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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
______________________________________
"Der Bucherbund."

By Elsa D'Esterre-Keeling.
Volume 2, 1891/92, pg. 212-220


III. Volksepos.

In the first of the Bucherbund papers it was said that the answer to the question, "What were the Germans doing in Literature up to the Beginning of the Crusades?" was this: "They were singing the stray songs which were afterwards strung together and named the Nihelungen and Gudrun." It is epics like these that the Germans call national epics. He who asks the names the authors of them is met with a smile.[1] If it interest him he may learn the names of the -- possible -- compilers of them. According to one view, the Minnesanger called der Kurenberger, who lived in the twelfth century; according to another view, his contemporary, also a Minnesanger, Friedrich von Hausen, was the compiler of the finest German Volksepos. According to a third view, neither of these men was the compiler! Interesting, then, as this subject of authorship, or rather, compilership, is, it will perhaps be more worth our while to consider the poems themselves.

The work now commonly called "Nibelungenlied" -- its old significant name is "der Nibelunge Not" -- dates in its present shape from the twelfth century. The language of it is "mittel-hochdeutsch" -- Medieval High German -- the literary language of Germany from the time of the Crusades to the Reformation, in round numbers, from 1100--1500. The subject of it is briefly the story of an old Burgundian family, which story falls into two portions, the first one ending with the death of Siegfried, the husband of the Burgundian Princess Chriemhilde, who is the heroine of the poem, the second ending with Chriemhilde's revenge.

The Germans love to call this poem their Iliad. The name is ill-chosen, as is shown by the very form of the German poem. The Nibelungenlied is a song. The tinkling of rime goes through it all, the measure of it is a dancing one, so little stately and grand that you could rock a child on your foot to it quite as well as to "Ride a cock horse." Let no one think less of it for that; ere is nothing in literature more wonderful than this saddest and strangest of tales that is told in a song, with ding-dong-bell at the end of it as at the end of Ariel's dirge.

The story is this:--

In Burgundy there lived at Worms a princess called Chriemhilde, with her mother, Ute, and her three brothers, Gunther, Gernot, and Giselher. One night in a dream the princess saw two eagles pounce on her favourite falcon. A bad dream that, according to mother Ute, one meaning that two villains should pounce on her lord and husband. Lord and husband, quotha ! as if she, Chriemhilde, ever meant to wed! Smiles and headshaking from mother Ute.

At Worms arrives Prince Siegfried of the Netherlands, with intention to woo Chriemhilde. Nobody at the Burgundian court knows the Prince, save Hagen, the uncle of the Princess. Hagen tells of Siegfried and his wonderful deeds and attributes, that he is invulnerable--Siegfried of the horned [2] skin had bathed in a dragon's blood, and but one little spot in all his body was vulnerable,[3] a spot whereon a linden-leaf had fallen as he was bathing;--that he was owner of the "Tarnkappe," a cap won from the dwarf Alberich, and which made the wearer of it invisible;--finally, that his was the sword Balmung that carried victory in its blade.[4]

A formidable person this. He is received with all honour, and after a while declares his intention of winning Burgundy with his good sword Balmung. He is, however, pacified, and makes a year's sojourn at the court. In all this time he never sees Chriemhilde. Now two neighbouring kings declare war against Gunther. They are repulsed with the aid of Siegfried, and the victors hold a twelve days' feast, at which Siegfried for the first time sees Chriemhilde, who bows[5] to him, as bidden by her brothers. Gunther hears of the beautiful Brunhilde, and the three conditions which he who hopes to win her must fulfil. He must throw the spear further than she can throw it, must hurl the stone further than she can hurl it, must leap higher than she can leap. With the aid of Siegfried, Gunther, who is but a surry here, relies on being able to do all this. He sets out for Ilsenstein, the castle of Brunhilde, accompanied by Siegfried and his two uncles, Hagen and Dankwart. To Siegfried is promised Chriemhilde, if he will help to win Brunhilde. They arrive at Ilsenstein, and Brunhilde thinks that Siegfried has come to woo her, but Sigfried gives Gunther the first place and consents to play the part of his follower. When the feats are to be accomplished, he dons his "Tarnkappe" and, unseen, lends his strong hands to Gunther, so that the spear and stone are hurled further than ever spear or stone were hurled before; then, still unseen, he takes Gunther in his mighty arms and leaps with him higher than ever before leaped man or woman, and Brunhilde can leap very high. Thus the princess is won by fraud by one whom she loathes--Gunther. On arriving at Worms, she is warmly received by Chriemhilde, and Siegfried reminds Gunther of his promise. The Burgundian prince is as good as his word, and the betrothal of Siegfried with Chriemhilde takes place. We have hereupon another feast, at which there is only one sad guest, that guest the lady Brunhilde, who explains that she grieves to see Chriemhilde married to one who is but the follower, the vassal, of Gunther. Gunther, who hears this said, is much embarrassed, and tries to smooth matters; in vain. Being afterwards alone with his wife, he puts his arms about her. Too much familiarity, this; a golden girdle is whipt off, and lo and behold the loving Gunther hangs dangling from a nail on the wall. There he hangs a long, long night, for only in the morning does the princess take him down. Something must be done. As usual, the brave Gunther sends for Seigfried, and, well hidden by his "Tarnkappe," Siegfried wrestles with the princess, and wins from her her ring and girdle. Then Brunhilde owns herself fairy won, little knowing, alas! how falsely won she has been.

Gunther is taken into her favour, and Siegfried returns to the Netherlands with Chriemhilde. The two young couples live happily for ten years, and courtesies are exchanged. A son being born to Chriemhilde, she calls him, in compliment to the Burgundians, Gunther; a son being born to Brunhilde, she calls him, in compliment to the Netherlands, Siegfried. But all the time mischief is brewing. Brunhilde insists passionately that Siegfried should pay a vassal's homage to Gunther; she invites him and his wife to Burgundy, and on their arriving there welcomes them warmly. Feast follows feast, and all is peace and joy for a while. . . . But sudden and dreadful is the death which is in store for Siegfried; for Hagen, with the consent of Gunther, kills him from behind. He then has the dead body of the hero laid across Chriemhilde's door. Heartrending is that lady's grief, and for three and a half years she refuses to be reconciled to her kinsfolk; but then she holds out her hand to her brother, and even permits the Nibelungenhoard -- which is hers through her husband, who vanquished the Nibelungen -- to be brought from the Netherlands to Worms. Sink it in the Rhine, says Hagen, and they sink it n the Rhine. Thus in every way they wrong Chriemhilde.

Thirteen years pass. Then Etzel (Attila) loses his wife, and sues through Lord Rudiger for the hand of the widowed queen. Chriemhilde agrees to wed Etzel if Rudiger will swear to do her bidding in the future. This settled, they depart for the land of the Huns, the queen's brothers escorting her part of the way. The wedding takes place, and seven years pass. Chriemhilde has a son, whom she calls Ortlieb. Ten years pass. Chriemhilde's golden hair must be turning grey; the young gay princess whom first we met has turned into a terrible queen. We hear nowhere of a queen so terrible as this one, who, as the years -- twenty long years -- go by, cherishes hatred and revenge in her quiet heart; is wooed and wedded again, is mother again, and keeps in her heart only one memory. She asks of Attila one day to invite her brothers to their home, not forgetting Hagen. . . . The queen receives them smiling, though she only kisses her young brother, Giselher. She bids them lay aside their swords, as befitting guests, but this Hagen refuses to do as he takes his seat sullenly behind his bosom-comrade Volker, that great minstrel-warrior whose sword made

music. As Chriemhilde approaches them Volker rises, but not so Hagen, who looks at the queen with his quick eyes, and across whose knees lies the sword of Siegfried. Night comes on, and the guests go to rest. Volker plays them to sleep with his fiddle-sword. Next morning a mass is celebrated, and all the Burgundians go to church armed, a Burgundian custom, as Hagen says, lying. Mischief is in the air. Volker in anger slays a prominent Hun, and Chriemhilde asks Dietrich to avenge the insult; but this Dietrich refuses to do. Then the queen asks Blodel, the brother of Etzel, to avenge the insult, and he agrees to do so on promise of lands and a wife. Etzel and Chriemhilde go to table with their guests, and the queen's child is brought in and goes the round of the table. Hagen grimly prophesies the boy a short life. Meanwhile Blodel, with a host of men, attacks the tent in which Dankwart, Hagen's brother, feasts with the Burgundian host. A battle is begun, and Blodel is killed by Dankwart, but the Huns avenge the death of their leader, and all the Burgundians in the tent are killed, save Dankwart, who reaches the tent in which the princes feast, and tells his dreadful tale from the door. The first to retaliate on the Huns is Hagen who cuts off the head of their boy prince. The massacre becomes general; . . . . until to avenge the many dead there are only now four living heroes -- on the side of the queen, Dietrich and Hildebrand; on the side of the Burgundians, Gunther and Hagen. The latter two are taken captive and brought bound to Chriemhilde, who asks of Hagen to give her back the Nibelungenhoard. On Hagen's refusing to do this as long as the king lives, Chriemhilde confronts him with the head of her brother. Hagen's face grows terrible, but he is bound; he cannot strike, but he keeps his secret. Then Chriemhilde seizes his sword and kills him, whereat old Hildebrand, with eyes ablaze, kills her. And out of the great silence which falls now rises only a sound of two weeping. They are Dietrich and Etzel.

Such is the story of the Nibelungen, swelled to a long poem by description of

"races and games

And tilting furniture, emblazon'd shields,
Impresses quaint, comparisons and steeds,
Bases and tinsel trappings, gorgeous knights
At joust and tournament, then marshall'd feast
Served up in hall."

Ay, Milton knew what made an epic!

A heathen song -- so some have, wrongly, called the Nibelungenlied. The highest moral that was ever contained in heathen song is this: Be brave.

That is not the moral of the Nibelungenlied, but if I read it all aright, the moral contained in it is this: Be true, be loyal. Every lie told by these heroes brings its punishment. The reader will have noticed how Siegfried lied in act at Ilsenstein, how Hagen lied in act and word from the beginning to the end. In like way, acts of loyality meet their reward. When Rudiger, whose loyality is put to a harder test than that of any other among these heroes, dies, even Chriemhilde weeps, and iron-hearted Hagen is softened at sight of his old brother-warrior coming with sad heart to fight against him, because a promise given was a promise that had to be redeemed. This circumstance alone, that truth (the Germans rightly give this name to loyalty) is kept well in view throughout the Nibelunglied, would be sufficient to prove the incorrectness of calling the Nibelungenlied a German Iliad. To do so might almost be said to be like comparing a glorification of bravery, mere body's bravery, with a glorification of truth, which I take to be soul's bravery. As regards its higher moral tone, the German epic is as superior to the Greek epic as it is inferior to it in beauty and strength of language and in variety of incident.

Something must be said of the style of the poem.

The following is the first stanza n the old language: --

Uns ist in alten Maren Wunders viel gesagt
Von lobebaren Helden, von grosser Arbeit [Kuhnheit],
Von Freuden, Hochzeiten, von Weinen und von Klagen,
Von kuhner Recken [Krieger]. Streiten moget lhr nun Wunder horen sagen.

In Carlyle's sturdy translation the stanza runs: --
"We find in ancient story wonders many told
Of heroes of great glory, of spirit free and bold,
Of joyances and hightides, of weeping and of woe,
Of noble recken striving mote ye now wonders know."

If only as a study of language, one or two cantos of the poem in the old language should be read by every earnest student. The following words, but a few taken at random, will show how near to living English is this dead old German.

NIBELUNGENLIED. MODERN GERMAN.

(illegible) klein Cp. E. "little"
niuw neu Cp. pronunciation of E. "aew."
was war Cp. E. "was."
bald kuhn Cp. E. "bold."
barn Kind Cp. E. "bairn."
werlt Welt Cp. E. "world."

The use to which some words are put is interesting. We find "enough" used to denote "many," and "many" used to denote "all." "Light irony" this, say the commentators. "Light irony" too they call the use of seldom for -- "never." It is instructive to see the word bescheiden used in its old sense of "well-informed." Some fine compound adjectives occur; such are sturmkuhne, sturmmude. The negative prefix is used largely, to lange being opposed unlange, to nah, unnah. This is pretty and childlike. Many other peculiarities might be pointed out. Sometimes the reader grimaces -- as when the nameless singer, wishing to give an idea of the hospitality that reigned at the Burgundian court, says that at the table of the king many dresses became wet with wine; sometimes he smiles, as when, speaking seriously of old and young, the poet makes use of the words "die weisen und die dummen."
Of Gudrun or Kutrun, the sister-epic of the Nibelungenlied, a little must be said. It is probably of somewhat later date, being thought to belong in its present form to the middle of the thirteenth century. It deals with the Saxons and Normans, is what Germans call a Saxo-Norman epic. They dignify it with the name of "German Odyssey," which name it is no dispraise to it to say it does not in the least merit. A dewdrop, as we all know, is quite perfect in its own way, and is one of earth's lovely things, but it is not wise to liken it to the ocean.
Most marked, perhaps, among the many differences between the Nibelungenlied and Gudrun is the circumstance that, whereas the Nibelungenlied deals wholly with landfaring folk -- we have that long overland journey from Western Europe about the Rhine, to eastern Europe about the Danube -- Gudrun deals solely with seafaring folk, whose homes are in the north of Europe, washed by the German Ocean and bounded east and west by Elbe and Seine. This poem tells us the story of three generations of kings. The first of these, Hagen, has his home in Ireland, but his daughter Hilde marries Hettle, king of the Hegelings,[7] and it is the story of the daughter of Hettle and Hilde, that is, Gudrun, that forms the most important part of the poem. The princess Gudrun is carried off from her home by Hartmut, Prince of Normandy, but rather than marry him, and break her faith pledged to Herwig, King of Zealand, she consents to do the lowliest work for the cruel Norman queen-mother Gerlinde, who sets the faithful princess to wash clothes by the seaside, clad only in a white shift; then, finding that this will not break her courage, sets her to wash by the shore, clad only in -- a little black shift. The high-hearted princess has the reward she deserves: her own lover finds her and wins her, and the poem ends with the ringing of wedding-bells.
A perfect comedy this is in the manner of Shakespeare. First cloud chases cloud across a summer sky; once or twice a cloudmass hides the sun wholly from view, but the edges of the clouds grow brighter and brighter, and suddenly the sun breaks forth, flooding all a world with golden light. And just as Gudrun is a comedy, as Shakespeare understood comedy, and no German-Greek epic, so the Nibelungenlied is a tragedy, as Shakespeare understood tragedy, and no German-Greek epic. That fair and pale-faced lady, ambitious, ruthless Chriemhilde, strong, fierce woman, stronger, fiercer than all the strong, fierce warriors around her, has no Greek counterpart, but has indeed a counterpart in the fair, pale-faced, and fierce woman whom Shakespeare sets before us saying,

"unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty!"

Bad women these, and boldly bad. Their husbands have some goodness, but they are not -- boldly good; they stoop to lies, in word and act; they fear. A feature that the women have in common is this, that both are superbly fearless; strong in affection, will, and intellect; they sin alike through love.
(To be continued.)

Questions to be answered by students of the above [8]: --
First Class Paper: --
1. Translate into German paragraph 2 of this paper on Volksepos (beginning "The work now commonly called" and ending "Chriemhilde's revenge").
2. Write a vindication of Chriemhilde, or Brunhilde, or -- state why neither can in your opinion be vindicated, and which appears to you the more reprehensible of the two. (In German.)
3. State what were the leading characteristics of the old Greeks as handed down in tradition, and what are still the characteristics of the Germanic peoples. (In German.)

Second Class Paper: --
1. Summarise this paper on Volksepos.
2. Question 2 above. (In English.)
3. Question 3 above. (In English.)
Books of Interest in Connection with Volksepos: --
Das Nibelungenlied (old text). Edited by Bartsch.
Das Nibelungenlied (modern German version). By Simrock.

Writers of Honour Papers (over 3/4 marks): -- Miss Dorothy Stone; Miss Maud Lloyd. [9]


[1] This reminds me of a little story about the Brahmans I once heard the Rev. Father Black tell. A pious Brahman was asked who was the author of the book which to him is what our Bible is to us. "Who was the author?" he repeated, horror-stricken. "The author? Why, it is self-existent."

[2] Merely, reader, remember! to be taken in the figurative sense as meaning invulnerable.

[3] Cf. Achilles' heel.

[4] Roland's sword Durendal (see Bucherbund II.), and Arthur's sword Excalibur, will come to mind.

[5] The woman once bowed first in Germany. Now she waits for the man to bow.

[6] Wunders -- a genitive singular.

[7] Frisians.

[8] No one answer to exceed two pages in writing.

[9] Answers to the "Bucherbund" questions to be sent in to Miss Elsa D'Esterre-Keeling, 41, Holland Road, Kensington, London. Annual fee for "Bucherbund" studentship, One Guinea.


Typed August 2013