The Nibelungenlied (Middle High German: Der Nibelunge liet or Der Nibelunge nôt), translated as The Song of the Nibelungs, is an epic poem from around 1200 written in Middle High German. Its anonymous poet was likely from the region of Passau. The Nibelungenlied is based on an oral tradition that has some of its origin in historic events and individuals of the 5th and 6th centuries and that spread throughout almost all of Germanic-speaking Europe. Parallels to the German poem from Scandinavia are found especially in the heroic lays of the Poetic Edda and in the Völsunga saga.
The poem is split into two parts: in the first part, Siegfried comes to Worms to acquire the hand of the Burgundian princess Kriemhild from her brother King Gunther. Gunther agrees to let Siegfried marry Kriemhild if Siegfried helps Gunther acquire the warrior-queen Brünhild as his wife. Siegfried does this and marries Kriemhild; however Brünhild and Kriemhild become rivals, leading eventually to Siegfried's murder by the Burgundian vassal Hagen with Gunther's involvement. In the second part, the widow Kriemhild is married to Etzel, king of the Huns. She later invites her brother and his court to visit Etzel's kingdom intending to kill Hagen. Her revenge results in the death of all the Burgundians who came to Etzel's court as well as the destruction of Etzel's kingdom and the death of Kriemhild herself.
The Nibelungenlied was the first heroic epic put into writing in Germany, helping to found a larger genre of written heroic poetry. The poem's tragedy appears to have bothered its medieval audience, and very early on a sequel was written, the Nibelungenklage, which made the tragedy less final. The poem was forgotten after around 1500, but was rediscovered in 1755. Dubbed the "German Iliad", the Nibelungenlied began a new life as the German national epic. The poem was appropriated for nationalist purposes and was heavily used in anti-democratic, reactionary, and National-Socialist propaganda before and during the Second World War. Its legacy today is most visible in Richard Wagner's operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen, which, however, is mostly based on Old Norse sources. In 2009, the three main manuscripts of the Nibelungenlied were inscribed in UNESCO's Memory of the World Register in recognition of their historical significance. It has been called "one of the most impressive, and certainly the most powerful, of the German epics of the Middle Ages."
The death of Siegfried. Nibelungenlied manuscript-k.
The poem in its various written forms was lost by the end of the 16th century, but manuscripts from as early as the 13th century were re-discovered during the 18th century. There are thirty-five known manuscripts of the Nibelungenlied and its variant versions. Eleven of these manuscripts are essentially complete. The oldest version seems to be the one preserved in manuscript "B". Twenty-four manuscripts are in various fragmentary states of completion, including one version in Dutch (manuscript 'T'). The text contains approximately 2,400 stanzas in 39 Aventiuren. The title under which the poem has been known since its discovery is derived from the final line of one of the three main versions, "hie hât daz mære ein ende: daz ist der Nibelunge liet" ("here the story takes an end: this is the lay of the Nibelungs"). Liet here means lay, tale or epic rather than simply song, as it would in Modern German.
The manuscripts' sources deviate considerably from one another. Philologists and literary scholars usually designate three main genealogical groups for the entire range of available manuscripts, with two primary versions comprising the oldest known copies: *AB and *C. This categorization derives from the signatures on the *A, *B, and *C manuscripts as well as the wording of the last verse in each source: "daz ist der Nibelunge liet" or "daz ist der Nibelunge nôt". Nineteenth-century philologist Karl Lachmann developed this categorisation of the manuscript sources in Der Nibelunge Noth und die Klage nach der ältesten Überlieferung mit Bezeichnung des Unechten und mit den Abweichungen der gemeinen Lesart (Berlin: Reimer, 1826).