Karoline von Günderrode, “Musa”

This little-read short story by Günderrode is loosely based on the events of the 15th century Ottoman Interregnum. The story contains typical Günderrodean themes of friendship and betrayal, as well as the limits of the rightful use of power and the nature of tyranny. The piece also showcases Günderrode’s interest in epic stories and the history of empires.

Günderrode wrote “Musa” between 1801 and 1803, and it was published in her first, 1804 collection of poems and short stories, Poems and Fantasies. This collection included several pieces that included similar themes and settings, including the short stories “The Apparition” (read my translation and discussion of this piece here) and “Timur.”

The background to Günderrode’s story is the Ottoman Interregnum (1402–1413): a period of political upheaval during which several contenders fought to rule the Ottoman Empire. The Interregnum began when the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I (1360–1403) was defeated and captured by the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur, often known as Tamerlane (which Günderrode spells “Timurlank”), at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. Bayezid had many children, and after his defeat five of his sons fought for the throne. These were Musa (d. 1413), the namesake of Günderrode’s titular character; Süleyman (1377–1411), which Günderrode spells “Solimann”; Mehmed (1389–1421), which Günderrode changes to “Muhamad”; and Ísa (1380–1406) and Mustafa (1380–1422), who do not feature in Günderrode’s story. Other characters were likely invented. In addition her selection and invention of characters, Günderrode changes many details from the historical record for her story. In particular, it was Mehmed (Muhamad), not Musa, who was eventually victorious and confirmed as Sultan in 1413, thus ending the Ottaman Interregnum. Musa was killed in the same year, after several military defeats.

It’s ok to use and quote from this translation and my commentary, but please cite me.The original German text of “Musa” can be found here.

MUSA

The great Ba-Yazed had died in shameful confinement, the Ottoman Empire shaken to its foundations, for its might had been shattered in the bloody battle at Ankara by the ruler of the Mongols, Timurlank. Nevertheless, there it stood, like a ruin that needed only a powerful ruling word to ascend more gloriously from the rubble. Ba-Yazed had left behind three sons, Solimann, Muhamad, and Musa.

Musa, the youngest, had grown up in the house of his uncle Othman, and love’s sweetest bonds tied him early to Fetama, Othman’s daughter, and the deepest friendship to his son Cara-Boga.

He had reached his seventeenth year when Timurlank appointed him Sultan of the Ottomans. Powerful, inexpressible feelings moved the soul of the youth, which until now had been gentle and calm – but he did not marvel gratefully over his luck for long; he seized it quickly, and wanted to use it, as if it were inborn in him.

But destiny had decided otherwise. Solimann, his oldest brother, sly, shrewd, ambitious, won the hearts of the people. He ascended the throne, Musa was dragged into the dungeon, and Fetama, the faithless Fetama! gave her heart to the new owner of the crown. Cara-Boga tore himself from his father, from his sister, and followed the unhappy Musa into the dungeon.

The prison’s deep deathly silence could not lull Musa’s wild despair into slumber, and the eternal night that surrounded him could not bury the flames that consumed him in its shadows. His youth withered in the dungeon, his virtue succumbed to tormenting thoughts of vengeance: he was like someone buried alive who fights despairingly to throw off the burial mound, and finally in terrible fury rends his own bones.

A year passed like this when Cara-Boga resolved to save him; he left him with the sacred oath: to set upon him the crown of his fathers or to die.

Cara-Boga knew how to bring his father, many greats of the realm, and part of the Janissary to Musa’s side through pleas and promises. They united to topple the tyrant Solimann and to obey Cara Boga until Musa had grasped the sceptre.

The decisive night approached.

Mohadi, Grand Vizier and co-conspirator, resented Cara-Boga’s reputation and future influence. In the turmoil of the insurrection, with the help of some leaders of the Janissary, he thrust his sword into his breast. However, this did not interrupt the plan of the conspiracy; through Mohadi’s treachery the palace fell into the hands of the conspirators. Solimann fell, covered with wounds.

Now day rose! The Janissaries hurried to Musa’s prison. He was dreaming: Cara-Boga was wrapped in a corpse-shroud, passing by before him, his gaze sorrowful, his hair bloody! Musa stretched out his hands to him, called to him; but he did not answer. Then the bars of the prison clanged; the Janissaries pressed in. Musa tore himself from slumber: Cara-Boga! he wanted to cry. Then the crown flashed before him, the people cheered, dressed him in purple and led him under a canopy, erected in the marketplace of Prusa.

Musa’s cheeks were pale; his eyes burned like two volcanoes in a wilderness burnt to ashes. A strained majesty, to the pressure of which he seemed almost to succumb, effused his whole being. He looked like the gloomy splendour of a tomb that covers a blooming lineage.

Through the turmoil pushed Mohadi and, in servile humility, presented the sceptre to the new King. After him pressed Othmann, who fell down and spoke: “Great King! May your first act be justice! Cara-Boga, your friend, who loved you like the morning, fell, not in laudable battle for you but though treacherous assassination by Mohadi. His last words were blessings for you!”

A terrible silence reigned. The Sultan covered himself in his purple, witnesses emerged and witnessed against Mohadi, and the latter sank trembling to the earth. Then Musa cried with a terrible voice: “Janissaries! Kill him on the spot, so that the sight of the murderer will poison no more eyes.”

But the people and the Janissaries cried: “Mercy! Mercy to the Vizier!”

“All of you abandoned me on a terrible day,” said Musa. “You watched calmly as fraternal hatred hurled me into the dungeon. Only he followed me, and would not see the light of day nor have any joy without me. And now, when he should have shared with me the glory he prepared for me, now he has been murdered! Shamefully! Treacherously! Kill Mohadi: he has poured a drop of slow poison in my life’s cup, he shall not watch how I drink it up, how he consumes my entrails.

But still always: “Mercy! Mercy!” the people cried.            

“You still do not obey?” said Musa. “Well! I do not want this throne, if it does not give me the power to punish so bloody a crime; I do not want to live in this world that calls such shameful sins good. I will go down to my friend and console him for his people’s cowardice. Come! Kill me! I will fall as befits me, in purple, regally, gloriously; this death is worthy of my life, come!”

So Musa spoke, and, forgetting himself in feverish daredevilry, he knelt under the sabres of the muttering Janissaries to receive the deadly stroke.

But they saw his regal beauty; the deep pain in which he was wholly lost moved them. Mohadi was sacrificed to avenging justice, and Musa ascended the throne.

FURTHER READING

Christmann, Ruth. Zwischen Identitätsgewinn und Bewußtseinsverlust. Das philosophisch-literarische Werk der Karoline von Günderrode (1780–1806). Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2005. 188–89.

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