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Telling Tales

David Blamires

20. Siegfried and the Nibelungenlied

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  • 1 For details of their reception in England see David Blamires, Fortunatus in his Many English Guise (...)

1One of the commonest patterns in the history of children’s literature is the way in which traditional tales, medieval epics and romances become part of children’s reading. Some of them then survive principally as children’s books, though they started out as entertainment for the whole community. This was how British children became the primary consumers of the tales of Guy of Warwick, Robin Hood and Valentine and Orson. The same was true in Germany, as Goethe attests in a well-known passage in book 1 of his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth). Two of the works he mentions – Fortunatus and Eulenspiegel – had already made their mark in sixteenth-century England, the latter with the English name Howleglass, as works for adult reading.1 Over the centuries both underwent abridgement or adaptation so that by the mid nineteenth century they were considered in Britain as essentially stories for children. However, the rediscovery of medieval German heroic epic and romance did not begin until the mid eighteenth century and took fifty years or more before it spread outside the ranks of scholars and the litterati.

2Knowledge of the impact of various Germanic peoples on the Roman empire and, more especially, the defeat of Varus and his three brigades at the hands of the German Arminius in a momentous battle in the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9 goes back to the Renaissance and the first printed editions of Tacitus. A cult of Arminius or Hermann, as the Germans usually called him, gathered momentum in the eighteenth century and became a focus of national consciousness. It culminated in 1875 in the dedication of the massive statue of Hermann, the Hermannsdenkmal, near Detmold, when Germany had at last become a united modern state under Prussia. The significance of Arminius as the first famous German to emerge from the mists of pre-history is emphasized in all histories of Germany, and he is celebrated too in the textbooks of German history that began to be written in English in the 1840s. Hermann, however, had not been the subject of oral or traditional German tales, and the poems and dramas of high literature did not lend themselves to adaptations for children’s books. It was another figure and other stories to which we have to look to fill this gap. That figure was Siegfried, and the stories were those of the Nibelungenlied and other related works.

3The Nibelungenlied is the finest of the many German heroic epics that centre on the exploits of legendary and historical figures from the Age of Migrations. Of anonymous authorship, it was composed around the turn of the twelfth to the thirteenth century and remained enormously popular to the end of the Middle Ages. Like most other medieval literature, however, it sank into oblivion in the sixteenth century.

4The story of the Nibelungenlied centres on the fateful involvement of two mythical or fairytale figures, Siegfried and Brünhild, with a brother and sister of the royal house of Burgundy with its seat at Worms, Gunther and Kriemhild. As a youth Siegfried gains possession of the treasure of the Nibelungs, the sword Balmung and a cloak of darkness that makes him invisible and gives him the strength of twelve men. In addition, through bathing in the blood of a dragon he acquires a horny skin that is impenetrable except at one point between the shoulder-blades, where a lime-leaf has fallen on him. Brünhild, queen of Iceland, also has tremendous physical strength and is only prepared to marry the man who can beat her at three different tests of strength. Though Siegfried and Brünhild would thus seem to be made for each other, Siegfried falls in love with Kriemhild and wins her through helping Gunther, by trickery and the use of his cloak of darkness, to defeat and gain Brünhild. Brünhild’s lingering suspicion that something is amiss in her defeat eventually brings about a quarrel between the two queens which quickly leads to Siegfried being murdered by Hagen, Gunther’s terrifying, loyal vassal. After thirteen years of mourning Kriemhild marries Etzel, king of the Huns (the historical Attila), and after another thirteen years she invites her brothers and their vassals to a feast, at which she takes a ghastly revenge by murdering Gunther and Hagen and in the process slaughtering almost all the Burgundians.

  • 2 William Howitt, The Rural and Domestic Life of Germany (London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, (...)

5This story of passion, deceit and revenge, which follows a geographical course from the Lower Rhine to Worms, and then from Worms to the Danube and right into the area of modern Hungary, became a potent nineteenth-century German myth, in which Siegfried was seen as the brave, generous, innocent young hero, capable of being killed only by treachery (Hagen stabs him in the back when he least suspects it). The Nibelungenlied became virtually a symbol of Germany’s growing self-awareness, a foundation document in its acquisition of a venerable literary tradition. Not only were many editions of the medieval poem, modern German translations and adaptations published, but it became a stimulus for many new works, plays, poems, operas (though Wagner’s Ring uses mainly Norse rather than German sources), paintings and engravings. When William and Mary Howitt visited Germany in the early 1840s, it was Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s frescoes of the Nibelungenlied in the Neue Residenz in Munich that caught their attention, rather than the poem itself.2

  • 3 For a detailed discussion of the reception of the Nibelungenlied see Francis E. Sandbach, The Nibe (...)
  • 4 Thomas Carlyle, ’The Nibelungen Lied’, in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, 4 vols. (London: Chap (...)
  • 5 Sandbach, The Nibelungenlied, pp. 39-44.
  • 6 Sandbach, pp. 44-54.
  • 7 Ibid., pp. 55-74, 76-79.

6Britain owes its acquaintance with the Nibelungenlied in the first instance to the enquiring and independent minds of two Scottish men of letters. The first account of the poem was given by Henry William Weber in Weber, Jamieson and Scott’s Illustrations of Northern Antiquities from the Earlier Teutonic and Scandinavian Romances (London and Edinburgh, 1814).3 This lengthy abstract was followed in 1831 by a seminal article in the Westminster Review by Thomas Carlyle, who did more in the nineteenth century to promote the knowledge of German history, culture and literature than any other British man of letters. Carlyle’s article not only gave an accurate epitome of the poem, together with verse translations of selected passages, but it also captured something of the poem’s vigour and tone.4 However, it was not until 1848 that the first complete translation into English verse was published by Jonathan Birch as Das Nibelungen Lied; or, the Lay of the Last Nibelungers (Berlin; reprinted 1878, 1887, 1895).5 It seems odd that this was published in Germany rather than in Britain, but two years later there followed William Lettsom’s home-grown product, The Nibelungenlied: the Fall of the Nibelungers, otherwise the Book of Kriemhild (London, 1850; reprinted 1874, 1903), also in verse.6 Four more translations came much later in the century – by Auber Forestier (1877, prose), A. G. Foster-Barham (1887, verse, reprinted 1891, 1893), Marguerite Armour (1897, prose, reprinted in Everyman’s Library 1908) and Alice Horton (1898, verse).7 This copious supply of English versions puts the Nibelungenlied into much the same category as Goethe’s Werther and Faust, Fouqué’s Undine and the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm and Wilhelm Hauff, as far as nineteenth-century English translations are concerned.

7Given this pattern of British acquaintance with the Nibelungenlied, it is a little surprising that the first children’s book relating to the theme was published in the same year as Birch’s translation. This was The Heroic Life and Exploits of Siegfried the Dragon Slayer: an Old German Story (London: Joseph Cundall and David Bogue, 1848). No author’s name is given, but the book had eight illustrations by Wilhelm Kaulbach (1805-74), one of Germany’s leading illustrators. It would have been impossible for Cundall to commission Kaulbach simply for a British publication. What he had to do was to take over illustrations that had already been used on the Continent. The book that provided him with Siegfried was Der hürnen Siegfried und sein Kampf mit dem Drachen, eine altdeutsche Sage by Guido Goerres, with plates by Wilhelm Kaulbach (Schaffhausen, 1843). Siegfried the Dragon Slayer was one of Cundall’s special books in a larger format. Perhaps he co-published with Bogue to share the costs of what was obviously an ambitious publication.

  • 8 Ibid., pp. 131-32.

8The content of the book is aptly summarized in the fourteen ’adventure’ headings:8

  • Of King Siegmund and of heroes, Dwarfs, Giants, and Dragons of Ancient Times.
  • Of Siegfried the Swift, how he grew up to be a hero, and of his throwing the Spear.
  • Of the Emperor Otnit and Wolfdietrich, and how Siegfried asked permission to go out into the World.
  • How Siegfried the Swift went through the Wilderness, and what he encountered there.
  • Mimer relates the Adventures of Wieland, the best of all Smiths and Armourers.
  • How Siegfried brings an Urochs to the Smiths.
  • How Siegfried learns to be a Smith, and how he was sent by the treacherous Mimer to the Dragon.
  • How Siegfried fights with the Dragon, and bathes himself in his blood.
  • How Siegfried comes again to the Smithy, and settles accounts with Mimer.
  • Siegfried sees the great Dragon, and meets a King of the Dwarfs.
  • Siegfried’s fight with the faithless Giants under the Drachenstein.
  • Of the great Wonders which Siegfried saw in the Dragon’s Rock.
  • How Siegfried first sees the King’s Daughter, and is received by her.
  • Siegfried’s fight with the Dragon.

9These are stories told about the young Siegfried that circulated separately from the Nibelungenlied. Drawing on a variety of sources, the nineteenth-century German author fitted them into this particular sequence. Adventures 10-14 are based on the late medieval German poem, the Hürnen Seyfrid (Horny Siegfried), which Friedrich Heinrich von der Hagen translated as Hörnen Siegfried and published as the first item in the first volume of Der Helden Buch (Book of the heroes) (Berlin: Johann Friedrich Unger, 1811). The giant (just one) is called Kuperan, the king of the dwarfs is Eugel, the king’s daughter Kriemhild. Adventures 5, 7 and 9 derive ultimately from Norse sources, i.e. from Thidrek’s Saga, of which von der Hagen, again, had provided a translation in his Nordische Heldenromane (Norse tales of the heroes) (Breslau, 1814-28). It is only in this form of the stories that the smith is called Mimer. Adventure 3 is taken from the medieval German epic of Ortnit and Wolfdietrich, of which there was an edition in von der Hagen and Alois Primisser’s Der Helden Buch in der Ursprache (Book of the heroes in the original language), volume 1 (Berlin, 1820).

  • 9 K. C. King, Das Lied vom Hürnen Seyfrid. Critical Edition with Introduction and Notes (Manchester: (...)

10Siegfried the Dragon Slayer is thus a composite work. That is most clearly demonstrated in the ballad form of the tales of Otnit and Wieland. The practice of compilation, of including additional motifs and stories that have little or nothing to do with the principal story being related, runs through all the English versions of the story of Siegfried and the Nibelungs to a greater or lesser degree. It is foreshadowed already in Carlyle’s Westminster Review article, since he incorporates summaries of the stories of Ottnit (his spelling), Hugdietrich and Wolfdietrich, the rose-garden of Worms and King Laurin before he embarks on a discussion of the Nibelungenlied itself. It is basically only at the opening and the close of Cundall’s book that a connexion is made with the events narrated in the Nibelungenlied, as is the case with the Hürnen Seyfrid too. What is most important is the focus on Siegfried as the hero of a variety of amazing exploits. While the Nibelungenlied lapsed from general consciousness by the end of the sixteenth century, the figure of Siegfried persisted. Editions of the Hürnen Seyfrid are known up to 1642,9 after which the story underwent a thoroughgoing adaptation, being turned into prose and modernized and emerging afresh as Eine Wunderschöne Historie von dem gehörnten Siegfried (A delightful story of horny Siegfried) (Braunschweig and Leipzig, 1726). The giant is now known as Wulffgrambähr, the king of the dwarfs as Egwald and the princess as Florigunda. New editions of this prose version continued to be printed up to the middle of the nineteenth century. There is, therefore, a long literary tradition of the exploits of a mythical or fairytale Siegfried separate from his role in the Nibelungenlied. What happens with the English children’s versions of the Nibelungenlied is that they are contaminated, to a greater or lesser degree, with these stories of the young Siegfried or with other material that is not found in the medieval Nibelungenlied.

11Since the next children’s book dealing with Siegfried and the Nibelungenlied was not published for more than thirty years after Siegfried and the Dragon Slayer, this seems an appropriate place to look at some of the other ways in which British children may have come across them. The first of these is through history books, the second through travel guides.

12The first reference to the Nibelungenlied in a young people’s history of Germany occurs one year before the publication of Cundall’s book. It is to be found in R. B. Paul’s A History of Germany ... on the Plan of Mrs. Markham’s Histories (London: John Murray, 1847), where, in a brief passage dealing with medieval literature, the author declares: ’... the most surprising work of that period was the famous ”Niebelungenlied”, in which a poet, whose name is unknown to us, has collected together the finest of the old German heroic legends’ (p. 190). A school history book dealing with the whole of German history from Roman times to the present day cannot be expected to give details about matters of literature, so it is remarkable to have the poem highlighted. It is a measure of the importance attached to the poem in Germany that British children were now told about it. It is remarkable too that the reference comes before any English translation was available.

13Much more detail is given in a history published some thirty years later. In Aunt Charlotte’s Stories of German History for the Little Ones (London and Belfast: Marcus Ward, 1878) Charlotte M. Yonge has a whole chapter, bizarrely headed ’The Nibelonig Heroes’, which fills the gap between her accounts of the Romans and the Franks. Yonge tries to combine Norse and German versions of the medieval stories, but her confused chapter is marred by misstatements and misspellings. She explains her inclusion of the story here ’because two real personages, Attila the Hun and Theuderick of Verona, come into it, though there is no doubt that the story was much older than their time, and that they were worked into it when it was sung later’ (p. 38). This is not a view that can be substantiated.

30. The Heroic Life and Exploits of Siegfried the Dragon Slayer. An Old German Story. With Eight Illustrations Designed by Wilhelm Kaulbach (1848).

  • 10 Mary Thorp, The Study of the Nibelungenlied (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), p. 3.

14Only a few years later the prolific popular writer Sabine Baring-Gould gives more reliable information in his volume on Germany in ’The Story of the Nations’ series published by T. Fisher Unwin (1886). The Nibelungenlied is mentioned first in connexion with Attila, but a more extensive account is given in a chapter on ’How the Germans wrote Romances’ (pp. 143-45). Baring-Gould also mentions the other cycles of Germanic heroic legends centred on Gudrun, Beowulf and Laurin the Dwarf, but he reserves his enthusiasm for the Nibelungenlied, which he characterizes as ’a grand epic in two parts, which may take rank beside the Iliad’ (p. 143). The comparison with the Iliad is not Baring-Gould’s own idea: it goes right back to Johann Jacob Bodmer in the mid eighteenth century10 and has been a persistent theme in literary discussion.

  • 11 A Handbook for Travellers on the Continent: being a Guide to Holland, Belgium, Prussia, Northern G (...)

15If we now turn to travel books about the Rhine, we can see a similar growth in awareness of certain figures and episodes from the Nibelungenlied in the second half of the nineteenth century. British travellers were supplied with a considerable variety of guide-books from the post-Napoleonic period onwards. Many of these were translations of German books and were published in major cities such as Frankfurt, Mainz and Cologne. They tend to concentrate on the part of the Rhine between Cologne and Mainz, so Worms rarely figures in them. The Drachenfels, of course, always comes in for a story, but the earliest tradition is of a maiden being sacrificed by two pagan princes and protecting herself against the dragon by holding a crucifix in front of her. This is the most persistent tradition, but in the second half of the century there are occasional allusions to Siegfried. Murray’s celebrated Handbook of 1860 remarks rather cautiously: ’The traveller is shown ... the cave of the Dragon (from which the mountain was named) killed, as it is reported, by the horned Siegfried, the hero of the Niebelungen Lay’.11 Some twenty years later the American children’s author Hezekiah Butterworth, in Zigzag Journeys to Northern Lands. The Rhine to the Arctic (Boston: Estes & Lauriat, 1883), states quite baldly: ’It is said that Siegfried killed the Dragon there’ (p. 174), but then proceeds to give a version of the traditional Christian story.

16Murray’s Handbook is more informative about Worms, which is described as ’partly the scene of the Nibelungenlied’. A footnote explains:

This fine old German poem was written towards the latter end of the 12th century, but the traditions on which it is founded appear to have been handed down, probably in popular lays, from very remote times, and to have been common to all the tribes (German, Saxon, and Scandinavian) of the Teuton race. No less than 20 poems of the Edda, which, as it has been satisfactorily shown, must have been composed prior to the year 863, contain the same tragical story of the mythic-heroic personages who figure in the Nibelungen (p. 525).

17While Murray provides background information rather than any account of the content of the poem, Butterworth attempts to tell the ’Story of Siegfried and the Nibelung heroes’ in connexion with his description of Worms. His account of what he calls the Nibelungen Lied is more Norse than German, there is no mention of Brünhild, and Siegfried is said to have been stabbed on the hunt ’by a conspirator employed by Hagen’ (p. 152) rather than by Hagen himself. This intermingling of Norse and German material is endemic in English-language accounts of the Nibelung story, but in this instance it may have something to do with James Baldwin’s The Story of Siegfried (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1882), which incorporates a vast amount of Norse mythology. We shall return to Baldwin in due course.

18There are several books of German origin dealing with the many legends that have grown up around places on the Rhine. Since they concentrate on the Romantic stretch of the river, few have anything to say about Worms. However, F. J. Kiefer’s The Legends of the Rhine from Basle to Rotterdam, translated by L. W. Garnham (Mayence: David Kapp, n.d. – a German-language fourth edition is dated 1876), deals with Siegfried at some length in connexion with Worms and his supposed birthplace, Xanten, in the region of the Lower Rhine. The Worms section summarizes the plot of the Nibelungenlied from Siegfried’s arrival at Worms up to his murder in the Odenwald. (One manuscript of the poem has Siegfried murdered in the Forest of the Vosges, but another has, as here, the Odenwald.) Under ’Xanten’ we are presented with a jumble of Young Siegfried stories derived from Norse and German sources. The giant is called Wolfgrambär, which provides us with a rare example of a detail taken from the prose Wunderschöne Historie von dem gehörnten Siegfried.

19All of these travel books apart from that by Hezekiah Butterworth were written for adults. So too were the translations of the Nibelungenlied that we have already noted in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. There were also two substantial retellings of the poem in books designed for readers with a serious interest in medieval heroic literature. A vigorous, simplified account was given by E. H. Jones in G. W. Cox’s and E. H. Jones’s Popular Romances of the Middle Ages (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1871), and it was reprinted in the same authors’ Tales of the Teutonic Lands (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1872). Another version, including the Young Siegfried adventures from Norse sources and the Hürnen Seyfrid, was made by M. W. MacDowall and published in Epics and Romances of the Middle Ages, adapted from the work of Dr. W. Wägner and edited by W. S. W. Anson (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1883; fifth edition 1889). If we add to these the first publication of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (1863) and William Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung (1876), both admittedly dependent largely on Norse sources, we can readily understand how several more children’s books appeared during this period.

20Golden Threads from an Ancient Loom. Das Nibelungenlied, adapted for the use of young readers by Lydia Hands (London: Griffith & Farran; New York: E. P. Dutton, 1880), actually provides the fullest story of all the children’s versions with which we are concerned. Hands retells Young Siegfried adventures, the events leading to Siegfried’s murder and Kriemhild’s revenge. The book’s pretentious title mirrors its ambitious format, the most important feature of which is the fact that it contains fourteen wood-engravings by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872). These had been executed nearly forty years previously for a German edition of Der Nibelungen Noth (1843). Schnorr’s designs are full of movement and interest, and his technique of dividing a full page horizontally into three, with different events occupying each level, was followed later by Frank C. Papé in illustrating another version of the Nibelungenlied.

21Lydia Hands dedicates her book to Carlyle, acknowledging his essay and Karl Simrock’s modern German translation as the stimulus for her work. In nine chapters she covers the high points of the poem, weaving in threads occasionally from other sources. Following Carlyle, she alludes to the story of the rose-garden of Worms, from the Heldenbuch, in which twelve heroes each from the followers of Siegfried and Dietrich von Bern (the historical Theodoric) fight over Criemhild’s rose-garden, which is protected simply by a thread of silk. She also includes the adventures of Siegfried with Mimer and the dragon, which Carlyle mentions in outlining the adventures of the young Siegfried. From her own imagination Hands introduces a ’trusty chamberlain’ called Fridolin, who accompanies Siegfried. Probably this has some purely personal significance; perhaps it was the name of a German boy Hands knew. Another of her innovations is a helpful female spirit incongruously called Hermione, whom Siegfried meets in the forest!

22Chapter 3 returns to matters found in the Nibelungenlied, simplifying all the time. However, Siegfried is given an early visit to Isenland on which he meets, but rejects, Brunhild, before undertaking the adventures by the Rhine which equip him with the Nibelung treasure, the sword Balmung and the cloak of darkness. When he goes to Worms to woo Criemhild, he does not challenge the Burgundians, but is simply welcomed by them. Hagen here is not a vassal, but the uncle of Gunther and his brothers. Siegfried’s magical powers are enlisted for the wooing and taming of Brunhild, but the sexual aspects are eliminated. The ensuing quarrel between the two queens in concerned solely with the respective status of their two husbands. It leads ineluctably to the murder of Siegfried at the fountain in the forest.

23After a long period of mourning Criemhild agrees to marry Etzel, persuaded by Rudiger that Etzel’s power may provide the possibility of her taking revenge. After her departure Hagen sinks the treasure in the Rhine. In the Nibelungenlied this occurs soon after Siegfried’s murder, so its position here looks as though Hands had forgotten about it and just slipped it in when she remembered it again.

24The second part of the Nibelungenlied is structurally and psychologically much simpler than the first, so Hands is easily able to omit the Burgundians’ stays at Passau and Bechelaren (the modern Pöchlarn). She focusses on Hagen’s encounter with the mermaids in the ’blue Danube’ (picking up on Johann Strauss the Younger’s famous waltz of 1867), together with the testing of their prophecy that no one will return from the journey except the chaplain. Hagen attempts to drown him in the river, but though the chaplain cannot swim he miraculously manages to get ashore. At the court of Etzel and Criemhild Hagen confesses to being Siegfried’s murderer, and bloody conflict ensues. Dankwart, Hagen’s brother, kills Blödel, here ’one of Criemhild’s knights’ rather than Etzel’s brother, and Hagen himself kills Ortleben, the son of Criemhild and Etzel (his name should be Ortlieb). Then comes the burning of the hall in which the Burgundians have been housed, their drinking blood to quench their thirst, the death of Rudiger in battle, the taking captive of Gunther and Hagen, the beheading of Gunther, Criemhild’s killing of Hagen and her own death at the hand of Dietrich of Berne’s man, Hildebrand. In this last section Criemhild is depicted as being possessed by ’feverish joy’ and with ’her eye glittering with the light of madness’. As in the Nibelungenlied itself, Hagen brands her as ’devil’s wife’. At the end of the story, then, the terrible nature of Criemhild’s revenge is portrayed as sickness, lunacy and marriage to the devil. Nothing worse can be envisaged. The spelling of her name in this text with an initial C (rather than the usual K) suggests to the English-language reader an association with ’crime’ that is now horrifically realized.

25Only a couple of years later another version of the material was published – James Baldwin’s The Story of Siegfried (1882), which was popular enough to be reprinted in 1888 and 1931. This was very different from Lydia Hands’s adaptation, concentrating on the figure of Siegfried and excluding the revenge story. The author was so deeply interested in the mythological approach to Siegfried that he used the framework of his story to recount a large number of other tales from Norse mythology that have no specific connexion with him. Not only do we have the usual items taken from the Edda, the Saga of the Volsungs and Thidrek’s Saga, but we have such additional tales as Thor’s encounter with the Midgard serpent, the goddess Idun and her apples, and the story of Balder embedded in the narrative. While the author of the Nibelungenlied had played down the mythological aspects of Siegfried’s story, Baldwin does the opposite. When Siegfried first goes to Burgundyland (the name of Worms is never mentioned), he is thought possibly to be Odin or Thor or Balder. We have been told previously how he was brave enough to ride through the wall of fire to awaken the sleeping Brunhild. Any shadow of sexual involvement with Brunhild either here or in Burgundyland is expunged; there is no question of Siegfried needing to tame her in bed for Gunther. Siegfried has to be pure, blameless and superhuman in strength. Baldwin, given his mythological preoccupations, cannot resist making the (spurious) link between the Odenwald, where Siegfried is murdered, and the god Odin.

31. Golden Threads from an Ancient Loom. Das Nibelungenlied. Adapted to the Use of Young Readers by Lydia Hands. Engravings by Julius Schnorr, of Carolsfeld (1880). ’Criemhild’s Frenzy’.

26A great deal of Baldwin’s energy is devoted to viewing Siegfried’s story as part of the well-documented mythology of the northern peoples. When the dead Siegfried is burnt on a funeral pyre rather than buried, the intention is to link, perhaps even equate, Siegfried with the god Balder. In the notes appended to his narrative Baldwin makes a further connexion between Hagen and Hoder, the blind brother who unwittingly killed Balder with the mistletoe. Like many of his contemporaries, Baldwin was indebted in his views to those scholars who interpreted virtually all myths in terms of battles between summer and winter, night and day, thunder and lightning. Such interpretations appear simplistic today, but they were taken very seriously at the time. They do not intrude unacceptably on the various tales that are woven together in this book. Baldwin is fond of his digressions, but he keeps the story of Siegfried moving too. But with Richard Wagner and William Morris as the most recent literary models, Baldwin’s Siegfried is certainly more Norse in character than German.

27The same is true of S. Baring-Gould’s Siegfried (London: Dean & Son, 1904), described on the title-page as a romance founded on Wagner’s operas Rheingold, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung and running to 351 pages. The illustrations by Charles Robinson are in the same vein as those he did a few years previously for Fouqué’s Sintram. Wagner was, again, the source for the two volumes The Rhinegold and the Valkyrie and Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods (London: Heinemann, 1910 and 1911), their chief attraction being the colour plates by Arthur Rackham.

28The Edwardian period seems to have been strongly drawn to the story of Siegfried, to judge by the number of children’s books on the theme. The next one to which we turn is The Linden Leaf; or, the Story of Siegfried (London, Edinburgh, and New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1907). No author’s name is given, but the eight colour plates are signed ’Waugh’in the bottom right-hand corner. The book was reprinted a number of times. The narrative goes no further than the period immediately following Siegfried’s murder and takes the main events of the Nibelungenlied as its basis. The Young Siegfried stories, extremely briefly dealt with, are motivated by his mother’s falling into some unexplained disfavour and having to wander in the forest with the baby Siegfried. The quarrel of the queens is solely related to the supposed vassal status of Siegfried; Gunther’s humiliation in the bedroom and Siegfried’s subsequent taming of Brunhilda are entirely omitted. Kriemhilda declares instead that it was Siegfried, not Gunther, who overcame Brunhilda in the games, and this sparks off the plot to murder him, in which Gernot is also involved, while Giselher takes Siegfried’s side. The location of the forest in which the hunt takes place is not given. The guarded nature of the narrative as a whole obviously points to a young readership.

29At virtually the same time there appeared in the ’Told to the Children’ series Stories of Siegfried, by Mary Macgregor (London: T. C. & E. C. Jack; New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., c. 1908), which had eight colour plates by Granville Fell. Macgregor has Siegfried brought up by the blacksmith Mimer, a dwarf, and the dragon that he kills is named as Regin, Mimer’s brother. Immediately after this Siegfried goes to Isenland, where he meets Brunhild, but has no wish to conquer her for his bride. Instead he takes away her magic horse, Gana (this seems to be jumbled from Grani, the name of Sigurd’s horse in the Edda). These details come from Norse sources, but for the most part Macgregor adapts the Nibelungenlied. She includes Kriemhild’s prophetic dream and the battles with Kings Ludegast and Ludeger, but she makes Hagen into the uncle rather than the vassal of Gunther, Gernot and Giselher (in the Norse sources he is their half-brother). Siegfried plays the role of Gunther’s vassal in Isenland, and it is there that he robs Brunhild of her ring and favourite girdle. The episode in which Siegfried tames Brunhild in Gunther’s bed is omitted. The story then proceeds to Siegfried’s murder in an unnamed forest and Hagen’s sinking of the Nibelung treasure in the Rhine. In just a few lines Macgregor mentions Kriemhild’s marriage to Etzel and her subsequent revenge on the Burgundians.

  • 12 Brigid Peppin and Lucy Micklethwait, Dictionary of British Book Illustrators: the Twentieth Centur (...)

30About the next book to appear on the scene not a great deal need be said. The Heroic Life and Exploits of Siegfried the Dragon-Slayer. An Old Story of the North (London: George G. Harrap & Company, 1910) is, as its title suggests, a retelling by Dora Ford Madeley of Cundall & Bogue’s 1848 book. The decorations at the head of each chapter are, however, the only thing taken over unchanged from the earlier publication. The text is fairly thoroughly adapted, modernized and put into twelve rather than fourteen chapters, but it is the same story. Kaulbach’s engravings are replaced by twelve attractive colour plates by Stephen Reid (1873-1948), which are similar to Rackham’s in colouring and tone, but avoid his tendency to grotesquerie. Reid illustrated several other children’s books with historical or legendary backgrounds about this time.12 The combination of illustrations, modernized text and design make this book a very agreeable production.

31The last book that I propose to devote extended attention to was, like The Linden Leaf, also published by Nelson and sticks very closely to the plot of the Nibelungenlied, with only rare details that can be traced to other sources. It too was anonymous in terms of authorship. However, the two texts are quite different in scope and approach. Siegfried and Kriemhild. A Story of Passion and Revenge (London, Edinburgh, Dublin, and New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1912) forms part of a series entitled ’The World’s Romances’. As one might therefore expect, it places a good deal of interest on the love-story element. Rather unusually, Kriemhild is depicted initially as extremely religious, wanting to be a nun, and when Siegfried first sees her she looks ’lovely, as a saint drawn in gold and silver and rich colours in a holy book, such as kings buy at a great price’. The whole narrative is conceived in strong visual terms, and the scenes of emotional tension and danger are frequently highlighted with symbols such as storms, lightning and sinister crows. Hagen, we are told, is always dressed in black. The author has some striking things to say about Iceland, which is stunningly depicted as snow-covered when Gunther, Siegfried, Hagen and Volker (not Dankwart) go to woo Brunhild. We are told earlier about Siegfried’s sword Balmung that it was ’forged in ancient days by the earth-smiths dwelling in Iceland, where the smoke from his furnace still reeks from the mountain-top of Hecla, though the smith no longer labours at his weapon-making’. In addition to possessing this marvellous sword, Siegfried is equipped with a ’Tarn-Helm’ rather than the traditional cloak of darkness. Most likely this comes from Wagner.

  • 13 Peppin and Micklethwait, Dictionary, pp. 225-26.

32The story of Siegfried and Kriemhild is presented as though told by minstrels at the hostelry of the ’Dragon’s Head’ at Worms in the year 1460. It is an excellent adaptation of the Nibelungenlied, keeping faithfully to the key points in the plot and taking the story right through to the slaughter of the Burgundians at Etzelburg. While Baldwin determinedly mythicized his narrative, the author of Siegfried and Kriemhild romanticized it. The book has eight colour plates by Frank C. Papé (1878-1972),13 whose work looks rather old-fashioned in comparison with Stephen Reid’s. His technique is to use a decorative frame of leaves and branches within which there is a central square main picture, a kind of tympanum above and a small long oblong below. It is a similar pattern to that of Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s engravings in Lydia Hands’s Golden Threads.

  • 14 Judith St. John, The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books 1476-1910. A Catalogue (Toronto: (...)

33These books do not exhaust the children’s versions of the Stories of Siegfried and the Nibelungs that were written in English up to c. 1920. The Rev. A. J. Church included a section on ’The Treasure of the Nibelungs’ based on the translations of W. N. Lettsom and Alice Horton in his Heroes of Chivalry and Romance (London: Seeley & Co. Limited, 1898), and Thomas Cartwright similarly devoted a substantial part of his Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer (London: W. Heinemann, 1907) to ’The Lay of the Nibelungs’.14 There may be others that I have missed. Each of the adapters takes a different line with the material, so that apart from the Cundall book and Madeley’s retelling of it no two versions provide even the same plot. The Nibelungenlied is central to Hands, Baldwin, Macgregor and the two Nelson volumes, but each author uses a different approach and spices it with additional materials. From a purist point of view, none of the authors is completely faithful to the Nibelungenlied, but all have tried to make a coherent story suitable for their target readership.

34Siegfried is just one of the many heroes of ancient tradition, myth and legend whose story was presented to children from the early nineteenth century onwards. Of course, Greek mythology was there from the start, and so was Robin Hood (though not a supernatural hero). It is interesting that the first children’s book to deal with Norse mythology, Annie and Eliza Keary’s The Heroes of Asgard (London: David Bogue, 1857), came after Siegfried the Dragon Slayer and was published by Cundall’s partner in that enterprise. A children’s Beowulf comes very late on the scene, though an English translation of the original poem had been made by John M. Kemble as early as 1837. The first children’s versions of Beowulf would seem to be by A. J. Church in his Heroes of Chivalry and Romance, mentioned above, and by C. Thomas, The Adventures of Beowulf, translated from the Old English, and adapted to the use of schools (London: H. Marshall & Son, 1899). But then the first modern edition of Beowulf was not published until 1815, some sixty years after the discovery of the Nibelungenlied. However, James Baldwin did mention Beowulf en passant in The Story of Siegfried.

35The Siegfried of the Nibelungenlied, quite apart from his supernatural accoutrements and capacities, is a rather more complex figure than what we find in these children’s books. His provocative stance towards the Burgundians on his first arrival at Worms, his several deceptions of Brünhild and, especially, his gift of Brünhild’s girdle to Kriemhild after taming Brünhild in bed, all show a darker side that the children’s versions ignore. In medieval German tradition the lime leaf is symbolic of love, so Siegfried’s vulnerability is not just a matter of a chink in his physical constitution. The children’s versions simplify and idealize him. He is a match for all opponents – a dragon, dwarfs and giants, the Saxon and Danish armies, the amazing strength of Brünhild – so that he can only be overcome by treachery. The epitome of youth, courage, strength and beauty, Siegfried has to be blameless too. The pity is that he is so naïve, so unsuspicious, so lacking in psychological awareness. But he is so great an ideal because in many ways he is still so much a child. That must surely be a factor in his popularity as a hero in so many children’s books.


1 For details of their reception in England see David Blamires, Fortunatus in his Many English Guises (Lewiston, Queenston, Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996) and ’Eulenspiegel in englischer Sprache’, Eulenspiegel-Jahrbuch, 29 (1989), pp. 51-66.

2 William Howitt, The Rural and Domestic Life of Germany (London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1842), pp. 319-21.

3 For a detailed discussion of the reception of the Nibelungenlied see Francis E. Sandbach, The Nibelungenlied and Gudrun in England and America (London: David Nutt, 1904). Weber’s work is treated on pp. 82-83.

4 Thomas Carlyle, ’The Nibelungen Lied’, in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, 4 vols. (London: Chapman & Hall, 1870), vol. 2, pp. 220-63.

5 Sandbach, The Nibelungenlied, pp. 39-44.

6 Sandbach, pp. 44-54.

7 Ibid., pp. 55-74, 76-79.

8 Ibid., pp. 131-32.

9 K. C. King, Das Lied vom Hürnen Seyfrid. Critical Edition with Introduction and Notes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1958), pp. 6-7.

10 Mary Thorp, The Study of the Nibelungenlied (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940), p. 3.

11 A Handbook for Travellers on the Continent: being a Guide to Holland, Belgium, Prussia, Northern Germany, and the Rhine from Holland to Switzerland, thirteenth edition, corrected (London: John Murray, 1860), p. 263.

12 Brigid Peppin and Lucy Micklethwait, Dictionary of British Book Illustrators: the Twentieth Century (London: John Murray, 1983), p. 248.

13 Peppin and Micklethwait, Dictionary, pp. 225-26.

14 Judith St. John, The Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books 1476-1910. A Catalogue (Toronto: Toronto Public Library, 1975), vol. 2, pp. 572, 577.

Table des illustrations

Légende 30. The Heroic Life and Exploits of Siegfried the Dragon Slayer. An Old German Story. With Eight Illustrations Designed by Wilhelm Kaulbach (1848).
Fichier image/jpeg, 189k
Légende 31. Golden Threads from an Ancient Loom. Das Nibelungenlied. Adapted to the Use of Young Readers by Lydia Hands. Engravings by Julius Schnorr, of Carolsfeld (1880). ’Criemhild’s Frenzy’.
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