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III. Early National Poetry

§ 5. The Waldhere Fragments

The MS. fragments of Waldhere (Waldere) are preserved in the Royal Library at Copenhagen. For this story, fortunately, information is available from a number of continental sources. It is the subject of a Latin epic poem (Waltharius) by Ekkehard of St. Gall, dating from the first half of the tenth century; of a Bavarian poem dating from the first half of the thirteenth century, of which only small fragments are preserved; and of two episodes in the Norwegian Vilkina Saga ([char] 128 f., 241–4; cf. 331), which is of Low German origin. Incidental references to it occur in several Middle High German poems, and there is also a Polish version of the story, the earliest form of which is in Chronicon Boguphali Episcopi, dating from the thirteenth or fourteenth century. It will be convenient here to give a brief summary of Ekkehard’s story, as this is the earliest of the continental authorities and appears to have the closest resemblance to our fragments.

Alphere, king of Aquitaine, had a son named Waltharius, and Heriricus, king of Burgundy, an only daughter named Hiltgund, who was betrothed to Waltharius. While they were yet children, however, Attila, king of the Huns, invaded Gaul, and the kings, seeing no hope in resistance, gave up their children to him as hostages, together with much treasure. Under like compulsion treasure was obtained also from Gibicho, king of the Franks, who sent as hostage a youth of noble birth named Hagano. In Attila’s service, Waltharius and Hagano won great renown as warriors, but the latter eventually made his escape. When Waltharius grew up he became Attila’s chief general; yet he remembered his old engagement with Hiltgund. On his return from a victorious campaign he made a great feast for the king and his court, and when all were sunk in drunken sleep, he and Hiltgund fled laden with much gold. On their way home they had to cross the Rhine near Worms. There the king of the Franks, Guntharius, the son of Gibicho, heard from the ferryman of the gold they were carrying and determined to secure it. Accompanied by Hagano and eleven other picked warriors, he overtook them as they rested in a cave in the Vosges. Waltharius offered him a large share of the gold in order to obtain peace; but the king demanded the whole together with Hiltgund and the horse. Stimulated by the promise of great rewards, the eleven warriors now attacked Waltharius one after another, but he slew them all. Hagano had tried to dissuade Guntharius from the attack; but now, since his nephew was among the slain, he formed a plan with the king for surprising Waltharius. On the following day they both fell upon him after he had quitted his stronghold, and, in the struggle that ensued, all three were maimed. Waltharius, however, was able to proceed on his way with Hiltgund, and the story ends happily with their marriage.

Both our fragments refer to the time immediately before the final encounter. The first is taken up with a speech, apparently by the lady, in which Waldhere is exhorted to acquit himself in the coming fight in a manner worthy of his former deeds. Guthhere has unjustly begun hostilities and refused the offer of a sword and treasure. Now he will have to go away empty-handed, if he does not lose his life. Between the two fragments probably not very much has been lost. The second is occupied by an altercation between Guthhere and Waldhere, in which the former praises his sword and the latter his coat of mail. Waldhere states that the king had tried to get Hagena to attack him first. Victory, however, comes to the faithful from above. Both the fragments contain Christian allusions.

It has been suggested that the Old English poem was a translation from an early German one; but the evidence adduced is far from satisfactory. The speeches given in the fragments have nothing corresponding to them in Ekkehard’s text, and there is a noteworthy difference in the portraiture of the heroine’s character. Probably, nothing more than the tradition was derived from abroad, and at a very early date, if we may judge from the form of the names.

In the fragments, Guthhere is represented as king of the Burgundians. Since there can be no doubt that he is the Burgundian king Gundicarius (Gundaharius) who was defeated and slain by the Huns about the year 437, we must conclude that Ekkehard’s nomenclature was affected by the political geography of his own day, when Worms was a Frankish town. The other chief characters are known only from German and Scandinavian tradition. But the story may very well be founded on fact, as it is likely enough that Attila did take hostages from the princes of eastern Gaul. In the Bavarian fragments the hero belongs not to Aquitaine but to Langres. Now, the country round Langres and Chalon-sur-Saône (Hiltgund’s home in the Latin poem), although the latter was included in the Burgundy of the tenth century, must once have been settled by Franks from the Netherlands; for we find here, in later times, districts called pagus Hamauorum and pagus Hattuariorum. This settlement, as Zeuss pointed out long ago, probably took place in the reign of Constantius Chlorus. Hence, there may have been Frankish princes at Chalon and Langres in the time of Attila.