Western literature begins with greatness on a grand scale. Homer’s magnificent epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, created the framework and the impetus for Virgil’s Aeneid. Epic poems of the next two thousand years have almost entirely failed to meet the standard set by these three masterpieces.
The failure of these poets does not result from lack of effort. Lucan’s first-century De bello civili (also known as Pharsalia) would rank higher in the canon if Virgil’s friends had followed his deathbed instructions and burned his almost completed Aeneid. As fine as the poetry of Lucan’s epic is, it lacks the mythic significance of the three epics to which we invariably compare it.
Hundreds of Lucan’s contemporaries and successors composed epics less successful than his, few of which survive. Early Christian poets often were desperate to prove that their work could rival or outdo the poetry of their pagan predecessors, but they not only fell short, they fell far short. For instance, in 546 AD Arator received a rapturous welcome in Rome for his four-day recitation of his epic De actis apostolorum, but the impact of his poem over time was limited and almost no one reads it today. At about the same time, the North African poet Corippus wrote Iohannis, the most poetically impressive epic in the five centuries after De bello civili, but it too had a limited impact because few non-historians cared about the story Corippus told.
Some Late Antique poets lowered their ambitions to improve their likelihood of literary success. Scholar David Bright has detailed how many Late Antique poets, particularly Dracontius and other North Africans, created a new genre of “miniature epic” called the epyllion.
The early medieval period did not foster much epic aspiration, but as the fragments of the Roman Empire began to reconsolidate into what would become the nations of Europe, poets heard the call to celebrate their emerging nations with new epics. One of the earliest and arguably one of the more significant of these efforts was Waltharius, a poem of almost 1,500 Latin hexameters, a length which Bright and others might use to label it an epyllion rather than a true epic.
The provenance of Waltharius is shaky. For most of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, experts attributed the text to a St. Gall monk named Ekkehard I, who died in 973; scholars tended to assign a date to Waltharius of around 930. Modern scholars have tended to reject this attribution and sometimes attribute Waltharius to the mysterious Geraldus named in the prologue—even though there is considerable debate as to whether the prologue is a genuine part of the text or, as was common, an introduction provided by another author. Some more recent commentators strenuously argue that the text is ninth-century rather than tenth. Independent scholar Abram Ring does a nice job of laying out these disagreements without trying to force resolutions.
Ring also capably handles the uncertainties about source materials. Most scholars estimate the date of the fragmentary Old English poem Waldere as somewhere between 800 and 1000, but there is considerable debate about the sources for Waltharius—both known and hypothetical.
Waltharius has an unusual fascination for me. My first-year and fourth-year Latin teacher was Dennis Kratz, the author of a 1984Waltharius commentary and English translation. In the turbulence of “the sixties” (which persisted into the early seventies) I remember him as a charming and effective teacher, but one who made some odd decisions about our Roxbury Latin School curriculum.
On the downside, Dr. Kratz substituted Waltharius for the traditional choice of the Aeneid, and I have to confess I carry around a smidgeon of resentment that I learned what little I know about the Aeneid entirely on my own. On the plus side, the second half of the year was an independent project. Many of my classmates spent their independent study time doing things like making papier-maché Hun soldiers with fake blood streaming from severed body parts, but at fifteen I inexplicably spent my time translating the text into iambic pentameter, an exercise which gave me the confidence to take up translating more seriously twenty years later.
Waltharius begins in the fifth century with Attila the Hun savaging large parts of Western Europe. The kings of Burgundy, Aquitaine, and the Franks all send hostages and tribute to Attila in order to cling to power. Three of the noble hostages are Hagen, Walter, and Hildegund; Walter and Hildegund are engaged.
An Attila kinder and gentler than the cartoon figure most of us remember raises these three hostages as his own children. As they mature, Walter of Aquitaine becomes a trusted general of Attila, but Hagen escapes to his Frankish homeland. Walter successfully puts down a rebellion against Attila but at the same time plots his escape with Hildegund. Walter and Hildegard throw a huge drunken party, then sneak off with a substantial amount of Attila’s treasure as rowdy Huns sleep off their drunken stupor. Belated efforts to catch the three escapees fail.
Forty days later the newly rich couple crosses the Rhine by ferry and makes the mistake of giving unusual fish to the ferryman to cook. Word of this event somehow reaches the court of the king, where young Hagen realizes it must be his friend Walter. He communicates this news to the king, who then decides to kill Walter and seize the treasure. The king takes Hagen and eleven others with him to search for Walter and the Hun treasure. When they find Walter, Hagen stands by as Walter brutally dispatches the eleven, one after the other, including Hagen’s nephew.
Overnight Hagen’s feelings harden, so the next day he and his king engage in a bloody battle with Walter that ends up with everyone losing significant body parts (a leg, an eye, a hand, and some teeth). Unexpectedly, a little in the manner of some Shakespearian comedies, everyone reconciles and goes home to live happily ever after.
The line between epic poetry and violent melodrama may be a thin one, but Waltharius clearly crosses that line. The poem was popular for a long time, but it never became deeply engrained in the evolving German cultural and political identity because it focuses on personalities without raising larger issues. In fairness, the only epic poem since the Aeneid that did become culturally iconic is Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Dr. Ring graciously describes the approach to translation of his most recent predecessors in this way:
Both Kratz and Murdoch produced annotated verse translations which in many ways improved upon the English interpretation of the text. Kratz turned the Latin dactylic hexameter into a twelve-syllable iambic line, a length that usually allows him to translate line for line. Murdoch on the other hand used a much freer iambic verse form with varying lengths.
This description is, in fact, too gracious. The Kratz translation is neither iambic nor “twelve-syllable”—it consists of readable, generally accurate prose broken into ten-to-fifteen syllable lines that give him line-for-line equivalence with the original. The Murdoch translation veers more from the literal text than the Kratz translation, and its clunky free verse of variable lines of ten to sixteen syllables does not justify those liberties.
Unlike many translators, Ring maintains the humility to remind us in the commentary when a passage is unclear and includes alternate translations in those instances. Where his translation occasionally falters seems to be the product of a desire to fill some of the poetic void left by his predecessors. He compromises occasionally on meaning to include a poetic effect, usually alliteration mimicking the original text. He also struggles with how to handle the use of a small number of Greek words, and uses French words—sometimes obscure French words—to mimic the high tone of the Greek. As with his alliteration, the loss of clarity in the translation is not worth the poetic effect.
Ring’s notes have everything that a scholar wants to see in a commentary. They are thorough, concise, and clear; Ring does not use his platform to try to prove to his superiority to his predecessors. His commentary builds thoughtfully on past scholarship and incorporates a considerable number of articles written after the Kratz and Murdoch editions. Some of the new parallels cited in the commentary appear to be the product of searches of electronic databases, but there are not as many new parallels as one would hope given how densely allusive Waltharius is. That shortcoming is not the author’s fault—it is a predictable feature of new medieval editions caused by the fact that the immensely useful Packard Humanities Institute database peters out after Seneca and that other tools for researching post-classical Latin poetry, such as Monumenta.ch, lack Packard’s comprehensiveness.
Waltharius is not a book likely to stimulate the imagination of a general reader. The story lacks the passion, sweep, and message that we expect from an epic poem, and it is difficult for a modern reader to relate to a story where Attila the Hun is the most sympathetic figure. However, as with other books in the Dallas Medieval Texts and Translations series, it is useful for scholars to have an authoritative text and a reliable prose translation for a historically significant text with intermittently challenging Latin. The book’s greatest value, however, comes from its well-written and thorough commentary, which is admirably precise about details and thoughtful about context.
A. M. Juster has published eight books, including four books of translated Latin poetry: The Satires of Horace(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005); Tibullus’ Elegies(Oxford University Press, 2008); Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles(University of Toronto Press, 2015); and The Elegies of Maximianus (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).