61 pages 2 hours read



Fiction | Novel/Book in Verse | Adult | Published in 1200

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Summary and Study Guide


Sometimes referred to as the “German Iliad,” Nibelungenlied is a 13th-century German epic poem that combines historical events with German heroic legend. The epic’s poet is unknown—though some clues within the text suggest that he was from Passau, Germany. The epic, which literally translates to “The Song of the Nibelungs” in English, portrays the Burgundians’ historic defeat by the Huns in the 5th century—the tragic result of the mythical queen Kriemhild’s desire to avenge her late husband, Siegfried. This story existed in German oral tradition long before The Nibelungenlied, but the epic was the first to put it in writing. Moreover, academics believe that The Nibelungenlied was the first written German epic poem and that it catalyzed the birth of the genre as a whole. Despite its considerable influence on German literature, The Nibelungenlied faded into obscurity around 1500 and was rediscovered in 1755. It quickly became a German national epic and inspired Richard Wagner’s operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (commonly known as the Ring cycle).

The Nibelungenlied was originally written in four-line stanzas in Middle High German. The first three lines of a stanza consist of three metrical feet, a caesura, and then three more metrical feet while the fourth and final line is even longer. The first three lines depict action and move the story along while the fourth line foreshadows the epic’s grim ending or judges an event. Most modern English translations forgo these four-line stanzas and reformat the text as prose.

This guide refers to A. T. Hatto’s prose-style translation published by Penguin Books in 1969.

Plot Summary

Kriemhild, a beautiful Burgundian princess, lives a happy life at her brother King Gunther’s court in Worms. As a child, she experiences a dream in which she raises a falcon that is killed by two eagles. Kriemhild’s mother, Uote, tells her that the falcon represents Kriemhild’s future husband, but the child retorts that she will never marry. Years later, bold Prince Siegfried of the Netherlands comes of age and decides to ask for Kriemhild’s hand in marriage. He arrives in Worms and lives at Gunther’s court for a year without ever seeing Kriemhild though Kriemhild watches him joust from her window. One day, envoys arrive in Burgundy to warn Gunther about an invasion of Saxons and Danes. Siegfried volunteers to help Gunther’s army fight and, together, they succeed. Siegfried’s prowess on the battlefield earns him Gunther’s respect, but Gunther’s mightiest vassal Hagen remains ambivalent towards him. After the battle, Gunther holds a festival and allows Siegfried to meet Kriemhild.

Gunther hears rumors of the beautiful but deadly Queen Brunhild of Iceland and becomes determined to marry her. Siegfried promises to help Gunther if he allows him to marry Kriemhild. Gunther agrees to Siegfried’s terms. Gunther, Siegfried, Hagen, and Hagen’s brother Dancwart sail to Iceland so Gunther can woo Brunhild by participating in an athletic competition against her. Brunhild requires her suitors to beat her in javelin, weight tossing, and leaping—with those who lose decapitated. When the party disembarks in Iceland, Siegfried tells Gunther to pretend that he is only a vassal rather than royalty. Siegfried uses a cloak of invisibility to help Gunther beat Brunhild, who reluctantly agrees to marry him. Siegfried and the Burgundians return to Worms with Brunhild, and wedding festivities begin. Gunther does not forget his promise to Siegfried, and Siegfried and Kriemhild also marry.

While Siegfried and Kriemhild have no issue consummating their marriage, Brunhild refuses to have sexual intercourse with Gunther and binds him with her girdle. Siegfried, seeing his friend humiliated by a woman, breaks Brunhild’s spirit by sneaking into her chamber dressed in his cloak of invisibility and subduing her. Siegfried steals Brunhild’s girdle and ring to give to Kriemhild, and Brunhild loses her strength.

Brunhild believes that Siegfried is only a vassal for several years and one day asks Gunther to invite Siegfried and Kriemhild to a festival in Worms. Siegfried and Kriemhild travel from Norway to attend. Kriemhild and Brunhild argue over whose husband ranks highest—only for Kriemhild to announce that Siegfried deflowered Brunhild. To prove her scandalous claim, she shows Brunhild the girdle and ring Siegfried stole. Hagen plots to kill Siegfried in order to restore Brunhild’s honor. Gunther tries to stop Hagen, but ultimately concedes.

Hagen learns from Kriemhild that Siegfried can be mortally wounded in a spot between his shoulder blades and asks her to sew a cross on his shirt to highlight the exact spot. Hagen kills Siegfried by piercing his weak spot with a javelin as the latter drinks from a stream. Kriemhild mourns and instinctively knows Hagen murdered Siegfried. Gunther tries to console his sister by bringing Siegfried’s treasure from Nibelungland to Burgundy, but Hagen sinks the treasure in the Rhine out of fear that Kriemhild will use the riches to raise an army against him.

Long after Siegfried’s death, King Etzel of Hungary sends his vassal Rüdiger of Pöchlarn to woo Kriemhild and bring her back to be Etzel’s bride. Though she has reservations about marrying a pagan, Kriemhild agrees to marry Etzel as it will help her avenge Siegfried’s death. Thirteen years after marrying Etzel, Kriemhild invites her family and Hagen to Hungary. Hagen senses that Kriemhild means to exact her revenge and wishes to stay in Burgundy, but Kriemhild’s brothers goad him into going with them.

While traveling to Hungary, Hagen comes across water-fairies (or nixies) swimming in the Danube. One tells Hagen that all the Burgundians except for the chaplain are destined to die at Etzel’s court. Hagen tries to prevent the prophecy by throwing the chaplain overboard, hoping he will drown.

The Burgundians reach Hungary and meet once-great lord Dietrich, who warns them of Kriemhild’s wrath. Kriemhild confronts Hagen in the courtyard before sending a horde of Hunnish knights to Dancwart’s chamber. Soon, the whole castle becomes a battleground as the Burgundians clash with horde after horde of Hunnish knights. All Burgundians aside from Hagen and Gunther die.

Dietrich captures both Hagen and Gunther and brings them to Kriemhild. Kriemhild lets them live—though she locks Hagen in a dungeon and interrogates him about Siegfried’s treasure. When Hagen refuses to answer, Kriemhild orders Gunther to be beheaded. Gunther’s beheading does not motivate Hagen to reveal his secret, and Kriemhild hacks off his head as well. Hildebrand, one of Dietrich’s men, kills Kriemhild to end the gory bloodbath, and Dietrich and Etzel are left to weep.