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The Nibelungs

The time came when the people of Western Europe learned to believe

in one God and were converted to Christianity, but the old stories

about the gods and Valkyries and giants and heroes, who were half

gods and half men, were not forgotten.

These stories were repeated from father to son for generations,

and in the twelfth century a poet, whose name we do not know, wrote

them in verse. He called his poem th
Nibelungenlied (song of the

Nibelungs). It is the great national poem of the Germans. The

legends told in it are the basis of Wagner's operas.

"Nibelungs" was the name given to some northern dwarfs whose king

had once possessed a great treasure of gold and precious stones but

had lost it. Whoever got possession of this treasure was followed

by a curse. The Nibelungenlied tells the adventures of those who

possessed the treasure.

In the grand old city of Worms, in Burgundy, there lived long ago

the princess Kriemhilda. Her eldest brother Gunther was king of


And in the far-away Netherlands, where the Rhine pours its waters

into the sea, dwelt a prince named Siegfried, son of Siegmund, the


Ere long Sir Siegfried heard of the beauty of fair Kriemhilda.

He said to his father, "Give me twelve knights and I will ride to

King Gunther's land. I must win the heart of Kriemhilda."

After seven days' journey the prince and his company drew near to

the gates of Worms. All wondered who the strangers were and whence

they came. Hagen, Kriemhilda's uncle, guessed. He said, "I never

have seen the famed hero of Netherlands, yet I am sure that yonder

knight is none but Sir Siegfried."

"And who," asked the wondering people, "may Siegfried be?"

"Siegfried," answered Sir Hagen, "is a truly wonderful knight.

Once when riding all alone, he came to a mountain where lay the

treasure of the king of the Nibelungs. The king's two sons had

brought it out from the cave in which it had been hidden, to divide

it between them. But they did not agree about the division. So

when Seigfied drew near both princes said, 'Divide for us, Sir

Siegfried, our father's hoard.' There were so many jewels that

one hundred wagons could not carry them, and of ruddy gold there

was even more. Seigfied made the fairest division he could, and as

a reward the princes gave him their father's sword called Balmung.

But although Siegfried had done his best to satisfy them with his

division, they soon fell to quarreling and fighting, and when he

tried to separate them they made an attack on him. To save his own

life he slew them both. Alberich, a mountain dwarf, who had long

been guardian of the Nibelung hoard, rushed to avenge his masters;

but Siegfried vanquished him and took from him his cap of darkness

which made its wearer invisible and gave him the strength of twelve

men. The hero then ordered Alberich to place the treasure again

in the mountain cave and guard it for him."

Hagen then told another story of Siegfried:

"Once he slew a fierce dragon and bathed himself in its blood, and

this turned the hero's skin to horn, so that no sword or spear can

wound him."

When Hagen had told these tales he advised King Gunther and the

people of Burgundy to receive Siegfried with all honor.

So, as the fashion was in those times, games were held in

the courtyard of the palace in honor of Siegfried, and Kriemhilda

watched the sport from her window.

For a full year Siegfried stayed at the court of King Gunther,

but never in all that time told why he had come and never once saw


At the end of the year sudden tidings came that the Saxons and

Danes, as was their habit, were pillaging the lands of Burgundy.

At the head of a thousand Burgundian knights Siegfried conquered

both Saxons and Danes. The king of the Danes was taken prisoner

and the Saxon king surrendered.

The victorious warriors returned to Worms and the air was filled with

glad shouts of welcome. King Gunther asked Kriemhilda to welcome

Siegfried and offer him the thanks of all the land of Burgundy.

Siegfried stood before her, and she said, "Welcome, Sir Siegfried,

welcome; we thank you one and all." He bent before her and she

kissed him.

Far over the sea from sunny Burgundy lived Brunhilda, queen of

Iceland. Fair was she of face and strong beyond compare. If a

knight would woo and win her he must surpass her in three contests:

leaping, hurling the spear and pitching the stone. If he failed

in even one, he must forfeit his life.

King Gunther resolved to wed this strange princess and Siegfried

promised to help him. "But," said Siegfried, "if we succeed, I must

have as my wife thy sister Kriemhilda." To this Gunther agreed,

and the voyage to Iceland began.

When Gunther and his companions neared Brunhilda's palace the gates

were opened and the strangers were welcomed.

Siegfried thanked the queen for her kindness and told how Gunther

had come to Iceland in hope of winning her hand.

"If in three contests he gain the mastery," she said, "I will become

his wife. If not, both he and you who are with him must lose your


Brunhilda prepared for the contests. Her shield was so thick and

heavy that four strong men were needed to bear it. Three could

scarcely carry her spear and the stone that she hurled could just

be lifted by twelve.

Siegfried now helped Gunther in a wonderful way. He put on his

cap of darkness, so that no one could see him. Then he stood by

Gunther's side and did the fighting. Brunhilda threw her spear

against the kings bright shield and sparks flew from the steel.

But the unseen knight dealt Brunhilda such blows that she confessed

herself conquered.

In the second and third contests she fared no better, and so

she had to become King Gunther's bride. But she said that before

she would leave Iceland she must tell all her kinsmen. Daily her

kinsfolk came riding to the castle, and soon an army had assembled.

Then Gunther and his friends feared unfair play. So Siegfried

put on his cap of darkness, stepped into a boat, and went to the

Nibelung land where Alberich the dwarf was guarding the wonderful

Nibelung treasure.

"Bring me here," he cried to the dwarf, "a thousand Nibelung

knights." At the call of the dwarf the warriors gathered around

Sir Siegfried. Then they sailed with him to Brunhilda's isle and

the queen and her kinsmen, fearing such warriors, welcomed them

instead of fighting. Soon after their arrival King Gunther and

his men, Siegfried and his Nibelungs, and Queen Brunhilda, with

two thousand of her kinsmen set sail for King Gunther's land.

As soon as they reached Worms the marriage of Gunther and Brunhilda

took place. Siegfried and Kriemhilda also were married, and after

their marriage went to Siegfried's Netherlands castle. There they

lived more happily than I can tell.

Now comes the sad part of the Nibelung tale.

Brunhilda and Gunther invited Siegfried and Kriemhilda to visit them

at Worms. During the visit the two queens quarreled and Brunhilda

made Gunther angry with Siegfried. Hagen, too, began to hate

Siegfried and wished to kill him.

But Siegfried could not be wounded except in one spot on which

a falling leaf had rested when he bathed himself in the dragon's

blood. Only Kriemhilda knew where this spot was. Hagen told her

to sew a little silk cross upon Siegfried's dress to mark the spot,

so that he might defend Siegfried in a fight.

No battle was fought, but Siegfried went hunting with Gunther and

Hagen one day and they challenged him to race with them. He easily

won, but after running he was hot and thirsty and knelt to drink

at a spring. Then Hagen seized a spear and plunged it through the

cross into the hero's body. Thus the treasure of the Nibelungs

brought disaster to Siegfried.

Gunther and Hagen told Kriemhilda that robbers in the wood had

slain her husband, but she could not be deceived.

Kriemhilda determined to take vengeance on the murderers of Siegfried,

and so she would not leave Worms. There, too, stayed one thousand

knights who had followed Siegfried from the Nibelung land.

Soon after Siegfried's death Kriemhilda begged her younger brother

to bring the Nibelung treasure from the mountain cave to Worms.

When it arrived Kriemhilda gave gold and jewels to rich and poor

in Burgundy, and Hagen feared that soon she would win the love of

all the people and turn them against him. So, one day, he took

the treasure and hid it in the Rhine. He hoped some day to enjoy

it himself.

As Hagen now possessed the Nibelung treasure the name "Nibelungs"

was given to him and his companions.

Etzel, or as we call him, Attila, king of the Huns, heard of the

beauty of Kriemhilda and sent one of his knights to ask the queen

to become his wife.

At first she refused. However, when she remembered that Etzel

carried the sword of Tiew, she changed her mind, because, if she

became his wife, she might persuade him to take vengeance upon

Gunther and Hagen.

And so it came to pass.

Shortly after their marriage Etzel and Kriemhilda invited Gunther

and all his court to a grand midsummer festival in the land of the


Hagen was afraid to go, for he felt sure that Kriemhilda had not

forgiven the murder of Siegfried. However, it was decided that

the invitation should be accepted, but that ten thousand knights

should go with Gunther as a body-guard.

Shortly after Gunther and his followers arrived at Attila's court

a banquet was prepared. Nine thousand Burgundians were seated at

the board when Attila's brother came into the banquet hall with a

thousand well-armed knights. A quarrel arose and a fight followed.

Thousands of the Burgundians were slain. The struggle continued

for days. At last, of all the knights of Burgundy, Gunther and

Hagen alone were left alive. Then one of Kriemhilda's friends fought

with them and overpowered both. He bound them and delivered them

to Kriemhilda.

The queen ordered one of her knights to cut off Gunther's head, and

she herself cut off the head of Hagen with "Balmung," Siegfried's

wonderful sword. A friend of Hagen then avenged his death by

killing Kriemhilda herself.

Of all the Nibelungs who entered the land of the Huns one only ever

returned to Burgundy.