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No poem in German literature is so well known and studied in Germany and Europe as the 800-year-old Das Nibelungenlied. In the English-speaking world, however, the poem has remained little known, languishing without an adequate translation. This wonderful new translation by eminent translator Burton Raffel brings the epic poem to life in English for the first time, rendering it in verse that does full justice to the original High Middle German. His translation underscores the formal aspects of the poem and preserves its haunting beauty. Often called the German lliad, Das Nibelungenlied is a heroic epic both national in character and sweeping in scope. The poem moves inexorably from romance through tragedy to holocaust. It portrays the existential struggles and downfall of an entire people, the Burgundians, in a military conflict with the Huns and their king. In his foreword to the book, Michael Dirda observes that the story “could be easily updated to describe the downfall of a Mafia crime family, something like The Godfather, with swords.” The tremendous appeal of Das Nibelungenlied throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is reflected in such works as Richard Wagner’s opera tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen, Fritz Lang’s two-part film Die Nibelungen, and, more recently, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
The Principal Characters
Albericht (Nibelung dwarf, guardian of the great Nibelung treasure) Bloedelin (Etzel's brother, royal duke) Brunhild (Icelandic queen) Dancwart (Hagen's brother) Dietelind (Rudiger and Gotelind's daughter) Dietrich (ruler of Berne, famous knight) Eckewart (nonroyal Burgundian nobleman) Elza (Gelpfrat's brother) Etzel (king of the Huns) Gelpfrat (Bavarian count) Gera (nonroyal Burgundian nobleman) Gernot (second-ranking Burgundian king) Giselher (third-ranking and youngest Burgundian king) Gotelind (Rudiger's wife) Gunter (senior-because oldest-Burgundian king) Hagen (nonroyal Burgundian nobleman) Hildebrand (Dietrich's teacher, master swordsman) Irinc (nonroyal Danish count at Etzel's court) Krimhild (Burgundian princess, daughter of Dancrat and Otta) Ludegast (king of Denmark) Ludiger (Saxon lord) Ortliep (Etzel and Krimhild's son) Ortwin (nonroyal Burgundian nobleman) Otta (dowager Burgundian queen,mother of Gunter, Gernot, Giselher, and Krimhild) Pilgrim (bishop of Passau, Otta's brother) Rudiger (nonroyal Hunnish lord, count of Bechalaren) Rumolt (nonroyal Hunnish nobleman, a famous cook) Sifried (Netherlands prince, later king) Sigelind (Netherlands queen, Sifried's mother) Sigemund (Netherlands king, Sifried's father) Swemmeline (court musician to Etzel) Volker (nonroyal Burgundian nobleman and musician) Warbel (court musician to Etzel) Wolfhart (knight, in service to Dietrich; Hildebrand's nephew)
Krimhild's Childhood at the Burgundian Court
1 We know from ancient stories filled with wondrous names how heroes fought for glory, won their fight for fame, their flowing feasts and pleasures, their tears, their moans, their mourning, their noble quarrels and courage, and here once more is more of the same.
2 In Burgundy there lived an incredibly noble girl, more beautiful than any you'll see here on this earth. Her name was Krimhild, born to be someone's lovely wife. And yet, because of her many warriors lost their lives.
3 She seemed perfectly made for every man to win, but though she was rude to no one everyone wooed in vain. Her beauty was hard to believe, her virtues hard to achieve. Hers were virtues other women should surely strive to attain.
4 The girl grew up protected by three powerful kings who were brothers: Gunter and Gernot, known for their strength and courage, and Giselher the young, whose fame had begun to ring. They guarded Krimhild, their sister; she put her faith and her trust in them.
5 These knights were generous nobles, lords and leaders born, masters of men, and brave, wonderfully tall and strong, and the land they lived in and ruled was a kingdom everywhere known as Burgundy. Later, in Etzel's land, they fought like the giants they were.
6 They lived at Wurms, along the Rhine, proud of their might, loyally served and followed by many haughty men who faithfully fought beside them until the very end. Their deaths were wretched, caused by noble women's hate and spite.
7 These were the children of Lady Otta, a powerful princess. Their father's name had been Dancrat. He'd gone to his grave proud and famous, that noble knight, leaving his family rich, holding all the lands, enjoying all the wealth he'd won.
8 Now these three brothers, as I have told you once already, could not have been braver men. And those who served these kings were also fighters as famous as any alive or dead, strong and eager for battle, daring, fierce, wholly unyielding.
9 Hagen of Troneg was one, and also his brother Dancwart of high and glorious fame, and Ortwin who came from Metz, and that pair of noble counts, Gera and Eckewart, and Volker from Alzei, graced with enormous strength and a valiant heart.
10 And Rumolt, master cook known for his feats in war, Sindolt and Hunolt, who fought to protect their masters' fame-noble and known, and all of them serving the same three kings. And there were many more, but no one now can tell you their names.
11 Dancwart was the kings' head groom, and Dancwart's brother's son, Ortwin, who came from Metz, was steward of halls and hoards. Sindolt, a marvelous fighter, filled their cups with wine. Hunolt guarded their gold. And all of them were shields for their lords.
12 But to tell the height of their glory, and what they did with their might, how it was seen and known , and their grace and goodness as knights, the joyful lives they led, serving at honor's call, no one can put into words, no one ever describe it all.
13 Living surrounded by splendor Krimhild dreamed a dream: she had trained a falcon, glorious, strong-winged, fierce, and wild, and a pair of eagles tore it apart in front of her eyes. No pain, no sorrow in all the world could be worse than what she'd seen.
14 She went to Lady Otta and told her mother the dream. Otta could only find a single truthful meaning: "The falcon you train must be some noble heroic man, but if God will not protect him, you will be sure to lose him soon."
15 "Mother, my lovely mother, why do you speak about men? Men mean nothing to me, I'll never care about them. I want to keep my beauty until the day of my death, I see no use for their love, no need for the pain they always bring."
16 "Don't say such bitter things," her mother answered. "If ever you hope to be happy, here in this world, only a man's love can bring you that joy. You'll become a beautiful woman if God grants you the love of a hero, an honest, faithful husband."
17 "You're wasting words on me, my Lady," the girl declared. "Love becomes great sorrow, and soon, for too many wives, for woman after woman. I want nothing marriage can give me, I'll keep myself for myself, and nothing will ever go wrong."
18 Thus Krimhild set her mind against all thought of love. She lived loveless through many happy days, no one troubling her heart. And yet, in the end, her heart would be won by a brave and courteous knight, and she'd become his faithful wife.
19 He was indeed the falcon she'd seen that night in her dream, just as her mother said. And then the revenge that was done against her nearest kin for killing that husband! One death caused more, and many, many weeping mothers lost their sons.
20 In the Netherlands, meanwhile, a son was born to a noble prince named Sigemund and a queen named Sigelind. They lived in a wealthy town stretching wide across the hinterland of the River Rhine, and in the prince's castle, Santen.
21 The boy was Sifried, a nimble, strong young fighter. His courage served him well, in many different lands. His wonderful vigor led him to journey through many kingdoms, until one day the fine young man rode with his men to Burgundy!
22 Before he'd reached the height of his strength, in his younger days, men were telling stories of all that Sifried could do, and much he'd already done. The boy was so handsome he dazed women, and many noble ladies desperately longed for his love.
23 It was clear the young man's rearing required the deftest hands, yet equally plain how much he was able to learn by himself! No one doubted he'd be a proper prince for his land, for everything he did was correct, courageous, and incredibly strong.
24 He'd grown enough to attend his father's court, where ladies and courtiers alike were glad to see him. Many maidens and many ladies wished he'd stay forever, as the brave young man was well aware, knowing the fine impression he made.
25 Most of the time, an attendant rode beside their son, Sigemund's and Sigelind's. The boy wore beautiful clothes. Wise men were gathered around him, who knew what honor was, and so he learned how kingdoms, lands and peoples, were meant to be won.
26 And when he was strong enough to handle swords and shields, he showed he was more than ready, had been born for the battlefield. Developing an interest in women, he bore himself so well that ladies were honored to make his powerful heart beat fast.
27 And so his father, Sigemund, announced for all to hear there'd be a celebration, and his closest friends would attend. Men from other kingdoms heard and hurried there. He gave each one a splendid horse and fine new clothes to wear.
28 And wherever anyone found a younger warrior in families as noble as Sigemund's son, they brought these fledgling fighters with them, from far and near, to join the celebration. Together with Sigemund's son all were finally anointed knights.
29 Magnificent tales could be told of Sigemund's celebration. The king and queen were both well and truly rewarded, honored for the gifts they gave, for their hands were always open. Both foreign knights and Sigemund's own declared that nothing was hoarded.
30 Four hundred apprentice knights, along with the king's young son, had to be dressed for that rite, and many pretty girls set to the task, not in the least unhappy to work. They decorated clothing with many bands of precious stones,
31 sewing gold and jewels everywhere they might, for each of these young men. They did what had to be done. And the king had benches built for the many heroic fathers who watched, that shining day, as their sons were anointed full-fledged knights.
32 Hundreds of noble youngsters went to the great cathedral and many righteous knights, who did what was always done, served the young and untried as their elders had for them. They came expecting a day of sports and games and all sorts of fun.
33 Then they heard a holy mass, after which great crowds of people milled about, as one by one swords of knighthood were given, each by ancient, well-fixed rules, wonderfully rich, in splendor not many would see again.
34 Then leaving there they hurried to hordes of saddled horses. Sigemund's well-packed courtyard shook with unheard-of noise as groups of new knights jousted hard, and hall and palace rang, highborn youngsters equally accomplished and boisterous.
35 But old as well as young banged and crashed and slashed, spear smashing on spear, the air heavy with sound. Bits of splintered wood went flying in front of the palace, as weapons broke in their hands. These were truly serious poundings.
36 They were finally asked to stop, the horses were led away. Dozens of broken shield-straps lay on the trampled ground, for many precious stones had tumbled onto the grass, powerful horses hurling shields straight into shields all day.
37 Then worthy guests were shown to their places and seated. Dish after dish of excellent food, game and fowl and fish and flowing cups of wine helped them forget fatigue. Men from elsewhere, and men far from home, relished that meal.
38 Many of those who'd come to sing and dance in the hall, who'd worked so hard that day, refused to rest, paying with music and song for the rich gifts they'd been given, and had earned. Cheerful praise was poured on the king and people of Sigemund's land.
39 And Sigemund allowed his proud young son to make rich grants of castles, land, and fiefs, as Sigemund's father had done. Those who'd risen to knighthood (along with Sifried) won such generous treasure, they left endlessly pleased at having come.
40 The celebration lasted for seven nights and days. Sigelind followed ancient customs, giving good red gold, knowing she'd win her son both love and praise. His people would serve the boy, having been treated as servants should.
41 Not a single singer or dancer left with an empty purse. Horses and clothing flowed like water from royal lands, exactly as if the family's rule would end the next day. I know of no royal house that ever gave with such open hands.
42 The celebration ended in courtesy and honor. The powerful visitors were clearly heard to declare they wanted their own lord and master to be Sifried. But though they were many, and mighty, the prince himself would not agree.
43 As long as Sigemund and Sigelind were alive their dearly belovèd son had no desire for a crown. The only forces he longed to control were fear and rising violence, brewing higher and harder in all the lands around.
How Sifried Came to Wurms
44 Sifried had hardly ever suffered pain in his heart. But now he heard reports of a lovely woman, a maiden in Burgundy , well worthy of any man's dreams and ardor, certain to bring him delight and certainly also a measure of pain.
45 Her matchless beauty was praised by many men's mouths, though no one tried to deny the girl's firm and somewhat frosty disposition, as many knights had found to their cost. She brought a host of guests to her oldest brother Gunter's court.
46 But no matter how many came seeking to win her hand Krimhild would never let herself be drawn to a man, and never needing a lover she chose to remain alone. The lover she'd finally choose had not as yet made himself known.
47 Sifried's mind had turned to thoughts of heartfelt passion. Her other suitors became mere breaths of wind. Beautiful women belonged to him, loving him was their duty. Krimhild would soon be wed to Sigelind's very handsome son!
48 His family wanted to see him deeply loved, and truly, so they advised-as did many of his men-he must choose himself the worthiest wife and court her as his heart demanded. Sifried boldly assured them all: "Krimhild's the one I want,
49 "that wonderful beauty who lives in Burgundy land. I've often heard how brightly she shines. Everyone knows her name. No king could rise so high that a wife like her would shame him, and even an emperor might choose so great and mighty a queen."
50 Stories about this choice came to Sigemund's ears. He heard his advisers talking. Nor was he happy to learn what his son was determined to do. It gave him great pain, hearing that Sifried might travel to Wurms in order to court the beautiful girl.
51 And Sigelind, his mother, was also deeply grieved, keenly regretting the beautiful wife her son would pursue, for Gunter's pride and power were things she very well knew. This courtship might bring results that Sifried could never be brought to believe.
52 Then young Sifried declared: "My dearly belovèd father, I've always longed for love that was noble, deep, and strong, but I'd rather have nothing and no one if the one I want is wrong. No wisdom will ever change me, words will never sweep me along."
53 "I know you won't turn back," his father answered, "so I respectfully take your word, and believe you know what you want. I'll do whatever I can to help you. But remember, might establishes right, and Gunter is served by a host of mighty men,
54 "just one of whom, Hagen, might serve, just him alone, to block your path, for he's too proud ever to yield. I know we might be sorry if men like him take the field against us, if you come to claim this beautiful girl you want as your own."
55 "What can stand in our way?" Sifried replied. "I'll make my request as civilly as any man could, and take my sword in hand, if the answer he gives me is no. I'm afraid of no one. If it ever comes to that, I'll win his kingdom away."
Excerpted from DAS NIBELUNGENLIED - SONG OF THE NIBELUNGS by BURTON RAFFEL Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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