So this semester, I’m taking a German Literature course, entitled Knights, God and the Devil. We had our first class meeting last Tuesday and I’m completely enthralled by what we are currently reading: Das Niebelungenlied. Even though I majored in German, somehow I missed this seminal work of German literature. It’s absolutely fascinating to me, about knights, kings, jousting tournaments, a magic cape and, oh, yeah, an incredibly strong female character named Brünhild. This image of her is from an 1897 postcard by the artist Gaston Bussière.
Before really studying Brünhild and the Niebelungens, most of what I knew about the story (which, admittedly, was very little) came from Richard Wagner’s operatic Ring Cycle. His tale diverges from the legends; also, Brünhild and some of the other major characters like Siegfried appear in other Nordic sagas, but they don’t always play the same role.
In Das Niebelungenlied, Brünhild is a woman of astounding power. She happens to be quite beautiful and she is a powerful queen in her kingdom (Island). Long story short, King Gunther from the German city of Worms decides he wants to marry the powerful queen Brünhild. (Why is it that the men always assume that they can simply choose their bride without consulting her first? Is this courtly love? I am sure I shall find out!). Gunther consults his best men, including Siegfried. Siegfried is a king from his own country but wishes to marry Gunther’s sister Kriemhild (once again, Siegfried simply decides one day that this is the woman he wants to marry. Fortunately, when they see each other for the first time, it is love at first sight). Anyway, Siegfried advises Gunther to take him along on the trip to Island, which is Brünhild’s land. Siegfried has a magical cloak, a Tarnkappe, which renders him invisible. How he acquired the cloak is another story that I’d like to read some day. At any rate, Siegfried knows of Brünhild’s power and must help Gunther defeat Brünhild in three contests. The men prevail, but not without fearing for their lives.
Brünhild agrees to marry Gunther and they travel back to his kingdom. On the wedding night, Gunther, in his eagerness to take his bride, upsets her. I love this bit: she, the ultra-powerful woman, infuriated by her husband’s behavior, removes her braided belt and ties him up, then hangs him on a hook in the wall. Wow. We weren’t assigned to read that far in the text, but I couldn’t help myself. I just had to know what was going to happen. What a gal, eh? A rendition of the scene from the artist Johann Heinrich Füssli:
Look at Brünhild, just comfortably lounging there in her white gown, while her newly acquired husband is bound and hanging like an animal. She lets him down…eventually. He returns to the wedding bed but basically stays as far away from her as possible.
The next morning, Siegfried, knowing her power, discretely inquires how Gunther’s wedding night went. Gunther, poor man, is completely depressed and despondent. Siegfried decides to help by disguising himself with his cloak of invisibility and fights Brünhild in the wedding bed, then when it’s clear he prevails over Brünhild, he quietly slips away and lets Gunther take his rightful place as Brünhild’s husband. And, once she and Gunther consummate their marriage, she loses her extraordinary powers and becomes like any other woman.
But there’s a whole lot of interesting ideas in that very fact: her virginity is what lets her keep her extraordinary strength and power; by becoming a married woman, she gives up her power. I have a feeling I’m going to be writing about this for my class and I’m eager to do some research on it.
As I’ve been reading along, however, I can’t get Wagner out of mind and even more so, I can’t not think of the classic Looney Tunes cartoon, What’s Opera, Doc? which you can find on Youtube. Here’s Chuck Jone’s rendition of Brünhild, Bugs-Bunny-in-drag-style:
Bugs Bunny isn’t at all like how our great queen is described in the actual text. I mean, he’s a bunny after all. But isn’t he just amazing – the winged helmet, the flowing golden braids, the pink eyeshadow and lengthy eyelashes, the golden Bustenhalter, the pink mini skirt? And the horse! You can’t forget the voluptuous horse:
It’s wonderful. Horribly inaccurate, but wonderful. And clearly, the Looney Tunes artists are making fun of high Wagnerian opera.
On that note, I leave you with: SMOG! If you know the cartoon, you’ll know what I mean.