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 poets craft (Beowulf, the Eddic poems) and so cant 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 cant find a liminal situation whenever they need one in a text, what use are they?)
Im not the first person, obviously, to come up with some of these objections. In fact one German article (which I havent 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, Im 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 doesnt 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 didnt 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?