Archives for posts with tag: epic poetry

A week or so ago a reporter on a radio show mentioned that in Homer’s Odyssey Penelope agreed to marry whoever could string Odysseus’ bow and shoot it through a dozen iron axe heads. In Homer’s epic, Odysseus leaves his kingdom in Ithaca to fight in the Trojan War. His people wait for him to return, but as years pass with no word from their king, many of his subjects become gluttons. They spend their time and energy consuming royal resources and having incessant orgies. As the reserves of royal wine start to run dry, they bicker among themselves and plot not only to take the throne from their king Odysseus, but his wife Penelope as well.

Odysseus hears of the rampant corruption in his court and returns to Ithaca disguised as an old man. He watches and waits for the right time to reclaim his rightful seat on the throne. Finally, a perfect time to reveal his identity and crush his opposition arises: Penelope announces that whoever can string Odysseus’ bow and shoot through 12 iron axe heads may have her hand in marriage.

archer

Detail of Archer from 22v of Manuscript Codex Schürstab (Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. C 54) (Nürnberg, about 1472) image: e-codices

There is initial suspense when Telenachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope, tries to win the competition. Though he has a hereditary claim to the throne and is worthy in a way, his winning the competition would create a tragically Oedipal scene. After Telenachus’ unsuccessful attempt, one of the lusty suitors, Leiodes son of Oinops, tries his hand at stringing Odysseus’ bow but “his hands were weak and unused to hard work, they therefore soon grew tired.”[1] Antinoos suggests warming the bow and greasing it up with lard to make is easier to bend. The audience holds their breath with squinted eyes, wrestling to find a comfortable spot on their seat as they worry that the villains may win by cheating.

At last, as the story goes, no one could do it except Odysseus. He strings the bow like an old bard automatically replaces a broken string on his lyre without skipping a beat. Odysseus then loads an arrow, draws back the string, and releases his missile like a bored teenager would pull and release the plunger of a pinball machine. Our hero shoots through all twelve axe heads with his first shot and boy does the king make heads roll after that!

kevin shoots up his school

Kevin (played by Ezra Miller) shoots up his school in Lynne Ramsay’s film We Need to Talk About Kevin (image copyright: 2011 BBC Films)

The next day, as I continued my way through Das Nibelungenlied on the bus, I ran across a passage that made me recall Odysseus’ bow and how he was the only one who could string it. Just before the scene where the hero Sifried is murdered in Das Nibelungenlied, the poet takes the time to describe the exceptional quality of Sifried’s hunting gear. The poet mentions that no man could bend Sifried’s bow but him:

“… And the huge bow he used
could not be bent by hand, except by him. Winding it
slowly back with a winch   was all that anyone else could do.”
[2]

Homer and the Nibelungenlied poet use the motif of the bow that could not be bent by anyone but the hero for different effect in their epic tales. Homer uses it to show the audience that his hero has no peer in strength and strategy and that his sovereignty should have never been a contest. Everyone in the audience knows that Odysseus is still awesome and that he is the rightful ruler of Ithaca. The Nibelungenlied poet uses the bow in the opposite way. He uses it to take his hero, who is already at the at the pinnacle of greatness, to an even higher point to make his fall all the more tragic. It’s like he rubs salt in a wound before it is even cut. Despite the fact that Sifried is so uniquely powerful that no one in the world but him is strong enough to use his bow, his greatest friends and allies will still betray him.

The bow in Homer’s Odyssey gives us a reason to cheer for his hero Odysseus, but Sifried’s bow gives us a reason to cry for the fallen hero of Das Nibelungenlied – just as a skald wants us to cry for Baldur when he tells us Norse Myth. While Odysseus’ bow allows the hero to bring justice back to Ithaca, Sifried’s bow reminds us that justice must be served. With Sifried gone and an audience hungry for justice, Sifried’s widow Krimhild seeks revenge…


[2] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verse 953, p.133

Siegfried and Kriemhild in Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924)

Siegfried meets Kriemhild in Fritz Lang’s 1924 film Die Nibelungen (image: cineoutsider)

What is it about family visits that make them unnecessarily complicated? Is it the distance that we need to travel? The hassle of taking time off from work? Or is it the meal planning and that special trip to the grocery store? How about the housework?

Somehow family visits require more preparation than any other type of visit. There’s more stress, situations have the tendency to become more emotional than usual, and there is often at least one elephant in every room.

It isn’t always like that – but it happens often enough in our minds that we brace ourselves to deal with it. When family visits go well, there are tremendous sighs of relief. Everyone is overjoyed and we promise in all sincerity to stay in better touch as we say our good-byes.

So, since the drama of the gods mirrors our own drama – and vice versa – it should be of no surprise to us that family visits have the tendency to turn the lives of epic heroes upside down as well. This happens to Sifried in Das Nibelungenlied, a 13th century epic poem in Middle High German.

In the story, Sifried (Sigurd from Norse Myth) marries Krimhild and brings her back with him to his castle in the Netherlands.[1]

Though Krimhild misses her homeland of Burgundy on the Rhine, she is very happy to be Sifried’s queen in the Netherlands. After several months pass, Sifried and Krimhild receive a message from Krimhild’s parents: they want the newlyweds to come home for the holidays this year.

Sifried initially reacts to this perfectly reasonable and normal request in the exact same way we might find ourselves reacting – albeit in epic proportions:

Sifried summoned his friends     to help him decide what he ought to do.

He asked for their advice:        should he go to the Rhine?
“My good friend Gunter, and all    his family too, would like me
to attend a celebration.    And I would be eager to go
if only Burgundy     were closer, and not so long a ride.

“And if they ask that Krimhild also     come as their welcome guest.
Counsel me, my dearest      friends. How will she get there?
If they asked me to fight a war,     battling in thirty lands,
they’d find Sifried ready    and willing to help them with eager hands.”[2]

In Sifried’s mind, it would be logistically easier to wage war in thirty lands! He’s a seasoned warrior who can win any dispute on the battlefield, so it’s only natural that preparations for a family visit begin with a strategic planning session. Sifried’s friends suggest a way for him to visit his Burgundian in-laws in style:

The bold warriors answered:    “we think you ought to attend.
Take this journey. That        is our best advice. Ride
with a thousand knights and let them     escort you down the Rhine.
That will ensure your honor    from the very moment you arrive.”[3]

There are many complicated things at play here: awkwardness in dealing with family, Sifried’s need to keep up his regal appearance, uncertainty in customs – but what I find the most amusing is his initial reaction.

He moans about the distance to travel as we might do when we know full well that we’d gladly take a 20-hour flight to a destination for a vacation on our own – or in Sifried’s case, wage a war across thirty lands. What is it about family – the people we love more and share more memories with than anyone else – that complicates visits?

I wonder if the 13th century audience laughed during this part of the poem, “Even Sifried the dragon slayer freaks out at the thought of a family visit!” But, fortunately for us, this is where our similarities with Sifried end. The visit is an especially bad one for poor Sifried: it ruins his marriage and he tragically dies.

We’re lucky that we don’t have too many things in common with this epic hero…


[1] We last saw Sifried in an earlier post courting Krimhild in Burgundy. There, he earned the respect of Krimhild’s father with his talent for winning wars.

[2] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verses 757-759, p.106

[3] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 760, p.107

Ramona helps Scott defeat Roxy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (image: copyright Universal Pictures 2010)

I watched Scott Pilgrim vs. the World this weekend on Ryan‘s recommendation. It is about a guy who meets the girl of his dreams, but to date her he must defeat her seven evil exes in a video game – for real. It was a silly movie, but one that my wife and I enjoyed.

The film borrows elements from many epic storytelling mediums. Sounds appear on the screen as handwritten words just as they do in comic panels. From the 8-bit charm of the Universal Pictures titles sequence to Scott’s “pee bar” that appears on the screen when he needs to urinate, there are little touches to remind us that we are in a video game as well. 

And, of course, Scott plays bass in a new garage rock outfit; the stories in their songs coolly convey their epic struggle to thrive in the music scene. 

Just as epic poetry points to social struggles, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World provides social commentary by addressing the ever uncomfortable and paradoxical popularity of hipster culture.

But a considerable amount of comical symbolism comes from far older sources, borrowed from epic storytelling and even a medieval text. One part in particular recalls a scene from Das Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelgungs). Das Nibelungenlied is a 13th century epic poem in Middle High German. In the poem, Sifried, a prince from the Netherlands, travels to Burgundy to court the woman of his dreams, Krimheld. 

While there, he helps the Burgundian King Gunter defeat the Saxons. King Gunter later decides that the only woman in the world suited to be his wife is Brunhild, an Icelandic queen. 

King Gunter asks Sifried to accompany him to Iceland to “court” Brunhild. Gunter believes that Brunhild is the woman of his dreams, so he attempts to win her hand in marriage. But to do this, he must compete with her in a dangerous game. If he wins the game, he will take Brunhild for his wife. If he loses the game — and no man had ever defeated Brunhild – he will die.

Sifried knows that Gunter cannot possibly win the game, so he quickly devises a plan to help his liege lord win:

They thought to themselves: “This journey    starts to seem like a bad mistake”
No one noticed that noble    Sifried had quietly walked
away from this noisy scene,   gone down to their unguarded ship
and gotten his threefold magic     cloak. Once it was slipped
lightly across his shoulders     he became completely invisible.

And then he hurried back,     joined the crowd of warriors
come to enjoy Brunhild’s    games, in the place she had ordered
made ready. Wrapped in his cloak    he could walk among them, unseen,
surrounded by men who never    suspected his presence, awaiting their queen.[1]

 As Brunhild prepares to throw her first blow, Gunter realizes that he is no match for her:

Quickly, she rolled her sleeves    up her clear white arms,
clasped one hand in her shield,     and then raised her great spear high
in the air. The games were about       to begin. In addition, the look in her eyes
worried Gunter and Sifried.    The king was facing deadly harm.[2]

Sifried comes to the rescue in the nick of time:

 And true enough, without    Sifried’s aid, plainly

Gunter would have been killed.         But Sifried gave the king’s
hand the lightest touch,  making Gunter shrink
away, completely confused. Brunhild was taking careful aim.

“What could have touched my hand?”    Gunter said to himself,
seeing nothing, nor anyone         standing beside him there.
“It’s me, Sifried,” he heard,     “your dearest friend. I’m here
to save you. Have no fear    of the queen, so long as you have my help.

“Quickly, let me have    your shield and let it stay
in my hands. Be careful, do    exactly what I say.
You go through all the motions,    but leave the work to me.”[3]

 When Brunhild’s spear hits the shield, Sifried is hurt, but quickly recovers to return the blow:

Blood came gushing from mighty      Sifried’s mouth. But then
he straightened, wrenched the spear     free of his shield, and threw it,
meant as it was for the king,     hurled it straight at the beautiful
girl with Sifried’s strength          behind it, and back to Brunhild it went.[4]

So, Sifried wins the life-or-death competition for Gunter by moving Gunter’s body and limbs for him. Since Sifried is invisible, no one in the audience can tell that when Gunter leaps, for example, it’s actually Sifried leaping with Gunter on his back. Likewise, when Gunter blocks a blow, it’s really Sifried moving him arms.

The same thing occurs in Scott Pilgrim, albeit played for comic effect — and minus the invisibility part.  One of the evil exes is too much for Scott to handle on several levels, Ramona grabs his fists from behind and helps him win the fight just like Sifried did for Gunter.

It is also an important moment in both stories. Each companion’s true loyalty is shown.

Gunter knew Sifried as a great warrior who fought for fame. He certainly didn’t expect him to fight loyally for him. And for his part, Scott Pilgrim, the hypermodern epic hero, realizes that though he must still fight the evil exes, he and Ramona are already “together.”

 


[1] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verses 430-432, p.61

[2] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 451, p.64

[3] Das Nibelungenlied, verses 452-454, p.64

[4] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 458, p.65

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