In previous posts, I asked the question: can you think of a famous story involving a cloaking device that underpins a plot involving abuse of power, pride, wishing for what you should not have, and the curse of chattering women? My answer is the Nibelungenlied, which, like the Arthurian legend was written somewhere about the 12th-13th centuries and which culminated a sequence of legends that greatly embellished and “magicified” events from about the 5th-6th centuries. Thanks to Richard Wagner, most people have heard of it, but unfortunately Wagner played somewhat fast and loose with the original story.
I started this blog series with the question of how to introduce the “magical” devices, and perhaps the Nibelungenlied provides the briefest ever introduction. When Siegfried, the son of Siegmund and Sieglind, comes to the court of Gunther in Worms, he is introduced as the man who had killed the dragon and bathed in its blood, thus becoming unable to be wounded, who had acquired the cloak of invisibility, which also conveyed superhuman power, from the dwarf Alberich, and who had made Alberich guard the great treasure of the Nibelungs for him. All this in about half a dozen lines. The important point is, everything was established well before it was used, so there are no sighs of despair when the “powers” are used.
The plot is roughly as follows, and the first half focuses mainly on the desire by some to have what they should not want. Siegfried desires Kriemhild (Gunther’s sister), who is the most beautiful woman in the world. (Not that he has seen her, or knows anything about her.) Unfortunately, Gunther wants Brunhild, queen of Iceland and a woman with the strength of many men, for a wife, and to succeed he has to defeat her in three games of strength. Gunther has no right to her and should never seek her, but he offers Kriemhild to Siegfried if Siegfried will help him get Brunhild. They go to Iceland, where Seigfried is introduced as Gunther’s vassal. Thanks to the cloak of invisibility, Siegfried can throw the spear, the rock and Gunther for the jump, while Gunther pretends. (It is not clear who is the left-hander. Logic is not strong in this poem!) The problem then is, while Brunhild concedes to be his wife, she retains her strength while she remains a virgin. On the first night, she wraps Gunther up and hangs him from a hook on the wall. Once again, Seigfried must help, and while invisible, and presumably in the dark, he wrestles with Brunhild until she concedes. In the good Christian Germanic version, Gunther does the final deed, but in some of the earlier Norse versions, it is Siegfried. It is understandable that this was unsuitable material for Wagner. Leaving aside 19th century morality, how do you portray that in opera, with Brunhild first resisting, then finally conceding to losing her virginity to an invisible man in the dark. Try writing the words to sing with Brunhild’s leitmotif!
Now it is Siegfried’s turn to take what he should not: he takes Brunhild’s ring and girdle for souvenirs. Siegfried and Kriemhild marry, and about a decade later return to Worms. Brunhild and Kriemhild get chattering, and finally Brunhild gets sufficiently irritated that Kriemhild is not showing the deference that the wife of a vassal should. As things get heated, Brunhild sees her ring on Kriemhild’s hand, and the truth dawns. She asks Hagen for revenge, Hagen approaches Kriemhild and learns that Siegfried has a vulnerable spot, where a linden leaf fell on his back and stopped the blood from covering it properly. Kriemhild’s beauty is compensated for by a lack of brains, so after telling this to Hagen, she even sews a cross on the back of Siegfried’s shirt to show Hagen what he must protect. (This may be the origin of “X marks the spot”!) Hagen kills Siegfried by sneaking up behind him, but that is far from the end of the story. Kriemhild now wants revenge, and eventually, to get at Hagen, she has everyone from Burgundy killed, including her brothers.
The story might depend on invisibility, but invisibility is merely there to set up the plot, and not to let the hero have a cheap escape. The real story is about the consequences of pride and trophy gathering, betrayal and revenge, beauty and stupidity, in other words, the sort of things that make a great plot.