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Spielregeln fur den Untergang: die Welt des `Nibelungenliedes'.

Jan-Dirk Muller, Spielregeln fur den Untergang: die Welt des `Nibelungenliedes' (Tubingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1998). 494 pp. ISBN 3-484-10773-1. DM 96.00.

This book is an impressive vindication of the exercise of interpreting the Nibelungenlied synchronically, not least by virtue of the author's determination and flair in subjecting many of the work's most `problematic' and apparently dissonant passages to close literary analysis. Nine numbered chapters are arranged to kaleidoscopic effect, representing a sequence of largely self-contained readings from a variety of thematic perspectives which repeatedly throws up different patterns of meaning often with reference to the same key scenes. Chapters I and II tackle fundamental poetological questions relating to the distinctive, sometimes alien character of the Nibelungenlied as a literary text: here for example Muller explores its complex relationship with oral tradition (not only inherent in the story material but also carefully cultivated on a textual level), and provides an overview of the diverse narrative strategies within the work (repetition; aggregation; `disturbance'; creation of ambiguity) that serve to engender meaning in the absence of explicit narratorial commentary. Chapters III-VIII deal with the constitution of the narrative world itself, elucidating its social structures (III), the inextricability of objective and subjective factors in the psychological depiction of the characters (IV), the thematic complexes of visibility (V) and space (VI), as well as basic forms of social interaction (VII) and `courtliness' (VIII). In each case Muller's exposition of the cultural norms within the text leads to a discussion of the dynamics of the `exceptional' events of the actual story, and it soon becomes evident that he understands the final catastrophe at Etzel's court to be the consequence of a gradual but all-pervasive process of subversion and perversion (encapsulated for instance in the manipulation of appearances or the failure of rituals to maintain order). Chapter IX re-examines the momentum of the wholesale destruction of the Nibelungen-world and draws the conclusion that the outstanding achievement of the Nibelungenlied lies in its radical and ultimately ambivalent juxtaposition of alternative principles such as the `courtly' and the `archaic-heroic'.

From first to last Muller is openly opposed to the notion that the faults and inconsistencies running through the Nibelungenlied are only fit for diachronic study as clues to the evolutionary history of the story material. He argues that the seemingly insuperable `problems' of the text are in fact called into being by inappropriate assumptions on the part of the modern reader, and he addresses this danger in his own work in a series of methodological reflections (pp. 6-54) that revolve around two key points. First, what might be viewed as deficiencies in the linear progression or syntagmatic coherence of the narrative (`gaps' in the action; apparent lack of causality) are actually a symptom of the peculiar status of the Nibelungenlied as a literary work (`Buchepos') that draws heavily on oral tradition; the narrative relies on the audience's knowledge (`kulturelles Wissen') of traditional Nibelungen-stories and thus does not have to explain everything `logically'. Second, the alterity of the Nibelungenlied extends to the narrative world as well, which baffles many scholars in so far as they assume the validity of so-called psychological universals (love; hate; revenge) or attempt to read the text as a reflection of medieval society c.1200; instead the events, actions, and characters of this epic can only really be understood in the broader context of an investigation of the culture within the text as a coherent system in its own right. On both counts Muller is clearly convinced of the interpretability of the Nibelungenlied as it stands.

All in all this book is a highly accomplished piece of literary criticism. The numerous individual readings it contains are sophisticated and illuminating (such as for Hagen's victimization of the priest (pp. 194-9) or Siegfried's many `skins' (pp. 243-8)); and these are enriched through reference to significant variants in the manuscripts, to the Klage and other heroic epics (especially Kudrun), and to modern literary theoretical writings (the background resonance of the saga tradition in the narrative, for example, is characterized by means of Gerard Genette's metaphor for intertextuality of the palimpsest (p. 78)). In addition, Muller usefully incorporates scholarship from outside the normal confines of `Nibelungenphilologie' to provide a broader methodological framework for his analysis of the world within the text (Clifford Geertz) and to facilitate the description of specific points of anthropological detail (spatial configuration; mob mentality). However, the overriding significance of Jan-Dirk Muller's work lies in its staunch and sustained rebuttal of reductionist interpretations of the Nibelungenlied.


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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1999
Previous Article:Poesies de Francois Villon.
Next Article:Novellistik des Mittelalters: Marendichtung.

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