September 30th, 2007


Spoiler Alert!

Alrighty then ... damn near everybody dies horribly ... OK, you can come back to reading now!

Yes, this is The Nibelungenlied (in D.G. Mowatt's prose translation), the source material for Wagner's 4-opera, 14-hour Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle. I, like most folks, have been exposed to snippets of this over the years but have not sat through even one of the operas complete, let alone the entire cycle (various versions of which are available on DVD from Amazon). As such, I was generally familiar with some of the characters, and a few bits of the action, but at a sufficient distance that most of this was "fresh" in reading.

I had planned to have knocked down this back-to-back with Beowulf, as this was penned in Middle High German a few centuries past that, but likewise looking back towards a semi-mythical time around the fifth century. I don't know if it is the source material or the translation, but The Nibelungenlied was a far more "accessible" read in that it is much easier to follow the characters and action in this.

However, I kept finding myself thinking of less-than-flattering modern parallels to what was happening in the book. The first third or so was pretty much "soap opera with some fantastic elements", sort of like Dark Shadows but without the vampires, the second third or so was a lot like the Rambo movies, with a few key warriors killing hundreds if not thousands of enemies without incurring much damage themselves, and a finish that was, so bloody that it brought to mind the classic Monty Python Sam Peckinpah's "Salad Days" sketch. All of this set in a context of "courtly" behavior and exchanged obligations that, by the end, make the web of alliances that got the first World War started seem rational (frankly, one of the "best parts" in this is the long exchange between Rüdeger and the Burgundians in which both sides are anguishing over not wanting to fight each other, which greatly echoes Arjuna's angst at Kurukshetra, making me wonder if the much older Indian epic, Mahabharata had somehow managed to influence this story).

While the characters of The Nibelungenlied are familiar to modern folks via Wagner's works, it was surprising how little of the Germanic/Norse mythology appears in this. While there are Dwarfs, Giants, magic cloaks of invisibility, Dragons, etc., etc., etc., there are no appearances of Wotan, Valhalla, Yggdrasil, the Norns (although an analogous, if minor, scene is in this), Valkyries, etc., and a central character to this story, Kriemhilde (sister to Gunther, wife, and eventual avenger, of Sifrid) is left out of the operas!

One thing I found interesting was how wide-spread (for the 5th century) the locations were ... there were folks from Iceland, Denmark, Burgundy, Verona, Hungary, the Netherlands, and mentions of others ... quite the "international" slate of characters for the age. Anyway, sound like fun? It's just $3.50 in the Dover Thrift Edition (this is the last of that recent bunch that I'd ordered), so you're not likely to do better than picking that up at cover price.

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If I lived in the Suburbs ...

OK, so I'm a "downtown" kind of guy and don't have a lawn ... but I saw a web ad for a t-shirt place that had a design I found hilarious ... it was green with kind of a sand-colored print of a guy pushing a lawn mower on it and said:
"I wish my lawn was EMO
so it would cut itself."

... yeah, I know, "that's not funny!" ... but the "meta-levels" involved in its construction are delicious.

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Ah, one more for this month ...

A while back Barnes & Noble was having a clearance on their web site (and frequent readers know how I love a sale!) and they had these nifty little (just over 4x7") copies of The Constitution of the United States with the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation for a paltry two bucks a piece. I bought five (giving copies to my daughters and nieces for Constitution Day a few weeks back) and keeping one for myself. Now, readers who have been paying way too much attention are no doubt asking "Brendan, didn't you just read this a little while back?" ... well, yes ... back in April of '06 I plowed through another edition, however, that was more of a "judicial activist" review of Supreme Court meddling with this most important document, and I really wanted a basic reference in my library. This edition fits in quite nicely, with the first quarter of it being an Introduction (by law professor R.B. Bernstein) which puts the process of moving from colonies into confederated states and eventually to a Federal system with our current Constitution into its various historical, cultural, and intellectual contexts.

I'm always happy to find "new info" when reading stuff that I assume I know, and there were bits and pieces in here that I was not aware of. For instance, in the Articles of Confederation (which preceded the Constitution), under Article XI, Canada is offered a full partnership just by acceding to the terms therein (where all other colonies, etc. would require the approval of 9 states). I wonder if that offer is still "on the table"? Ah, before you scoff ... let me outline the second "I did not know that" moment in this ... do you know when the most recent Constitutional Amendment was ratified? Think about it ... these things tend to be HUGE political dust-ups. The one preceding this lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 at the height of the Viet Nam angst back in 1971. Give up? The 27th Amendment was ratified in 1992. No, I don't recall hearing anything about it either. However, I suspect this has a lot to do with it having been proposed in 1789 but not officially ratified until nearly 203 years later (it has to do with paying Senators and Representatives). If a "housekeeping detail" like the 27th Amendment can be pending for two centuries, why not an open invite to our neighbors to the north to join our Republic!

Another good feature to Bernstein's introduction is a look at the sort of compromises that had to be made in drafting the Constitution ... what groups wanted what things in there, what groups didn't, why certain items (that today sound somewhat odd, like the 3rd Amendment) made it in, and why more sweeping philosophical stances didn't. It's a very enlightening read, and I do hope The Girls will eventually bother to delve into it ("eventually" as they're all between 7 and 11 at the moment, and I figure this is a "remember when" book for some time down the road).

As you can guess, I highly recommend getting a copy of this well before the next election (as I'm guessing that Hillary is not going to want it around!), and this is a very concise and enlightening edition. Oddly enough (or not) Amazon doesn't list this as being in print, however, as it at its (very low) $4.95 cover price. I'm guessing that it might also be in your local Barnes & Noble retailer.

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