In The Nibelungenlied, there is a tension between then-contemporary (high medieval) notions of honor and the survival of the older, tribal value of vengeance. Though the anonymous poet is not heavy-handed in championing honor, he ultimately deconstructs the older Germanic concept of vengeance, showing that it contains the seeds of its own undoing. In fact, the poem ends with such total destruction that it seems as if vengeance has won the day. However, the poet argues that vengeance ultimately destroys those who indulge in it, and that, however thankless it seems, a more restrained, elevated ideal of honor is worth emulating, lest society be undone.
The poem does celebrate examples of relatively uncomplicated honor, namely Siegfried and Rüdiger. Both of them are ultimately tragic figures, whose honorable intentions can’t stand up to the devastation that vengeance unleashes. For Siegfried, honor resides in gaining and ruling over a land in his own right—hence his overture to the Burgundians at the beginning of the story. Though he does not end up conquering them, he gains the Burgundians’ trust by loyally defending Burgundy against an attack by the Saxons. Granted, to “boldly […] woo honor” is a bloody affair, but Siegfried is also pleased to stop fighting when the Saxons sue for peace, and the wounded are treated with magnanimity. Observing all this, a page remarks that Siegfried has “all the qualities that go to make a brave, good knight,” and that, in his company, the Burgundians’ “honor is free of all tarnish.”
Rüdiger is one of the only enduringly honorable figures in the story. Having pledged his support to Kriemhild, he also offers hospitality and safe conduct to the Burgundians—meaning that to raise his sword against either party would be a breach of honor. Faced with this impasse in Kriemhild’s warring court, he calls himself a godforsaken man, who must “sacrifice all the esteem, the integrity, and breeding that by the grace of God were mine!” He and one of Gunther’s men slay one another simultaneously, the nearest escape he can hope for.
The fight between the two queens, and the actions of Hagen in response, are the story’s hinge between honor and vengeance. The argument between Kriemhild and Brunhild is a contesting of honor between the two (especially since, in their context, a woman’s honor would be identified with that of her husband). Brunhild asserts that her husband, Gunther, must take precedence over Kriemhild’s husband, Siegfried. This leads Kriemhild to lose her temper and call Brunhild Siegfried’s paramour. Devastated, Brunhild later confides in Gunther and Hagen that Kriemhild has tried to rob her of her honor. Hagen immediately declares that Siegfried’s (alleged) boast to have slept with Brunhild should cost him his life. Hagen then insinuates to a reluctant Gunther that if Siegfried were taken out of the picture, then Gunther could take over his lands. A line appears to have been crossed; violence is no longer a means to secure or defend honor, but to eliminate someone on a thin pretense. After Hagen and the knights carry out their “treacherous” plot, they deposit Siegfried’s corpse on the threshold of Kriemhild’s room, thereby setting her on a path that will make her “the sworn enemy of her own happiness” as she promises to avenge her fallen husband.
Once unleashed, vengeance proves to be its own punishment, corrupting and ultimately destroying those who indulge in it. Kriemhild spends the rest of her life brooding on the wrongs done to her, darkly nursing hopes of vengeance long after remarrying and moving far from Burgundy. Hagen even warns the other Burgundians against accepting Kriemhild’s invitation to Hungary, knowing that she “has a long memory” for revenge; however, King Giselher taunts Hagen’s cowardice, so Hagen feels he must undertake the deadly journey for honor’s sake. Once in Hungary, he even hastens his fate by provoking the queen.
When Kriemhild appeals to Lord Dietrich for help in attacking the Burgundians, Dietrich rebukes the queen for acting dishonorably, telling her, “your request does you little honor with its plotting against the lives of your kindred, who came here in good faith.” As an outsider to the immediate conflict, Dietrich sees the nature of the queen’s actions with greater clarity. After Kriemhild finally achieves her vengeance, cutting off Hagen’s head with Siegfried’s sword, she is instantly slain by Dietrich’s tutor, Hildebrand. She doesn’t get to savor any satisfaction after finally avenging Siegfried. In fact, virtually everyone on both sides of the fight lies dead—there aren’t any heroes, and the story literally ends with weeping.
The volume of bloodshed in the story is theatrical, as none of the central characters survive, and everyone else is left riddled with grief. The more treacherous Hagen’s plotting, and the more Kriemhild obsesses over how she has been wronged, the more grievous the repercussions once plots are set in motion. The poet suggests that while honor is a genuine value worth preserving, it is an inherently fragile one—often resting on such flimsy foundations as a wife’s sense of pride or a vassal’s greed. As such, it’s easy for honor to spill over into vengeance, and once it does, it is likely impossible to reverse the course of events that have been unleashed.
Honor vs. Vengeance ThemeTracker
Honor vs. Vengeance 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.”
“Whom are you calling a paramour?” asked the Queen.
“I call you one,” answered Kriemhild. “My dear husband Siegfried was the first to enjoy your lovely body, since it was not my brother who took your maidenhead. Where were your poor wits? - It was a vile trick. - Seeing that he is your vassal, why did you let him love you? Your complaints have no foundation.”
“I swear I shall tell Gunther of this,” replied Brunhild.
“What is that to me? Your arrogance has got the better of you. You used words that made me your servant, and, believe me, in all sincerity I shall always be sorry you did so.”
“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 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.
Now that Kriemhild had possession of the hoard she lured many foreign warriors to Burgundy, and indeed her fair hand lavished gifts with such bounty that the like has never been seen […] Hagen declared that were she to live for any time she would recruit so many men that matters would go ill with the Burgundians. […] “No man who is firm in his purpose should leave the treasure to a woman,” said Hagen. “By means of her gifts she will bring things to the point where the brave sons of Burgundy will bitterly regret it.”
“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!”
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.