The Oldest English Epic/Chapter 3

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1310216The Oldest English Epic — WaldereFrancis Barton GummereUnknown



FROM the famous Waltharius, one of the best poems of medieval times, although written in Latin hexameters by a scholar at the monastery of St. Gall as a kind of exercise in composition, we learn the story of Walter and Hiltigund as it was current early in the tenth century among the Alemannians. Probably Ekkehard, who wrote it, had his material in Latin prose; it is not now believed that the young poet translated directly from a German original. Surely, however, there were poems about Walter in the vernacular; and the present fragments in Anglo-Saxon show that the story itself was popular throughout the Germanic world. Jacob Grimm believed that Walter was originally a Gothic hero; and the connection with Attila makes for this supposition. As for the flight of the pair, the pursuit, the combats, there is reason to believe that these romantic elements are based on the old story of Heden and Hilde, runaway lovers, where Hagen is the father of the bride.

The fragments of our Anglo-Saxon epic poem—for such it probably was, and not merely a short lay—show an older form of the story than is found in Ekkehard’s version. Guthhere is “friend,”—that is, king,—“of the Burgundians,” while for Ekkehard Guntharius has become Frank. But the story cannot have varied much in its essential facts. Attila, pictured as an amiable and accomplished monarch, carries off hostages from sundry kingdoms of Western Europe to insure promised tribute, but gives his young captives the best of training and nurture. “Hagano,” Hagen, is hostage for the Frankish king; Herericus of Burgundy must give his daughter Hiltigund—in Anglo-Saxon, Hildeguth; while Alphere, king of Aquitania, surrenders his son Waltharius. The three grow into strength and beauty at Attila’s court, treated as sons and daughter. Hagen and Walter are sworn friends—“blood-brothers.” Gunther (Guntharius; Guthhere in Anglo-Saxon) meanwhile succeeds to the Frankish throne, and Hagen escapes in order to join his master. Walter and Hiltigund, too, soon fly as a betrothed pair from Attila, taking with them treasure of great value. Gunther learns that the fugitives are in his domain, and summons his vassals to help him capture the booty and the maiden. Hagen tries to dissuade him, but goes along with the other eleven chosen companions of the king. This of course is the size of a comitatus for kings or heroes on particularly dangerous quests. The fugitives are overtaken. Walter chooses a good defensive ground, with rocks behind him and on both sides. Hagen again tries to prevent bloodshed, but in vain. Walter in single combat kills eight heroes who come upon him successively; among them is Hagen’s sister’s son, who will not desist for all his uncle’s warning. Then four together come upon the heroic Walter with a curious weapon, a kind of combined trident and lasso; but three of them are killed in the attempt. Of all his foes Walter has only Gunther and his old friend Hagen left. But the old friend feels now a motive for fighting; he must revenge the killing of his sister’s son. Moreover, Gunther makes the last appeal to Hagen’s loyalty; and the hero consents, pointing out, however, that Walter must be enticed out of his impregnable fighting-place. So the king and his vassal apparently give up the battle and withdraw.

All night Walter and Hiltigund rest, and next day resume their journey. In the open Walter is attacked by both Gunther and Hagen; they fight as in ballads, for long hours; but after all three of the combatants have suffered mutilations of the severest kind, peace is made; the woman acts as surgeon; and amid jocosities between the reconciled brothers-in-arms, and with much drinking of wine, the poem ends, not omitting, however, the picture of future felicity for Walter and his bride.

The first of these Anglo-Saxon fragments belongs before the fight in the open. Exhausted by the long struggle with his foes, Walter now for the first time hesitates; he is not quite sure either of himself or of his sword. His own favorite weapon is the spear; and, as he says in the second fragment to Guthhere, he is battle-spent and weary. Probably the Anglo-Saxon poem did not put a night between the two sets of encounters.[1] However that may have been, Hildeguth, who is here no shrinking and quiet maiden, exhorts Walter to play the man. As for his sword, that never failed yet; as for himself, she knows well what he has done, and willed to do, in the most desperate straits of war. Let him drive Guthhere in disgrace from the field. . . . Not very much of the text between the fragments has been lost. In the second Guthhere is advancing to fight and uttering his boast. He praises his sword and gives its proud history. Walter, or Waldere, replies that tired as he is, he is a match for the king; nor has Hagen, as the king hoped, broken down Walter’s strength so as to make him an easy victim. His defiant invitation to Guthhere to come and fetch the spoils of war from his person is good Germanic; so perhaps is the pious bow to fate, to God, but it has been set to a feebler tune. The style of these fragments is not so energetic and convincing as the style of Finnsburg; but taken all together they show that our literature has lost a fine story not ineffectively told.

The manuscript of the Waldere belongs to the library of Copenhagen, where it was found as cover for some unvalued sermons.


Hildeguth spake. She heartened[2] him eagerly:
“Sure, work of Wayland[3] will weaken never
with any man who can Mimming wield,
hoary-hued sword. Many heroes by turn
5 blood-stained and blade-pierced in battle it felled.[4]
Attila’s van-leader,[5] valor of thine let not
fail thee to-day or thy doughty-mood fall!
. . . The day is come
when to one or other thy way must lead,—
10loss of life, or lasting glory
ever with earth-dwellers, Ælfhere’s son!
Nowise can my words bewail, O friend,
that ever I saw thee,[6] when swords were at play,
shamefully shrink from shock of battle
15with warrior foe, and flee to the wall
to shield thy body,—though blades enow
hewed on thy harness from hostile throng!
Nay, further ever the fight thou hast urged,
and I feared thy fate, so far thy venture,
20lest thou too wildly shouldst war, and seek,
in clash of contest, combat mortal
with another man.[7] Have mind now on honor,
on glory of war, while God is with thee!
Fear not for the brand: the bravest of weapons,
25’twas given to help us[8]! On Guthhere, therefore,
beat down his boast; this battle he sought,
and stirred up strife in spite of justice;
the sword he claimed, and the caskets of treasure,[9]
wealth of rings: now, wanting them all
30he shall flee from this fight to find his lord,
hasten homeward, or here shall he die
if he . . .


“. . . a better sword[10]
save only this, which I as well[11]
have kept concealed in the stone-bright case.[12]
I know that Theodric[13] thought to send it
5to Widia[14] himself, with wealth of treasure,
of gold with that glaive, and gifts enow
precious:—so Widia was paid his reward
that the kinsman of Nithhad[15] from cruel straits,
son of Wayland, saved his lord,
10who journeyed fast from the giants’ land.”

Waldere spake, warrior famous,
held in his hand the help-in-battle,[16]
weapon of war; his words he uttered:
“Lo, great was thy faith, Burgundians’-friend,[17]
15that Hagen’s hand would hold me to warfare,
unfit me for fighting! Now fetch, if thou darest,
from so battle-worn[18] man this breastplate gray!
Here it stands on my shoulders, splendid with gold,
Ælfhere’s heirloom, amply studded,[19]
20no evil armor for atheling’s wear
if only with hands he can heart and life
guard from his foes. It fails me never
when cruel unkindred[20] crowd upon me,
beset me with swords, as ye sought me here!
25Yet One Only[21] availeth the victory to give,
ready to aid whatever is right!
Whoso hopes for help from the Holy One,
Grace of God, will get it surely,
if his ways have earlier earned him that.
30Then haughty heroes may have their reward,
and wield their wealth. . . .

  1. Zupitza is reported as saying in his lectures that “he thought it not impossible that the sequence of the fragments had been turned around.” See Josef Fischer, Zu den Waldere-Fragmenten, Breslau, 1886.
  2. If we translate “heard him gladly,” then the conjectural words in italics are wrong. Heinzel thinks this speech is made by some comrade, some man, to Waldere, who “hears him gladly.” But the other supposition, that Hildeguth addresses her lover and hero, is vastly preferable.
  3. The sword. In the Beowulf, Wayland is credited with the making of the hero’s breastplate; and there as here the sword must have a name of the patronymic form.
  4. Literally, “have fallen”; sc. by its work.
  5. In the Latin poem, Waltharius just before he fled from Attila had led his master’s army against the foe in a successful campaign.
  6. That is, “ever heard it said of thee that thou . . .”
  7. She has often been frightened about his fate, she says, fearing he would go beyond even the bounds of his wonderful resources and so fall victim to some hostile warrior. Now is the time to show that same desperate spirit. . . .
  8. Literally, “as an aid to both of us.”
  9. In the Latin poem Guntharius pretends he has a right to Walter’s plunder in pay for the tribute the Franks have sent to Attila.
  10. Guthhere is making his boast before opening fight. Hagen still holds off. In preceding lines Guthhere probably said that his own sword was better than Waldere’s.
  11. As thou?
  12. “Jewelled scabbard” seems a good meaning. “Here is a sword as good as any, though, like thyself, I have not yet unsheathed it,” may be the purport of this speech. Then we come into smooth water. The sword was once property of the great hero, etc.
  13. Theodoric the Goth played a main part in Germanic legend as Dietrich of Bern, chief vassal of Attila. His figure is familiar in the last scene of the Nibelungen.
  14. Widia is probably the Wudga of Widsith, vv. 124 ff., where he is one of the great warriors of Ermanric; here he is transferred to the Theodric legend.
  15. Widia is thought to be the historical Vidigoja; but by this account he was son of Wayland (Wēland, Vølundr) by Baduhild, daughter of Nithhad. In the well-known myth, Nithhad captures Wayland and takes away his magic ring so that he cannot fly (by another more prosaic account, hamstrings him), gives the ring, with others, to his daughter Baduhild, and sets the divine smith to useful work in captivity. The daughter comes to Wayland to have her ring repaired; but Wayland detains her, and begets this son by her. One of Widia’s feats in his service with Theodric is to free his lord from the giants.
  16. Kenning for “sword.”
  17. Kenning for “king,” as in Beowulf.
  18. See introductory remarks above. Waldere has slain all the vassals of Guthhere save Hagen, if we follow the account of Ekkehard.
  19. “Wide-nebbed.”
  20. Unmægas.—The adjective “cruel” is conjectured.
  21. This is not so incongruous as it looks from the point of view of the preceding boast. The concession to Wyrd, or Fate, probably formed a part of these old speeches of defiance. “Wyrd goes aye as she must,” says Beowulf. New theology accented the concession and added the graces of Christian humility.