One book I’ve started reading lately to help with my current WIP (work in progress) is The Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs). I’ve had a copy for years but put off reading it because I expected it to be like a lot of classic literature, difficult to trudge through.
Don’t get me wrong, I love literature, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy all of it, even a majority of it. And even if I can appreciate the symbols, themes, and language, it doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally dread a work. Part of this is because I am a fantasist, and most literature takes a realistic approach. Part is also due to the fact that I was raised in a different culture than most authors whose names sit on the lists of great literature. But I digress.
Occasionally, I find a work that makes me wonder why it isn’t common reading in high school and college literature classes. The Nibelungenlied is one such work.
First of all, the narrative structure is more similar to modern fiction than any I’ve read from the medieval period. The characters are naturally formed from the valorous molds of their era, but they also reach a depth uncommon in their time, at least among many works listed on most English syllabi. Le Morte de’Arthur may have many similar concepts of great men doing great deeds in a world of ladies and knights and combat, but Lancelot and Guinevere’s romance pales beside that of Siegfried and Kriemhild, whose relationship borders on the believable.
Yet, much as most medieval works centered around a concept, often of religious significance, The Nibelungenlied is character driven. Certainly, we see Siegfried leaping at the chance to take on any peril, much like his medieval counterparts, but the story gives more focus and time to his courtship of Kriemhild and his bonds of friendship and brotherhood with Gunther and his men. The story even gives Kriemhild far more time and attention than her contemporary counterparts. I should think scholars of feminist literature ought to leap at this, especially considering how the heroine drives the second half of the story. In any case, heroic and Olympian as the feats in this tale may be, the characters are closer to living, breathing humans than most, and their motivations drive the plot. In truth, the story bears greater resemblance in this fashion renaissance tragedy.
So here is my vote to place Siegfried and Kriemhild on the list of classic heroes and heroines taught in American schools. Are their works or characters you think should be added as well? Why?