IV. EPICS AND SAGAS

The secularization of literature went hand in hand with the rise of the national languages. By and large, by the twelfth century, only clerics could understand Latin, and writers who wished to reach a lay audience were compelled to use the vernacular tongues. As social order grew, the reading audience widened, and national literatures rose to meet its demand. French literature began in the eleventh century, German in the twelfth, English, Spanish, and Italian in the thirteenth.

The natural early form of these indigenous literatures was the popular song. The song was drawn out into the ballad; and the ballad, by proliferation or agglutination, swelled into such minor epics as Beowulf, the Chanson de Roland, the Nibelungenlied, and theCid. The Chanson was probably put together about 1130 from ballads of the ninth or tenth century. In 4000 simple, flowing iambic lines it tells the story of Roland’s death at Roncesvalles. Charlemagne, having “conquered” Moorish Spain, turns back with his army toward France; the traitorous Ganelon reveals their route to the enemy; and Roland volunteers to lead the dangerous rear guard. In a narrow winding gorge of the Pyrenees a horde of Basques pours down from the cliffs upon Roland’s little force. His friend Olivier begs him to sound his great horn as a call to Charlemagne for aid, but Roland proudly refuses to ask for help. He and Olivier and Archbishop Turpin lead their troops in a desperate resistance, and they fight till nearly all are dead. Olivier, blinded by blood flowing from mortal wounds in his head, mistakes Roland for an enemy, and strikes him. Roland’s helmet is split from crown to nosepiece, but saves him.

At this blow Roland looks at him,

Asks him gently and softly:

“Sir comrade, do you this in earnest?

I am that Roland who loves you so well.

In no wise have you sent me defiance.”

Says Olivier: “Now I hear you speak;

I do not see you. God see and save you!

Struck you have I. Forgive it to me!”

Roland replies: “I have no injury.

I forgive you here and before God.”

At this word one to the other bows;

And with such love they part.20

Roland at last blows his oliphant, blows till the blood bursts from his temples. Charlemagne hears, and turns back to the rescue, “his white beard flying in the wind.” But the way is long; “high are the mountains, vast and dark; deep are the valleys, swift the streams.” Meanwhile Roland mourns over the corpse of Olivier, and says to it: “Sir comrade, we have been together through many days and many years. You never did me evil, nor I to you. Life is all pain if you are dead.” The Archbishop, also dying, begs Roland to save himself by flight; Roland refuses, and continues to fight till the attackers flee; but he too is mortally wounded. With his last strength he breaks his jeweled sword Durendal against a stone, lest it fall into heathen hands. Now “Count Roland lay under a pine tree, his face turned toward Spain…. Many memories came upon him then; he thought of the lands he had conquered, of sweet France, and his family, and Charles, who had brought him up, and he wept.” He held up his glove to God as a sign of loyal vassalage. Charles, arriving, finds him dead. No translation can catch the simple but knightly dignity of the original, and none but one reared to love France and honor her can feel to the full the power and sentiment of this, the national epic that every French child learns, almost with its prayers.

About 1160 an unknown poet, romantically idealizing the character and exploits of Ruy or Rodrigo Diaz (d. 1099), gave a national epic to Spain in the Poema del Cid. Here too the theme is the struggle of Christian knights against the Spanish Moors, the exaltation of feudal courage, honor, and magnanimity, the glory of war rather than the servitude of love. So Rodrigo, banished by an ungrateful king, leaves his wife and children in a nunnery, and vows never to live with them again until he has won five battles. He goes to fight the Moors, and the first half of the poem resounds with Homeric victories. Between battles the Cid robs Jews, scatters alms among the poor, feeds a leper, eats from the same dish with him, sleeps in the same bed, and discovers him to be Lazarus, whom Christ raised from the dead. This, of course, is not the Cid of history, but it does no greater injury to fact than the Chanson with its idealization of Charlemagne. The Cid became a heady stimulant to Spanish thought and pride; hundreds of ballads were composed about its hero, and a hundred histories more or less historical. There are few things in the world so unpopular as truth, and the backbone of men and states is a concatenation of romance.

No one has yet explained why little Iceland, harassed by the elements and isolated by the sea, should have produced in this period a literature of scope and brilliance quite out of proportion to its place and size. Two circumstances helped: a rich store of orally transmitted historical traditions, dear to any segregated group; and a habit of reading—or being read to—which was favored by long winter nights. Already in the twelfth century there were many private libraries in the island, in addition to those in the monasteries. When writing became a familiar accomplishment, laymen as well as priests put this racial lore, once the property of scalds, into literary form.

By a rare anomaly the leading writer of thirteenth-century Iceland was also its richest man, and twice the president of the republic—the “speaker of the law.” Snorri Sturluson (1178–1241) loved life more than letters; he traveled widely, engaged vigorously in politics and feuds, and was murdered by his son-in-law at sixty-two. His Heimskringla—The Round World—told Norse history and legend with a spare and brief simplicity natural to a man of action. His Edda Snorra Sturlusonar, or Prose Edda, gave a summary of Biblical history, a synopsis of Norse mythology, an essay on poetic meters, a treatise on the art of poetry, and a unique explanation of the art’s urological origin. Two warring groups of gods made peace by spitting into a jar; from this spittle was formed a demigod, Kvasir, who taught men wisdom like Prometheus. Kvasir was slain by dwarfs, who mixed his blood with wine and produced a nectar that conferred the gift of song on all who drank of it. The great god Odin found his way to where the dwarfs had stored this poetic wine, drank it all up, and flew to heaven. But some of the pent-up liquid escaped from him by a means rarely used in public fountains; this divine stream fell in an inspiring spray upon the earth; and those who were bedewed by it imbibed the gift of poesy.21 It was a learned man’s nonsense, quite as rational as history.

The literature of Iceland in this period is astonishingly rich, and still alive with interest, vivacity, humor, and a poetic charm that pervades its prose. Hundreds of sagas were written, some brief, some as long as a novel, some historical, most of them mingling history and myth. In general they were civilized memories of a barbarous age, compact of honor and violence, complicated with litigation, and mitigated with love. The Ynglinga sagas of Snorri repeatedly tell of Norse knights who burned one another, or themselves, in their halls or cups. The most fertile of these legends was the Volsungasaga. Its stories had an early form in the Elder or Poetic Edda; they have their latest form in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs.

A Volsung was any descendant of Waels, a Norse king, who was great-grandson of Odin and grandfather to Sigurd (Siegfried). In the Nibelungenlied the Nibelungs are Burgundian kings; in the Volsungasaga they are a race of dwarfs guarding in the Rhine a gold treasure and ring which are infinitely precious but bring a curse and misfortune to all who possess them. Sigurd slays Fafnir the dragon guardian of the hoard, and captures it. On his wanderings he comes to a fire-encircled hill, on which the Valkyrie (an Odin-descended demigoddess) Brunhild sleeps; this is one form of the Sleeping Beauty tale. Sigurd is ravished by her beauty, and she is ravished; they plight their troth; and then—as is the way of men in many medieval romances—he leaves her and resumes his travels. At the court of Giuki, a Rhine king, he finds the princess Gudrun. Her mother gives him an enchanted drink, which enables him to forget Brunhild and marry Gudrun. Gunnar, son of Giuki, marries Brunhild, and brings her to the court. Resenting Sigurd’s amnesia, she has him killed; then in remorse she mounts his funeral pyre, slays herself with his sword, and is consumed with him.

The most modern in form of these Icelandic sagas is The Story of Burnt Njal (c. 1220). The characters are sharply defined by their deeds and words rather than by description; the tale is well constructed, and moves with inherent fatality through stirring events to the central catastrophe—the burning of Njal’s house, with himself and his wife Bergthora and his sons, by an armed band of enemies led by one Flosi, and bent on blood vengeance against Njal’s sons.

Then Flosi… called out to Njal, and said,

“I will offer thee, master Njal, leave to go out, for it is unworthy that thou shouldst burn indoors.”

“I will not go out,” said Njal, “for I am an old man, and little fitted to avenge my sons, but I will not live in shame.”

Then Flosi said to Bergthora, “Come thou out, housewife, for I will for no sake burn thee indoors.”

“I was given away to Njal young,” said Bergthora, “and I have promised him this, that we would both share the same fate.”

After that they both went back into the house.

“What counsel shall we now take?” said Bergthora.

“We will go to our bed,” said Njal, “and lay us down; I have long been eager for rest.”

Then she said to the boy Thord, Kari’s son, “Thee will I take out, and thou shalt not burn in here.”

“Thou hast promised me this, grandmother,” said the boy, “that we should never part so long as I wished to be with thee; but methinks it is much better to die with thee and Njal than to live after you.”

Then she bore the boy to her bed, and … put him between herself and Njal. Then they signed themselves and the boy with the cross, and gave over their souls into God’s hand; and that was the last word men heard them utter.22

The age of the migrations (300–600) had deposited in the confused memory of peoples and minstrels a thousand stories of social chaos, barbaric courage, and murderous love. Some of these tales were carried to Norway and Iceland, and produced the V olsungasaga; many, with kindred names and themes, lived and multiplied in Germany in the form of legends, ballads, and sagas. At an unknown time in the twelfth century an unknown German, uniting and transforming such materials, composed theNibelungenlied, or Song of the Nibelungs. Its form is a concatenation of rhyming couplets in Middle High German; its narrative is a brew of primitive passions and pagan moods.

Sometime in the fourth century King Gunther and his two brothers ruled Burgundy from their castle at Worms on the Rhine; and with them dwelt their young sister Kriemhild—“in no land was any fairer.” In those days King Siegmund governed the Lowlands, and enfeoffed his son Siegfried (Sigurd) with a rich estate near Xanten, also on the Rhine. Hearing of Kriemhild’s loveliness, Siegfried invited himself to Gunther’s court, made himself welcome there, lived there for a year, but never saw Kriemhild, though she, looking from her high window upon the youths tilting in the courtyard, loved him from the first. Siegfried surpassed all in jousts, and fought bravely for the Burgundians in their wars. When Gunther celebrated a victorious peace he bade the ladies join the feast.

Many a noble maiden adorned herself with care, and the youths longed exceedingly to find favor in their eyes, and had not taken a rich King’s land in lieu thereof…. And lo, Kriemhild appeared, like the dawn from out the dark clouds; and he that had borne her so long in his heart was no more aweary…. And Siegfried joyed and sorrowed, for he said in his heart, “How should I woo such as thee? Surely it was a vain dream; yet I were liefer dead than a stranger to thee”.… Her color was kindled when she saw before her the high-minded man, and she said, “Welcome, Sir Siegfried, noble knight and good.” His courage rose at her words; and graceful as beseemed a knight he bowed himself before her and thanked her. And love that is mighty constrained them, and they yearned with their eyes in secret.

Gunther, unmarried, hears of the Icelandic queen Brunhild; but she, he is informed, can be won only by one who excels her in three trials of strength; and if he fails in any, he forfeits his head. Siegfried agrees to help Gunther win Brunhild if the King will give him Kriemhild to wife. They cross the sea with the speed and ease of romance; Siegfried, made invisible by a magic cape, helps Gunther meet the tests; and Gunther brings the reluctant Brunhild home as his bride. Eighty-six damsels help Kriemhild prepare rich garments for her. In a double marriage of great pomp Gunther weds Brunhild, and Siegfried is joined to Kriemhild.

But Brunhild, seeing Siegfried, feels that he, not Gunther, was meant to be her mate. When Gunther goes in to her on their marriage night she repulses him, ties him in a knot, and hangs him up on the wall. Gunther, released, begs Siegfried’s aid; the hero, on the next night, disguises himself as Gunther, and lies beside Brunhild, while Gunther, hidden in the darkened room, hears all and sees nothing. Brunhild throws Siegfried out of bed, and engages him in a bone-crunching, head-cracking combat quite without rules. “Alas,” he says to himself amid the fight, “if I lose my life by the hand of a woman, all wives evermore will make light of their husbands.” Brunhild is finally overcome, and promises to be a wife; Siegfried retires unseen, bearing away her girdle and her ring; and Gunther’ takes his place beside the exhausted queen. Siegfried makes a present of the girdle and ring to Kriemhild. He brings her to his father, who crowns him King of the Lowlands. Using his Nibelungen wealth, Siegfried clothes his wife and her maidens more richly than ever women were robed before.

Some time later Kriemhild visits Brunhild at Worms; Brunhild, jealous of Kriemhild’s finery, reminds her that Siegfried is Gunther’s vassal. Kriemhild retorts by showing her the girdle and ring as proof that Siegfried, not Gunther, had overcome her. Hagen, gloomy half brother to Gunther, rouses him against Siegfried; they invite him to a hunt; and as he stoops over a brook to drink, Hagen pierces him with a spear. Kriemhild, seeing her hero dead, “lay senseless in a swoon all that day and night.” She inherits the Nibelung treasure as Siegfried’s widow, but Hagen persuades Gunther to take it from her. Gunther, his brothers, and Hagen bury it in the Rhine, and take oath never to reveal its hiding place.

For thirteen years Kriemhild broods over vengeance upon Hagen and her brothers, but finds no opportunity. Then she accepts the marriage proposal of the widowed Etzel (Attila), King of the Huns, and goes to Vienna to live as his queen. “So famed was Etzel’s rule that the boldest knights, Christian or heathen, drew ceaselessly to his court…. One saw there what one never sees now-Christian and heathen together. Howso diverse their beliefs, the King gave with such free hand that all had plenty.” There Kriemhild “ruled virtuously” for thirteen years, seeming to forgo vengeance. Indeed she asks Etzel to invite her brothers and Hagen to a feast; they accept despite Hagen’s warning, but come with an armed retinue of yeomen and knights. While the royal brothers, Hagen, and the knights enjoy the hospitality of the Hun court in Etzel’s hall, the yeomen outside are slain at Kriemhild’s command. Hagen is told of it, and springs to arms; a terrible battle ensues in the hall between the Burgundians and the Huns (perhaps recalling their actual war of 437); with his first blow Hagen strikes off the head of Ortlieb, the five-year-old son of Kriemhild and Etzel, and he flings the head into Kriemhild’s lap. When nearly all the Burgundians are dead Gernot, brother of Kriemhild and Gunther, asks Etzel to let the surviving visitors escape from the hall. The Hun knights wish it, Kriemhild forbids it, the slaughter goes on. Her youngest brother, Giselher, who was an innocent lad of five when Siegfried fell, appeals to her: “Fairest sister, how have I deserved death from the Huns? I was ever true to thee, nor did thee any hurt; I rode hither, dearest sister, for that I trusted to thy love. Needs must thou show mercy.” She agrees to let them escape if they will deliver Hagen to her. “God in heaven forbid!” cries Gernot; “liefer would we all die than give one man for our ransom.” Kriemhild draws the Huns from the building, locks the Burgundians in it, and has it set on fire. Maddened with heat and thirst, the Burgundians cry out in agony; Hagen bids them assuage their thirst with the blood of the slain; they do. Some emerge from the flaming and falling timbers; the battle continues in the courtyard until of the Burgundians only Gunther and Hagen remain alive. Dietrich the Goth fights and overcomes Hagen and brings him bound to Kriemhild. She asks Hagen where he has concealed the Nibelung treasure; he refuses to tell her as long as Gunther is alive; Gunther, also captive, is slain at his sister’s bidding, and his head is brought to Hagen. But Hagen defies her: “Now none knows where the hoard is save God and I alone; that to thee, devil-woman, shall never more be known.” She seizes his sword and strikes him dead. Then Hildebrand the Goth, one of her warriors, surfeited with her blood lust, slays Kriemhild.

It is a terrible tale, as red with gore as any in literature or beneath. We do some injustice to it by taking its direst moments from their context of feasting, jousting, hunting, and womanly affairs; but this is the central and bitter theme—a gentle maiden changed by the experience of evil into a ferocious murderess. Strangely little of Christianity is left in the story; it is rather a Greek tragedy of nemesis, without the Greek reluctance to let violence come upon the stage. In this stream of crime almost all feudal virtues are submerged, even the honor of host to invited guest. Nothing could surpass the barbarism of such a tale, until our time.

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