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Literature / Waltharius

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Waltharius is an early medieval epic poem, written in Latin hexameter by a German monk, telling of the exploits of the Visigothic hero Walther of Aquitaine. The author was very likely a resident of the monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland, and may have been a certain Ekkehard (c. 910—973).

From the land of Pannonia, Attila the Hun leads his armies to bully the kingdoms of Western Europe. In exchange for peace, three royal children are sent as hostages to the Hunnish court: Hagen, nephew of the king of the Franks, Hiltgunt, daughter of the king of Burgundy, and Walther, son of the king of Aquitaine. Attila treats his hostages well, and as the children come of age, Hagen and Walther are made captains in the Hunnish army, and Hiltgunt becomes the royal treasurer.

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When a new war between Franks and Huns looms on the horizon, Hagen bails out and escapes to his homeland. Walther and Hiltgunt, who love each other, stay behind; but knowing that Attila will neither allow them to be together nor to leave, they hatch a plan of elopement and put it into action, but not without helping themselves to two chests of gold from Attila's treasury.

All goes well for the lovers until they reach the land of the Franks whose new king, Gunther, sees a welcome opportunity to get his hands on Attila's gold. With twelve of his best warriors, the king sets out and demands Walther to give up Hiltgunt and the gold. Walther's offers of compromise are ignored. In spite of Hagen's earnest warnings, the king orders his champions to take on Walther in single combat.

The Latin text is available online here.

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Tropes:

  • Achilles in His Tent: After being accused of cowardice by Gunther because he warned him of picking a fight with Walther, an infuriated Hagen refuses to participate in the combat and instead just watches from a nearby hill. Though Walther stands alone against Gunther and his eleven remaining champions, the fight goes terribly wrong for the Franks. Only after the eleven others are dead, one of them being Hagen's own nephew Patavrid, Gunther apologizes to Hagen and implores him that the Franks will never recover from the shame if Walther gets away unpunished. This argument finally changes Hagen's mind. The ensuing battle ends with a draw when all three combatants are so severely wounded they can no longer fight. That Hagen is the strongest among Gunther's champions is established by Walther himself, who comments on the approach of Gunther and his troop that Hagen is the only one of them he is afraid of.
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  • An Arm and a Leg: In the final combat, Walther cuts off Gunther's leg, shortly after Hagen cuts off Walther's hand, and then Walther cuts Hagen across the face and rips his eye out. With none of them able to fight on, the poem dedicates a moment to the image of Gunther's leg, Walther's hand, and Hagen's eye lying harmoniously side by side on the ground.
  • The Berserker: In Attila's service, Walther leads a Hunnish army against a rebellious tribe, and "rages in the midst of the battle" (v. 196), "mowing down everything in his way" (v. 197). The enemies are so terrified of him that they flee from him "as if they had seen death" (v. 199).
  • Blood from the Mouth: Ekivrid gets his lung pierced by Walther's javelin and "spits out a stream of blood" before he dies.
  • Chekhov's Gun: When Walther sets out from Attila's hall, he arms himself with a two-edged sword at his left side and an additional one-edged Hunnic sword at his right (v. 336-338). In the final combat, Walther's sword breaks on Hagen's helmet and a moment later, Hagen cuts off Walther's right hand. Walther at once changes his shield to his maimed arm, pulls out the Hunnic sword with his left and strikes. Hagen, who is taken by surprise, is cut across the face, rendering him unable to continue the fight and saving Walther from defeat.
  • Conflicting Loyalty: Hagen's old friendship to Walther conflicts with his duty as a retainer of his king Gunther, who wants Walther to surrender his gold and his fiancé Hiltgunt to him, and, when Walther predictably refuses these conditions, orders his champions to engage Walther in life-and-death combat. Hagen first tries to talk Gunther out of his plan and advises him to accept a compromise; when Gunther in turn accuses him of cowardice, Hagen refuses all orders and stands by as his companions fight with Walther. Only after Walther has killed eleven Frankish champions including Hagen's own nephew Patavrid, Gunther apologizes and implores Hagen that the Franks will never recover from the shame if they let Walther get away unpunished. With the new state of affairs, Hagen is concerned that his own honor as a warrior could be compromised if he continues to do nothing, and finally agrees to fight Walther.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Hagen urges Gunther to accept the hundred brooches offered by Walther as a compromise, because he had a dream the night before in which Gunther and he himself fought with a bear which bit Gunther's leg off and ripped an eye and several teeth out of Hagen's face. Later they fight with Walther, and Gunther loses a leg and Hagen an eye and six teeth.
  • Duel to the Death: Travelling through the Vosges mountains with two chests of Hunnish gold, Walther and Hiltgunt are held up by king Gunther who demands Walther to surrender Hiltgunt and the gold, and, when Walther refuses, sends twelve Frankish champions to do battle with Walther. However, Walther has made camp in a narrow gorge where only one man can get at him at a time. In a sequence of single combats Walter kills eight Frankish champions until the remainder realize they have to change gears.
  • Elopement: Living as hostages at Attila's court, Walther and Hiltgunt know that Attila will not allow them to marry or to leave (as he has already expressed his will to find a Hunnish wife for Walther). Walther reveals to Hiltgunt that he has long planned to flee back to Aquitaine, but has been delaying his plan because he wants her to come with him. After the next royal feast, while Attila and his nobles are sleeping, the lovers depart in the night and, after weeks of travelling in the wilderness, eventually make it to Aquitaine.
  • Famous Ancestor: Werinhard is a descendant of Pandarus, the Trojan noble who, as the poem alludes to (v. 728-29), broke a truce between Greeks and Trojans by shooting an arrow at Menelaos on the command of Athena (The Iliad). Like his (in)famous ancestor, Werinhard fights with bow and arrow, but fails to do any damage, then tries to attack Walther (who is on foot) from horseback, but is quickly dispatched without putting up much of a fight, and then begs for his life before Walther beheads him. Werinhard's all-around dishonorable behavior may indicate that Pandarus' dishonorable breaking of the truce has rubbed off on his descendant.
  • Greed: King Gunther demands of Walther to surrender to him both Hiltgunt and the two chests of gold he brought with him from Hunland, arguing that, as the gold is taken from Attila's treasury, it rightfully belongs to him because of the tribute his father had formerly paid to Attila. Though Walther offers a compromise, which Hagen advises him to accept, Gunther refuses to settle for less and instead orders his champions to fight. His behavior draws much criticism from Hagen, who demonstratively renounces his right to a share of the spoils, and comments the unfolding desaster with a speech on the evils of avarice (v. 857-69).
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Already before the conflict with the Huns, King Alpher of Aquitaine and King Heririch of Burgundy have made a solemn agreement that Alpher's son Walther will get Heririch's daughter Hiltgunt in marriage. Years later, when they are both hostages at Attila's court, they fall in love with each other, elope together, and in the finale, they marry.
  • Widowed at the Wedding (Downplayed): When Hagen tries to dissuade his nephew Patavrid from fighting with Walther, he mentions that Patavrid is a newly-wed, and asks him to think of how devastating his death would be to his wife, particularly as she did not even have a child yet. Patavrid does not listen, and is dead some 40 lines later.
  • Wrecked Weapon: Hagen intercepts a sword-blow of Walther aimed at Gunther with his helmet, and the helmet is so hard that the sword breaks in two. The battle eventually ends with a draw.
  • You Killed My Father (Invoked): When the Frankish king Gunther orders his retainers to attack Walther for the sake of Walther's treasure chests, his retainer Hagen refuses to fight against his old friend Walther until after Walther has slain eleven Frankish champions, one of them being Hagen's own nephew Patavrid. When Gunther finally convinces Hagen to fight, and Walther accuses him of behaving dishonorably, Hagen replies that Walther himself has ended their friendship by killing Patavrid, and that he is going to avenge his nephew. However, the fact that Hagen has earlier told Gunther that he would not break his friendship to Walther for the sake of Patavrid alone, and that he had remained passive while Walther killed five more Frankish champions after Patavrid, imply that this is an attempt of self-justification rather than objective truth. After fighting each other to a draw, Hagen and Walther reconcile and renew their friendship, without Hagen having avenged Patavrid.
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