Filled with portrayals of deception, love, murder, and revenge—yet defying traditional medieval epic conventions for representing character—the Nibelungenlied is the greatest and most unique epic in Middle High German. The Klage , its consistent companion text in the manuscript tradition, continues the story, detailing the devastating aftermath of the Burgundians' bloody slaughter. William Whobrey's new volume offers both—together for the first time in English—in a prose version informed by recent scholarship that brilliantly conveys to modern readers not only the sense but also the tenor of the originals.
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La Chanson des Nibelungen (Das Nibelungenlied) est l’une des œuvres majeures de la littérature médiévale germanique, au même titre que le Parzival de Wolfram von Eschenbach ou le Tristan de Gottfried von Straßburg. Dans le cas de la Chanson, l’identité du rédacteur nous est inconnue. On peut toutefois affirmer qu’il vivait quelque part entre l’Autriche et la Bourgogne, devait être en contact avec la cour des Hohenstaufen, et composa son poème au tournant du XIIIème siècle. L’action décrite dans le poème, cependant, se situe près de huit siècles auparavant, à l’époque de l’Empire Romain déclinant, des Francs, des Burgondes et des Huns, dans un passé héroïque et presque légendaire.
Le récit, à mi-chemin entre l’épopée et la tragédie, rapporte une série d’évènements empruntés aux poèmes épiques scandinaves, en particulier l’Edda poétique, l’Edda de Snorri et la Völsunga saga ; mais aussi au style des chansons de gestes, par exemple, La Chanson de Roland. On y raconte les exploits et mésaventures des Nibelungen et des Burgondes (ces deux termes étant plus ou moins interchangeables) : les mariages de Siegfried et Kriemhild et de Gunther et Brunhild ; puis la mort de Siegfried, assassiné par Hagen, l’un des vassaux de Gunther ; enfin, la vengeance sanguinaire de Kriemhild, qui s’est entretemps remariée avec Etzel, le roi des Huns. La Nibelungenlied est suivie d’un texte postérieur, plus court, La Plainte (Die Klage), qui, a l’instar des derniers chants de l’Iliade, rapporte les rites funéraires que les survivants offrent aux héros morts au combat.
Siegfried est sans doute le personnage le plus célèbre de ce poème. Pourtant, le nœud dramatique se situe autour de la haine croissante entre Hagen, le meurtrier de Siegfried, et Kriemhild, la veuve du héros. Si bien que l’ensemble du récit est composé crescendo, sur une série de plus en plus catastrophique de mensonges, tromperies, provocations multiples, meurtres barbares, et s’achève sur l’image du bain de sang et des quarante mille cadavres, entassés devant les portes du château de Etzel (Attila).
D’une certaine manière, la Nibelungenlied est l’histoire d’une vengeance féminine avec dommages collatéraux – Kriemhild contre Hagen, comparable, par exemple, à la vengeance de Médée contre Jason, dans la pièce d’Euripide. Comme dans la tragédie grecque, l’orgueil, l’arrogance excessive, l’ubermut (comparer avec l’hubris grecque) sont la source de tous les maux. Pourtant, si le récit tourne autour de cette série d’événements funestes, l’auteur s’attarde en chemin, par contraste, sur des détails plus gracieux de la vie courtoise : fêtes et tournois (qui marquent souvent un tournant dans l’histoire), luxe matériel (étoffes précieuses, élégance des jeunes gens), étiquette et codes de conduite (vassalité, place des femmes à la cour, fidélité matrimoniale). Ces éléments de raffinement chevaleresque ne sont toutefois pas simplement décoratifs, mais contribuent à la progression même du drame épique – ce qui témoigne de l’habileté littéraire du « jongleur » anonyme qui rédigea le poème.
Comme chacun sait, le Ring de Richard Wagner fait de nombreux emprunts à la Chanson des Nibelungen. En particulier, la totalité du Götterdämmerung est presque calquée sur les Aventures I à XIX du poème médiéval. Il est toutefois à noter que Kriemhild, figure centrale de la Chanson, devient chez Wagner un personnage falot sous les traits de Gutrune ; à l’inverse, Brunhild, assez secondaire dans le poème médiéval, prend une place prépondérante dans la Tétralogie. En réalité, Wagner a procédé avec la Nibelungenlied comme avec ses autres sources, scandinaves pour la plupart, en empruntant ce qui l’intéressait, puis en simplifiant, supprimant, substituant, combinant et inventant à sa guise. Tel Siegfried reforgeant l’épée brisée Nothung, Wagner recomposa son propre poème sur la base de fragments épars.
This is a brilliant translation and very comprehensive edition which includes indications of variations in the different manuscripts in the Nibelungenlied canon (as there is no one ur-manuscript in existence). And The Klage (Lamentation) was a real discovery that expands the story of Kreimhild’s ill fated revenge which makes Martin’s Red Wedding look like a picnic. High body count lots of wailing! Fantastic notes this is a must read for hose interested in this story cycle.
I've wanted to read 'The Nibelungenlied' for a long time, ever since I discovered it. It is a German epic from the 13th century and it has been regarded as the German equivalent of 'The Iliad' by some readers. I finally got to read it today. I have two translations of this epic, an old one by D.G.Mowatt, and a new one by William Whobrey. I read the William Whobrey one, while dipping occasionally into the Mowatt one.
A handsome prince arrives in a land which has a beautiful princess. His desire is to win her hand. The story starts in a fairytale fashion like this. After this, there are lots of adventures, love, romance, friendship, some war in which the good guys win. Then there is jealousy, treachery, betrayal, one of the good characters gets killed, another swears vengeance, and after many complicated happenings, the avenging angel gets her vengeance. But things don't go according to plan, and nearly everyone is dead in the end.
I liked the first half of the book, till one of the main characters gets killed. It had all the things I look forward to, in a classical epic – adventure, romance, friendship. The last one-fourth of the book is filled with fighting and violence – it is more bloody than the terrible episodes of 'Game of Thrones'. Imagine how the situation would be if it is the 'Red Wedding' times ten! It is not for the faint-hearted and I found that part hard to read.
One of my favourite parts of the book involved a warrior queen called Brunhild. She gets married, and then this happens.
She said, “My dear knight, let it be. What you were hoping for is not going to happen. You can rest assured that I’m going to stay a virgin until I’ve heard the whole story.”
Gunther was furious at her. He forced himself on her and tore her nightgown, but that remarkable women in turn grabbed a belt, a strong band that she wore around her waist. She made the king suffer with it. She tied up his feet and his hands, carried him to a nail protruding from the wall, and hung him on it for disturbing her sleep. Sex was out of the question. In fact, she nearly killed him, she was that strong.
Then the one who thought he should be the master began to plead. “My dear queen, please let me loose! I know that I can never get the better of you, dear lady, and I promise I’ll never lie so closely beside you again.”
She didn’t care how uncomfortable he was. She was perfectly comfortable in bed, and so he hung there all night until the morning light shone through the window. If he had ever had any strength, there was no sign of it now.
The maiden asked, "Tell me now, Lord Gunther, wouldn’t it be humiliating if your chamberlains found you had been tied up by a woman?"
I laughed when I read that 😆 I fell in love with Brunhild, of course 😊 Who wouldn't? It is so amazing that the poet who wrote this epic, wrote this scene 800 years back!
Brunhild does some questionable stuff after this scene, but I liked her till the end. I wish there is a story which describes how she became a warrior queen, at a time when women from the royal family stayed inside the palace. That story will be fascinating to read.
I'm glad I finally got to read 'The Nibelungenlied'. I won't say that I loved it, but I liked parts of it, and I'm glad I read it. It was made into a two-part movie by Fritz Lang and parts of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle operas are based on this epic. I want to watch them both sometime.
Have you read 'The Nibelungenlied'? What do you think about it?
William Whobrey’s excellent prose translation with extensive notes, containing both “Das Nibelungenlied” and its sequel, “Die Klage.” I studied the former at university in the early 1970s, in Hatto’s translation (Penguin Classics) and in Middle High German. Since then, as my research shifted from medieval European literature to comparative literature and then to Japanese narrative, I have dipped into the Nibelungenlied a few times more, though not often reading it from beginning to end—the work has its longeurs—using either Hatto’s translation or in the handy Fischer bilingual edition. Now I have read more widely in premodern literature of the Western and non-Western tradition, I discover something new on each reading.
On this rereading, I started first with Cyril Edwards’ competent translation (Oxford Classics), but switched to Whobrey’s translation and more extensive notes—valuable especially in commenting on problem passages and highlighting the differences between three main variants. I also read the last ten chapters in the bilingual edition (MHG, modern German) by Ursula Schulze. This also includes a text and modern German translation of the Klage.
This was first time for me to read Die Klage, a crucial text that tries to make sense what might have happened after tragic events at the “Hunnish” court of Etzel (Attila?). To get a flavour of the original language, I downloaded a 19C German text edition by Lachmann from Internet Archive, getting up to speed eventually with my rusty Middle High German with the help of Whobrey as a crib.
Together with Parzival and Tristan, the Nibelungenlied is.a masterpiece of medieval German literature around the year 1200. In terms of language and literary structure, Die Klage is of secondary importance, but explicitly foregrounds key issues dear to the heart of narratologists and medievalists: the shift between orality to written narrative, historicity and invention, narrators’ and redactors’ attempts to explain character motivation in a story assembled from disparate and contradictory oral sources.
(Wagner drew on the very different Old Norse traditions, so if you know the Ring of the Nibelungs, it’s best to put aside any conceptions you have about the characters of Siegfried and Brünhilde while reading these medieval German tales.)
If you understand German, I highly recommend the 8hr30m long Audible lecture/reading of the Nibelungenlied by distinguished German scholar Peter Wapnewski. It does not include the entire work, with some chapters only summarized, but he reads all key passages with care. He uses the fine if dated 19C translation by Simrock that attempts to recreate the original’s strophic structure, rhyme, and special rhythm (notably the characteristic caesura in the last half line of each stanza). Wapnewski reads crucial passages in the original, pointing out problems in the 19C translation - which uses archaic words or (more misleadingly) words in modern German are “false friends” - not having the same meaning as the medieval forms. I was able to follow Wapnewski’s readings and comments on the first part (up to Siegfried’s Death) without referring to the text or translation, but got much more out of listening to the second half while referring to the parallel German text. As Wapnewski cites the stanza numbers and these are printed in Whobrey’s edition, one could do the same by referring to the English translation. I will move on to Wapnewski’s Parzival and Tristan, again making use of English translation and parallel German editions, but look forward to returning another year for another close reading of Das Nibelungenlied. Summer 2021, perhaps?
Very good prose translation of the Nibelungenlied that also includes the Klage—a 4,000-line sequel that is included in all the complete manuscripts of the Nibelungenlied—as well as a good twenty or thirty pages of manuscript variants for the main work. These variants come mostly from one later complete manuscript (the C manuscript), whose author (referred to as “the redactor”) added lots of interpolations and emendations, often to interesting effect.
This was my first time reading the Klage, and I’m glad Whobrey included it here as the manuscript tradition clearly indicates it was meant to be packaged with the longer—and better—Nibelungenlied. The Klage (meaning “lament” in the sense of overwhelming ritual grief; the Old Testament book of Lamentations is called the Klagelieder in German Bibles) details the aftermath of the showdown in King Etzel’s lands at the end of the Nibelungenlied, with the “wall” of bodies untangled and sorted and prepared for burial and word of the slaughter delivered to widows and orphans all over southern Germany and the Rhineland. Though some stretches are just recaps of the longer epic, it has profoundly moving scenes and offers some resolution to the plot of the Nibelungenlied, which ends abruptly.
Of course the main draw in this volume is the Nibelungenlied itself, which doesn’t disappoint. Definitely check this edition out if you’re looking for a readable recent edition of the poem with a good bit of scholarly apparatus and some interesting appendices.
I read this after first reading the Norse “Volsung Saga” that is a major variation of the themes in the Nibelungenlied. The book is very comprehensively and well translated. On the whole it was an entertaining read, although it has some lengthy sections on courtly honour and melodrama which are fairly conceited and a bit tedious to read.
As an interesting counterpoint the Volsung saga shows very little Christian influence (compared to the Nibelungenlied) and is much more concerned with the mythological undertones of the drama of love and revenge that drive the plot in both renditions. By comparison the Nibelungenlied has noticeably scant reference to anything mystic, mythic or supernatural and the drama is presented in terms of emotions and medieval court politics with heavy Christian undertones of honour, righteousness and duty.