Monday, 25 September 2017

Deor and The Saga of Didrik of Bern

I will venture outside the usual area of this blog today to write a little bit about the Old English poem Deor, and how it relates to the Saga of Didrik of Bern.

Maybe you are familiar with this poem. A reading of the poem in Old English is here; readings of a couple of the many different translations are here and here. The narrator is a singer by the name of Deor. The poem briefly mentions a series of stories. Each of these stories concerns a person or people who find themselves in a bad situation. And at the end of each of these, the poet includes a repeated refrain line:

That passed, this also may (or perhaps more like: it passed for that, it also may for this).

Finally, he talks about himself: I once had a good job with a great boss ... then they decided to give my job to someone else. Things are not so great now. But that passed, and this also may ...

So it seems that the poem is optimistic ... these bad things will not last forever. Just as things improved for each of the people mentioned in the poem, the singer hopes that things will also improve for him, and indeed things may get better for those in his audience who find themselves in a bad place.

Anglo Saxon picture of a singer songwriter (Vespasian Psalter)


The audience for this poem would presumably have been familiar with each of the stories mentioned by the poet. If they were not familiar with them, then the poem would lose a lot of its effect. Nowadays of course, these old stories are less well known.

But if we look at the people and stories that are so briefly mentioned in Deor's poem, we may find that most of them seem to relate to episodes from the Saga of Didrik of Bern.


Welund: This is Weland the smith, who had his sinews cut by King Nidung (Nithad) to keep him prisoner. There is no doubt that in the story told in the Didrik Saga that Weland was very badly done by. But things did get better for Weland after that.

Beadohilde: King Nidung's daughter is not named in the Saga of Didrik, but she is called Bodvildr in the version of the story told in the Poetic Edda, and there should be no doubt that this refers to her. In the story told in the saga, her brothers were killed, and she was pregnant, and all of it done by Weland the smith. But I think things did get better for her after that.

Theodric: It is possible that this Theodric is Didrik himself, and we may speculate that the thirty years refers to the time he was away in exile. In the story told in the saga, things did get better for Didrik after that.

Eormanric's people: The cruel king Eormanric could well be the same as the Saga's Ermentrik, who killed a good number of his own kinsmen. And in the saga, things did get better for Ermentrik's people after his demise.

I skipped over Geat and Maedhilde (or Maed Hilde): These two lovers do not have as obvious a connection to the Saga of Didrik.

But as this is a ballad blog really, I must surely mention the fact that it has been suggested before (K. Malone, and discussed by F. Norman) that these two are remembered as Gauti and Magnhild in the Norwegian version of the ballad Harpans Kraft / The Power of the Harp. There is not a lot to back this idea up beyond the names, and the names of these characters are not always the same: for example in the equivalent Swedish ballad they are more commonly Peter and Kerstin. Having said that, these two do get into a pretty dark place (she drowns), and then things do get better for them (he is able to bring her back by playing the harp). Of course if this theory were true, then it must be stressed that it would not be the ballad itself that influenced Deor --- even the most optimistic dates for the old age of ballads in general, let alone this one, do not place them close to the age of this poem --- rather, there would be some old story, known in England and Scandinavia at the relevant times, that influenced both. It is not impossible, but it does seem quite unlikely.

But if the girl's name is not Maedhilde at all, but Hilde (as it is written in the manuscript), we may speculate that this could possibly refer to one of the pairs of lovers with similar names who are found in the Didrik Saga: Samson and Hillesvid, Walter and Hillegunna, or Herbert and Hilda. Again, there is not a great deal to back this up however.

At any rate, the stories that were taken to Scandinavia, probably from Germany, when the Saga of Didrik of Bern was written down seem also to have been familiar in Anglo Saxon era England.

Even beyond Deor, The Saga of Didrik of Bern tells stories about characters who are mentioned briefly in other surviving Old English works. For example, Egil the archer appears, named in runes (Ægili), on the Franks casket. He appears in the saga as Weland's brother, and much is made of his archery skills. Also, Hama and Wudga are named together in Widsith, and Hama is also mentioned in Beowulf. They appear in the saga as Heym and Wideke, and, together with Hillebrand, they are Didrik's main men throughout the saga.

Link to The Saga of Didrik of Bern, translation.

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