Kudrun (sometimes known as the Gudrunlied), is a Middle High German epic, written probably in the early years of the 13th century, not long after the Nibelungenlied, the influence of which may be traced upon it.
It is preserved in a single manuscript, which was prepared at the command of Maximilian I, and was discovered as late as 1820 in the Ambras Castle in Tirol. The author was an unnamed Austrian poet, but the story itself belongs to the cycle of sagas, which originated on the shores of the North Sea.
Some have viewed Kudrun as not unworthy to stand beside the greater Nibelungenlied, and it has aptly been compared with it as the Odyssey to the Iliad. Like the Odyssey, Kudrun is an epic of the sea, a story of adventure; it does not turn solely round the conflict of human passions; nor is it built up around one all-absorbing, all-dominating idea as the Nibelungenlied is. Scenery and incident are more varied, and the poet has an opportunity for a more lyric interpretation of motive and character.
But what makes Kudrun significant is that women are portrayed in dominant roles. Not only are they the prizes that motivate the action of male warriors, as would be expected in chivalric romance, but in the case of Kudrun herself as well as her mother Hilde, they direct important episodes and determine the final outcome.
Kudrun is composed in stanzas similar to those of the Nibelungenlied, but with the essential difference that the last line of each stanza is identical with the others and does not contain the extra accented syllable characteristic of the Nibelungen metre. The name Kudrun, and hence the title, is rendered as "Gudrun" in most older English translations. But today the form "Kudrun" is preferred because Gudrun is the name of an unrelated character in Norse mythology.
The epic tells essentially three stories: the adventures of King Hagen, King Hetel's winning of Hilde, and the trials and triumphs of Princess Kudrun, the latter taking up three-quarters of the work.
Chapters 1-4: How Hagen becomes King of Ireland
In Ireland, Prince Sigebant marries a Norwegian princess, Uote, and becomes king. Three years later she bears him a son, Hagen.
At age seven Hagen is carried off to a faraway island by a wild griffin and given to its young. But one of the young is too greedy and flies off with the boy. In the process it accidentally lets him escape. Hagen flees until he finds three young maidens in a cave who have, themselves, escaped the griffins. They proceed to care for him until he is old enough to fend for himself.
Then one day, securing weapons and armor from a shipwreck, Hagen is able to single-handedly kill all the griffins. Some time later, after killing a dragon, he drinks its blood and gains superhuman strength and wisdom. Finally all of these young people are rescued by a passing ship. But when it becomes clear that those rescued are to be held for ransom, Hagen uses his strength to take control of the ship and force the crew to sail to Ireland.
There Hagen is reunited with his family and the rescued maidens join the royal court. Soon the young prince marries one of the maidens, Hilde of India. She is crowned queen when Hagen becomes king. Later she bears him a daughter, who is also named Hilde and who grows up to become famed for her beauty.
Chapters 5-8: How Hetel of Germany Woos Hilde of Ireland
A warrior king named Hetel rules the Hegelings (or Hetelings) in the area covered today by Northern Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Having heard of Hilde’s beauty, he desires to woo her to be his queen. But he is informed that King Hagen kills all her suitors. So he arranges for his kinsmen and vassals, under the leadership of Wate of Stormarn, to mount an expedition and abduct her.
The expedition sails in five ships. When the Hegelings land in Ireland they pose as merchants and exiled warriors. With rich gifts and chivalric ways they lull Hagen and his court into a false sense of security. Horant of Denmark, one of the Hegelings, sings so sweetly that he becomes the idol of the ladies. By these means Hilde and her entourage are lured down to the harbor to view the departing ships. Suddenly a group of warriors hidden in one of them emerges, Hilde and her ladies in waiting are abducted, and the ships all sail back to Germany.
Enraged, Hagen gathers his forces and soon launches a fleet to attack Hetel’s lands. When he reaches the German shore he and his men are met with fierce opposition, including by Hetel himself. The two sides battle to a standstill. Then the conflict is resolved by a truce in which Hilde is betrothed to Hetel. A great wedding follows and Hilde becomes queen of the Hegelings. Hagen then returns to Ireland, laden with gifts and full of praises for how worthy Hetel is as the husband of his daughter.
Now it is Hetel’s turn to become the father of a famously beautiful daughter who he feels compelled to protect from all suitors. That daughter is Kudrun, who along with her brother Ortwin, is born to Hetel and Hilde.
When Kudrun comes of age, Hetel refuses the suits of a Moorish king named Sifrit of Alzabey, a Norman prince named Hartmuot, and King Herwic of Sealand. Herwic thereupon raises an army of 3,000 and attacks Hetel. Hetel fights back with his own army. Soon Herwic and Hetel face each other one-on-one and fight to a standstill. By this point Kudrun has become smitten with the valiant Herwic and wishes to marry him. So Hetel grants her her wish. But Hilde decides to delay the wedding for a year while she prepares Kudrun to be a queen. And so Herwic must wait.
Chapters 13-19: How Kudrun Is Abducted
During that interim period, the jealous King Sifrit invades Herwic’s lands with an army of 80,000 and puts his kingdom to the torch. This forces Herwic to seek the aid of the Hegelings who, with Kudrun’s prompting, come to his aid. Soon the combined forces are able to corner those of Sifrit and lay a year-long siege.
Meanwhile, the equally jealous Norman Prince Hartmuot gathers an army of 23,000 and invades Hetel’s lands in his absence. There he abducts Kudrun. When Hetel learns of this, he makes alliance with Sifrit and then, with all of his allies, pursues Hartmuot to the island of Wulpensand off the Dutch coast.
The battle there, however, results in massive losses on both sides with no clear victor. But Hetel is killed. And Hartmuot is able to escape in the predawn hours with his remaining forces.
So Kudrun’s kinsmen must return to the land of the Hegelings with the sad news that Hetel is dead, that Kudrun remains as Hartmuot’s captive, and that their forces are now too weak to launch an invasion of the Norman lands. They will have to wait until the boys of the next generation come of age and are able to avenge the deaths of their fathers.
Chapters 20-21: How Kudrun Is Imprisoned
Meanwhile Hartmuot and his warriors return home. There Kudrun and her ladies in waiting are introduced into the royal household. But because Kudrun declares she can never love Hartmuot and will always regard herself as a captive, she and her attendants are forced by Hartmuot’s mother, Queen Gerlint, into the role of castle servants in an effort to break Kudrun’s will. This goes on for eight years, but Kudrun remains firm. So Hartmuot asks his sister to take over and try kindness instead. The result is the same: Kudrun never stops refusing to become Hartmuot’s queen. So Gerlint takes over again and Kudrun is forced to become the castle washerwoman.
Chapters 22-29: How Kudrun is Finally Freed
It isn’t until thirteen years after Hetel’s death that Kudrun’s mother, Queen Hilde, declares the time has finally come to invade the Norman kingdom. All of her vassals answer the call, as well as King Herwic, assembling an army of 70,000 that is soon joined by 10,000 more from King Sifrit. The combined forces then set out, pausing at Wulpensand to honor those who died there. Unfortunately, bad weather sends the invasion fleet off course into the Sea of Darkness and near Mount Aetna’s magnetic cliffs, where the whole campaign is put in great jeopardy. Yet the ships manage to reach the Norman kingdom and the troops land without being seen.
Making a reconnaissance, Herwic, with Kudrun’s brother Ortwin, find Kudrun washing clothes by the sea. They don’t immediately recognize her but conversation soon reveals the truth. So they promise they will return the next day to rescue her along with her handmaidens.
Armed with this promise, Kudrun takes action to properly prepare herself. She announces to the Normans that she has finally decided to relent and marry Hartmuot, but can do so only if she and her entourage are allowed to bathe, don proper clothes, and get a good night’s sleep. These wishes are readily granted and the princess and her ladies are restored to their former status and appearance.
Meanwhile, during the night, Wate directs the invading forces to sneak up close to the Norman castle so the attack can be launched suddenly at dawn. Then, as day breaks, the invaders form their lines. In response, Hartmuot musters his troops and marches out of the castle to face his enemies head on. Bloody fighting quickly erupts, with massive casualties on both sides, until Hartmuot determines it would be prudent to retire. But now his men are far from the walls and must fight their way back to gates blocked by the invaders. In this struggle he is soon locked in combat with Wate.
At this point, Queen Gerlint in the Norman castle orders Kudrun killed. But Hartmuot, though outside the castle, manages to prevent this. So Kudrun, shouting from a castle window, begs Herwic to intervene between Hartmuot and Wate to stop the fighting. This Herwic does, allowing Hartmuot to be captured instead of killed. But Wate becomes enraged by this and has his troops fight their way into the castle and sack it. Kudrun is rescued and Gerlint is beheaded.
Chapters 30-32: How Kudrun Restores Peace
After Hartmuot’s entire realm has been conquered, the invasion force returns to the land of the Hegelings with its captives and shiploads of booty. There Queen Hilde greets them royally. Kudrun then arranges for a great reconciliation in which her brother Ortwin marries Hartmuot’s sister, Hartmuot marries Kudrun’s close companion, Sifrit marries Herwic’s sister, and Herwic, of course, marries Kudrun. All four are wed the same day. Then the four kings—Ortwin, Hartmuot, Sifrit, and Herwic—hold a great festival at Hilde’s castle.
After this, Hartmuot and his bride are escorted back to the Norman kingdom where he is reinstated as ruler. Herwic’s sister leaves with Sifrit to the Moorish kingdom. And Kudrun bids her mother and brother farewell as she departs with Herwic to Sealand.
Editions and translations
Kudrun was first edited by von der Hagen in vol. 1. of his Heldenbuch (1820). Subsequent editions by A. Ziemann and A. J. Vollmer followed in 1837 and 1845. The best editions are those by Karl Bartsch (4th ed., 1880), who has also edited the poem for Kurschners Deutsche Nationalliteratur (vol. 6, 1885), by Barend Symons (1883) and by E. Martin (2nd ed., 1901). Ludwig Ettmüller first applied Lachmann's ballad-theory to the poem (1841), and K. Mullenhoff (Kudrun, die echten Teile des Gedichts, 1845) rejected more than three-quarters of the whole as not genuine. There are many translations of the epic into modern German, the best known being that of K. Simrock (15th ed., 1884). A translation into English by M. P. Nichols appeared at Boston, USA, in 1889. A second translation by Margaret Armour was published by the firm of J. M. Dent in 1928. A more recent translation by Brian O. Murdoch appeared at London, UK, in 1987, and another was published by Winder McConnell in 1992 (Columbia, S.C.: Camden House).
- Gudrun: a Mediaeval Epic, verse translation by Mary Pickering Nichols, 1889, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.
(“Life Stories for Young People” series, reorders the text, placing the story of Kudrun ahead of the stories of Hagen and Hetel), 1906, Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.
- Gudrun: a Story of the North Sea, by Emma Letherbrow, (a prose retelling of the latter three-quarters of the epic, covering Kudrun’s story), 1864, Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas.
- Kudrun, prose translation with an introduction and notes by Brian Murdoch, 1987, London and Melbourne: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., Chapter Five, note 1, p. 159.
- Op cit, Chapter Thirteen, note 2, p. 164.
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- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- K. Bartsch, Beitrage fur Geschichte und Kritik der Kudrun (1865)
- H. Keck Die Gudrunsage (1867)
- W. Wilmanns, Die Entwickelung der Kudrundicbtung (1873)
- A. Fecamp, Le Poeme de Gudrun, ses origines, sa formation et son histoire (1892)
- F. Panzer, Hilde-Gudrun (1901).
For later versions and adaptations of the saga see 0. Benedict, Die Gudrunsage in der neueren Literatur (1902).