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 beliefs. One 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.