Sunday, May 10, 2015

Reading the Nibelungenlied - Murderhobo Edition (Part The First)

So I found a representative collection of Nibelung stories in a bin with free books the other day. Just like that. Most of them are in the public domain by now and there exist online versions of them (I'll be quoting from this English version for the posts, to give but one example), but finding the book like that was a strange coincidence. Anyway, I was checking that bin out because I had nothing to read with me, so I took that book and started reading it in the bus I had been waiting for. It was a prose version of the text and it was fantastic (find one of those, if you want to read to read it). I read it for playability, of course, and was quite surprised to find out that it was more Knights of the Dinner Table than Shakespeare.

Also in this series: Part 2 and Part 3

But let me start from the beginning ...

What is the Nibelungenlied?

First Adventure: Kriemhild's Dream

To us in olden story / are wonders many told
Of heroes rich in glory, / of trials manifold:
Of joy and festive greeting, / of weeping and of woe,
Of keenest warriors meeting, / shall ye now many a wonder know.

This first chapter is not much more of an introduction and full of foreshadowing. All noble and rich and pretty and all doomed to DIE. Because of hate, intrigue and betrayal, of course:

At Worms amid their warriors / they dwelt, the Rhine beside,
And in their lands did serve them / knights of mickle pride,
Who till their days were ended / maintained them high in state.
They later sadly perished / beneath two noble women's hate.

It's a bold choice to not only tell you in the beginning how it's all going to end, they keep telling you, too. It's all "Little did he know ..." and "Ah well, he shouldn't have done that ..." on a major scale. That produces a special sort of tension for the reader. You know someone is going to get betrayed and it's going to happen soon. But if you don't know the story, you couldn't possibly know which adventure is a hero's last. I like that and have to think about ways to put this into the game ...

Anyway, Kriemhild, a fair princess, dreams about owning a falcon that is slain by two eagles. Her mother tells her it's about her lover getting killed and she decides to never love a man. Of course this won't work and instead ...

He was that same falcon / she saw the dream within

Unfolded by her mother. / Upon her nearest kin,

That they did slay him later, / how wreaked she vengeance wild!
Through death of this one hero / died many another mother's child.

And that's even before that hero arrived. End of first chapter.

Second Adventure: Siegfried

Siegfried they did call him, / this bold knight and good;
Many a realm he tested, / for brave was he of mood.
He rode to prove his prowess / in many a land around:
Heigh-ho! what thanes of mettle / anon in Burgundy he found!

Here enters our high-level hero, the great Siegfried. And what a man he is. Already famous before he got knighted and a womanizer with rich parents. Another big theme of the story also unfolds here for the first time: the party they throw for the day he got his knighthood describes the very grandfather of the saying "Like pissing money down a drain ...". Here are just some basic expenses:

Four hundred lusty squires / were there to be clad
In knight's full garb with Siegfried. / Full many a beauteous maid
At work did never tire, / for dear they did him hold,
And many a stone full precious / those ladies laid within the gold,

Garbs with gold and jewels, just because. If you every ask yourself what to do with all the gold in D&D, read this book to get some ideas. At times they just give full hands of it to strangers just for showing up! It's almost obscene.

The other thing nobles do when throwing a party is encouraging others to bash their skulls in for their entertainment and the masses'. And you'll have that a plenty here:

Well-tried old knights and youthful / met there in frequent clash,
There was sound of shattered lances / that through the air did crash,
And along before the castle / were splinters seen to fly
From hands of knights a many: / each with other there did vie.

They party hard for seven days and even the common people attending the festivities go home rich afterwards. This is how Siegfried gets introduced, a noble hero with very generous parents. Here's another verse about spending it big time:

Never a wandering minstrel / was unprovided found:
Horses there and raiment / so free were dealt around,
As if to live they had not / beyond it one day more.
I ween a monarch's household / ne'er bestowed such gifts before.

 They gave away horses as presents, for Chrissakes. End of chapter two.

Third Adventure: How Siegfried came to Worms

Seldom in sooth, if ever, / the hero's heart was sad.
He heard them tell the story, / how that a winsome maid
There lived afar in Burgundy, / surpassing fair to see:
Great joy she brought him later, / but eke she brought him misery.

A fair but unapproachable maiden, a hero out for the booty and certain doom. Sounds like a high school drama about puberty ... And maybe that's not even so far off the mark, since they must have been around 16 (Kriemhild maybe even a bit younger, Siegfried maybe a bit older) when this went down.

Anyway, the guy's like "Nobody can have her? Than I will have her! Because, you know, I love her!", never has seen the girl, but that's how it was in the olden days. His parents are concerned that it might be dangerous and want to give him an army, but he acts all casual and takes just twelve man. A full sized group, in role playing terms:

"By my own hand—thus only— / trust I to win my bride;
With none but twelve in company / to Gunther's land I'll ride.
In this, O royal father, / thy present help I pray."
Gray and white fur raiment / had his companions for the way.

Of course they had to have the best and most expensive equipment. Nothing but the best for sonny:

His father bade a costly / garb for him prepare,
That leaving Siegmund's country / he the same might wear.
For all their glittering breastplates / were soon prepared beside,
And helmets firmly welded, / and shining shields long and wide.

And what would this chapter without some dark foreshadowing:

Stern warriors stood there sorrowing, / —in tears was many a maid.
I ween their hearts erred nothing, / as sad forebodings said
That 'mongst their friends so many / thereby were doomed to die.
Good cause had they to sorrow / at last o'er all their misery.

"... thereby were doomed to die." What a quote! Anyway, off they go to Worms. What follows is a very long description of their expensive equipment. I'll spare you the details. Just assume lots of gold and jewelry. It'll take them a while to get there, maybe the horses had to carry too much ...

As they finally arrive at Worms, it's with lots of noise. Obviously knights of station, but otherwise strangers in this city, the King of Burgund is not sure how to respond to their arrival. He asks one of his most experienced knights, Hagen von Tronje:

What were the king's good pleasure, / asked Hagen grim in war.

"In the court within my castle / are warriors from afar,

And no one here doth know them: / if them thou e'er didst see
In any land far distant, / now shalt thou, Hagen, tell to me."

And the guy knows his gossip, recognized Siegfried almost immediately from the stories he has been told. It's the first time we read of Siegfried's deeds and man, he had been a busy little adventurer. Had conquered a fairy realm in the early years and gained a powerful magic sword, a cloak of invisibility and the hoard of the Nibelungs, a treasure hoard so rich that nobody could count how large it really was.

Funny story right here. So our hero meets those two guys who own this big ass treasure and they hire him to help them divide it up as fair as possible. They'll give him a magic sword for it and all that jazz. Siegfried agrees, but fails to deliver and those guys get really angry about it which, in turn, pisses Siegfried off and he goes on a killing spree:

"They had there of their followers / twelve warriors keen,
And strong they were as giants: / what booted giants e'en?
Them slew straightway in anger / Siegfried's mighty hand,
And warriors seven hundred / he felled in Nibelungenland

Thinking about the xp he must have earned for this makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. That fight earned Siegfried a kingdom, too: the land of the Nibelungs.

The dwarf Alberich, former King of the Nibelungs, has to hand over
the cloak of invisibility [source]
We are talking high level campaign here, people. It's also our first evidence suggesting that Siegfried was one of history's first murderhobos ...

Hagen continues with the famous story about Siegfried slaying that dragon and bathing in his blood and adds that it made Siegfried invulnerable:

"Still know I more about him, / that has to me been told.

A dragon, wormlike monster, / slew once the hero bold.

Then in its blood he bathed him, / since when his skin hath been
So horn-hard, ne'er a weapon / can pierce it, as hath oft been seen.

So Hagen's suggestion is to be nice to the guy, because he could put some serious pain to the king:

"Let us the brave knight-errant / receive so courteously

That we in nought shall merit / his hate, for strong is he.
He is so keen of spirit / he must be treated fair:
He has by his own valor / done many a deed of prowess rare."

Translation to vulgar English: "We better not piss that MoFo off, because he could really fuck up our shit ...". They decide to be nice nice to him and the King goes out of his way to greet the guy in person.

The king takes now a few verses to ask Siegfried as polite as possible what the hell he would want here, of all places. The answer came to me, at least, as a surprise. Because Siegfried sits there with his twelve man behind him quite relaxed, I imagine, and tells the king that he has come to take his crown and his land. Just like that:

"I too am warrior noble / and born to wear a crown;
So would I right gladly / that thou of me shouldst own
That I of right am master / o'er people and o'er land.
Of this shall now my honor / and eke my head as pledges stand.

It's something I'd expect from a player with a high level character when he meets a king. That king now (in my head a NPC from now on) is like "WTF?!" and his knights ruffle their feathers a bit, as one would expect.

It becomes a dick-measuring contest in highest poetic form. Swords are drawn, people insulted for their low birth and the reader starts to wonder how that could have escalated so quickly. Did Siegfried really forget what he'd come to Worms for? As it turns out, he just had a bad day:

Then spake the stately monarch: / "But ask thou courteously,
And all that we call ours / stands at thy service free;
So with thee our fortune / we'll share in ill and good."
Thereat the noble Siegfried / a little milder was of mood.

After that it's lots of partying again and Kriemhild's starting to notice:

And when before the castle / they sped in tournament,

The good knights and squires, / oft-times the maiden went

And gazed adown from casement, / Kriemhild the princess rare.
Pastime there was none other / for her that could with this compare.

They're bashing skulls for sports over the course of a year, no less. And yet he never gets to see the girl he longs for. It's just guys being guys, riding around and making noise. And thus ends the third chapter:

Thus with his hosts he lingered / —'tis every tittle true—
In King Gunther's country / a year completely through,
And never once the meanwhile / the lovely maid did see,
Through whom such joy thereafter / for him, and eke such grief should be.

I'll stop here for now, but more wondrous tales await! Next is Siegfried giving some Saxons a beating, this time going full murderhobo ... But that'll be in part two.

Although I'm quoting a verse translation here, I really recommend reading a prose version of the piece. I'll provide links in Part 2.

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