Nibelungenlost

May 07 2012

I’m reading The Nibelungenlied, because it’s a classic, and classics are good, so I’m reading them.

It’s a tough classic, though. It’s the original saga on which Wagner’s Ring saga is based, not that that probably tells you much. Even if you’ve managed to see Wagner’s epic, it only tells a small chunk of the original tale.

Apparently, Wanger left out a lot of clothes and riding from castle to castle.

Why? Well, epics like these weren’t just recited to princes and courts; they were written for the common people, too. They were escapist literature, distracting the masses with stories about the exotic lives of the wealthy.

As a result, the narrator spends a lot of time describing expensive outfits and sumptious feasts, because to a peasant, those things were just as exotic as a dragon or a troll.

Moreover, the plot hinges on details of Medieval morality and courtesy. A woman distrusts the hero because he appears to be a king’s vassal, and his subsequent behavior confuses her. These plot clues are imperceptible to the modern reader. Fortunately, my Penguin translation includes plenty of footnotes that explain these plot twists.

But the result is that The Nibelungenlied — at least at this point in my reading, about 3/5 through — is mostly a tale of court politics and backstabbing, hardly the thrilling tale of swords and monsters that I expected. Combined with all the dresses and gold-giving, I’m somewhat disappointed, but the story’s interesting enough, in the mood of a Shakespearean tragedy, to continue through to the end.

I just keep hoping for a dragon.

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