Siegfried is a funny name. It means peace and war. Or rather, it means victory, Sieg, and then peace, Frieden. You have peace after you win a war. Otherwise you can’t have it.
My second name is Siegfried. It’s after my uncle, Siegfried deFiis. He’s not actually my uncle, he’s my godfather—Patenonkel. In the country where we come from your godfather is both a father and an uncle to you. He is an uncle in Heaven and represents God to you, and he is a father on earth who represents your family.
Siegfried deFiis was my father’s best friend in the army. They went to university together and then to the war. DeFiis is actually a Dutch name, although I used to think it was French, because of the de—“from.” My uncle Siegfried’s last name comes from the border country between France and Holland and Belgium and our family’s country, and all those names and languages meet and get mixed up there. My grandmother still uses the word Portmonnaie— “wallet,”–which is actually French, for example, but which she thinks is our language. She says the French stole that word in a war and her using it is a way of making them give it back.
Siegfried von Xanten. Xanten was and still is a town about twenty kilometers down the Rhine River from the town where my grandparents live and where my parents grew up and where I was born. It is a fortress town from the very olden days of myth, and it has stone walls around it two metres thick. Up there on the ramparts the heroes used to walk and throw their spears and hurl their missiles at strangers trying to invade their country: French or Dutch or Belgian enemies: the heroes of Xanten fought them.
My uncle Siegfried’s name (my second name) is written in stone in the archway of one of Xanten’s town gates. There it is, carved into the granite: Siegfried von Xanten, still completely legible after all these years. And right below it, in smaller letters (and without the von) is my first name. I originally come from Xanten too, and I was a hero just like Siegfried. The original Siegfried was the first hero of Xanten, and I was sort of like his sidekick. My first name is written a little bit smaller and a little bit lower down (and without the von). People didn’t expect quite as much from me in battle, I didn’t have to face quite as many enemies as Siegfried did, but I was still a real man and a warrior. I was Siegfried’s friend, his sidekick. We fought in battles together: together, Siegfried and I were invincible.
Uncle Siegfried, my father’s best friend who later became my godfather, actually lives in Xanten. That is the amazing thing. Here is this historical town with its huge historical name wrapped like muscles around it, and my uncle Siegfried has the same name, and actually lives in that town and comes from there. He is from Xanten, Siegfried von Xanten, just like the original Siegfried; only the last name has been changed.
He is small and dark-haired. My uncle Siegfried is a slight man with black hair, and he works as an accountant or a lawyer or something. A dentist. He has an office by the town hall, right near the gate where his historical name (and my historical name) are inscribed in stone, and he can look up and stand in the shadow of that name every day when he goes to work. He can hear its echo bouncing from the walls of Xanten: Sieg, victory, and then Frieden, peace, freedom. The English word “freedom” comes from Frieden so I guess that proves the English stole some words in a war, too.
Every year at Christmas and on my birthday my uncle Siegfried sends me gifts. Godfather gifts. Since I don’t know him very well and I only saw him a few times before we immigrated I sometimes can’t tell where these gifts come from. They come from a word or a name; they come from a godfather or a goduncle, Patenonkel, who is up in the sky and down on earth and who has the same name as you for a second name, and who is named after a hero from the olden days of myth. A godfather, I think, can live in Heaven and also on earth. I imagine my Uncle Siegfried’s hand reaching down from a cloud and giving me those gifts. His hand has flown all the way over the Atlantic Ocean from an old country to our new country in a cloud and when the cloud opens it becomes a palm and inside this palm are these gifts.
The gifts my uncle Siegfried sends are books. They are the stories of the heroes he and I are named after, and he sends them, I believe, so that I will remember the heroes and know them, even though the stories are from so long ago. Heldensagen, they are called. Helden means “heroes” and Sagen means “to say”: so you are saying something about the heroes when you read these stories. You retell their deeds. The English word “Saga” comes from Sagen and so when you tell these stories you are simply saying things: it doesn’t matter which language you are in.
Siegfried is in those stories, and I am too. I am a little bit smaller and a little bit lower down, like on the town wall of Xanten, and I don’t have a von attached to my name, but I am still a fighter. Siegfried, as I said, was the strongest boldest hero of Xanten and I was his second in command. I am not mentioned as much in the stories as Siegfried is, so you don’t find out as much about my deeds, but you know I am there fighting along with Siegfried to defend that town. I don’t mind that Siegfried stole so much of the limelight, because I am Siegfried’s friend, his companion, and I love him. I will later (much later) take Siegfried’s name as my second name to commemorate this love. So it doesn’t matter so much that in the myth time Siegfried is getting all the credit. “Deed” comes from “doing,” “to do,” so its more important what you do than what you say or what is written about you.
In some of the stories I’m not there at all. The deed writer, the myth writer, has left me out and it is only by remembering myself from other stories that I know I was there. I sometimes get sad that I’m not in all the stories and I wasn’t as famous as Siegfried was, but I’m glad someone remembered to write me down on the stone walls of Xanten, right there next to Siegfried. Xanten, as I said, is a real place and you can go there and see it if you travel twenty kilometres down the Rhine River from where I was born and where my parents grew up and where my grandparents still live.
In the myth time my uncle Siegfried’s books speak about the hero (my second name) slays the dragon. He bathes in the dragon’s blood and becomes invincible. He has to slay the dragon because the dragon protects the power, called the Hort, owned by the fabulously wealthy (and in this story evil) dwarves who live in the mountains about forty kilometres upstream from Xanten on the other side of the Rhine. The Siebengebirge, the Seven Mountains. These are the same seven mountains that appear in the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves; the dwarves Siegfried outwitted to get the Hort are probably the same seven dwarves, or their ancestors (dwarves live for hundreds of years) Snow White met, because her story comes from that place too; and this is an example of how stories can get tangled up with each other, just like languages and names do, and you sometimes don’t know which one you are telling. You can see the Seven Mountains where the seven dwarves lived and where Snow White swallowed half an apple and it caught in her throat, and where Siegfried went to get the Hort, if you stand on the west side of the Rhine, about twenty kilometres upstream from the place where I was born and look east, across the river. You can point to them and count them: one, two three, four, five, six, seven. Seven is a magic number in this and in a lot of stories, and if you wanted to found a town in the days of myth all you had to do is go to those kinds of magical places like forests and mountains and outsmart the dwarves (and sometimes witches) who lived there and get their wealth and power. Then you could take the power down into the valley and start a town or a city and become a hero.
Kids here, in my new country where I now live, don’t seem to have godfathers or sky uncles. Or at least they don’t talk about them. They don’t have Patenonkels who send you gifts in a cloud from which a hand reaches down to teach you where you are from, von. I look at the other boys here to see if they have a man standing behind them whose name is written on the stone wall of a town and who sends them sagas that tell you where you are and have been, and I never see such a man. So I don’t’ know if you can have towns here that have your name on them and that you need to defend because they are said to tell your story. Sometimes the boys here fight me and call me bad names. They tell me I don’t come from here and can’t live in their country because I come from an evil country whose leader was a monster. When they do this I sometimes think of my uncle Siegfried and my father, fighting foreign enemies in the border country where we all come from. Sometimes, then, I become Siegfried, fighting on the ramparts of Xanten.
What are myths? I watch my father’s mouth reading the Siegfried (and my sometimes invisible) story. I imagine the deeds. I can’t read the books uncle Siegfried sends because they are printed in black Gothic letters that look like caves or cathedrals. So I listen to the words coming out of my father’s mouth carrying the deeds, sagen them, and sometimes this is a bit like looking at the speech bubbles in comic books where you imagine what’s being said but you don’t hear it: you have to know beforehand that the words appearing in the speech bubbles above the characters’ heads are what they are supposed to be saying. So myths are a little bit like comic books. They tell stories about distant lands and heroes and deeds that you partly imagine and that are partly real, and the only difference between myths and comics is that you don’t get your name from comics. Comics come from the United States, thirty miles down the Columbia River, across the Line, and you can go there and look at that country but you will not see the places where the stories and the names come from. You will see a blank where these should be.
Are myths true? After he bathed in the dragon’s blood and went off to found Xanten with his new-found power and invincibility—the invincibility he got from the dragon’s blood is like the stone walls around Xanten—Siegfried married the King’s blond daughter Kriemhild, and would have lived happily ever after, except for the evil dark man, Hagen, who knew about Siegfried’s vulnerable spot, right in the middle of his back, between the shoulder blades, where a birch leaf caught and stuck when Siegfried was bathing in the dragon’s blood. Hagen thrust his spear into that spot and it went from the back right through to the front of Siegfried’s body, the point poked out of his chest (I saw it in the picture in the book my Onkel Siegfried sent me) and it was from this wound that Siegfried died. Hagen did this evil deed to pay Siegfried back for the mean thing he had done in beating Brunhilde, the Fire Queen of Iceland, up in bed on behalf of his king, Gunter, who couldn’t vanquish her, he wasn’t man enough. Brunhilde (imagine such a name!) was too strong a female for him, even though she was a woman and he, Gunter, was a king. It took a hero of Siegfried’s stature to overpower Brunhilde, who never forgave him, and Hagen connived to use her resulting hate for Siegfried to help murder him because of course Hagen wanted and desired Kreimhild, Gunter’s beautiful and blond daughter, whom Siegfried had married as a reward for helping to conquer Brunhilde. Hagen and Brunhilde were dark, evil people; Siegfried and Kriemhild were blond, good. That is the crux of the story.
Hagan could kill Siegfried in such a cowardly way, by stabbing him in the back (to imagine them fighting face-to-face is impossible, is a joke) because he had watched from behind a willow bush when Siegfried bathed in the dragon’s blood. He had seen the fateful birch leaf caught on Siegfried’s skin creating the vulnerable spot which became his downfall. Willow bushes, like birch groves, are magical places in these stories, and in many stories, and the fact that Hagen was lurking in one and saw the leaf (I can see the jagged tooth-like edges stuck to Siegfried’s white skin) is a true story about his country. I am careful in my new country which has many birch groves and willow bushes because I think they might have this fateful power. Plant power can move across oceans and carry its magic with it. When the boys here want to fight me and won’t let me be in their country I think they are Hagens, hiding I the bushes, getting ready to strike.
Are myths true? Were they? Some people in my parents’ and my grandparents’ country act is if they are. Partly true. They are partly made up and partly true, I think, and this is a little bit like having a god-uncle or a sky father who is half spirit and half person to you, whose hand comes down from a cloud (blown by breath) and who remembers you with books. This man, who is half in one country and half in another one, tells you, sagens you, the story of your name. He tells you where your name comes from even if you have wandered across a border into another country. Myths tell you with their breath where your body is von, and in this way the situation with myths is different than with comic books. Comics, as I said, come from the United States and you don’t get them from god-uncles or sky fathers: you go up the highway to Lewis’ store and buy them for ten cents with your own money because your parents won’t buy them for you. Your parents hate comics.
Yes, the people from my family’s country, the border country between France and Holland and Belgium (and maybe England, too, looking on now from across its Channel) thought, or think, the myths about the blond Siegfried and the dark Hagen and the dragon and blond Kriemhild and dark Brunhilde and Gunter (and the one about the imaginary me) are true. They act, or can act, as if these characters were still around. I watch my father closely when he reads me the stories to see if he betrays, with any of his hand or eye movements, the idea that these heroes and heroines are not real, and he never does. This is an easy thing to fall into when you come from a town or valley where the events in the stories you are telling, sagen, actually came from and are told to be true: you can go out and look at the Seven Mountains, or the walls of Xanten any time of the day or night, and sure enough, there they will be; you can count them on the fingers of your hand or trace the shapes of the letters in the stone with the tips of these same fingers. There’s even a cave today in the Siebengebirge (I don’t know if it’s the actual same one) that’s made up to look like the dragon’s cave where he guarded the Hort and where Siegfried slew him. The English word “hoard” comes from Hort (or it could be “horde” that comes from there) and the dragon hoarded (or horded) that Hort and no one could contest its power until Siegfried came along and ended that part of the story. There’s a statue of the dragon made out of concrete there now to commemorate the event; people look at the pool of water below which I guess is supposed to depict the blood Siegfried spilled and then bathed in to become invincible, and the people throw pennies in there and make a wish. That’s what happens to myths these days. You pay one Mark to get into that place.
What are myths? I have thought about this question for quiet a while now and have come to a conclusion. Myths are a different kind of talking. When you talk about deeds in this way you use a different tone of voice than you do for normal speech. You use a different part of your body to speak from and you use a tone of voice that is reserved for speaking about your ancestors. You revere them with your voice. When I watch and listen to my father read me the books my uncle Siegfried sends I can tell by his tone of voice that he is revering, that he is remembering and saying—something: sagen—about the ancestors, and about their country. I can tell also, by the movement of his body and breath, that the ancestors are close by and the Sagen is not finished. There is something more to be said. I don’t know if people who don’t have, and can’t imagine having, godfathers or sky-uncles somewhere across a border who maybe speak another language and who send you stories in clouds blown by breath over an ocean will understand this, but I’m telling, sagen, this story to find out if they can.
Dear Onkel Siegfried. Thank you for sending me the books that sagen me where our names come from. It is good to know that one’s name comes from a real country in which one has lived and where one’s ancestors once lived and are revered by their descendants. Some people here might believe their names come from comic books and from the United States which is a country south of us where lots of stories come from but where ancestors are mostly silent, and these people don’t tell or write true tales or sagas about their mythical past. When the boys here fight me and say I can’t live in their country and I come from an evil country that had a monster for a leader, I often remember you and our names. I imagine we are standing on the ramparts of Xanten, defending out town against foreign enemies, British and Dutch and French ones who are trying to invade our country. You and I fight back-to-back: your first name from myth protects my back, my vulnerable spot that says I’m not strong enough to fight the boys, and my first name from life protects your back, your vulnerable spot which says that you were not strong enough to fight the foreign enemies that wanted to invade your country when you and my father were in a war. You and I, I and Siegfried, fight back-to-back to defend our names and our countries and its stories.
I think now that you send me those books to tell me, sagen, a secret. You didn’t want to fight in the war where you and my father became friends. You, and maybe my father, too, were scared. You, Siegfried, didn’t want to be a blond hero from myth fighting foreign enemies; you would rather be a small dark-haired accountant or lawyer or dentist; you would rather take care of people’s teeth or their money than fight in a war. You, and perhaps my father, too, only fought because an evil dark voice behind you, a Hagen voice, was telling you, sagen, that you had to. The voice would stab you in the back if you didn’t fight.
Yes, I think books can carry secret messages. They can tell you, sagen, one thing and they can also sagen, tell you, something else. I know now, from reading in my new language, that the part in the Siegfried story about the blond and the dark people is not true. It may have been true in the myth time, but it is not true now. I am blond, and I am not a heroic warrior from myth who loves to fight, and you are not an evil dark Hagen who waits in bushes to stab people in the back. When the boys here fight me and say I can’t live in their country I sometimes imagine they are Hagens, but they are both blond and dark-haired, and so this can’t be true. Some of them can be Siegfrieds. I think now that they fight me because I come from a real country that has a true story and also a myth, and that has my true name carved in the stone walls of one of its towns. I am in this way remembered. I know where I come from. Stone tells me where.
I don’t believe, like my grandmother does, and like you, who came from a border country were names and languages mix, maybe sometimes thought, that countries steal words from each other. Words cannot be stolen: they are sounds that fly over an ocean and open like hands and reveal a story that has been pushed here by wind, and that wind is breath. When you and I fight (in my imagination) back-to-back on the ramparts of Xanten, or in the border country between our country and three other countries, we sometimes turn and whisper over our shoulders to each other. We whisper our—secret—names : I my first name (whispered to you) and you your first name, (whispered to me.) When we do this the fists of the boys who fight me here and who I can’t beat, hurt me less; and the words that hail down on your back and say, sagen that you must be a blond heroic warrior from myth when you are just a scared, dark-haired accountant or lawyer or dentist hurt you less. We whisper to each other like brothers, and with our names, and with each other; we have peace and freedom. Our Sieg is a secret, silent, not a noisy one.
Your Patensohn, NS.
Do you remember the part in the Siegfried story where Siegfried puts on the invisible cap and fights off the horde of dwarves (I think it was the dwarves) who can’t see him? I always thought when my father read me this part of the story that Siegfried wore a cape, Kappe, and I only learned later, when I was thinking about the story in my new language, that Kappe means “cap,” or even “hat,” not cape. Stories in books, I now think, are like invisible caps: they hide your body like a cape does while being in fact only a small piece of cloth on your head. When Siegfried conquered Brunhilde in bed he also wore the invisible cap (cape) and Brunhilde loved him forever after, with her whole body, even though she couldn’t see Siegfried and was sometimes angry at him and thirsted for revenge. I often wonder what Siegfried said to her from inside the invisible cap or hat he wore in bed that night.
I’m not sad anymore that they myth writer of the Siegfried story sometimes didn’t write down my name. I know now that I’m still in the story because you, Siegfried, real and the imaginary Siegfried, are remembering me. So are the stone walls of Xanten.
4101 words February 1st, 2011