When Rüdiger comes to court and sees the tremendous carnage inflicted on both sides, he weeps from the bottom of his heart. A Hunnish warrior tells Kriemhild, “They say he is fabulously brave, but amid all these perils there has been shockingly little sign of it!” In response to this insult, Rüdiger punches the man so hard he falls dead instantly.
As Kriemhild’s vassal and former host of the Burgundians, Rüdiger feels helplessly torn. When a Hun mistakes his grief for cowardice, even such a reasonable man can’t let the insult stand.
Rüdiger laments that he would naturally oppose the foreigners, except that he has acted as their escort into Etzel’s country, so he is honor-bound to them and cannot fight them. Kriemhild argues that he swore to risk his life for her. Rüdiger replies that this is true, but that he never swore to lose his soul.
For Rüdiger, losing his soul would mean betraying his own sense of honor—a dilemma that the poet’s original audience would instinctively understand. His attitude stands in striking contrast to Kriemhild’s unchecked aggression.
Etzel joins his wife, Kriemhild, in entreating Rüdiger on their knees. Rüdiger declares himself a “godforsaken man,” crying, “I must sacrifice all the esteem, the integrity, and breeding that by the grace of God were mine!” Either course requires that he act “basely” toward someone. Rüdiger offers to return all his lands to Etzel and go into exile. Etzel offers to let Rüdiger rule alongside him if he avenges him. Rüdiger repeats that he can’t go against the many hospitable acts he has extended to the Burgundians.
This scene is emotionally charged, as the characters make almost unheard-of appeals to one another. It’s shocking that a vassal would offer to return his lands or that a king would elevate even a trusted vassal to rule at his side. That’s how desperate both Rüdiger and Etzel are in this situation; they’re both frantically groping for a way out of the terrible impasse.
Finally, Rüdiger agrees to discharge his oath to Kriemhild and attack his friends against his will. He and his men arm themselves. To the shock of the Burgundians, Rüdiger approaches and shouts, “You ought to profit from me, but instead I shall make you pay dearly. Till now we have been friends, but I wish to be quit of our ties!”
Once Rüdiger makes his decision to act, he does not hesitate. He even refers to the tragic reversal of the bonds of hospitality—instead of friendship, the Burgundians will now find its opposite.
Gunther and his men try to appeal to Rüdiger, mentioning his wonderful gifts and hospitality in the past. Gernot laments having to fight Rüdiger with the very sword he had gifted him. Giselher bewails the fact that Rüdiger will be widowing his daughter before she is even a wife. Then Hagen appeals to him, for the shield Gotelind had gifted him has been hacked to pieces. Rüdiger gladly gives Hagen his own shield in its place—the last gift he offers any knight. Even Hagen is deeply moved by this gesture, vowing that he must repay him by never touching him in battle. Volker joins him in this promise.
Showing the strength of their tie with Rüdiger, the Burgundians protest, appealing to the very gifts and bonds they have secured through him in the past. Though he isn’t dissuaded, Rüdiger’s gift of his shield is a very touching gesture—a fitting end for a famously generous man, and a marker of how even Hagen wishes to honor the Margrave.
Rüdiger proceeds to fight boldly, until at last Gernot, seeing many of his vassals cut down by the Margrave, begins to pursue him with deadly intent. Rüdiger mortally wounds Gernot, but before he dies, Gernot strikes him down with the sword Rüdiger had given him in Pöchlarn. They slay one another within moments. The Burgundians are weary and grief-stricken by this turn of events. When they see Rüdiger’s body carried out, Etzel and Kriemhild, too, lament loudly.
The fact that Rüdiger is slain with his own gift-sword is yet another sign of the sad reversal in the bonds of hospitality, as is the mourning that breaks out on both sides of the conflict—Rüdiger had truly been a mediating figure among the characters, but now, nothing is left to stand between the two sides and their mutual destruction.