Monday, March 12, 2007

Siegfried - Our Hero

As I've already pointed out in my last post, we Germans have a certain way of dealing with culture - and that includes our famous stories. One of the main stories connected with the 'German soul' is that of the Nibelungen. And after rereading the main story in a magazine, I really wonder why.

Hero of the Nibelungen is - for the first half - Siegfried. If you're not familiar with him, imagine him as some kind of German Hercules ... like Kevin Sorbo in blond, say (even though he could be dark-haired as well). Siegfried is a king himself and he's a true hero: handsome, strong, righteous and always ready to help his friends (the last point will be his downfall).

In the beginning Siegfried goes up against the dragon Fafnir, a dangerous creature who has collected a large hoard of gold ... what will later become first the Nibelungen-treasure and then the Rheingold. Siegfried naturally kills the dragon and basks in his blood to become invulnerable - but one little area between his shoulder-blades, covered by a lime leaf, remains untouched and thus can still be harmed.

Now, Siegfried has a good friend called Gunter who's a king himself. Gunter isn't as strong and heroic as Siegfried and that's a problem - not for his kingdom, but for himself, because he wants to marry a very special woman. Brunhild is this woman, the queen of Iceland, a strong and very self-assured person. She wants to marry only the man who can beat her at various contests. Gunter can't do it - and he knows it. So he calls in Siegfried who a) can do it and b) wants to marry Gunter's sister Kriemhild. Siegfried accompanies him to Iceland, is presented to Brunhild as a vassal and then uses his invisibility cap (another nice part of the Nibelungen-treasure) to win the contests for Gunter.

But in the wedding night Brunhild realizes rather quickly that her husband isn't as strong or brave as he seemed to be, so he spends it tied up and hung on a nail while she is sleeping in the bed - alone (Brunhild is exceptionally strong for a woman, in some versions that comes from her being a former Valkyrie). So Gunter calls for his brother-in-law's (Siegfried has by then married Kriemhild) help again and Siegfried, hidden beneath his invisibility cap again, wrestles Brunhild down so his friend finally gets his wedding night. During this he takes some trinkets from her which he gives to his own wife. After loosing her virginity, Brunhild also looses her strength and courage, becoming an average woman. But she also get's suspicious.

So Brunhild manages to invite her sister-in-law and extracts two facts from her: first of all Siegfried isn't Gunter's vassal and second he was - Kriemhild thinks - the one to take her virginity (people are not sure about that, since Gunter asked Siegfried not to do it and Siegfried is a good guy on the whole). Brunhild might not be a powerful warrior any longer, but she wants her revenge ... and she gets it by telling Gunter about the fact that he - as she thinks - was not the first man in her life. Now Gunter wants revenge too, but he doesn't want to take it himself - especially as he swore friendship to Siegfried and the man is strong and nearly invulnerable. Enter Hagen, one of Gunter's vassals (this time for real). Hagen goes to Xanten - that's where King Siegfried lives - and manages to gain Kriemhild's confidence (as he's from her brother's court). Unknowingly Kriemhild helps him to find Siegfried's weakness - and then Hagen takes a spear and kills Siegfried - End of Part 1.

Now it's Kriemhild's time. She wants revenge for her husband's death - but how can she get it. The fact that one of her brother's men killed Siegfried means that she can't ask Gunter for revenge. In addition Gunter offered her to hide the Nibelungen-treasure for a while (before she realized what happened) and so she is more or less out of cash, too. Kriemhild returns home and mourns over her husband's loss, while Gunter and Hagen hide the treasure in the Rhine. She goes on mourning him for 13 years until another man comes along: Etzel, King of the Huns. Etzel wants to marry Kriemhild and Gunter would appreciate a connection to this power in the east. Kriemhild agrees and leaves her family again, this time to marry another man. With him she has a son ... and starts to plot her revenge.

A couple of years later she invites her brother and his men over - and there the killing starts. Kriemhild does not manage to extract the location of the treasure from either Gunter or Hagen, but she gets her revenge on both. On the other side she is slain by one of her brother's men and so is her child. In the end Etzel and a few of his men survive, but none of the Nibelungen does.

Now, the whole story is not too unusual, as far as myths go. We have the good guys, the bad guys, some murders, some monsters and a lot of gold. So why do the Germans think Siegfried is their hero? He's a good guy, he's strong and helpful - so exactly what everyone wants a hero to be -, but on the other hand he's not above tricking some people (like Brunhild who gets tricked twice). He also gets killed in the middle of the story (the tragedy starts afterwards and because of this).

So, if we take Siegfried as the typical German, then we all are nice people who love to kill dangerous animals and bask in their blood, we're physically strong but not exactly bright, we like to help and we're not above tricking people to help our friends. To me that doesn't sound like the picture the rest of the world has of us. So maybe that's the reason? Who knows...

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