1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Dietrich of Bern
DIETRICH OF BERN, the name given in German popular poetry to Theodoric the Great. The legendary history of Dietrich differs so widely from the life of Theodoric that it has been suggested that the two were originally unconnected. Medieval chroniclers, however, repeatedly asserted the identity of Dietrich and Theodoric, although the more critical noted the anachronisms involved in making Ermanaric (d. 376) and Attila (d. 453) contemporary with Theodoric (b. 455). That the legend is based on vague historical reminiscences is proved by the retention of the names of Theodoric (Thiuda-reiks, Dietrich) and his father Theudemir (Dietmar), by Dietrich’s connexion with Bern (Verona) and Raben (Ravenna). Something of the Gothic king’s character descended to Dietrich, familiarly called the Berner, the favourite of German medieval saga heroes, although his story did not leave the same mark on later German literature as did that of the Nibelungs. The cycle of songs connected with his name in South Germany is partially preserved in the Heldenbuch (q.v.) in Dietrich’s Flucht, the Rabenschlacht and Alpharts Tod; but it was reserved for an Icelandic author, writing in Norway in the 13th century, to compile, with many romantic additions, a consecutive account of Dietrich. In this Norse prose redaction, known as the Vilkina Saga, or more correctly the Thidrekssaga, is incorporated much extraneous matter from the Nibelungen and Wayland legends, in fact practically the whole of south German heroic tradition.
There are traces of a form of the Dietrich legend in which he was represented as starting out from Byzantium, in accordance with historical tradition, for his conquest of Italy. But this early disappeared, and was superseded by the existing legend, in which, perhaps by an “epic fusion” with his father Theudemir, he was associated with Attila, and then by an easy transition with Ermanaric. Dietrich was driven from his kingdom of Bern by his uncle Ermanaric. After years of exile at the court of Attila he returned with a Hunnish army to Italy, and defeated Ermanaric in the Rabenschlacht, or battle of Ravenna. Attila’s two sons, with Dietrich’s brother, fell in the fight, and Dietrich returned to Attila’s court to answer for the death of the young princes. This very improbable renunciation of the advantages of his victory suggests that in the original version of the story the Rabenschlacht was a defeat. In the poem of Ermenrichs Tod he is represented as slaying Ermanaric, as in fact Theodoric slew Odoacer. “Otacher” replaces Ermanaric as his adversary in the Hildebrandslied, which relates how thirty years after the earlier attempt he reconquered his Lombard kingdom. Dietrich’s long residence at Attila’s court represents the youth and early manhood of Theodoric spent at the imperial court and fighting in the Balkan peninsula, and, in accordance with epic custom, the period of exile was adorned with war-like exploits, with fights with dragons and giants, most of which had no essential connexion with the cycle. The romantic poems of König Laurin, Sigenot, Eckenlied and Virginal are based largely on local traditions originally independent of Dietrich. The court of Attila (Etzel) was a ready bridge to the Nibelungen legend. In the final catastrophe he was at length compelled, after steadily holding aloof from the combat, to avenge the slaughter of his Amelungs by the Burgundians, and delivered Hagen bound into the hands of Kriemhild. The flame breath which anger induced from him shows the influence of pure myth, but the tales of his demonic origin and of his being carried off by the devil in the shape of a black horse may safely be put down to the clerical hostility to Theodoric’s Arianism.
Generally speaking, Dietrich of Bern was the wise and just monarch as opposed to Ermanaric, the typical tyrant of Germanic legend. He was invariably represented as slow of provocation and a friend of peace, but once roused to battle not even Siegfried could withstand his onslaught. But probably Dietrich’s fight with Siegfried in Kriemhild’s rose garden at Worms is a late addition to the Rosengarten myth. The chief heroes of the Dietrich cycle are his tutor and companion in arms, Hildebrand (see Hildebrand, Lay of), with his nephews the Wolfings Alphart and Wolfhart; Wittich, who renounced his allegiance to Dietrich and slew the sons of Attila; Heime and Biterolf.