Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2019-20: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time
2019

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December

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2020

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Unit VIII: The Heroic Middle Ages A.D. 800-1200

Week 29: The Nibelungenlied, ca. 1200-1215

By class time this week, please have read:

Statue of mounted knight
Statue of knight, New York Metropolitan
Museum of Art. Photograph © Copyright 1999,
Bruce A. McMenomy

This week I have given you a set of selections from the Middle High German Nibelungenlied. I have narrowed it down to a kind of “good parts version”, since the whole is rather long, and I’d rather not rush you though everything. I’m not entirely satisfied with the selection, but one never is. What you have here should give you the gist of the story and a feel for the character of the verse and the general style of its composition.This week’s reading is not very long — only about twenty pages, printed out. If you want to do more, feel free.

The Penguin Classics version by A. T. Hatto is available quite widely. It is a solid, energetic translation of the text; Hatto’s “Introduction to a Second Reading” in the back is worth the price of the whole thing. It’s thoughtful, thorough, varied: it takes a number of different approaches to the text. A better translation than Armour’s (though still somewhat archaic) is available at the Online Medieval and Classical Library, though you will have to sift through it for the right adventures. If you are reading these in a different translation, make sure you have covered Adventures 1, 2, 5, 6, 14, 15, 16, 23, 28, and 39.

For those who’d like a little taste of the original text in Middle High German, here are the first couple of stanzas. If you know any modern German, you can tell that this is recognizably similar, but definitely a different language. No, I don’t expect you to be able to read Middle High German either...though it’s kind of fun.

Uns ist in alten mæren     wunders vil geseit
von helden lobebæren     von grôzer arebeit
von fröuden, hôchgezîten     von weinen und von klagen
von küener recken strîten     muget ir nu wunder hœren sagen.

Ez wuohs in Búrgónden     ein vil édel magedîn
daz in allen landen     niht schœners mohte sîn,
Kriemhilt geheizen:     si wart ein scœne wîp,
dar umbe muosen degene     vil verlíesén den lîp.

The story is basically the same tale as that of the Volsunga Saga, but it is profoundly different in presentation and tone, and it is mostly wrapped up in a single generation. The Nibelungenlied was written at the height of the poetic culture of the German Middle Ages — about 1200. It is full of knights and finery and jousting, and especially (particularly odd in the overall context of the story) notions of “courtly love” — in which a hero dotes upon an idealized lady from afar — someone he may not ever even have met. This is something we’ll encounter again in Chrétien de Troyes next week.

Kriemhild with the head of Gunther
Paul Fuseli (Fuessli):
Kriemhild shows the head of Gunther to Hagen.

Those who would like to may read Auerbach, Mimesis, “Adam and Eve”; it has nothing in particular to do with our reading this week, but it doesn’t have anything to do with any other week’s reading either. If you want to get another dose of this fine scholar’s literary thinking, though, it’s available. If not, that’s okay.

Consider for discussion this week:

  1. How do we separate the intrinsic content of the story (largely the same as in the Volsunga Saga) from the apparently circumstantial and ornamental characteristics? To what extent do those apparent outward flourishes alter the presentation of the story itself?
  2. Is the inner dynamic of the story consistent with the presentation as a courtly romance?
  3. Which version of this story do you like better? Is one better than the other?
  4. Which version would make a better movie, if you were provided with a generous budget?