Book review: The Nibelungenlied

The Nibelungenlied by Anonymous (tr. A.T. Hatto)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

So during the hell year of 2020 I ended up watching the Met Opera’s Ring Cycle while avoiding, y’know, everything. I’d wanted to see Wagner’s cycle, and once it was done, hours later, I was keen to see where the story had come from.

First mistake: though the opera series shares names and themes, this version is a lot different. I mean, I’m not certain it’s been adopted by Nazis as readily as Wagner’s work has been, and there was a lot less in the way of either modernist stark staging or rabbits or horseback.

What this does have is hundreds of years’ head start on Wagner. An anonymous text, it’s based on oral tales of events and individuals from the fifth and sixth centuries through Germanic-speaking Europe, though they were retold in the 12th and 13th century. Particularly, it focuses on a guy named Siegfried who’s keen on Kriemhild, a Burgundian princess.

(I must admit, there’s a lot of geographic detail, ably explained in Hatto’s endnotes, but it’s really immaterial to your enjoyment of the epic, because what really makes it sing is the characterisation. There are some nasty fuckers in this work, and they’re delightful.)

Siegfried’s journey towards love – or useful political alliance, at least –  is not the key part of the text, though. I’d thought he would be the Big Dude of the story, but it turns out that our anonymous author was much more keen on exploring revenge: Kriemhild and warrior-queen Brünhilde have an enmity that puts George R. R. Martin’s slap-fighting to shame.

I wish I could say I’d be that chill fighting a dragon.

I wouldn’t like to spoil the story, because though I was reasonably aware of classics – and even though I’d seen the Ring, I was still surprised. It’s worth noting that this is a story that features vassals, dragons, beefy brothers, cloaks of invisibility and a dwarf. There’s feats of boulder-throwing prowess, inhuman strength, mistaken boning, stolen gold and an inordinate amount of blood. Seriously, this has more gobbets of gore than the Iliad or any slasher flick you’d care to name. Hordes die, stakes are high and the drama is massively over the top.

I’d had this on my shelf for decades, and wish I’d come to it earlier. This is high melodrama with more than enough swords to keep the worst knife fiend satisfied.

And no Nazis, so y’know – win.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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