Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Nibelungenlied

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Volsung saga is the rare and unique glimpse we get into its development through time. No other early epic work of literature has such a diverse and well-documented evolution, save perhaps the legendary tales of King Arthur.

Beginning with the Old Norse Poetic Edda collection of the earliest known lays and ballads composed and transmitted orally from as early as 850 A.D. to the Middle High German Nibelungenlied penned sometime around 1230, the Volsung matter spans not only centuries, but regions as far removed and diverse as Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, the British Isles and a broad swath of northern Europe. The divergence between the ancient Nordic warrior sagas and the later chivalric romance is vast and dramatic.

By the early 13th century France and Germany were well into the era of courtly chivalry, with a highly developed code of knightly conduct, in which wealth and social status are as prized as actual deeds. This is reflected in a form of poetry that by this time had reached a highly refined state, with a clearly ordered rhyme and metre penned almost exclusively by the very knights it praised, for only they were literate and educated and had time to spare for such endeavors. Its content, too, has little to do with common men, but is filled instead with lengthy descriptions of richly embroidered clothes and lavish palaces the likes of which only the wealthiest of kings might dream.

The Nibelungenlied is, in fact, so far removed from the gritty Old Norse story of Sigurd the dragon slayer that it has all but forgotten the reason why the dragon is in the tale at all, and the central motivation has been reduced to little more than avenging the slights and insults of bickering women. Events have lost almost entirely any significance they once held, and are made instead to serve only as a means to describe another tournament or army a hundred thousand strong brought down by the might of a single man. The whole is so ridiculously blown out of proportion as to mean nothing at all. It is just this type of high-flown narrative that Cervantes was mocking in Don Quixote.

But still there is a certain charm and wit to be found in The Nibelungenlied, buried amidst its 9516 lines of verse (three times that of Beowulf!). And there are touching moments too. The vow of Kriemhild to never love for fear her bad dreams might come true might truly have been a forceful motivation, had the poet seen it through. Tellingly, although Wagner himself was a German writing opera for a German stage, he used the Old Norse version of the Volsung story rather than the one told in his own language.

This past week I slogged my way through a reading of four different translations of The Nibelungenlied, searching for material to use, and I have to say that it was grueling. There are about a thousand translations to be found out there (just do a search on Google Books), of which I have half a dozen or more. Of these I compared two translations in verse and two in prose, the first two being those of Horton (1898) and Needler (1904), while the prose renditions I employed were those of Armour (1897) and Shumway (1909). I had started piecing together one of my comparative documents for these, but only made it to around stanza 1000 before I gave that up as far too time-consuming: there were way too many errors in the text files to spend my time correcting them, and since Google Books has actual scans of them all, there was no point in wasting time with it.

The one thing of most interest that I found in doing this, however, is in discovering just how different Armour's prose rendition is from the actual verse. While the poetic translations vary only in specific wording of each line (and not at all in content), Armour has created a highly concise and compact version in which stanzas are reduced to single sentences, making it less exact, but far more pleasant (and speedy) to read. For though Shumway's prose follows the verse lines literally (and so, mechanically), Armour has captured more of the sense and spirit of it. Indeed, she has even added in some of her own bits here and there to flesh it out, a move which incensed the academics to no end, but made her book more popular than any other translation. It was, in fact, her text that Arthur Rackham illustrated.

So although I agree with Wagner in his choice of primary source material, there are some episodes and events in The Nibelungelied that I might yet use. For one, I like the idea of a warrior maiden who vows to marry only the man who can defeat her in athletic competition, and who beheads anyone who can't. And should I go so far as to bring in the Atli matter, in this version Kriemhild's vengeance on her brothers rather than her husband makes much more sense. But that has yet to be decided.