Medieval literature, Nibelungenlied

The ‘post-truth’ Nibelungenlied

The phrase, ‘we live in a post-truth society’ has become so well-worn over the past year that perhaps, when we hear it, we no longer think through its implications. But powerful figures having a loose relationship with the truth is hardly a new phenomenon. This blog post isn’t meant to develop a theory of post-truth society in the Nibelungenlied – indeed the title is rather flippant – but is simply intended to give an illustration of the Nibelungenlied as a world in which truth has little currency, which can at times seem remarkably contemporary. [1]

Earlier this month, I went to a fascinating paper given by Christiane Witthöft: ‘Wahres Wissen oder Schein der Wahrheit? Zur Suche nach ‘Wahrheitsquellen’ in der mittelalterlichen Literatur’ (True knowledge, or appearance of knowledge? On the search for ‘truth sources’ in medieval literature). Professor Witthöft focused on the Nibelungenlied and Heinrich von Türlin’s Diu Crone. I’d like to use one of the episodes she points to in the Nibelungenlied as a starting point: Gunther’s denial of Hagen’s guilt after the murder of Siegfried.[2]

Previously on the ‘Nibelungenlied’…

The legendary Siegfried is promised the hand of the beautiful Kriemhild, on the condition that he helps her brother, Gunther, to win the hand of Brunhild, the Queen of Iceland. Siegfried agrees, despite the fact that this involves an elaborate conspiracy to deceive Brunhild. Over the following decade, the complexities of this deceit begin to unravel, culminating in Brunhild’s public humiliation at Kriemhild’s hands. Hagen, Gunther’s vassal swears to avenge the slight, and schemes with Gunther to murder Siegfried. Hagen convinces Kriemhild to reveal to him the one vulnerable spot in Siegfried’s invincible skin, assuring her that this will help him to protect Siegfried. Soon afterwards, while out hunting, Hagen stabs Siegfried in the back, and lays his corpse at Kriemhild’s door.

The death of Siegfried (publicity still for Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen I, 1924). Source: Wikipedia.

Kriemhild works out pretty quickly that

ez hat geraten prvennhilt | daz ez hat hagen getan

Brunhild advised it, and Hagen did it

and she has good old medieval proof:

daz ist ein michel wunder | vil dicke ez noch geschiht
swa man den mortmeilen | bi dem toten siht
so blvtent im di wunden | als ovch da geschach
davon man di schvlde | da ce hagene gesach
di wunden vlvzzen sere | alsam si taten e

It is a great wonder, and still happens often, that when the murderer is seen near the corpse, its wounds bleed. That happened here too, and everyone saw that the guilt was Hagen’s; the wounds bled heavily, as they did before.

But what use is proven truth, when it doesn’t follow the party line? Gunther steps in:

do sprach der kvenich gvnther | ich wilz ivch wizzen lan
in slvgen schachaere | hagen hat es niht getan

Then King Gunther said, ‘I want you all to know that robbers attacked him. Hagen didn’t do it.’

And despite Kriemhild’s protests, the matter is closed. The court essentially goes back to business as usual, although Hagen’s guilt was demonstrated before an audience. The words of a powerful man are able to control the narrative, vindicating his close friend, and blaming a useful scapegoat on the edge of society. Through his statement, Gunther creates an official reality which is distinct from what has actually happened. But Kriemhild’s personal rage and grief cannot be controlled by this official line, and they will manifest themselves – years later – in a catastrophic revenge.

Gunther’s brazen lie, though, is only the latest untruth in a society, or at least a hierarchy, based on deceit. In the bridal quest for example, Brunhild is doubly deceived, both regarding Siegfried and Gunther’s relative status, and Gunther’s physical strength.

Brunhild will only marry the man who can defeat her in a series of physical tests – a supposedly impossible challenge, because she is famous for her superhuman strength. Gunther himself is not up to the task, but – at Hagen’s suggestion – he sees an opportunity in Siegfried. Siegfried, for his part, is easily swayed by the promise of marrying Kriemhild in exchange for his help. The plan, in fact, then comes from Siegfried, who suggests:

so svlt ir helde maere | wan einer rede iehn
gvnther si min herre | vnt ich si sin man

‘You warriors should all have one story: Gunther is my lord, and I am his vassal.’

But Brunhild and her maidens make an accurate assessment of the group – Siegfried is visually identified as the most powerful, and therefore the most likely to have come to court Brunhild. But Siegfried repeats his lie to Brunhild, and his words are sufficient to overrule the evidence of her eyes.

So Gunther finds himself facing Brunhild’s superhuman strength. But Siegfried owns a Tarnkappe, which renders him invisible, and grants him superhuman strength, and as Gunther stands there, fearing for his life, an invisible Siegfried creeps up to him and says:

nv hab dv di gebaere | div werch wil ich began

‘Now you do the actions; I will begin the work’

That is to say, Gunther is to mime physical participation, but the work will actually be carried out by the invisible Siegfried. Gunther has thus misrepresented both his physical and political power, and his marriage is based on this fundamental deception.

Everything that follows in the text can be seen to turn on this. Siegfried is rewarded with Kriemhild’s hand, but his dishonesty immediately begins to catch up with him when Brunhild queries her new husband’s decision to marry off his sister to a vassal. Unsatisfied with Gunther’s assurances, she refuses to consummate the marriage. So Siegfried once again dons the Tarnkappe, and subdues her for Gunther (for the modern reader, a particularly unpleasant episode, which merits its own discussion), taking her ring and belt as souvenirs. He later gives these to Kriemhild.

Ten years later, Brunhild has Siegfried and Kriemhild invited to a festival, hoping to get to the bottom of their unequal status, and is drawn into an argument with Kriemhild, which culminates in Kriemhild accusing Brunhild of having lost her virginity to Siegfried, and not her husband Gunther, brandishing her ring and belt as proof. From there, it is one short conspiracy to Siegfried’s murder.

It’s certainly a legitimate – and common – analysis to link Siegfried’s murder, and its emotion-driven consequences (Kriemhild’s wiping out of the Burgundians in pursuit of revenge) to the disregard for truth upon which these two key marriages are founded. But this post is just a quick look at the thorny question of truth in the Nibelungenlied, and it isn’t intended to delve into the myriad reasons for the final catastrophe – a culture of dishonesty is just one possibility. What I’m really interested in here is the timeless relevance of the distortion of truth. I have only picked two, relatively early, examples of the manipulation of truth in the Nibelungenlied, and have not touched on, for example, Kriemhild’s (potentially) insincere reconciliation with her brothers; her dishonest motives for her second marriage; or Hagen’s attempt to prove the water spirits’ prophetic truth false – amongst many other possibilities. But what we see in both of my chosen examples are powerful men using deception to make society conform to their own desires. To create their own reality.

Maybe it’s a cheat to use the Nibelungenlied to make this point. It is, after all, only one version of a collection of myths. This page, under ‘Bearbeitungen’, shows the other best-known medieval versions of the narrative, which vary significantly from the Middle High German text. The whole thing is a collection of ‘alternative facts’, in a rather literal sense, and we’re clued into that when we are introduced to Siegfried in the second aventiure as a sheltered courtly prince –

vil selten ane hvote | man riten lie daz kint

the youth was never allowed to ride out alone

– only to hear from Hagen in the next aventiure that Siegfried is a great hero who has, amongst other things, slain a dragon and bathed in its blood. These two realities sit uneasily alongside one another, both necessary, but never entirely coherent as part of a single narrative. But the examples explored above show a deliberate manipulation which has nothing to do with the inconsistency of the fictional world in which the characters operate.

In the Guardian last month, John Gray argued that post-truth society dates not from 2016, but from the Iraq War, pointing to Blair’s statement, ‘I only know what I believe.’ The characters in the Nibelungenlied are asked to believe in a world based on deliberate deception, created to serve the interests of other people, which ultimately ends up serving the interests of no one.

[1] For a free online dictionary definition, see Macmillan
[2] The idea for this blog post came from a conversation with my husband on the way back, about the parallels between this statement from Gunther and contemporary discourse.

Karl Bartsch’s edition of the Nibelunglied (used for this post, because my own copy is in England)
English summary of the Nibelungenlied


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