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  1. Nibelungen battleWhen Hitler’s death was announced on German radio in May 1945, it was accompanied by the fanfare of ‘Siegfried’s Death’ from Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen. No wonder – Wagner was Hitler’s favourite composer, and the legends he poured into the Ring, that magnum opus of raven-winged warriors, fiery gods and Valkyries with long golden plaits, were the ‘national myth’ of Germany. Their most complete form is in the medieval epic known as the Nibelungenlied, a tale of fierce warriors cutting each other apart, prophetic river-maidens, a vengeful queen, a female warrior who cannot be defeated except by trickery and knights who slake their thirst with human blood. It’s a book that makes Game of Thrones read like the adventures of Noddy. Seriously. When I first read it, swiping the last page in a Rhineland eckkneipe with a glass of beer on the counter, I struggled to hold my drink because my hands were shaking.

      These days, the Nibelungenlied feels increasingly, depressingly resonant. It’s not just that it’s been re-claimed by right-wingers in Germany, cited in speeches by the Alternativ für Deutschland (to counterweigh that, the story’s also been reclaimed by poets and playwrights in many exciting and imaginative ways). Even more, it feels like the epic tale that explains what’s going on in Britain. Because the key battle, the bloody climax in the hall of Attila the Hun, is driven by a failure to negotiate – a breakdown of politics. ‘The conflict could not reach a happy resolution,/ And so out of this breach there flowed blood-drenched pollution.’ Neither the obstinate German councillor, Hagen, nor his enemy, the grieving widow Kriemhild, will allow themselves to bend. And so tens of thousands must die.

      Britain may not face such an apocalypse yet, but there is a lesson here. Hitler and co failed to heed it – they perceived the Nibelungenlied as a stirring celebration of macho men-at-arms, the ‘heroic song’ that Goering cited to inspire the troops at Stalingrad. But it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than that (and many of the German and Austrian writers I met on my Nibelungen trail agreed). It’s not a parable, it’s a tale chipped out of the bitter rock-face of history – by an anonymous poet who lived through a deadly period of gory battles, court assassinations and diplomatic breakdowns.

    20170719_172610  But history, and particularly the behaviour of people in power, have a knack of recurring. When we see the blonde bombshell Boris Johnson grandstanding until he’s taken down by Michael Gove, we’re in a parody of the death of Siegfried, felled by a spear hurled by the wily Hagen, who decided the maverick hero was too dangerous, too hard to control. (Although Boris, it turned out, had one up on the nearly-immortal Siegfried – he managed to rise again). And when the knights tear each other down at the end of the epic, because nobody is prepared to fight for the middle ground, it echoes the impasse between Theresa May's government and the ERG, the Bruges Group, the DUP, the People's Vote Brigade and the many other factions pulling at the seams of parliament. Observing this week's 'burlesque of ranting backbenchers, helpless ministers, 'incandescent' whips and negative vote after negative vote' in The Guardian, the veteran columnist Simon Jenkins called for a reform of parliament away from a system where 'verbal knives outnumber handshakes'.   

      From the ashes and bones of the Nibelungen bloodbath, the nineteenth century playwright Friedrich Hebbel imagined a redemptive ‘new beginning’. Perhaps our parliament, so rotten, so badly peopled, needs something similar – a grass-and-roots rebirth (P.R., anybody?), that could help us look ahead to a new future. Perhaps, Hebbel’s version of the Nibelungen tale suggests, only by tearing down the system can a better one be given the chance to grow.  

  2. Sheringham dragon

     ‘The warriors began to rouse on the barrow the greatest of funeral-fires; the wood-reek mounted up dark above the smoking glow, the crackling flame, mingled with the cry of weeping – the tumult of the winds ceased – until it had consumed the body, hot to the heart.’

      So Beowulf, dragon-slayer, monster-killer, wrestler with underwater beasts – is sent on his way. And so, on the beach of Sheringham, in Norfolk, a local was dispatched, his ashes contained in the replica Viking longboat they were incinerating. If you want to visualise the final moments of Beowulf, go to a Viking festival. Sheringham’s the big one in East Anglia, and I drove there one day to join the crowd along the sea-wall. They were hundreds strong, fleeces zipped and mufflers tight, children waving plastic swords, boys in double-horned helmets, girls wearing wigs of braided plaits.

      Down on the foreshore, costumed performers from a historical re-enactment society acted out a battle between ninth century Anglo-Saxons and Nordic invaders, war-horns blaring like Roland’s oliphant. The sun gleamed on long-nosed helmets, shield-bosses and mail-shirts, conjuring ingots from the fibulae on their woollen capes. Wooden swords pounded against shields; axes swung against chainmailed backs. As the performers rose from sand-splattered, temporary deaths, a shield-maiden pronged the air with a feathered staff.

      ‘The Valkyries have done their work,’ she called out, broadcasting to the crowd with the aid of a microphone, ‘the fallen are back from Valhalla!’

      Later, under a mauve-clouded sky, swales of crowd shaded the murals of mammoths and cold-cast portraits of old Norfolk fishermen. Costumed Anglo-Saxons bore the dragon-prowed boat down to the beach, setting it on a slope of shingle. Wooden pallets were stacked inside as kindling, along with a mannequin warrior and the ashes of the recently deceased.

      ‘We are all one!’ called the warriors. ‘We send him out with the smoke to Valhalla!’

      Flames crackled under the sparks, which glowed in a smoky funnel as dark as gunmetal. The dragon-headed prow stood firm, claw-nosed, with sawtooth jaws and braided jewellery painted down its neck. The rest of the boat melted quickly, leaking fragments of burning wood into the tide. Gusts whipped the funnel of smoke, sweeping it towards the groyne where a few of us were leaning. Ash floated in the air like fragments of silk, and a drone camera glided overhead for the best pictures.Boat burning

      In Beowulf, there’s a powerful moment in the epic’s climax. As Beowulf is burning, a woman ‘with hair bound up,’ sings a dirge, ‘of her worst fears, a wild litany of nightmare and lament’. Seamus Heaney compared this moment to late 20th century news reports, ‘from Rwanda or Kosovo’, so powerfully photographic is the image. It’s a reminder that Beowulf describes the world we’re still living in, and as alien and strange as the poem’s content often appears, much of it connects with the world of today. Watching the cremation at Sheringham, I felt that shiver of connection.