Karoline von Günderrode, “Valorich”

Although this piece is unfinished (it ends mid-sentence), it was set to be published as the last piece in what would have been Günderrode’s third collection of poetry and short prose, “Melete.” The second part of the piece has been lost, leaving a tantalising fragment that uses humour to gently mock its characters and the Romantic novel.

The original German text can be found here. Please cite me if you share or quote from this translation and my commentary.

At the time Günderrode was writing, supposedly found texts and textual fragments were relatively common literary phenomena, and she published several pieces with the explicit subtitle of “fragment.” She also titled her first collection of writings Poetic Fragments. Although “Valorich” lacks this subtitle, on its own it could perhaps be ranked among Günderrode’s deliberate fragments. However, it seems that Georg Friedrich Creuzer, who was interceding for Günderrode with the publisher, had the rest of the text, and that it has since been lost. In two letters Creuzer begs Günderrode to finish the piece as it would be a shame for it to remain a “fragment” or a “torso,” and in a third (writing of himself in the third person) that “The conclusion of this story (which is very dear to him, through and through) made him melancholy, but in the way that he likes to be melancholy.” What this conclusion might have been is, sadly, a mystery.

There has been little or no commentary on “Valorich” in the secondary literature, and as far as I know this is the first translation. Perhaps the lack of interest can be partially attributed to the incompleteness of the piece and the difficulty of assigning it a genre: for instance, although it is written in a short story form, Barbara Becker-Cantarino describes this piece as “a fragment from an attempt at a drama.” Another reason for the lack of interest may be the apparent infelicities in the text: while the piece seems to be the beginning of an epic story, some of Günderrode’s turns of phrase undermine the heroic tone. For example, she describes Ermanerich’s heroically named sword Siegheim as “really a very good sword,” while her account of its turning up in the hands of Ermanerich’s grandson strangely and comically elides the events by which this happens. Fiediger’s people are scattered and some are reduced to working as mercenaries “for vile gold”: when he thinks of this, “it almost made him sad” – one would think so! Even the opening line – “It was really a very great and mighty land he had conquered, Ermanerich, with boldness and manly deeds” – presents Ermanerich’s manly accomplishments in a patronising and indulgent tone. This comical disruption of what seems like it should be an epic and Romantic tale can seem like a stylistic failing, or simply confusing.

Nonetheless, it is likely that the comical effect of these phrasings is quite deliberate, and meant to poke fun at overwrought, pretentious narratives. (I am grateful to Cornelia Ilbrig for drawing my attention to the deliberate humour in Günderrode’s writing.) These odd-sounding interjections in an otherwise grand-sounding story resemble two of Günderrode’s early plays, which were overtly written for comedic effect: The Cannon Shot, or the Feast of Tantalus. A Heroic-Comic Tragic Play as a Warning and Example for Foolish People’s Impertinence and Most Highly Stupid Bantering, So That They Can and Will Learn Decent Conduct, and History of the Beautiful Goddess and Noble Nymph Calypso, Ruler of the Island Ogygia, and Telemachus the Prince of Ithaca. Beside the Cobbled-together History of Tillina. Brought to Light through N:N: In the Manner of the Old Heathenish Poet, and Blind Man Homer. Like “Valorich,” these plays disrupt any pretensions at seriousness with abrupt transitions in action and tone that have the effect of poking gentle fun at their characters. These plays, too, have generally been ignored by scholars, perhaps for similar reasons.

In “Valorich,” the conversations between characters, and the interjection of a song and a story by a minstrel – which we can surmise would have motivated further actions by Valorich, likely involving the maiden Sigismunda (and perhaps the sword Siegheim!) – is strongly reminiscent of a work we know Günderrode read: Novalis’ Henry of Ofterdingen. Whether this similarity would have extended to and perhaps subverted other characteristics of Romantic works – such as, dreams, reflections on nature and the secret connections between things, and the development of the protagonist into an artist – is a question the answer to which lies tantalisingly out of our reach.

VALORICH

It was really a very great and mighty land he had conquered, Ermanerich, with boldness and manly deeds: he had become a King over the East Goths. But he would not have accomplished that without assistance from his sword Siegheim, which was really a very good sword, for which Ermanerich always highly honoured it. But as the Huns came, with more than many thousand lusty warriors, and conquered Ermanerich’s kingdom, the good sword Siegheim fell, after going through many kinds of fortune, into the hands of Fiediger. He was a grandchild of Ermanerich, and not little did the rapier delight him, for well he knew its virtue. But what would that help him? The people of the Goths were scattered here and there, from Illyria on to the north sea, and many tribes had chosen their own king over themselves; others served strange warlords for vile gold. When Fiediger bethought this, it almost made him sad. Then he called his younger brother Valorich and spoke to him:

“Know, brother, I have a withstood a good adventure, that I regard with the value of a perilous battle, for look! I have won this old sword, which our father so assiduously sought all his life. But the sword befits a mightier lord than I am, and as I shall remain a fugitive, who has no inheritance nor goods, nor greater honour than until now, I’m almost ashamed of the find.”

“Heaven forfend,” countered Valorich, “that we should be ashamed of our inheritance, or regard ourselves as meaner than our ancestors. When someone has done something, even if it was almost difficult, I do not think a bold creature would lag behind. But because you are the oldest, brother, then seek to not be unworthy of us, and I will serve you and help you attain it: to that I am firmly disposed.”

While they were still speaking with each other, along the path came a young fellow who bore a harp in his hand, like the minstrels care to. He greeted them friendlily and sat down with them. When he wanted to rest, Valorich said:

“I beg you, Mr Minstrel, if you don’t have anything against it, then sing me a song, for I love harps’ and zithers’ cheerful tunes.”

“I will do it,” said the song singer, “and play you my best song, because you encourage me so earnestly.”

And now he took the fine ivory harp and struck the strings and sang with it:

Two eyes like stars
  That would gladly see
            The blissful light,
            And may not;
            The bright carbuncles
            That could eclipse
            The sunny light,   
            And may not.
            Oh love’s longing!
            Caught in a dungeon,
            The eyes so loving,
            The lips so blissful,
            The words so soothing,
            The locks so golden,
            My heart breaks
            From sorrow and pain.
            Till death I see
            The rosy lips
            And shall never recover,
            Yet if I thought of her loving essence,
            Of her gaze so mild,
            Of the most beautiful woman,
            And should I gain shame and death
            I love the maid even should I die.

“That’s a really pitiful and sweet song,” says Valorich. “Where does the beautiful maid live, of whom you sang? Or did you only have her in your mind like the song-singers care to?”

“Not at all,” countered the minstrel. “If it pleases you to heed me I will not hold back from you what I know of the young lady. She is called Sigismunda, and her father is known as Lord Sigemar, a King of the Boyars, who live around here on the River Danube. Lady Irmengard, her mother, soon died, and left her husband and her underage child Sigismunda alone. But as she grew up, she thrived in such wonderful beauty that she greatly enthralled everyone, and whoever saw her once never wanted to part from her, so very graceful she was. For that reason, many princes and lords came from far and wide and courted the regal maid Sigismunda, but Lord Sigemar did not want to let her go, for he was mightily devoted to her.

“Once he had to ride to war in a far land. Then his daughter was almost morose, and could not leave him for great sorrow; even Sigemar was more troubled than usual, and he thought in his heart he should have chosen a valiant lord for his child, to take care of her in dangerous times.

“For this reason, he called his brother Odho and said to him: ‘Odho, I leave my daughter in your custody, and if I should not return home, then give her a spouse whom she wants and who befits her.’ That Odho promised with his handshake, and Sigemar went from them, placated.

“Then Sigismunda was long troubled until tidings came to her, and often stood on the balcony and gazed after the route of the army. And one day she saw several riders galloping along the path. She climbed swiftly down into the courtyard to determine whence the riders came, and Herman, Lord Sigemar’s squire, met her and brought her tidings with many tears, how the King had departed in the battle. Then the damsel fainted, and when she awoke could find no end of tears and sighs. But Odho was glad in spirit. He thought to win the damsel, for her excessive beauty had wholly bewitched his heart, and he knew no counsel but to marry her. For that reason, he went to her a lot and wanted to soothe her with earnest and heartfelt speech; but she did not want to hear him, and answered his cooing sparingly. That annoyed him, for he was high-minded and strutting, and once, when he…” 

“That’s a really pitiful and sweet song,” says Valorich. “Where does the beautiful maid live, of whom you sang? Or did you only have her in your mind like the song-singers care to?”

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