One of the finest German medieval epic poems, The Lay of the Nibelungs is perhaps best known now as one of the principal sources for Wagner’s four-part music drama The Ring of the Nibelung. It is easy to see how Wagner was enthralled by the story and the poetry for the power of the tale drives the narrative: intense love, loyalty, jealousy, murder, duty, honour and massacre are all interwoven into a classic.
Many of the figures known to us by Wagner’s opera cycle are here: Alberich, Siegmund, Sieglind, Siegfried, Brunhilda, Gunther and Hagen, sometimes in familiar roles, sometimes very different from expectations.
The tragedy is driven by the enmity between two women who were originally friends - Brunhilda, who becomes the wife of Gunther, and Kriemhilda, Siegfried’s wife. A feud between the sisters-in-law leads to conflict and mayhem. Hagen has the dark persona which prompts him to commit treacherous murder, leading the protagonists to a final terrible end.
Unlike the Wagnerian version (he drew in the main from the Volsung Saga version, but also made the saga his own), there is no interference from gods or giants, and apart from the appearance of the ‘hood of darkness’, Tarnhelm, which confers mysterious powers on its wearer, there is little magic.
But this does not lessen the immense power of The Lay of the Nibelungs, as it moves inexorably forward to its climactic conclusion. The structure of the poem is crucial to the drama of the telling.
The anonymous poet established a form based on a steady four-line stanza with rhyming couplets. But the strength of it lies in the metre, three metrical feet, a caesura, and another three metrical feet, for the first three lines, adding an extra metrical foot for the last line for emphasis.
This classic verse translation by Alice Horton, edited by Edward Bell and revised for this recording, is still regarded by scholars as perhaps the most faithful to the 13th century German original. Though modern prose versions are available, they do not have the poetic grandeur befitting such a tale, and Horton’s verse is ideal for an audio recording. David Rintoul brings his decades of experience in classical theatre to bear in his stirring performance.
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- Charles Grey
A Classic Medieval German Epic Brought to Life
The Lay of the Nibelungs, also known as The Nibelungenlied, is an indispensable work of medieval European literature. It tells the story of Siegfried the dragon-slayer, who became famous by killing the serpent Fafnir. When Siegfried killed the dragon, he bathed in its blood, which made him impervious to piercing weapons (except for one fateful spot on his back which was covered by a leaf during the bathing), and bestowed on him the gift of being able to understand the speech of birds. Siegfried ends up traveling to another realm where he helps a Germanic king (named Gunther) win the love of a sovereign warrior-queen (Kriemhilde) through the use of magic and deception. Ultimately, the dragon-slayer is betrayed by this king; he is literally stabbed (speared) in the back by Hagen, the king's half-brother, who is aware of Siegfried's vulnerability. When Kriemhilde discovers the deception, she wreaks bloody vengeance upon all who were involved in the conspiracy against Siegfried. All hell breaks loose, and the conspirators suffer gruesome fates. The story is relatively simple, but it's one of the most compelling revenge tales ever told.
Richard Wagner drew upon this source, along with the Icelandic Volsung Saga (in which the Siegfried character is called Sigurd), for the plot structure of his magnificent 4-part cycle of music dramas known as The Ring of the Nibelungs. The pagan elements of Norse mythology in Wagner's work are not present in The Lay of the Nibelungs, which appears to have been written in a Christian context (there is no mention of Odin or the Norse gods in this work), but are present in the Icelandic saga, and were amplified by Wagner.
If you find this story and the circumstances of its composition interesting, then you may want to check out Fritz Lang's excellent silent film Die Nibelungen, which is quite faithful to the original source. For 1920s'-era special effects, the dragon is fairly impressive. Some of the sets (Kriemhilde's castle, surrounded by a ring of fire, for example), are simply stunning.
Thank you, Ukemi, for bringing out this excellent edition of a literary work which is both an indispensable piece of European heritage and a priceless cultural treasure. Thanks to Audible for distributing it.
5 people found this helpful
Another Fabulous Grab Bag
While a mere third of the length of Spenser’s Faerie Queene and without that poem’s heady blend of Catholic, Protestant, mystical, mythical and legendary elements, I’m going to reprise my headline for that work: this is indeed another fabulous grab bag.
Though the Nibelung poet blended a mere two elements (that I can see), these are so radically disparate that the effect is fascinating. Here we have an old Norse/Germanic saga replete with mighty men and even stronger-willed women, passion, murder and the inevitable cycle of revenge, told with all the chivalric trappings of a Medieval romance. Lances are shattered. Masses are heard. Yet behind it all broods the relentless, untrammeled fury of the pre-Christian northern stories.
David Rintoul serves it up perfectly. Unfortunately, the “modernized” text eliminates an occasional rhyme, but that’s about the only flaw in this otherwise flawless production.
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