Monday, May 19, 2008

Lord of the Rings and the King of the Visigoths

     I was posting a comment on a blog about Harry Potter when one of the people said that they like HP because they could imagine someone like McGonagall walking down the road.  Real but hidden to us.  That person could not imagine Aragorn walking down that same street.
  You would not find him strolling along some city street today because he lived 1,500 years ago in the Heroic Age of Beowulf, Arthur, and Siegfried.  The more I read Old English literature, the more I see where J.R.R. Tolkien got his material from.
    Tolkien wrote an essay first published in 1964 called "On Fairy Stories".   In it he wrote this wonderful metaphor for story being a kind of soup.  
     "Speaking of the history of stories and especially of fairy-stories, we may say that the Pot of Soup, the Cauldron of Story, has always been  been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty." 
As we know, those of us who cook, the very best and most flavorful soups are made from the scraps in the kitchen and not something carefully planned out from a recipe book needing a trip to the grocery store. 
     "But if we speak of a Cauldron, we must not wholly forget the Cooks.  There are many things in the Cauldron but the Cooks do not dip the ladle quite blindly.  Their selection is important.  The gods are after all gods, and it is a matter of some moment what stories are told of them."  Indeed.
     When Tolkien was writing his stories of Midgaard/Middle Earth, he too was dipping in his ladle and choosing his bits, some were Scandinavian, some were Celtic, some were from history and some were from myth.  Many were from the Anglo-Saxons; it was after all where he made his living and reputation as a scholar.  In the few works that remain of the Anglo-Saxons, I may not have found Aragorn but I think I have found his ally Theoden in Theodoric I, King of the Visigoths.
     Gregory of Tours said little about him except that he was one of the few to heed the call and stand beside Aetius, Patrician of Rome, against the Scourge of God, Attila the Hun.  It is clear in many ways that the Numenorians are based on the Romans but it is difficult to say if Aetius's role in the battle mirrors Aragorn's or Denethor.  He was a steward of a sort in the fading of the empire but he fought on the field gloriously and survived. 
     Jordanes can tell us more.  He called Theodoric Theodorid.  So why not say he was Theoden's son Theodred?  Theodoric and Theoden died in the same way and were about the same age.  While Attila was advancing on the walled city of Orleans, burning and plundering after the manner of orcs, Aetius and Theodoric gathered together a last alliance of tribes, the last major battle of a united Roman empire.  They stopped his advance in the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, like the king of the Nazgul was stopped in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.
     The Visigoth king would not be outdone in courage by his men and rode ahead of them all.  He was thrown from his horse, like Theoden, and died trampled by the horses of his men rather than by his own horse.  His son, not a nephew, Thorismud pursued the enemy so far into the field that he wandered into Attila's camp on the way back and had to fight his way out, like Eomer's heedless rush at the enemy.
     When they found the body of Theodoric "where the dead lay thickest"(Jordanes), they bore his body away with songs in the sight of the enemy while the battle raged on around them, exactly like Theoden was carried from the field.  Unlike in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, this enemy, Attila, lived to flee and find his death later overexerting himself with a young bride but not before facing Thorismud in battle and being defeated by him. One cannot imagine the leader of the Nazgul dying in this way.
     There are other parallels.  The death of the Witch King of Angmar had been foretold in the North.  Attila, through fear of Aetius, consulted shamen to have them prophesize what the outcome of the battle would be.  He was told one of the leaders of the armies would die that day.  He risked the battle hoping it would be Aetius
     Attila had allies in the Ostrogoths, the Goths of the East, which is why the king of the Ostrogoths is at his court in the Nibelungenlied.  Since they come from the East, these could be compared to the Black Numenorians who fought against their kin from the West.  Visigoth simply means Goth of the West.
     One last similarity between the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains and the Battle of the Pelennor field is the presence of an army of the dead. While I must track down the original source to confirm this, in E.A. Thompson's book The Huns, he quotes a scholar, Damascius, who wrote that the fighting between the Roman alliance and the Huns was so severe that only the leaders and a few followers survived.  Jordanes gives the numbers of the dead as 165,000.  The battle raged so fiercely that those who were killed did not realize they were dead and went on fighting for three days.  The clash of their ghostly arms could be heard by the living. 
I do not yet know who Aragorn was but I will.  For he lived; more surely than did McGonagall, he lived. 

Beatles Song of the Week

Via Cyancitta Cristata

Illuc nebulam super Urbe Angelorum est,
Et mei amici viam suam perierant, 
Erimus in illo loco mox diximus,
Nunc in vicem ipsi perierant.

refrain:  Amabo, non este tardi,
Amabo, non este perquam tardi,
Amabo, non este tardi,
Aut sim dormiens.

Bene solum agit monstrare,
Et dixi eos ubi agere,
Vigiliam in viam rogare,
Est tot ibi convenire,

Nunc est ultra horam somnorum intellego,
Et vero agere amo,
Mox prima lux erit,
Hic in Via Cyancitta Cristata sedeo. 

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Theodoric, AKA Dietrich von Bern

This is going to be the summer of Gregory for me.  I have not gotten past Book II yet and I have a new topic that will stretch on and on to Germanic legends and is hinted at in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.  To deal with this in full will require more than one installment since I prefer not to write long essays and risk boring you. That being said, I will press on with this week's topic: Theodoric I, King of the Ostrogoths.

Theodoric I

      There are two Theodorics in Gregory of Tours's history - the king of the Visigoths, and the king of the Ostrogoths, both of whom lived in the fifth century.  One of them, or perhaps it took parts of both, became in legend Dietrich Von Bern, the man who Kriemhild asks to avenge Siegfried by killing Hagen in The Song of the Nibelungs
     The Song of the Nibelungs is like Beowulf in which there is a powerful and noble warrior famed for his deeds as well as his dragon.   Like Beowulf, certain characters in the story were people who were confirmed to have existed like Attila the Hun, called Etzel in this story.  This is where the subject becomes larger than I can cover in one half page of writing - identifying and discussing the other people in the Nibelunglied who have a place in history and their mutation into the subjects of fable.  The Nibelungs are also known by another more recognizable name: Burgundians. 
     Details about the other Theodoric may have crept into the legend of Dietrich because it was he that fought Attila the Hun at the Battle of the Fields of Cataluanian, called that in Jordanes's history but named as the Fields of Moirey by Gregory.  This Theodoric died in the battle, which strongly calls to mind the death of Theoden in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.  He is notable for another reason and that is that he is the son and heir of Alaric, the Visigoth whose sacking of Rome in 410 A.D. heralded the beginning of the period we call the Middle Ages.
     The Ostrothic Theodoric had a daughter Araigna, who he married to Sigismund, the King of Burgundy. Araigna resembles in no way the name of Kriemhild but the father of the legendary Siegfried is called Siegmund.  Since there is no standard spelling for names and things; spelling varies a great deal depending on the writer at this time.  However the Nibelungenlied calls this Siegmund 'King of the Netherlands' and his son Siegfried is born in Xanten along the Rhine, now part of Germany.  To this I would add that Clovis's queen, Clotild, was a Burgundian princess and the history of the Merovinians may have been added to the soup.
     Gregory had little to say about either Theodoric.  To know more, you have to turn to Jordanes's The Origins and Deeds of the Goths, a book written around 551 A.D. probably in Constantinople.  It is a summary of a multi-volume work by the scholar Cassiodorus in the service and at the court of Dietrich.   The history written by Cassiodorus is lost and all that remains now is the summary written by Jordanes as a favor to a friend.
     If you wonder what happened to many of these books, look no further than the book burners at the Catholic Church.  "What has Ingeld to do with Christ?" was the famous pronouncement of Alcuin of York.  the Church burned many a book that they deemed was not suitably Christian in nature.  St. Patrick of Ireland himself destroyed 71 books!  I find it ironic that a man, whose life is so celebrated in Ireland, did so much to destroy its culture and heritage.  I cannot bring myself to drink green beer anymore since I read about this in a preface to a book by Peter Berresford Ellis.

I am stopping here but there clearly is more to say on the topic of both Theodorics.

Beatles Song of the Week

"Fuit viginti anni abhinc hodie,
Centurion Piper docuit symphoria ludere,
Agebant interior et exterior moris,
Sed sponsi sunt subrisum tollere.
Tunc licet ad vos tradere,
Actores sciebatis pro omnibus his annis, 
Centurion Piperi  Cordum Solitariorum Symphonia."

Sunday, May 4, 2008


      This week, I am writing about Beowulf.  What has Beowulf to do with Gregory of Tours you might ask.  The answer would rest in Book III, subsection 3, which describes a raid on the Franks by a Danish king, Cholchilaich.
     This 'Danish' king is also known by his Old English name Hygelac, which you might remember is the name of Beowulf's uncle and king.  Gregory described the disastrous raid into the Frisian land and how Hygelac was killed along the Rhine.
    I own several copies of Beowulf and, in the one translated by Burton Raffel, he mentions, in the afterword, that these raids were confirmed by two other sources without naming them.  He also states that Gregory was born less than one generation after this raid.  My copy of The History of the Franks, gives a birth date of c.539 for Gregory and a N.F.S. Grundtvig dates this raid c. 516.  I have seen estimates of an even later date for the raid so it appears that Gregory was born shortly after.
     The lines 2910-2921 of Beowulf lament the death of Beowulf because, once the Franks and the Frisians become aware of his death, they will revive their old quarrel with the Geats that was begun by Hygelac's raiding along the Rhine.
     Gregory relates that Hygelac stayed by the shore until all the loot and slaves were loaded onto the ships and safely at sea.  The Merovingian Theuderic, Clovis's son by a concubine, sent his son Theudebert to kill him.  Theudebert was successful, of course, and Hygelac's fleet was defeated and all the booty returned to shore.

the copy of The History of the Franks that I am using is the Penguin Classics, translated by Lewis Thorpe. 

Beatles' song of the week
This week, I am going to leave the name mentioned in it blank because it probably makes it a bit too easy if I left it in. But it does translate in Latin well, ie. keeps it rhythm.

"Heus _____, facisne malum,
Carmen triste cape et melius fac. 
Memento, eam in corem tibi permittere,
Tunc incipium melius facere potes."