A first reading of the saga

This A First Reading series gives you an extended introduction to the Thidrekssaga. This page concentrates on giving you a broad overview of the text, while the next pages give you a guided tour through the saga.

Reading the saga can be quite a bit of work if you are new to it, since it is structured according to medieval tastes, and not to modern ones. The saga is frequently and deliberately long-winded: it tells the history not only of Dietrich's family and some of his heroes, but also of other kings that play a, sometimes minor, part in the saga, before coming to the actual story. In fact, there is a case to be made for the actual story starting only in chapter 171 out of 441, when we are about 40% into the saga.

Although most — though not all! — individual stories are well-defined and perfectly readable, their relevance to the saga as a whole is not always clear, and sometimes there seems to be no connection between one story and the preceding and following ones, jumping from topic to topic and giving your reading experience a disjointed character.

A First Reading helps you make sense of it all by offering a guided tour, with commentary, through the better parts of the saga. You can dive straight in, or you can start by reading the introductory material below on this page.

Two halves

The saga consists of two halves. In chapters 1-222 Dietrich von Bern, his heroes, and a few other royal families are introduced, sometimes at great length. Then the saga writer brings Dietrich and his heroes together for a feast, where they decide to ride to Bertangaland to battle king Isung, his eleven sons, and his banner bearer Sigfrid.

The first part is carefully planned and executed — though to medieval taste, not to modern — and it is clear that one mind oversaw its composition, although a change in handwriting after chapter 196 suggests the first writer could not finish his job.

The second part of the saga, chapters 223-441, tells what happens after: some heroes get married, and then Dietrich's uncle Ermenrik takes over his realm and Dietrich flees to Attila's court. He tries to return to Bern, but fails. Then Attila marries Grimhild, Siegfried's widow and sister of the Niflungen. She wants revenge for the death of her first husband, invites her brothers to Attila's court, and then manages to get Attila and the Niflungen to fight. Dietrich kills Hagen, the Niflungen's evil genius (and one of the most interesting characters in the saga). Then Dietrich returns to Bern, becomes a christian, meets one of his old heroes, and dies in two different ways.

This second part is much more fractured. About two fifths are about Dietrich, and that part is clearly a biography, though it sometimes lacks the purpose and composition of part 1. About one fifth is about the Niflungen, and that is clearly a single, gripping story. The remaining two fifths, especially chapters 223-275, are a rather disjointed series of stories around some of the heroes of part 1, Dietrich himself, and some other people. It is fairly certain the sources of some parts — especially those involving romantic love — are much younger than those of the rest of the saga.

The five kingdoms

The saga mostly takes place in five kingdoms, with an occasional trip to other lands. I find it impossible to ignore Ritter’s topographical identifications, so I picture the kingdoms in and around the Rhineland, as he does. But even if you follow the old geography, and the Thidrekssaga's heroes travel all over Europe, you still need to know about these five kingdoms:

  1. Amelungenland, where Dietrich and his family are kings. According to Ritter Dietrich was king in Bonn, and Ermenrik in Trier.
    The name 'Amelung(enland)' is a serious problem in the saga: it may mean something quite different than Dietrich's family and their realms. A few other heroes say they come from Amelungenland, but it is fairly clear they do not mean this kingdom. One hero is called Amelung, and he is neither from Amelungenland nor Dietrich’s relative.
  2. Hunnenland, where Attila is king. His capital is Soest in Westphalia; he even founds the town41. Geographically, this kingdom in the saga has nothing to do with the historical Hunnic kingdom. On the whole the Amelungen and Hunnen live in peace, except when Attila helps Dietrich return to Bern.
  3. Wilkinenland, where Osantrix and his family are kings. I vaguely locate it on the other side of Hunnenland as seen from Amelungenland, so more toward central Germany. There exists a more-or-less permanent state of war between the Wilkinen and the Hunnen.
  4. Niflungenland, where Gunther the Niflung is king. It is only mentioned in direct relation to the Niflungen. According to Ritter Gunther was king around Z├╝lpich.
  5. Bertangaland, the vaguest of the five, where Isung is king. The ruling families of the other four are properly introduced, but Isung is not. I’m not sure where it is located; Ritter's guess of Mecklenburg doesn't sound entirely right to me. Bertangaland only figures prominently twicefrom 193 on and from 350 on, if we discount a few later additions to the saga.

Theme: Introductions (1-170)

Despite the fact that the saga treats its material in roughly chronological order, it may be better to see the content as thematically ordered.

The first 40%, chapters 1-170 have Introductions as their theme. Medieval Icelandic and Norse sagas firmly believe in explaining who everyone is, with their family history, before the actual action begins. The Thidrekssaga is no exception, so a lot of people are introduced here.

The saga starts with Dietrich’s family from his grandfather Samson via Dietrich’s first adventure with his foster and teacher Hildebrand to the arrival of Heime, his first hero, in Bern. Dietrich is born in chapter 14, but chapters 21 to 89 do not concern him at all, although he is occasionally mentioned.

After the account of Dietrich's youth the saga jumps to an introduction of king Osantrix of Wilkinenland, his family, and a family of important followers of his, all of whom will play minor parts in what is to come. Then it moves on to king Attila of Hunnenland, who plays a more important role in the future and who is the son in law of Osantrix.

Then the saga introduces all of Dietrich's twelve heroes, although their treatment is rather unequal. Witig, the most important hero, is treated at length, starting with his father Wieland the Smith who forges the sword Mimung, which is quite important in several parts of the saga. Then Witig himself rides to Bern, fights Dietrich, and wins, thanks to Mimung. This is by far the best single story in the first part of the saga. Also, Dietrich himself reappears in the saga in chapter 90, when Witig arrives in Bern.

After this defeat Dietrich wants to find new fame and makes a journey where he defeats the hero Ecke and picks up Ecke's brother Fasold as a follower. Then the two of them save Sintram, a cousin of Hildebrand, of a dragon. Sintram also becomes Dietrich's follower.

Then the saga gives the fairly lengthy and sometimes confused story of Detlef the Dane, Dietrich's next hero. After that the saga seems to be done with introductions: only brief notes are made about the next few heroes to arrive at Dietrich's court.

These three large introductory stories, Witig, Fasold/Sintram, and Detlef, are quite different in atmosphere. Witig’s story is strong, character-driven, and to the point, and paints a convincing picture of two young hotheads eager for battle, and a wise man trying to reconcile them without impinging on their honour.

The journey where Dietrich finds Fasolf and Sintram starts quite mythically, with a nightly fight in a forest, and then jumps to some fairly unbelievable hunting stories. The Detlef story is a jumble of themes, but the part where he arrives at Dietrich's court is a burlesque more than anything else.

It is quite likely that these three stories were originally separate poems that were collated by the saga writer or his German source.

Chapters 134-151 break the Introductions theme: they tell a cohesive and chronological story about two wars, a quarrel between Heime and Witig about Mimung, and a search-and-rescue story. This part sometimes feels quite modern in the sense that the saga shifts between different stories but manages to keep them connected by an overarching story about the sword Mimung.

In 152-170 the saga switches back to introductions. We get Sigfrid's youth, which sometimes seems a parody of more serious Sigfrid stories, and a brief note about the Niflungen. Then the introductions theme ends.

Theme: The tournament (171-222)

In chapter 171 Dietrich and his twelve heroes come together at a feast, and they decide to ride to Bertangaland to fight king Isung, his eleven sons, and his standard bearer Sigfrid. This theme takes up chapters 171-222.

Along the way Witig defeats the giant Etger (a distant cousin of his), and when the heroes arrive in Bertangaland Sigfrid demands tribute for king Isung, consisting of the horse and shield of the hero Amelung. Amelung goes after Sigfrid and gets his horse and shield back. The saga says that Sigfrid defeats Amelung but then discovers they are related and allows himself to be bound to a tree while Amelung takes his stuff back.

Then comes the tournament itself, where most of Dietrich's heroes lose their fights. The exceptions are Amelung, who criticises Dietrich before winning his fight, Detlef, Witig, and Dietrich himself.

When Witig enters the field the score is 9-2 for Isung. He uses Mimung to wound his opponent seriously and then demands the release of all his companions in exchange for his opponent’s life; essentially resetting the sore to 0-0. Then Dietrich fights Sigfrid, and after two days of fighting he borrows Mimung from Witig, swears a vague oath that he won’t use the swordread 222 for yourself and uses Mimung anyway. After the first blow Sigfrid understands what Dietrich has done and surrenders. Thus Dietrich wins the tournament — but on a technicality, since his heroes won only 4 out of 13 combats.

Theme: Marriages (223-275)

Then comes the most confusing part of the saga. The theme of chapters 223-275, is marriage (and love), but the saga writer jumps from topic to topic and character to character, until we lose track entirely and just wait for tbe confusion to end.

Two fairly large parts, Herbort and Hilda (231-239) and Appolonius and Iron (245-275) are almost certainly based on much later storiesIt is possible that 269-275 are part of the original saga, but this is a fairly new idea of mine that I cannot yet defend properly, so we’ll ignore it here., when romantic love was already an accepted literary theme — romantic love is something we don’t encounter in the rest of the saga at all.

The rest consists of a bunch of marriages by heroes of Dietrich, the story how Hagen lost his eye, which involves two lovebirds fleeing Attila's court, and the two Niflungen marriages: Sigfrid and Grimhild, and Gunther and Brunhild. Finally, Witig marries a widow with some land and becomes a follower of Ermenrik.

To me, the most important information here is not how the heroes get married, but how they leave Dietrich's companionship.

My overeall theory about the middle part of the saga is this: Once Dietrich has gathered twelve heroes he goes to Bertangaland but loses the tournament against king Isung. His heroes are displeased with a lord who leads them to defeat and leave him one after the other, some of them by marrying. Then, when Dietrich has lost everyone except for Hildebrand and Wildeber, he is fatally weakened and his uncle Ermenrik attacks him and takes over his realm.

Theme: Dietrich's flight (276-341)

In chapters 276-341, the saga coalesces into a gripping account of Dietrich’s firther life. His uncle Ermenrik is pushed by his evil counselor Sibich to murder his family, and once most of them are dead he attacks Dietrich, who is not in a position to defend himself and flees ahead of Ermenrik’s troops to the court of Attila the Hun, where he stays for a long time. He has some clearly-delineated adventures in a war of Attila against the Wilkinen that earn him the gratitude of Attila and his wife Erka.

They thank him by giving him an army, as well as their two sons, to reconquer Bern. A big battle between Dietrich and Ermenrik takes place at GransportAccording to Ritter this is near Koblenz, and a lot of the remaining heroes die. Witig, who fights on Ermenrik's side, kills Attila's sons and Dietrich's brother. Dietrich becomes so angry that he breathes fire for the first time and chases Witig, who flees into the river and drowns (although there's a second version; see below). Thus Witig and Mimung disappear from the saga.

Dietrich is so upset about the death of Attila's son and his brother that he returns to Attila's court at Soest. The saga says he won the battle, but his reaction casts doubt on that. In any case his attempt at returning has failed.

Theme: The Niflungen (342-394)

Chapters 342-394 are the Niflungensaga; the best single story in the entire Thidrekssaga. 342-348 tells about how Gunther and Hagen the Niflungen become jealous of Sigfrid, how the queens Grimhild and Brunhild quarrel, and how Hagen kills Sigfrid and throws his body in Grimhild's bed.

Then the saga interrupts the action by a completely unrelated story about the Wilkinen-king Hertnit, Osantrix' successor, who together with his witch wife wages war on king Isung of Bertangaland in which Isung, Detlef and Fasold are killed. It’s unclear what this part is doing here; maybe the saga writer wanted to impress upon the reader that time passes: there is about seven to eight years between Sigfrid's death and Grimhild's revenge.

Chapters 356-394 are about Grimhild's revenge. King Attila's wife dies, and he remarries with Grimhild. Seven years later she invites her brothers to king Attila's court, where she hopes to have them all killed. She has trouble starting a fight, and in the end sacrifices her own son by Attila and manages to get Hagen to behead him. A fight breaks out.

Dietrich still lives at Attila's court and initially tries to stay neutral. But the Niflungen first kill Attila's nephew Osid, which causes jarl Rodinger to enter the fight, and when Rodinger is also killed Dietrich can no longer stay on the sidelines. He leads the final assault on Hagen (Gunther is aleady dead by then), breathes fire for the second time, and kills him.

Chapter 394 is entirely about the saga's sources: stories told independently by men from Bremen and Soest.

Theme: Dietrich's return (395-441)

The final part of the saga, chapters 395-441, is book-ended by two Dietrich stories, but in between it goes all over the place again.

After the Niflungensaga Dietrich decides to return to Bern, aided only by Hildebrand. On the way they hear Ermenrik has died and his evil counselor Sibich has succeeded him. Also they hear that Alebrand, Hildebrand's son, is now jarl of Bern. They go to Bern and Hildebrand and Alebrand fight, but in the end they reconcile and Alebrand joins them and brings Bern over to Dietrich's side.

A battle between Dietrich and Sibich takes place, and Sibich is killed by Alebrand. Then Dietrich becomes king of Rome and had thus united his grandfather's realm. Hildebrand and he become christians, then Hildebrand dies of old age.

Then comes a weird part (chapters 416-422) about how a king Hernit is killed by a dragen, and Dietrich finds his armour, helps his widow against some bandits, and marries her. This may be an interpolation.

Then comes another side story: In his last night alive Hagen sired a son, who grows up at Attila's court. When he is twelve years old he lures Attila to a cave where the treasure of the Niflungen is supposed to be. He closes the cave after Attila, who dies of hunger and thirst sat on a pile of gold. After Attila's death Dietrich also becomes king of Hunnenland.

Then it turns out that Heime has entered a monastery. He fights to defend the monastery from a giant, and Dietrich hears about this, vistis him, and convinces him to enter his service again. Together they loot the monastery. Then Heime is sent to get tribute from another giant but is killed.

Finally, there are two stories about Dietrich's death. In the first he is in his bathhouse when he sees a deer he wants to chase. He mounts his horse, but it leads him far away. He calls to a servant that he is being taken to Hell, but swears by Christ and the Virgin Mary he'll return.

The other story says that he wants to avenge his brother and Attila's son on Witig. Dietrich sneaks into Witig's house and takes Mimung. Then they fight. Witig is killed, but Dietrich is badly wounded. He tries to return home, throws Mimung in a lake or river, but collapses on the way, lies ill for a few days and then dies.


Now you can start the series with Dietrich’s youth.