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From The Oldest English Epic :  Beowulf, Finnsburg, Waldere, Deor, Widsith, and the German Hildebrand, Translated in the Original Metres with Introduction and Notes by Francis B. Gummere, New York :  The Macmillan Company, 1923 ;  pp. 171-177.




ALTHOUGH not written in English, the Hildebrand Lay, sole fragment of the old epic poetry in German, is so nearly related in matter and manner to parts of the English epic, and derives its theme from sources related so closely to the source of Waldere, that a translation of it may well be added to the foregoing pieces. One has thus a body of West-Germanic poetry of the early period, to offset the far greater mass of East-Germanic poetry preserved by happy chance in Scandinavia.

The facts about this lay of Hildebrand and Hathubrand are hard to fix in detail; but the general drift is clear. Not far from the year 800, two monks, who may have belonged to the monastery at Fulda, copied the poem, which lacks both beginning and end, on the covers of a theological manuscript. Probably they had the poem before them in writing. If so, this in its turn was written, as Lachmann urges for the copy, from memory; and memory retained only those parts that have come to us. Some roving singer had sung to the High-German writer a song which was mainly in Low-German dialect; and what this writer could remember of it he had set down in a curious mixture of linguistic forms, but not in such utter confusion as to forbid the recognition of the original pieces as substantially of Saxon origin.

The main theme is very old and has always been popular; 172 for proof, one needs but to mention such a distant and modern treatment of it as the Sohrab and Rustum of Matthew Arnold. Scholars have found it in widely spread and varying forms; and a German ballad, many centuries later, has actually given to the grim scene a happy ending. In its present shape the story has become part of the Theodoric legend, and as such must be credited to the romantic and highly poetical Goths; would that some kindly fate had preserved the rich and sonorous words of their version !  The Nibelungen, as every one knows, places old Hildebrand as Dietrich’s right-hand man, who, with his lord, has been long among the Huns, in that banishment of which Deor speaks in the Anglo-Saxon lyric, — only in the Hildebrand Lay one is told that Odoacer is cause of the flight. Kögel points out the curious perversity of legend when it deals with historical facts: it was Odoacer whom Theodoric really shut up in Ravenna and put to death. That Attila and Theodoric became contemporary in this cycle of legends, and are treated as overlord and chief vassal, is another license of the legendary muse. But the poem is the thing. Undoubtedly it is much closer than such epic verse as the Beowulf, and even the Waldere fragments, to the old songs which minstrels had come to sing and which warriors still made about their own deeds or the deeds of their friends. The nervous directness is here which one was tempted to find characteristic of Finnsburg. Full of blunders as the manuscript is, with patches of something very like prose when the scribe failed to remember his original, — one should think of a schoolboy writing out from memory The Charge of the Light Brigade, — the whole effect is that of contact with strong and resonant verse.


The original, as was hinted above, must have had a tragic ending; the theme demands it, and not only a scrap of this same tale in Old Norse, but analogy of other cases, where similar matter is handled, sustains the demand. The father unwillingly kills his son. Such things must have actually happened now and again in the days of the comitatus, and ten Brink surmises such a case in the Finnsburg with Garulf and Guthlaf; but the killing of near kin remained the capital crime for a German. The frequency of it means, for the Sibyl of the Voluspa poem, the approaching end of the world. Here, then, was tragedy of the kind which thrilled a Greek audience at the fearful dilemma of Orestes. Loyalty to one’s lord was a Germanic virtue which grew stronger with the necessities of constant warfare, until it came to be supreme, and thus overshadowed the obligations of actual kindred. Hildebrand is a victim of the clash of these two duties, — and not for once only. Thirty years before this crowning tragedy, he was forced to choose between his lord, a banished man, and his wife and child. Now the child faces him in arms.


                   .  .  .  I heard it said1  .  .  .  
that as foemen in fight sole faced each other
Hildebrand and Hathubrand, two hosts between.2
There son and father their fighting-gear tested,
174 5made ready their battle-weeds, belted the sword
o’er their ring-mail, the heroes, who rode to the fray.
Hildebrand spake, Herebrand’s son, —
.  .  .  he was riper in years,
the older man :  to ask he commenced,
10though few his words, who his3 father was
of human folk4  .  .  .  
.  .  .  “or of what race thou mayest be,
if thou namest one only, the others I know.
All kindred I ken in this kingdom, O youth !”
15Hathubrand spake, Hildebrand’s son : —
“Trusty5 people have told to me,
who, old and wise, knew ancient ways,
my father was Hildebrand: Hathubrand I !
Long ago went he eastward; from Otacher’s6 hate
20with Theotrich&7 fled he, and thanes in plenty.
In his land he left forlorn behind him
bride in bower and boy ungrown,
reft of inheritance :  rode he yet eastward !
Theotrich later, in thronging perils,
25of my father had need :  ’twas so friendless a man !8
175 Boundlessly angry at Otacher was he,
the trustiest thane in Theotrich’s service,
ever front in the folk-rank, too fain for battle,
famous was he among fighting-men bold !
30I believe not he lives.”  .  .  .  
Hildebrand spake, Herebrand’s son :9 —
“But High-God knows, in heaven above,
that thou never yet with such near-kin man,
hero brave, hast held thy parley!”

35He unwound from his arm the winding rings,
of kaiser-gold wrought, that the king had given him,
Lord of the Huns: “In love now I give it thee.”
Hathubrand spake, Hildebrand’s son : —
“With the spear should a man receive his gifts,
40point against point  .  .  .  
Thou art over-crafty, thou agéd Hun, —
enthrallst me with speech to o’erthrow me with spear.
Old as thou’st grown, bear’st only guile !
Seafaring folk10 have said to me,
45come west over Wendelsea, — War hath seized him.
Dead is Hildebrand, Herebrand’s son !”
176 Hildebrand spake, Herebrand’s son11  .  .  .  
     “Well can I see by thy war-gear now,12
the ruler thou hast at home is rich,
50nor under this king wast thou cast into exile.
.  .  .  Wellaway, God all-wielding, fate’s woe is upon us !
I was summers and winters full sixty a-wandering,
and still was I chosen with chief of the troops ;
yet at no burg13 was death ever dealt me by man.
55Now my own sweet son with sword must hew me,
fell me with falchion, or fall at my hands !
— Yet14 ’tis easily done, if thou doughty be,15
from so old a man his arms to take,
to seize the spoil, if such strength be thine.16
177 60Most infamous were he17 of East-Goth folk
who should keep thee from combat so keenly desired,
from fight with foe !  Let the fated one18 try
whether now his trappings be taken from him,
or both of these breast-plates he boast as his own.

65Charging with ash-spears,19 clashed they first,
with sharpest shafts the shields that clove.
Then stroke to the struggle those sturdy-warriors,20
hewed in hate on the white-faced shields,
until both of the lindens21 little grew,
70all worn with weapons.  .  .  .


1  Related, told in song and lay. “So the books tell us,” says the medieval writer. Even in Scottish ballads of the border a statement is backed by the assertion that “the chronicle will not lie.” The poet of the Heliand uses the “heard” formula, though the gospels are authorized for his narrative.

2  “Between two armies.” They meet, like two Homeric heroes, between the opposing lines, exchange speeches, and come to fight.

3  Hathubrand’s. Hildebrand’s wide knowledge of the tribes of men is characteristic of his age, his standing, and his experience. So Hrothgar shows he is familiar with “the best people” and their kin, the instant he hears Beowulf’s name. B., 372.

4  Editors and critics assume that something has been lost at this point. But it has been remarked that such abrupt transitons are common in Germanic verse. Still, even so there is loss of rime. Probably the copyists forgot just how the verse ran and set it down as King Alfred says he now and then translated Latin, — “sense for sense.” Only the poetry is lost here.

5  Möller’s emendation to save the rime.

6  Odoacer.

7  Dietrich usually in German; Theodric in Anglo-Saxon.

8  One who is banished, without kin and clan to support him. Some translate this as meaning Theotrich: “banished as he was, he had good need,” etc. The “he” of the next line, of course, is Hildebrand, who is enraged because Odoacer forces him to leave wife and child.

9  The italicized words are Möller’s conjectural emendation; they make only slight changes, and restore the verse. The original runs: “ ‘The mighty God is my witness,’ quoth Hildebrand, ‘from heaven above, that in spite of this [i.e. ‘that thou hast said.’ Probably the preceding gap is a large one and much talk has passed between the warriors] thou hast never yet parleyed [Scherer translates “fought”] with a man so near of kin.’ ”  The quoth Hildebrand is a singer’s aside, such as is often thrust into the text of ballads, and lies outside of the metrical scheme.

10  Compare Beowulf, vv. 377, 411. Wentilseo is the Anglo-Saxon Wendelsœ, the Mediterranean. “War [probably personified] hath seized him” is a familiar phrase in Beowulf.

11  Editors incline to think that Hildebrand’s subsequent speech is lost and that the following words of the text belong to Hathubrand, whose suspicion is increased as he looks on his father’s sumptuous armor. A man must have a powerful lord to give him such gear, — run his thoughts, — not a homeless exile. But it is also natural for the old man to look on the young warrior’s rich armor and draw similar conclusions.

12  The original verse is rimeless and corrupt.

13  At the taking of no fortified place during my time of exile, in no battle, however desperate, has death found me.

14  A parallel to this sudden transition from tender and pathetic to sarcasm and defiance may be found in the tragic popular ballad of Bewick and Graham. Here the dilemma is that a son must either disobey and actually fight his own father or fight his dearest friend, his “sworn-brother.” He chooses the latter. The friend, of course, cannot believe the announcement of this impending fight, and reminds the unwilling challenger of long and firm brotherhood between the two. The challenger half explains the situation, and is dropping into pathos; but knowing its perils, suddenly changes the note: —

“If thou be a man, as I think thou art,
     Come over that ditch and fight with me.”

15  See Beowulf for the identical phrase, a commonplace, v. 573.

16  That is, “if thou hast the right [of the victor] to it.”

17  Here the text has “quoth Hildebrand.”

18  The warrior whose fate it is now to fight. Said of both of them.

19  They ride furiously at each other with levelled lances, each trying to pass or pierce the shield of his opponent. Then they dismount and stride to the fight with swords.

20  The compound word so translated is not found elsewhere, but it is a kenning for the warriors.

21  Shields, as often in the English epic.

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