prepare to set out for Hungary in great splendor. Before they can leave, Queen Uote implores her sons not to go; she has just dreamed that all the birds of the land were dead. Hagen retorts, “Those who set store by dreams cannot rightly know where their whole honor lies.”
Like Kriemhild has done several times, Uote foresees what’s to happen in a dramatic dream. Hagen’s response is ambiguous; does he deny the dream’s prophecy, or merely assert that the prophecy should determine their actions now? His response to Giselher earlier suggests that he values honor even above supernatural warnings of “fate.”
As the party is about to set forth, Gunther’s vassal Rumold expresses reservations about the King’s departure. Gunther entrusts his lands and son to Rumold in his absence, though he is convinced that he will return unharmed. Finally, the knights depart cheerfully, though they leave many at home whom they will never see again, “for Siegfried’s wounds were still tormenting Kriemhild.”
As the kings and their vassals leave Burgundy for the last time, Brunhild’s silence is striking; her role doesn’t factor into the action any longer. Rather, the vengeful killing of Siegfried, and its unabated effects on Kriemhild, are cited as the causes of the knights’ doom, with neither one being elevated above the other.
12 days later, the party (whom the poet begins to refer to as the Nibelungs) reaches the Danube and are dismayed to find its banks flooded. Gunther sends Hagen to find a way to ford the river. He can’t find a ferryman, but he soon hears splashing and comes upon some water-fairies, or nixies, who are endowed with second sight.
The use of the title “Nibelungs” for the Burgundians may be a relic of the poet’s own confusion—the Nibelungs were the vassals of Siegfried and would thus be the enemies of the Burgundians. The Nibelung treasure is now in Burgundian possession, but this is not a fully satisfying explanation, either. Whatever the poet’s reasoning, the usage persists to the end of the story. In the meantime, supernatural creatures suddenly appear—a feature in keeping with the genre of medieval courtly romance.
Hagen tries to sneak up on the water-fairies, but they flee, so he takes their clothing. One of the nixies promises that if he returns their clothes, they will tell him how the visit to Hungary will turn out. Hagen decides he believes them. The fairy pledges her word of honor that they can ride confidently into Etzel’s land without fear of harm. Pleased, Hagen returns their clothes, but another fairy says that her cousin has lied for the sake of getting her clothes back. The knights will surely die in Hungary, she warns him, and should turn back while there is still time.
Nixies are a mermaid creature familiar in Germanic folklore. In other tales, they sometimes try to lure the unsuspecting into the water, but here their role is to assure Hagen that his fate is sealed. There is a comic element in this scene that offsets the fairies’ dire message; it’s humorous to imagine the fierce Hagen hiding the creatures’ clothing, yet being tricked nonetheless. The fairies suggest that despite their prediction, it’s possible to thwart fate.
Hagen questions the water-fairies further, and one of them predicts that only Gunther’s chaplain will return to Burgundy alive. They also give him information about a ferryman who will help them cross the river, explaining that Hagen must bribe and deceive him in order to gain his services. Following their instructions, Hagen pretends to be a vassal of the local margrave and offers the ferryman gold.
The fairies offer further confirmation of the outcome of the quest, as well as specific details on how to make it across the Danube alive. Despite his earlier disdain for supernatural signs, Hagen apparently sees no alternative and doesn’t hesitate to follow the fairies’ advice.
The ferryman, enraged once he figures out he has been deceived, refuses to take strangers across the river. He and Hagen fight, and the ferryman is beheaded. At that moment the ferry floats downstream, and when Hagen steers back to the rest of the party, he denies that he has seen any ferryman. He ferries the warriors and their goods across the river.
The deception and violence of this encounter offer a preview of the ways that reciprocal relationships will come undone and devolve into even greater violence at the journey’s end. It suggests the gradual collapse of civilized relationships into barbaric caricature.
At this moment, Hagen remembers the water-fairies’ prediction. When he sees the chaplain, he flings the priest overboard, to the horror of the onlookers. When the priest tries to keep himself afloat, Hagen again tries to drown him. The unfortunate chaplain finally swims to the far shore and must walk back to Burgundy. Hagen realizes he can’t escape the fate the nixies have predicted, so he smashes the ferry, to the amazement of all.
Again, there is a humorous note to this shocking scene, as the hapless priest helplessly treads water and finally has to trudge homeward in his wet vestments. Hagen’s attempt to test the fairies’ prediction, followed by his matter-of-fact, point-of-no-return smashing of the ferry show that he’s still wrestling with the role of fate in this endeavor, but finally decides that they must face whatever comes. Perhaps the swift dismissal of the priest, despite its comical function, also signals the departure of Christian piety—hence of “civilization”—from the story.