Friday, June 12, 2015

The Nibelungen Poet and Camoes

Imagine, Germany had had a poet like Camoes. Or imagine Hitler had been a Brazilian, then taking over Portugal too (a bit how he really acted with Austria in 1938). What harm he would have wrought with Camoes!

It is a very nationalistic, a very chauvinistic poem, and it lacks nobility.

If Hitler wanted something similar for the East front, he was stuck with Nibelungen. It is a very Christian poem, any nationalism has to be read into it, since Burgondians and Ostrogoths, fighting on diverse sides, were all Germanic, and since Etzel, though not so, is not portrayed any worse for that. It has nobility. It has the sense that ambition is worthy of noble men - and yet a trap for them.

If we take one eyed men, for Nibelungen, it is the bad guy, the one too eager to obey even immoral orders, for Os Lusiadas it is the poet himself.

On the subject of treachery, Camoes teaches us very quickly that Moslems are inherently such. That might have been true, it may still in certain contexts be true, but it is not a very noble lesson. But with the Nibelung poet, treason flows slowly from loyalties and rivalries - as it does (even when the traitors are Moslems). And the Nibelung poet starts out to show the loyalties first.

In Camoes, Olympian gods come in by convention (epic being an heritage from Homer) and in Nibelung poet, they come in not at all. In other versions of the story, Odin does come in, but mainly as a supernatural ancestor who now and then erratically supports his human offspring. And never in a way that too clearly shows him as divine, always in ways that could refer to a human magician or something.

The real difference is that 1200 plus something in Austria, people were truly Christian.* And 1500 something in Portugal, even Catholics were somewhat Pagan. In Camoes, Venus plays a role that resembles Venus Mater in Virgil's Aeneid. If Nibelung poet in any sense deals with "Venus", it is as a temptation, a risk of over fixation even among married people. Beware who you marry - if you take the wrong one, she may lead you to treason.

Even more, Camoes was writing with his age. The Nibelung poet, after hearing no doubt Walter von der Vogelweide say something of woman being the inspiration for all true nobility contradicted, slowly and carefully, the unstated obverse of the sentiment, that women could inspire to nothing bad. He had the courage to go against his age. To say what his people did not want to hear. Far from becoming a poet laureate, he is to us anonymous.

Hans Georg Lundahl
Nanterre UL
St John of Saint Facundus

* In Portugal too. In 1203, traditional date of the poem, the future St Anthony of Padova was an 8 year old boy in Lisbon.

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