You’re no lady, you’re my husband’s vassal’s wife.
The Nibelungenlied begins with Sivrit visiting King Gunther of Burgundy in Worms, where, good romantic hero he is, he falls in love with the king’s sister, Kriemhilt. But before he can marry her, he has to help Gunther win the haughty and powerful Icelandic queen, Prünhilt. In fact, he even has to help the king bed her because being far stronger than Gunther, she keeps tying him up at night and hanging him from a hook to stop him making a nuisance of himself. Sivrit takes takes Prünhilt’s belt and ring from this encounter, and having done as Gunther asked, he marries Kriemhilt.
Prünhilt is not happy about Sivrit’s marriage to Kriemhilt because she thinks the king has bestowed his sister on a mere vassal. It leads to the two women having an argument about who should enter church first, and eventually Kriemhilt reveals the two souvenirs Sivrit acquired, thus humiliating Gunther’s wife.
Hagen of Tronege promises to avenge this insult, and gets Kriemhilt to tell him about the one spot on Sivrit’s body that is still vulnerable because a leaf fell on his back when he was bathing in the blood which he killed. Kriemhilt helpfully sews a marker on Sivrit’s shirt so that Hagen knows where to stab him in the back. After the murder, he also disposes Kriemhilt of the treasure of the Nibelungs and sinks it in the Rhine.
Eventually, Kriemhilt is married off to the wealthy and powerful Etzel of Hungary. In spite of all the time that passes, her desire for revenge against Hagen does not abate, and she persuades her husband to invite Gunther, with whom she has be publicly reconciled over Sivrit’s death, and his men to visit her.
Hagen is opposed to the trip, but goes anyway, and learns from some water sprites that as he suspected, their journey will end in disaster.
Kriemhilt provokes the Huns into attack the Burgundians, who are ably defended by Hagen and Volker the Fiddler. She is not above letting her loyal brothers die, or sending Rüedeger of Pöchlarn to fight them even although he is one of their hosts, and Dietrich of Bern, who eventually captures Hagen and Gunther.
Kriemhilt executes the pair of them before Hildebrant cuts her down.
The epic is a mixture of elements. Some of it comes from Germanic tradition, and appears to take imperfectly remembered elements of Germanic history such as the 6th century feud between the Visigothic princess, Brunhilda, and Fredegund, the new wife of her murdered sister’s husband, Sigebert, or conflicts between the Huns and the Burgundians, or the activities of Theodoric of Verona (i.e., Dietrich of Bern), the King of Italy. In sum, there seems to be a good deal of historical conflation. Some of it comes from an oral traditional, which may explain the presence of certain continuity errors. The repeated foreshadowing of the calamitous journey to Hungary is another Germanic element, which has parallels in references to the destruction of Heorot in Beowulf.
Beside the Germanic elements, the epic also feels like a medieval romance, replete with chivalrous moments near the end of the story that heighten the sense of tragedy. The issues surrounding Prünhilt and Kriemhilt’s respective social statuses also seem to belong to a medieval rather than Germanic world.
The wealth of the Nibelungs is immense; the wealth which Gunther and Etzel have at their disposal is immense; they have huge retinues at their beck and call. The possessors of the hoards give vast sums of money away (apart from Hagen, who having taken possession of the treasure of the Nibelungs, throws it into the Rhine to spite Kriemhilt). It’s a common enough trope, although it might have be a broad hint from the poet to his audience to show their generosity for his performance. Yet the one thing that is not explained is why there is an obsession with clothing, from making sure that the heroes are well-dressed to giving away vast wardrobes of clothes as gifts. Presumably, it says something about German society at the time the poem was composed, but apart from armour exchanges in The Iliad, for example, it seems unusual to give guests clothing as a gift. Could this also have been intended to encourage the audience to reward the poet with such items?
The quality of the poem seems to vary. There are some sections which are quite fluent, and others which feel staccato such as sentences ending in “there” (e.g. Very few travelling people were found in poverty there, III.41), which got used sufficiently often to feel overused. It may be a consequence of the poetic metre, or such parts may oral rather than literary; or, indeed, some combination of both. Constant references to the disaster that would befall the Burgundians because of the argument between Prünhilt and Kriemhilt also got overused, especially in the second half of the poem. The Beowulf poet had done something similar with references to the burning of Heorot, but these were less frequent and thus less intrusive.