The Hildebrandslied is one of the oldest literary works in German (Old High German, specifically), and is a famous tale of a warrior facing his son on the battlefield. It’s a heroic epic poem, like Beowulf, though of course Beowulf is Anglo-Saxon, telling a story that happened in Denmark, so the fact that we have here a German story that involves characters warring for parts of northern Italy (Dietrich and Otacher are historical figures who warred with one another over the scraps of the Roman empire) shows just how well the epic poem captures the life of the ancient Germanic warrior.
This poem is rather fragmented, so you’ll have to look around the ellipses and past the abrupt ending to see what’s happening here. The original manuscript of this poem was used as binding material for a theological treatise at Fulda Monastery in southern Germany.
If you want to know how the story ends, check out the Wikipedia page for some hints at the conclusion, beyond just the telling of who wins, given in the notes below. This tale, like most featured here, comes from an oral tradition, and so this story survived beyond the Monastery, not just in Germany, but in other tales of northern Europe, and was written down centuries after this manuscript was made. While it’s possible those alternate endings had evolved after this earlier version of the tale, it seems likely that the variations on the ending in these other traditions may be an indication of some of the stories that led to the specific form this poem took.
translation by D.L. Ashliman
I have heard tell,
that two chosen warriors, Hildebrand and Hadubrand,
met one another, between two armies.
Father and son, the champions examined their gear,
prepared their armor, and buckled their swords
over their chain mail, before riding out to battle.
Hildebrand, the older and more experienced man, spoke first,
asking, with few words who his father was
and from which family he came.
“Tell me the one, young man, and I’ll know the other,
for I know all great people in this kingdom.”
Hadubrand, the son of Hildebrand, replied:
“Old and wise people who lived long ago
told me that my father’s name was Hildebrand.
My name is Hadubrand.
Long ago he rode off into the East with Dietrich,
and his many warriors, fleeing Otacher’s wrath.
He rode off into the East, leaving his wife at home
with a small child, deprived of his inheritance.
Dietrich, a man with but few friends,
came to rely upon my father.
His feud with Otacher grew more intense,
and my father became his best-loved warrior.
He was at the front of every battle, wanting to be in every duel.
Brave men knew him well.
“With Almighty God in Heaven for a witness,
may you never go to battle against your next of kin.”
And he took from his arm a band of rings,
braided from the emperor’s gold,
which the King of the Huns had given to him.
“I give you this in friendship.”
Hadubrand, the son of Hildebrand, replied:
“A gift should be received with a spear,
point against point.
You are a cunning old Hun,
leading me into a trap with your words,
only to throw your spear at me.
You have grown old by practicing such treachery.
Sailors traveling westward across the Mediterranean Sea
told me that he fell in battle.
Hildebrand, the son of Heribrand, is dead.”
Hildebrand, the son of Heribrand, replied:
“I see from your battle gear
that you have a good master at home,
and that you have never been banished by your prince.
Alas, Lord God, fate has struck.
Sixty times I have seen summer turn to winter
and winter to summer in a foreign land.
I was always placed on the front lines;
I was never killed while storming a fortress,
and now my own child should strike me with his sword
and hit me with his ax, if I don’t kill him first.
But if you have the courage, you can easily
win the armor from an old man like me,
and take away the spoils, if you have any right to them.
Not even the worst of the men from the East
would turn down the the chance to fight with you,
with your desire to duel. Cost what it may,
let us see who will boast of this gear
and who will lay claim to these two suits of chain mail.”
Then they let sail their ashen spears,
Sharp showers, sticking in their shields.
They came closer on foot, splitting each other’s bright boards,
striking fiercely until their weapons shattered their shields.
- Composed in alliterative verse during the second half of the 8th century, this poem was recorded in Old High German about 810 a.d. at the Fulda Monastery in southern Germany. The manuscript was used as the binding for a theological treatise. Translated here into free verse. No attempt has been made to reproduce the original meter or alliteration. The poem’s conclusion is lost. Parallel traditions suggest that the father killed his son. However, a ballad from the 13th century, the so-called “Younger Hildebrandslied,” ends with a reconciliation between father and son.
- The five dots indicate that part of the text is missing or unreadable.
- Two seasons per year times sixty seasons equals thirty years. This was a standard way to reckon time in medieval northern Europe.