The <i>Nibelungenlied:</i> Epic vs. Romance


  • John Clifton-Everest


By some of the criteria that might be applied, the Nibelungenlied, written in the first decade of the thirteenth century, is the only work written in German that possibly deserves the name epic. It is not of course the only one of epic scale (to apply first the crudest criterion of all); nevertheless, with nearly ten thousand eight-beat lines of Middle High German, it is substantial enough. As for other criteria, it is true enough to say that the Nibelungenlied has played a major part in shaping the general understanding of the term 'epic' by German scholars.


It must also be doubted whether close proximity or even a close relationship to an oral tradition has much relevance as a criterion in this particular case. The question as to the oral ancestry of the Nibelungenlied is of considerable interest of course.1 But it shows few of those stylistic features which lead scholars to conjecture immediate oral sources in the case of Homer. The German work exhibits a high level of structural and linguistic sophistication; even if all this is owed to the last poet alone, one would still have to judge the work artistically far removed from its oral sources. Moreover, Kullmann has demonstrated that the oral poetry theory is not necessarily universal; what has been recorded in recent times in the south Slavic states is not likely to be a clear reflection of what happened in twelfth century Gemiany.2