“Once [Horand] had heard the song of Fair Hilde, he could not get its sweet, simple tune out of his head.
He began dreaming of it, wove melodies around the notes, he made the words more passionate, and when he sang the song in his own way by night, in his lonely fortress by the sea, the fishermen stopped pulling in their heavy nets to listen, and the fish they had caught escaped” (10-11).
Alma Johanna Koenig’s Gudrun, translated beautifully from the German by Anthea Bell, also weaves a spell around the reader. As I read this aloud to my infant daughter, I found myself sneaking in a page here, ten pages there, throughout the course of the day and feeling quite good about it, as it exposed her to many new words. A prose adaptation of the story thought to be the precursor to the Nibelungenlied (think: Wagner), the story is at turns romantic and violent, with beautiful language to enchant the reader, even in translation. Hilde and Gudrun, mother and daughter, share a great beauty and consequently, each is greatly desired and greatly fought over. Both show a single-minded devotion in love, and many people die as a result – although the deaths are, perhaps, more caused by the men who hopelessly or blindly pursue the women, bringing with them armies to prove their strength. Power and love seem to be inextricably intertwined.
“Many good warriors died there; blood stained the rough sea water, floating on it like oil, and sea swallows darted to and fro above the clashing swords, screeching and circling over the cliffs where they nested in alarm” (66).
Hilde’s story lays the groundwork for her daughter’s tale. A great beauty in her own right, Gudrun is wooed my several men, including the Prince of the Moors, Hartmut of Normandy, and Herwig of Zealand. At last she falls in love with Herwig but does not marry him immediately, which causes more bloodshed. A cast of supporting characters – Frute, the rational and far-seeing lord; Wate, the descendent of giants with a giant fury in battle; Horand, the singer whose voice enchants, saddens, and empowers; and Gerlind, the almost-heartless mother of Hartmut – moves the story forward, one judgment, one slash of the sword, one song, one machination at a time.
As with many stories written down later than they were created, including Beowulf, Gudrun suffers a bit from the clash of Christian tradition with a more strongly-felt pre-Christian set of moral codes. In most cases, however, the awkward intrusion in the story passes quickly, and on the whole, the pre-Christian values have their day: men fight for their honor, and forgiveness, while it plays a role, shows itself more in fairness in battle than in the ceasing of battle.
This story of love, loss, and family ties is made more poignant by Anthea Bell’s note about the author: “In 1942 Alma Johanna Koenig, as a Jewess, was deported from Vienna to the concentration camp of Minsk. Unlike Gudrun, she was to have no happy ending; nothing more was ever heard of her” (187). Perhaps the novel itself, with its bloody battles and thousand killed, is more relevant than it might seem. Horand gives Gudrun the rather questionable gift of “grief–the grief the gods give to those they love…”(43). The grief permeates the novel – inside and out.
Koenig, Alma Johanna. Gudrun. Trans. Anthea Bell. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Kestrel, 1979. Print.