The Nibelungenlied

The Nibelungenlied
c. 1200, Germany
A.T. Hatto, translator

We have been told in ancient tales many marvels of famous heroes, of mighty toil, joys, and high festivities, of weeping and wailing, and the fighting of bold warriors – of such things you can now hear wonders unending!

Thus begins the medieval German epic poem, The Nibelungenlied. The poet’s introductory description is indeed apt, for it is full of both brave heroics and great tragedies.

One of several sources for Wagner’s four-work cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung, The Nibelungenlied tells us the story of the great hero Siegfried and his fair Kreimhild. As the epic opens, Kreimhild declares that she will never love, for she believes that if she ever knows such happiness, it will only come with great pain. Siegfried, for his part, has heard the tales of Kreimhild’s beauty, and vowing to make her his wife, sets out from his homeland for Burgundy, where Kreimhild lives with her three brothers, Kings Gunther, Gernot, and Giselher. The tales of Siegfried’s great strength and prowess as a warrior go before him, and he is warily greeted, but the kings are won over to admiration and friendship for Siegfried by his great bravery and he soon joins them in battle. The reward for his success in battle is his first sight of Kreimhild–who he nevertheless was already in love with–and despite her earlier protests against love, she in turn loves him. Gunther and Siegfried soon agree: if Siegfried will help Gunther win the hand of the proud Icelandic queen Brunhild, Siegfried will be granted Kreimhild’s hand in return.

A series of great feats–and great deceptions follow. And from these deceptions, great tragedy will come. Brunhild’s mistaken belief in Siegfried’s status as an inferior to Gunther (rather than an equal) will spur a great fight between herself and Kreimhild, and Brunhild, publicly humiliated, will plot Siegfried’s death in revenge. This can only mean further plotting and vengeance, for due to Brunhild’s schemes, Kreimhild’s brothers have twice betrayed her, and so many years later, remarried to King Etzel of Hungary, Kreimheld will plot against her brothers and their vassals in return.

One point of interest for me–and some mild amusement–is the frequency with which the poet tells us what is going to happen. There is no doubt from the first chapter that this will not end well, for so we are told: “the maidens will have reason to weep,” or, “the knights will rue the day that…” What a contrast to our contemporary abhorrence of “spoilers”! But this poem was written for an audience that knew the stories being told; The Nibelungenlied is likely the formalization of an oral tradition already well established.

The Nibelungenlied is described by its translator and a heroic epic “surpassed only by the Iliad,” and while I have not read enough epic poems to know the justice of this assertion, I did note points of comparison between the two poems. In both, themes of honor and vengeance underline much of the action. Just as Achilles, smarting from Agamemnon’s insult to his honor, does not enter the fray until he has reason to seek revenge for his dear friend Patroclus’s death, so many of Etzel’s sworn allies will not entertain Kreimhild’s schemes of revenge against the Burgundians until they feel compelled to defend their own honor as warriors or to seek revenge for their own friends, slain in the Burgundians’ desperate attempts to escape fate. In the end, in both poems, we see great feats of battle, great tests of courage and honor–and many, many deaths. More deaths, in fact in The Nibelungenlied–this is a story in which is seems the cycle of violence cannot end until nearly all in its path are consumed, save a scant few to tell the tale. It reminds me rather of the bloody revenge drama Titus Andronicus, though here we are spared the cannibalistic feast.

There is some inconsistency in The Nibelungenlied. Brunhild, so important to much of the inciting action, nearly completely disappears in the second half, and we never learn her fate. Characters seem to be introduced more than once. Some actions or words seem inexplicable on their own. The translator provides helpful notes and Appendices that explain possible reasons for these seeming contractions, primarily being, it seems, the melding of multiple older sources and adapting certain scenes to the more ‘modern’ sensibilities of his audience (such as making Siegfried more chivalrous). These minor inconsistencies aside, it is a gripping tale well told, and a poignant reminder that injustice and violence beget too often only more violence.

I read this for the Classics Club Spin #23.

20 Books of Summer

How to pick a summer read?

Something light, fluffy, perfect for a lazy summer afternoon?

That thick doorstop you’ve been meaning to get to and now might finally have time for when it’s too hot to do anything else?

Off the top of the tottering tower of to-be-reads threatening to topple over?

The library book you STILL haven’t read even though the library’s been digital-only for over two months? (Uh…is that just me?)

A children’s classic full of its own lazy summer afternoons?

The possibilities–and interpretations–are endless. And it can be impossible to predict: what seems like a “good summer read” in June may be the last thing you want to read come August. But this is one of the joys of summer – more relaxation and fewer rules.

Even since I saw the first posts popping up for 20 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, I’ve been thinking about what I hope–or expect to read–this summer. Twenty books in a three month period is, unfortunately, a bit of a stretch for me. Well, maybe if I switched to all kid’s lit or Golden Age Detective Fiction. But then I saw Cleo’s clever twist: select a list of 20 books, from which to read 10. Well, I can do that! Um…maybe? (Reference: unread library books.)

So I started going through my shelves. First, I pulled the library books. Because, well…(I have no excuses, really.) Then the books I already wanted to read. Throw in a couple children’s classics that I’ve been hankering to reread. Add a readalong title, a few books that are family loans that have been around longer than the library books (I’m the worst at reading borrowed books, apparently), and leave a space for an Agatha Christie that will have to come from the library, and we have a book stack.

From the bottom:

  1. The Wind in the Willows – after Cleo posted recently, I decided I needed to reread, probably in August
  2. 67 Shots – (Non-fiction). I had intended to read this in time to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings, but didn’t even open it.
  3. Beowulf – possible reread; I’m in a bit of Medieval mode at the moment (current read: The Nibelungenlied)
  4. The Trumpet of the Swan – another possible August reread. And I need to go birding; there’s area wetlands that have Trumpeter Swans (and Bald Eagles – so exciting to see!)
  5. The Sound and the Fury – I keep pulling it off the shelves to read and getting distracted. This year, really! (Even if not this summer.)
  6. Call Down the Hawk – I pre-ordered this when it came out, so of course I haven’t touched it. At least that means I’m not anxiously awaiting the sequel…
  7. Britt-Marie Was Here
  8. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry
  9. Loving Frank – These last three are books that one of my aunts loaned to me thinking I’d like them. I couldn’t say as they’ve been gathering dust ever since. Ahem. At least one of the three better get read this summer!
  10. wheesht – A collection of essays on creativity and making. I’ve read a few, but want to start over and really give them their proper due.
  11. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – this feels like it should be a summer read. Anyone want to whitewash a fence?
  12. The Mysteries of Udolpho – A readalong with Cleo and Jean, it starts June 1. I broke my book-buying ban (see: tottering tower of tomes) since – gasp – the library doesn’t have a copy, even if they were open! Of course, I’ll probably want to reread Northanger Abbey afterwards, and it didn’t make the list…
  13. One Hundred Years of Solitude – I was supposed to reread this for a readalong with Silvia and Ruth but the timing ended up right when I hit a reading slump. But I think I’m ready to pick it up now.
  14. The Odyssey – Yep, another library book, another reread. I still intend to read it.
  15. The Fellowship of the Ring
  16. The Two Towers
  17. The Return of the King
  18. The Hobbit – This is the big plan for the summer – with everything going on, it feels like the right time to reread these. And they go well with The Nibelungenlied. Maybe less violent…
  19. Seaward – I’m not sure my brother actually knows I have this…time to get it read and return
  20. Unpictured: The Secret of Chimneys – next in my Agatha Christie chronological reading. It may end up a digital read, depending on the library.

So, you might notice the problem: while I may not have time to read 20 books, it would appear that I’m planning to do so. And then there’s the books that didn’t make the cut but that might sneak in anyways. Good thing we can change our list! And that there’s a summer staycation coming up…

Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Links
Agatha Christie
1923, England
Hercule Poirot

Agatha Christie’s third published novel brings us the second outing with Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings. This time, we are taken to northern France, whence Poirot has been summed by a potential client, Paul Renauld, on a matter of some urgency. However, by the time they arrive, Renauld is dead, and the great detective must turn his attention to murder. This is complicated by the presence of the French police, specifically Monsieur Giraud of the Sûreté, who has little appreciation or patience for Poirot’s more thoughtful methods. Hastings for his part is dazzled by Giraud’s activity and on more than one occasion expects that Poirot is out-detected. Of course, Hastings isn’t always the most reliable of observers, and true to form proves easily distracted by a pretty face, further muddling his observational skills.

Unfortunately, I read Murder on the Links about a year ago and didn’t take any notes, so I don’t really remember my response to it all that well, although the general plot of the story has stuck with me surprisingly well. It is a mystery full of twists and turns, questionable identities, and hidden secrets from the past; secrets that once identified, begin to help Poirot’s unraveling of the case. Hastings is perhaps a bit annoying in his obtuseness, and the inclusion of history that Poirot knows but the reader has no access to can be frustrating to the armchair detective. Nonetheless, an enjoyable diversion.

Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal

Shakespeare on Toast: Getting a Taste for the Bard
Ben Crystal
2016 edition

If the number of copies available in the state of Ohio is anything to go by, Shakespeare on Toast isn’t an overwhelmingly popular title. My local library didn’t have a copy, but fortunately—back in January when everything was still open—it was easily requestable from outside the system, as it has turned out to be one of the most valuable Shakespeare resources I’ve yet come across. Indeed, I’m tempted to say, “the only Shakespeare aid you’ll ever need!” although that might be overstating the case a bit. (After all, you’ll probably still need at the very least a dictionary.) But it does prove a very helpful resource, all shared in a light breezy style.

Crystal’s enthusiasm for his topic shines through the entire book, from his introduction of Shakespeare’s times in Act 1 to the more technical dissection of Shakespeare’s language and style in Acts 4 and 5. His excitement is such that at times while I read, I felt an impulse to read the complete works, immediately.  (Other obligations have prevented this, however.) He is not interested in who Shakespeare was (the authorship question is glanced over; Crystal considers it unimportant) but what he achieved. We are first given context for the times: what was Elizabethan theatre like? The staging, the costumes, the audience? Then the continued and universal relevance of the plays is touched on, before Crystal takes us into the heart of the matter, starting with the characters:

Many people hold that the main reason why Shakespeare has become so universally thought of as just plain brilliant is because of the characters he wrote. It wouldn’t be my first reason (which we’re coming to), but without doubt, he had a way of creating memorable and pretty fantastic characters that make most other writers’ creations seem amateur. (62)

Shakespeare’s characters are doubtless memorable. It is the reason I’ve seen previously for why Shakespeare was so great. It’s not a bad reason, but Crystal sees even more, and in laying out his explanation of Shakespeare’s genius, I feel like for the first time, I’ve finally been given a reason to understand why, of all the playwrights that have ever lived, it is Shakespeare that we continue to hold in high esteem.

There’s a growing number of people who feel that you can get rid of the Olde language, make it all fresh and modern, and it’ll stay the same.
It won’t, of course. Part of the problem with Shakespeare’s plays, as we saw earlier, is that the stories aren’t original. Nor are they flawless. Translate, update, adapt Shakespeare’s writing, and all you’re really left with is the story. Take the poetry away, and you very quickly realise you’re pulling at a piece of string that will make everything unravel. (79-80)

Starting with Act 3, Crystal lays out his argument that it is Shakespeare’s language that makes him truly great. At the same time, he shows us how to approach Shakespeare – not merely by reading the words on the page, but by understanding how Shakespeare used his dialogue to direct the actors and the settings, to convey meaning not merely through word choice and meter but through how he chose to disrupt the patterns.

This is the key to Shakespeare. Not in understanding Shakespeare – I hope I’ve made it clear that you can understand and enjoy Shakespeare without learning these literary terms and conceits – but in owning Shakespeare. Because what he did with this very popular style of poetry, this type of metre, was revolutionary.
He turned it on its head, made it do things that other writers didn’t, twisted it and played with it and broke every single one of the rules I’ve just explained to you, improvising like a great jazz player. (129)

Crystal is a Shakespearean actor and approaches his topic from that perspective. But instead of just privileging the performance over the written word, he provides his readers the tools to approach Shakespeare from the actor’s perspective—to allow us to see the play even when a staged version isn’t available. He also makes a compelling case for the First Folio as the edition of choice – despite its archaic spellings and mistakes. After all, it is the edition that was made by the actors who had performed Shakespeare’s plays with Shakespeare – and if anyone knew how to convey Shakespeare’s actual meaning it should be them.

There is also a brief discussion of the Sonnets, part of the larger explanation of meter. I imagine even the most basic high school classes cover iambic pentameter and English sonnet form in their units on Shakespeare; but mine certainly didn’t tell me this: Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets and only one of them is in pure iambic pentameter. One of 154! Crystal compares Shakespeare to a jazz great, improvising on a theme. A friend of Crystal’s believes the reason Shakespeare wrote exactly 154 sonnets is because that is the greatest number of syllables a sonnet can contain. Who knows if it’s true, but it’s a fascinating idea to consider, and one I find greatly intriguing.

In the last portion of the book (excluding appendix-type material, here called “Props”), Crystal dives into a close read of a part of Act 2, Scene 2 from Macbeth. We see him apply the tools he’s educated us in, and the scene bursts to life. I can feel the tension, even without a recollection of what the full context is. This is what Crystal’s goal is, to enable those of us who are reading, rather than attending, a play to fully engage in it, even if we can’t see physical actors before us, and to enable us to own Shakespeare for ourselves. He leave us with one final bit of advice – and encouragement:

Despite the fact that he was as human, flawed and fallible as the rest of us, the one rule that has always guided me straight and true with a tricky bit of Shakespeare is this:

     There is always a reason for it.

No matter how complicated, no matter how ostensibly random, how annoying, boring or just plain bad a scene or a line appears to be, there is always a reason for it being there.
You just have to find out what it is.
And I promise: the search is always worth it. (259-260)

Classics Spin #23

Question Mark - cover place holder

It seems like I was just reading for a Classics Club spin, and there’s another one. For this edition, I pared my list down to only books that are already on my shelves (after removing books I’ve already finished/am currently reading), seeing as I have a ridiculous number of unread books on my shelves and the library doesn’t seem likely to be open soon. (Considering they shut down even before the stay-at-home/non-essential orders.) Some of these titles are a bit lengthy, so I make no promises as to finishing this spin on time!

1. Homer: The Odyssey (Greece, c. 8th century BCE)
2. Carson, Anne, translator: An Oresteia (Greece, 5th century BCE)
3. Virgil: The Aeneid [Aeneis] (Rome, 29-19 BCE)
4. Anonymous: Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, between 8th-11th centuries)
5. Anonymous: Njal’s Saga (Iceland, 13th century)
6. Anonymous: Nibelungenlied (Germany, 13th century)
7. Camões, Luís Vaz de: The Lusiad (Portugal, 1572)
8. Radcliffe, Ann: The Italian (England, 1797)
9. Poe, Edgar Allan: Tales of Mystery and Imagination (U.S., 1830s-40s)
10. Dickens, Charles: Bleak House (England, 1853)
11. Trollope, Anthony: Barchester Towers (England, 1857)
12. Gaskell, Elizabeth: Wives and Daughters (England, 1865)
13. James, Henry: The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction (U.S., 1878-1908)
14. Tolstoy, Leo: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Russia, 1886-1912)
15. Lawrence, D.H.: Sons and Lovers (England, 1913)
16. Faulkner, William: The Sound and the Fury (U.S., 1929)
17. Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World (England, 1932)
18. Bromfield, Louis: The Farm (U.S.-Ohio, 1933)
19. Steinbeck, John: East of Eden (U.S., 1952)
20. Bolaño, Roberto: 2666 (Chile, 2004)

Title I’m most hoping to spin: The Sound and the Fury, since I want to read it soon, and this would be a good incentive, or Wives and Daughters since I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time.

Title I’m most “afraid” of spinning: Well, none of them, actually! They’re all on my Classics Club list for a reason, after all.

Here’s to a good spin!