Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Once upon a time, an empty page

This post belongs to the Aotearoa Affair blog carnival - a web initiative of Kiwi and German writers and artists. It's inspired by the theme "Past Myths, Present Legends", moves from present to past to the now, and includes one of the oldest German literary works: a (anti)heroe's tale.

June, 2009, Konstanz
Together with a friend I walk through Konstanz - a city located at the edge of Lake Constance, which itself is an edge: the southern border of Germany. Neither of us has been in this place before. We walk through the old streets of the city centre, and arrive at a house with a large mural, like a memory of the past. We try to decipher the scenes, and notice the word: "Salve".

Our guidebook doesn't tell the story of the mural, but it includes a timeline. Turns out,  the history of Konstanz reaches back to Roman times. Back then, around the year 300 a.C., the settlement was named Constantia. So that's what the words "Salve" relate to: the Roman greeting. Now, if only those old stones could talk and tell the tales of those times.


January, 2012, Munich
In many places, the old stones were lost: demolished, to make space for new houses. Or simply: built upon. Sometimes they appear again. Like in this construction site in the centre of Munich. Underneath the planned new buildings: the old foundations of houses forgotten a long time ago. Who lived there? And which tales were told in those old rooms? Nothing remains but the silent stones. And sometimes, a piece of paper.


Year 900, in an unknown place
After 30 years of war and forced exile, as a German legend has it, an old warrior returns home. At the border, a young soldier stops him, and asks who is. The father realizes that the young soldier is his son - but the son believes his father is dead. He calls for a fight, in the honour of his father.

The story, it's the "Hildebrandslied" - "Hildebrand's song" - an old legend that points at the reality of the region that started to turn into "Deutschland" in the 15th century. Before that, Germany was a patchwork of changing borders, and endless wars. It's maybe not coincidence that the warrior legend is one of the earliest literary works in German, written in Old German verse, and with it, is the only surviving example of what probably was an oral tradition of the Germanic tribes.

Here's the original start, in Old German - which no one would be able to understand now, except of a few experts of old languages. The lines, they are like language fossils. But their sound still carries the tale, beyond understanding:

Ik gihorta ðat seggen
ðat sih urhettun ænon muotin
Hiltibrant enti Haðubrant untar heriun tuem
sunufatarungo iro saro rihtun
garutun se iro guðhamun gurtun sih iro suert ana
helidos ubar hringa do sie to dero hiltiu ritun

here's the German version:
Ich hörte (glaubwürdig) berichten,
daß zwei Krieger, Hildebrand und Hadubrand, (allein)
zwischen ihren beiden Heeren, aufeinanderstießen.
Zwei Leute von gleichem Blut, Vater und Sohn, rückten da ihre Rüstung zurecht,
sie strafften ihre Panzerhemden und gürteten ihre
Schwerter über die Eisenringe, die Männer,
als sie zu diesem Kampf ritten.

and here's the English translation:
I heard tell
That warriors met in single combat
Hildebrand and Hadubrand between two armies
son and father prepared their armour
made ready their battle garments girded on their swords
the warriors, over their chain mail

Two Pages
1100 years is the age of the pages that carry the Hildebrand-text. It was written down in a monastery, on the first and last page of an even older biblical manuscript. The text is not complete - as the space on the last page wasn't large enough for all verses. Still, it survived. Was stolen, brought to another continent, brought back. Its story, it now is a fable in itself.


2012, Überlingen
Tales told. Tales forgotten. Tales lingering.
And sometimes: tales turned into a fountain. Like here, in Überlingen - a place that also borders at Lake Constance. I walked around the fountain twice, but there's no plate, no hint at the tale itself. But it's there, wordless, rising.

1885, Regensburg
A recent article in the Guardian: For years, a historian travelled a the region of Germany called Oberpfalz, to collect the local fairy tales, like the Grimm Brothers. But while the Grimm fairy tales got popular, the collected tales of Oberpfalz didn't gain much attention. The volumes were filed in the city archive, and forgotten, for 150 years. The rest, again, is a tale itself: a cultural curator looked for regional stories in the archive, and re-discovered the books that alway had been waiting there, carrying 500 tales.

One of them is online now in English: The Turnip Princess


And to end these notes on tales with a beginning, here the starting words of fairy tales in German:
Es war einmal...
It was onetime...

related links, myths, lines: