Monday, October 26, 2015

Book Review: Siegfried's Murder by Anonymous, translated by A.T. Hatto

My last name used to be a trial to me. But as I grew up, it grew on me. And one day I was at a random picnic with my mother of French speakers (I took German, thanks to my last name) and one of the few people who could and was willing to speak to me told me the story of Siegfried. I was familiar with the fact that he was a German mythological hero, a la Achilles or Hercules--not a god. But what this guy explained was how the myth came to be. That if you get a few hundred or thousand men with metal shields and have them all hold up the shields at once along a flank, it would look an awful lot like a dragon. And if they were doing things like shooting arrows tipped with fire, it could be come a fire-breathing dragon. Cool, huh?

Well this book is one in a line of ancient classics from Penguin, and it is an excerpt from the story of Siegfried, the inspiration for Wagner's Nibelungen, just about his murder. It leaves out most of the cool battle stuff. Because like Achilles, Siegfried has a weakness. He bathed in the blood of the aforementioned dragon after he killed her, but a leaf had fallen onto his back and it stuck and so there is a small spot between his shoulder blades that is not invincible like the rest of him. And when he and his wife go to visit her brother (Siegfried's best friend) and his wife, the two wives get into a spat, mostly about whose husband is better. And the other wife's men get offended by something she says, but they smooth everything over. Or do they? One guy stays pissed, but he acts like he isn't, and in the guise of needing to protect Siegfried from enemies, he gets Siegfried's wife to tell him the weakness. Well, you can guess what happens next.

This is translated from Middle German, from around the same era as Gilgamesh, and so the language is stilted and awkward. I don't know if a translator like Robert Fagles or Robert Fitzgerald could do more with it. But the story itself was pretty fast-moving and captivating. Some things were weird, like how both Siegfried and his future wife kept talking about how in love they were with each other before they ever met. But if you just go with it and overlook those weird things, it's an interesting ancient classic to add to your background. And at such a short length, the weirdness and awkward parts of a very old translation are easy to skim over in a way they wouldn't be at several hundred pages.

A friend who works at an independent bookstore sent me this book.

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