Saturday, February 7, 2015

Book Review: The Nibelungenlied

Give me one public library and I can give youths a better appreciation for the world as it really is than 12 years of public education. The Nibelungenlied is an epic poem from out of medieval Germany that one critic has compared to The Iliad in scope and power. I wouldn't put it in that category but I was struck by a number of "red pill" truths it contained. Contra Cypher, you really can't go back into the Matrix. It doesn't make much sense to give a spoiler warning for a nearly thousand year old poem, so I'm going to quickly summarize the plot.

Siegfried is a mighty warrior who is nigh invulnerable after bathing in the blood of a dragon he has slain save for one spot on his back. He travels to Burgundy to win the hand of Princess Kriemhild, brother of King Gunther, and the fairest woman in the land. Gunther offers Siegfried the hand of Kriemhild in marriage if Siegfried agrees to help him woo Brunhild, the queen of Iceland. Brunhild refuses to marry just anyone. Only the man who can best her in three athletic contests shall have her, and those who fail forfeit their lives. Siegfried is a magnificent figure so upon disembarking in Iceland, the travelers agree to falsely declare Siegfried to be Gunther's vassal, although they are in reality of equal rank. Gunther is no match for Brunhild, so Siegfried dons a magic cloak of invisibility to assist Gunther in the contests. He wins and Brunhild agrees to marry him.

Upon returning to Burgundy, Siegfried marries Kriemhild and Gunther marries Brunhild. Brunhild suspects something was fishy about the circumstances of her marriage. On their wedding night, she trusses up Gunther like a pig and leaves him hanging all night rather than let him sleep with her. Gunther complains to Siegfried about it who dons his magic cloak again and proceeds to beat her up in the dark of night. Brunhild, thinking it was Gunther, concedes that he has defeated her and consents to her wifely duty.

Years later, Brunhild is still suspicious. She's still under the impression that Siegfried is Gunther's vassal instead of a king in his own right. Siegfried and Kriemhild are invited to Burgundy. Kriemhild and Brunhild get into an argument over who has the right to enter the church first for Mass. The two women's quarrel escalates into a screaming match that leaves Brunhild in tears. Gunther's greatest warrior, Hagen, decides that Siegfried has to die to protect the honor of his king and queen. Hagen tricks Kriemhild into revealing Siegfried's vulnerable spot and kills him on an expedition.

Kriemhild is stricken with grief and begins plotting a bloody revenge. Many years later she marries King Etzel of Hungary. She persuades her husband to throw a big feast for midsummer's even and invites her extended family and their retinues. Hagen suspects something is up but they all go anyway. Needless to say, the trap is eventually sprung. Thousands of knights on both sides are slain. Eventually only Gunther and Hagen survive and they're captured. Kriemhild personally executes them both. One of the onlookers is so disgusted at the extent to which evil has consumed her, she herself gets hacked down.

A number of things occurred to me. Brunhild refuses to marry anyone except the finest man of all. Those who fail are not even worthy of escaping with their lives. The climax of part one, the death of Siegfried, is a result of Brunhild being angry that her husband might not be the most alpha of them all. Hypergamy was alive and well in medieval Germany. Hagen is an interesting case. He murdered Siegfried because he wanted to protect the honor of his king and queen. The poem repeatedly describes him as one of the greatest warriors in the land despite his treachery. Hagen is an example of the old Catholic principle that we cannot do evil that good may come of it. Noble intentions cannot make evil into good.

King Gunther initially doesn't want to go along with the plan, but he gives his assent through his silence. Gunther and Hagen loved Siegfried like a brother at the beginning of the story. They agree to kill him to tie up the loose ends of how Siegfried bested Brunhild both on the athletic field and in the bedroom. That decision seals their fate in the second part. Women are not worth killing over. Nor should they destroy the bonds of friendship. As they say on the internet, bros before hos.

Kriemhild is literally made a widow through the betrayal of those she loved. Nonetheless, she is a good analogy to the alpha widow in our time. Her family and friends repeatedly tell her that she has to move on some time, but she swears she will mourn Siegfried and have her revenge if it kills her, which it eventually does. Kriemhild is at first a sympathetic figure but her hatred twists her into something monstrous. She agrees to marry King Etzel because she secretly wishes to use his wealth and his many knights to exact her revenge for her dead husband. King Etzel is a good man who truly loves Kriemhild and until the bitter end it never occurs to him that he's being used. All of Kriemhild's brothers die in the ensuing melee and she personally strikes off the head of her brother King Gunther. The son she had with King Etzel is killed and she considers it worth the price of revenge.

In our time, alpha widows will spend their lives dreaming of that five minutes of alpha they had even as they spend a lifetime with a beta. If a woman has decided she loves a man, she will do absolutely anything to make it happen. She'll quit her job, she'll move across the country, she'll blow up her marriage and even abandon her own children. Murder and an ocean of blood were the result of two women quarreling over whose husband had higher status.

This poem also drove home to me the notion of forgiveness. None of it would have happened if Kriemhild could have forgiven those who wronged her. Easier said than done of course. It's natural to feel a desire for vengeance when we've been wronged. Justice demands restitution of some sort either in this life or the next. But in the end, Kriemhild's desire for revenge made her into a monster that got thousands of brave knights killed to appease her rage. She herself is cut down in the end. I'm a firm believer in living well is the best revenge. Dwelling on anger and old grudges hurts you more than it does the object of your wrath.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Going to link this in a post I'm writing.