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Everything, and more, about the Nibelungs

photo of john McCurdyIt will probably never be a bestseller. Published just last March, the volume—all 375 pages of it—sits at number 1,125,255 in the Amazon.com sales ranking ("only three copies left in stock—order soon"). But nearly 60 academics from the United States and Europe, including a Boston College professor and his student, labored to bring it into print. The book, The Nibelungen Tradition: An Encyclopedia (Francis G. Gentry, et al, editors) is the first comprehensive reference work on one of the world's most esoteric literary masterpieces, the heroic German poem the Nibelungenlied.

Professor Michael Resler, chair of BC's Department of German Studies, was a contributor. Resler is a philologist, doing what he calls "backwards translating." He takes old manuscripts and, by extrapolating from earlier sources, brings them back to the best approximation of their original "sound " (the works he deals with originated in oral tradition). According to Resler, the Nibelungenlied ("The Song of the Nibelungs") was first written down by an anonymous poet in 1200. Composed of 2,400 four-line stanzas, its elements include: a treasure guarded by dwarves and a dragon; a magic cloak that makes the wearer invisible; and a hero who slays a dragon and bathes in its blood, making his skin impenetrable. It offers deception, jealousy, and revenge enacted by Attila the Hun, the supernatural strong woman Brunhild, and the fair Kriemhild; and a battle so fierce that soldiers who fall off their horses drown in the blood of the slain. The tale lapsed into obscurity for hundreds of years, until 18th-century scholars rediscovered it. In the 19th century, Richard Wagner devised his own, operatic, version—the immensely successful The Ring of the Nibelung.

Professor Resler's specialty is actually not the Nibelungenlied, but 12th- and 13th-century Arthurian romances such as Daniel of the Blossoming Valley by der Stricker and Erec by Hartmann von Aue. He describes Arthurian romance, which emphasizes personal quests and individual achievement, as a sunnier cousin of the heroic tradition that the Nibelungenlied embodies. Arthurian romances originated in France, achieved popularity throughout Western Europe in the late Middle Ages, and are still an active element of our culture—think Harry Potter. They're "totally escapist," says Resler. By contrast, Resler characterizes the Nibelungenlied as "dark, pessimistic," and concerned more with the fate of an entire people than with that of any single character. Its roots are in a much earlier, pre-Christian (and preliterate) world.

Lacking "both the religiosity and humanism" of the Arthurian legends, says Resler, the story of the Nibelungen had no appeal outside the Germanic world during the Middle Ages and eventually fell into obscurity even there, until the rise of the scholarly discipline of philology in the late 18th century. Then early German philologists, seeking to apply their methods to material from their own culture, rediscovered the Nibelungenlied and made it available to a general readership, whose imagination it captured. Interest in the Nibelungenlied peaked with 19th-century German Romanticism, which celebrated the works of the Middle Ages as the reflection of a particularly authentic German cultural era.

In 1,200 entries, the new encyclopedia covers the history of the legend from its ancient antecedents to the present, and includes sections on how it has influenced music, art, literature, film, and politics. Professor Resler contributed 11 entries. When the book was in the planning stages, he was presented with an enormous list of topics from which to choose. His entries range from buhurt, a knightly equestrian contest conducted with blunted lances, to Walter von der Vogelweide, "the greatest lyric poet of the German Middle Ages" and possible author of the Nibelungenlied. Anyone with the urge to follow the Nibelungenstrasse, the actual route traveled in the song, can consult Resler's entry on that topic. One of Resler's students, Karen McConnell '99, also contributed to the volume.

Today it is the Wagnerian version of the story, quite different from the original, that is best known. For his opera, the great Romantic Wagner borrowed elements not only from the Nibelungenlied but from other legends, and merged Arthurian and heroic themes. The plot has a familiar sound to fans of
J. R. R. Tolkien (himself a philologist): In it the original treasure horde has become a magic ring, enabling the possessor—the "lord of the ring"—to be master of the world.

Indeed, the Nibelungenlied is largely unknown in its original form outside of academe. But with renewed interest in myth and magic—fueled partly by a Tolkien revival—perhaps its day is coming. To experience the authentic story in all its intensity and sweep, Professor Resler recommends the English translation he uses in his class "Knights, Castles, and Dragons": The Nibelungenlied, translated by Arthur T. Hatto and published by Penguin. Its Amazon rank is 81,210—"only three left in stock—order soon."

Susan Miller

Photo: John McCurdy as Hunding in a 1932 production of Wagner's The Valkyrie, the second opera in his four-part The Ring of the Nibelung

Ira Nowinski / Corbis


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