The Nibelungenlied and Njal’s Saga

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How we view characters largely depends on their motives for action; depending on what aspects of their motives are emphasized, similar characters can be viewed as treacherous fiends or selfless martyrs. A knight fighting to defend his honor can be seen as treacherous and murderous. Similarly, a lawyer can be seen as directive and wise ,but also as manipulative and deceiving. Hagen of Troneck from The Nibelungenlied and Njal Thorgeirsson from Njal’s Saga were both manipulative, held similar relationships, and accepted their deaths. However, their motives in striving towards death differed. Hagen was defined as a murderous knight. Njal was deemed a martyr and redeemer of Iceland. Hagen acted out of pride and jealousy, facilitating his inevitable death at the hands of Kriemhild. In contrast, Njal selflessly gave up his life to end a blood feud that could have consumed Iceland.

Both men held relationships that forced them down a path to certain death. Each of them interacted with the archetypal hero who was brave, valiant, and all-powerful. Hagen deeply hated and envied Siegfried. When Siegfried insulted Queen Brunhild and threatened his influence over King Gunther, Hagen proclaimed his disdain. He declared, “I fancy I shall manage this so well in secret that he will repent of Brunhild’s weeping. I declare that I shall always be his enemy!” (Hatto 118) Hagen was pushed down a path towards certain death because of his jealousy and hatred of Siegfried. Siegfried hurt Hagen’s pride by threatening his power over Burgundy, and thus Hagen murdered him to eliminate the threat to his pride. Hagen’s dark act ultimately caused Kriemhild to seek revenge and execute him.

In contrast, Njal had a loyal and close friendship with ...

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...Hagen committed a disgraceful murder and perished in a way unbecoming of knight: at the hands of a woman. In contrast, Njal’s death was a sacrifice, for the good of others. He welcomed his death and surrendered his family in order to prevent an endless civil war in Iceland. Njal went against Icelandic custom of avenging one’s kin. Instead, he adopted a new Christian principle of absolution, accepting insult and assault by his enemies. He proclaimed before he laid down to die, “Bear this bravely and don’t express any fear for its only a brief storm... Have faith that God is merciful, and that he will not let us burn both in this world and in the next” (Cook 220). Njal trusted in God that his martyrdom was for the good all people and would end the blood feud. His acceptance of death and ultimate sacrifice liberated Iceland from self-destruction and damnation.
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