These poems, although fragmentary, still far surpass the Nibelungen-lied, and in their powerful pathos and tragic passion they surpass any ancient poetry except that of Greece. The Scandinavians in general, and Icelanders in particular, traveled over every part of the West, and penetrated into hitherto unexplored seas, collecting in every quarter the facts and fancies of the age.
One of these poems, the Hildebrand-lied, belongs to the time of Theodoric the Great. The songs collected by Charlemagne, were later remodelled and have come down to us as the Heldenbuch and the Nibelungen-lied. The intellectual light in Germany went out with the death of Charlemagne, except in the cloisters.
The German songs that Charlemagne had collected and put in writing are undoubtedly the outcome of these ancient Gothic poems of the first Christian era. Their substance is found in the Nibelungen-lied and the Heldenbuch.
The expeditions of Attila were like a violent tempest, destructive for the moment, the traces of which soon disappear. About the name of Attila, there gathered cycles of traditions, Gallo-Roman or Italian, East German or Gothic, West German and Scandinavian, and Hungarian. Such traditions in Germany formed, later, the germ of the national epic, the Nibelungen-lied.
As in the legends of Troy and Iceland, so also in the Nibelungen-lied, the story centres on a young hero glowing with beauty and victory, and possessed of loftiness of character; but who meets with an early and untimely death. Such is Baldur the Beautiful of Iceland, and such, also, are Hector and Achilles of Troy.
Two large graminivorous or browsing quadrupeds, the ur and the schelk, once common in Germany, have been utterly extirpated, the eland and the auerochs nearly so. Starker ure viere, unt einen grimmen schelch. XVI. Aventiure. The testimony of the Nibelungen-Lied is not conclusive evidence that these quadrupeds existed in Germany at the time of the composition of that poem.
Elias Lonnrot, its compiler, wandered from place to place in the remote and isolated country in Finland, lived with the peasants, and took from them their popular songs, then he wrote the Kalevala, which bears a strong resemblance to Hiawatha. Max Muller says that this poem deserves to be classed as the fifth National Epic in the world, and to rank with the Mahabharata and the Nibelungen-lied.
These songs mark the greatness and the waning of the heroic world In the Nibelungen-lied the final event is a great calamity that is akin to a half historical event of the North.
The marvellous in Southern poetry became with them something fraught with deeper meaning; and the Northern version of the Nibelungen-lied acquired an ascendency in its strength and poetical beauty, over the German heroic. Hence, during the Middle Ages, the Scandinavians in general, and Icelanders in particular, came to possess a peculiar chivalrous poetry of their own.
In numerous heroic poems of different nations we can trace the unity of all heroic personages, as in the Iliad and the Odyssey of Greece, the Sagas of the North in the Nibelungen-lied, and the Ramayon of the Orient. Freedom, greatness and heroism are embodied in these poems, and many of them breathe a martial spirit.