Throughout The Nibelungenlied, there is an apparent interplay between fate and action. Kriemhild and Hagen, arguably the most proactive and forceful characters in the story, never shrink from the path each has chosen. Yet The Nibelungenlied is permeated by a recurrent atmosphere of foreknowledge, supernatural influence, and inevitability. The poet does not seem concerned to parse this problem too finely; it was probably less of a contradiction in his mind than in the modern reader’s less supernaturally biased age. In the end, the poet does not absolve actors of their responsibility; in fact, even dreams and prophecies are stifled by the stubbornness of the human will.
On one hand, the story is dotted with supernatural elements that suggest the characters are helplessly subject to fate. On multiple occasions, Kriemhild and her mother, Uote, experience prophetic dreams that foretell death and destruction. In her first dream, for example, Kriemhild sees a falcon torn apart by two eagles. When Uote explains that this symbolizes a beloved man who will be taken away from her, Kriemhild vows that she will always avoid love, so as to avoid sorrow. Much later, before the Burgundians depart for Hungary at Kriemhild’s invitation, Uote dreams that all the birds of Burgundy have died, though she had no reason to suspect her daughter’s ill intentions toward the warriors.
Though he grumbles about “those who set store by dreams,” Hagen encounters some prophetic water-fairies while traveling to Hungary. Gifted with second sight, the nixies warn him that nobody except for Gunther’s chaplain will return to Burgundy alive. Enraged, Hagen pitches the priest overboard as if to prove the fairies false—yet, as he admits when the priest survives, he realizes that there is no escaping fate. Later, the poet remarks that “it was the foul Fiend who prompted Kriemhild” to place herself at enmity with her Burgundian kinsmen.
Yet, even as the poem sometimes treats fate as inescapable, the poet gives considerable emphasis to human responsibility and the impact that human choices have across years and generations. When the Burgundians visit Brunhild’s court in Iceland, for example, they lay the seeds for their own destruction by pretending that Siegfried is Gunther’s vassal—giving a false impression that leads to the queens’ verbal duel more than a decade later. When the truth does emerge, “the wrangling of two women” is blamed for the doom of many warriors—though other factors figure into the coming carnage, such as Hagen’s determination to avenge Brunhild’s honor, Gunther’s weakness and susceptibility to Hagen’s evil advice, and the two men’s plotting against Siegfried.
Far from being able to blame everything on the devil, Kriemhild becomes “the sworn enemy of her own happiness” when, after Siegfried is murdered, she gives in to consuming grief and vengeance. By not merely mourning, but obsessively “nursing” thoughts of revenge, Kriemhild transforms into the person capable of wielding brutal vengeance in the closing chapters of the story, and she takes deliberate steps—like bringing her vulnerable son, Ortlieb, into the midst of battle—to bring her own twisted hopes to fruition.
In a certain way, then, it is difficult to know what the poet means when he peppers his tale with inscrutable asides like, “What was to happen had to happen,” and closes the book with the claim that “joy must ever turn to sorrow in the end.” Must it, indeed? In the end, the poet doesn’t seem to be interested in resolving any apparent contradiction between destiny and human choice. People are responsible for the actions they take, and there are also unknowable forces at work that humans shouldn’t presume to violate. Even if the latter were not the case, it appears that human beings are more than capable of wreaking terrible havoc with their lives—as the near-total destruction of the characters shows.
Fate and Action ThemeTracker
Fate and Action Quotes in The Nibelungenlied
We have been told in ancient tales many marvels of famous heroes, of mighty toil, joys, and high festivities, of weeping and wailing, and the fighting of bold warriors - of such things you can now hear wonders unending!
Kriemhild dreamt she reared a falcon, strong, handsome and wild, but that two eagles rent it while she perforce looked on, the most grievous thing that could ever befall her. She told her dream to her mother Uote, who could give the good maiden no better reading than this: “The falcon you are rearing is a noble man who, unless God preserve him, will soon be taken from you.”
“Why do you talk to me of a man, dear Mother? I intend to stay free of a warrior’s love all my life. I mean to keep my beauty till I die, and never be made wretched by the love of any man. […] There are many examples of women who have paid for happiness with sorrow in the end. I shall avoid both, and so I shall come to no harm.”
Siegfried left the maiden lying there and stepped aside as through to remove his clothes and, without the noble Queen’s noticing it, he drew a golden ring from her finger and then took her girdle, a splendid orphrey. I do not know whether it was his pride which made him do it. Later he gave them to his wife, and well did he rue it!
“How could the thing be done?” asked King Gunther. “I will tell you,” replied Hagen. “We shall send envoys to ourselves here in Burgundy to declare war on us publicly, men whom no one knows. Then you will announce in the hearing of your guests that you and your men plan to go campaigning, whereupon Siegfried will promise you his aid, and so he will lose his life. For in this way I shall learn the brave man’s secret from his wife.”
The King followed his vassal Hagen’s advice, to evil effect, and those rare knights began to set afoot the great betrayal before any might discover it, so that, thanks to the wrangling of two women, countless warriors met their doom.
After Hagen learns of Kriemhild’s charge that Brunhild slept with Siegfried, he wastes no time beginning to plot Siegfried’s death. After winning over the other Burgundians and even the weak Gunther to his view, he explains his plan to discover Siegfried’s vulnerability. It’s striking that he uses the device of a military engagement to bring about the betrayal. Siegfried initially won the Burgundians’ trust by offering to fight off invaders for them; now, Hagen and the others betray that loyalty by laying a trap for Siegfried, knowing he will leap to defend them in battle. Of course, Siegfried isn’t faultless; much as Siegfried defeated Brunhild by secretly using the magical cloak, now the others defend Brunhild’s honor by means of an even more convoluted deception. And while it’s true that the crisis was touched off by the queens’ quarreling, it’s Hagen’s choice to capitalize on the situation, ostensibly in Brunhild’s defense, that triggers actual violence. In addition, Gunther shows himself to be incredibly weak-willed and unwilling to oppose Hagen, despite Siegfried’s faithful friendship in the past. There is much more guilt to go around than the poet’s terse summary suggests.
“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 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.
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.