In the beautiful city of Worms, in Burgundy, dwelt the maiden Kriemhild, surpassing all others in beauty. Her father, long since dead, was Dancrat; her mother, Uta, and her three brothers,—Günther, Gernot, and Giselher,—puissant princes whose pride it was to guard their lovely sister. Among the noble lords their liegemen were Hagan of Trony, Dankwart, his brother, Ortwine of Metz, Eckewart, Gary, Folker, Rumolt the steward, Sindolt the butler, and Humolt the chamberlain.
The peace of the beautiful Kriemhild was one night disturbed by a dream, in which she saw a young falcon that she had long reared with tender care torn to pieces by two fierce eagles. When she confided this dream to her mother, the wise Uta declared that it meant that she would one day wed a fair prince threatened with a dreadful doom.
“Then I will never wed!” cried Kriemhild. “Better to forego the bliss thou tellest me attends only the wedded state than to taste the anguish foretold by my dream.” Alas! little could she guess of what the future held in store for her.
In the wide country of the Netherlands, in the city of Xanten, dwelt the great prince Siegmund and his wife Sieglind. Their kingdom was wide, their wealth great, but nothing gave them so much happiness as the renown of their glorious son Siegfried. Such mighty deeds of valor had he performed that his fame was already world-wide, though he was but a youth. To Xanten the fame of the peerless princess Kriemhild had penetrated, and the young prince declared to his parents his intention of seeking her out in Burgundy, and wooing her for his wife. All entreaties were in vain; with but twelve companions, each fitted out with the most gorgeous vestments, by the care of the queen mother, the haughty prince advanced into Burgundy.
King Günther, surprised at the sight of the splendidly attired strangers, called one after another of his knights to inform him who they were. None knew, until Hagan was at last called because he was familiar with the warriors of every land. He did not know them. “But,” said he, “though I have never set eyes on him, I’ll wager that is the noble Siegfried, the mighty warrior who slew the Nibelungers. Once, so I have heard the story, when he was riding alone, he saw the two kings Nibelung and Shilbung dividing the treasure of the Niblungs. They had just brought it out from the cavern where it was guarded by the dwarf Albric, and they called Siegfried to come and divide it for them. The task was so great that he did not finish it, and when the angry kings set upon him he slew them both, their giant champions and chiefs, and then overcame the dwarf Albric, and possessed himself of his wondrous cloud-cloak. So he is now lord of the Nibelungers and owner of the mighty treasure. Not only this, my king; he once slew a poison-spitting dragon and bathed in its blood, so that his skin is invulnerable. Treat the young prince with respect. It would be ill-advised to arouse his hatred.”
While the king and his counsellors were admiring his haughty bearing, Siegfried and his followers advanced to the hall and were fittingly welcomed. Siegfried haughtily declared that he had come to learn if Günther’s renown for knighthood was correct, and wished to fight with him, with their respective kingdoms as stakes. Günther had no desire to fight with such a doughty warrior, and he hastened to soothe Siegfried’s wrath with gentle words, inviting him to remain as his guest.
So happy was Siegfried in the tourneys and games enjoyed by Günther’s court, that he remained in Worms for a year, and in all that time never set eyes on Kriemhild. How enraptured would he have been had he known that the gentle maiden watched for him daily at her lattice, and came to long for a glimpse of the handsome stranger!
At the end of the year tidings were brought to Worms that the Saxons, led by King Lüdeger, and Lüdegast, king of Denmark, were marching against Burgundy. The Burgundians were terrified at the news; but Siegfried, delighted at the thought of war, begged Günther to give him but a thousand Burgundians, in addition to the twelve comrades he had brought with him, and he would pledge himself to defeat, unaided, the presumptuous enemy. Many were the camps of the foe; full forty thousand were there mustered out to fight, but Siegfried quickly scattered them, slew many thousands, and took the two kings prisoners.
How joyful the melancholy Kriemhild became when the messenger bore to her the glad tidings! Ruddy gold and costly garments he gained for his good news.
On Siegfried’s return he first met and loved Kriemhild. More blooming than May, sweeter than summer’s pride, she stood by the gallant warrior, who dared not yet to woo her. The twelve days of revel in celebration of the victory were one long dream of bliss to the happy lovers.
While Siegfried was still lingering at Günther’s court, tidings were brought thither of the beauty, prowess, and great strength of Brunhild, Queen of Issland, and Günther determined to go thither and woo her. Siegfried implored him not to go.
“Thou knowest not what thou must undertake,” he said. “Thou must take part in her contests, throw the javelin, throw the stone and jump after it, and if thou fail in even one of these three games thou must lose thy life and that of thy companions.”
When Siegfried found that he could not move Günther, he promised to go with him and assist him, on condition that on their return Günther would give him the beautiful Kriemhild for his wife.
Attired in the most splendid raiment, prepared by the willing fingers of Kriemhild and her maids, Günther, with only three companions, Siegfried, Hagan, and Dankwart, set forth to Issland. Siegfried requested his companions to inform Brunhild that he was Günther’s man; and when she welcomed him first, he himself told her to speak first to his master. The little party was greatly impressed with the splendor of Brunhild’s three turreted palaces, and with the beauty and prodigious strength of the queen. When they saw her huge golden shield, steel-studded, beneath whose weight four chamberlains staggered, and the immense javelin of the war-like maid, the warriors trembled for their lives, all save Siegfried, who, wrapped in his cloud-cloak, invisible to all, stood behind the bewildered Günther.
“Give me thy buckler,” he whispered. “Now make but the motions, and I will hurl both spear and stone. But keep this a secret if thou wouldst save both our lives.”
To the surprise of every one Günther won the games, and Brunhild, surprised and mortified, ordered her followers to bow to her better, and returned to the castle to make ready for the journey to Worms.
Siegfried carried the tidings to Worms, and the bridal party was met and welcomed at the banks of the Rhine by the Queen Uta, Kriemhild, and a large following. During the wedding feast, Siegfried reminded Günther of his promise, and the king, calling Kriemhild to him, affianced the two in the presence of the company.
When the suspicious Brunhild saw Siegfried sitting at the table of the king, she was angered, for she had been told that he was a vassal. Although she could get no satisfaction from Günther, she suspected some secret. When she and Günther retired for the night she conquered him, tied him hand and foot with her magic girdle, and hung him on the wall until morning. Günther, overcome with wrath and vexation, told his humiliation to Siegfried the next morning at the minster. “Be comforted,” said Siegfried. “Tonight I will steal into thy chamber wrapped in my mist-cloak, and when the lights are extinguished I will wrestle with her until I deprive her of the magic ring and girdle.”
After some hesitation, Günther assented, and Brunhild, supposing she was conquered by Günther, yielded herself willingly to her husband and lost all her former strength. Siegfried carried away her girdle and ring and gave them to his wife, little suspecting what harm they would do him in the years to come.
The wedding festivities over, Siegfried took his bride home to the Netherlands, where their arrival was celebrated with the greatest festivities. Siegmund placed the crown on his son’s head, and Siegfried and Kriemhild ruled happily over the kingdom for ten years, during which time a son was born to them, christened Günther for his uncle.
During these years Brunhild had been fretting that the supposed vassal, Siegfried, had never come to pay homage to his king. At last, affecting a great longing to see Kriemhild once more, she induced Günther to invite his sister and her husband to visit them. This he did gladly, and on their arrival many days were spent in feasting, merrymaking, and the tourney.
But one day, when the two queens were watching the tilting in the castle court, Kriemhild, excited by the victories of her husband, declared that Siegfried, because of his might, ought to be ruler of Burgundy. This angered Brunhild, who reproached the wife of a vassal for such presumption.
“My husband a vassal!” exclaimed the indignant Kriemhild. “He, ruler of the Netherlands, who holds a higher place than my brother Günther! I cannot endure thy insolence longer.”
“I will see,” said Brunhild, “this very day whether thou receivest the public respect and honor paid to me.”
“I am ready for the test,” responded Kriemhild, “and I will show thee to-day, before our following, that I dare to enter the church before Günther’s queen.”
When the two queens met on the minster steps, and Brunhild declared that no vassaless should enter before her, Kriemhild reproached her for being the leman of Siegfried, and displayed in proof the ring and girdle he had taken from Brunhild. Rage and fury rendered Brunhild speechless. The kings were summoned, and both denied the truth of Kriemhild’s words. But the two queens were now bitter enemies, and the followers of Brunhild, among them the gloomy Hagan of Trony, were deeply angered at Siegfried and his queen. Hagan laid a plot to destroy Siegfried, and Günther, though at first unwilling, was at last induced to enter it.
Pretended messengers came to announce to Günther that the Saxons again threatened war against him. Siegfried proposed to take part in the war, and preparations were at once begun. Hagan, with pretended tenderness, told Kriemhild of the coming danger, and asked her if her lord had a weak place, that he might know and guard it for him. Kriemhild confided to him her husband’s secret. When Siegfried was bathing in the dragon’s blood, a leaf fell between his shoulders, and that spot was vulnerable. There she would embroider a cross on his vesture that Hagan might protect him in the shock of battle.
The war was now abandoned and a great hunt undertaken. Gernot and Giselher, though they did not see fit to warn Siegfried, refused to take part in the plot and go to the hunt. Many a lion, elk, and boar fell by Siegfried’s hand that day before the hunters were called together to the royal breakfast; when they at last sat down in the flowery meadow the wine was wanting, and the warriors were compelled to quench their thirst at a brooklet near by.
“A race!” cried the hero; and he, Hagan, and Günther ran for the brook, Siegfried gaining it first. After the king had quenched his thirst, Siegfried threw down his arms and stooped to drink. Then Hagan, picking up his ashen spear, threw it at the embroidered cross, and Siegfried fell in the agonies of death, reproaching his traitorous friends whom he had served so faithfully.
To add cruelty to cruelty, the vindictive Hagan placed the body of Siegfried outside Kriemhild’s chamber door, where she would stumble over it as she went out to early mass next morning. Down she fell fainting when she recognized her husband, and reviving, shrieked in her anguish, “Brunhild planned it; Hagan struck the blow!”
Her grief was terrible to see. One moment the unhappy queen was accusing herself for revealing her husband’s secret; again she was vowing revenge against Hagan, and at another time she reviled the traitorous Günther.
When her father-in-law Siegmund returned home, she would not go with him, but remained near the body of her husband, under the protection of her brothers Gernot and Giselher and in the company of her mother.
Kriemhild, living in joyless state in her lonely palace, was at last induced to speak to Günther and pardon him. The pardon granted, Günther and Hagan at once plotted to have the Nibelungen hoard, Siegfried’s morning-gift to Kriemhild, brought to Worms. Never before was such a treasure seen. Twelve huge wagons, journeying thrice a day, required four nights and days to carry it from the mountain to the bay. It consisted of nothing but precious stones and gold, and with it was the magic wishing-rod. It filled Kriemhild’s towers and chambers to overflowing, and won many friends for the queen, who distributed it liberally.
When the envious Hagan could not induce Günther to take the treasure from Kriemhild, he selected a time when the king and his brothers were away from home, and seizing the treasure, cast it into the Rhine, hoping to get it again. In this he failed, so the great treasure was forever lost.
Thus ends the first part of the Lay of the Nibelungen. The second part is sometimes called the Need or Fall of the Nibelungen.
While Kriemhild was bewailing her loss and revolving plans for revenge, Etzel, King of the Huns, who had heard of the charms of Siegfried’s widow, sent the noble Margrave Rüdeger into Burgundy with proposals for her hand.
Günther and his brothers begged Kriemhild to accept the offer; their counsellors advised it; only the sage Hagan protested. He knew too well how Kriemhild longed for revenge. “When once she gets among the Huns, she will make us rue the day,” said he.
But the others laughed at Hagan’s scruples. The land of the Huns was far away, and they need never set foot in it. Moreover, it was their duty to make Kriemhild happy.
Moved by the eloquence of Rüdeger, Kriemhild consented to wed Etzel, and set out in great state to meet the king.
She was splendidly entertained along the way, tarried a short time at the home of the Margrave Rüdeger, and at Tulna met the great monarch Etzel, riding to meet her, among his hosts of Russians, Polacks, Greeks, and Wallachians.
The splendid wedding-feast was held at Vienna. Kriemhild was received with the greatest honor, and so lavish was she of the gold and jewels she had brought with her, and so gracious to the attendant Huns, that every one loved her, and willingly worked her will.
For seven long years she and Attila lived happy together, and to them was given a son whom they christened Ortlieb. Then Kriemhild, still remembering her loss and the cruelties of her Burgundian relatives and friends, bethought herself of her revenge.
Feigning a great desire to see her brothers, she entreated Etzel to invite them to visit her; and the king, not suspecting her fell purpose, and glad of an opportunity to welcome her friends, at once despatched messengers with the invitation.
This time other counsellors besides Hagan mistrusted the queen, and advised King Günther and his brothers to decline the invitation. But the princes grew angry at their advice; and Hagan, who could not endure to be laughed at, set forth with them, accompanied with a great train of warriors.
The Rhine was too swollen to ford, and Hagan was sent up the stream to find a ferryman. As he looked for the boatman, he spied some mermaids bathing, and seizing their garments, would not restore them until they told him what would befall the Burgundians in Hungary.
“Safe will you ride to Etzel’s court, and safe return,” said one, as he returned the garments. But as he turned to go, another called: “My aunt has lied to thee that she might get back her raiment. Turn now, or you will never live to see Burgundy. None save the chaplain will return in safety.”
Hagan went on gloomily and found the ferryman, who, proud and sullen, refused to take the party across. Hagan slew him, and, returning with the boat, threw the unfortunate chaplain into the river, thinking by drowning him to prove the mermaid’s prophecy untrue. But the chaplain escaped to the other side, and walked back to Burgundy. Then Hagan told the party of the prophecy and they resolved to go on together, though they realized that they were going to their doom.
Because of the slaughter of the ferryman, they were attacked by Gelfrat, the ruler of the land; but he was overcome and slain by Dankwart.
The Margrave Rüdeger received the travellers hospitably, and betrothed his fair daughter to Giselher. He then accompanied the Burgundians to Etzel’s court.
The Burgundians suspected Kriemhild from the first. Giselher was the only one of her brothers whom she kissed, and she and Hagan quarrelled over the treasure at their first meeting.
They were warned by Eckewart, who had accompanied Kriemhild from Burgundy, and by Dietrich of Bern, an exile at the court of Etzel, who told them that every morning since her stay in Hunland she had moaned and wailed for Siegfried. By Hagan’s advice they all kept on their armor, telling Etzel that it was the custom in their country to wear it for the first three days.
Kriemhild’s design was to destroy Hagan and spare her brothers. But Hagan, on his guard, drove her warriors away from his room at night, and saved himself at church from the jostling Hunnish lords, never, in the mean time, sparing his insults to Kriemhild.
The Huns, who were devoted to their queen, were not slow in showing their anger at Hagan’s treatment of her, and the ill feeling between the warriors increased as the days passed by.
As the Burgundians sat at the banquet with Etzel and his wife, in burst Dankwart, exclaiming that he had been attacked by Bloedel, who had slain all his followers.
“Be stirring, brother Hagan!” he cried. “Help me to avenge my wrongs!”
At this moment the little prince Ortlieb had been brought into the hall and passed around among the guests.
“Let us drink to friendship with moody Kriemhild in king’s wine!” cried Hagan, and with one blow of the sword sent the child’s head in his mother’s lap. Then arose a fearful clamor. Spear rang against shield, and the cries of the fierce Huns mingled with the defiant shouts of the Burgundians.
Dietrich of Bern, leaping upon a bench, asked King Günther, that, as a friend to both parties, he might be permitted to withdraw from the hall with his friends. When the Burgundians assented, he led forth the king and queen. The same privilege was accorded to Rüdeger.
Then, while the terrible Folker guarded the door with his fiddle bow, one side of which was a trenchant sword, the battle began. The Burgundians taunted the Huns with their weakness and cowardice until they ventured into the hall and were cut down by Hagan and his desperate men. When evening fell the thousand and four who had entered the hall all lay dead by the hands of the Burgundians.
When Kriemhild’s offer to give her brothers their lives if they would surrender Hagan was refused, she ordered fire to be set to the four corners of the hall, thinking thus to drive them forth. But the burning rafters fell into the rivers of blood and were quenched, and the Burgundians derived new courage and strength from huge draughts of blood from their fallen foes.
Then Kriemhild and Etzel, seeing how their Hunnish men had fallen, and perceiving that the Burgundians were in no wise injured by the fire, reproached the Margrave Rüdeger that he did not enter the fight. In vain he told them of his friendship with the princes; of the betrothal of his daughter and Giselher. Kriemhild persisted in reminding him of the promise he had made to serve her to her dying day. At last he reluctantly summoned his men, and bidding farewell to his cruel king and queen, he entered the hall. Gladly was he welcomed by the Burgundians, who could not believe that he came to do battle with them. He explained how he was forced to fight them, and amid the tears of both sides, he exchanged shields with Hagan, whose buckler was broken. Then was the grim Hagan moved to tears, and he vowed not to touch Rüdeger in the fight. Fearful was the clatter of shield and blade as Rüdeger fought with Gernot, and fell at last by the blade he had himself given the prince.
Great was the wailing of the Huns when they saw the lifeless body of Rüdeger, and deeply did Etzel regret the loss of the valiant and true margrave.
Dietrich of Bern, who sat afar off, sent some of his best warriors under his man Hildebrand, to inquire of the truth of the report of Rüdeger’s death. These fiery men disobeyed the orders of their master, and fought with the Burgundians until none remained save Günther and Hagan on one side, and Hildebrand on the other.
When Dietrich heard of the slaughter of his followers, he was overcome with sorrow, and himself sought the hall. He promised Günther and Hagan that if they would surrender, he would himself lead them back in safety to Burgundy; but to this they would not consent. By this time they were so worn out, however, from the long battle, that Dietrich easily overpowered them and led them captive before Kriemhild, who promised to show them fair treatment.
But Kriemhild’s mind had become so warped by her desire for revenge, that she could not think of mercy. She cast her prisoners into separate dungeons, and visiting Hagan first, demanded her treasure. “But give it to me again, and thou shalt return living into Burgundy.”
“Pray not to me, haughty queen,” replied Hagan. “I swore that while my lords were living I would ne’er tell where it lies. Thy prayer is thrown away.”
Straightway the savage Kriemhild ordered the head of Günther to be struck off, and bearing it by the hair, she displayed it to Hagan, asking him now to tell her the secret.
“Now that all my lords are dead,” said he, “no one shall know, thou least of all, she-fiend!”
Kriemhild, beside herself with grief and rage, snatched from him the sword Balmung that he had taken from Siegfried, and ever since carried, and raising it high with both hands, struck off the head of her hated enemy.
At this the grief of Etzel broke forth, and the aged Hildebrand, enraged to see a woman do such deeds, sprang upon Kriemhild and smote her to death with his sword.
Bitterly wept King Etzel and Dietrich as they gazed on the corpses scattered round, and the disfigured body of the fair queen. Nothing remained for the Hunnish people but grief and woe.
Here on earth pain ever follows in the steps of pleasure.