POPULAR EPICS OF THE MIDDLE AGES.*
EVERYBODY knows the lines in which Horace bewails the fate of the brave men before Agamemnon who, for want of a bard to
rehearse their exploits, went down to endless night, unknown and unwept. They express a poet's pity for a misfortune which a poet might well deem irreparable. Yet surely a more pitiful case still is that of the poet from whom, though singing a clear and true song, all possibility of human audience has irrevocably passed away. For while, in spite of Horace, the value of heroic deeds resides not in any celebration which they may chance to win, but in themselves, all exercise of the poet's art presupposes the responsive ear of men, and to be unheard is almost the same thing as never to have spoken. And it is upon the popular poets that this ill-fortune weighs most heavily. Others begin their work in the consciousness that from the nature of their theme or the manner of its treatment, whatever " fit audience " they find must
be " few ;" but their verses were designed to pass from month to mouth among the people, to be sung at feast or market ; to
amuse children or lull babes to sleep ; to hand down a great tradition from generation to generation. There is something pathetic in the transition by which the resounding verses of Homer have passed from the lips of the wandering rhapsodist, and
the rapt attention of the common folk of Hellas, to be the delight of the comparatively few among the inhabitants of modern Europe
who have received some tincture of classical learning. But the poets of the " Nibelungen Lied" and of the "Song of Roland" have not even this poor shred of popularity left them. They are abandoned to the antiquary and the archmologian ;—the spiders of literature who weave the complex web of their own theories over whatever remains of beauty they are so fortunate as to discover.
The comparative mythologist searches for a fact to illustrate his system in legends of gods and heroes, ever fruitful in awe and wonder. The philologist grubs for roots in verses which once made hearts beat fast and eyes fill with tears. Only now and then comes one careful student who deciphers the faded writing for its own sake, and stands to the old nameless poet in place of the crowds who once praised and guerdoned his song.
The " popular epics of the Middle Ages " have suffered this fate, not for want of any poetical merit, but because they were pro- duced at a time when the languages of modern Europe were in a • Popular Epics of the Afieldk Ages, of the Norm, (Ferman, ant C oloringioh Cgelee. By •Jahn Y aoolm LtUthw. London : EfitamIllan. 2 Vula. 18 a.
condition of flux and change. It was the peculi ar good fortune of Homer, either that Pisistratus, in editing, modernized to some extent the Iliad and the Odyssey, or that from the operation of other causes the language never wandered far from the standard originally set up by the poet. Whatever the reaam may have been, the poems of Homer, from his own time to that of the Alexan- drian critics, must always have been completely intelligible to all Greeks. And it is wonderful how slight may be the linguistic peculiarities which deprive a poet of popular appreciation. To the majority of English readers of poetry Chaucer is unknown, and I even Spenser not much more than the shadow of a great name. Yet the interval which separates the English of Chaucer from the English of Tennyson is less than that which divides the "Nibelungen Lied " from " Faust," or the " Soug of Roland " from the " Henriade," and if the gulf be one which the scholar's industry easily' bridges, it is quite impassable to popular ignorance and impatience. Perhaps even if it were not so the day of these poets might equally be gone by. So far as the intellect of the people is now fed at all, useful knowledge, and theology, which we hardly like to dignify with so respectable an epithet, are the chief articles of diet. An epic poet, charmed he never so wisely, would hardly charm a trades' union or an Oddfellowe lodge.
Mr. Ludlow adopts Friedrich Schlegel's division of the subjects of the mediaeval poetry of chivalry into three great cycles. The first is the Norse-German, and its central poem the " Nibelungen Lied." The second is the French, which revolves around Charle- magne and his legendary peers. The third is the British, that of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In the present volumes only the two first are described and discussed, nor does Mr. Ludlow hold out any great hope of ever returning to the third. Yet his work is so conscientiously and successfully executed, as to inspire a very earnest wish that he should complete it by an account of the legendary poetry which, however inferior in true epical interest to that of Germany and France, must always have a charm of its own to English readers. Mr. Ludlow wisely refrains from any attempt at metrical translation, but his prose abstracts of the poems under consideration are 83 admirably spirited as to leave nothing to be desired. The realer not only gains a complete knowledge of the course of each narrative, but is able to seize and to retain the characteristics of every actor on the scene. For as we pass from poem to poem of the same cycle, the same personages re-appear in substantially the same guise : the legend may vacillate between one form and another, and the actioa vary, but the heroes and heroines are constant to one type. Siegfried, bravest of men, the victim of envious treachery ; Kriem- hilt, his savagely revengeful widow ; Hagen, his murderer, always fierce, and always remorseless ; the good Dietrich, the courteous Rwleger ; Volker, mighty alike with fiddle-bow and sword, recur just iu the same way as recur lordly Agamemnon, and astute Ulysses, and Nestor, the type of wise yet garrulous old age. Had the Norse-German epics found a Pisistratus, they might have been compressed andlused into a Gothic Iliad. And in their untamed exuberance, their inconsistent repetitions, we see what, without a Pisistratus, the Iliad might have been.
We pass from the "Nibelungen Lied" to the less well-known " Chanson de Roland." The " Song of Roland," says Mr. Lud- low, "has indeed, apart from any question of literary merit, a peculiar interest for our country, not only as forming one of the treasures of the Bodleian, but from its connection with one of the half-dozen greatest events in our history—the battle of Hastings. For there, as we are told by Wace, in his Roman de Roe, William of Normandy's minstrel, " Taillefer, who full well sang —on a horse that fast went—before them went singing—of Carlemain and of Roland—and of Oliver and of the vassals—who died in Roncevaux " (Vol., I., p. 364). It was the work of one Turold, or Theroulde, and is supposed to have been written in the eleventh century. From the" Nibelungen Lied " it differs in many import- ant respects. The basis of the German poem is essentially heathen, with but a thin varnish of Christianity laid over ; while in the French epic the pervading feeling, no less than the phraseology, is that of Christian chivalry. Nor is the relation of the two cycles to authentic history at all the same. Siegfried, Kriemhilt, and the Nibelungs are all purely legendary persons ; and if King Etzel is to be identified with Attila, and Dietrich of Bern with Theodoric of Verona, they, as well as their mythical peers, are quite destitute of all historical verisimilitude. But the peculiarity of the Carlovingian cycle is, that a crowd of legendary characters and events have attached them- selves to a monarch who site upon his throne in the broad daylight of history. The effect is almost as strange as if an epic rnythus had associated itself with the name of Pericles, and we had a Homer and a Thucydides treating of the same period and the same men. The Charlemagne of history is taken from his place among warriors and councillors of flesh and blood, and re- vealed in a shadowy crowd; Roland, the unconquerable knight, and Oliver his peer ; Tmpin, the pugnacious archbishop, wise Naples of Bavaria, and Ganilo the traitor. There were two battles at- Roncevaux, one when the Basques out off the Emperor's rear- guard on his return from an expedition into Spain; and another long after, under Louis the Debounair ; but neither of them can be at all identified with the legendary fight. The traitorous compact of Ganilo with Marsile, the Saracen King, by which the army of Charlemagne, peacal ully leaving Spain, was to be suddenlyattacked; the device by which Roland, with Oliver and Turpin, is placed in the post of danger ; the prodigies of valour performed by the deserted and overmastered peers ; the triple blast of Roland's horn, which brings back the Emperor, passing through " the gates of Spain," too late indeed for succour, but soon enough for revenge—. all this sounds like a romance of chivalry, in which some ingredient of sober history has been strangely intermingled. Mr. Ludlow thus characterizes this remarkable poem, in comparing it with the " Nibelungen Lied" :— " The real beauty of Turold's poem needs surely no commenda- tion. All his characters are thrown off with the most perfect vigour, and detach themselves quite distinctly on our mind's eye. In the treatment of Ganilo, in particular, there is very con- siderable subtlety ; no pains seems to have been spared by the pbet in trying to avoid making him a mere stage villain. He is strong and handsome ; he can put on all the semblance of courage, if he has not the reality of it ; he is adroit to a degree.. This is brought out with peculiar success in the history of his embassy, and in that remarkable scene with Marsile, when Ganilo lets the traitor worm out of him the treason which he is pre- determined to commit. Apart from the delineation of character, we find the poet always rising to the height of his argument.. In his description of the great tragedy of Roncevaux he is as tragic, if not as awful, as the author of the " Nibelungen Lied" in describing the carnage at Etzel's court. The great fault in the poem lies in the climax of interest occurring so long before the end ; otherwise, in point of condensation, in the keeping of the characters, in the natural sequency of the story, in the nobleness of the argument, it is far superior to the German masterpiece itself, though falling short of it in variety of iuterest, and through the absence of female characters—all but the one touching glimpse of Aida. It may be said to be in short more heroic and less human than the " Nibelungen Lied ; " and because less human, therefore inferior" (Vol. I., p. 421).
We have searched in vain for a passage in one of these poems. which would at once bear separation from the context and give an adequate idea of Mr. Ludlow's felicitous presentation. We can only refer the reader to the volumes themselves, which, both in the freshness of their subject and the happy vigour of its treat- ment, will amply repay his study. None but the incurably pro- saic, for whom, however, Mr. Ludlow does not write, but will be ready with us to accompany him, whenever he is willing to lead the way, in quest of Arthur,— "To the island valley of Avilion, Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow, Nor over wind blows loudly."