TEUTONIC MYTH AND LEGEND
by DONALD A. MACKENZIE
An Introduction to the Eddas & Sagas, Beowulf, The Nibelungenlied, etc.
London, Gresham Publications 1912
Siegfried and the Nibelungs
The Hero's Youth--His Service with Mimer--Wieland overcome--Forging the Sword--The Dragon Regin--The Combat--How Siegfried became invulnerable--Language of Birds--Mimer is slain--Prince journeys to Isenland--Queen Brunhild--Combat with Giants--The Dwarf Alberich--Cloak of Obscurity--The Nibelung Hoard--Quest of Kriemhild.
SIEGFRIED 1 was a great and noble prince whose fame, by reason of his mighty deeds, hath endurance through the Ages. His sire was King Siegmund of the Netherlands and his mother was named Sigelinde. Ere yet he had reached the years that are mellowed by wisdom, Siegfried was of proud and haughty spirit and brooked not restraint. Great was his strength, and if his playfellows obeyed not his will in all things, he smote them harshly, so that they hated as much as they feared him. Wild and wilful was the prince as a lad may be.
Of Siegfried's doings complaint was made unto the king, who resolved to set him to work among strong and skilful men. Accordingly the prince was sent unto Mimer, the wonder smith, who dwelt in a deep forest, so that he might acquire such knowledge of how weapons were made as would serve him well in aftertime.
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From the fresco by Professor E. Ille
Mimer gave the lad heavy tasks to perform, and kept him working at anvil and bellows from morn till even. Skilful in time he became, and his strength increased beyond knowledge.
The years went past, and the lad endured the burden of servitude and the blows of his elders with humility. But one day he fell upon Wieland, the strongest and most cunning smith that was in Mimer's service, and dragged him by the locks through the smithy. Mimer was wroth, but Siegfried had discovered the full measure of his might and he commanded haughtily, as befits a prince, that a strong sword should be forged for him. The master smith realized that he must needs obey, however unwilling he might be; so he drew from the furnace a bar of glowing iron, and bade the lad to beat out for himself a worthy blade.
Siegfried swung high the great hammer and struck a blow which shook the smithy. The iron was splintered to pieces, the hammer snapped asunder, and the anvil was driven deep into the ground.
Mimer spake with anger, but Siegfried smote him heavily, and the other assistant he smote also.
Then the lad demanded to be given a sword equal to his strength. Mimer made promise to forge it for him. But in his heart he vowed to be avenged. First he went through the forest to the place where dwelt his brother Regin, who had been, by reason of his evil doings, transformed into a dragon. Mimer roused the monster to anger and bade him lie in wait for Siegfried. Thereafter he returned to the smithy and asked the lad to hasten through the forest unto the dwelling of the charcoal-burner, so that be might procure sufficient good fuel with which to forge the promised sword.
Siegfried seized his club and went forth. He came to a forest swamp which swarmed with venomous snakes and great lind-worms and toads; but he had more loathing than terror. When he reached the charcoal-burner he besought him for fire, so that be might destroy the reptiles.
"Alas, for thee!" the charcoal-burner exclaimed; "for if thou dost return again by the way thou didst come the dragon Regin will come forth to devour thee."
The prince scorned to be afraid, and snatching a fiery brand he returned through the forest and set in flames the trees and shrubbage of the swamp, so that all the loathsome reptiles were destroyed.
Then came forth the great dragon, bellowing loud and spouting venom. The earth trembled as he came. But Siegfried was not afraid. Thrice he smote the monster with his club and thus slew it. 2
Perceiving that the dragon was dead, the prince cut it up, and a deep stream of blood issued forth. He dipped his finger into it, and marvelled to find that the skin had become hard as horn.
Now shall I render myself invulnerable against battle wounds, he said.
So he cast off his clothing and plunged into the hot stream. His whole body was then made horn-hard, save a single spot between his shoulders, to which a gummy leaf had adhered.
Siegfried was well pleased. He clad himself and cooked pieces of the dragon's flesh, so that he might receive a meed of its strength. As he watched the flesh broiling, he tasted a portion to discover if it were ready. When he did that the forest was filled with magic voices, for he could understand the language of birds.
Marvelling greatly, he listened to the birds as they sang:
If Siegfried knew what we know,
What we know this day,
He would seek, O, he would seek
The wonder smith to slay;
For Mimer sent him to the wood
To be the Dragon's prey.
Let Siegfried know what we know,
And ponder o'er our song . . .
The wonder smith would fain, O fain,
Avenge his brother's wrong
Smite to live, or wait his blow
And live not long.
Siegfried heard with understanding, and his heart was hardened against the wonder smith. He cut off the dragon's head, and, hastening unto the smithy, he flung the trophy at Mimer's feet, bidding him to eat thereof. Wieland and his fellow fled, fearing greatly the prince's wrath, but Mimer sought to appease him with flattering words, and at length made offer, for life ransom, of the steed Grane, which was of Sleipner's race.
Siegfried accepted the gift, and then, remembering what the birds had sung, he smote Mimer with his club and slew him.
Then returned the young hero unto his sire, King Siegmund, who reproved him for killing the master smith, but he took pride in the lad because that he had slain the dragon.
Soon afterwards Siegfried was given arms and armour, and became a complete warrior. A banquet was held, and beakers were drained, when, with loud acclamations, the prince was hailed as heir to the kingdom of the Netherlands.
Thereafter Siegmund's strong son went forth to will renown in distant lands, and northward he bent his way towards Isenland. On the shore of the Netherlands a ship awaited him. A great gale blew, and the master mariner feared to go forth. But Siegfried would brook not delay, and crossed the stormy seas without fear, despite the peril he endured.
He landed in safety and journeyed towards the castle of Queen Brunhild. The gates were shut and bolted, but he broke them open. Then did the knights who were on guard rush against him, and they began to fight. But Brunhild came forth and bade that the combat should cease, and she gave the prince right courtly welcome.
Now Brunhild was very fair, and was a battle maiden of wondrous strength and prowess. Many wooed her, but no knight came nigh who was worthy her skill; those who encountered her were slain one by one. Maid attendants she had, too, and they were clad in armour and bravely were they wont to fight for their queen.
Siegfried saw that Brunhild had great beauty, but he had no desire to win her by combat against her knights or by vying with her in feats of strength.
"She whom I shall have for wife," he said, "must be gentle and womanly. I love not the battle maiden."
Yet he departed not without display of prowess, for he seized a boulder and flung it so great a distance that all who saw the feat performed wondered greatly. 3
The prince then went on his way until he came to the land of the Nibelungs. It chanced that the king had died, and his two sons, Nibelung and Schilbung, disputed over the treasure hoard. Unto Siegfried they made offer of a wondrous sword, which had been forged by the dwarfs, if he would make just division of their father's riches. He did as they desired, but they sought to repay him with treachery. For when he was given the sword, which was named Balmung, they said that he had kept back part of the treasure for himself. A quarrel was stirred up, and it waxed fierce. Then the king's sons called forth twelve giants, so that the prince might be overcome and bound, and thereafterwards imprisoned in the treasure cavern of the mountain.
But Siegfried feared not any foe. He fought bravely against the giants.
Then spells were wrought, and a thick mist gathered in the place of conflict; but the sword Balmung was wielded by Siegfried to such good purpose that he prevailed. A thunderstorm raged; 4 the mountains resounded with dread clamour and the earth trembled. Yet did the prince fight on, until he had slain giant after giant and none remained alive.
Thereafter the dwarf Alberich came forth against him, seeking to be avenged. A cunning foeman was he, and not easy to combat against, for he had power to become invisible. He possessed a cloak of obscurity, and when he put it on Siegfried must needs combat with menacing nothingness. Long they fought, and in the end the prince had the dwarf in his power. 5
Although Siegfried put to death the two sons of the king, he spared Alberich, from whom he won the Cloak of Obscurity, which could, when he wore it, render him invisible. For he followed the dwarf as he fled towards the mountain cavern in which the treasure was concealed. Then did the masterful hero possess himself of the hoard, and he made Alberich the keeper of it when he vowed to obey his commands.
The Nibelung people acclaimed Siegfried as their king, but he tarried not long in their midst. He took with him twelve bold war-men, and set sail again for the Netherlands. His fame went speedily abroad, and his deeds were sung of by gleemen in many a hall.
A right valiant and noble prince did Siegfried become; all men honoured him, and by women was he loved. Many a fair maiden sighed because he sought not to win one or another. But he rejoiced in warlike feats and in games, and his heart was moved not with desire for any damsel.
There came a time, however, when gleemen sang of the beauty and grace of the Princess Kriemhild, the daughter of the King of Burgundy. In the wide world there was none fairer, and Siegfried loved her in secret ere yet he beheld her, for he knew that she was his heart's desire, and he resolved that he would woo her right speedily.
He spake to his knights thereanent, and they told both king and queen of Siegfried's bold intent. Siegmund and Sigelinde sought to repress his desire, but the prince would not be restrained.
The king warned his son that the warriors of Burgundy were fierce in war, and among them were Gunther and strong and vengeful Hagen.
"What I shall obtain not by fair request," Siegfried said, "I may win in battle."
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From the Painting by F. Leeke. By permission of Franz Hanfstaengl
His sire made offer of a great army, but the prince said he would go forth as one of twelve knights. He scorned to win Kriemhild by force, and vowed he would woo her by reason of brave deeds.
Then were preparations made for the journey, and the queen caused rich and gorgeous apparel to be fashioned for Siegfried and his men, and when they rode forth they were indeed of noble seeming.
Siegmund and Sigelinde sorrowed greatly when their son kissed them farewell.
"Grieve not," Siegfried said, "for no evil shall come nigh me."
Then rode he away, the noble prince, to share his meed of joy and meet his doom.
1 Siegfried is the hero of the Nibelungenlied, the great Upper German poetic romance (see Introduction). He is identical with the northern Sigurd of the Eddic poems and Volsunga saga. The various versions of the popular tale developed from an older legend. The Nibelungenlied is here introduced by a summary from Thidrek saga, a Norse poem composed about the middle of the thirteenth century, which was based on the Lower German version of the legend and the Dietrich poems. Our introduction gives a consecutive narrative. The Nibelungenlied opens abruptly by introducing Kriemhild, who takes the place of the Norse Gudrun. Siegfried's early exploits are afterwards referred to briefly.
2 The necessity for more than one blow recalls Thor's conflicts with the Midgard serpent in Hymer's boat and at the Ragnarok battle.
3 He resembles the boulder-flinging mountain giants.
4 Thor is suggested here.
5 There is a curious Banffshire story of two mountain fairies who fought for the love of a fairy lady. One was dark and the other was white. The former had power to render himself invisible, but when he did so in the duel a red spot remained. The white fairy saw the red spot floating in the air, and shot an arrow through it. The dark fairy was slain because the red spot was his heart. This story is not of a common type, and is evidently very old. The fairies occupied opposing hills, as if they were the usual Scottish mountain giants. Of course, giants and fairies have much in common.