TEUTONIC MYTH AND LEGEND
by DONALD A. MACKENZIE
An Introduction to the Eddas & Sagas, Beowulf, The Nibelungenlied, etc.
London, Gresham Publications 1912
The Nibelungen Tragedy
Kriemhild weds Etzel--Her Desire for Vengeance--The Festival--Invitation to Gunther and his Knights--Hagen's Bravery--The Doom journey--Dietrich and Hildebrand--How the Guests were received--Treachery of the Queen--Scene at Banquet--Its Tragic Ending--Dietrich intervenes--Hall in Flames--Unconquered Heroes--Gunther and Hagen overcome--Gladness ends in Grief.
IT fell that thirteen years after Siegfried's death Queen Helche of the Huns died, and King Etzel 1, who was a heathen, sought another bride. Rudiger, the rich margrave, surnamed "The Good", was sent as envoy to Worms to win Kriemhild; whereat Gunther was made glad, because Etzel was a mighty monarch, but grim Hagen grew angry, fearing that the widow of Siegfried would stir up enmity against them. Kriemhild ceased not to grieve for him whom she had loved, but her brothers and Queen Ute urged her to be wed to the mighty monarch of the Huns, and at length she gave her consent. Then sent she to Hagen for the Nibelung treasure, which she desired to distribute among the Hun warriors; but he refused to give it up saying: "She shall not give it unto those who are my foemen."
Kriemhild was made wroth thereat. Yet had she a portion of the treasure left, and she gave great gifts to the knights who came with Rudiger.
The widowed bride had lost not her great beauty despite her long and deep sorrow, and when she came to the Court of Etzel, the courtiers vowed that she was even more fair than was Queen Helche. She kissed the king, and when she was wed she was kissed by twelve noble knights, among whom was Blúdel, the brother of Etzel, and the great warrior king, Dietrich of Bern, who had taken refuge at Etzel's Court when his uncle, Ermenrich, had by treacherous doings possessed himself of the kingdom of the Amelungs. So it came that Kriemhild had friendship and service from many strong war-men. Great was her power. All the treasure that Hagen had left her she gave to the knights, and at length she said unto herself:
"Now am I made powerful, and can strike against the enemies of Siegfried, for whom my heart still calleth."
As the days went past, and the years, her desire for vengeance grew stronger. There was not a Hun knight who would not do her willing service. Yet none did conceive of her fierce intent.
A son was born to King Etzel, and his name was Ortlieb. Like was he in countenance to fair Kriemhild, and the king loved her more dearly because of her child. So at length when she craved of him a boon he said that he would grant it willingly; and the queen besought him that he should send envoys to Worms and invite, unto a festival at his Court, Gunther and all his knights. As she desired, so was it done. Kriemhild spoke in secret to the envoys and bade them not to leave Hagen behind.
Gunther received the message gladly, nor suspected aught of Kriemhild's evil desire; but Hagen warned the king in counsel with his knights, saying: "We dare not go from here unto the Court of Etzel. Our lives ane in peril, for Kriemhild forgets not who slew her husband Siegfried. . . . Her memory is long."
Thereupon Gunther's brothers taunted Hagen. "Thou knowest thine own guilt," one said; "therefore thou hast need to protect thyself well. 'Twere better thou didst remain at Worms, while those who fear not sojourn among the Huns."
Hagen was made wroth. "No man among you feareth less to venture forth than I do, and with thee shall I go if ye are determined to visit the Court of Etzel."
So it was arranged that they should set out forthwith, and Hagen spake after that of their journey as "the death ride".
Queen Ute had great desire that her sons should tarry in the kingdom. "I have dreamt an evil dream," she said. "Methought that all the birds in fair Burgundy were slain."
"He who is led by dreams," said Hagen, "is without honour and no hero. Let us unto the festival of Kriemhild."
Many women wept when they set forth. With Gunther rode a thousand and sixty knights, and his army did number full nine thousand men. When they reached the Danube River they found it to be high and running swift. Hagen sought for the ferryman, who desired not to take them across unless he were given rich reward. While searching, he saw bathing in a brook certain water fairies. He went stealthily towards them and possessed himself of their vestments. They had need, therefore, to make known to the fierce knight how he and all who were with him would fare upon their journey. One did promise that they would prosper and win great honour, but another said: "Twere better to turn back. . . . Ye are all doomed. Who rideth unto the Court of Etzel rideth to death. Nor shall one return again unto Worms save the priest."
Then Hagen met with the ferryman and slew him for his boldness. He seized the boat, and, returning unto Gunther, he ferried across the knights and all their followers. As he crossed with the last company of men he beheld the priest among them, and remembering the prophecy of the water fairy, he seized him there and flung him overboard. But, although the man could not swim, he was driven over the waves and reached the shore in safety. When Hagen saw that the priest could return unto Burgundy, he knew that the foretelling of the water fairy was true, and said unto himself: "These, our warriors, are all dead men."
When they landed, Hagen splintered the boat in pieces. He was resolute indeed, and made certain that no man should turn back. The Bavarians came against them to avenge the ferryman's death, but they were beaten back, and Gunther and his war-men marched forward until they came unto Bechlaren, where Rudiger the Good gave them generous and hospitable entertainment and many gifts.
Tidings of their approach were borne unto Kriemhild. "The day of reckoning is at hand," she said unto herself. "Fain would I now slay the man who did destroy my happiness. . . . He shall pay dearly because that he hath made me to sorrow."
Aged Hildebrand spake unto Dietrich of Bern of the coming of the Burgundians, and counselled that he should ride forth to greet them. Hagen was a dear war friend to Dietrich aforetime, and there was good will. betwixt them. So the fierce knight of Burgundy gave his friend warm greetings.
Dietrich was made glad, yet did he inwardly grieve, when he beheld the warriors from Worms.
"Know ye not," he said, "that Kriemhild hath ceased not to sorrow for Siegfried? . . . This very day I did hear her lamenting because that he was dead."
Gunther reasoned that Etzel had bidden them thither with right royal welcome, and that Kriemhild had also sent warm greetings, but Hagen knew well that sorrow awaited them.
The Hun king knew not that his queen plotted against his guests, and his welcome was hearty and frank; but Kriemhild was haughty and cold. She kissed but her brother Giselher, who had no part in Siegfried's death. Unto Hagen she spake, saying:
"Hast thou brought hither the hoard of the Nibelungs which thou didst rob from me?"
Hagen answered: "I have touched it not. It is hidden below the Rhine waters. There shall it lie until the Day of Judgment."
"So thou hast brought it not," she said coldly. "Many a day have I grieved for it, and for the noble knight whose possession it was."
"I have brought but my weapons and my armour," said Hagen defiantly.
"I need not gold," Kriemhild sighed; "but I would fain have recompense for murder and robbery."
Then were the Burgundians, at the queen's desire, asked to lay down their arms; but Hagen made refusal for himself and the others, saying that it was the custom of the Burgundians to be fully armed on the first three days of a festival.
It chanced that soon afterwards Kriemhild urged certain of her knights to slay Hagen; but they forbore, fearing as they did his dark brows and quick-flashing eyes.
When night fell the guests were conducted to their dwelling. Grim Hagen and Volker, the minstrel, fearing the treachery of Kriemhild, sought not to take rest.
They clad themselves in their bright armour. Then they took their swords and shields and stood outside the door to guard their companions. After a time Volker took his fiddle, and, sitting upon a stone within the porch, he played merry airs which gladdened the hearts of those who were within, and they forgot their anxieties. Then he gave them soothing music and sweet, so that they were lulled to sleep. Thereafter he took up his shield again and stood beside Hagen at the door to guard the Burgundians against Kriemhild's war-men.
In the midst of the night the fierce Huns made stealthy approach; but when they beheld the knights keeping guard they turned away. Volker desired to challenge them to combat, but Hagen forbade him, and Volker cried out to the followers of Kriemhild: "Cowards, would ye venture hither to slay men in their sleep?" They answered him not. Kriemhild grieved because that her plan had failed, but she ceased not to plot against the guests.
A tournament was held in Etzel's courtyard, and Volker slew a Hun warrior. But for the king, vengeance would have been taken for that cause. "He hath been slain without intent," Etzel said; "let my guests go forth unharmed."
Kriemhild then spake to Dietrich of Bern and old Hildebrand, beseeching their aid to encompass the death of Hagen.
Hildebrand answered: "One man is not sufficient to overcome him." And Dietrich, answering her, said: "Speak not of this again, O Queen, I pray thee. These, thy kinsmen, have never done aught against me. 'Twill bring thee shame if thou dost any hurt to them, because they are now thy guests. It is not for me to avenge the death of Siegfried."
Thereafter did Kriemhild plead with Blúdel, King Etzel's brother, making him promise of rich reward, and he promised to achieve her purpose. He went forth to attack Gunther's men with a thousand of his followers. Dankwart was in command when Blúdel fell upon them without warning, and fierce was the conflict.
Meanwhile Gunther and Hagen and other knights sat at feast with King Etzel. Kriemhild caused her son Ortlieb to enter and sit nigh to Hagen, and the king said: "Lo! here cometh my only son to be among his kinsmen."
Hagen loved not the lad. "He hath a weak face," he said. "I could never be a guest at his Court."
Suddenly Dankwart rushed into the feasting hall. He alone of all the war-men had escaped the sword of Blúdel, whom he slew; his body was red with the blood of foemen. "Why dost thou tarry thus, brother Hagen?" he cried; "our men are slaughtered in their dwelling."
"Guard the door," cried Hagen, and seizing his sword be smote off the head of Prince Ortlieb before his father's eyes. Then he slew the lad's tutor and cut off the right hand of a minstrel who had borne Kriemhild's message unto Worms. Volker drew his blade also and made slaughter. In vain did the three kings, Etzel and Gunther and Dietrich, make endeavour to subdue the fray. Many Hun knights were slain, for the Burgundians were seized with battle fury and sought dire vengeance. They cut their way up and down the hall, and there was none who could stand against them.
Then did Kriemhild plead with Dietrich of Bern, beseeching his aid, what time he watched, standing upon a bench, the doughty deeds of his old war comrade Hagen.
"Save me and King Etzel from this our dire peril," cried the queen.
"I can but try," Dietrich answered. "Not for many years have I beheld such fierce fighting."
Then he uttered forth a great shout, and his voice was like to the blast of a war horn. Gunther heard him, and called upon his men to pause in the fray. "Mayhap," he said, "we have slain knights of Dietrich."
"No harm have ye done me or mine," Dietrich said, "but I ask of thee that I and those with me may have thy permission to go forth in safety."
"Thy wish is granted," answered Gunther.
Then did Dietrich clasp the fainting Queen Kriemhild with one arm and took King Etzel's with the other. Thus did he leave the hall with six hundred of his knights. Rudiger went also with five hundred. Neither sought to take part in the fray.
Thereafter was the conflict waged again with great fury, nor did it pause until not a Hun was left alive in the hall.
The Burgundians rested awhile; then they threw out the bodies of their foemen. Kinsmen of the slain mourned greatly.
King Etzel seized his shield and desired them to combat against the stranger at the head of his men; but Kriemhild warned him that he could not withstand the blows of fierce Hagen. But his knights had to hold him back by force, and, seeing this, Hagen taunted the king.
"The darling of Siegfried and her new husband are faint-hearted," he cried. "Ha, Etzel! Siegfried had thy lady to wife before thee. I slew him. Why, then, shouldst thou be angry with me?"
Kriemhild heard with anger. "Much gold shall I give, and castles and land," said the queen, "unto the knight who shall slay Hagen."
Volker shouted defiantly: "Never before beheld I so many timorous knights. Cowards all! ye have taken of the king's substance and in his hour of trial ye desert him. I cry shame upon ye all."
Many bold warriors rushed against the knights of Burgundy. Stranger knights who were there fought also. The nimble Iring of Denmark struck mighty blows, and in the end he wounded Hagen. Queen Kriemhild praised him when he returned weary from the fray, and prompted him to return again. When he renewed the conflict, however, Hagen slew him.
So fell many brave men, and the long summer day ended and darkness fell. The tumult ceased.
Then the Burgundians besought King Etzel that they should be permitted to leave the hall and fight in battle, but Kriemhild forbade it.
Her brother Giselher spake to the vengeful queen saying: "I deserve not death at thy hands. I was ever faithful unto thee. I came hither because that I did bear thee love and thou didst invite me. Thou must needs now show mercy unto us."
"Can I show mercy who hath never received it?" she answered him. "The vile Hagen slew my child, so those who stand by him must suffer with him. But this I shall promise thee--if Hagen be now delivered up a truce will be granted forthwith."
Gernot answered: "Never shall thy wish be granted. Rather would we die than ransom our lives with a single knight."
"Then must we die indeed like to brave men, Giselher said.
"My brother Hagen is not without friends," cried Dankwart; "ye who have refused quarter shall not receive it. Not at our hands."
In the midst of the night Kriemhild bade her, followers to set fire to the hall. That they did right gladly. The flames raged furiously, and one of them within cried: "Woe is me! we are doomed to die. Rather would I have fallen in battle."
Great was the heat, and the knights were tortured with thirst. Then did Hagen bid one of them to drink the blood of the slain war-men. One who suffered much knelt beside a corpse and drank the blood. The draught made him strong again. "Better is it than wine," he said.
The others did likewise, and were all refreshed so that they were able to endure their sufferings amidst the flames. Burning faggots fell upon them, but they protected themselves with their shields. Terrible was the heat. Never again shall heroes suffer as did these that night.
"Stand close to the walls," Hagen commanded; "your armour shall protect ye; let the blood quench the flaming brands."
When morning broke, the Huns wondered greatly to behold Hagen and Volker again standing on guard at the hall door.
Fierce attack was again made by the Huns, but they were beaten back. Nor did the conflict have pause until the last of Etzel's great knights was slain.
Then did Kriemhild and the king make appeal to Rudiger to aid them, but he desired not to attack the brave Burgundians.
"Shall I slay those whom I did entertain in my own house?" he exclaimed. "I forget not past friendship."
Yet was he constrained to fight, and he mourned his lot with the Burgundians.
"Would that I had a strong shield like thee," Hagen said; "mine own is hewn and battered sore."
Click to enlarge
THE FIGHT ON THE STAIRS OF ETZEL'S PALACE
From the painting by Schnorr von Carolsfeld
Rudiger gave Hagen his own shield ere he fought at Etzel's command with those whom he loved. Fierce was the conflict and long, and in the end Gernot and Rudiger slew one another.
Then did Wolfhart, the bold knight of Bern, lead on the followers of Dietrich to avenge the death of Rudiger. One by one they were cut down by Gunther's heroes, save Hildebrand, who slew Volker. But Hagen made vengeful attack and wounded him. The old warrior fled. He hastened unto Dietrich, and cried: "All our men are slain, and of the Burgundians but Gunther and Hagen remain alive."
Dietrich was wroth. He sorrowed for his brave knights. No longer could he withhold from the fray. So he put on his armour and went unto the Hall. He first bade Gunther and Hagen to surrender; but they defied him.
Dietrich drew his sword and fell upon Hagen, whom he speedily wounded.
"Battle-weary art thou," Dietrich cried; "I shall slay thee not."
As he spake thus he caught Hagen in his arms and overpowered him. So was the valiant hero taken captive.
Dietrich led him bound before Queen Kriemhild, and her heart rejoiced. "Now is all my sorrow requited," she said "thee, Dietrich, shall I thank until my life hath end."
The Prince of Bern said: "Slay him not. He may yet serve thee, and thus make good the evil he hath done."
Hagen was cast into a dark dungeon, there to await his doom.
Dietrich then fought against Gunther, who. was more fierce than Hagen had been. Indeed he came nigh to slaying Dietrich. But he was at length borne down, and taken prisoner and bound.
When the King of Burgundy was taken before Kriemhild, she said: "I welcome thee, O Gunther."
He answered her: "If thy welcome were made with love, I would thank ye, but I know well that thou dost mock."
Dietrich pleaded with the queen that Gunther and Hagen should be spared, but his words fell upon ears that heard not.
Kriemhild went unto Hagen and demanded that he should return unto her the treasure he had stolen.
The knight answered her: "Vows I took not to reveal where the hoard is hidden so long as my king liveth."
Then did the queen command that her brother should be slain. With her own white hand she held high by the hair before Hagen the dripping head of Gunther.
"Now all thy brothers are dead," Hagen cried. "Where the treasure is concealed is known but to God and myself alone. . . . Thou devil, thou shalt never possess it!"
So wroth was Kriemhild that she seized a sword and smote off the head of Hagen.
"Alas," cried King Etzel, "the boldest knight who ever fought in battle hath fallen by a woman's hand!"
Old Hildebrand, recking not what would happen him, drew his sword and smote the queen. A loud cry broke from her lips, and ere long Kriemhild died.
So ended the festival of King Etzel, as gladness must ever end in grief.
Click to enlarge
DEITRICH OVERCOMES HAGEN
From the painting by Schnorr von Carolsfeld
What befell thereafter I can tell not. Knights and soldiers, wives and maids, were seen weeping, and heard lamenting for their friends.
So ends the Nibelungenlied.
. . . . . .
Minstrels, singing the sorrowful lay of the death of Siegfried, and the fall of the Nibelungs, have told that Queen Brunhild and Queen Ute sat side by side embroidering on tapestry the death of Balder.
Again and again did Brunhild say to the mother of Gunther: "Each time I picture Balder, his face grows like unto that of Siegfried."
Soon tidings were brought to them of the death of Gunther and all his men. Brunhild wept not. She went out into the darkness, nor ever returned again.
When search was made, she was found lying dead in the grave mound of Siegfried, whom she had loved.
1 Attila, "the scourge of God".