Thursday, March 5, 2020

Herburt and Hild (Feminist Folktales 10.)

Another Thursday, another post for Feminist Folktales! It's a series of traditional stories from around the world that display motifs that reflect feminist values. I am not changing any of the stories, merely researching and compiling them, and posting them here as food for thought. You can find the list of posts here.

Origin: German, from an Old Norse source

The story

Count Herthegh has three sons. The youngest, Tristram, accidentally kills his middle brother in a duel, and flees from home. The father blames the eldest son, Herburt, for not keeping his siblings out of trouble, and chases him away. Herburt goes to the court of his uncle, King Thidrek (Dietrich, Theodoric the Great), and becomes a knight. He serves his uncle so valiantly than when Thidrek decides to marry King Arthur's daughter, Hild, he sends Herburt do deliver his proposal.
Herburt goes to King Arthur's court where he distinguishes himself as a knight, but can't get near the princess. By law no one can lay eyes on her. Eventually one day when she goes to church he finds a way to catch her gaze (he sets a bunch of mice free inside the church), they exchange smiles, and even a few words in secret. Hild soon asks her father to give Herburt ho her as a personal servant. Herburt now has a chance to deliver Thidrek's proposal, as he spends time with the princess every day. They talk, they get to know each other, and Hild asks a lot of questions about Thidrek (Herburt even draws his face for her). She decides she doesn't want to marry the king - she is in love with Herburt, and he with her.
The lovers decide to run away together. Arthur soon notices the escape and sends soldiers to bring back Hild and kill Herburt. The lovers decide their only chance is for Hild to not be a maiden anymore, so they jump into some bushes and do the deed. By the time the soldiers catch up, she has lost her virginity, and thus by custom belongs to Herburt. Herburt fights and kills anyone who objects, and the lovers flee to another kingdom, where they marry and live happily ever after.

What makes it a feminist story?

I picked this story for the series because it is such a beautiful counterpart to Tristan and Iseult. T&I's tragedy is started by a love potion, and the devastating ending is the result of the tension between love and honor: Tristan loves Iseult, but he owes his loyalty to his uncle King Mark of Cornwall, so he hands over the lady out of honor.
Herburt's story also features a Tristram, but he is a violent and dumb fellow. Herburt is the sensible eldest sibling who has to take the blame for everything. Leaving this toxic family environment behind, he finds honor and a new home at his uncle Thidrek's court... but he is not blindly loyal to him. When he first finds a way to talk to Hild, he delivers the proposal without an ulterior motive, praising Thidrek and painting him (literally) as a great king. He is not trying to seduce Hild, but they fall in love anyway. They have two choices from that point on: Herburt delivers the bride to Thidrek and keeps his honor at the expense of her living in an unhappy marriage forever - or they elope together, leaving both their honors sullied, and seek happiness elsewhere together.
In this story love conquers social pressure. Herburt does not sacrifice his own (and Hild's) happiness for his honor and status. In the end, they find a third solution: a third kingdom where they can be happy together, and where the king hold Herburt in "great honor" and his service results in "many stories of his deeds."
Hild makes an independent choice as well. She decides who she wants to spend her life with, and stands up for her choice; she doesn't become a martyr for her honor, or for Herburt's protection. She trusts him, and trusts that they can find happiness together; she gets on a horse and rides away with him, leaving her status and wealth as Arthur's daughter and Thidrek's bride in the dust. This is a bold, daring choice, but not an impulsive one. Herburt and Hild are not brought together by an accidental potion, or love at a distance: They know, love, and trust each other.
The end of the story takes a very practical turn. The lovers get down to business among the bushes, taking advantage of their time's general ideas of purity to tie their lives together. They know Thidrek would not marry a woman who has been 'spoiled' by one of his knights. This is an outdated, literally medieval way of looking at virginity, which serves as a genius loophole for our heroes. If someone values a woman as much as her virginity... well, tough luck.
What I love about this story (apart from the cute romance) is that it doesn't include any self-inflicted angst. Herburt and Hild step over social limits that stands between them and their happiness, and demonstrate how those limits are useless and arbitrary. "Honor" is subjective, and no royal pat on the head is worth a lifetime spend in an unhappy marriage.
(Thidrek, by the way, happily marries some other random princess in the end.)

Things to consider

Age limits, obviously. I'd totally tell this to teens, though.


The saga of Thidrek of Bern (Garland, 1988.)


I would love to tell this story parallel to Tristan and Iseult. Especially because I like to imagine that the Tristram in this story is the same as Tristan in the other one...

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