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The Germanic Heldenlied and the Poetic Edda: Speculations on Preliterary History

Edward R. Haymes

Oral Tradition Volume 19, Number 1

One of the proudest inventions of German scholarship in the nineteenth century was the Heldenlied, the heroic song, which was seen by scholars as the main conduit of Germanic heroic legend from the Period of Migrations to the time of their being written down in the Middle Ages. The concept stems indirectly from the suggestions of several eighteenth-century Homeric scholars that since the Homeric poems were much too long to have been memorized and performed in oral tradition, they must have existed as shorter, episodic songs. Friedrich August Wolf’s well-known Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795) collected evidence for the idea that writing was not used for poetry until long after Homer’s time. He argued for a thorough recension of the poem under (or perhaps by) Pisistratus in the sixth century BCE as the first comprehensive written Homer. These ideas were almost immediately applied to the Middle High German Nibelungenlied by Karl Lachmann (1816), who was trained as a classical philologist and indeed continued to contribute in that area at the same time that he was one of the most influential members of the generation that founded the new discipline of Germanistik. On the basis of rough spots and contradictions (not only Homer nods!) Lachmann thought he could recognize twenty separate Lieder in the Middle High German epic. At the same time that Lachmann was deconstructing the German medieval epic, Elias Lönnrot was assembling the Finnish epic he called Kalevala from shorter songs in conscious imitation of the Homer (or Pisistratus) described by Wolf.

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