Sigurd (or Siegfried) is a hero from Germanic folklore. The following is from the upcoming book Myths and Legends, with artwork by Howard Pyle (1853–1911), from The Story of Siegfried (1882).
Once upon a time in the Netherlands—in Xanten, a wonderful castle on the river Rhine—there lived a king and queen, Siegmund and Signy. They were known far and wide, but their son, the hero Sigurd, was more celebrated than themselves. As a boy, he performed so many daring feats that his bravery was widely spoken of throughout the Germanic lands. The two most remarkable of these were Sigurd’s slaying of a terrifying monster, known as the “Dragon of the Linden Tree,” and his capture of the Nibelung treasure. The Nibelung treasure was ancient, and no matter how much was taken from it, the quantity was never reduced.
This happened before Sigurd reached the age of manhood. When it was time for him to be knighted, King Siegmund sent invitations around the country and a great ceremony was held. Sigurd, solemnly with his sword at his side, was permitted to take his place among the warriors of the kingdom, and a tournament took place after. Sigurd won every challenge and event, and many warriors tried but failed to match their skill against his. The festivities lasted seven full days.
Once the guests departed, Sigurd asked permission from his parents to travel to Burgundy and seek as his bride Gudrun, a maiden of whose beauty and loveliness he had heard. Gunther, the king of Burgundy, recognized the young hero approaching, went out to meet him, and politely inquired the reason for his visit, but was dismayed when Sigurd challenged him to combat over claim to the land and the allegiance of the vanquished. Neither Gunther nor his knights accepted the challenge, and Gunther and his brother persisted with offers of hospitality.
Sigurd stayed a year in Gunther’s castle, but never caught a glimpse of the fair maiden Gudrun, though she often admired his strength and handsomeness from behind the palace windows.
Sigurd’s small army marched into Saxony and routed twenty thousand soldiers of the enemy. All of the men fought valiantly, but none more than Sigurd.
One day a messenger arrived from King Ludeger of Saxony and King Ludegast of Denmark bringing news of an invasion. Gunther was fearful, but the brave Sigurd came to his aid and said if Gunther gave him one thousand brave men he would repel the enemy. Gunther obliged, and Sigurd’s small army marched into Saxony and routed twenty thousand soldiers of the enemy. All of the men fought valiantly, but none more than Sigurd.
When the hero returned, a feast was held in his honor, and Gudrun, Ute, and the other ladies of the court were invited to a tournament. It was there that Sigurd first saw the fair maiden Gudrun—her beauty beyond what he had imagined—and was delighted further to learn that he had been appointed her escort. On the way, Gudrun thanked Sigurd for the noble work he had done, and Sigurd vowed that he would always serve her brothers out of his love for her.
Soon after the tournament, Gunther announced his intent to win for his wife Brunhild, the princess of Iceland, who had vowed to marry no man but the one that could surpass her in jumping, throwing a stone, and casting a spear. Gunther asked Sigurd go with him, and promised in return for his services the hand of Gudrun. Sigurd quickly agreed, and advised Gunther that only Hagen and Dankwart should go with them, and so the four set sail for Iceland in a small ship. On the way, Sigurd told the others to introduce him solely as Gunther’s servant, but when Brunhild saw Sigurd’s large stature and great strength, she thought it was he who had come to woo her, and was therefore upset when he helped Gunther dismount from his horse. As Sigurd entered the hall, she came to meet him, but Sigurd drew away, saying that his duty was to his master Gunther alone.
Brunhild had prepared an evening contest, where men staggered under the weight of her shield and spear, as Gunther, Hagen, and Dankwart trembled. Sigurd, meanwhile, donned his tarnkappe, or invisible cloak, and told Gunther to do as he say.
The combat recommenced, and Brunhild threw her spear with such force that the two heroes fell back, but before she could cry out in victory, Sigurd caught the spear and flung it back so hard that the princess collapsed to the ground. Undaunted, she found a huge stone and threw it ahead, then leaped and landed beside it. But as she did so, Sigurd, unseen by Brunhild, seized the stone and flung it farther still, then lifted Gunther into the air with him and landed by it. Brunhild knew right away that she had found her master.
“Come here my kin and followers,” she announced, “and acknowledge my superior. I am no longer your mistress—Gunther is your lord.”
The wedding was arranged, and afterward Gunther and his bride were escorted back to Iceland by a thousand Nibelung warriors Sigurd brought together for the occasion. At the banquet held upon their return, the impatient Sigurd reminded Gunther of his promise of Gudrun, but Brunhild told Gunther that his only sister should not be given to a servant. Gunther nonetheless gave his consent and the marriage took place, the two bridal couples sitting side by side, where both Gudrun and Brunhild frowned unhappily.
Brunhild was not pleased with here husband and preferred Sigurd, for on their wedding night Brunhild had bound Gunther with her belt, hung him in the corner of her room, and let him hang until morning. When he was released, Gunther sought out Sigurd and told him of the disgraceful affair.
Sigurd later, after some thought, donned his invisible cloak one night and entered the chamber of Gunther and Brunhild. He blew out the candles, grabbed Brunhild’s hands, and wrestled with her until she pleaded for mercy.
“Great king,” she said. “I will henceforth be your dutiful wife and do nothing to anger you, my lord and master.”
Having achieved his purpose, Sigurd left, but took Brunhild’s belt and ring. These he carried with him until he and Gudrun returned to Xanten on the Rhine.
Sigurd’s parents, Siegmund and Signy, abdicated the throne in favor of their son, and for ten years Sigurd and Gudrun reigned. When they were invited to visit Gunther and Brunhild, they accepted and left their son in the care of the Nibelung.
Brunhild received Gudrun graciously, but she was jealous at heart and wanted Gudrun to acknowledge her as a superior. One day they had an argument, with Gudrun declaring that her husband was without equal in all of the world, and Brunhild responding that as Gunther’s vassal Sigurd was inferior. Gudrun avowed in anger to publicly assert her rank, and the two queens parted in rage and proceeded to dress in the best clothes they had. Accompanied by their ladies-in-waiting they met at the church door. Brunhild told Gudrun stand aside while she entered, but Gudrun refused. A storm of words followed, until Gudrun declared that Brunhild was an unfaithful wife.
“You love Sigurd more than Gunther,” Gudrun said. “Here is your belt and your ring, which my husband gave to me,” showing her what Sigurd had given her when he confided to her the story of Gunther’s wooing.
Brunhild summoned Gunther, who sent for Sigurd. The latter swore that the words of his wife were untrue, and that Brunhild had never loved him, nor he her.
“This quarrel is disgraceful,” Sigurd said. “I will teach my wife better manners for the future.”
Gunther promised to do likewise, and they dispersed, but Brunhild remained insulted and longed for revenge. Hagen, finding her in tears, sought to avenge her, and continually reminded Gunther of the insult to his wife. The king at first ignored it, but at last consented to an attack on Sigurd.
Gunther asked the great hero to help him in a war he pretended an old enemy Ludeger was about to bring upon him. Sigurd consented, but Gudrun was deeply worried out of love for her husband—in her distress, disclosing to Hagen that Sigurd was invulnerable except in one spot, between his shoulder blades, where the dragon’s blood had not touched him.
“Never fear,” said Hagen, “I will protect him, but sew a tiny cross on Sigurd’s shirt over the vulnerable spot, so that I know where to shield him.”
Gudrun said she would, and Hagen departed, secretly pleased as he took the news to Gunther.
Sigurd was just as skilled a hunter as he was a warrior, and while lunch was being prepared he scoured the forest, slew several wild boars, caught a bear alive, and in the spirit of mischief turned it loose on the guests.
The day came for Sigurd to leave his queen. He spoke to her and calmly comforted her and kissed her lips.
“Dear heart,” he said, “why these tears? I shall not be gone long.”
Gudrun was thinking of what she had told Hagen, and wept and wept in disregard of any comforted.
When Sigurd joined Gunther’s party, he was surprised to hear the rebellion had already been put down and he was invited to join a hunt instead of a battle. Sigurd was just as skilled a hunter as he was a warrior, and while lunch was being prepared he scoured the forest, slew several wild boars, caught a bear alive, and in the spirit of mischief turned it loose on the guests. Then, tired and thirsty, he sat and called for a drink.
No wine was on hand, as it had been taken to another part of the forest. Hagen pointed to a spring nearby, and Sigurd proposed a race, offering to run in full armor against the others without armor or weapons. Despite the handicap, Sigurd reached the spring first. Polite as always, he told his host Gunther to drink first as he disarmed. Sigurd stooped over the spring to drink, and as he did so, Hagen glided up from behind and drove a spear into his body at the spot where Gudrun embroidered the fatal mark.
Sigurd struggled, but found only his shield within reach, which he flung with such might at his murderer that it knocked him down. Exhausted, the hero fell back on the grass, cursing the treachery of Gunther and Hagen. Curses soon gave way to thoughts of Gudrun, however, and though it was her brother Gunther who had betrayed him, his last words ordered him to care for her.
And the hero died.
The others agreed to carry Sigurd’s body back to Worms and say they had found it in the forest, but Hagen, bolder than the rest, ordered the bearers to deposit the corpse at Gudrun’s door, where she would see it as she went out to mass the next morning. Gudrun discovered her dead lord and fell senseless upon him, crying out that he had been murdered, for no foe in a fair fight could have killed the glorious knight.
A funeral was held, and Sigurd’s body was laid in state in the cathedral at Worms. There, many came to see it and express their sympathy for the widow Gudrun, who suspected treachery and refused to believe Gunther until those present at the hunt touched the body.
“Blood will flow afresh at the murderer’s touch,” she said.
One by one the hunters came forth, and when Hagen touched the slain warrior, the blood did indeed flow again from his wounds. At this, the Nibelung warriors wanted revenge, but Gudrun would not permit them to interrupt the funeral, so the mourning concluded and Sigurd’s body was laid to rest.