I also finished reading the Nibelungenlied last night, an epic poem from the 13th century. I read an English translation from the German--my German friend, Ada, found German from the period a bit difficult to read, seemingly about as difficult as modern English speakers find Beowulf, though Nibelungenlied was written a few centuries later. Like Beowulf, it's a transcription by a Christian hand of a pre-Christian tale, though in this case inserted Christianity is a bit less obtrusive throughout the piece, mostly not much more than mention of characters observing matins. It's a good read mainly for the spectacle of savagery on display.
It's a telling of the Siegfried/Sigurd story of northern Europe and Iceland, in this case with no gods, of course. Siegfried's slaying of the dragon is only related as an event transpired before the text to explain Siegfried's mostly invulnerable skin. There's not a lot of magic in the story, the strongest indication of magic being the very brief appearance of precognitive mermaids/Rhinemaidens, obviously left over from some other version of the story. Primarily, the Nibelungenlied is the purest example of a "might makes right" story I can think of, particularly, "mighty men make right," as the treatment of women by the story is pretty harsh even for something from the Middle Ages. Our pure and noble hero Siegfried rapes the indomitable Brunhild while disguised as Gunther--Gunther himself is too weak to subdue the warrior woman. There's a strange ghost of another story's moral in the events as the text superficially seems to support Siegfried in this while the events also seem to mark him for death as recompense. It's like the hint of a noir-ish existential tragedy--Siegfried feels he has no choice but to render service to Gunther yet Gunther later obviously doesn't feel anything like the same loyalty to Siegfried.
Siegfried's not even slightly in love with Brunhild in this version and I must admire what Wagner did in his operas to actually use the contradictions in the different versions to create a complex psychologically subtext. The fact that the man who pledges his love so truly and beautifully at the end of the third opera betrays the same woman so horribly and easily in the fourth is very fitting for a story about the end of a world kept in order by the gods. There is something very human about the moral confusion in Nibelungenlied. The only consistency is in its praise of men who are really good at killing people.
Siegfried's in love with Kriemhild in this version, known as Gudrun in other versions, Gutrune in Wagner's opera. She swears revenge for the killing of Siegfried halfway through the story and it feels like we're going to get behind her, like this is going to be a glorious revenge tale, but the story inexplicably seems to side with Hagen and Gunther, following them on their journey to a feast Kriemhild has invited them to after she's married Etzel the Hun (apparently based on Attila). One of my favourite bits comes when, after Gunther and Hagen have slain scores of Etzel's men, Kriemhild orders the burning of the hall Gunther and Hagen are in. Seeing the flames, Hagen comes up with the idea to drink the blood of the men they've killed, the idea being that quenching thirst will counteract the effects of the flames. It's sort of splendidly absurd and grotesque, the sort of thing maybe it's only possible to arrive at when one story has passed through so many perspectives. I can just imagine one storyteller coming up with the blood drinking to illustrate Hagen's savagery and the next storyteller automatically repeating the action in his version before somewhat awkwardly realising he needs to provide some kind of explanation for it. It's not unlike one writer for a television series having to explain what another writer came up with for a previous episode without quite understanding why.
*I wrote most of this entry before I left for school.