The Legend of King Rother

The legend of King Rother is found in only one version, König Rother, a German poem in octosyllabic couplets from around 1160. Translated by Robert Lichtenstein, into octosyllabic couplets, in 1962, as volume 36 of the University of North Carolina Studies in the Germanic Languages and Literatures. Available surprisingly cheap on Amazon.

King Rother rules in Bari, and seeks a wife. His vassal, Lupold, suggests the princess of Constantinople, whose father kills all her suitors. Rother, intrigued by the challenge, sends a dozen ambassadors led by Lupold to ask her hand in marriage. He plays three melodies on his harp, by which the ambassadors may recognize him if anything goes wrong and he must come save them. Things do go wrong, and Constantine throws the ambassadors in the dungeon, only sparing their lives because they were his guests. A year and a day go by, and Rother asks Berchter, Lupold’s father, for advice. The barons agree that Rother will go in disguise as an exiled knight, alias Dieterich, pretending to be fleeing from Rother’s wrath. With “Dieterich” go Berchter, the giant Asprian and some of his giant vassals, including Widolt, and others. They leave Berchter’s son Amalger as regent.

They come to Constantinople, and are unimpressed by Constantine’s attempts to dazzle them. At dinner, Constantine allows his pet lion to roam the hall and eat whatever it wants. When it tries to eat Asprian’s food, he picks it up and dashes its brains out. Dietrich takes up residence in Constantinople, and gives gifts with largesse, impressing everyone except Constantine, including the Emperor’s wife and daughter. After a brawl at a second banquet, the love-stricken princess plots with her nurse Herlint how to see Dieterich. Herlint carries messages, and at last Dieterich makes two pairs of shoes, one silver and one gold, and sends both left shoes to the princess. When she sends for the right shoes, he refuses unless he can deliver them in person. The two meet at last in her chamber, and he puts her leg in his lap as he puts the shoes on [this was an old betrothal rite]. The princess is quite pleased at thus being tricked into engagement, especially when she learns that Dieterich is really Rother.

She tells her father that she wishes to do penance by serving the imprisoned ambassadors. He lets them out of prison for her to feed and clothe, and Dieterich offers himself as pledge for their return to prison. He reveals himself to them by his harping, and they dig a secret tunnel to the prison, to bring food in, and men out. Meanwhile, King Ymelot, the sultan of Babylon [Cairo], invades. Dieterich and his men ride out with Constantine. As the armies sleep in their camps before the battle Dieterich and the giants sneak into the enemy camp and kidnap Ymelot, and bring him before Constantine. They then ride as messengers to Constantinople, where they pretend that all is lost, and that the princess must board their boat and flee with them. Once all Rother’s men are aboard, he reveals his deception, and sails away. The Queen laughs, and returns home to await her husband.

Amalgar is dead, but Rother quickly restores order, weds his dear, and gets her with child. Constantine is furious when he gets home, and in the resulting uproar, Ymelot escapes. The Emperor hires a merchant to steal his daughter back. He sails to Italy, and pretends to have a magic stone which, if held by a queen on a boat, will cure any cripple she touches with it. A cripple is found, and the good-hearted queen goes to try the cure. (Rother is away in Germany on business). She is kidnapped. Rother returns home at the news, pardons the knights who were supposed to guard her, and summons his men. They arrive, incognito, in, just in time for a pre-wedding feast, for Ymelot has returned, and forced Constantine to give his daughter to his son Basilistium. They slip into the feast and crawl under the table, where Rother puts his ring on his bride’s finger. Basilistium notices the new ring, and sounds the alert. Rother reveals himself, and is sentenced to be hanged. His last request is to choose the place of his execution, and he chooses a place where his men are waiting in ambush. The pagans are routed, and Constantine is forgiven. Rother and his wife return home, where she gives birth to Pippin, who grows up to marry Bertha, and begets Charlemagne and Saint Gertrude. Rother reigns long and well, and at last retires to a monastery, leaving the empire to Pippin.

THE SOURCES OF THE LEGEND

Bride-stealings are a dime a dozen in folklore, and no specific source need be sought for this poem. It features perhaps the most positive portrayal of giants in medieval romance. Very rarely is any giant represented as Christian, brave, and intelligent. A whole country of such giants, as in this poem, is a marvel indeed.

The real Saint Gertrude of Nivelles (626-659) was the daughter of Pippin of Landen (580-640), who was Mayor of the Palace under Dagobert I and Sigebert III, and was the founder of the Carolingian line. Saint Gertrude is depicted with mice and rats at her feet, for reasons no one knows. Some say it is because mice were symbols of the soul in German paganism, and Saint Gertrude guides souls to Heaven. Others say it is because she is invoked against mice, rats, and other vermin. Still others say it is because she was so absorbed in prayer once that a mouse crawled all over her without her noticing. Her feast day is March 17. For more details, see The Catholic Encyclopedia, and Sabine Baring-Gould’s Lives of the Saints and Curious Myths of the Middle Ages.

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