culture, literature

The Enduring Story of Siegfried

Toward the end of my college years, it came time to select a topic for capstone research. Despite my university’s focus on relatively recent works, I found myself gravitating toward medieval epics outside of the English canon. This was likely informed by a lifelong love for fantasy—when I’m really passionate about something, I want to get to the root of it.

It was the famous Sigemund passage in Beowulf that led me to two other epics: the Icelandic Völsunga Saga and the German Das Nibelungenlied. Both stories revolve around the same hero, and tell more or less the same tale. They’re not alone, either—the legendary Siegfried is attested to in Þiðrekssaga, the Poetic Edda, Biterolf und Dietleib . . . the list goes on.

Whether or not Siegfried was based on a real person is debated. Some have suggested he was based on a sixth century Frankish ruler, while others think he’s connected to a German chieftain made infamous by the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. In short, no one really knows who the real Siegfried was, if he ever existed.

The Siegfried of legend is a bit easier to pin down. While there is some variation between his different incarnations, the core of the story and character remains the same. He slays a dragon, wins a treasure, marries the sister of a Burgundian king, and then gets murdered thanks to a feud between his wife and a powerful queen—or Valkyrie, depending on which version you’re reading.

So, why was Siegfried so popular throughout medieval Germanic Europe?

Like any epic, Siegfried’s story embodies cultural ideals. Pre-Christian Germanic Europe placed high value on heroic achievement, family ties, and the spoils of victory, all of which play important roles in texts like Das Nibelungenlied and the Völsunga Saga. Of course, these stories weren’t written down until after Europe had shifted toward Christianity, but many cultures retained pagan ideals and practices as a sort of undercurrent to their Christian beliefsOne only has to look to holidays like Christmas for proof.

What’s really interesting is that Siegfried’s story hasn’t waned much in popularity over the centuries. The middle ages brought it out of oral tradition and into written form, but it has continued to evolve since. The nineteenth and twentieth century brought nationalism to Germany, which saw Siegfried glorified as a figure representative of a very different sort of ideal. During the 1870s, his story was adapted by Richard Wagner into the Ring cycle, an opera series that featured musical scores that remain iconic into today, though many people are unaware of their origins:

So, what is next for Siegfried?

We are yet to get a high-budget movie or television adaptation of Das Nibelungenlied or the Völsunga Saga, though there have been low-budget attempts. In an interesting turn of events, Wagner’s opera served as inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s neo-spaghetti western Django Unchained. Portions of Django’s story are designed to mirror Siegfried’s, and Siegfried himself gets mention in a quick story told to Django by the German bountyhunter Dr. King Schultz.

Whether Siegfried’s story will survive another thousand years is difficult to say.

Perhaps the character is a relic of the past, too intertwined with outdated ideals to be relevant in the modern age.

Perhaps he will continue to evolve with the times, growing into something new with each incarnation.

Who knows? Only time will tell.

13 thoughts on “The Enduring Story of Siegfried”

  1. Reblogged this on Denis's Author Blog and commented:
    Found this blog through clicking to follow the author on Twitter. It has rekindled an old passing interest I had from school days in what I would term non mainstream Myth. I often wondered why Germanic never had the same attention as Norse and Greek tales in the Anglo-Saxon world, although I understand there is a lot of overlap between the northern beliefs.
    Anyway, the author had me with the ‘beer drinker’ description (although not so much nowadays, age and responsibility comes to us all).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! I do love Norse and Greek myth as well, it’s just that there’s a surprising number of others myths that are almost unknown in the English-speaking world. Hopefully I’ll be writing about more of them moving forward!


      1. I’ll keep my eyes open for it. If you want, let me know when your book’s ready and I’ll give you a review. I’ve been using Mesopotamian gods in my first fantasy books mixed with a few Greek and Norse.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed this read, it’s a very interesting breakdown of the myth! I think that more myths from different religions other than Christianity should be made onto the big screen. Paganism is on the rise again, of course that could just be my lens, since I’m considered ‘pagan’. I’d love for stories like this to become a bit more mainstream. Hopefully the Christian interference didn’t butcher the myth too much. Also, I think more myths and legends should be created even….today! How could would it be to bring back magic into the world, even through story? Modern day fairy tales can be super interesting, and fantasy is still very popular. I think there’s important influence to be had from ancient ones like this, too, and how it can influence modern-day fantasy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually have a whole 35 page paper on the impact Christianity had on pagan oral tradition, which I want to break down into bite-sized pieces for my blog! I love myth and very much agree that it can be relevant and interesting to draw upon mythological themes for modern-day fantasy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll be sure to read it then, sounds interesting! Feel free to tag me on twitter when you post about it too and I’ll give it a look 🙂 I use that more for my media and it’s easier for alerts. Although I think I’ll get notifications since I follow your blog now, so either way it works!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Long time supporter, and thought I’d drop a comment.

    Your wordpress site is very sleek – hope you don’t mind me asking what theme you’re
    using? (and don’t mind if I steal it? :P)

    I just launched my site –also built in wordpress like yours–
    but the theme slows (!) the site down quite a bit.

    In case you have a minute, you can find it by searching for “royal cbd” on Google (would appreciate any feedback)
    – it’s still in the works.

    Keep up the good work– and hope you all take care of yourself during the
    coronavirus scare!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy to help! The theme I’m using is Dara, but it’s pretty basic and doesn’t have the best customization depending on what exactly you’re looking to do. I ran through probably 20 templates before settling on this one because it’s well-suited to my needs. Thanks for commenting and best of luck building your site!


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