Hunting hypothetical Heldenliede

I am currently writing a paper on the Latin epic poem Waltharius and so faced inexorably with the problem of ‘Germanic heroic epic’ (Heldensage, Heldenlied, Heldenepos), a concept I would normally shun. Unfortunately, because the Waltharius (although written in Latin) contains a story otherwise known only from vernacular texts, analysis of its contents has largely been annexed by Germanists, who are very keen on this idea. (The Latinists who discuss it largely focus on the problem of its date and its possible citations from/in other texts, which becomes even more impenetrable for a non-literary scholar like myself). In previous years reading some of the many articles on Waltharius I have become inured to their earnest discussions of heroic epic. Now, however, I am feeling like revolting. Why do so many scholars of German literature have this urge to discuss largely non-existent works?

There is almost no ‘Germanic heroic epic’ extant in any original form. The Waltharius is various dated between about 800-930. Even if you take the later date, there is very little secular ‘Germanic’ poetry that is earlier: Hildesbrandlied, Beowulf (probably), Widsith, Deor, one or two other Anglo-Saxon fragments and a few poems of the Poetic Edda. Even of these, several have clearly been extensively reworked to show off a specific poet’s craft (Beowulf, the Eddic poems) and so can’t be taken as necessarily representative of an ‘authentic tradition’. Most of what is claimed to be the ‘ethos’ of Germanic epic is taken from considerably later works, whether the Old Norse/Icleandic sagas or Middle High German works like the Niebelungenlied. We can tell in some cases that they use stories that are much older, based on the names of characters. It seems to me that presuming therefore that the ethos or values of the stories are necessarily the same as that of earlier times is quite unjustified. Similarly, a scholar who claims that whatever merit the Waltharius may have as a poem is due to its (entirely hypothetical and unknowable German original) should surely just be told to lie down and have a nice rest.

As for those who invoke ‘oral themes’, the urge to jump up and down on such scholars (while, of course, improvising insults at the same time) sometimes becomes considerable. Take a paper I read recently on ‘Formulaic Tradition and the Latin Waltharius’. The themes that this scholar identifies in the poem as ‘type scenes of oral-formulaic vernacular poetry’ include ‘Exile, Sleep after Feasting, Journey to Trial and the Hero on the Beach’. Sleep after Feasting does seem a mainly ‘Germanic’ theme, but I am deeply unconvinced that you can separate out ‘Germanic’ exile as a motif from ancient Roman exile (or indeed probably from classical Chinese or Russian exile). As for Journey to Trial, let me quote one definition from the paper:

‘a hero or heroine (a) makes a journey…,(b) is in serious danger, (c) experiences one or more confrontations…and (d) emerges physically or spiritually victorious.’

In other words, Dan Brown is following in a great oral-formulaic vernacular tradition. Similarly ‘The Hero on the Beach’ formula can mysteriously be applied to Waltharius (which never goes near the sea) by replacing the literal beach with ‘a liminal situation’. (And if a literary scholar can’t find a liminal situation whenever they need one in a text, what use are they?)

I’m not the first person, obviously, to come up with some of these objections. In fact one German article (which I haven’t yet been able to read) is called ‘Ist das germanische Heldenlied ein Phantom?’ and some scholars have been keen to reply ‘Yes’. As a historian, however, I’m also interested in the question of why such phenomena are held onto so tenaciously. It does seem to me something specific to study of German literature. As far as I am aware, the scholarship of most other European vernacular traditions doesn’t concentrate on lengthy discussions of non-extant texts, but gets to work with considering what does survive. I suspect that this all stems from how German historical and literary scholarship got tied up with ideas of German nationalism from the early nineteenth century onwards. (One of the key journals is still called Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur (periodical for German antiquity and German literature)). If the Germans had to have their own independent non-Roman history and culture (even if accounts of the ‘Germanic ethos’ are based largely on the reports of the Roman Tacitus), then similarly, the migration period Germans had to have their own authentic literature. Since whatever they had was simply oral, the traces of this had to be tracked down even into thirteenth century texts and then reconstructed into a ‘pure’ original (by taking out whatever bits didn’t seem to fit with an idealised ‘Germanic warrior society’ that was really a figment of nineteenth century imagination). Early medieval German history, however, has in many cases moved on from such a static picture of ‘Germanism’. I wonder how long it will take till medieval German literary studies do?


One thought on “Hunting hypothetical Heldenliede

  1. Not nearly as extensive, well-documented, or ingeniously argued, the search for the “prehispanic” epic in the Philippines nevertheless bears some relationship to the German case.

    When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they presumably destroyed whatever Filipino writings were extant, although there is little evidence than anything more substantial than short messages or poems existed. The friars who dominated the colonial administration were, unsurprisingly, opposed to almost any manifestation of non-Christian religiosity, so we know that they did what they could to extirpate “pagan” practices, and would probably have dealt summarily with religious texts, had any been around. But were there any?

    Centuries later, Filipino nationalists, struggling against Spanish (and later American) colonialism, sought whatever evidence they could find that the Filipinos were “civilized” before they were colonized, and this effort – begun in the late 19th century – has included attempts to reconstitute prehispanic religion and literature.

    Those remote upland peoples who were not colonized by Spain retained into the 20th century a strong oral tradition, including in a few cases “epics,” with the usual panoply of mighty deeds, various gods/spirits, and heroic achievement. These have been reclaimed by nationalists, but with a certain ambivalence, because the non-colonized (and therefore non-Catholic) minorities are still, in some sense, not regarded as fully “Filipino” in many quarters. (See William Henry Scott, “The Creation of a Cultural Minority,” 1976)

    What is wanted, then, is a surviving prehispanic epic from one of the colonized/Christianized peoples of the islands – and there appears to be at least the fragment of one from Kabikolan (the Bikol region)! Unfortunately, it only exists in Spanish, from a late 19th-century missionary, but this has not prevented many local scholars from giving it a title (usually “Ibalon”), “retranslating” it back into the “original” Bikol, and interpreting the hell out of it as an “authentic” representation of autochthonous culture.

    Ignored in this process is the study – admittedly obscure, but not beyond finding – of “Ibalon” and its missionary source which suggests, quite convincingly, that this was never a translation of an indigenous folk-epic at all. Rather – the author (himself a Spanish friar, FWIW) suggests – it was an original poem, in Spanish, by the missionary, based on local cultural motifs that he had picked up in the course of his parish service in Kabikolan.

    As such, it is another tantalizing reminder that there were still ancient myths floating around three centuries after the Spanish conquest. But it is NOT the “prehispanic epic” for which the nationalists long – and which they appear determined not to abandon, despite evidence to the contrary.

    Scholarship is a fine thing, but it can’t really stand up to the demands of nationalism. (Extrapolate this maxim as you will.)


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