The anonymous author of the heroic epic The Nibelungenlied is acutely aware of differences between native and foreigner, pagan and Christian, human and nonhuman (namely magical) creatures—distinctions reflective both of the story’s early medieval setting and the poet’s high medieval context, where such boundaries would have been ever-present sources of potential conflict. Using this tension throughout the story, the author establishes a world in which it is not only important that “barbaric” influences be tamed and subsumed, but in which even the most “civilized” figures are continually at risk of falling back into barbarism.
The poet first presents a world in which “civilizing” barbaric figures is of foremost importance, as shown by the figures of Siegfried and Brunhild. Hagen initially describes the heroic Siegfried as a foreigner of fearful valor, the subduer of the Nibelungs, and a warrior of such ferocity that “it is best to have his friendship.” Siegfried even has contacts with supernatural survivals from the pre-Christian past—such as the dragon whose blood renders him virtually invincible—which add to his mystique. Yet, as Siegfried is persuaded to share the Burgundians’ lands with them and eventually goes into battle on their behalf, he goes from being a stranger to “a most welcome guest among the Burgundians” to a desirable catch. The knights conspire to place Kriemhild in Siegfried’s path in an effort to “attach this splendid warrior” to themselves. Kriemhild herself is a key civilizing influence on the foreign knight.
Brunhild likewise is a foreigner whose barbarism must be tamed. Brunhild first appears in the story as an exotic figure from “beyond the Rhine,” and the prospect of winning such a woman for himself “thrills” King Gunther’s heart. She is distinguished not only by her beauty and wealth, but by her unmatched feats of athleticism and manly strength, contrasting her with the modest Kriemhild, who stays in domestic retirement. Brunhild’s prowess is such that only Siegfried, himself a fierce and recently barbarous figure, can subdue her—and, even here, it’s notable that he only achieves it through trickery (wearing the magic cloak), both in Iceland and in Gunther’s chamber in Burgundy. Once Siegfried achieves this, Gunther can finally take Brunhild’s virginity, which robs her of her native strength and renders her indistinguishable from meek German women.
Just as barbaric figures can be civilized, even the most “civilized” of figures can regress to barbarism. Where Kriemhild had stood as a civilizing influence on Siegfried in the Burgundian court, Siegfried’s betrayers find Kriemhild to be a barbarous figure when they arrive in the Hungarian court. In contrast to their open-handed reception at Rüdiger’s court, the Burgundians are received by Kriemhild “with perfidy in her heart.” In startling contrast to codes of courtly hospitality, she immediately demands information about the Nibelung treasure they owe her.
The extremity of Kriemhild’s actions toward the Burgundians shows just how far she has sunk into barbarism: effectively sacrificing her own son, Ortlieb, by bringing him into the midst of the violence, allowing her guests to be reduced to drinking blood in order to survive, presenting Hagen with the head of her own slain brother, and finally slaying Hagen with her own hands. Once the pinnacle of femininity and refinement, Kriemhild ultimately becomes a queen of barbarity, illustrating how easy it is for people to become corrupted by cruelty, even corrupting others in the process.
The presentation of “civilized” vs. “barbarian” in the story is more sophisticated than one might expect. Characters who defy courtly expectations are seen as needing to be civilized, like Siegfried and Brunhild; yet, Kriemhild, seemingly the crown of civilization at the beginning of the story, plunges to the very depths by the end. Contrary to her own fears as a widow, it’s not marrying a pagan (Etzel) that does this to her—it’s her own choice to harbor bitter vengeance and to go to great lengths to wreak bloody revenge. The poet’s implied warning is that, depending on the values to which one chooses to devote oneself, anyone can suffer a fall as shocking as Kriemhild’s.
Civilization vs. Barbarism ThemeTracker
Civilization vs. Barbarism Quotes in The Nibelungenlied
In the days that followed, Siegfried was a most welcome guest among the Burgundians, and, believe me, he was honoured by them for his manly courage a thousand times more than I can tell you, so that none could see him and harbour any grudge against him. […] And whenever gay knights were passing the time with the ladies and displaying their good breeding, people were glad to see him, for he aspired to a noble love. Whatever the company undertook, Siegfried was ready to join in. Meanwhile he cherished a lovely girl in his heart and was cherished in return by this same young lady whom he had never seen but who in her own intimate circle nevertheless often spoke kindly of him.
And now Brunhild had arrived, armed as though about to contend for all the kingdoms in the world and wearing many tiny bars of gold over her silk, against which her lovely face shone radiantly. […] The man whom she would favour would have to be a very brave one: for this shield which the girl was to carry was (so we are told) a good three spans thick beneath the boss; it was resplendent with steel and with gold, and even with the help of three others her chamberlain could scarce raise it. “What now, King Gunther?” stalwart Hagen of Troneck asked fiercely, on seeing the shield brought out. “We are done for - the woman whose love you desire is a rib of the Devil himself!”
“You and I are of one blood, dear Hagen, and I earnestly commend my beloved spouse to you to guard him.” Then she divulged some matters that had better been left alone. […] “Now I shall reveal this to you in confidence, dearest kinsman, so that you may keep faith with me, and I shall tell you, trusting utterly in you, where my dear husband can be harmed. When the hot blood flowed from the dragon’s wound and the good knight was bathing in it, a broad leaf fell from the linden between his shoulder-blades. It is there that he can be wounded, and this is why I am so anxious.”
“Sew a little mark on his clothing so that I shall know where I must shield him in battle.”
She fancied she was saving the hero, yet this was aimed at his death.
The very first kill was when he brought down a strong young tusker, after which he soon chanced on an enormous lion. When his hound had roused it he laid a keen arrow to his bow and shot it so that it dropped in its tracks at the third bound. Siegfried’s fellow-huntsmen acclaimed him for this shot. Next, in swift succession, he killed a wisent, an elk, four mighty aurochs, and a fierce and monstrous buck - so well mounted was he that nothing, be it hart or hind,
could evade him. […]
“If it is not asking too much, lord Siegfried,” said his companions of the chase, “do leave some of the game alive for us. You are emptying the hills and woods for us today.” At this the brave knight had to smile.
The lady Kriemhild’s lord fell among the flowers, where you could see the blood surging from his wound. Then – and he had cause - he rebuked those who had plotted his foul murder. “You vile cowards,” he said as he lay dying. “What good has my service done me now that you have slain me? I was always loyal to you, but now I have paid for it. Alas, you have wronged your kinsmen so that all who are born in days to come will be dishonoured by your deed. You have cooled your anger on me beyond all measure. You will be held in contempt and stand apart from all good warriors.”
Now learn of a deed of overweening pride and grisly vengeance. Hagen ordered the corpse of Siegfried of Nibelungland to be carried in secret to Kriemhild’s apartment and set down on the threshold, so that she should find him there before daybreak when she went out to matins, an office she never overslept.
They pealed the bells as usual at the minster, and lovely Kriemhild waked her many maids and asked for a light and her attire. A chamberlain answered - and came upon Siegfried’s body. […] Before she had ascertained that it was her husband she was already thinking of Hagen’s question how he might shelter Siegfried, and now she rued it with a vengeance! From the moment she
learned of Siegfried’s death she was the sworn enemy of her own happiness.
Etzel’s dominion was so widely known that the most fearless warriors that were ever heard of among Christians and heathen alike were always to be found at his court, all having joined him. And always — a thing that will hardly happen again — the Christian life and the heathen existed side by side. But whichever rite a man followed, the King’s magnanimity saw to it that all were amply rewarded.
The priest made great efforts to keep himself afloat, thinking to save his life if only someone would help him. This, however, was ruled out, for mighty Hagen vehemently thrust him to the bottom, to the scandal of everyone there. Seeing no aid forthcoming, the miserable cleric turned back to the shore to his great discomfort, and although he could not swim he was succoured by the hand of the Lord and reached dry land in safety. Standing up, he shook his cassock, and this brought it home to Hagen that there would be no escaping the fate which the wild nixies had foretold. “These knights are doomed to die,” thought he.
“Alas,” cried lady Kriemhild, “why will my brother and Hagen not let their shields be placed in safety? Someone must have warned them! If I knew who it was he would surely die!”
“It was I that warned the illustrious kings of Burgundy and their vassal, fearless Hagen,” replied King Dietrich angrily. “Now come on, you she-devil, you must not let me go unpunished!”
And now indeed the bright morning sent its rays into the hall to light the guests, while Hagen roused the knights everywhere, asking whether they wished to go to mass in the cathedral, for there was a great pealing of bells in keeping with the Christian rite. But Christians and heathen sang mass differently, as was very evident — they were at variance in this. Gunther’s men did wish to go to church and they had immediately risen from their beds and were lacing themselves into clothes of such quality that no knights ever brought better into any realm.
Leaving Bloedelin resolved on battle, the Queen went to table with King Etzel and his men. She had laid a deadly plot against their guests.
Kriemhild’s old grief was embedded deep in her heart. Since there was no beginning the fighting in any other way, she had Etzel’s son carried to the board. (How could a woman ever do a more dreadful thing in pursuance of her
revenge?) Four of Etzel’s followers went immediately and returned bearing the young Prince Ortlieb to the King’s table, where Hagen, too, was seated, owing to whose murderous hate the boy must needs soon die.
The noble Margrave stood there in despair. “Alas,” cried that most faithful knight from the depths of his anguish, “that I have lived to know this, Godforsaken man that I am! I must sacrifice all the esteem, the integrity, and breeding that by the grace of God were mine! Ah, God in Heaven, that death does not avert this from me! Whichever course I leave in order to follow the other, I shall have acted basely and infamously - and if I refrain from both, they will all upbraid me! May He that summoned me to life afford me counsel!”
“You have repaid me in base coin,” she said, “but Siegfried’s sword I shall have and hold! My fair lover was wearing it when last I saw him, through whom I suffered mortal sorrow at your hands.” She drew it from its sheath -he was powerless to prevent it - and bent her thoughts to robbing him of life. She raised it in both hands - and struck off his head! King Etzel saw this, and great was the grief it gave him.