The Heliand

April 21, 2011

The Heliand
Anonymous (Oxford, 1992 [9th c.]; trans: G. Ronald Murphy, S.J.)
256 p.

In the opening section of The Everlasting Man, Chesterton remarked that the average modern man is inoculated against the Gospel by his belief that he already knows about it. Its very familiarity prevents his seeing it clearly. What is needed, Chesterton suggested, is a way to see our own history anew, as though it were a tale from the Orient:

Their anti-clericalism has become an atmosphere, an atmosphere of negation and hostility from which they cannot escape. Compared with that, it would be better to see the whole thing as something belonging to another continent, or to another planet. It would be more philosophical to stare indifferently at bonzes than to be perpetually and pointlessly grumbling at bishops. It would be better to walk past a church as if it were a pagoda than to stand permanently in the porch, impotent either to go inside and help or to go outside and forget. For those in whom a mere reaction has thus become an obsession, I do seriously recommend the imaginative effort of conceiving the Twelve Apostles as Chinamen. In other words, I recommend these critics to try to do as much justice to Christian saints as if they were Pagan sages.

The Heliand is not exactly what Chesterton had in mind, but it might very well serve the purpose. This is a ninth-century Old Saxon verse telling of the life of Christ. It is more than a straight-forward translation of the Gospels; rather, it is a re-imagining of the life of Christ as though it had taken place in the medieval warrior culture of the Germanic tribes of northern Europe. God the Father becomes “the Chieftain of all mankind”, Christ a lord, the Apostles his vassals sworn to fealty, Jerusalem a “bright-shining hill-fort”, and so on. We do not know who wrote it, but he was clearly a missionary to the Germanic people, and his effort to accommodate the Gospel story to the conventions of Germanic epic is startling to a modern reader, and also, I am tempted to say, quite brilliant.

Let’s look at a few examples. Here is a long excerpt describing the birth of Christ, and it gives a good idea of how the story has been adapted to the new setting. (Notice, for instance, that the shepherds watching over sheep have become sentries watching over horses.)

At that time it all came to pass, just as wise men had said long ago: the the Protector of People would come in a humble way, by His own power, to visit this kingdom of earth. His mother, that most beautiful woman, took Him, wrapped Him in clothes and precious jewels, and then with her two hands laid Him gently, the little man, that child, in a fodder-crib, even though He had the power of God, and was the Chieftain of mankind. There the mother sat in front of Him and remained awake, watching over the holy Child and holding it. And there was no doubt in the mind or in the heart of the holy maid.

What had happened became known to many over this wide world. The guards heard it. As horse-servants they were outside, they were men on sentry duty, watching over the horses, the beasts of the field: they saw the darkness split in two in the sky, and the light of God came shining through the clouds and surrounded the guards out in the fields. Those men began to feel fear in their hearts. They saw the mighty angel of God coming toward them. He spoke to the guards face to face and told them that they should not fear any harm from the light. “I am going to tell you,” he said, “something very wonderful, something very deeply desired. I want to let you know something very powerful: Christ is now born, on this very night, God’s holy Child, the good Chieftain, at David’s hill-fort. What happiness for the human race, a boon for all men! You can find Him, the most powerful Child, at Fort Bethlehem. Take what I now tell you in truthful words as a sign: He is there, wrapped up, lying in a fodder-crib — even though He is king over all the earth and the heavens and over the sons of all the peoples, the Ruler of the world.” Just as he said that word, an enormous number of the holy army, the shining people of God, came down to the one angel from the meadows of heaven, saying many words in praise for the Lord of Peoples. They then began to sing a holy song as they wended their way through the clouds towards the meadows of heaven.

Adapting the life of Christ as a warrior epic is bound to run into certain difficulties; in the bona fide original there is a lack of battle scenes, sword-play, and whatever else properly belongs to the genre. The author has accordingly taken some liberties with his adaptation. The scene of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, for instance, is portrayed, subtly but clearly, as a battle scene between the tempter and Christ, the warrior, whose bloody drops of sweat are portrayed as battle wounds. The author has also gone some distance toward casting Jesus in the role of one of the stock figures of Germanic epic: the wizard. His miracles are portrayed as a kind of magic, and his words as incantations that are powerfully effective.

In pre-Christian Germanic religion it was, according to the notes accompanying this translation, Fate which ruled the affairs of men. The author portrays Christ’s Divine status by showing that his own will is identical with the decrees of Fate. Consider, for example, this passage about Christ’s death, the apotheosis of his life and mission:

One of the enemy came closer, hate in his mind, carrying a well-nailed spear tightly in his hands. With incredible force he thrust it, cutting a wound in Christ’s side with the spearhead, opening up His body. The people saw that both blood and water were pouring out from there, welling out of the wound. All of this was just the way He wanted it and had predetermined beforehand for the benefit of mankind, the sons of men. Now it had all come to pass.

That is accommodation at a higher level than simply swapping horses for sheep. There are certain points where the author decided that certain details from the Gospels should be cut. When Christ enters Jerusalem, for instance, the donkey on which he rode has been quietly deleted, perhaps because it would have too greatly offended the sensibilities of his listeners. But where it really counts — in the moral teaching which conflicts so sharply with the warrior ethos — there is no evasion. He girds up his loins and gives it to them straight:

Now I say to you truthfully, with greater fullness for the people, that you are to love your enemies in your feelings, just as you love your family relatives, in God’s name. Do a great deal of good for them, extend friendly loyalty to them with a clear mind — love versus their hatred. This is long-lasting advice for every man, this is how a person’s feelings against his enemy should be directed. Then, you will have as your own, the gift that you can be called the Heaven-King’s sons, His happy children — and you cannot obtain anything better than that in this world.

The Heliand was written in verse, but Fr. Murphy’s translation is prose. In a way this is a pity, but we know that not every scholar also has the literary talent to produce effective verse in the style of the original. As it stands, his translation is clear and readable. I enjoyed the book greatly.

4 Responses to “The Heliand”

  1. Mac Says:

    I want to read this. I’m a very mild-mannered person but there must be some atavistic Norseman in me somewhere (as with the bureaucrat at the beginning of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), because this sort of thing really appeals to me. I wonder if there is more than one instance of this sort of thing, because I remember someone linking to one in a comment on my blog some time back, and I don’t think it was this, although I could be mistaken.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I’m with you on that, Mac. My barbarian side is sublimated but not entirely dormant, and I get a keen little thrill at the thought of warrior lords and large spears.

    I am not aware of another work similar to this one, in the sense of combining overtly Christian, or even Biblical, matter with a Northman’s sensibility. Beowulf is probably the nearest thing I can think of, but there the Christian elements are quite subtle. There might be something in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, but I am not sure.

  3. Janet Says:

    Undset? Or are we just talking old?


  4. cburrell Says:

    Well, I was thinking old, but you are right that Undset is working within the general territory.

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