"The Nibelungenlied" and the "Knight in the Panther Skin". A comparison of two medieval epics from Germany and Georgia

Scientific Essay, 2016

45 Pages





The ‘Nibelungenlied’ and the ‘Klage’ (Synopses)
The ‘Nibelungenlied’
The ‘Klage’

The ‘Knight in the Panther Skin’ (Synopsis)

German and English editions of Knight in the Panther Skin


The origin of courtly epic in Georgia and Western Europe

History of origins of the German and the Georgian national epics

The ‘Knight in the Panther Skin‘ and the medieval Western European chivalric poetry

The ‘Knight in the Panther Skin‘ and the ‘Nibelungenlied’

Final remarks



Around the year 1200, an unknown poet from the today’s Germany composed the epic ‘The Nibelungenlied’ (NL) or ‘Song of the Nibelungs’ which became the German national epic during the early 19th century. It formed the basis of the German national ideology, especially during the Nazi regime. Therefore, it is no longer considered a national epic after 1945 but is still the most popular medieval epic in Germany.

The Georgian national epic of the ‘Knight in the Panther Skin’ (KPS) was created at around the same time as the ‘Nibelungenlied’ by Shota Rustaveli (about 1172 to 1216). This fact is the motivation for risking an attempt to draw a comparison between the two poems.

After an introduction to the content of both epics, the history of evolution of courtly medieval epics and the creation of national epics are discussed. It is followed by a general comparison of medieval epics from Western Europe and Georgia and finally of NL and KPS.

This paper is an extended translation of the author’s publication “Der Recke im Tigerfell. Das georgische Nationalepos und das Nibelungenlied”, printed at GRIN Verlag, 2016.


The NL was written down in the Austro-Bavarian region about the year 1200. Nothing is known about the anonymous poet, and it is only an assumption that the patron for this epic was Wolfger von Erla, bishop at Passau between 1191 and 1204.

Currently, 36 manuscripts of the NL are known, among them 11 complete codices. The manuscripts were sorted by Karl Lachmann 1826: Manuscripts of the 13th and 14th century (written on parchment) are distinguished by capitals, those of the 15th and 16th century (mainly written on paper) received small letters. It is assumed that the three main manuscripts, A, B and C, are based directly on the unknown original. All other manuscripts are derived from A, B or C. After about 1520, the NL vanished into oblivion until it was rediscovered at an Austrian castle 1755. However, it lasted up to the early 19th century that the NL earned significant public attention.

At the beginning of the history of reception the manuscripts A and B were titled the “Nibelungen Not”, and only manuscript C had the title “Nibelungenlied”. In the meantime all manuscripts are known under the popular title “Nibelungenlied”.

The NL is composed in approximately 2350 four-line stanzas (the exact number varies among the individual manuscripts), which are divided into 39 “aventuren” or “aventiuren”. (The English translation “adventure” as being used by George Henry Needler, 1904 does not reflect the correct meaning of “aventure”. Stephen L. Wailes uses the term “canto” which corresponds to the English title of the epic “Song of the Nibelungs”. (Wailes 1978: 120) German editions in Modern High German use the Middle High German term “aventure/aventiure” instead of its German translation “Abenteuer”.)

The epic poem is split often into two parts: “Siegfried’s Death” and Kriemhield’s Revenge”.

The reception of the Nibelung theme is hardly to be gathered completely and its publication of the University of Duisburg/Essen in the year 2015 comprises already 122 pages of titles. (www.nibelungsrezeption.de).

The ‘Klage’ (the lament) was written evidently very soon after the NL. It can be considered an accompanying commentary of the NL, and nine out of eleven complete codices of the NL contain the ‘Klage’ as an integral part. Therefore, editions or translations of the NL were issued together with the ‘Klage’ until 1850. After that the ‘Klage’ was considered an independent poem. At the end of the 19th century it became less important more and more. Meanwhile the ‘Klage’ gained again appropriate significance, and latest scientific editions of the NL include again the ‘Klage’. In 2015, the first re-narration of the ‘Klage’ in Modern High German was published. (Schöffl 2015)

The poem has 4360 lines in most editions, and the story also can be split into two parts : The first part being an account of the mourning of Etzel, Dietrich and Hildebrand as they seek out the slain and prepare them for burial, the other part telling of the bringing of the news to Bechelaren, Passau and Worms. (Needler 1904: XXIX)

The KPS originated in a society more or less unknown to Germany and shows a poetry in which Western European medieval heroic epic finds itself and not Arabian, Persian or Indian poetry as would be expected. The reason why this epic has remained for a long time unnoticed in Western Europe cannot only be traced back to the geographical location of Georgia. An explanation for this cause can also be found in the history of Georgia. The country’s period of prosperity was during the 12th and 13th century. Georgia became the strongest power in Transcaucasia due to a stable central government. This was also valid with respect to cultural sectors. After that the kingdom had to defeat continuous attacks not only of the Mongols, but also of Persians and Turks. This resulted in the gradual disintegration of the empire into several principalities and small kingdoms. The seizure of Constantinople in 1453 by the Turks had strong impacts on Georgia, not only economically but also culturally. Since the land connection to the east was interrupted now, the Europeans used the maritime route - a direct connection between Georgia and the occident did no longer exist.

By the end of 18th century, Georgia got more and more under Russian influence until it became, finally, a part of the czardom and later the Soviet Union of which it could free itself not until 1991.

The epic of Shota Rustaveli was translated into German several times as late as after 1950, although Arthur Leist provided the first translation of the KPS already in 1889.

Shota Rustaveli was most probably an official at the court of Queen Tamar under whose regency the „golden age“ of Georgia flourished as it presents itself in the retrospect. The KPS was written down about 1200, and one assumes that Queen Tamar herself gave the order to the author. (cp. Mirianashvili 1999: 165)

German translations use various titles for Rustaveli’s epic:

- The man in the tiger skin
- The warrior in the tiger skin
- The knight in the tiger skin
- The man in the panther skin
- The knight in the panther skin

In addition, further versions of the title can be found in German literature.

The majority of English papers use the titles ‘The Man in the Panther’s Skin’ or the ‘Knight in the Panther’s Skin’. It should be noticed that Marjory Scott Wardrop’s translation from 1912 used the title “The Man in the Panther’s Skin” which was changed into “The Knight in the Tiger’s Skin” in the 1939 edition.

How can it happen, that there are so many different titles in German? The Georgian original has only one single title, namely ვეფხისტყაოსანი (transcribed Wephchistqaosani, scientific transliteration Vepkhis t'q'aosani), which means literally “one with a skin of vepkhi”. Whether a leopard, a panther or a tiger is to be understood by “vepkhi” is even today a controversial question of scholars. (Neukomm 1974: 462) An answer could be found when listening to the colloquial language: in the vernacular of Tajikistan for instance the snow leopard is called „tiger“. And it is a question of taste whether one uses „man“, “warrior” or „knight“. Following the latest English edition (Coffin 2015), the present paper uses „knight“, and hence as complete title ‘The Knight in the Panther Skin’.

The ‘Nibelungenlied’ and the ‘Klage’ (Synopses)

The ‘Nibelungenlied’

The epic starts with Kriemhild, sister of the Burgundian Kings Gunther, Gernot and Giselher at Worms, dreaming of having tamed a wild falcon which then flew away only to be killed by two eagles. Her mother Ute thinks the falcon feigns a noble knight, but Kriemhild rejects any thought of love since it also brings sorrow. The story continues with Siegfried, having grown up in the area of the lower Rhine in Xanten, the son of King Siegmund and Queen Sieglind, and receiving his investiture as a knight in a magnificent ceremony.

When Siegfried arrives in Worms, determined to woo Kriemhild despite his parents’ admonitions, he has already had several adventures in which his prowess has been tested. Hagen, a faithful vassal of King Gunther, tells the Burgundians how Siegfried had obtained the treasure of the Nibelungs by killing the Nibelung princes Schilbung and Nibelung and seven hundred of their men, how he got his sword Balmung, and how he conquered the dwarf Alberich, from whom he had obtained a magic cap (Tarnkappe) and whom he had left to guard the treasure. Hagen also reports how Siegfried had slain a dragon and bathed himself in its blood, thereby making him invulnerable. Although Siegfried presents a challenge to King Gunther, they become friends and Siegfried agrees to help Gunther in battle against the threatening Saxon King Liudeger and his brother the Danish King Liudegast. Siegfried defeats the kings, captures them and returns them to Worms, where he finally gets to see Kriemhild.

However, before he can marry Kriemhild, Siegfried had to help first Gunther win a bride. Gunther is intent on winning the hand of the beautiful, but physically extremely powerful Queen Brunhild of Isenstein. Brunhild will marry only the man who can defeat her in three contests: spear throwing, boulder hurling, and leaping. Siegfried, Gunther, Hagen, and another vassal, Dancwart, set out alone on their mission to Isenstein. Eventually with the help of the magic cap, which renders him invisible, Siegfried defeats Brunhild for Gunther, although Brunhild believes that Gunther did it and Siegfried is Gunther’s vassal.

There is a great celebration when the men return to Worms with Brunhild, Siegfried and Kriemhild are formally engaged, but Brunhild is very unhappy to see Siegfried, whom she had thought to be of inferior rank, sitting next to Kriemhild. At night, when Gunther seeks her love, Brunhild ties him up with her girdle of silk cord and hangs him on a nail on the wall, determined to lose her virginity only until she has learned the truth about Siegfried. Again Gunther asks Siegfried for help. He subdues Brunhild for Gunther, allowing Gunther to deflower Brunhild himself, thereby depriving her of her great strength. On an impulse, however, Siegfried takes Brunhild’s ring and girdle with him and gives them to Kriemhild.

Siegfried and Kriemhild are married and return to Siegfried’s ancestral lands, where Siegfried takes over the rule from his father. Ten years pass, but Brunhild is still dissatisfied and angry. She persists in asking Gunther to order his vassal, Siegfried, to court. Eventually, Gunther does invite Siegfried, and a great celebration is held when Siegfried and Kriemhild arrive. But the festival turns into a disaster. Brunhild and Kriemhild get into an argument concerning the relative rank and merit of her husbands. Angry words are exchanged at the entry to the minster. When Brunhild tries to precede Kriemhild, the latter puts her to shame by stating that Siegfried, not Gunther, had deflowered her. As proof she produces Brunhild’s ring and girdle. When confronted by Gunther, Siegfried apologizes for his wife’s behavior and swears that he had not robbed Brunhild of her virginity. This is of course technically correct, but Hagen, incensed at the disgrace of his queen, swears revenge and lays plans to have Siegfried killed.

Under the pretext of a campaign against the hostile Saxons, Hagen cleverly finds out from Kriemhild the one place where Siegfried can be wounded (a linden leaf had fallen between his shoulder blades so that the dragon’s blood did not cover the skin at that spot). The war against the Saxons is then called off and turned into a great hunt. Despite Kriemhild’s premonitions in two dreams, Siegfried takes part in the hunt, outracing everyone at one point to reach a spring first. Here Hagen murders him ruthlessly. Siegfried’s body is dropped at Kriemhild’s door. Kriemhild is distraught. When Hagen passes Siegfried’s bier, blood oozes from the mortal wound.

As the first part of the epic comes to a close after Siegfried’s burial, Giselher and Gernot fetch the treasure from the Nibelungs for Kriemhild, but when she appears to be spending it too lavishly, Hagen seizes it and sinks it in the river Rhine secretly. For thirteen long years Kriemhild stays in Worms ever mindful of Siegfried’s murder.

The scene shifts in the second part of the ‘Nibelungenlied’ first to Etzel’s castle in Hungary. His wife Helche has died and on the advice of his men he sends Rüdiger von Bechelaren (Pöchlarn) to Worms to woo Kriemhild. Initially reluctant, she finally agrees, thinking always of an opportunity for vengeance. Rüdiger’s return together with Kriemhild is described in considerable detail with stops in Passau and Pöchlarn, followed by the royal wedding with Etzel in Vienna and the trip back to Gran in Hungary. Kriemhild bears Etzel a son, Ortlieb, but during the thirteen years with Etzel her yearning for revenge for Siegfried’s death does not diminish. Eventually she asks Etzel to invite her relatives to a great festival, and messengers are sent to carry out her wish.

Hagen is suspicious and initially advices against accepting the invitation but is finally persuaded to go, provided the men are well armed. When they arrive at the Danube crossing, they find no ferryman at first. Hagen, however, meets water nymphs, who warn him that everyone except the king’s chaplain will perish in Hungary. After an argument Hagen kills the ferryman and ferries the company across the Danube himself, in the course of which he throws the chaplain in the river, only to see that he does not drown but rather gains the shore safely to return to Worms.

The Burgundians are received warmly by Bishop Pilgrim in Passau, and there is a splendid celebration at Pöchlarn, when Giselher is engaged to Rüdiger’s daughter. However, the mood becomes ominous when Dietrich of Bern rides out to warn the men against Kriemhild, who still mourns for Siegfried. Kriemhild receives her relatives coolly. Upon her inquiry, Hagen tells her that he had hidden the treasure in the Rhine. The tension in the atmosphere builds up when Kriemhild sees Hagen holding Siegfried’s sword across his knees. She weeps and reminds him that he had killed Siegfried, a bloody deed that he readily admits as vengeance for the insults of Kriemhild to Brunhild.

Suspicions grow, insults are exchanged, and soon a full-scale fight breaks out, which eventually involves almost everyone. Dancwart kills Etzel’s brother, whose death is then avenged by a Hunnish troop. Hagen kills Ortlieb, Etzel’s son. Kriemhild, Etzel and Dietrich are allowed to leave the hall, and the fighting continues throughout the castle with the Burgundians trapped in the great hall. Many individual combats are depicted, but through it all Kriemhild is urging her men to capture Hagen, to no avail. Finally she has the hall put to the torch. She reminds Rüdiger of his obligation as a vassal, although he is also bound to the Burgundians by the engagement of his daughter. Rüdiger reluctantly fights for the Huns and dies in battle. As the carnage increases fewer and fewer heroes are left until Gunther, Hagen, Dietrich and his vassal Hildebrand remain alive. Dietrich seizes Hagen, ties him up, and brings him to Kriemhild, who promises him his freedom if he will tell her where the treasure is. Hagen replies that he will not tell her so long as one of his liege lords still lives. Kriemhild has Gunther’s head cut off and brings it to Hagen, who says that now only God and he know where the treasure is and again refuses to divulge its location. Incensed, Kriemhild seizes Siegfried’s sword and cuts off the head of the defenseless Hagen, whereupon Hildebrand slays Kriemhild. At the end Dietrich and Etzel are left to lament the many dead heroes.

Preceding synopsis was adopted from Wailes (1978: 120 – 123) with slight changes.

The ‘Klage’

The ‘Klage‘ starts with a summary of the NL, followed by a listing of the slayed heroes. Blödelin, Etzel’s brother, lost three thousand men; he sacrificed life and honor in the loyal service of Kriemhild. Herman of Poland and Sigeher of Walachen lost together two thousand, and Walber of Turkey twelve hundred men. Irnfrid of Thuringia, Hawart of Denmark, and Iring of Lotharingia were also among the victims together with three thousand men. Altogether there were forty thousand lifes lost.

Etzel grives mightily, and people gather from the countryside to join in the lamentation. Many tears are shed in particular for Kriemhild, who died by Hildebrand’s hand because she killed Hagen. Etzel’s lamentations are so intemperate that Dietrich chides him but he continues to lament the loss of everything but life itself. Dietrich asks in turn for consolation now that all those men have fallen who were prepared to help him to regain his realm. Etzel, Dietrich, and Hildebrand lament the death of each and every hero and praise them. The bodies are now gathered in a hall and disarmed amidst continued mourning. The mourning spreads to the people at large and is joined by many women from Helche’s former retinue, a number of whom is identified. Dietrich has the three Burgundian kings placed in separate coffins. Etzel prepares coffins for his wife, son, and brother. The leading heroes are provided for similarly.

The burials go on for three days, with many dead consigned to a common grave.

Hildebrand advises Dietrich that they should depart with Dietrich’s wife Herrat, leaving all the belongings of the dead with Etzel. These are to be returned to the countries from which the warriors came, together with news of their deaths. Etzel dispatches a mission led by Swemmelin to Burgundy to inform Brunhild and Ute. The messengers ride on to Pöchlarn. Their small number inspires Rüdiger’s daughter Dietlind with foreboding, and when the truth come out she and her mother fall in a swoon. Revived, they break into lamentations and learn the detail of the tragedy from Swemmelin. He now rides on to Passau to Bishop Pilgrim, uncle of the Burgundians, to deliver his message. Then the messengers ride on to Worms where Swemmelin appears before Brunhild and asks for permission to deliver his message in safety and then delivers an account of the terrible events. The lamentations recommence and spread the news to Ute at Lorsch who succumbs to her grief a week later. Eventually calm is restored and the people call for Gunther’s son to be knighted and crowned. In a retrospective lament Rumold, the High Steward of the Burgundians, attributes the responsibility for the tragedy to Hagen’s pride and exculpates Kriemhild and Siegfried.

Swemmelin now returns to Hunland.

The poet concludes by stating that he has no certain knowledge of Etzel’s fate.

Preceding synopsis is a shortened version of the summary published by Andersson (1987: 265 – 259

The ‘Knight in the Panther Skin’ (Synopsis)

The history begins in the kingdom of Arabia. Its King Rostevan appoints his daughter Tinatin as co-regent and later queen. The young hero Avtandil adores her in great love. During a hunt King Rostevan is very offended by an unknown knight dressed in a panther skin who is apparently startled from deep sadness and who kills twelve esquires from the royal entourage and just disappears. As a result Tinatin asks Avtandil to search after the mysterious knight. As reward she promises to him her love.

After a long quest Avtandil finds the wanted man who lives in a forest wilderness. During a man-to-man talk the stranger tells Avtandil his story:

The knight in the panther skin is an Indian prince with name Tariel. He had been appointed by the Indian Great King Parsadan as his successor since Parsadan was childless. However, Parsadan got a daughter who received the name Nestan-Daredshan and was educated far from the court. When Tariel met the princess for the first time, both fell in deep love with each other. Nestan requested from Tariel to prove himself with deeds in battle by beating the rebellious Khatavians.

[“Khatavians” may mean “Chinese” since North China was named Khatay (or Katai) in Central Asia in former times. Marco Polo also uses for the northern part of China the term Chatay in his travel report from the 13th century. The KPS also provides a vague indication of the position of Khatay. It is written there “We marched beyond the borders of India …” (Coffin 2015: verse 427) or, respectively, “Weit zurück liegt Indiens Grenze …” (Huppert 1955: verse 421) whereas this translates into “far behind is the border of India”, A/N]

If Tariel should win, then they would be united forever. However, after Parsadan decided to marry his daughter off to a Persian prince, Tariel killed the bridegroom on request of Nestan. Parsadan’s sister arranged as a punishment the abduction of Nestan by two slaves who took her to sea on a boat. Tariel started searching for his beloved in black despair but could not find her despite his greatest efforts. One day Tariel helped a stranger who was in great distress and who turned out to be Pridon, the king of Mulgansar. They got to be friends and Pridon told Tariel that he had seen Nestan together with her two captors on a ship. Tariel searched for Nestan, however, remained unsuccessfully and since then he lives in deep mourning in a cave in wilderness together with Asmat, Nestan’s faithful servant. Tariel had this cave, a treasure cave, conquered once from fabulous creatures.

Avtandil vows Tariel friendship and help, but first he returns for Arabia after almost three year absence. He tells Tinatin the whole story of his quest and starts then to return to Tariel to help him searching for Nestan, although King Rostevan did not allow him to leave. When he arrives at the cave it turns out that Tariel is close to insanity due to his unhappy love affair. Since Tariel’s condition does not enable him to continue his search for Nestan, Avtandil decides to move on by himself. After visiting Pridon who had no news about Nestan, he travels to the Sea Realm with Gulansharo as its capital. He meets there Patman, the wife of a rich merchant. She falls in love with Avtandil and he returns her love because he anticipates that she knows something about Nestan. It turns out that Patman freed Nestan from her captors and helped her later on to escape from Gulansharo after the king of Sea Realm wanted to marry Nestan off to his son. Patman knows that Nestan is held captive now by the ruler of the Kadjis. Patma promises Avtandil her help. She has a servant who is a sorcerer and who flies invisibly to Nestan to exchange letters between Patman and her. Avtandil notifies Pridon and returns immediately to Tariel in whose wilderness. Tariel and Avtandil search the treasure cave and find three wonderful armours together with three swords which “cut iron like wool”. They arm themselves and take the third armour along to Pridon whom they visit first. He provides three hundred horsemen and with their help the three friends defeat the Kadjis despite their superior numbers and liberate Nestan.

On the way back they meet the King of Sea Realm who celebrates a wedding for Tariel and Nestan which lasts seven days. Tariel rewards Patman with the whole treasure of the Kadjis, and the King of Sea Realm receives the empire of the Kadjis as a gift. They return then to Pridons kingdom where again a wedding party is arranged for Tariel and Nestan. On their further trip they reach Tariel’s cave. Tariel rewards Pridon’s horsemen and Pridon himself with the treasure they found in the cave. When they return to Arabia Tinatin gets married to Avtandil. Tariel returns to India and becomes king of the whole country, since Parsadan has passed away in the meantime. Asmat receives a princedom in reward of her loyalty.

The synopsis of this rather intricate story is based on a summary of Mirianashvili et al. (1999: 169-173) with additions from other German papers.

German and English editions of Knight in the Panther Skin

There are six German translations with different metre and strophic form (Chotivari 2011: 10 – 18):

Artur Leist, 1889: no quatrains, crossed rhymes.

Marie Prittwitz, 1947 (printed 2011): quatrains with rhyming lines of both fifteen and sixteen syllables, but no change of metre within each stanza.

Hugo Huppert, 1955: quatrains with rhyming lines of both fifteen and sixteen syllables, but no change of metre within each stanza.

Ruth Neukomm, 1974: prose writing (see below).

Michael von Tseretheli, 1975: word-for-word translation.

Hermann Buddensieg, 1976: hexameter.

(see also under references)

Not all German translators or editors respectively could speak Georgian. Two of them used Russian editions as basis and one used Tsretheli’s translation. Ruth Neukomm (1974: 476p.) explains why she uses prose:

[…] entscheidend aber war die Tatsache, dass die Strukturen des Georgischen und des Deutschen so grundverschieden sind, dass es nur schwerlich gelingen wird, Musikalität und Rhythmus von Rustavelis Versen wiederzugeben und dazu mit einer nur annähernd genauen Wiedergabe des Inhalts in Einklang zu bringen. Vieles, was im Georgischen mit einem Wort gesagt werden kann, muss z.B. im Deutschen recht häufig in mehrere Worte aufgelöst werden.


[…] crucial [to the selection of prose, A/N] was the fact that the structures between Georgian and German are so entirely different that one will hardly succeed to reproduce the musicality and rhythm of Rustaveli’s verses and to quote at the same time the original text as accurately as possible. There is much to be said with a single word in Georgian but which needs several words in German to reach the same meaning.]

This is aggravated by the fact “that our efficient and solution-oriented German language is only suitable to a limited extent to use an empurpled diction” (translation of Kilian 2015: 28).

Boeder (2004: 219) says consequently that the KPS is a kind of poetry which - especially when translated - will leave a strange impression [on German readers, A/N].

The textual extent of the German editions is different too. In most cases the editions consist of prologue, text, and epilogue. Rustaveli’s epos is said to have typically fifty-seven chapters (Mirianashvili et al. 1999: 169). However, this does not apply for the six German editions as documented below:

Artur Leist: 46 chapters, no counting of stanzas

Marie Prittwitz: 61 chapters, 1671 stanzas

Hugo Huppert: 64 chapters, 1671 stanzas

Ruth Neukomm: 56 chapters (plus 5 without headline), no counting of stanzas

Michael von Tseretheli: 8 cantos, 1230 stanzas (including the eliminated stanzas: 1600)

Hermann Buddensieg : 61 chapters, 1587 stanzas

(The counting of chapters and stanzas does not include prologue and epilogue.)


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"The Nibelungenlied" and the "Knight in the Panther Skin". A comparison of two medieval epics from Germany and Georgia
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Diese Arbeit ist eine stark erweiterte Übersetzung des wissenschaftl. Aufsatzes veröffentlicht 2016 bei GRIN unter v334915. Sie entstand als persönliche Studie unabhängign von einer Institution. Zweck der Übersetzung ist, die Arbeit ausländischen Interessenten zugänglich zu machen.
nibelungenlied, knight, panther, skin, germany, georgia
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Rainer Schoeffl (Author), 2016, "The Nibelungenlied" and the "Knight in the Panther Skin". A comparison of two medieval epics from Germany and Georgia, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/350770


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