The time came when the people of Western Europe learned to believe in one God and were converted to Christianity, but the old stories about the gods and Valkyries and giants and heroes, who were half gods and half men, were not forgotten. These stories were repeated from father to son for generations, and in the twelfth century a poet, whose name we do not know, wrote them in verse. He called his poem the Nibelungenlied (song of the Nibelungs). It is the great national poem of the Germans. The legends told in it are the basis of Wagner's operas. "Nibelungs" was the name given to some northern dwarfs whose king had once possessed a great treasure of gold and precious stones but had lost it. Whoever got possession of this treasure was followed by a curse. The Nibelungenlied tells the adventures of those who possessed the treasure.
In the grand old city of Worms, in Burgundy, there lived long ago the princess Kriemhilda. Her eldest brother Gunther was king of Burgundy. And in the far-away Netherlands, where the Rhine pours its waters into the sea, dwelt a prince named Siegfried, son of Siegmund, the king. Ere long Sir Siegfried heard of the beauty of fair Kriemhilda. He said to his father, "Give me twelve knights and I will ride to King Gunther's land. I must win the heart of Kriemhilda." After seven days' journey the prince and his company drew near to the gates of Worms. All wondered who the strangers were and whence they came. Hagen, Kriemhilda's uncle, guessed. He said, "I never have seen the famed hero of Netherlands, yet I am sure that yonder knight is none but Sir Siegfried." "And who," asked the wondering people, "may Siegfried be?" "Siegfried," answered Sir Hagen, "is a truly wonderful knight. Once when riding all alone, he came to a mountain where lay the treasure of the king of the Nibelungs. The king's two sons had brought it out from the cave in which it had been hidden, to divide it between them. But they did not agree about the division. So when Seigfied drew near both princes said, 'Divide for us, Sir Siegfried, our father's hoard.' There were so many jewels that one hundred wagons could not carry them, and of ruddy gold there was even more. Seigfied made the fairest division he could, and as a reward the princes gave him their father's sword called Balmung. But although Siegfried had done his best to satisfy them with his division, they soon fell to quarreling and fighting, and when he tried to separate them they made an attack on him. To save his own life he slew them both. Alberich, a mountain dwarf, who had long been guardian of the Nibelung hoard, rushed to avenge his masters; but Siegfried vanquished him and took from him his cap of darkness which made its wearer invisible and gave him the strength of twelve men. The hero then ordered Alberich to place the treasure again in the mountain cave and guard it for him." Hagen then told another story of Siegfried: "Once he slew a fierce dragon and bathed himself in its blood, and this turned the hero's skin to horn, so that no sword or spear can wound him." When Hagen had told these tales he advised King Gunther and the people of Burgundy to receive Siegfried with all honor. So, as the fashion was in those times, games were held in the courtyard of the palace in honor of Siegfried, and Kriemhilda watched the sport from her window. For a full year Siegfried stayed at the court of King Gunther, but never in all that time told why he had come and never once saw Kriemhilda. At the end of the year sudden tidings came that the Saxons and Danes, as was their habit, were pillaging the lands of Burgundy. At the head of a thousand Burgundian knights Siegfried conquered both Saxons and Danes. The king of the Danes was taken prisoner and the Saxon king surrendered. The victorious warriors returned to Worms and the air was filled with glad shouts of welcome. King Gunther asked Kriemhilda to welcome Siegfried and offer him the thanks of all the land of Burgundy. Siegfried stood before her, and she said, "Welcome, Sir Siegfried, welcome; we thank you one and all." He bent before her and she kissed him.
Far over the sea from sunny Burgundy lived Brunhilda, queen of Iceland. Fair was she of face and strong beyond compare. If a knight would woo and win her he must surpass her in three contests: leaping, hurling the spear and pitching the stone. If he failed in even one, he must forfeit his life. King Gunther resolved to wed this strange princess and Siegfried promised to help him. "But," said Siegfried, "if we succeed, I must have as my wife thy sister Kriemhilda." To this Gunther agreed, and the voyage to Iceland began. When Gunther and his companions neared Brunhilda's palace the gates were opened and the strangers were welcomed. Siegfried thanked the queen for her kindness and told how Gunther had come to Iceland in hope of winning her hand. "If in three contests he gain the mastery," she said, "I will become his wife. If not, both he and you who are with him must lose your lives." Brunhilda prepared for the contests. Her shield was so thick and heavy that four strong men were needed to bear it. Three could scarcely carry her spear and the stone that she hurled could just be lifted by twelve. Siegfried now helped Gunther in a wonderful way. He put on his cap of darkness, so that no one could see him. Then he stood by Gunther's side and did the fighting. Brunhilda threw her spear against the kings bright shield and sparks flew from the steel. But the unseen knight dealt Brunhilda such blows that she confessed herself conquered. In the second and third contests she fared no better, and so she had to become King Gunther's bride. But she said that before she would leave Iceland she must tell all her kinsmen. Daily her kinsfolk came riding to the castle, and soon an army had assembled. Then Gunther and his friends feared unfair play. So Siegfried put on his cap of darkness, stepped into a boat, and went to the Nibelung land where Alberich the dwarf was guarding the wonderful Nibelung treasure. "Bring me here," he cried to the dwarf, "a thousand Nibelung knights." At the call of the dwarf the warriors gathered around Sir Siegfried. Then they sailed with him to Brunhilda's isle and the queen and her kinsmen, fearing such warriors, welcomed them instead of fighting. Soon after their arrival King Gunther and his men, Siegfried and his Nibelungs, and Queen Brunhilda, with two thousand of her kinsmen set sail for King Gunther's land. As soon as they reached Worms the marriage of Gunther and Brunhilda took place. Siegfried and Kriemhilda also were married, and after their marriage went to Siegfried's Netherlands castle. There they lived more happily than I can tell.
Now comes the sad part of the Nibelung tale. Brunhilda and Gunther invited Siegfried and Kriemhilda to visit them at Worms. During the visit the two queens quarreled and Brunhilda made Gunther angry with Siegfried. Hagen, too, began to hate Siegfried and wished to kill him. But Siegfried could not be wounded except in one spot on which a falling leaf had rested when he bathed himself in the dragon's blood. Only Kriemhilda knew where this spot was. Hagen told her to sew a little silk cross upon Siegfried's dress to mark the spot, so that he might defend Siegfried in a fight. No battle was fought, but Siegfried went hunting with Gunther and Hagen one day and they challenged him to race with them. He easily won, but after running he was hot and thirsty and knelt to drink at a spring. Then Hagen seized a spear and plunged it through the cross into the hero's body. Thus the treasure of the Nibelungs brought disaster to Siegfried. Gunther and Hagen told Kriemhilda that robbers in the wood had slain her husband, but she could not be deceived. Kriemhilda determined to take vengeance on the murderers of Siegfried, and so she would not leave Worms. There, too, stayed one thousand knights who had followed Siegfried from the Nibelung land. Soon after Siegfried's death Kriemhilda begged her younger brother to bring the Nibelung treasure from the mountain cave to Worms. When it arrived Kriemhilda gave gold and jewels to rich and poor in Burgundy, and Hagen feared that soon she would win the love of all the people and turn them against him. So, one day, he took the treasure and hid it in the Rhine. He hoped some day to enjoy it himself. As Hagen now possessed the Nibelung treasure the name "Nibelungs" was given to him and his companions.
Etzel, or as we call him, Attila, king of the Huns, heard of the beauty of Kriemhilda and sent one of his knights to ask the queen to become his wife. At first she refused. However, when she remembered that Etzel carried the sword of Tiew, she changed her mind, because, if she became his wife, she might persuade him to take vengeance upon Gunther and Hagen. And so it came to pass. Shortly after their marriage Etzel and Kriemhilda invited Gunther and all his court to a grand midsummer festival in the land of the Huns. Hagen was afraid to go, for he felt sure that Kriemhilda had not forgiven the murder of Siegfried. However, it was decided that the invitation should be accepted, but that ten thousand knights should go with Gunther as a body-guard. Shortly after Gunther and his followers arrived at Attila's court a banquet was prepared. Nine thousand Burgundians were seated at the board when Attila's brother came into the banquet hall with a thousand well-armed knights. A quarrel arose and a fight followed. Thousands of the Burgundians were slain. The struggle continued for days. At last, of all the knights of Burgundy, Gunther and Hagen alone were left alive. Then one of Kriemhilda's friends fought with them and overpowered both. He bound them and delivered them to Kriemhilda. The queen ordered one of her knights to cut off Gunther's head, and she herself cut off the head of Hagen with "Balmung," Siegfried's wonderful sword. A friend of Hagen then avenged his death by killing Kriemhilda herself. Of all the Nibelungs who entered the land of the Huns one only ever returned to Burgundy.