Epic! Homer and Nibelungenlied in Translation

Exhibition in the Voltaire Room in the Taylor Institution Library from 20 to 27 May 2024

Download the exhibition catalogue

To accompany the workshop ‘The Reading and Reception of the Homeric Poems and the Nibelungenlied in Germany and Europe from the Eighteenth Century to the Present

Dieses Gedicht hat etwas iliadisches’
‘There is something Iliad-like about this poem’

Johann Jakob Bodmer (1757)

With these words, the Swiss critic Johann Jakob Bodmer set the tone for public perceptions of the Nibelungenlied for years to come. The thirteenth-century German epic had been rediscovered just two years earlier, and Bodmer was its first editor, though he printed only a section of the text. In the course of his work, he thoroughly reshaped the material according to his own theories on epic. This was informed by his collaboration with Johann Jakob Breitinger, in which the two men had already laid the groundwork for a new understanding of Homer, focusing less on authoritative rules than on supposed original ‘genius’. The mid-eighteenth century thus marks a shared starting point for the reception of both Homer and the Nibelungenlied.

A medley of Nibelungen material – presented with Ganymed on the cover!

Reading, translating, and adapting either text has often meant invoking the other. Not only has the Nibelungenlied been repeatedly adapted in the metre of Homer, the hexameter, but Homer, too, has been translated three times in ways that imitate the form of the Nibelungenlied. Labelling the story of Siegfried and Kriemhild a ‘German Iliad’ became a trope, and not just in the German-speaking world, but in the anglophone world too. When William Morris wrote of ‘the Great Story of the North, which should be to all our race what the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks’, he was referring primarily to the Old Norse Völsunga Saga, but this was often incorporated into English-language retellings of the Nibelungenlied, particularly where it was felt that there were gaps in the narrative. The supposed connection between the Nibelungen material and Homer also reached the United States where, in 1892, a school reader entitled The Story of the German Iliad, taught sixth- and seventh-grade students about the ‘Rhine-gold’, Siegfried’s death and Kriemhilda’s revenge.

Playlist of some of the books featured in the exhibition, presented by Mary Boyle, Philip Flacke, and Henrike Lähnemann
  1. Das Nibelungenlied, nach der Ausgabe von Karl Bartsch herausgegeben von Helmut de Boor, 22. revidierte und von Roswitha Wisniewski ergänzte Auflage, Mannheim 1988 (Deutsche Klassiker des Mittelalters). Private loan (Henrike). 
  2. Homers Odyssee, neu gefaßt von Hermann Hoepke mit 15 Linolschnitten von Hella Ackermann, Baden-Baden/Brüssel/Köln 1975. Private loan (Henrike). 
  3. Das Nibelungenlied, uebersetzt von Gotthard Oswald Marbach, mit Holzschnitten nach Originalzeichnungen von Eduard Bendemann und Julius Hübner, Denkmal zur vierten Säcularfeier der Buchdruckerkunst, Leipzig 1840. Private loan (Henrike). 
  4. Tho[ma]s Cartwright, Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer. A Twice-Told Tale, London 1907 (Every Child’s Library). The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford: 930 f.107 (Mary). 
  5. Lydia Hands, Golden Threads from an Ancient Loom. Das Nibelunglied, adapted to the use of young readers, with fourteen wood engravings by Julius Schnorr, of Carolsfeld, London/New York 1880. Private loan (Mary). 
  6. Ilias, in der Sprache der Zehnjährigen erzählt von Helene Otto, mit 6 Vollbildern von C[arl] Bertling, Leipzig 1904; and The Tale of Troy, retold from the Ancient authors by Roger Lancelyn Green, illustrated by Betty Middleton-Sandford, London 1965. Both private loan (Philip). 
  7. Homers Odüßee, übersetzt von Johann Heinrich Voß, Hamburg 1781. Private loan (Henrike). 
  8. Franz Fühmann, Die Sage von Trojas Fall, Rostock 1996. The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford: SD.2696.A.1 (Henrike). 
  9. Das Nibelungen Lied, or Lay of the last Nibelungers, translated into English verse after Carl Lachmann’s text by Jonathan Birch, Berlin 1848. The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford: 28849 d.49 (Mary). 
  10. Walhalla. Germanische Götter- und Heldensagen, nach den hochdeutschen Fassungen von Simrock und Wägner bearbeitet von Walter Heichen, Berlin 1943. Private loan (Henrike). 
  11. Ulrike Draesner, Nibelungen. Heimsuchung, mit den Illustrationen von Carl Otto Czeschka, Stuttgart 2016. Private loan (Henrike). 
  12. Homer’s Werke von Johann Heinrich Voß, Stereotyp-Ausgabe, erster Band, mit einer Karte von Troja, Stuttgart/Tübingen 1844. The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford: 52.A.1 (Philip). 
  13. Mary MacGregor, Stories of Siegfried, told to the children, with pictures by Granville Fell, London/New York 1908; and Jeanie Lang, Stories from the Iliad; or, The Siege of Troy, told to the children, with pictures by W. Heath Robinson, London/New York [n.d.]; and Jeanie Lang, Stories from the Odyssey, told to the children, with pictures by W. Heath Robinson, London/Edinburgh [n.d.]. All Private loan (Mary). 
  14. Deutsche Heldensagen, herausgegeben von Edmund Mudrak, Reutlingen 1955. Private loan (Henrike). 
  15. Das Nibelungenlied, neu erzählt von Franz Fühmann, mit Materialien, zusammengestellt von Isolde Schnabel, Stuttgart/Leipzig 2005 (Taschenbücherei Texte & Materialien). Private loan (Henrike). 
  16. Anonymous, The Linden Leaf; or, The Story of Siegfried. Retold from the Nibelungen Lied, London et al 1907. The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford: 28849 f.4 (Mary). 
  17. ‘Die Ersten Gesänge der Ilias’, in [Johann Jakob] Bodmer: Calliope, vol. 2. (Zürich 1767), pp. 157–306; and ‘Die Rache der Schwester’, in [Johann Jakob] Bodmer: Calliope, vol. 2. (Zürich 1767), pp. 307–372. The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford: FINCH.U.271 (Philip). 

This exhibition reveals the different stages and trends, the key impulses and some idiosyncratic approaches to the translation and adaption of Homer and the Nibelungenlied. It showcases material from the Taylor Institution Library’s collections, alongside additions from the Bodleian Library and some items on private loan. Building on the 2022 exhibition Violent Victorian Medievalism, curated by Mary Boyle, it shines particular light on adaptations for children and to the fraught topic of women and violence. The books featured tell the story of the various attempts to assert ownership of these epics. This was not simply a matter of translating the texts, but of claiming them for different national and pre-national identities, for specific ideas of masculinity and femininity, for militaristic agendas and racist ideologies, but also, more recently, for feminist, queer, and anti-colonial causes. The exhibits will be accompanied by audio recordings of snippets from different translations and adaptations, demonstrating that there will always be fresh voices and new perspectives on Homer and the Nibelungenlied.

Title image: Johann Heinrich Füssli: Kriemhild mourns Siegfried (1805)

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