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On Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied: counselors, queens, and characterization

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Abstract

This article deals with two longstanding interpretive problems in Beowulf criticism. The Beowulf poet’s laconic style, grounded in the assumption of audience familiarity with legendary tradition, has rendered the representation of various characters rather obscure to modern readers. Comparison of Beowulf with the Nibelungenlied, which contains fuller portraits of characters derived from related oral traditions, is undertaken here in order to point toward the archetypes behind some of the poem’s shadier characters. The utility of the Nibelungenlied as a comparandum in Beowulf scholarship is illustrated in two case studies, the first of which focuses on Unferth and Hagen, the second of which focuses on Hildeburh and Kriemhild. In each case, the reticence of Beowulf is complemented by the verbosity of the Nibelungenlied, as evidence from the latter helps to tilt the scales in favor of certain interpretations of the former.

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Notes

  1. For an overview of studies on the style of Beowulf, see Fulk et al. (2008, pp. cix–cxxi). Studies that remark on the qualities noted above include those of Robinson (1985) and Kightley (2016).

  2. For an insightful discussion of characterization in Beowulf, see Irving (1989).

  3. A comprehensive discussion of the questions pertaining to the interpretation of Hrothulf can be found in Cooke (2007); see also Leneghan (2020, pp. 47–67).

  4. For competing views on the characterization of Wealhtheow, see Fulk et al. (2008, p. 192); see also Damico (1984).

  5. References to the characters of Beowulf in other medieval works are conveniently assembled in Garmonsway and Simpson (1968).

  6. There is widespread agreement in Nibelungenlied scholarship that the poem was composed around 1200; see Salvini-Plawen (1995). A wider range of views concerning the dating of Beowulf exists, but recent philological scholarship favors a date of composition close to the year 700. See the essays compiled in Neidorf (2014); see also Neidorf and Pascual (2014).

  7. This is not to say that comparative research on Beowulf and Nibelungenlied is never undertaken anymore. Classen (2011), for instance, discusses the two works alongside various others. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the Nibelungenlied is infrequently mentioned now in mainstream Beowulf scholarship.

  8. On these elements, see Panzer (1945, pp. 58 ff.); Panzer (1955, pp. 423 ff.); Mergell (1950). For discussion of the poem's high medieval material culture, see Nordtorp-Madson (2019).

  9. On the descent of the Nibelungenlied from oral traditions originating in the migration period, see Andersson (1987, pp. 3–29), Heusler (1921), Haymes and Samples (1996) and Fichtner (2015). For an argument that one literary motif in the Nibelungenlied descends from the Common Germanic period, see Renoir (1964). On the influence of migration-period history upon the poem's geography, see Kofler (2019). For arguments that the Nibelungenlied, despite its late-medieval attire, retains the sensibility found in early medieval works concerned with migration-period legends, such as the Hildebrandslied and Beowulf, see Thomas (2008) and McConnell (2019).

  10. For these views and others, see Clarke (1936), Bloomfield (1949–51), Rosier (1962), Eliason (1963), Rich (1973), Hollowell (1976), Robinson (1984), Pope (1986), Silber (1996), Irving (1989, pp. 36–47), Donovan (2009) and Neidorf (2017b).

  11. Text of the poem is cited throughout by line number from Fulk et al. (2008); translations are taken throughout from Fulk (2010).

  12. Robinson (1984, p. 129); cf. Eliason (1963) and Donovan (2009).

  13. See Bonjour (1950, pp. 17–22), Ogilvy (1964), Hughes (1977), Pope (1986) and Fulk (1987).

  14. This conjecture is developed in Clark (1990, pp. 64–65) and Wieland (2011).

  15. See, for example, Olrik (1903), Rosier (1962) and Sayers (2009).

  16. The text of the poem is cited throughout by stanza number from de Boor (1979); translations are cited throughout from Edwards (2010).

  17. See Bostock (1960), King (1962), Sacker (1963) and McConnell (2009).

  18. Hagen’s character has elicited considerable discussion. Insightful studies concerned with his position in legend or characterization in the poem include: Stout (1963), Mahlendorf and Tobin (1971), Bekker (1971, pp. 118–148); Dickerson Jr. (1975), Gentry (1976), Haymes (1979), Homann (1982), Heinzle (1987, 1991), Brown (2015) and Olley (2018).

  19. It should be noted that the Old Norse tradition diverges from the Middle High German tradition in depicting Hagen (Hǫgni) generally as the brother of Gunther (Gunnarr) rather than his vassal. The relative antiquity of the two traditions is a matter of considerable dispute, but Olley (2018) has recently made a strong case for the anteriority of the German tradition with respect to its characterization of Hagen. She remarks of the Icelandic Hǫgni: "His habit of service [in the Poetic Edda] reveals an underlying similarity with his position as vassal in the German tradition and makes both his kingship and his kinship look like fairly recent developments in the poems of the Icelandic tradition, a tradition that was, after all, very adept at creating new siblings" (2018, p. 260).

  20. The extant versions of the legend are compiled and translated in Magoun and Smyser (1950). The dates of composition for both Waldere (an Old English fragmentary epic in the style of Beowulf) and Waltharius (a clerical Latin epic imitative of Virgil's Aeneid, Statius's Thebaid, and Prudentius's Psychomachia) are unknown and disputed, though both works are conventionally dated between the eighth and tenth centuries; see Ghosh (2016, pp. 155–156) for an overview, with references. For the text of Waldere, see Himes (2009); for Waltharius, see Kratz (1984).

  21. On the centrality of the theme of divided loyalties in Germanic legend, see Ker (1908, pp. 65–75), Phillpotts (1928) and Andersson (1987, pp. 5–9). The figure of Rudiger in the Nibelungenlied also happens to be caught in a conflict of divided loyalties. Consequently, he might profitably be compared with Unferth as well (I thank the anonymous referee for Neohelicon for this suggestion). Indeed, Rudiger giving his shield to Hagen might be considered an analogue to Unferth giving his sword to Beowulf.

  22. No extant version concludes with the death of either Hagen or Walther, but this is probably due to the influence of the Waltharius (or the tradition behind this poem) on the later witnesses; see Carroll Jr. (1953). For a demonstration that the ending of Waltharius reflects clerical manipulation rather than indigenous tradition, see Kratz (1977).

  23. Critical opinion is conveniently summarized in Fulk et al. (2008, p. 177); the most influential proponent of the dissenting interpretation is Sisam (1965, pp. 34–39).

  24. The figure of Starkaðr, prominent in various Scandinavian sources from the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, is also relevant to this conclusion, as he is described as a þyle, commits various atrocities, and is explicitly associated with Óðinn. For discussion of these aspects of Starkaðr, see Poole (2006), who suggests (on p. 146) a possible connection with Unferth; see also Clunies Ross (2006).

  25. On the significance of these minor characters, see Shippey (2014).

  26. Reconstructions of the details of the Finn Episode are numerous; see, for example, Fry (1974), Tolkien (1982), North (1990), Gwara (2008, pp. 135–180) and Neidorf (2019).

  27. Irving’s views were anticipated in Lawrence (1930, p. 114).

  28. Similar views are expressed in Chance (1986) and Overing (1990).

  29. See, for instance, Berger Jr. and Leicester Jr. (1974), Camargo (1981) and Georgianna (1987).

  30. For a reading of this narrative as a characteristic manifestation of Germanic legend, see Andersson (1987, pp. 7–9).

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Neidorf, L. On Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied: counselors, queens, and characterization. Neohelicon 47, 655–672 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11059-020-00541-2

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