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Nibelungenlied (Dover Thrift Editions) Paperback – 28 Mar 2003
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Prose translation of epic tale, best known to modern audiences as source for Wagner's Ring cycle, recounts the life and death of Sifrid (Siegfried), the dragon-slaying superman who can only be undone through betrayal. In the second half, his noble queen Kriemhilde extracts vengeance, destroyi
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In the Iliad homer chose a snippet of time of the war at Ilium. In the Nibelungenlied We get the highlight of the life of Kriemhild. It would not do the poem good to paraphrase or sum up Kriemhild's experiences.
People take the time to compare The Nibelungenlied to other great works; this can be interesting. However, you seldom see other works compared to this one.
In the first half we learn about the warrior hero Sifrid, the extremely rich and magically strong Netherlandic prince of the Nibelung and of his quest to win the heart of fair Kriemhilde, princess of Burgundy, King Gunther's sister.
Later, there's a rumour that Brünnhilde of Iceland has set up an impossible challenge where the prize is no less than her hand.
King Gunther travels to Iceland to take up this competition With the help of his friend Hagen of Tronege, among others, and that of Sifrid's special powers. But for this he has to pretend that Sifrid is only his vassal. This will lead to a terrible quiproquo between both brides, many hurt prides, secret plottings, and finally to the death of Sifrid by Hagen of Tronege's hand.
The second half tells us of Kriemhilde's incosolable grief, which will turn into an insatiable hunger for revenge against her brother and Hagen, resulting in total carnage.
Probably misinformed, or also mislead by childhood memories of Saint Seiya (where I first heard of the Ring of the Nibelungen), I was expecting tales of Odin and Ragnarok. The fantasy part is actually rather small, as it only consists of the special powers Sifrid gets from the cloak of invisibility he won from a dwarf called Alberich. The story is a bit repetitive, perhaps because of the stances structure (even though this is the prose translation), and I didn't really care for any of the characters. In the beginning, I was on Kriemhilde's side, but in the end she caused too much death and destruction. As a whole, I will say that this was good for my general literary culture, but not a very exciting read.
Nibelungenlied suffers from being misunderstood, or from readers expecting something different.
First, if you expect to see much of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, I recommend Volsungasaga instead, as he followed that source a bit closer than this German epic (ironic, no?).
Even with this in mind, however, Nibelungenlied is a shocker. Not only is there no happy ending, there are no clear "good guys," and the ending is so far removed from most literature that it disturbs some readers. The behavior of the characters is sometimes inexplicable, sometimes brutal, and ultimately all too human.
That's exactly why it is a classic. Parts of the poem are mildly monotonous; by the time you've read half the book, you're likely to get a chuckle every time clothing and courtly gifts are mentioned, so much does the poem dwell on them. No, it is not the literary style but the sheer otherworldliness of Nibelungenlied that makes in enduring. It has been said that Nibelungenlied is the source and the embodiment of German character and nationalism; this is perhaps not altogether a kind statement about German culture, but it is admittedly not entirely false either. Nibelungelied is a fairy tale, a tragedy, and blind berzerker rage in one poem utterly devoid of morals.
This aside however, I'm not thrilled by Mowatt's translation. I admittedly cannot read the German text, but I have read several translations into English, and I personally found Mowatt's the least compelling. Perhaps that's why his text is the "thrift edition." I personally recommend Margaret Armour's translation, which is reputedly accurate but more importantly fun to read. Hers is prose, the names are translated in a fashion most familiar to most readers, and her mildly antiquated style adds courtly atmosphere to the poem without sacrificing readability. Mowatt's struck me as stilted, and more difficult to follow, and altogether less poetic. He may have in fact been more literal, but a phrase-by-phrase comparison of his translation and Armour's shows her phrasing and wording to be more readable, clearer, and more enjoyable.
Armour's translation gets five stars, easily one of the 100 greatest books ever written. Mowatt's translation drops to four, because it is just not as much fun to read.