News reaches Burgundy of beautiful maidens in foreign lands, and Gunther decides he wants to win one of these women for himself. In particular, he pines for Brunhild, a queen of Iceland who boasts incredible strength. In order to win Brunhild, men must compete with her in several athletic contests. If a man loses even one of these contests, he forfeits his head.
Brunhild is immediately presented as foreign, strange, and exotic. At the time of the poem’s setting, in fact, Iceland had not yet been settled, and at the time the poet wrote, it had been officially Christianized for only two centuries. Thus, Brunhild is something of a shadowy, larger-than-life figure from a mysterious land beyond the sea.
Siegfried, seemingly familiar with Brunhild’s intimidating ways, advises against Gunther’s plan, but Hagen suggests that Gunther enlist Siegfried’s help, which he does—promising to help Siegfried in turn. Siegfried requests the hand of Kriemhild in return for helping Gunther, and Gunther agrees. The two knights swear oaths accordingly.
In her formidableness and wildness, Brunhild is reminiscent of the younger Siegfried. Indeed, the two have some sort of past link, though this is never clarified in the poem. In any case, Siegfried’s heart clearly belongs to Kriemhild, whose modest femininity contrasts with Brunhild’s masculine traits, and whose hand he hopes to win in exchange for helping Gunther best Brunhild.
Siegfried plans to bring the magic cloak he won from Alberich, since it gives him the power of 12 men and also grants him invisibility. He helps Gunther plan the journey to Iceland, deciding to take only Hagen and Dancwart as additional companions. Gunther and Siegfried also visit Kriemhild, and, while Kriemhild and Siegfried exchange flirtatious glances, Gunther explains that their party will require the finest clothes for their journey to Brunhild’s court. Kriemhild promises that her maidens will make four days’ worth of jewel-encrusted clothes for the four men.
Brunhild’s strength is so otherworldly that even Siegfried must resort to magical powers in order to defeat her. But, perhaps just as important, an overture to a foreign court requires clothing befitting the Burgundians’ station—showing that they can afford an ostentatious surplus of fancy garments.
Kriemhild demonstrates her favor for the knights by supplying them with elaborate, exotic clothing. The fabrics are imported from such faraway lands as Arabia, Morocco, and Libya, the linings come from the skins of “strange water-beasts,” and everything is spangled with precious stones.
Entrusting Kriemhild (or her ladies, at any rate) with this task is another courtly gesture of sorts, giving her the opportunity to bestow her favor. And she comes through for them—not only are the clothes elaborate, but their exotic materials seem to fit the party’s equally strange and exotic destination.
Once the knights’ ship has been built and they’ve modeled their new wardrobes, they are ready to depart. The ladies weep copiously, their “hearts [foretelling] them the outcome.” The warriors’ horses, as well as fine food and the best Rhenish wine, are taken aboard. Finally, the four men embark, with Siegfried as captain, since the route to Iceland is familiar to him.
The description of the Burgundians’ voyage abroad is rather fanciful, sounding more like a first-class pleasure cruise than a dangerous venture across the North Atlantic. It’s not meant to be a realistic picture of seafaring, however; rather, the poet wants to convey the men’s gentility in contrast to their frontier destination.
After 12 days of sailing, they arrive at Brunhild’s fortress of Isenstein in Iceland. Before disembarking, Siegfried cautions the men that they should stick to a common story if Gunther’s quest is to succeed—that Gunther is overlord and Siegfried his vassal. They all agree, but “none refrained out of pride from saying whatever he wanted.”
No explanation is given for why Siegfried cautions the men this way. However, it seems plausible that Siegfried suspects Brunhild will favor him, unless she’s given a reason to consider Gunther the superior catch. In any case, this deception will have ramifications for all of them.