Will Hasty

title.none: Müller, Rules for the Enndgame (Will Hasty)

identifier.other: baj9928.0811.019 08.11.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Will Hasty,, University of Florida

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Müller, Jan-Dirk. Whobrey, William T., trans. Rules for the Endgame: The World of the Nibelungenlied. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. Pp. xv, 562. $70 978-0-8018-8702-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.11.19

Müller, Jan-Dirk. Whobrey, William T., trans. Rules for the Endgame: The World of the Nibelungenlied. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. Pp. xv, 562. $70 978-0-8018-8702-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Will Hasty
University of Florida

In order to understand the contribution to the critical understanding of the Nibelungenlied made by Jan-Dirk Müller's Spielregeln für den Untergang. Die Welt des Nibelungenliedes (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1998), and--by extension--its translation into English by William Whobrey, a brief digression into the literary history of this poem is helpful.

German literary history as an academic subject began in the early nineteenth century with the study of the Nibelungenlied, and the history of this study has reflected to a high degree the critical currents in the field of Germanistik more generally. In the nineteenth century, the critical reception was largely philological and also more or less explicitly nationalistic, and the origins of the narrative in an obscure Germanic past eventually contributed to a view of this text as the "national epic" of Germany. Even as the philological foundations for the academic study of the Nibelungenlied were being laid, the epic poem continued to be laden with nationalistic baggage, and the latter tendency was aggravated by the spikes in German nationalism that occurred in the first half of the twentieth century. Scholarly appraisals continued to be starkly nationalistic, while in the popular (and political) imagination, the Nibelungenlied was conflated with Wagner's Ring-Cycle. References to Siegfried, Hagen, and "Nibelungentreue" (the loyalty of the Nibelungs) proliferated during times of enthusiasm and/or concern for the Vaterland, especially before and during World War One and among the National Socialists in the Thirties and Forties. After World War Two, many scholarly appraisals endeavored to disengage themselves to a large degree both from a predominantly philological approach as well as the epic's highly unsavory nationalistic past (which were linked in the minds of many because of their lengthy co-existence). Post-World War II interpretations went in the great variety of different directions that characterized literary criticism in the last century. Though different and insightful readings have been the result, as the interpretation the Nibelungenlie distanced itself from the narrative's philological foundations, it seemed that the danger of inappropriately imposing modern understandings onto the medieval text become increasingly acute.

How, for example, do we interpret Siegfried's first arrival in Worms, in which the hero's stated intention to woo Kriemhild seems to be quickly forgotten, as Siegfried challenges the Burgundian king to a single combat for his kingdom? Has the poet, perhaps somewhat imperfectly, reconciled different, older versions of the Nibelungen- story in his own narrative, or can such discontinuities be somehow smoothed over in the form of a reading that would view the military conquest as perhaps symbolically related to Siegfried's amorous conquest (he will take the king's sister and their land, these two things being an expression of each other)? The more starkly philological approach would argue for the former understanding, and regard the latter as a modern projection onto the medieval text. The champion of the return in the direction of a more strongly philological understanding of the poem in recent years (though also a consistent critic of politically-charged nationalistic readings) has been Joachim Heinzle (whose importance is also stressed by Müller, 9- 11), who has argued vigorously that interpretations and readings of the medieval poem that arrive at coherent, consistent views, ignoring the ramshackle composition of this narrative out of pieces of earlier Nibelungen-narratives (as which the poem can present itself from a more strictly philological perspective), are simply a "Sinnunterstellung" ([the modern reader's] finding meaning where there is, in fact, none--Whobrey translates as "insinuation of meaning"). In this respect, the understanding of the Nibelungenlied at the end of the last century had seemingly reached an impasse: the kind of readings in which many scholars were interested were in danger of being disqualified by being basically unhistorical, by wrongly smoothing over the philological gaps, and thus by ignoring the discontinuities and gaps that the medieval narrative in actual fact presents.

The contribution of Jan-Dirk Müller's book is that it endeavors to bring us beyond this impasse by returning to the historical situation of the Nibelungenlied. Müller proposes, first and foremost, that the idea that a text such as the Nibelungenlied should yield a coherent, smooth, and complete interpretation is itself based on a fallacy: Presuming expectation of coherence, agreement, and integrity derived from modern literature to be normative for medieval epics is...problematic. Disruptions occur more frequently in the reworking of a multivocal tradition, and expectations of agreement, or at least the absence of contradiction, are likely to be more easily disappointed. (7) Müller proposes not a global interpretation that is based on the unreflected (because based on a modern literary aesthetic) assumption that literary narratives are inherently complete and coherent, but rather a topical procedure that finds meanings where meanings can be found (rather than a single meaning for the whole text). The discontinuities and gaps presented by the Nibelungenlied do not have to be the sites of modern misapprehensions, but rather can be interpreted in consistent ways that yield historical, anthropological, and socio-political insights. Müller shows himself particularly to be interested by New Historicism and its idea of "thick description," and by ethnology, wherever such critical methods provide insights that could be regarded as congruent with the philological and historical "rules of the game." Proceeding in this different way, which combines philological considerations, the "vocality" of the narrative between orality and literacy, and the status of this heroic narrative vis-- vis the more fashionable courtly romances and love poetry, and renounces the need for, and the possibility of, a global interpretation (which was still implicit even in Heinzle's position), Müller's book endeavors to free the way for historically informed, multidisciplinary analyses. These analyses (in an Introduction and nine chapters: 1. Variations of the Legend, 2. Heroic Narration and Epic Composition, 3. Nibelungen Society, 4. Nibelungen Anthropology, 5. The Shrouding of Visibility, 6. Spaces, 7. Disrupted Rules of Interaction, 8. The Failure of the Courtly Alternative, and 9. Deconstructing the Nibelungen World, and a three-page preface to the translation) strike out in interesting new directions and also are able in new ways to uphold some of the conclusions at which previous scholars had arrived without, perhaps, following the "rules" as rigorously as Müller does (such as the breakdown of communication and interaction in the Nibelungenlied, and the failure of the courtliness as an alternative social model).

The only reservation one might have about Müller's critical approach is that it seems to tread a fine line with its ambition to "reconstruct" (in the original book Müller uses the equivalent German term "rekonstruieren") the "Rules for the Endgame," as this is stated for example in the introduction: "My investigation...will attempt to reconstruct the rules that make plausible what is narrated: a past world thematized by the text (implicitly assumed, explicitly accepted, criticized, employed, and used as interactive material)" (32). This ambition itself would sound quite totalizing, were it not for the immediately following sentence: "The aim is to show that the text does not follow a single, consistent set of rules, but functions as a locus where conflicting rules meet, rules that are 'asynchronous' in origin and validity." Still, for all its informed criticism of the modern biases that go along with totalizing interpretations, something suspiciously totalizing remains in the Rules for the Endgame, even in the deconstruction in which the rules culminate in the final pages of the book: Constellations are summoned, disappear, reappear, and make room for others, to appear another time, but in a completely different form. What was true the first time is now ineffective, what was positively charged is now negative. Changing constellations with only a few related elements take each other's place and relativize each other. There is an initially unnoticeable, later ever more rapid restructuring of what was valid just before. Characters move from the light into darkness and vice versa, flawless actions prove themselves to be disastrous and questionable dispositions are praiseworthy, help is deception, betrayal guarantees the stability of the kingdom for a time, unquestioned values are perverted, and others take their place, one social order disintegrates, and the other that takes it place collapses immediately. (444) In the end, "there is nothing left to situate and dissolve" (445). The reader is left to ponder whether such a view is fundamentally different from a totalizing one, or a totalizing view in different ("deconstructive") guise.

This reservation may pertain more to the general difficulty of not being modern in our aesthetic and interpretative presuppositions, than to the merits of Müller's book which, with its insights into the historical constitution of the text and its multi-disciplinary knowledge and rigor, establishes a new foundation for interpreting the Nibelungenlied, one which invites readings that can--and indeed must--be both rigorously philological and historical, and methodologically varied and innovative. Whobrey's precise and elegant translation of Müller's text, a monumental piece of work given that the volume is more than five-hundred pages (including notes and index), will make this cutting-edge critical work on one of the most important and consequential stories in the German language profitably and enjoyably readable in English for scholars around the world.