Xanten. - Siegfried

Siegfried,—and as we pronounce this glorious name, the hero looks forth at us with shining eyes, for was not Siegfried the perfect embodiment of all that was beautiful and good?

For centuries stories have been told and poems have been sung of the bold adventures of the young hero, whose energy only found satisfaction in victorious fights.

The original name of the small town on the lower Rhine now called Xanten, was "Ad Santos," "peace for the saints." It was thus named on account of the pious warriors of the Theban legion who in the fourth century had boldly died there for their creed under their leader, Victor.

At the time to which our story refers, a mighty stronghold formed the centre of the little town Xanten. A king called Siegmund with his wife Siegelinde and their son Siegfried lived there.

While a mere boy, Siegfried had already a kingly stature, and an almost untamable disposition of mind. When he was only thirteen years of age, his longing for grand deeds was so great that he found it impossible to remain inactive at home. From old songs and legends which the minstrels recited in his father's castle, he had heard so much of bold adventures and brilliant exploits performed by his forefathers, that he was most anxious to follow in their steps. He felt strong and valiant enough to undertake, like the heroes of old, dangerous journeys. Therefore young Siegfried left one day his ancestral halls, and wandered southwards along the clear blue river. He soon found an opportunity of testing his courage.

At the foot of the Seven Mountains lived a celebrated armourer called Mimer, renowned for making excellent swords. Our hero liked this warlike trade, and he asked the master to receive him as an apprentice, that he might learn the praiseworthy art of forging a good sword for himself. The armourer agreed, and Siegfried remained at Mimer's workshop. The journeymen with whom the youth had to work, soon learned the enormous strength of their new companion. The boy, often not knowing how to give expression to his desire for action, would take up his fellow-workmen, lift them high into the air, and drop them, not always softly, to the ground. Or when his anger was roused, he would imprint black and blue marks on their backs with his strong fists. Once he even smashed with one stroke of his hammer all the iron bars in the armoury, and knocked the anvil into the ground with a mighty blow.

Mimer looked on with dismay, amazed at the boy's almost supernatural strength, but fearing that Siegfried's wrath might some time turn against him, he thought to rid himself of his dangerous apprentice, and conceived a cunning plan to kill him. A horrible dragon lived in the neighbouring forest, which tore every wanderer to pieces who chanced to cross its way. Mimer ordered Siegfried to fetch a sack from the charcoal-burner in that forest, well knowing that the boy would never return thence.

The youth, without knowing the danger he was about to meet, went cheerfully on his way. In the middle of the thick wood he kindled a charcoal-kiln, and amused himself by putting big burning branches and young trees into the fire.

Suddenly the monster came swiftly creeping on its huge claws. Curving its shimmering body the ugly beast opened wide its jaws to devour the young charcoal-burner. Siegfried's eyes brightened up at the prospect of an encounter with the terrible animal before him. Without a moment's hesitation, he tore a flaming beam out of the kiln, and pushed its burning end deep into the open mouth of the dragon. Roaring with pain the monster turned round beating violently with its prickly tail, trying in its agony to crush Siegfried. But he, jumping skilfully aside, rapidly dealt it heavy blows, and succeeded at last in smashing its head with a large piece of rock. He severed the head from the body, and threw it into the blazing flames. To his astonishment he observed how a stream of grease gushed from the burning pile, and collected in a pool at his feet.

Close by the charcoal-kiln stood an old limetree. A little bird sang merrily in its branches. Siegfried, involuntarily listening to the clear strain, made out the following words: "If you would be covered with horn, and become invulnerable, undress yourself and plunge into the pool."

Siegfried quickly threw his clothes off and anointed his whole body with the dragon's grease. While thus occupied a leaf from the old limetree above dropped between his shoulders. This part of the hero's body remained without horn. When he had finished, he took up the monster's head and returned to Mimer's workshop. The nearer he got to the smithy, the more his rage against his wicked master increased. Mimer had seen the boy from afar approaching with the trophy of his fight, and had hidden in great fear.

Siegfried however soon found him out and slew him on the spot. Then he forged a good two-edged sword and shining armour for himself, and having saddled the best horse of Mimer's stable, he left the smithy to look for new adventures.

For a long time he travelled aimlessly about, saw mountains and valleys, rivers and lakes, cities and hamlets, until he at last arrived at the sea-shore. He embarked with his good horse, and was cast by a gale on the rocky coast of an unknown country. The noble animal climbed courageously up the stony beach, and carried its rider to an enchanted castle which was surrounded by a wall of flames. For a moment Siegfried stood irresolute. Suddenly the voice of the little bird sounded again above him, "Break the charm. Straight into the flames with a bold dash. A most lovely maiden will be thy reward."

The youth took courage, spurred his steed, and with a plunge horse and rider disappeared in the flames, which were at once extinguished. The charm was broken. Before him lay a wonderful castle. Siegfried penetrated into its interior, and was amazed to find every living creature in a profound sleep within; the horses in their stalls, the grooms in the stables, the cook at the hearth. When he entered the high hall a lovely scene presented itself to his view. On a couch the most exquisite form of a woman lay sleeping. Her golden hair was strewn with precious stones, and her limbs were clothed in the most costly garments.

The young hero looked for a while, lost in admiration. Then bending down to her, he pressed a passionate kiss on her rosy lips. Brunhilde, the fair sleeper, opened her eyes, and at the same time every living being in the castle awoke.

The old legend depicts in glowing colours the sweet hours of love that followed for Siegfried and Brunhilde. Days and months passed by without the lovers being aware of it. However fond of adventures Siegfried was, he felt himself chained to the spot by her subtle charms. While thus undecided he heard one day the bird's voice: "Leave the castle and give up a life of ignoble leisure; direct your steps towards the country of the Nibelungen, take possession of their immense treasures and of the precious invisible cap."

At the prospect of new adventures Siegfried could not be kept back any longer by Brunhilde. They parted with the solemn promise of meeting again.

A great many exploits are recorded of the proud hero which he performed in the country of the Nibelungen. After a long and hard struggle with the cunning dwarfs, he took away with him their treasure, as well as the cap which had the gift of making its wearer invisible.

Years had passed by, and Siegfried longed to see the place of his childhood again. So he turned homewards and reached Xanten after many adventures. The joy of his noble parents at seeing their valiant son again was indescribable.

The legend of Siegfried's youthful exploits and his home-coming is full of romance and happiness. But if we listen to the continuation of his story we shall find how every human feeling has its place in the hero's biography, great joy, deep sorrow, passionate love, glowing hatred, heroism and perfidy, cowardice and high courage, until at last the legend of Siegfried ends in a pitiful wail of grief.

Dieses Kapitel ist Teil des Buches LEGENDS OF THE RHINE