Magic and editing in the Nibelungenlied

In my previous blog, I used the Nibelungenlied as an example of how “the magic” should be introduced into a story well before it is needed, and how “the magic” should not be the prime reason for the story. There are several reasons for this, one of which is that it is difficult to manage tension if the story is unbalanced. It may be all right for a comic book, but in a full novel Superman just does not generate tension. If nobody can do anything to him, you now he is going to win, and all you are going to read is a whole lot of description of varying degrees of pointless violence. Arguably, this is what is wrong with a lot of recent movies. To get tension, the hero has to be able to fail. 

In great stories like the Nibelungenlied “the magic” is used not to benefit the hero, but rather to create the situations from which there is no escape, but which would not have arisen but for the character flaws of the participants. The cloak of invisibility is only used to allow Gunther to have what he should not have, while Siegfried’s invulnerability is only relevant because it has a defect, which permit’s Hagen’s treachery and Kriemhild’s stupidity to have Siegfried killed.

The Nibelungenlied is of interest in many other ways for a writer, and not all of them as good examples. The original poet would now be severely criticized for poor copy-editing. As an example, the story goes over three decades, but somehow over this period characters such as Gisheler simply do not age. The poet seems to remember from time to time, and he gives Hagen some grey hairs at the end, but really, this is a slip. The battles have impossible exaggeration; they go on for hours, at times without damage to the main protagonists, and while one or two get serious wounds, a little later it never troubles them and they continue doing heroic deeds as if nothing had happened. One might argue that nothing changes; how many action books have been written where the hero takes a major wound, then does heroic things with incredible stamina, even for a perfectly fit man? However, there is one important difference between the “against all odds” action of the Nibelungenlied and most similar examples of modern times. In the Nibelungenlied the carnage is not gratuitous, and is there to show how many good men had to die because of the refusal of one side to permit justice, and the consequent desire for revenge on the other side. The carnage is a terrible price to be paid, and not some heroic glorification. 

Something else that seemingly never changes is conspicuous consumption. In the Nibelungenlied there is a fixation on clothing. Whenever setting out on some venture, new clothes are needed. Given any excuse, knights fight in the bohort. The trick was to end up with shredded clothes, and to be gay about it, showing they do not care about the expense. In my translation, admittedly an older version, knights must be gay at all times. This, of course, says something about language; I doubt the translator would have used the word “gay” now! 

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