Wednesday 24 July 2019

Der Nibelungen auf Bühne und Bildschirm

Every culture has its own great, foundational myths. For Japan, one is the story of the Chūshingura, the 47 Ronin. Among the Nitsitapii (Blackfoot) Indigenous peoples of North America it is the stories of Napi and Morningstar. In England it is King Arthur and Robin Hood. The United States is in a unique position of rising in historical times and therefore mythologizing its own history... They are great mythmakers of the American Revolution and the Alamo. For German-speaking peoples, that story is ostensibly the legend of Siegfried and the Nibelungen.

Such a durable myth stands interpretation and reinterpretation and adaptation over the centuries. Its original forms are lost in antiquity but its earliest complete form is found in the Nibelungenlied. Written around 1200 CE, its first half outlines the rise and fall of the hero Siegfried, a nobleman and wandering warrior who conquered the northern kingdom of the Nibelung. His voyages bring him to the Burgundian kingdom on the Rhine, where he desires to woo the Burgundian princess Kriemhild. Unfortunately, her brother King Gunther seizes the opportunity to employ Siegfried's prodigious strength (and cloak of invisibility) to help him subdue Brünhilde, the warrior-queen of Iceland. They succeed, but in so doing lay down the groundwork of their own destruction. A spat between Brünhilde and Kriemhild results in the latter exposing her husband's role in Brünhilde's humiliation. This leads to a conspiracy among the Burgundians to murder Siegfried. The second half picks up after the hero's death, when Kriemhild's second marriage to King Etzel of Hungary gives her the opportunity to exact a revenge on her family that ferociously swallows up the Burgundians, the Nibelung, Hungary, and herself.

Kriemhild meets Siegfried.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911).

Altogether, the Nibelungenlied is a fairly straightforward Mediaeval epic with few fantastic elements. During his wanderings, Siegfried is said to have killed a dragon and bathed in his blood, making him invulnerable save for one spot covered by a leaf. That and his cloak of invisibility are about all that transgress historical credulity. Otherwise, the Nibelung legend is rooted in actual history. The Burgundian kingdom on the Rhine was destroyed in 437 CE under the rule of King Gundaharius, through it was destroyed at the hands of a Roman general. King Etzel is a reference to Attila the Hun (d.453 CE) and a Mediaeval belief that Hungary was connected with the Huns. About 80 years after the fact, a story developed that Attila was killed by his Germanic wife Hildico.

Nor was Kriemhild's blood revenge purely drawn from imagination. Consider Olga of Kiev, whose husband King Igor was killed by the neighbouring Drevlian kingdom in 945 CE. When Drevlian emissaries arrived by boat to announce that Igor had been killed and offered for Olga to marry their own Prince Mal, she had the people of Kiev carry the boat with its passengers to a trench where the Drevlians were buried alive. She then summoned Drevlian dignitaries (who did not know about what happened to the first party) to come and escort her to their kingdom. Those she locked in a bath house and burned alive. She then went to the Drevlians asking to hold a funeral feast at the grave of her husband. They obliged, and while they were drunk on mead, she had her people slaughter them. Only then did she gather her army together to wage outright war on the Drevlians. City after city fell until they reached modern Korosten, where Igor had been killed. They refused to surrender, mainly out of fear that she was still out for revenge. Olga replied that the prior slaughters had satiated her need for revenge, and that all she would take for tribute was three pigeons and three sparrows from each house in the city. The gift was granted... Sulphur-infused cloth was tied to each bird, they were lit on fire, and freed to return home. The entire city ignited and the citizens were killed as they fled the inferno. Olga's story is not the only one of vengeful and powerful Mediaeval women.

This is all in contrast to Das Lied vom Hürnen Seyfrid, another Mediaeval ballad that emphasizes Siegfried as a dragon-killer (dispatching multiple beasts including one that has kidnapped Kriemhild) and winner of the treasure of the Nibelung dwarves. The aftermath is found in the poem Kriemhild's Wedding.

Siegfried slays Fafner the Dragon.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1911)

The poem was well-received upon its completion in the Middle Ages, though audiences of the time were more interested in the historical and courtly aspects of Kriemhild's revenge than upon the heroic deeds of Siegfried. The compelling questions were on the guilt of both Kriemhild and Siegfried's murderer Hagen, and knightly deportment under such horrific circumstances. Sadly, the Nibelungenlied was largely forgotten as Europe declined into the Enlightenment. Into the late 18th and early 19th centuries, however, a new movement of Romanticism took hold hand-in-hand with the creation of the modern Nation-State. Romantic Nationalism sought to unite peoples of shared language and culture into collective political bodies where previously they had identified with diverse kingdoms, fiefdoms, clans, and city-states. The Nibelungenlied was rediscovered as a uniting foundational myth of the Germanic peoples.

It was into this environment that composer Richard Wagner developed Der Ring des Nibelungen. Over the course of the 20 years, from the late 1840's through its premiere in 1870, he drafted an epic four-part opera whose completion coincided with the creation of the German Empire in 1871. His initial impetus may have been furnished by a series of articles in Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a German music magazine explicitly prompting composers to develop a "national opera" inspired by the Nibelungenlied. Felix Mendelssohn was known to be working on a Nibelung opera at the same time. But it was Wagner's magnificent opera that succeeded to become a classic and furnished one of the world's most recognizable pieces of music.

Wednesday 10 July 2019

Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time

Really good dinosaur books are few and far between. Despite the best efforts of pretty well every Science Fiction author at one time or another, one could likely count the most memorable attempts on one hand. Jurassic Park would enter most people's minds these days, though more by reputation of the film series than from having read Michael Crichton's novel for themselves. The unparalleled classic is, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, published in 1912. His copious literary talent and careful attention to detail made this relatively late entry into the field of Scientific Romances a genre archetype of its own: the "lost world" story. More recently than The Lost World is another lost world story of a type, taking place in the Victorian Era and standing towards the head of the list of great dinosaur stories. This is Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time by James Gurney, published in 1992.

Image: James Gurney.

The irony behind Dinotopia's success is that Gurney is no Science Fiction author. Asked in interview about how deep an influence Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir H. Rider Haggard exerted on his series, he said that they didn't really. His main influences were the journals of actual explorers and scientists like Darwin, Wallace, and Burton. It's not altogether uncommon that truly excellent examples of modern Scientific Romances come from people completely outside of any "scene" or "fandom" dedicated to it. Its success no doubt owes as much or more to the dinosaur fever of the early Nineties - Jurassic Park would be released to theatres the following year, in 1993 - as its Victorian Scientific Romance setting.   

Rather than a Science Fiction author, Gurney is a painter. The origins of Dinotopia find themselves in a collection of unique paintings by Gurney, showing dinosaurs and humans living alongside each other. Unlike countless scenes of antagonism between dinosaurs and cavemen, these paintings depicted idyllic scenes of parades processing past Greco-Roman columns. The idea of elevating these paintings to a narrative, to tell the story behind them and the kind of world they take place in, came to Gurney and the result is a work capturing the very essence of Scientific Romances.

Image: James Gurney.

Or, if we are to believe the prologue, Gurney was merely the recipient of a sketchbook once belonging to Arthur Denison, a naturalist who set sail on an exploratory voyage in 1862. His ship encountered a ferocious storm and was destroyed, pitching himself and his son Will on the shores of an uncharted island teeming with living dinosaurs. More astonishing than this, as though it could get more astonishing, is that these dinosaurs are highly intelligent, rational and wise beings who have taught generations of humans to live in harmony with them and with one another.

Image: James Gurney.