Das Nibelungenlied,
translated by Burton Raffel.
Yale University Press, 351 pages, $40.

If you want to enjoy the Song of the Nibelungs, you must try to do one thing: forget Wagner. His music drama Der Ring der Nibelungen is such an overwhelming aesthetic experience—he was only slightly exaggerating when he claimed to have composed a Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total work of art”—that it has inevitably eclipsed the medieval saga on which it was based.

Yet Das Nibelungenlied is a remarkable work of art in its own right. Among medieval epics, it occupies the first rank, transcending even Beowulf and the Chanson de Roland in complexity and emotional intensity. Only Homer surpasses the lay of the Nibelungen in tragic grandeur. And its influence is ubiquitous—one need only mention the notable medievalist J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Lord of...


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