Hospitality and gift exchange are the major currency of the world of the story, written in the thirteenth century but featuring events that gesture back as far as the fifth century. Throughout The Nibelungenlied, characters repeatedly display their largesse by bestowing lavish gifts and extravagantly welcoming one another into their kingdoms. Yet they also frequently betray one another through treacherous, often deadly “repayments” and falsely hospitable gestures. While it would be anachronistic to say that the poet is making a cynical critique of the gift economy, the poet does demonstrate its limits, arguing that hospitality is susceptible to cruel distortions when people choose to betray one another’s trust.
The book contains notable examples of liberal hospitality and gift-giving; at the time, a major motivation for accumulating wealth was to enable generous gifting, so as to secure friendships and reinforce loyalty. After Siegfried’s death, for example, Kriemhild gives abundantly to convents, hospitals, and to the needy, both to demonstrate her love for her fallen husband and to ensure that many will repay her in the form of offerings for Siegfried’s soul. Even after she is forced to travel to Hungary without the Nibelung treasure, Kriemhild and her new husband, Etzel, celebrate their wedding by giving lavishly. Through such gestures Kriemhild “makes herself known” to the people of her new lands—that is, forges new bonds of mutual loyalty—to such an extent that they exclaim, “We imagined lady Kriemhild had no means, instead of which she has performed marvels of generosity!”
“Open-handed Rüdiger” is likewise a paragon of liberality; “it was not in [his] nature to let anything escape his generosity.” He so prevails upon the Burgundian warriors to linger in Pöchlarn that they must “defend themselves” against his feats of giving, as he bestows so many horses and clothes that it is spoken of long after. Later, it’s Rüdiger’s sense of hospitality as an escort that forbids him from obeying Kriemhild’s demand that he fight the Burgundians; by giving in to the demands of either side, he cannot help but act “basely and infamously,” betraying his generous nature. He resolves this crisis, in fact, by giving a gift—offering Hagen his shield, knowing it likely hastens his own end.
Breach of hospitality and perversion of gift-giving are so egregious in the world of The Nibelungenlied because they undercut the very bonds of loyalty that generosity is meant to cultivate. When Hagen breaks faith with Siegfried by killing him in cold blood, the dying Siegfried cries, “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.” Siegfried’s loyalty to the Burgundians, fighting the Saxon invasion and helping to win Brunhild for Gunther, has not secured loyalty in kind from Hagen and the rest—they have instead lured him into the wilderness on the pretense of a friendly hunting party and stabbed him when he had no chance to defend himself. Rather than being “paid back” through mutual devotion, he must pay with his life.
After the betrayal of Siegfried, the Nibelungs depart for his native kingdom without requesting an escort—a hostile act indicating that hospitable relations between the kingdoms have been severed. After she retrieves the Nibelung treasure Siegfried has left to her, Kriemhild “[showers] such largesse on rich and poor alike” that Hagen is angered, assuming she will thereby attract foreign warriors who will undermine affairs in Burgundy. He grumbles to the permissive Gunther that “no man who is firm in his purpose should leave the treasure to a woman!” He proceeds to wrest the remaining hoard and dump it into the Rhine so that Kriemhild can have no further recourse to her inheritance—thinking that this curtails her ability to maintain relationships of reciprocal benefit with others.
In contrast to her earlier open-handedness, Kriemhild’s invitation to the Burgundians to visit her in Hungary is a reversal and perversion of hospitality. Rather than receiving them with a traditional, gift-laden welcome, she greets them with the rather shocking words, “Tell me what you bring me […] that you should be so very welcome to me!” Indeed, the Burgundian’s fateful sojourn in Hungary is marked by breaches on both sides; the warrior-minstrel Volker makes himself “a dreadful guest” by killing Hunnish knights in their own hall; meanwhile, Kriemhild continually schemes for the “destruction of the foreigners,” even promising gold, castles, and lands in exchange for Hagen’s head. In a darkly humorous understatement, the poet remarks that “the comfort of the noble guests had been shockingly neglected.” Vengeance is the ultimate inversion of generosity, as Kriemhild finally “repays” Hagen for his misdeeds by killing him with her own hands.
Throughout the book, the poet takes pains to show, sometimes in tedious detail, how characters “squander” their goods in extravagant displays of gift-giving. In his world, this is no mere wastefulness, but a positive act—the purpose of wealth is to share it, and so to strengthen friendships and alliances. Yet such behavior has a shadow side as well. People with dark intentions can use the bonds of hospitality to deceive, exercise power harmfully, and entrap those whose intentions are purer. It is a system, in other words, uniquely vulnerable to distortion once infiltrated by vengeance; once this occurs, betrayal layers on betrayal.
Hospitality, Gifts, and Exchange ThemeTracker
Hospitality, Gifts, and Exchange 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.
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!
And now Gunther and the lovely girl lay together, and he took his pleasure with her as was his due, so that she had to resign her maiden shame and anger. But from his intimacy she grew somewhat pale, for at love’s coming her vast
strength fled so that now she was no stronger than anyother woman. Gunther had his delight of her lovely body, and had she renewed her resistance what good could it have done her? His loving had reduced her to this.
And now how very tenderly and amorously Brunhild lay beside him till the bright dawn!
“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.
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 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.”
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 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.