In Burgundy lives a maiden princess named Kriemhild who is known far and wide for her beauty and charm. Kriemhild is the sister of renowned kings Gunther, Gernot, and Giselher, who rule from Worms beside the Rhine and are served by many proud knights. As a girl, Kriemhild decides to foreswear love, since it usually brings sorrow along with happiness.
Farther down the Rhine, in the Netherlands city of Xanten, a handsome, valorous prince named Siegfried has recently been knighted. Siegfried hears about Kriemhild and decides he wants to woo her. He also wants to gain lands and castles for himself. He travels to Worms with a band of stalwart companions. When Siegfried arrives in Burgundy, Gunther’s vassal, Hagen, recognizes him as the mighty slayer of the Nibelung princes and possessor of their massive treasure. Siegfried is also virtually invincible, having bathed in a dragon’s blood.
When the Burgundian kings and their warriors greet Siegfried, he announces his intention to wrest all their possessions from them. The kings persuade him to settle the matter honorably, sharing their riches in common. Siegfried spends the next year in the Burgundian court, secretly pining for Kriemhild, although he has yet to lay eyes on her.
When foreign kings threaten to invade Burgundy, Siegfried offers to go to war on Gunther’s behalf. He leads the Burgundian forces to an overwhelming victory and takes many prisoners. Kriemhild, who harbors secret affection for Siegfried, is delighted to learn he is unharmed and victorious. Six weeks after the battle, a massive victory festival ensues, and Kriemhild’s brothers, desiring an alliance, arrange for the two to finally meet. Siegfried and Kriemhild spend time together in public throughout the festival, and their love for one another grows.
Meanwhile, Gunther begins to pine for an Icelandic queen named Brunhild, who is both beautiful and incredibly strong—to win her love, a knight must defeat her in three athletic contests, or else lose his head. In exchange for Siegfried’s help in these contests, Gunther swears to give him Kriemhild’s hand in marriage. The men sail to Iceland, along with Hagen and his brother and fellow vassal, Dancwart. Before they disembark, Siegfried cautions the group that they must let Brunhild believe that he is Gunther’s vassal.
Brunhild proves to be a formidable opponent. While Gunther merely goes through the motions, Siegfried puts on his magical invisibility cloak, which gives him extra strength to hurl a javelin, throw a boulder, and leap even farther than Brunhild does. When she thinks Gunther defeats her (not knowing it was Siegfried who accomplished all of those feats), Brunhild is furious, but she agrees to marry him.
When the party arrives back in Burgundy, Siegfried reminds Gunther of his oath, and Siegfried and Kriemhild are duly married. During the marriage feast, Brunhild weeps when she sees Kriemhild sitting next to Siegfried in the seat of honor. When Gunther asks Brunhild what is the matter, she explains that she is grieved to see Kriemhild degraded by marriage to a mere liegeman. Gunther evades the issue, and Brunhild says she won’t consummate her marriage with Gunther until she knows the full story. Accordingly, when Gunther tries to take her virginity that night, she flies into a rage, ties him up, and suspends him from a nail on the wall. When Gunther confides his humiliation to Siegfried the next day, Siegfried promises to subdue Gunther’s formidable wife for him. Wearing his invisibility cloak, he wrestles Brunhild into submission, though they nearly kill one another in the process. Gunther finally sleeps with his wife, after which Brunhild’s vast strength leaves her, and she’s just like any ordinary woman. Not long after, Siegfried and Kriemhild return to Siegfried’s native Netherlands, where he rules as king for ten years.
All this time, Brunhild continues to fret over Siegfried’s marriage to Kriemhild. She begs Gunther to invite them to a midsummer festival, so he dispatches messengers to Xanten. When the messengers return with news of their acceptance, they show off the generous gifts Siegfried gave them, prompting Hagen to jealousy of the Nibelung treasure.
The summer festival starts off happily enough, but one evening, Kriemhild provokes Brunhild with remarks about Siegfried’s equality to Gunther, and the two queens begin fighting. Later, she pointedly enters the cathedral before Brunhild, which would be taboo for a liegewoman. In the crowning insult, Kriemhild calls Brunhild Siegfried’s paramour, alleging that Siegfried took her virginity, not Gunther. When Brunhild tells Gunther of this charge, he is evasive and lets Siegfried off the hook without a formal oath. Later, when Hagen and the other vassals learn of this, they begin plotting to kill Siegfried, with Hagen arguing that Brunhild’s honor is at stake. Gunther reluctantly goes along with them.
After learning offhandedly from Kriemhild that Siegfried has a vulnerable spot between his shoulder-blades, Hagen suggests that the men go on a hunting trip. After an enjoyable day of sport, Siegfried stoops at a spring to take a drink, and Hagen seizes the opportunity to stab him through the vulnerable spot. Siegfried quickly dies.
Back in Worms, Hagen has Siegfried’s corpse placed on the threshold of Kriemhild’s apartment. When Kriemhild discovers his body, she immediately plunges into wild lament, and, suspecting the truth about what’s happened, begins to think of vengeance. At the funeral, Hagen’s guilt is proven when he stands next to the bier, causing Siegfried’s wounds to miraculously bleed anew.
Three and a half years later, Kriemhild has still not spoken to Gunther because of his role in Hagen’s plot, and she refuses to see Hagen. Hagen encourages Gunther to make peace with his sister, suggesting that she might agree to bring the Nibelung treasure, her inheritance, back to Burgundy. He does so, and soon the massive treasure is transported to Worms. When Kriemhild lavishes her treasure on rich and poor, native and foreigner alike, Hagen jealously seizes possession of it and dumps the remainder into the Rhine for safekeeping. The kings let this slide, but Kriemhild nurses resentment all the more.
Thirteen years later, a pagan, widowed, Hungarian king named Etzel becomes interested in taking Kriemhild as his wife. His vassal, Rüdiger, margrave of Pöchlarn in Austria, offers to journey to Worms as Etzel’s envoy. When Rüdiger relays the king’s proposal, Kriemhild refuses, saying she cannot love another man and would be disgraced by marriage to a heathen. She can’t help coveting Etzel’s riches, however, and realizes she might have the power to exact vengeance on Hagen at last. She finally consents and departs Burgundy for foreign lands.
Kriemhild and Etzel celebrate a lavish wedding in Vienna before settling in Etzel’s fortress at Etzelnburg. Though she finds him to be even richer than Siegfried, Kriemhild continues to grieve in private for her fallen first husband. Seven years later, she has amassed much power and renown in Hungary and also given birth to a son, Ortlieb. Despite all this, her desire for revenge is unabated, and she still resents being put in a position to marry a heathen. She easily persuades Etzel to invite her kinsmen to a midsummer festival, giving her the opportunity she has desired for many years.
When Gunther’s court receives the invitation, Hagen senses a trap, but Giselher shames him into making the journey anyway. During the journey, Hagen encounters some water-fairies who predict the doom of virtually the entire Burgundian entourage in Hungary. The party enjoys the warm hospitality of Rüdiger in Pöchlarn, and he escorts them to Etzelnburg as well.
As soon as the Burgundians enter Etzel’s lands, Lord Dietrich rides out to warn them that Kriemhild is still grieving Siegfried’s death and means to harm them. Kriemhild welcomes the Burgundians coldly, refuses to greet Hagen, and demands to know the location of the Nibelung treasure. Twice that day, she sends her vassals to attack Hagen, but both times they are intimidated by Hagen and Volker. The next day, Etzel’s brother, Lord Bloedelin, instigates savage fighting among the knights. Meanwhile, Kriemhild has Ortlieb brought to the festal table, and when Hagen hears that the Burgundians have been attacked, he swiftly beheads the young boy. A terrible battle ensues, and the Hunnish knights are slaughtered. By evening, 20,000 more Huns have been killed, and the Burgundians ask Etzel for a truce. Kriemhild intervenes, saying she can’t show mercy as long as Hagen remains alive. Her brothers refuse to surrender Hagen, so Kriemhild drives them all back inside the hall and sets the building on fire. Six hundred men survive a horrifying night trapped in the hall.
Rüdiger surveys the massacre that has been perpetrated on all sides and finds himself caught between his vow of service to Kriemhild and the ties of hospitality by which he has bound himself to Gunther and his men. With greatest reluctance, he finally takes up his sword against the Burgundians, and after fierce fighting, he and Gernot cut one another down at almost the same moment. Everyone is grief-stricken. When Dietrich hears of it, he sends Hildebrand and his other men to investigate, and Volker provokes them to fight—a battle that ends up taking the lives of all but Hildebrand, Hagen, and Gunther. A grieving Dietrich goes to face Hagen and successfully wounds him, then takes him bound to Kriemhild, who is happy at last. He soon does the same with Gunther, though he advises Kriemhild to spare both warriors’ lives.
Kriemhild, however, gets her vengeance at last. She gives Hagen one last chance to return her treasure, then has Gunther beheaded and finally strikes down Hagen with her own hand. Before she can revel in her triumph, she is slain in turn by Hildebrand. Only he, Dietrich, and Etzel remain alive, weeping for their slain kinsmen and vassals, “as joy must ever turn to sorrow in the end.”