Nibelungen

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Nibelungen

Nibelungen (nē´bəlŏŏng´ən) or Nibelungs, in Germanic myth and literature, an evil family possessing a magic hoard of gold. The hoard is accursed. The Nibelungenlied (–lēt´) [song of the Nibelungen] is a long Middle High German epic by a south German poet of the early 13th cent. It includes pagan legends and traditions but is patently the product of a Christian, courtly world. The story is set in Worms, capital of Burgundy, and at the court of Etzel (Attila the Hun). The warrior Siegfried, having won the Nibelung hoard, marries Kriemhild and captures the Icelandic Queen Brunhild for Kriemhild's brother King Gunther. Brunhild contrives Siegfried's death at the hands of Gunther's henchman Hagen, who takes the treasure and buries it in the Rhine. The rest of the poem recounts Kriemhild's vengeance. She marries Etzel and has a child by him. Lulled into security, Gunther accepts her invitation and visits her with his court, including Hagen. The poem ends with general slaughter and holocaust, which only Etzel and a few others survive. Although marred by stylistic flaws, the Nibelungenlied contains fine delineations of character, especially of Kriemhild, Siegfried, and Hagen. Its great strength lies in its acute depiction of the Germanic ideas of fate and loyalty to the chief. There are many English translations, e.g., by D. G. Mowatt (1962) and F. G. Ryder (1962). The Nibelungenlied has been the subject of many later treatments by German authors, including Friedrich Hebbel. The most noteworthy is undoubtedly the operatic tetralogy by Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen [the ring of the Nibelungs], comprising the four operas Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. The complete cycle was first produced in Bayreuth in 1876. It was based largely on Scandinavian legends from the Volsungasaga, on the Icelandic Poetic Edda, as well as on the Nibelungenlied.

See studies by A. E. Dickinson (1926), F. E. Winkler (1964), D. G. Mowatt and H. Sacker (1967), H. Bekker (1971), and W. McConnell (1984).

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