The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
by Elsa D'Esterre-Keeling.
VII.--The Last of Germany's Epics.
The first of Germany's epics were those important poems--the Nibelungenlied and Gudrun, belonging in their present form to the twelfth century.
The authors of these poems are unknown; they are supposed to have grown up among the people--whence the name Volksepos,* national epics.
* "Volksepos" is a singular word, a collective.
The Volksepos was followed by Kunstepos, art-epics, the best among which is Parzival, by Wolfram von Eschenbach, of the thirteenth century.
But now the fourteenth century has come--the third period of German poetry, that sad time dating from the end of the Crusades to the Reformation, in round numbers from 1300 to 1500. This is the time of the so-called Faustrecht, literally "fistright," the time when the watchword was "might is right;" a time of strife, especially strife in the Church; a time of material aims. What we call "trade" began to flourish, and the poets traded with the rest. The German Meistersanger, who belong to this period, are tradesmen-singers.
The falling-off in literature shows itself first in the epic poetry. Here was a species of composition in which the Germans had shown that they could excel, could approach the Ancient Greeks. The Nibelungenlied and Gudrun are indeed not such perfect poems as the Iliad and the Odyssey, but to the question--What epics has the world besides the Iliad and the Odyssey? the answer is--The Nebelungenlied and Gundrun.
It is sad to find these epics followed by poems so inferior to them as those of which I am going to speak--Ortnit, Hugdietrich, Wolfdietrich, Rabenschlacht, Ecken Ausfahrt, Rosengarten, Zwerg Laurin, Hurnen Siegfried, which together form the famous Heldenbuch. This was one of the first books which was printed in Germany, to which country it stands much in the same relation as to us Malory's "History of King Arthur." The English compilation is, as everyone knows, in prose; the Heldenbuch, it also a compilation,* not an original work, is in verse.
Not only are the poems contained in the Heldenbuch structurally inferior to the Nibelungenlied and Gudrun, but they are lacking in the tragic pathos of the former and the sweet tenderness of the latter of these epics. On the other hand, there are touches in the stories contained in the Heldenbuch which are delightfully humorous. To begin with the poem of Otnit, or Ortnit. In it we are told how Ortnit, King of Lampartei (Lombardy), went to the East, and there wooed and won a fair princess, the daughter of King Machabol. This he was only able to do with the aid of Elberich, or Oberon, a fairy friend, who set the Turkish king at defiance, making himself invisible in the first interview, and pulling out a handful of Machabol's beard. The poet Wieland made use of this prank of Oberon's in his great comic epic. Of the princess we are told among other things these: her heart burned like a red ruby; her eyes shed beams like the full moon; she had adorned herself with roses and with small pearls; her body was beautiful and her waist small; she was well-fashioned, right as a candlestick, her two hands were proper, the little nails fair and pure; her hair was bound beautifully with fine silk, and hanging down; on it was a crown of gold with precious stones; in the front was a carbuncle which shone like a taper, howbeit not like the maiden's hair, which shone like the sun; her colour was pure, lovely as milk and blood; thro' her pure locks shining you might see her white neck, like snow.†
* The name of the earliest compiler has not come down to us.
Pure ("rein") is the favourite adjective with these old German poets, in the few stanzas of which the above is a prose epitome we hear of--
"die maget reine"--the maid pure
With this young wife, fair and pure, King Otnit returns to Lampartei. Here the new queen is christened Sidrat, and the royal couple settle at Garda. (The word means "a garden." Cp. "Joyous Gard," in Arthur.) But Machabol's chin still smarts, and evil is in store for Otnit. One day he receives a present of two young dragons from his father-in-law, the Turk. One of the dragons devours him. That is the end of Ortnit or Otnit, but we shall hear of Sidrat again.
Hugdietrich's story is another which turns on wooing. Hugdietrich is in love with a princess, to whom he can only gain access by artifice. So he dons the disguise of a woman, and, more than that, he does some needle-work. A marriage takes place in secret, and Wolfdietrich is born. The child is so-called because he is let down from his mother's castle, and, like two other children similarly exposed, is suckled by a wolf.
Wolfdietrich, when he grows to manhood, has many strange adventures. His chief foes are his brothers, who slay one-half of his liegemen and imprison the rest. To free these faithful ones becomes now the one desire of Wolfdietrich's life. Meeting King Otnit he overcomes him' then, at Sidrat's plea, makes peace with him, and the two foes, turned to friends, go forth in search of the captive warriors. But their roads part when Wolfdietrich sets out for the Holy Land. Then it is that Otnit meets with his death through the dragon. When Wolfdietrich returns he avenges Otnit's death, slaying the dragon; and the pretty Sidrat dries her tears to thank the hero with a smile; and then a marriage takes place.
Those are the tales of Lampartei contained in the Heldenbuch.
The other tales deal with Dietrich, the most renowned of Germany's olden heroes. The Rabenschlacht is the rather misleading name given to the poem wich tells of a battle fought at Ravenna, in which Dietrich was victorious over his uncle Ermanrich. Dietrich rode to Ravenna with two young princes, to whose mother he had sworn that he would shield them from harm, but the hot-headed lads rushed to meet their deaths; and Dietrich, in deepest grief, had to face the weeping, angry queen.
Ecken Ausfahrt (The Raid of Ecke) tells the story of a giant slain by Dietrich. A queen had "dared" Ecke to fight with Dietrich; so off went Ecke to do so. He had far to go, and had to make the journey on foot, for no steed could bear him; but he sallied forth bravely, bounding along like a leopard, and at last he stood face to face with Dietrich. The fight was a terrible one; but at last Dietrich slew the brave giant. Then his heart was filled with sorrow that so brave a giant should be dead; and he mourned over him and buried him reverently. "Gnad dir Gott, lieber Ecke." "The grace of God be with thee, dear Ecke." So he said as he rode away.
Der Rosengarten (The Rosegarden) is the pretty name of the poem in which we are told how Kriemhild (of the Nibelungenlied) lived in a garden fenced only by a silken thread. Here twelve brave warriors protect the lovely princess. These warriors are overcome by none until Dietrich, with eleven brave men--among them old Hildebrand and Friar Islan--lays siege to the garden. The conditions of the fight are these: the victors, if any there be--here one can picture the scornful Kriemhild tossing her head--are each to receive from the princess a rose-garland and a kiss. Now all Dietrich's men are victorious, and all receive garlands and kisses, save gruff old Hildebrand, who says that he cares for neither. This is not the case with Friar Islan. He, having beaten one man and got one garland and kiss, beats fifty-two other men who come forward, and so gets fifty-two other garlands and kisses, unwillingly enough, for he is an ugly old fright, and has so rough a beard that Kriemhild's pretty cheek smarts and bleeds, and the tears come to her eyes. Friar Islan is a terrible old man. When he has plagued the lovely princess, he goes back to his monastery and claps the fifty-two garlands on the bare heads of fifty-two friars, with the result that the red blood flows over their ears.* When Friar Islan has so maltreated the good men he asks them to pray for remission of his sins. Some of them say that they will not. These he places in rows of two, ties their beards together, and slings them over poles. Then the others say they will pray for him; and so he gets remission of his sins.
*Cp. Friar Tuck, Robin Hood's chaplain.
Dwarf Laurin is the hero of the poem, sometimes called the Little Rose-garden. This garden is also silken-fenced. Dwarf Laurin vanquished men and giants by magic, and nearly vanquished Dietrich, for he cast him and his men into a deep sleep, and then bound them; but after a while Dietrich awaked and straightway flew into such a passion that flames burst from his lips and loosed the bands that held him. Thus freed, Dietrich set his fellow-captives free, and then they routed Laurin and all his host of little men.
In Hornen Siegfried we are told of the adventures of the famous hero of the Nibelungenlied--how he became "horned," that is, invincible, by bathing in the blood of a dragon; how he became owner of the Nebelungenhoard, or wealth of King Nebelung; how he fought with giants, wounding them and then tearing their wounds asunder with his strong hands, and much more, alike wonderful and alike terrible.
These are the last of Germany's epics proper, the last of the poems based on old fierce tales of battle and love.
The Schwanke, which follow, we should consider narrative rather than epic. They are often bitingly satirical, as, for instance, is the Schwank of the Pfaff von Kalenberg, or Kalenberg priest, an Austrian more witty than wise, more gay than good.
Hans de Buheler tells in mediaeval German the Indian story of the Seven Wise Masters. A prince is slandered to his father by his wicked stepmother, and is condemned to death. On consulting the stars he learns, however, that if he can preserve silence for seven days his sentence will be annulled. This he does. During the seven days the seven wise masters tell the king seven tales, each of which turns on an unjust punishment. Alas, in the seven nights which follow the days, the queen undoes all the good influence which the seven wise men have exerted. But the eighth day comes. Then the prince tells a tale which turns on an unjust punishment and on a wicked queen. The eyes of the king are opened: the queen is sentenced to death, and the prince is restored to his father's favour.
Ritter Stauffenberg, or Peter of Stauffenberg, is the hero of a story in which a mermaid figures, and this old story it was which supplied a modern writer with his plot of "Undine."
The rimed chronicles of Germany may be looked upon as epic in a secondary sense. The last among them appear during this third period of German literature.
Sometimes historical events of the time supplied material for song. The battle of Sempach met with a singer in Halbsuter, and the battle of Murten with one in Veit Weber. Sempach is a little town in Switzerland, in the canton of Lucerne. Here one hot July day of the year 1386 the Swiss overcame his enemy, the Austrian. Sempach lies by a pretty lake, and a chapel--die Schlacht-Kapelle*--keeps alive the memory of that victory. Halbsuter, who sang of it, helped to win it. The hero of it was Arnold of Winkelried, at the mention of whose name the Swiss to this day hold ther heads high. The battle of Murten was fought against Charles the Bold, and the poet, Veit Weber, was in the thick of the fray which he describes. Murten, in the canton of Frieburg, is another town on a lake, and an obelisk commemorates the victory won there.
Thus the old epic dies out in stray battle-songs. German literature is to this day very rich in Kriegslieder--such songs as "Deutschland, Deutschland uber Alles, uber Alles in de Weit."†
Here the words are by Hoffmann von Fallersteben, and the music to which they are sung is by Haydn. One of the best of the Kriegslieder is "Du Schwert an meiner Linken."‡ Here the words are by Korner--born in September, 1791 (his centenary is being just now celebrated throughout Germany)--have been set to music by Weber. The old epic spirit still lives also in the songs called Gedachtnisslieder--commemorative songs; Ehrenlieder-- songs of honour, Heldenlieder--hero-songs, Siegeslieder--victory-songs. Hermann--he who freed Germany from the Roman yoke--Blucher--he who fought at Waterloo--are among the many heroes extolled in these songs. The battle of the Teutoburgerwald--won in olden time against the Romans--and the battle of Leipzig and of Sedan--won in modern times against the French--are among the many battles forming the themes of these songs, some of them very stirring, almost all of them very ungenerous. It was surely most gentle and noble when, in olden time, Dietrich, with tears in his eyes, rode away from defeating the brave giant Ecke; and rude and little noble is it when, in the modern times, Dietrich finds it in him to shout his joy at having defeated a giant--that brave giant France. The Kriegslied, which is "the last of Germany's epics," is a sad product.
†Deutschland, Deutschland over all things, over all things in the world. This is a sort of "Rule, Germania!"
‡"Thou sword upon my left side."
Papers to be answered by Students of the Above:--
(First Class Paper.)
1. Write a short comparative account of the Volksepos, Kunstepos, and Heldenbuch (in German).
2. Turn into German the account contained above of "Echen Ausfahrt."
(Second Class Paper.)
1. Question 1 above (in English).
2. Question 2 above.
Books of interest in connection with above subject:--
"Die Deutschen Volksbucher," by Gustave Schwab (Bertelsmann, Leipsiz; also Reclam, Leipzig). "Der Gehornte Siegfried" (Schwab) is a charming story for child or adult.
Typed by Whitney Townsend, February 2015
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