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EPIC AND ROMANCE
Essays on Medieval Literature
W. P. KER
Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford Professor of English Literature in University College London
MacMillan and Co., Limited St. Martin's Street, London 1931 Copyright First Edition (8vo) 1896 Second Edition (Eversley Series) 1908 Reprinted (Crown 8vo) 1922, 1926, 1931
Printed in Great Britain By R. & R. Clark, Limited, Edinburgh
These essays are intended as a general description of some of the principal forms of narrative literature in the Middle Ages, and as a review of some of the more interesting works in each period. It is hardly necessary to say that the conclusion is one "in which nothing is concluded," and that whole tracts of literature have been barely touched on—the English metrical romances, the Middle High German poems, the ballads, Northern and Southern—which would require to be considered in any systematic treatment of this part of history.
Many serious difficulties have been evaded (in Finnesburh, more particularly), and many things have been taken for granted, too easily. My apology must be that there seemed to be certain results available for criticism, apart from the more strict and scientific procedure which is required to solve the more difficult problems of Beowulf, or of the old Northern or the old French poetry. It is hoped that something may be gained by a less minute and exacting consideration of the whole field, and by an attempt to bring the more distant and dissociated parts of the subject into relation with one another, in one view.
Some of these notes have been already used, in a course of three lectures at the Royal Institution, in March 1892, on "the Progress of Romance in the Middle Ages," and in lectures given at University College and elsewhere. The plot of the Dutch romance of Walewein was discussed in a paper submitted to the Folk-Lore Society two years ago, and published in the journal of the Society (Folk-Lore, vol. v. p. 121).
I am greatly indebted to my friend Mr. Paget Toynbee for his help in reading the proofs.
I cannot put out on this venture without acknowledgment of my obligation to two scholars, who have had nothing to do with my employment of all that I have borrowed from them, the Oxford editors of the Old Northern Poetry, Dr. Gudbrand Vigfusson and Mr. York Powell. I have still to learn what Mr. York Powell thinks of these discourses. What Gudbrand Vigfusson would have thought I cannot guess, but I am glad to remember the wise goodwill which he was always ready to give, with so much else from the resources of his learning and his judgment, to those who applied to him for advice.
W. P. KER.
LONDON, 4th November 1896.
This book is now reprinted without addition or change, except in a few small details. If it had to be written over again, many things, no doubt, would be expressed in a different way. For example, after some time happily spent in reading the Danish and other ballads, I am inclined to make rather less of the interval between the ballads and the earlier heroic poems, and I have learned (especially from Dr. Axel Olrik) that the Danish ballads do not belong originally to simple rustic people, but to the Danish gentry in the Middle Ages. Also the comparison of Sturla's Icelandic and Norwegian histories, though it still seems to me right in the main, is driven a little too far; it hardly does enough justice to the beauty of the Life of Hacon (Hkonar Saga), especially in the part dealing with the rivalry of the King and his father-in-law Duke Skule. The critical problems with regard to the writings of Sturla are more difficult than I imagined, and I am glad to have this opportunity of referring, with admiration, to the work of my friend Dr. Bjrn Magnsson Olsen on the Sturlunga Saga (in Safn til Sgu Islands, iii. pp. 193-510, Copenhagen, 1897). Though I am unable to go further into that debatable ground, I must not pass over Dr. Olsen's argument showing that the life of the original Sturla of Hvamm (v. inf. pp. 253-256) was written by Snorri himself; the story of the alarm and pursuit (p. 255) came from the recollections of Gudny, Snorri's mother.
In the Chansons de Geste a great discovery has been made since my essay was written; the Chanun de Willame, an earlier and ruder version of the epic of Aliscans, has been printed by the unknown possessor of the manuscript, and generously given to a number of students who have good reason to be grateful to him for his liberality. There are some notes on the poem in Romania (vols. xxxii. and xxxiv.) by M. Paul Meyer and Mr. Raymond Weeks, and it has been used by Mr. Andrew Lang in illustration of Homer and his age. It is the sort of thing that the Greeks willingly let die; a rough draught of an epic poem, in many ways more barbarous than the other extant chansons de geste, but full of vigour, and notable (like le Roi Gormond, another of the older epics) for its refrain and other lyrical passages, very like the manner of the ballads. The Chanun de Willame, it may be observed, is not very different from Aliscans with regard to Rainouart, the humorous gigantic helper of William of Orange. One would not have been surprised if it had been otherwise, if Rainouart had been first introduced by the later composer, with a view to "comic relief" or some such additional variety for his tale. But it is not so; Rainouart, it appears, has a good right to his place by the side of William. The grotesque element in French epic is found very early, e.g. in the Pilgrimage of Charlemagne, and is not to be reckoned among the signs of decadence.
There ought to be a reference, on p. 298 below, to M. Joseph Bdier's papers in the Revue Historique (xcv. and xcvii.) on Raoul de Cambrai. M. Bdier's Lgendes piques, not yet published at this time of writing, will soon be in the hands of his expectant readers.
I am deeply indebted to many friends—first of all to York Powell—for innumerable good things spoken and written about these studies. My reviewers, in spite of all differences of opinion, have put me under strong obligations to them for their fairness and consideration. Particularly, I have to offer my most sincere acknowledgments to Dr. Andreas Heusler of Berlin for the honour he has done my book in his Lied und Epos (1905), and not less for the help that he has given, in this and other of his writings, towards the better understanding of the old poems and their history.
W. P. K.
OXFORD, 25th Jan. 1908.
THE HEROIC AGE PAGE
Epic and Romance: the two great orders of medieval narrative 3
Epic, of the "heroic age," preceding Romance of the "age of chivalry" 4
The heroic age represented in three kinds of literature—Teutonic Epic, French Epic, and the Icelandic Sagas 6
Conditions of Life in an "heroic age" 7
Homer and the Northern poets 9
Homeric passages in Beowulf 10 and in the Song of Maldon 11
Progress of poetry in the heroic age 13
Growth of Epic, distinct in character, but generally incomplete, among the Teutonic nations 14
EPIC AND ROMANCE
The complex nature of Epic 16
No kind or aspect of life that may not be included 16
This freedom due to the dramatic quality of true (e.g. Homeric) Epic 17 as explained by Aristotle 17
Epic does not require a magnificent ideal subject 18 such as those of the artificial epic (Aeneid, Gerusalemme Liberata, Paradise Lost) 18
The Iliad unlike these poems in its treatment of "ideal" motives (patriotism, etc.) 19
True Epic begins with a dramatic plot and characters 20
The Epic of the Northern heroic age is sound in its dramatic conception 20 and does not depend on impersonal ideals (with exceptions, in the Chansons de geste) 21
The German heroes in history and epic (Ermanaric, Attila, Theodoric) 21
Relations of Epic to historical fact 22
The epic poet is free in the conduct of his story 23 but his story and personages must belong to his own people 26
Nature of Epic brought out by contrast with secondary narrative poems, where the subject is not national 27
This secondary kind of poem may be excellent, but is always different in character from native Epic 28
Disputes of academic critics about the "Epic Poem" 30
Tasso's defence of Romance. Pedantic attempts to restrict the compass of Epic 30
Bossu on Phaeacia 31
Epic, as the most comprehensive kind of poetry, includes Romance as one of its elements 32 but needs a strong dramatic imagination to keep Romance under control 33
Mythology not required in the greatest scenes in Homer 35
Myths and popular fancies may be a hindrance to the epic poet, but he is compelled to make some use of them 36
He criticises and selects, and allows the characters of the gods to be modified in relation to the human characters 37
Early humanism and reflexion on myth—two processes: (1) rejection of the grosser myths; (2) refinement of myth through poetry 40
Two ways of refining myth in poetry—(1) by turning it into mere fancy, and the more ludicrous things into comedy; (2) by finding an imaginative or an ethical meaning in it 40
Instances in Icelandic literature—Lokasenna 41
Snorri Sturluson, his ironical method in the Edda 42
The old gods rescued from clerical persecution 43
Imaginative treatment of the graver myths—the death of Balder; the Doom of the Gods 43
Difficulties in the attainment of poetical self-command 44
Medieval confusion and distraction 45
Premature "culture" 46
Depreciation of native work in comparison with ancient literature and with theology 47
An Icelandic gentleman's library 47
The whalebone casket 48
Epic not wholly stifled by "useful knowledge" 49
THE THREE SCHOOLS—TEUTONIC EPIC—FRENCH EPIC—THE ICELANDIC HISTORIES
Early failure of Epic among the Continental Germans 50
Old English Epic invaded by Romance (Lives of Saints, etc.) 50
Old Northern (Icelandic) poetry full of romantic mythology 51
French Epic and Romance contrasted 51
Feudalism in the old French Epic (Chansons de Geste) not unlike the prefeudal "heroic age" 52
But the Chansons de Geste are in many ways "romantic" 53
Comparison of the English Song of Byrhtnoth (Maldon, A.D. 991) with the Chanson de Roland 54
Severity and restraint of Byrhtnoth 55
Mystery and pathos of Roland 56
Iceland and the German heroic age 57
The Icelandic paradox—old-fashioned politics together with clear understanding 58
Icelandic prose literature—its subject, the anarchy of the heroic age; its methods, clear and positive 59
The Icelandic histories, in prose, complete the development of the early Teutonic Epic poetry 60
THE TEUTONIC EPIC
THE TRAGIC CONCEPTION
Early German poetry 65
One of the first things certain about it is that it knew the meaning of tragic situations 66
The Death of Ermanaric in Jordanes 66
The story of Alboin in Paulus Diaconus 66
Tragic plots in the extant poems 69
The Death of Ermanaric in the "Poetic Edda" (Hamisml) 70
Some of the Northern poems show the tragic conception modified by romantic motives, yet without loss of the tragic purport—Helgi and Sigrun 72
Similar harmony of motives in the Waking of Angantyr 73
Whatever may be wanting, the heroic poetry had no want of tragic plots—the "fables" are sound 74
Value of the abstract plot (Aristotle) 74
SCALE OF THE POEMS
List of extant poems and fragments in one or other of the older Teutonic languages (German, English, and Northern) in unrhymed alliterative verse 76
Small amount of the extant poetry 78
Supplemented in various ways 79
1. THE WESTERN GROUP (German and English) 79
Amount of story contained in the several poems, and scale of treatment 79
Hildebrand, a short story 80
Finnesburh, (1) the Lambeth fragment (Hickes); and (2) the abstract of the story in Beowulf 81
Finnesburh, a story of (1) wrong and (2) vengeance, like the story of the death of Attila, or of the betrayal of Roland 82
Uncertainty as to the compass of the Finnesburh poem (Lambeth) in its original complete form 84
Waldere, two fragments: the story of Walter of Aquitaine preserved in the Latin Waltharius 84
Plot of Waltharius 84
Place of the Waldere fragments in the story, and probable compass of the whole poem 86
Scale of Maldon 88 and of Beowulf 89
General resemblance in the themes of these poems—unity of action 89
Development of style, and not neglect of unity nor multiplication of contents, accounts for the difference of length between earlier and later poems 91
Progress of Epic in England—unlike the history of Icelandic poetry 92
2. THE NORTHERN GROUP 93
The contents of the so-called "Elder Edda" (i.e. Codex Regius 2365, 4to Havn.) 93 to what extent Epic 93
Notes on the contents of the poems, to show their scale; the Lay of Weland 94
Different plan in the Lays of Thor, rymskvia and Hymiskvia 95
The Helgi Poems—complications of the text 95
Three separate stories—Helgi Hundingsbane and Sigrun 95
Helgi Hiorvardsson and Swava 98
Helgi and Kara (lost) 99
The story of the Volsungs—the long Lay of Brynhild 100 contains the whole story in abstract 100 giving the chief place to the character of Brynhild 101
The Hell-ride of Brynhild 102
The fragmentary Lay of Brynhild (Brot af Sigurarkviu) 103
Poems on the death of Attila—the Lay of Attila (Atlakvia), and the Greenland Poem of Attila (Atlaml) 105
Proportions of the story 105
A third version of the story in the Lament of Oddrun (Oddrnargrtr) 107
The Death of Ermanaric (Hamisml) 109
The Northern idylls of the heroines (Oddrun, Gudrun)—the Old Lay of Gudrun, or Gudrun's story to Theodoric 109
The Lay of Gudrun (Gurnarkvia)—Gudrun's sorrow for Sigurd 111
The refrain 111
Gudrun's Chain of Woe (Tregrof Gurnar) 111
The Ordeal of Gudrun, an episodic lay 111
Poems in dialogue, without narrative— (1) Dialogues in the common epic measure—Balder's Doom, Dialogues of Sigurd, Angantyr—explanations in prose, between the dialogues 112 (2) Dialogues in the gnomic or elegiac measure: (a) vituperative debates—Lokasenna, Harbarzli (in irregular verse), Atli and Rimgerd 112 (b) Dialogues implying action—The Wooing of Frey (Skrnisml) 114
Svipdag and Menglad (Grgaldr, Filsvinnsml) 114
The Volsung dialogues 115
The Western and Northern poems compared, with respect to their scale 116
The old English poems (Beowulf, Waldere), in scale, midway between the Northern poems and Homer 117
Many of the Teutonic epic remains may look like the "short lays" of the agglutinative epic theory; but this is illusion 117
Two kinds of story in Teutonic Epic—(1) episodic, i.e. representing a single action (Hildebrand, etc.); (2) summary, i.e. giving the whole of a long story in abstract, with details of one part of it (Weland, etc.) 118
The second class is unfit for agglutination 119
Also the first, when it is looked into 121
The Teutonic Lays are too individual to be conveniently fused into larger masses of narrative 122
EPIC AND BALLAD POETRY
Many of the old epic lays are on the scale of popular ballads 123
Their style is different 124
As may be proved where later ballads have taken up the epic subjects 125
The Danish ballads of Ungen Sveidal (Svipdag and Menglad) 126 and of Sivard (Sigurd and Brynhild) 127
The early epic poetry, unlike the ballads, was ambitious and capable of progress 129
THE STYLE OF THE POEMS
Rhetorical art of the alliterative verse 133
English and Norse 134
Different besetting temptations in England and the North 136
English tameness; Norse emphasis and false wit (the Scaldic poetry) 137
Narrative poetry undeveloped in the North; unable to compete with the lyrical forms 137
Lyrical element in Norse narrative 138
Volosp, the greatest of all the Northern poems 139
False heroics; Krkuml (Death-Song of Ragnar Lodbrok) 140
A fresh start, in prose, with no rhetorical encumbrances 141
THE PROGRESS OF EPIC
Various renderings of the same story due (1) to accidents of tradition and impersonal causes; (2) to calculation and selection of motives by poets, and intentional modification of traditional matter 144
The three versions of the death of Gunnar and Hogni compared—Atlakvia, Atlaml, Oddrnargrtr 147
Agreement of the three poems in ignoring the German theory of Kriemhild's revenge 149
The incidents of the death of Hogni clear in Atlakvia, apparently confused and ill recollected in the other two poems 150
But it turns out that these two poems had each a view of its own which made it impossible to use the original story 152
Atlaml, the work of a critical author, making his selection of incidents from heroic tradition 153 the largest epic work in Northern poetry, and the last of its school 155
The "Poetic Edda," a collection of deliberate experiments in poetry and not of casual popular variants 156
Beowulf claims to be a single complete work 158
Want of unity: a story and a sequel 159
More unity in Beowulf than in some Greek epics. The first 2200 lines form a complete story, not ill composed 160
Homeric method of episodes and allusions in Beowulf 162 and Waldere 163
Triviality of the main plot in both parts of Beowulf—tragic significance in some of the allusions 165
The characters in Beowulf abstract types 165
The adventures and sentiments commonplace, especially in the fight with the dragon 168
Adventure of Grendel not pure fantasy 169
Grendel's mother more romantic 172
Beowulf is able to give epic dignity to a commonplace set of romantic adventures 173
THE ICELANDIC SAGAS
ICELAND AND THE HEROIC AGE
The close of Teutonic Epic—in Germany the old forms were lost, but not the old stories, in the later Middle Ages 179
England kept the alliterative verse through the Middle Ages 180
Heroic themes in Danish ballads, and elsewhere 181
Place of Iceland in the heroic tradition—a new heroic literature in prose 182
MATTER AND FORM
The Sagas are not pure fiction 184
Difficulty of giving form to genealogical details 185
Miscellaneous incidents 186
Literary value of the historical basis—the characters well known and recognisable 187
The coherent Sagas—the tragic motive 189
Plan of Njla 190 of Laxdla 191 of Egils Saga 192
Vpnfiringa Saga, a story of two generations 193
Vga-Glms Saga, a biography without tragedy 193
Reykdla Saga 194
Grettis Saga and Gsla Saga clearly worked out 195
Passages of romance in these histories 196
Hrafnkels Saga Freysgoa, a tragic idyll, well proportioned 198
Great differences of scale among the Sagas—analogies with the heroic poems 198
THE HEROIC IDEAL
Unheroic matters of fact in the Sagas 200
Heroic characters 201
Heroic rhetoric 203
Danger of exaggeration—Kjartan in Laxdla 204
The heroic ideal not made too explicit or formal 206
Tragic contradictions in the Sagas—Gisli, Njal 207
Laxdla, a reduction of the story of Sigurd and Brynhild to the terms of common life 209
Compare Ibsen's Warriors in Helgeland 209
The Sagas are a late stage in the progress of heroic literature 210
The Northern rationalism 212
Self-restraint and irony 213
The elegiac mood infrequent 215
The story of Howard of Icefirth—ironical pathos 216
The conventional Viking 218
The harmonies of Njla 219 and of Laxdla 222
The two speeches of Gudrun 223
The Sagas not bound by solemn conventions 225
Comic humours 226
Bjorn and his wife in Njla 228
Bandamanna Saga: "The Confederates," a comedy 229
Satirical criticism of the "heroic age" 231
Tragic incidents in Bandamanna Saga 233
Neither the comedy nor tragedy of the Sagas is monotonous or abstract 234
THE ART OF NARRATIVE
Organic unity of the best Sagas 235
Method of representing occurrences as they appear at the time 236
Instance from orgils Saga 238
Another method—the death of Kjartan as it appeared to a churl 240
Psychology (not analytical) 244
Impartiality—justice to the hero's adversaries (Freyinga Saga) 245
EPIC AND HISTORY
Form of Saga used for contemporary history in the thirteenth century 246
The historians, Ari (1067-1148) and Snorri (1178-1241) 248
The Life of King Sverre, by Abbot Karl Jnsson 249
Sturla (c. 1214-1284), his history of Iceland in his own time (Islendinga or Sturlunga Saga) 249
The matter ready to his hand 250
Biographies incorporated in Sturlunga: Thorgils and Haflidi 252
Sturlu Saga 253
The midnight raid (A.D. 1171) 254
Lives of Bishop Gudmund, Hrafn, and Aron 256
Sturla's own work (Islendinga Saga) 257
The burning of Flugumyri 259
Traces of the heroic manner 264
The character of this history brought out by contrast with Sturla's other work, the Life of King Hacon of Norway 267
Norwegian and Icelandic politics in the thirteenth century 267
Norway more fortunate than Iceland—the history less interesting 267
Sturla and Joinville contemporaries 269
Their methods of narrative compared 270
THE NORTHERN PROSE ROMANCES
Romantic interpolations in the Sagas—the ornamental version of Fstbrra Saga 275
The secondary romantic Sagas—Frithiof 277
French romance imported (Strengleikar, Tristram's Saga, etc.) 278
Romantic Sagas made out of heroic poems (Volsunga Saga, etc.) 279 and out of authentic Sagas by repetition of common forms and motives 280
Romantic conventions in the original Sagas 280
Laxdla and Gunnlaug's Saga—Thorstein the White 281
Thorstein Staffsmitten 282
Sagas turned into rhyming romances (Rmur) 283 and into ballads in the Faroes 284
THE OLD FRENCH EPIC
(CHANSONS DE GESTE)
Lateness of the extant versions 287
Competition of Epic and Romance in the twelfth century 288
Widespread influence of the Chansons de geste—a contrast to the Sagas 289
Narrative style 290
No obscurities of diction 291
The "heroic age" imperfectly represented 292 but not ignored 293
Roland—heroic idealism—France and Christendom 293
William of Orange—Aliscans 296
Rainouart—exaggeration of heroism 296
Another class of stories in the Chansons de geste, more like the Sagas 297
Raoul de Cambrai 298
Barbarism of style 299
Garin le Loherain—style clarified 300
Problems of character—Fromont 301
The story of the death of Begon 302 unlike contemporary work of the Romantic School 304
The lament for Begon 307
Raoul and Garin contrasted with Roland 308
Comedy in French Epic—"humours" in Garin 310 in the Coronemenz Loos, etc. 311
Romantic additions to heroic cycles—la Prise d'Orange 313
Huon de Bordeaux—the original story grave and tragic 314 converted to Romance 314
ROMANCE AND THE OLD FRENCH ROMANTIC SCHOOLS
Romance an element in Epic and Tragedy apart from all "romantic schools" 321
The literary movements of the twelfth century 322
A new beginning 323
The Romantic School unromantic in its methods 324
Professional Romance 325
Characteristics of the school—courteous sentiment 328
Decorative passages—descriptions—pedantry 329
Instances from Roman de Troie 330 and from Ider, etc. 331
Romantic adventures—the "matter of Rome" and the "matter of Britain" 334
Blending of classical and Celtic influences—e.g. in Benoit's Medea 334
Methods of narrative—simple, as in the Lay of Guingamor; overloaded, as in Walewein 337
Walewein, a popular tale disguised as a chivalrous romance 340
The different versions of Libeaux Desconus—one of them is sophisticated 343
Tristram—the Anglo-Norman poems comparatively simple and ingenuous 344
French Romance and Provenal Lyric 345
Ovid in the Middle Ages—the Art of Love 346
The Heroines 347
Benoit's Medea again 348
Chrestien of Troyes, his place at the beginning of modern literature 349
'Enlightenment' in the Romantic School 350
The sophists of Romance—the rhetoric of sentiment and passion 351
The progress of Romance from medieval to modern literature 352
Chrestien of Troyes, his inconsistencies—nature and convention 352
Departure from conventional romance; Chrestien's Enid 355
Chrestien's Cliges—"sensibility" 357
Flamenca, a Provenal story of the thirteenth century—the author a follower of Chrestien 359
His acquaintance with romantic literature 360 and rejection of the "machinery" of adventures 360
Flamenca, an appropriation of Ovid—disappearance of romantic mythology 361
The Lady of Vergi, a short tragic story without false rhetoric 362
Use of medieval themes by the great poets of the fourteenth century 363
Boccaccio and Chaucer—the Teseide and the Knight's Tale 364
Variety of Chaucer's methods 364
Want of art in the Man of Law's Tale 365
The abstract point of honour (Clerk's Tale, Franklin's Tale) 366
Pathos in the Legend of Good Women 366
Romantic method perfect in the Knight's Tale 366
Anelida, the abstract form of romance 367
In Troilus and Criseyde the form of medieval romance is filled out with strong dramatic imagination 367
Romance obtains the freedom of Epic, without the old local and national limitations of Epic 368
Note A—Rhetoric of the Alliterative Poetry 373
Note B—Kjartan and Olaf Tryggvason 375
Note C—Eyjolf Karsson 381
Note D—Two Catalogues of Romances 384
THE HEROIC AGE
The title of Epic, or of "heroic poem," is claimed by historians for a number of works belonging to the earlier Middle Ages, and to the medieval origins of modern literature. "Epic" is a term freely applied to the old school of Germanic narrative poetry, which in different dialects is represented by the poems of Hildebrand, of Beowulf, of Sigurd and Brynhild. "Epic" is the name for the body of old French poems which is headed by the Chanson de Roland. The rank of Epic is assigned by many to the Nibelungenlied, not to speak of other Middle High German poems on themes of German tradition. The title of prose Epic has been claimed for the Sagas of Iceland.
By an equally common consent the name Romance is given to a number of kinds of medieval narrative by which the Epic is succeeded and displaced; most notably in France, but also in other countries which were led, mainly by the example and influence of France, to give up their own "epic" forms and subjects in favour of new manners.
This literary classification corresponds in general history to the difference between the earlier "heroic" age and the age of chivalry. The "epics" of Hildebrand and Beowulf belong, if not wholly to German heathendom, at any rate to the earlier and prefeudal stage of German civilisation. The French epics, in their extant form, belong for the most part in spirit, if not always in date, to an order of things unmodified by the great changes of the twelfth century. While among the products of the twelfth century one of the most remarkable is the new school of French romance, the brilliant and frequently vainglorious exponent of the modern ideas of that age, and of all its chivalrous and courtly fashions of thought and sentiment. The difference of the two orders of literature is as plain as the difference in the art of war between the two sides of the battle of Hastings, which indeed is another form of the same thing; for the victory of the Norman knights over the English axemen has more than a fanciful or superficial analogy to the victory of the new literature of chivalry over the older forms of heroic narrative. The history of those two orders of literature, of the earlier Epic kinds, followed by the various types of medieval Romance, is parallel to the general political history of the earlier and the later Middle Ages, and may do something to illustrate the general progress of the nations. The passage from the earlier "heroic" civilisation to the age of chivalry was not made without some contemporary record of the "form and pressure" of the times in the changing fashions of literature, and in successive experiments of the imagination.
Whatever Epic may mean, it implies some weight and solidity; Romance means nothing, if it does not convey some notion of mystery and fantasy. A general distinction of this kind, whatever names may be used to render it, can be shown, in medieval literature, to hold good of the two large groups of narrative belonging to the earlier and the later Middle Ages respectively. Beowulf might stand for the one side, Lancelot or Gawain for the other. It is a difference not confined to literature. The two groups are distinguished from one another, as the respectable piratical gentleman of the North Sea coast in the ninth or tenth century differs from one of the companions of St. Louis. The latter has something fantastic in his ideas which the other has not. The Crusader may indeed be natural and brutal enough in most of his ways, but he has lost the sobriety and simplicity of the earlier type of rover. If nothing else, his way of fighting—the undisciplined cavalry charge—would convict him of extravagance as compared with men of business, like the settlers of Iceland for example.
The two great kinds of narrative literature in the Middle Ages might be distinguished by their favourite incidents and commonplaces of adventure. No kind of adventure is so common or better told in the earlier heroic manner than the defence of a narrow place against odds. Such are the stories of Hamther and Sorli in the hall of Ermanaric, of the Niblung kings in the hall of Attila, of the Fight of Finnesburh, of Walter at the Wasgenstein, of Byrhtnoth at Maldon, of Roland in the Pyrenees. Such are some of the finest passages in the Icelandic Sagas: the death of Gunnar, the burning of Njal's house, the burning of Flugumyri (an authentic record), the last fight of Kjartan in Svinadal, and of Grettir at Drangey. The story of Cynewulf and Cyneheard in the English Chronicle may well have come from a poem in which an attack and defence of this sort were narrated.
The favourite adventure of medieval romance is something different,—a knight riding alone through a forest; another knight; a shock of lances; a fight on foot with swords, "racing, tracing, and foining like two wild boars"; then, perhaps, recognition—the two knights belong to the same household and are engaged in the same quest.
Et Guivrez vers lui esperone, De rien nule ne l'areisone, Ne Erec ne li sona mot.
Erec, l. 5007.
This collision of blind forces, this tournament at random, takes the place, in the French romances, of the older kind of combat. In the older kind the parties have always good reasons of their own for fighting; they do not go into it with the same sort of readiness as the wandering champions of romance.
The change of temper and fashion represented by the appearance and the vogue of the medieval French romances is a change involving the whole world, and going far beyond the compass of literature and literary history. It meant the final surrender of the old ideas, independent of Christendom, which had been enough for the Germanic nations in their earlier days; it was the close of their heroic age. What the "heroic age" of the modern nations really was, may be learned from what is left of their heroic literature, especially from three groups or classes,—the old Teutonic alliterative poems on native subjects; the French Chansons de Geste; and the Icelandic Sagas.
All these three orders, whatever their faults may be, do something to represent a society which is "heroic" as the Greeks in Homer are heroic. There can be no mistake about the likeness. To compare the imaginations and the phrases of any of these barbarous works with the poetry of Homer may be futile, but their contents may be compared without reference to their poetical qualities; and there is no question that the life depicted has many things in common with Homeric life, and agrees with Homer in ignorance of the peculiar ideas of medieval chivalry.
The form of society in an heroic age is aristocratic and magnificent. At the same time, this aristocracy differs from that of later and more specialised forms of civilisation. It does not make an insuperable difference between gentle and simple. There is not the extreme division of labour that produces the contempt of the lord for the villain. The nobles have not yet discovered for themselves any form of occupation or mode of thought in virtue of which they are widely severed from the commons, nor have they invented any such ideal of life or conventional system of conduct as involves an ignorance or depreciation of the common pursuits of those below them. They have no such elaborate theory of conduct as is found in the chivalrous society of the Middle Ages. The great man is the man who is best at the things with which every one is familiar. The epic hero may despise the churlish man, may, like Odysseus in the Iliad (ii. 198), show little sympathy or patience with the bellowings of the multitude, but he may not ostentatiously refuse all community of ideas with simple people. His magnificence is not defended by scruples about everything low. It would not have mattered to Odysseus if he had been seen travelling in a cart, like Lancelot; though for Lancelot it was a great misfortune and anxiety. The art and pursuits of a gentleman in the heroic age are different from those of the churl, but not so far different as to keep them in different spheres. There is a community of prosaic interests. The great man is a good judge of cattle; he sails his own ship.
A gentleman adventurer on board his own ship, following out his own ideas, carrying his men with him by his own power of mind and temper, and not by means of any system of naval discipline to which he as well as they must be subordinate; surpassing his men in skill, knowledge, and ambition, but taking part with them and allowing them to take part in the enterprise, is a good representative of the heroic age. This relation between captain and men may be found, accidentally and exceptionally, in later and more sophisticated forms of society. In the heroic age a relation between a great man and his followers similar to that between an Elizabethan captain and his crew is found to be the most important and fundamental relation in society. In later times it is only by a special favour of circumstances, as for example by the isolation of shipboard from all larger monarchies, that the heroic relation between the leader and the followers can be repeated. As society becomes more complex and conventional, this relation ceases. The homeliness of conversation between Odysseus and his vassals, or between Njal and Thord Freedman's son, is discouraged by the rules of courtly behaviour as gentlefolk become more idle and ostentatious, and their vassals more sordid and dependent. The secrets also of political intrigue and dexterity made a difference between noble and villain, in later and more complex medieval politics, such as is unknown in the earlier days and the more homely forms of Society. An heroic age may be full of all kinds of nonsense and superstition, but its motives of action are mainly positive and sensible,—cattle, sheep, piracy, abduction, merchandise, recovery of stolen goods, revenge. The narrative poetry of an heroic age, whatever dignity it may obtain either by its dramatic force of imagination, or by the aid of its mythology, will keep its hold upon such common matters, simply because it cannot do without the essential practical interests, and has nothing to put in their place, if kings and chiefs are to be represented at all. The heroic age cannot dress up ideas or sentiments to play the part of characters. If its characters are not men they are nothing, not even thoughts or allegories; they cannot go on talking unless they have something to do; and so the whole business of life comes bodily into the epic poem.
How much the matter of the Northern heroic literature resembles the Homeric, may be felt and recognised at every turn in a survey of the ground. In both there are the ashen spears; there are the shepherds of the people; the retainers bound by loyalty to the prince who gives them meat and drink; the great hall with its minstrelsy, its boasting and bickering; the battles which are a number of single combats, while "physiology supplies the author with images" for the same; the heroic rule of conduct ([Greek: iomen]); the eminence of the hero, and at the same time his community of occupation and interest with those who are less distinguished.
[Footnote 1: Johnson on the Epic Poem (Life of Milton).]
[Footnote 2: Il. xii. 328.]
There are other resemblances also, but some of these are miraculous, and perhaps irrelevant. By what magic is it that the cry of Odysseus, wounded and hard bestead in his retreat before the Trojans, comes over us like the three blasts of the horn of Roland?
Thrice he shouted, as loud as the head of a man will bear; and three times Menelaus heard the sound thereof, and quickly he turned and spake to Ajax: "Ajax, there is come about me the cry of Odysseus slow to yield; and it is like as though the Trojans had come hard upon him by himself alone, closing him round in the battle."
[Footnote 3: Il. xi. 462.]
It is reported as a discovery made by Mephistopheles in Thessaly, in the classical Walpurgisnacht, that the company there was very much like his old acquaintances on the Brocken. A similar discovery, in regard to more honourable personages and other scenes, may be made by other Gothic travellers in a "south-eastward" journey to heroic Greece. The classical reader of the Northern heroics may be frequently disgusted by their failures; he may also be bribed, if not to applaud, at least to continue his study, by the glimmerings and "shadowy recollections," the affinities and correspondences between the Homeric and the Northern heroic world.
Beowulf and his companions sail across the sea to Denmark on an errand of deliverance,—to cleanse the land of monsters. They are welcomed by Hrothgar, king of the Danes, and by his gentle queen, in a house less fortunate than the house of Alcinous, for it is exposed to the attacks of the lumpish ogre that Beowulf has to kill, but recalling in its splendour, in the manner of its entertainment, and the bearing of its gracious lord and lady, the house where Odysseus told his story. Beowulf, like Odysseus, is assailed by an envious person with discourteous words. Hunferth, the Danish courtier, is irritated by Beowulf's presence; "he could not endure that any one should be counted worthier than himself"; he speaks enviously, a biting speech—[Greek: thymodaks gar mythos]—and is answered in the tone of Odysseus to Euryalus. Beowulf has a story to tell of his former perils among the creatures of the sea. It is differently introduced from that of Odysseus, and has not the same importance, but it increases the likeness between the two adventurers.
[Footnote 4: Od. viii. 165.]
In the shadowy halls of the Danish king a minstrel sings of the famous deeds of men, and his song is given as an interlude in the main action. It is a poem on that same tragedy of Finnesburh, which is the theme of a separate poem in the Old English heroic cycle; so Demodocus took his subjects from the heroic cycle of Achaea. The leisure of the Danish king's house is filled in the same manner as the leisure of Phaeacia. In spite of the difference of the climate, it is impossible to mistake the likeness between the Greek and the Northern conceptions of a dignified and reasonable way of life. The magnificence of the Homeric great man is like the magnificence of the Northern lord, in so far as both are equally marked off from the pusillanimity and cheapness of popular morality on the one hand, and from the ostentation of Oriental or chivalrous society on the other. The likeness here is not purely in the historical details, but much more in the spirit that informs the poetry.
If this part of Beowulf is a Northern Odyssey, there is nothing in the whole range of English literature so like a scene from the Iliad as the narrative of Maldon. It is a battle in which the separate deeds of the fighters are described, with not quite so much anatomy as in Homer. The fighting about the body of Byrhtnoth is described as strongly, as "the Fighting at the Wall" in the twelfth book of the Iliad, and essentially in the same way, with the interchange of blows clearly noted, together with the speeches and thoughts of the combatants. Even the most heroic speech in Homer, even the power of Sarpedon's address to Glaucus in the twelfth book of the Iliad, cannot discredit, by comparison, the heroism and the sublimity of the speech of the "old companion" at the end of Maldon. The language is simple, but it is not less adequate in its own way than the simplicity of Sarpedon's argument. It states, perhaps more clearly and absolutely than anything in Greek, the Northern principle of resistance to all odds, and defiance of ruin. In the North the individual spirit asserts itself more absolutely against the bodily enemies than in Greece; the defiance is made wholly independent of any vestige of prudent consideration; the contradiction, "Thought the harder, Heart the keener, Mood the more, as our Might lessens," is stated in the most extreme terms. This does not destroy the resemblance between the Greek and the Northern ideal, or between the respective forms of representation.
The creed of Maldon is that of Achilles: "Xanthus, what need is there to prophesy of death? Well do I know that it is my doom to perish here, far from my father and mother; but for all that I will not turn back, until I give the Trojans their fill of war." The difference is that in the English case the strain is greater, the irony deeper, the antithesis between the spirit and the body more paradoxical.
[Footnote 5: Il. xix. 420.]
Where the centre of life is a great man's house, and where the most brilliant society is that which is gathered at his feast, where competitive boasting, story-telling, and minstrelsy are the principal intellectual amusements, it is inevitable that these should find their way into a kind of literature which has no foundation except experience and tradition. Where fighting is more important than anything else in active life, and at the same time is carried on without organisation or skilled combinations, it is inevitable that it should be described as it is in the Iliad, the Song of Maldon and Song of Roland, and the Icelandic Sagas, as a series of personal encounters, in which every stroke is remembered. From this early aristocratic form of society, there is derived in one age the narrative of life at Ithaca or of the navigation of Odysseus, in another the representation of the household of Njal or of Olaf the Peacock, and of the rovings of Olaf Tryggvason and other captains. There is an affinity between these histories in virtue of something over and above the likeness in the conditions of things they describe. There is a community of literary sense as well as of historical conditions, in the record of Achilles and Kjartan Olafsson, of Odysseus and Njal.
The circumstances of an heroic age may be found in numberless times and places, in the history of the world. Among its accompaniments will be generally found some sort of literary record of sentiments and imaginations; but to find an heroic literature of the highest order is not so easy. Many nations instead of an Iliad or an Odyssey have had to make shift with conventional repetitions of the praise of chieftains, without any story; many have had to accept from their story-tellers all sorts of monstrous adventures in place of the humanities of debate and argument. Epic literature is not common; it is brought to perfection by a slow process through many generations. The growth of Epic out of the older and commoner forms of poetry, hymns, dirges, or panegyrics, is a progress towards intellectual and imaginative freedom. Few nations have attained, at the close of their heroic age, to a form of poetical art in which men are represented freely in action and conversation. The labour and meditation of all the world has not discovered, for the purposes of narrative, any essential modification of the procedure of Homer. Those who are considered reformers and discoverers in later times—Chaucer, Cervantes, Fielding—are discoverers merely of the old devices of dramatic narration which were understood by Homer and described after him by Aristotle.
The growth of Epic, in the beginning of the history of the modern nations, has been generally thwarted and stunted. It cannot be said of many of the languages of the North and West of Europe that in them the epic form has come fully to its own, or has realised its proper nature. Many of them, however, have at least made a beginning. The history of the older German literature, and of old French, is the history of a great number of experiments in Epic; of attempts, that is, to represent great actions in narrative, with the personages well defined. These experiments are begun in the right way. They are not merely barbarous nor fantastic. They are different also from such traditional legends and romances as may survive among simple people long after the day of their old glories and their old kings. The poems of Beowulf and Waldere, of Roland and William of Orange, are intelligible and reasonable works, determined in the main by the same essential principles of narrative art, and of dramatic conversation within the narrative, as are observed in the practice of Homer. Further, these are poems in which, as in the Homeric poems, the ideas of their time are conveyed and expressed in a noble manner: they are high-spirited poems. They have got themselves clear of the confusion and extravagance of early civilisation, and have hit upon a way of telling a story clearly and in proportion, and with dignity. They are epic in virtue of their superiority to the more fantastic motives of interest, and in virtue of their study of human character. They are heroic in the nobility of their temper and their style. If at any time they indulge in heroic commonplaces of sentiment, they do so without insincerity or affectation, as the expression of the general temper or opinion of their own time. They are not separated widely from the matters of which they treat; they are not antiquarian revivals of past forms, nor traditional vestiges of things utterly remote and separate from the actual world. What art they may possess is different from the "rude sweetness" of popular ballads, and from the unconscious grace of popular tales. They have in different degrees and manners the form of epic poetry, in their own right. There are recognisable qualities that serve to distinguish even a fragment of heroic poetry from the ballads and romances of a lower order, however near these latter forms may approach at times to the epic dignity.
EPIC AND ROMANCE
It is the nature of epic poetry to be at ease in regard to its subject matter, to be free from the strain and excitement of weaker and more abstract forms of poetry in dealing with heroic subjects. The heroic ideal of epic is not attained by a process of abstraction and separation from the meannesses of familiar things. The magnificence and aristocratic dignity of epic is conformable to the practical and ethical standards of the heroic age; that is to say, it tolerates a number of things that may be found mean and trivial by academicians. Epic poetry is one of the complex and comprehensive kinds of literature, in which most of the other kinds may be included—romance, history, comedy; tragical, comical, historical, pastoral are terms not sufficiently various to denote the variety of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The "common life" of the Homeric poems may appeal to modern pedantic theorists, and be used by them in support of Euripidean or Wordsworthian receipts for literature. But the comprehensiveness of the greater kinds of poetry, of Homer and Shakespeare, is a different thing from the premeditated and self-assertive realism of the authors who take viciously to common life by way of protest against the romantic extreme. It has its origin, not in a critical theory about the proper matter of literature, but in dramatic imagination. In an epic poem where the characters are vividly imagined, it follows naturally that their various moods and problems involve a variety of scenery and properties, and so the whole business of life comes into the story.
The success of epic poetry depends on the author's power of imagining and representing characters. A kind of success and a kind of magnificence may be attained in stories, professing to be epic, in which there is no dramatic virtue, in which every new scene and new adventure merely goes to accumulate, in immortal verse, the proofs of the hero's nullity and insignificance. This is not the epic poetry of the heroic ages.
Aristotle, in his discussion of tragedy, chose to lay stress upon the plot, the story. On the other hand, to complete the paradox, in the epic he makes the characters all-important, not the story. Without the tragic plot or fable, the tragedy becomes a series of moral essays or monologues; the life of the drama is derived from the original idea of the fable which is its subject. Without dramatic representation of the characters, epic is mere history or romance; the variety and life of epic are to be found in the drama that springs up at every encounter of the personages.
"Homer is the only poet who knows the right proportions of epic narrative; when to narrate, and when to let the characters speak for themselves. Other poets for the most part tell their story straight on, with scanty passages of drama and far between. Homer, with little prelude, leaves the stage to his personages, men and women, all with characters of their own."
[Footnote 6: [Greek: Homros de alla te polla axios epaineisthai kai d kai hoti monos tn poitn ouk agnoei ho dei poiein auton. auton gar dei ton poitn elachista legein: ou gar esti kata tauta mimts. hoi men oun alloi autoi men di' holou agnizontai, mimountai de oliga kai oligakis: ho de oliga phroimiasamenos euthys eisagei andra gynaika allo ti thos kai ouden' ath all' echonta th.]—ARIST. Poet. 1460 a 5.]
Aristotle wrote with very little consideration for the people who were to come after him, and gives little countenance to such theories of epic as have at various times been prevalent among the critics, in which the dignity of the subject is insisted on. He does not imagine it the chief duty of an epic poet to choose a lofty argument for historical rhetoric. He does not say a word about the national or the ecumenical importance of the themes of the epic poet. His analysis of the plot of the Odyssey, but for the reference to Poseidon, might have been the description of a modern realistic story.
"A man is abroad for many years, persecuted by Poseidon and alone; meantime the suitors of his wife are wasting his estate and plotting against his son; after many perils by sea he returns to his own country and discovers himself to his friends. He falls on his enemies and destroys them, and so comes to his own again."
The Iliad has more likeness than the Odyssey to the common pattern of later sophisticated epics. But the war of Troy is not the subject of the Iliad in the same way as the siege of Jerusalem is the subject of Tasso's poem. The story of the Aeneid can hardly be told in the simplest form without some reference to the destiny of Rome, or the story of Paradise Lost without the feud of heaven and hell. But in the Iliad, the assistance of the Olympians, or even the presence of the whole of Greece, is not in the same degree essential to the plot of the story of Achilles. In the form of Aristotle's summary of the Odyssey, reduced to "the cool element of prose," the Iliad may be proved to be something quite different from the common fashion of literary epics. It might go in something like this way:—
"A certain man taking part in a siege is slighted by the general, and in his resentment withdraws from the war, though his own side is in great need of his help. His dearest friend having been killed by the enemy, he comes back into the action and takes vengeance for his friend, and allows himself to be reconciled."
It is the debate among the characters, and not the onset of Hera and Athena in the chariot of Heaven, that gives its greatest power to the Iliad. The Iliad, with its "machines," its catalogue of the forces, its funeral games, has contributed more than the Odyssey to the common pattern of manufactured epics. But the essence of the poem is not to be found among the Olympians. Achilles refusing the embassy or yielding to Priam has no need of the Olympian background. The poem is in a great degree independent of "machines"; its life is in the drama of the characters. The source of all its variety is the imagination by which the characters are distinguished; the liveliness and variety of the characters bring with them all the other kinds of variety.
It is impossible for the author who knows his personages intimately to keep to any one exclusive mode of sentiment or one kind of scene. He cannot be merely tragical and heroic, or merely comical and pastoral; these are points of view to which those authors are confined who are possessed by one kind of sentiment or sensibility, and who wish to find expression for their own prevailing mood. The author who is interested primarily in his characters will not allow them to be obliterated by the story or by its diffused impersonal sentiment. The action of an heroic poem must be "of a certain magnitude," but the accessories need not be all heroic and magnificent; the heroes do not derive their magnificence from the scenery, the properties, and the author's rhetoric, but contrariwise: the dramatic force and self-consistency of the dramatis personae give poetic value to any accessories of scenery or sentiment which may be required by the action. They are not figures "animating" a landscape; what the landscape means for the poet's audience is determined by the character of his personages.
All the variety of epic is explained by Aristotle's remark on Homer. Where the characters are true, and dramatically represented, there can be no monotony.
In the different kinds of Northern epic literature—German, English, French, and Norse—belonging to the Northern heroic ages, there will be found in different degrees this epic quality of drama. Whatever magnificence they may possess comes mainly from the dramatic strength of the heroes, and in a much less degree from the historic dignity or importance of the issues of the story, or from its mythological decorations.
The place of history in the heroic poems belonging to an heroic age is sometimes misconceived. Early epic poetry may be concerned with great historic events. It does not necessarily emphasise—by preference it does not emphasise—the historic importance or the historic results of the events with which it deals. Heroic poetry implies an heroic age, an age of pride and courage, in which there is not any extreme organisation of politics to hinder the individual talent and its achievements, nor on the other hand too much isolation of the hero through the absence of any national or popular consciousness. There must be some unity of sentiment, some common standard of appreciation, among the people to whom the heroes belong, if they are to escape oblivion. But this common sentiment must not be such as to make the idea of the community and its life predominant over the individual genius of its members. In such a case there may be a Roman history, but not anything approaching the nature of the Homeric poems.
In some epic poems belonging to an heroic age, and not to a time of self-conscious and reflective literature, there may be found general conceptions that seem to resemble those of the Aeneid rather than those of the Iliad. In many of the old French Chansons de Geste, the war against the infidels is made the general subject of the story, and the general idea of the Holy War is expressed as fully as by Tasso. Here, however, the circumstances are exceptional. The French epic with all its Homeric analogies is not as sincere as Homer. It is exposed to the touch of influences from another world, and though many of the French poems, or great part of many of them, may tell of heroes who would be content with the simple and positive rules of the heroic life, this is not allowed them. They are brought within the sphere of other ideas, of another civilisation, and lose their independence.
Most of the old German heroic poetry is clearly to be traced, as far as its subjects are concerned, to the most exciting periods in early German history, between the fourth and the sixth centuries. The names that seem to have been most commonly known to the poets are the names that are most important to the historian—Ermanaric, Attila, Theodoric. In the wars of the great migration the spirit of each of the German families was quickened, and at the same time the spirit of the whole of Germany, so that each part sympathised with all the rest, and the fame of the heroes went abroad beyond the limits of their own kindred. Ermanaric, Attila, and Theodoric, Sigfred the Frank, and Gundahari the Burgundian, are heroes over all the region occupied by all forms of Teutonic language. But although the most important period of early German history may be said to have produced the old German heroic poetry, by giving a number of heroes to the poets, at the same time that the imagination was stirred to appreciate great things and make the most of them, still the result is nothing like the patriotic epic in twelve books, the Aeneid or the Lusiad, which chooses, of set purpose, the theme of the national glory. Nor is it like those old French epics in which there often appears a contradiction between the story of individual heroes, pursuing their own fortunes, and the idea of a common cause to which their own fortunes ought to be, but are not always, subordinate. The great historical names which appear in the old German heroic poetry are seldom found there in anything like their historical character, and not once in their chief historical aspect as adversaries of the Roman Empire. Ermanaric, Attila, and Theodoric are all brought into the same Niblung story, a story widely known in different forms, though it was never adequately written out. The true history of the war between the Burgundians and the Huns in the fifth century is forgotten. In place of it, there is associated with the life and death of Gundahari the Burgundian king a story which may have been vastly older, and may have passed through many different forms before it became the story of the Niblung treasure, of Sigfred and Brynhild. This, which has made free with so many great historical names, the name of Attila, the name of Theodoric, has little to do with history. In this heroic story coming out of the heroic age, there is not much that can be traced to historical as distinct from mythical tradition. The tragedy of the death of Attila, as told in the Atlakvia and the Atlaml, may indeed owe something to the facts recorded by historians, and something more to vaguer historical tradition of the vengeance of Rosamund on Alboin the Lombard. But, in the main, the story of the Niblungs is independent of history, in respect of its matter; in its meaning and effect as a poetical story it is absolutely free from history. It is a drama of personal encounters and rivalries. This also, like the story of Achilles, is fit for a stage in which the characters are left free to declare themselves in their own way, unhampered by any burden of history, any purpose or moral apart from the events that are played out in the dramatic clashing of one will against another.
It is not vanity in an historian to look for the historical origin of the tale of Troy or of the vengeance of Gudrun; but no result in either case can greatly affect the intrinsic relations of the various elements within the poems. The relations of Achilles to his surroundings in the Iliad, of Attila and Ermanaric to theirs, are freely conceived by the several poets, and are intelligible at once, without reference to anything outside the poems. To require of the poetry of an heroic age that it shall recognise the historical meaning and importance of the events in which it originates, and the persons whose names it uses, is entirely to mistake the nature of it. Its nature is to find or make some drama played by kings and heroes, and to let the historical framework take care of itself. The connexion of epic poetry with history is real, and it is a fitting subject for historical inquiry, but it lies behind the scene. The epic poem is cut loose and set free from history, and goes on a way of its own.
Epic magnificence and the dignity of heroic poetry may thus be only indirectly derived from such greatness or magnificence as is known to true prosaic history. The heroes, even if they can be identified as historical, may retain in epic nothing of their historical character, except such qualities as fit them for great actions. Their conduct in epic poetry may be very far unlike their actual demeanour in true history; their greatest works may be thrust into a corner of the epic, or barely alluded to, or left out altogether. Their greatness in epic may be quite a different kind of greatness from that of their true history and where there are many poems belonging to the same cycle there may be the greatest discrepancy among the views taken of the same hero by different authors, and all the views may be alike remote from the prosaic or scientific view. There is no constant or self-consistent opinion about the character of Charles the Emperor in old French poetry: there is one view in the Chanson de Roland, another in the Plerinage, another in the Coronemenz Loos: none of the opinions is anything like an elaborate or detailed historical judgment. Attila, though he loses his political importance and most of his historical acquisitions in the Teutonic heroic poems in which he appears, may retain in some of them his ruthlessness and strength; at other times he may be a wise and peaceful king. All that is constant, or common, in the different poetical reports of him, is that he was great. What touches the mind of the poet out of the depths of the past is nothing but the tradition, undefined, of something lordly. This vagueness of tradition does not imply that tradition is impotent or barren; only that it leaves all the execution, the growth of detail, to the freedom of the poet. He is bound to the past, in one way; it is laid upon him to tell the stories of the great men of his own race. But in those stories, as they come to him, what is most lively is not a set and established series of incidents, true or false, but something to which the standards of truth and falsehood are scarcely applicable; something stirring him up to admiration, a compulsion or influence upon him requiring him to make the story again in his own way; not to interpret history, but to make a drama of his own, filled somehow with passion and strength of mind. It does not matter in what particular form it may be represented, so long as in some form or other the power of the national glory is allowed to pass into his work.
This vagueness and generality in the relation of heroic poetry to the historical events and persons of an heroic age is of course quite a different thing from vagueness in the poetry itself. Gunther and Attila, Roland and Charlemagne, in poetry, are very vaguely connected with their antitypes in history; but that does not prevent them from being characterised minutely, if it should agree with the poet's taste or lie within his powers to have it so. The strange thing is that this vague relation should be so necessary to heroic poetry; that it should be impossible at any stage of literature or in any way by taking thought to make up for the want of it.
The place of Gunther the Burgundian, Sigfred the Frank, and Attila the Hun, in the poetical stories of the Niblung treasure may be in one sense accidental. The fables of the treasure with a curse upon it, the killing of the dragon, the sleeping princess, the wavering flame, are not limited to this particular course of tradition, and, further, the traditional motives of the Niblung story have varied enormously not only in different countries, but in one and the same language at the same time. The story is never told alike by two narrators; what is common and essential in it is nothing palpable or fixed, but goes from poet to poet "like a shadow from dream to dream." And the historical names are apparently unessential; yet they remain. To look for the details of the Niblung story in the sober history of the Goths and Huns, Burgundians and Franks, is like the vanity confessed by the author of the Roman de Rou, when he went on a sentimental journey to Broceliande, and was disappointed to find there only the common daylight and nothing of the Faerie. Nevertheless it is the historical names, and the vague associations about them, that give to the Niblung story, not indeed the whole of its plot, but its temper, its pride and glory, its heroic and epic character.
Heroic poetry is not, as a rule, greatly indebted to historical fact for its material. The epic poet does not keep record of the great victories or the great disasters. He cannot, however, live without the ideas and sentiments of heroism that spring up naturally in periods like those of the Teutonic migrations. In this sense the historic Gunther and Attila are necessary to the Niblung story. The wars and fightings of generation on generation went to create the heroism, the loftiness of spirit, expressed in the Teutonic epic verse. The plots of the stories may be commonplace, the common property of all popular tales. The temper is such as is not found everywhere, but only in historical periods of great energy. The names of Ermanaric and Attila correspond to hardly anything of literal history in the heroic poems; but they are the sign of conquests and great exploits that have gone to form character, though their details are forgotten.
It may be difficult to appreciate and understand in detail this vague relation of epic poetry to the national life and to the renown of the national heroes, but the general fact is not less positive or less capable of verification than the date of the battle of Chlons, or the series of the Gothic vowels. All that is needed to prove this is to compare the poetry of a national cycle with the poetry that comes in its place when the national cycle is deserted for other heroes.
The secondary or adopted themes may be treated with so much of the manner of the original poetry as to keep little of their foreign character. The rhetoric, the poetical habit, of the original epic may be retained. As in the Saxon poem on the Gospel history, the Hliand, the twelve disciples may be represented as Thanes owing loyalty to their Prince, in common poetic terms befitting the men of Beowulf or Byrhtnoth. As in the French poems on Alexander the Great, Alexander may become a feudal king, and take over completely all that belongs to such a rank. There may be no consciousness of any need for a new vocabulary or a new mode of expression to fit the foreign themes. In France, it is true, there is a general distinction of form between the Chansons de Geste and the romances; though to this there are exceptions, themes not French, and themes not purely heroic, being represented in the epic form. In the early Teutonic poetry there is no distinction of versification, vocabulary, or rhetoric between the original and the secondary narrative poems; the alliterative verse belongs to both kinds equally. Nor is it always the case that subjects derived from books or from abroad are handled with less firmness than the original and traditional plots. Though sometimes a prevailing affection for imported stories, for Celtic or Oriental legend, may be accompanied by a relaxation in the style, the superiority of national to foreign subjects is not always proved by greater strength or eloquence. Can it be said that the Anglo-Saxon Judith, for instance, is less heroic, less strong and sound, than the somewhat damaged and motley accoutrements of Beowulf?
The difference is this, that the more original and native kind of epic has immediate association with all that the people know about themselves, with all their customs, all that part of their experience which no one can account for or refer to any particular source. A poem like Beowulf can play directly on a thousand chords of association; the range of its appeal to the minds of an audience is almost unlimited; on no side is the poet debarred from freedom of movement, if only he remember first of all what is due to the hero. He has all the life of his people to strengthen him.
A poem like the Hliand is under an obligation to a literary original, and cannot escape from this restriction. It makes what use it can of the native associations, but with whatever perseverance the author may try to bend his story into harmony with the laws of his own country, there is an untranslated residue of foreign ideas.
Whatever the defects or excesses of Beowulf may be, the characters are not distressed by any such unsolved contradiction as in the Saxon Hliand, or in the old English Exodus, or Andreas, or the other poems taken from the Bible or the lives of saints. They have not, like the personages of the second order of poems, been translated from one realm of ideas to another, and made to take up burdens and offices not their own. They have grown naturally in the mind of a poet, out of the poet's knowledge of human nature, and the traditional ethical judgments of which he is possessed.
The comparative freedom of Beowulf in its relation to historical tradition and traditional ethics, and the comparative limitation of the Hliand, are not in themselves conditions of either advantage or inferiority. They simply mark the difference between two types of narrative poem. To be free and comprehensive in relation to history, to summarise and represent in epic characters the traditional experience of an heroic age, is not the proper virtue of every kind of poetry, though it is proper to the Homeric kind. The freedom that belongs to the Iliad and the Odyssey is also shared by many a dismal and interminable poem of the Middle Ages. That foreign or literary subjects impose certain limitations, and interfere with the direct use of matter of experience in poetry, is nothing against them. The Anglo-Saxon Judith, which is thus restricted as compared with Beowulf, may be more like Milton for these restrictions, if it be less like Homer. Exemption from them is not a privilege, except that it gives room for the attainment of a certain kind of excellence, the Homeric kind; as, on the other hand, it excludes the possibility of the literary art of Virgil or Milton.
The relation of epic poetry to its heroic age is not to be found in the observance of any strict historical duty. It lies rather in the epic capacity for bringing together all manner of lively passages from the general experience of the age, in a story about famous heroic characters. The plot of the story gives unity and harmony to the composition, while the variety of its matter is permitted and justified by the dramatic variety of the characters and their interests.
By its comprehensiveness and the variety of its substance, which are the signs and products of its dramatic imagination, epic poetry of the heroic age is distinguished from the more abstract kinds of narrative, such as the artificial epic, and from all kinds of imagination or fancy that are limited in their scope.
In times when "the Epic Poem" was a more attractive, if not more perilous theme of debate than it now is, there was a strong controversy about the proper place and the proper kind of miraculous details to be admitted. The question was debated by Tasso in his critical writings, against the strict and pedantic imitators of classical models, and with a strong partiality for Ariosto against Trissino. Tasso made less of a distinction between romance and epic than was agreeable to some of his successors in criticism; and the controversy went on for generations, always more or less concerned with the great Italian heroic poems, Orlando and Jerusalem. Some record of it will be found in Dr. Hurd's Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762). If the controversy has any interest now, it must be because it provided the most extreme statements of abstract literary principles, which on account of their thoroughness are interesting. From the documents it can be ascertained how near some of the critics came to that worship of the Faultless Hero with which Dryden in his heroic plays occasionally conformed, while he guarded himself against misinterpretation in his prefaces.
The epic poetry of the more austere critics was devised according to the strictest principles of dignity and sublimity, with a precise exclusion of everything "Gothic" and romantic. Davenant's Preface to Gondibert—"the Author's Preface to his much Honour'd friend, Mr Hobs"—may show how the canon of epic was understood by poets who took things seriously; "for I will yield to their opinion, who permit not Ariosto, no, not Du Bartas, in this eminent rank of the Heroicks; rather than to make way by their admission for Dante, Marino, and others."
It is somewhat difficult to find a common measure for these names, but it is clear that what is most distasteful to the writer, in theory at any rate, is variety. Epic is the most solemn, stately, and frigid of all kinds of composition. This was the result attained by the perverse following of precepts supposed to be classical. The critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were generally right in distinguishing between Epic and Romance, and generally wrong in separating the one kind from the other as opposite and mutually exclusive forms, instead of seeing with Tasso, in his critical discourses, that romance may be included in epic. Against the manifold perils of the Gothic fantasy they set up the image of the Abstract Hero, and recited the formulas of the decorous and symmetrical abstract heroic poem. They were occasionally troubled by the "Gothic" elements in Homer, of which their adversaries were not slow to take advantage.
One of the most orthodox of all the formalists, who for some reason came to be very much quoted in England, Bossu, in his discourse on the Epic Poem, had serious difficulties with the adventures of Ulysses, and his stories told in Phaeacia. The episodes of Circe, of the Sirens, and of Polyphemus, are machines; they are also not quite easy to understand. "They are necessary to the action, and yet they are not humanly probable." But see how Homer gets over the difficulty and brings back these machines to the region of human probability. "Homre les fait adroitement rentrer dans la Vraisemblance humaine par la simplicit de ceux devant qui il fait faire ses rcits fabuleux. Il dit assez plaisamment que les Phaques habitoient dans une Isle loigne des lieux o demeurent les hommes qui ont de l'esprit. [Greek: heisen d' en Scheri hekas andrn alphstan]. Ulysses les avoit connus avant que de se faire connotre eux: et aiant observ qu'ils avoient toutes les qualits de ces fainans qui n'admirent rien avec plus de plaisir que les aventures Romanesques: il les satisfait par ces rcits accommodez leur humeur. Mais le Pote n'y a pas oubli les Lecteurs raisonnables. Il leur a donn en ces Fables tout le plaisir que l'on peut tirer des vritez Morales, si agrablement dguises sous ces miraculeuses allgories. C'est ainsi qu'il a rduit ces Machines dans la vrit et dans la Vraisemblance Potique."
[Footnote 7: Trait du Pome pique, par le R.P. Le Bossu, Chanoine Rgulier de Sainte Genevive; MDCLXXV (t. ii. p. 166).]
Although the world has fallen away from the severity of this critic, there is still a meaning at the bottom of his theory of machines. He has at any rate called attention to one of the most interesting parts of Epic, and has found the right word for the episodes of the Phaeacian story of Odysseus. Romance is the word for them, and Romance is at the same time one of the constituent parts and one of the enemies of epic poetry. That it was dangerous was seen by the academical critics. They provided against it, generally, by treating it with contempt and proscribing it, as was done by those French critics who were offended by Ariosto and perplexed by much of the Gothic machinery of Tasso. They did not readily admit that epic poetry is as complex as the plays of Shakespeare, and as incongruous as these in its composition, if the different constituents be taken out separately in the laboratory and then compared.
Romance by itself is a kind of literature that does not allow the full exercise of dramatic imagination; a limited and abstract form, as compared with the fulness and variety of Epic; though episodes of romance, and romantic moods and digressions, may have their place, along with all other human things, in the epic scheme.
The difference between the greater and the lesser kinds of narrative literature is vital and essential, whatever names may be assigned to them. In the one kind, of which Aristotle knew no other examples than the Iliad and the Odyssey, the personages are made individual through their dramatic conduct and their speeches in varying circumstances; in the other kind, in place of the moods and sentiments of a multitude of different people entering into the story and working it out, there is the sentiment of the author in his own person; there is one voice, the voice of the story-teller, and his theory of the characters is made to do duty for the characters themselves. There may be every poetic grace, except that of dramatic variety; and wherever, in narrative, the independence of the characters is merged in the sequence of adventures, or in the beauty of the landscape, or in the effusion of poetic sentiment, the narrative falls below the highest order, though the art be the art of Ovid or of Spenser.
The romance of Odysseus is indeed "brought into conformity with poetic verisimilitude," but in a different way from that of Bossu On the Epic Poem. It is not because the Phaeacians are romantic in their tastes, but because it belongs to Odysseus, that the Phaeacian night's entertainment has its place in the Odyssey. The Odyssey is the story of his home-coming, his recovery of his own. The great action of the drama of Odysseus is in his dealings with Penelope, Eumaeus, Telemachus, the suitors. The Phaeacian story is indeed episodic; the interest of those adventures is different from that of the meeting with Penelope. Nevertheless it is all kept in harmony with the stronger part of the poem. It is not pure fantasy and "Faerie," like the voyage of Maelduin or the vigil in the castle of Busirane. Odysseus in the house of Alcinous is not different from Odysseus of the return to Ithaca. The story is not pure romance, it is a dramatic monologue; and the character of the speaker has more part than the wonders of the story in the silence that falls on the listeners when the story comes to an end.
In all early literature it is hard to keep the story within limits, to observe the proportion of the Odyssey between strong drama and romance. The history of the early heroic literature of the Teutonic tongues, and of the epics of old France, comes to an end in the victory of various romantic schools, and of various restricted and one-sided forms of narrative. From within and without, from the resources of native mythology and superstition and from the fascination of Welsh and Arabian stories, there came the temptation to forget the study of character, and to part with an inheritance of tragic fables, for the sake of vanities, wonders, and splendours among which character and the tragic motives lost their pre-eminent interest and their old authority over poets and audience.
Between the dramatic qualities of epic poetry and the myths and fancies of popular tradition there must inevitably be a conflict and a discrepancy. The greatest scenes of the Iliad and the Odyssey have little to do with myth. Where the characters are most vividly realised there is no room for the lighter kinds of fable; the epic "machines" are superfluous. Where all the character of Achilles is displayed in the interview with Priam, all his generosity, all his passion and unreason, the imagination refuses to be led away by anything else from looking on and listening. The presence of Hermes, Priam's guide, is forgotten. Olympus cannot stand against the spell of words like those of Priam and Achilles; it vanishes like a parched scroll. In the great scene in the other poem where the disguised Odysseus talks with Penelope, but will not make himself known to her for fear of spoiling his plot, there is just as little opportunity for any intervention of the Olympians. "Odysseus pitied his wife as she wept, but his eyes were firm as horn or steel, unwavering in his eyelids, and with art he concealed his tears."
[Greek: autar' Odysseus thymi men goosan hen eleaire gynaika, ophthalmoi d' hs ei kera hestasan e sidros atremas en blepharoisi; doli d' ho ge dakrya keuthen.]
Od. xix. 209.]
In passages like these the epic poet gets clear away from the cumbrous inheritance of traditional fancies and stories. In other places he is inevitably less strong and self-sustained; he has to speak of the gods of the nation, or to work into his large composition some popular and improbable histories. The result in Homer is something like the result in Shakespeare, when he has a more than usually childish or old-fashioned fable to work upon. A story like that of the Three Caskets or the Pound of Flesh is perfectly consistent with itself in its original popular form. It is inconsistent with the form of elaborate drama, and with the lives of people who have souls of their own, like Portia or Shylock. Hence in the drama which uses the popular story as its ground-plan, the story is never entirely reduced into conformity with the spirit of the chief characters. The caskets and the pound of flesh, in despite of all the author's pains with them, are imperfectly harmonised; the primitive and barbarous imagination in them retains an inconvenient power of asserting its discordance with the principal parts of the drama. Their unreason is of no great consequence, yet it is something; it is not quite kept out of sight.
The epic poet, at an earlier stage of literature than Shakespeare, is even more exposed to this difficulty. Shakespeare was free to take his plots where he chose, and took these old wives' tales at his own risk. The epic poet has matter of this sort forced upon him. In his treatment of it, it will be found that ingenuity does not fail him, and that the transition from the unreasonable or old-fashioned part of his work to the modern and dramatic part is cunningly worked out. "He gets over the unreason by the grace and skill of his handling," says Aristotle of a critical point in the "machinery" of the Odyssey, where Odysseus is carried ashore on Ithaca in his sleep. There is a continual play in the Iliad and Odyssey between the wonders of mythology and the spirit of the drama. In this, as in other things, the Homeric poems observe the mean: the extremes may be found in the heroic literature of other nations; the extreme of marvellous fable in the old Irish heroic legends, for example; the extreme of plainness and "soothfastness" in the old English lay of Maldon. In some medieval compositions, as in Huon of Bordeaux, the two extremes are brought together clumsily and without harmony. In other medieval works again it is possible to find something like the Homeric proportion—the drama of strong characters, taking up and transforming the fanciful products of an earlier world, the inventions of minds not deeply or especially interested in character.