Saturday, May 9, 2015

“Dread Customs”: Inversion and Enforcement of Gender Roles in the Nibelungenlied, Part Two

Click here to read Part One of the article.

Brunhilde (Prünhilt) by Arpád Basch (1900)

When Prünhilt arrives at the location of the contest, “They saw that she was armed as if she were to fight for all the kingdoms in the world.” In yet another way, she is elevated in masculine heroic status above Gunther; here she is seen as a conquering emperor against him as an emasculated local king, standing in a foreign land without arms, armor or army. Prünhilt has “more than seven hundred” (mêr danne siben hundert) of her “bold warriors” (küenen recken) against Gunther’s two visible companions (Sivrit having departed to fetch his magical cloak of invisibility), and her followers “were seen to bear swords,” (die sah man wâfen tragen). Not only does Prünhilt command hundreds of men to Gunther’s two, but the weapons her men hold point to the impotent weaponlessness of the visitors. In one way after another, Prünhilt’s masculine strength pushes Gunther’s heroic status ever lower into femininity.

Prünhilt’s shield “was, beneath its buckles, so we are told, some three spans in breadth, of steel and also of gold – it was of ample splendour. Her chamberlain and three others could scarcely carry it.” It is so large and so well decorated with gold and gems that the poet is moved to comment, “A man would have to be most valiant if that lady were to hold him dear.” The physical superiority of Prünhilt to any man here begins to become exaggerated to a degree that becomes comically sexual in the folklore or mythological mode. After the shield has been brought in,
they carried in for the lady a heavy, huge javelin, very sharp, which she always threw. It was strong and bulky, massive and broad, and its edges cut most fearsomely. Hear marvels told of that javelin’s weight: three-and-a-half ingots had been beaten to make it. Three of Prünhilt’s men could scarcely carry it. Noble Gunther began to grow very anxious.
Given the ribald humor of the poet Tannhäuser, from roughly the same time period and geographical area as the anonymous poet of the Nibelungenlied, and given what has been done and said in the Iceland section of the poem up to this point, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to read this as a comedic portrayal of a feminized man trembling before the ridiculously large phallic weapon of a masculine woman of “dread customs.” Continuing Prünhilt’s inversion of gender roles, Gunther is now the one afraid of being penetrated; he comes off as the fearful bride on the wedding night, she as the fierce and manly conqueror. The inverse relationship between the gender characters of Prünhilt and Gunther – the more masculine she is, the less so Gunther becomes – fits with Cooper’s reading of the Plutarch’s Lives: “when women and their influence are discussed, their appearance should be read as a sign that a man’s character is in question, whether its virtue is to be defended or its dissolution illustrated.” Throughout the scenes with Prünhilt, we witness the “dissolution” of Gunther’s masculinity and the threat that such withering presents not only to his status, but that of his male followers. In Cooper’s words, the construction of Prünhilt’s masculinity is “shaped rhetorically to suit a judgment of male character.”

Karin Dor as Brunhild (Prünhilt)
Die Nibelungen (1966/1967)

Along with the first demonstration of Prünhilt’s inhuman strength, we find the first branding of Prünhilt as someone outside the Christian world. The sight of her massive shield moves Hagen to ask, “What now, King Gunther? Are we to lose our lives like this? She whom you desire to woo there is the very Devil’s wife.” When he sees the massive stone that Prünhilt is to throw (which twelve of her heroes can scarcely carry), Hagen laments, “What a beloved the king has found! She could be the foul fiend’s bride in Hell!” Much later, after Prünhilt has humiliated him in their bedroom back in Worms, Gunter complains to Sivrit that he has “invited the foul fiend home to my house.” Prünhilt is the “Devil’s wife” (tiuvéles wîp), “the foul fiend’s bride in Hell” (in der helle sîn des übeln tiubels brut) and the “foul fiend” (übeln tiuvel). In the second half of the poem, Etzel’s men are simply referred to as “heathen” (heiden); they are simply placed into a non-Christian category. Prünhilt, however, is characterized in a more extreme manner, as one who is actually of the demonic world. It is beyond the scope of this article to trace connections to pre-Christian Germanic religious figures, but Prünhilt does seem to be at least figuratively associated with the old gods “and all fiends which are their companions” (ende allum thêm unholdum thê hira genôtas sint). Over the course of the poem, the characters are eight times mentioned or described going to church; there is no mention of Christian structures or activity during the heroes’ sojourn in Iceland. In light of the above, and given the Christian missionary practice of recasting figures of heathen cosmology as devils, we can at least say that Prünhilt is associated with the heathen world.

When Prünhilt overhears Hagen’s lament for his missing sword, she replies:
Smiling, she looked over her shoulder: “Since he thinks himself so valiant, let their armour be brought in to them. Put the sharp swords in the warriors’ hands!”
When they had regained their swords as the maiden had ordered, valiant Dancwart blushed for joy. “Now let them play whatever games they will,” said that man of great mettle. “Gunther will be unvanquished now that we have our swords.”
"The Trial of Strength" by Howard Pyle (1905)

While Prünhilt’s sarcastic remarks are spoken in the grandiose mode of the male hero, Dancwart’s blushing for joy (von vréuden wart rôt) seems more appropriate to a “lovely lady.” His excitement at having his sword returned makes no sense in terms of plot, as the contest is between Prünhilt and Gunther only; in any case, she has over seven hundred men to their three. The joy seems to spring more from having some small part of his manhood returned in this situation of inverted gender roles. The comedic nature of the exchange lies in this reversal of gender roles; Prünhilt plays the part of the knight giving a trifle to a lady while Dancwart plays the part of the blushing virgin receiving a gift. That the trifle being handed to him by the actual virgin is the symbol of his own masculinity only adds to the humor of inversion.

In a prefiguration of his actions on Gunther’s behalf in the bedroom, Sivrit secretly appears in his invisibility cloak, holds Gunther’s shield, and tells the king, “You go through the motions now, and I will do the deeds.” Gunther’s acceptance of Sivrit’s secret help – which goes against the heroic ethos of face-to-face confrontation – can be read in light of Shaw’s discussion of the Christian virgin Perpetua:
It is no accident that Perpetua’s brother, who came to address her as Domina soror (“Lady sister”) while she was in prison, believed that she had been raised to a special “great status” (magna dignatio) and that she had extraordinary powers to command connections with the Lord. Even her otherwise hostile father was forced to this recognition of her status, to see her not as daughter, but as domina.
Prünhilt has both “great status” (as the queen of a foreign nation) and “extraordinary powers” (her ability to physically beat all suitors). Against his will, Gunther is forced to recognize her superior status and accept Sivrit’s help in subduing her, both here and in the later bedroom scene. More than any physical desire, it is the fact that Prünhilt stands at a higher societal level than Gunther that is the motivating force behind his drive to subdue her. As will become clear below, it is Sifrit’s liminal status that enables Gunther to engage his guest’s services to bolster his own social status.

"The Maiden Hurled Her Spear"
by Granville Fell (1908)

As the contest begins, Prünhilt throws the javelin hard at the shield held by Sivrit in front of Gunther:
The fire leapt up from the steel, as if blown by the wind. The stout javelin’s blade pierced right through the steel, so that fire was seen to spark from the chainmail. At the power of the throw both those strong men staggered. Were it not for the cloak of invisibility they would have died on the spot. 
Blood broke from valiant Sivrit’s mouth.
Penetration, la petite mort, blood – again, the sexual imagery is fairly obvious. Prünhilt’s status as penetrator is reinforced as Sivrit throws the javelin back, thinking, “I do not want to pierce the fair maiden.” He throws it with the blunt end of the shaft forward; it knocks Prünhilt to the ground, winning the round for Gunther. Sivrit also illicitly wins the other parts of the contest on Gunther’s behalf, throwing the stone and leaping after it while carrying the king. Whether hiding behind Sivrit or being carried by him, Gunther remains the most traditionally feminine character of the triangle.

Upon her defeat, Prünhilt announces to her men that they are now subject to King Gunther; “Then those valiant men laid their swords on the ground. They knelt at the feet of powerful Gunther from the land of Burgundy – bold men in great numbers.” Through the wiles of Sivrit, Gunther has asserted his manhood over Prünhilt (at least for the time being), and he receives the concomitant social result of a rise in hierarchical status. When Sivrit shows up at the hall and pretends to have missed the contest, he is informed of the outcome:
“Then happy am I at these tidings,” said Sir Sivrit, “that your pride is laid so low here, that someone has lived to be master over you.”
"Brunhilda Was Thrown to the Ground"
Artist unknown (1905)

This celebration of throwing down Prünhilt’s pride (hôhverte) hearkens back to Sivrit’s earlier characterization of the queen as unnaturally haughty (übermuot, “overbold”). The use of übermuot as a pejorative term for Prünhilt parallels the use of the Old English equivalent ofermōde to criticize Byrhtnōð in The Battle of Maldon, the poem describing the confrontation between Anglo-Saxons and Vikings in 991. Tolkien argued that this “defect of character” in Byrhtnōð was “not only formed by nature, but moulded also by ‘aristocratic tradition,’ enshrined in tales and verse of poets now lost save for echoes... Magnificent perhaps, but certainly wrong.” There is no sense of “magnificence” in Sivrit’s characterization of Prünhilt. Byrhtnōð’s ofermōde is admirable, and his doom is lamented; Prünhilt’s übermuot is despicable, and her overthrow is celebrated. The heroic code, it seems, does not apply to women warriors.

Christian groups of the second century suggested that a life of perpetual virginity could break “the endlessly repeated cycle of birth and death,” that “the human body could stand out as a clearly marked locus of free choice.” Prünhilt has existed in this suspended time of virginity, repeating the wooing contest “countless times.” With this first defeat, she is pulled out of the eternal recurrence of the pagan ritual moment and forced into the teleological world of Christian marriage. The immediate effect of this first reassertion of gender hierarchy is that, when she leaves for Worms to marry Gunther, Prünhilt takes “eighty-six women along with her, and also some hundred maidens, most fair of person.” She no longer commands armies of men, but only an entourage of women of the court.

Hannah Ralph as a skeptical Brunhild (Pruünhilt)
Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924)

After being verbally rebuffed by Prünhilt when he tries to have sex with her during the journey, Gunther makes his move after the celebrations in Worms. While the poet draws a modest curtain over Sivrit’s pleasant and “noble love-making” (edelen minnen) with Kriemhilt, stating that he will “tell you no more of what he did with the lady,” he welcomes us into Gunther’s bedroom with seeming relish. It is this sustained exposition of the details of Gunther and Prünhilt’s sex life that, I think, justifies the above reading of the contest in gendered and sexualized terms.

Despite the strong emphasis placed on Prünhilt’s virginity in the poem, little weight seems attached to the casual statement (introducing the bedroom scene) that Gunther “had often had greater comfort lying with other women.” Virginity, it seems, is not as important a state for a king as it is for a queen. The focus is immediately centered on Prünhilt’s body (lîp) and Gunther’s desire to take her virginity: “He thought he was going to caress her lovely body – he was, however, a long way away from making her his wife as yet!” Gunther has surprisingly high expectations for someone who won a wife by cheating to win her in a physical contest:
He lay down close to her, full of joy. The hero embraced the lovely lady. He could have made love to her charmingly if the noble lady had let him. Yet she grew so very angry that it troubled him. He had thought to find a friend – instead he found the enmity of a foe.
The encounter quickly becomes a contest of wills, with Prünhilt setting the terms, as she did on the field of contest.
She said: “Noble knight, you must let it be. What you’re hoping for can’t come to pass. I want to remain a maiden still – be sure you mark this! – until I find out the truth of the matter.”
Hearing of her unchanged desire to “remain a maiden” (noch magt belîben), Gunther attempts to rape her: “Then Gunther grew hostile towards her. He struggled for her love and tore her clothes apart.” He does not get very far: she binds his hands and feet with her girdle, carries him (as Sivrit had done earlier) across the room and hangs him on a nail in the wall. Gunther’s will is dominated by Prünhilt’s, again in a sexually humiliating way (emphasized by her use of the girdle).

"Brunhild Watching Gunther, Suspended from
the Ceiling on Their Wedding Night"
Henry Fuseli (1807)

After Prünhilt “forbade his love-making” (die mine si im verbôt), there is no doubt who plays the dominant part:
Then he who had thought himself master began to plead with her: “Untie my bonds now, most noble queen. I don’t believe I’ll ever be the master of you, fair lady, and shall seldom lie close to you again!” She did not care how he fared, for she lay in all comfort there. He had to hang there all through the night until day broke, and the bright morning shone through the windows. If his body had ever possessed strength, there was little of it left.
Gunther’s acknowledgement of Prünhilt’s superiority underscores that his attempted rape was about both power (meister, gesigen) and sex (nâhen mêr geligen). His binding by Prünhilt inverts ancient symbols of married relationships; in his discussion of the anonymous Liber ad Gregoriam, Brown writes:
The pious woman could turn a large Roman household into a holy place. But, in order to do this, she must accept the laws of the household. She had been given over entirely to her husband, “bought by the marriage contract and bound in as many knots as you have parts of the body.” Yet docility combined with the frank use of “the embraces permitted to marital good cheer,” would enable her to establish her own religious authority in the home.
In this first bedroom scene, all of these conditions are turned upside down. Gunther, not his wife, is the one whose body is bound in knots, and he is the one who exhibits docility. Prünhilt, on the other hand, refuses to “accept the laws of the household,” to give herself over to her husband, or “to be bought by the marriage contract.” The Nibelungenlied poet presents a portrait of a marriage in which societal expectations of married life have been thrown into chaos.

Puünhilt & Gunther by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1828)

Prünhilt’s will and body are portrayed as clearly superior to those of Gunther; after tying him up, she sleeps without a care while he frets about status as his already small strength ebbs away. Prünhilt’s morning greeting exposes the public meaning of the night’s private events:
“Now tell me, Sir Gunther, would it trouble you at all,” said the beautiful maiden, “if your chamberlains were to find you tied up by a lady’s hand?” 
The noble knight replied: “That would cost you dear! Nor would I have much honour by it,” said the bold king. “For the sake of your own repute let me come over to you now. Since my love-making causes you such grief, I shall never again touch your clothes with my hands.”
As with Prünhilt’s taunt about loss of honor (êre) before the Icelandic contest, the social status implications of defeat by a woman are emphasized, now with the suggestive sexual elements openly stated. Discussing martial sexual relations in the Passio Anastasiae, Cooper writes that
the text explicitly states that [Anastasia’s] troubles with her husband begin “at the time when she left off relations with her husband (mariti consortio), on the pretext of a feigned illness.” (There is little doubt as to the sexual meaning of mariti consortium here.) This supports the inference above that it is the disruption of conjugal relations – or the affront to honor that publication of the fact implies – which causes the wrath of [her husband] Publius.
Iain Paterson as Gunther in the Metropolitan Opera's
2013 production of Richard Wagner's Twilight of the Gods

It is this “affront to honor that publication of the fact implies” that motivates Gunther. The fear of losing public status is a far greater motivator for his actions than any simple bodily lust. Being bested by Prünhilt pushes Gunther far enough down the social ladder that he can be judged by his own serving men. A similar affront to social pecking order motivates Prünhilt’s bedroom resistance; she is concerned with the status of Sivrit, whom she believes to be Gunther’s vassal in a socially inappropriate marriage to the king’s sister. However, Gunther’s attempt to make Prünhilt’s repute (tugende) the issue at hand gains no traction; it is his status that is at stake here.

The status element is foregrounded in Gunther’s complaint to Sivrit the next day:
“I suffer disgrace and loss, for I have invited the foul fiend home to my house. When I thought to make love to her, she tied me up in tight bonds. She carried me over to a nail and hung me high up on the wall. There I hung in fear throughout the night until daybreak, before she untied me. How softly she then lay! Let this complaint be made to you in confidence and friendship!”
This confession of impotence is necessarily in secret, as public knowledge of his failings in the bedroom would have serious status consequences for Gunther. In the chapter on “Private Lives, Public Meanings” in The Virgin and the Bride, Cooper writes:
A man’s ability manifestly to dissociate himself from the weaknesses which made for social instability was a critical element in his claim to honor, a claim which needed constantly to be justified, both within the brotherhood of aristocratic men and in the larger arena of a society in which these were by definition a minority. Reported performance (whether of private austerities or public benefactions) was the coin by which honor was purchased; yet the sphere of the private bore particular semiotic importance.
Paul Richter as Siegfried (Sivrit) in Die Nibelungen (1924)

The fear of public disgrace and loss of honor is expressed to Sivrit “within the brotherhood of aristocratic men” as Gunther calls upon the reciprocal responsibilities of his guest. In order to prevent report of his failure to perform reaching “the larger arena of society” and affecting his status, he gladly accepts Sivrit’s aid. Without the intercession of Sivrit, Gunther’s sexual impotence and belittling by his defiant wife in private would have serious consequences for his power and status in public. Clover discusses a similar “snarl of gender crossings” in a scene from the Icelandic Gísla saga that parallels the scene of Gunther’s bedroom humiliation. She unpacks the usage of two Old Norse terms used in the saga: blauðr (with meanings and connotations of female, soft, weak, cowardly) and hvatr (male, vigorous, bold) as she discusses the female Auðr hitting the male Eyjólfr in the nose:
If her sex qualifies Auðr as blauðr, bloodying the nose of a person qualifies her as hvatr; and if being a man qualifies Eyjólfr as hvatr, having his nose bloodied qualifies him as blauðr, and having his nose bloodied by a creature he himself wishes to designate as blauðr by virtue of her sex qualifies him as blauðr in the extreme – which is, of course, the point of Auðr's reminder that he has been not only struck in the nose, but struck in the nose by a woman.
This “reminder” by Auðr has a function similar to that of Prünhilt’s morning question to Gunther on what his chamberlains would think of his sorry situation. For him to be bound is bad enough. To be bound in his own bedroom is worse. To be bound by his wife is unforgivable.

To be concluded in Part Three.

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