Category: Fiction in Translation/Classic – Paperback: 214 pages – Publisher: J M Dent (now part of Hachette Livre) – Source: Kirkstall Bookshop
This Translation First Published: 1987 in England
Originally Published As: Kudrun in Germany, sometime between 1240-1250 / Translated By: Brian O. Murdoch
If finding Desdemona – If You Had Only Spoken! in Kirkstall Bookshop in October was a surprise and perfect timing for German Literature Month, finding this in the same visit left me thanking the book sprites for looking after me so very well – Kudrun is a Middle High German thirteenth century epic with a very feisty woman at the centre of its main tale. :)
Written not long after the other great German epic, the Nibelungenlied, Kudrun has been very lucky to survive into modern times. Originally set down in the 1240s or thereabouts it was copied from manuscript to manuscript and only one sixteenth century version now exists. Though it’s the only text of its kind with women impacting on the drama it appears to be rather neglected outside Germany which is a shame as it’s rather entertaining and the story itself is less than 200 pages long.
To set the scene for Kudrun’s tale we first get the tale of her grandparents Hagen and Hilde of India and then that of her parents, Hetel and Hilde of Ireland. Their stories explain the family’s allegiances and allow us to see what are deemed good matches and honourable heroes before we get to Kudrun’s story of being besieged by three very different suitors.
Hagen the Wild gets his name because he is a prince of Ireland who was snatched up from the castle by a griffin as a boy. He lives in the wilderness with three princesses who have also been snatched (including Hilde of India) and after slaying dragons and befriending a lion he kills the griffins, heads home, tricks a pirate who wants to ransom him and is reunited with his parents. He goes on to be a king of Ireland and he and his wife are very happy.
Their daughter, Hilde of Ireland, grows up to be even more beautiful than her mother and is snatched by the sneaky Wate, Fruote and Horant who are acting on behalf of Hetel, King of the Northlands (somewhere in Denmark). I rather like Wate. He’s a clever, but scarily violent, advisor to the king and when his friends Fruote and Horant recommend him for the task of swiping Hilde from under her parents’ noses because he’s good at the sneaky stuff he simply says:
‘Well, you two are going with me! That way we shall all be of proper service to the king. Anyone who puts my peaceful existence in jeopardy will have to share with me the results of my honest loyalty to the king.’
They dress up as merchants, sail to Ireland, spend time at the royal court, enchant Hilde with their singing and persuade her to run away with them back to Scandinavia where she will be much loved as Hetel’s queen. Hagen the Wild isn’t the type to stay home when his daughter runs away though so he sails after them, there’s a battle (inevitably) but eventually Hagen accepts Hilde is staying put and heads home happy that his son-in-law is a brave and wise ruler.
Hetel and Hilde of Ireland settle down to ruling their kingdom, the land of the Hegelings, and enjoying married life. They have two children: a son, Ortwin, and a daughter, Kudrun. Kudrun grows up to be even more beautiful than her mother and the story really begins when men start courting her but Hetel insists none of them are good enough for her as a husband or him as a son-in-law. He spurns Sifrit, King of the Moors even though he travels all the way from somewhere in Spain to ask for Kudrun’s hand. Next up it’s Hartmout, King of Sicily who sends envoys and even visits himself but is rebuffed both times. The third suitor, Herwic, is actually king of a neighbouring land and so he has the geographic advantage, he lays siege to Hetel’s castle and after killing a bunch of the Hegeling soldiers there’s a truce and Kudrun, swooning over his fighting prowess agrees to marry him.
This should theoretically be the end of the tale – boy makes war on the girl next door’s parents, nearly kills them, she finds it attractive and they live happily ever after – but instead Sifrit decides to attack Herwic and suddenly everyone starts fighting over Kudrun.
It gets a bit complicated but Kudrun ends up in Sicily, there’s lots of sea voyages and shipbuilding and adventure and there’s lots of plotting. Kudrun becomes a really interesting, completely atypical female figure when she’s cut off from her family and has to figure things out for herself.
It’s also unintentionally funny at times because it’s a blend of illogical fairy tale and epic narrative.
For example, pretty much every chapter ends with a doom-laden warning like this one:
‘Because of his act, many of his kinsmen were to die, and he himself was later to suffer misfortune.’
‘Great hardship would come from this.’
Which actually becomes rather amusing as a Eeyore-like tic.
There’s a female character who appears to remain a pretty 18 year old for DECADES. She’s one of the princesses who grows up with Hagen the Wild in the land of the griffins, she becomes a lady at the court of his wife, goes to Northland with their daughter Hilde when *she* gets married, goes to Sicily with Hilde’s daughter Kudrun when she is about 18 and at the end of the book she’s only just getting married. By my reckoning she’s been 18 years old for over 35 years. She must be exhausted… ;)
There’s a thirteen year pause in the story during which none of the main characters marries or dies which seems a bit unlikely.
The geography is frankly insane. The further it is from Germany the more confused it gets. If someone is said to be from Portugal it’s pretty much shorthand for ‘Really Foreign OK?’. Oh and the moment where Sicily was surrounded by ice floes and covered with snow in March had me giggling.
The numbers of troops quoted are fun too. No one ever goes into battle without thirty thousand troops to conquer one castle.
I’m not sure you should approach a text like this with such frivolity but I really enjoyed laughing along with the unintentional melodrama and quirky geography at times. Beyond the giggling though there are some really interesting aspects to the story. It gives another example of just how important the concepts of ‘being a good guest’ and ‘being a good host’ were in this period and Kudrun is the sort of political female who is all too frequently missing in other texts. She makes for a fascinating heroine – though she’s squabbled over like a juicy bone she sticks to her principles, protects her friends, stays true to her betrothed, calls a truce several times in various battles and those truces lead to better terms for her people. She answers back even when she’s weeping.
I should also say something about this translation, it’s great. Previous English translations have tried to replicate the complicated structure of the German verses and although you can technically do it, it’s not much fun to read. Murdoch’s good, clear prose translation flows better and manages to avoid sounding like hokey historical fiction. He gives a couple of examples from previous translations in the Introduction and it illustrates the point nicely. Here’s the same verse three ways:
‘Say you now to Hartmuot she ne’er his wife shall be.
Your lord is not so worthy that he to boast is free,
That he doth love my daughter, and she doth not disdain him;
But elsewhere him be looking, if he be fain a queen for his land to gain him.’
(Urgh, that’s Mary Pickering Nichols in 1889.)
‘Tell Harmut she will never be his wife. That the knight should dare to deck out his body to win the love of my daughter! He shall go elsewhere to win a queen for his lands.’
(Better, but not quite, that’s Margaret Armour in 1928.)
(This though is Murdoch’s though, much easier I’m sure you’ll agree:)
‘You may tell Hartmuot that Kudrun will not be his wife, and that he will never be able to claim her love. If he is looking for a queen to rule in his lands, you may tell him to look elsewhere.’
So if you’ve ever wondered what a medieval version of The Odyssey with a quirky heroine at the centre of it might be like, this is well worth seeking out a secondhand copy of. I do hope someone reprints it at some point!