Nibbles of Nibelungs

Although I’ve been interested in classical mythology for most of my life, it was really Final Fantasy VI that made me want to check out the Teutonic hero Siegfried, a mysterious character in the game possibly intended to be the equivalent of Gilgamesh in FF5, in that they’re both named after legendary epic heroes (albeit from very different times and places), and both played as somewhat comic characters. But anyway, the first source I came across was a book in my junior high school library, basically a retelling of the Nibelungenlied. The original poem dates back to around the beginning of the thirteenth century, and came to be seen as a national epic for Germany, being used in a lot of nationalist propaganda. It’s a shame how much Norse mythology has been tainted by the Nazis, but really, they ruined a lot of things. The story can be traced back to sources including rock carvings and fragments of poems, but the earliest complete versions appeared in the thirteenth century, notably the Nibelungenlied, part of Snorri Sturluson‘s Prose Edda, and the Volsunga Saga. Translations of both the latter two were included in a collection of sagas I recently finished reading, which is one reason I’m talking about them now. Over time, the story appears to have been mixed with other myths, probably at least partially as historical propaganda (royal families always wanted to be linked to gods and heroes), as well as a way of tying seemingly unrelated tales together. The most famous version now is probably Richard Wagner’s four-part opera Der Ring des Nibelungen, but I’ve never seen a performance of that, or even of just one of the parts. In college, my Listening Appreciation professor played a video of Anna Russell doing a humorous summary of the opera, which I understand to be generally accurate.

While I’d obviously heard of Wagner’s work before college, it wasn’t until then that I learned it was basically the same story I’d read previously, with additional mythological references mixed in. I don’t think the Nibelungenlied, set in courtly Europe, even mentions the gods, and Brunhilda is simply an Icelandic princess rather than a Valkyrie. That doesn’t mean it’s free from supernatural elements, however; as with other German versions, it connects Siegfried to Achilles by making him invincible in all but one small spot, a result of his bathing in Fafnir’s blood. And while Brunhilda is partially responsible for Siegfried’s death in every version I know, the Volsunga Saga might be the first that indicates they had a history together and he broke his engagement to her by marrying another woman while under the influence of a magic potion. Other takes suggest that Brunhilda is pissed off because Siegfried used trickery to get her to marry King Gunther, and due to an ongoing court rivalry with Siegfried’s wife Kriemhild (or Gudrun, depending on the source).

The Volsunga Saga goes back a few generations to Sigurd’s great-great-grandfather Sigi, whose grandson Volsung provides the name of the clan. Sigurd is tutored by the dwarf blacksmith Regin, who explains that his brother Otr was killed by Loki while in the form of (appropriately enough) an otter, and Loki had to pay back the family with the treasure he steals from another dwarf, Andvari.

Andvari’s treasure is cursed, however, and Regin’s brother Fafnir kills their father in order to keep it for himself. It’s apparently his greed in keeping the treasure that leads to his becoming a dragon, which answers one of Russell’s questions.

Wagner apparently combines this story with that of the giant who builds the walls of Valhalla, which is why Fafnir is a giant instead of a dwarf, and why Siegfried’s mentor is Alberich’s brother instead of Fafnir’s, with Alberich taking the place of Andvari, but with a name that’s the German equivalent of the Fairy King Oberon.

Wagner also makes Freyja and Idun into the same character. Imagine how long the Ring Cycle would have been if he hadn’t done this character-melding. Also, while Sigmund in the Volsunga Saga does have an affair with his sister, the product of the incestuous union isn’t Sigurd himself, but his half-brother Sinfljoti, who apparently serves no other purpose in the story than to avenge his grandfather’s death, which I guess was a thing in Norse mythology.

I’ve previously written a bit about Marvel Comics’ adaptation of the Ring Cycle, in which their version of Thor incarnates as both Siegmund and Siegfried.

Thor (well, Donner, since it’s in German) does appear in the opera, but in a minor role.

I believe Marvel’s character Valkyrie is Brunhilda herself, at least sometimes.

And I understand that J.R.R. Tolkien’s version of the Sigurd legend was published about ten years ago. From what I’ve seen, he wasn’t satisfied with previous attempts to tie together early versions of the myth, and there are indications that he didn’t like Wagner’s version at all, dismissing comparisons between the opera and The Lord of the Rings. Certain elements of the Middle-Earth stories do seem to have been heavily inspired by the Sigurd legend, including a cursed ring that pretty much everybody wants, a broken and reforged sword, and a dragon being vulnerable on its underbelly. That doesn’t necessarily mean he was influenced by Wagner in particular, although the opera was likely the first to specifically identify the ring with power, rather than simply wealth.

There seem to be two different stories of Siegfried’s youth, one that has him raised as a prince and another as a wanderer fostered by a dwarf who works as a smith. Some sources make both true. In the Nibelugenlied, Siegmund is the King of Xanten in North Rhine-Westphalia. Gunther and Gudrun are generally linked to the Burgundians, a tribe that ruled the Rhineland in the fifth and sixth centuries.

While eventually conquered by the Franks, the historical King Gunther’s capital at Worms was sacked by a combined army of Romans and Huns, which figures into some versions of the Siegfried story. Some years after Siegfried’s death, Gudrun marries Attila the Hun, called Atli or Etzel, and is sometimes identified as Brunhilda’s brother. Attila kills her brothers for their money, and Gudrun gets her revenge by killing his sons, feeding their hearts to Attila, and eventually killing him as well. Priscus’ account of Attila’s death says that it was caused by internal bleeding at the marriage feast to his last wife, Ildico, which then led to rumors that she assassinated him.

The Burgundian royal family has been called both the Gibichungs and the Nibelungs, although the latter apparently came to be more closely associated with treasure than with the family, and was identified with dwarves instead. Gunther and Gudrun’s brother Hagen was Alberich’s son in Wagner’s version, which meant he would have been both a Gibichung and a Nibelung. There was also an association of the word Nibelung with Niflheim, the Norse underworld. And that brings us back to Final Fantasy, as Cloud and Tifa in FF7 are from a town called Nibelheim. Brunhilda was likely named after a real-life Queen of Austrasia in the sixth and early seventh centuries (some time after Gunther and Attila), who was regarded as a strong and efficient leader, and was killed by being pulled apart by wild horses. Strengthening the connection is that her husband’s name was Sigebert, and that he was killed by his brother. Siegfried being so closely tied with the Burgundians and the Huns might have been a later development in the legend.

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3 Responses to Nibbles of Nibelungs

  1. Georg Solti’s recording of the entire “Ring” appears to be available (legally) from the usual on-line services, along with Deryck Cooke’s magisterial 3-disk introductory lecture.

    Wagner talks a good game (so to speak) as an anti-Semite, but he seems to have had no difficulty in practice with hiring Jewish musicians when he thought they were right for the job. And, for whatever it’s worth, the explicit moral of the cycle is that redemption is achieved through compassion, and the last five minutes of “Götterdämmerung” appear (at least in my judgement) to be the principle inspiration for the last five minutes of “Babylon 5”.

    • Nathan says:

      I don’t suppose you can really blame him for the fact that Hitler was such a fan, either.

      • rri0189 says:

        Hey, George Bernard Shaw was a fan, too. Whatever else, Wagner changed the musical world forever.

        On the other hand, in his personal life, he was a thorough bastard. He felt the world owed him a living—only, in his case, much of the world seemed to agree with him; there were people who personally loathed him, but they still promoted his works. Perhaps a modern parallel would be Steve Jobs.

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