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German literature begins after the great migrations (circa 600), and its earliest samples are traditional songs of an epic character, like the Hildebrandslied. Owing to diversities of race and speech, there are in southern and northern Germany various epic cycles which cluster around such heroes as Ermanrich the Goth, Dietrich von Bern, Theodoric the East Goth, Attila the Hun, Gunther the Burgundian, Otfried the Langobardian, and Sigfried—perchance a Frisian, or, as some authorities claim, the famous Arminius who triumphed over the Romans.

The Hildebrandslied relates how Hildebrand, after spending thirty years in Hungary, returns to North Italy, leaving behind him a wife and infant son Hadubrand. A false rumor of Hildebrand's death reaches Hungary when Hadubrand has achieved great renown as a warrior, so, when in quest for adventure the young man meets his father, he deems him an impostor and fights with him until the poem breaks off, leaving us uncertain whether father or son was victorious. But later poets, such as Kaspar von der Rh?n, give the story a happy ending, thus avoiding the tragic note struck in Sorab and Rustem (p. 410).

There existed so many of these ancient epic songs that Charlemagne undertook to collect them, but Louis I, his all too pious son, destroyed this collection on his accession to the throne, because, forsooth, these epics glorified the pagan gods his ancestors had worshipped!

Still not all the Teutonic epics are of pagan origin, for in the second period we find such works as Visions of Judgment (Muspilli), Lives of Saints, and biblical narratives like Heliant (the Saviour), Judith, the Exodus, der Krist by Otfried, and monkish-political works like the Ludwigslied, or history of the invasion of the Normans. There is also the epic of Walter von Aquitanien, which, although written in Latin, shows many traces of German origin.

In Walther von Aquitanien we have an epic of the Burgundian-Hunnish cycle written by Ekkehard of St. Gall before 973. It relates the escape of Walther von Aquitanien and his betrothed Hildegund from the court of Attila, where the young man was detained as a hostage. After describing their preparations for flight, their method of travel and camping, the poet relates how they were overtaken in the Vosges Mountains by a force led by Gunther and Hagen, who wish to secure the treasures they are carrying. Warned in time by Hildegund,—who keeps watch while he sleeps,—Walther dons his armor, and single-handed disposes of many foes. When Gunther Hagen, and Walther alone survive, although sorely disabled, peace is concluded, and the lovers resume their journey and reach Aquitania safely, where they reign happily thirty years.

In the third period "the crusades revived the epic memories of Charlemagne and Roland and of the triumphs of Alexander," thus giving birth to a Rolandslied and an Alexanderlied, as well as to endless chivalrie epics, or romances in verse and prose.

The Rolandslied—an art epic—gives the marriage and banishment of Charlemagne's sister Bertha, the birth of Roland, the manner in which he exacted tribute from his playmates to procure clothes, his first appearance in his uncle's palace, his bold seizure of meat and drink from the royal table to satisfy his mother's needs, Charlemagne's forgiveness of his sister for the sake of her spirited boy, the episode regarding the giant warrior in the Ardennes, the fight with Oliver, the ambush at Roncevaux, and end with Roland's death and the punishment of the traitor Ganelon. But later legends claim that Roland, recovering from the wounds received at Roncevaux, returned to Germany and to his fiancée Aude, who, deeming him dead, had meantime taken the veil. We next have Roland's sorrow, the construction of his hermitage at Rolandseek, [24] whence he continually overlooks the island of Nonnenw?rth and the convent where his beloved is wearing her life away in prayers for his soul. This cycle concludes with Roland's death and burial on this very spot, his face still turned toward the grave where his sweetheart rests.

In the Langobardian cycle[25] also is the tale of "Rother," supposed to be Charlemagne's grandfather, one of the court epics of the Lombard cycle. In King Rother we have the abduction by Rother of the emperor's daughter, her recovery by her father, and Rother's pursuit and final reconquest of his wife. The next epic in the cycle, "Otnit," related the marriage of this king to a heathen princess, her father's gift of dragon's eggs, and the hatching of these monsters, which ultimately cause the death of Otnit and infest Teutonic lands with their progeny. Then come the legends of Hug-Dietrich and Wolf-Dietrich, which continue the Lombard cycle and pursue the adventures of Otnit to his death.

The legend of Herzog Ernst is still popular, and relates how a duke of Bavaria once made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and lived through endless thrilling adventures on the way.

The greatest of all the German epics is undoubtedly the Nibelungenlied,—of which we give a synopsis,—which is often termed the Iliad of Germany, while "Gudrun" is considered its Odyssey. This folk epic relates how Hagan, son of a king, was carried off at seven years of age by a griffin. But, before the monster or its young could devour him, the sturdy child effected his escape into the wilderness, where he grew up with chance-found companions. Rescued finally by a passing ship, these young people are threatened with slavery, but spared so sad a fate thanks to Hagan's courage. Hagan now returns home, becomes king, and has a child, whose daughter Gudrun is carried away from father and lover by a prince of Zealand. On his way home, the kidnapper is overtaken by his pursuers and wages a terrible battle on the Wülpensand, wherein he proves victorious. But the kidnapper cannot induce Gudrun to accept his attentions, although he tries hard to win her love. His mother, exasperated by this resistance finally undertakes to force Gudrun to submit by dint of hardships, and even sends her out barefoot in the snow to do the family washing. While thus engaged, Gudrun and her faithful companion are discovered by the princess' brother and lover, who arrange the dramatic rescue of the damsels, whom they marry.[26]

Next in order come the philosophic epics of Wolfram von Eschenbach, including the immortal Parzifal—which has been used by Tennyson and Wagner in their poems and opera—and the poetic tales of Gottfried of Strassburg, whose Tristan und Isolde, though unfinished, is a fine piece of work. Hartmann von der Aue is author of Erek und Enide,—the subject of Tennyson's poem,—of Der arme Heinrich,—which served as foundation for Longfellow's Golden Legend,—and of Iwein or the Knight with the Lion.

Among the Minnesingers of greatest note are Walther von der Vogelweide, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and later, when their head-quarters were at Nüremberg, Hans Sachs. Their favorite themes were court epics, dealing especially with the legends of Arthur, of the Holy Grail, and of Charles the Great. Many of these epics are embodied in the Heldenbuch, or Book of Heroes, compiled in the fifteenth century by Kaspar von der Rh?n, while the Abenteuerbuch contains many of these legends as well as Der Rosengarten and K?nig Laurin.

In the second part of the thirteenth century artificiality and vulgarity began to preponderate, provoking as counterweights didactic works such as Der Krieg auf der Wartburg. The fourteenth century saw the rise of the free cities, literary guilds, and five universities. It also marks the cultivation of political satire in such works as Reinecke Fuchs, and of narrative prose chronicles like the Lüneburger, Alsatian, and Thuringian Chronicles, which are sometimes termed prose epics. The Volksbücher also date from this time, and have preserved for us many tales which would otherwise have been lost, such as the legends of the Wandering Jew and Dr. Faustus.

The age of Reformation proved too serious for poets to indulge in any epics save new versions of Reinecke Fuchs and Der Froschmeuseler, and after the Thirty Years' War the first poem of this class really worthy of mention is Klopstock's Messias, or epic in twenty books on the life and mission of Christ and the fulfilment of the task for which he was foreordained.

Contemporary with Klopstock are many noted writers, who distinguished themselves in what is known as the classic period of German literature. This begins with Goethe's return from Italy, when he, with Schiller's aid, formed a classical school of literature in Germany.

While Schiller has given us the immortal epic drama "William Tell,"
Goethe produced the idyllic epic "Hermann und Dorothea," the
dramatical epic "Faust," and an inimitable version of the animal epic
"Reinecke Fuchs."

Wieland also was a prolific writer in many fields; inspired by the Arabian Nights, Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, and Huon de Bordeaux, [27] he composed an allegorical epic entitled "Oberon," wherein "picture after picture is unfolded to his readers," and which has since served as a theme for musicians and painters.

Since Goethe's day Wagner has made the greatest and most picturesque use of the old German epic material, for the themes of nearly all his operas are drawn from this source.


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