|Frau Hadwig and Ekkehard in the Chapel, by Liezen-Mayer|
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|a beautiful cover; not one of the editions I read|
Ekkehard: A Tale of the Tenth Century by Herman Scheffel excited me more than any book I have read in a long time, and that is quite a feat for a nineteenth century German romance featuring all tension and no sex. Reading this book felt like stepping through a portal into a journey through tenth century Germany. It was not easy to read this book; I was only able to find the whole story translated into English through two orphaned volumes from two different libraries, each with a different translator. I read some of the text of a third English translation through Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org), but the site is currently down, and I have had to return the two orphaned volumes to the distant libraries that generously allowed me to borrow their antiques. My review is written entirely from my memory of these pieced-together fragments; luckily, the story has left bold marks in my mind.
This meticulously researched work of historical fiction breathes new life into the legendary (and true historical) figures of Hadwig, ruling Duchess of Suabia, and her Latin tutor, Ekkehard II, a young monk from a monastery within her realm.
The book opens upon a scene of epic beauty, set among southern Germany’s vast lakes and rugged mountains. Duchess Hadwig, irritable with boredom even in this glorious landscape, decides to visit the monastery where a relative of hers serves as abbot. When she arrives, however, the abbot refuses her entry, citing the monastery’s rule that a woman’s feet shall not touch the threshold.
Hadwig and the abbot enter a lengthy debate about whether her authority or the monastery’s rules take precedence, and a young, handsome, gifted monk called Ekkehard jokes that the rule would not be broken if someone simply carried the duchess over the threshold.
The abbot thinks seriously about the joke, because he is genuinely torn about whether or not to allow the duchess, who is his blood relative, his financial benefactor, and his governing authority (as well as a forbidden female), to come inside. He calls Ekkehard’s bluff and orders him to carry the duchess over the threshold himself.
The young monk is surprised but compliant, and fortunately, the supremely dominant duchess has a wicked sense of humor. Delighted with the joke, she allows Ekkehard to carry her inside, and as he does, both of the playful—yet extremely repressed—young people look into each other’s eyes and experience a powerful attraction that neither will admit to themselves, out of devotion to their celibate roles—as monk and as widow whose position and power depend upon her faithfulness to her late husband’s memory.
The folly of confidence in their own commitments to their respective vows seems to allow both Hadwig and Ekkehard to engage in flirtatious banter during the length of her visit. Ekkehard reveals to Hadwig that he is a Latin scholar, and his fervent passion for the “pagan” language and its classics ignites a powerful desire in the intellectual duchess. As she leaves the monastery to return home, she refuses the abbot’s traditional gift of a precious artifact and tells him instead to send Ekkehard to her castle, the Hohentwiel, to teach her Latin with the text of Virgil’s Aeneid.
Ekkehard submits to the abbot’s command with full obedience (which Scheffel, in one of his many clever asides on human character, ascribes to the fact that Ekkehard’s unspoken desire is in full agreement with the order).
While Ekkehard is excited to go out and see the world and become a person of importance, he has a touching moment of hesitation as he visits the monastery’s library to take out a copy of the Aeneid. He looks around himself at the many books and scrolls written in the handwriting of his dearest friends, some of them dead, and is moved by a sense of saying goodbye to these departed souls in a more final way than ever before.
Along the journey to the Hohentwiel, Ekkehard makes both enemies and friends with his earnest, eager, and often superior, presumptuous manner. He encounters a series of characters, mostly fellow clergymen, who act and speak and appear with such vivacity and strategic detail that each one seems vaguely familiar, like a person one might know in real life.
One of my favorites is Brother Moengal, a rural parish priest and sportsman, whose unapologetic mixing of Christian devotion and worship of the earth and the hunt leaves an uncomfortable but lasting impression on bookish, conservative Ekkehard.
As Ekkehard approaches the mountain on which the Hohentwiel looms, he is suddenly accosted by men in armor, who rush down the mountainside at him, bind and blindfold him, throw him into a litter, and race away with him trapped inside. When they finally release Ekkehard from his bondage and mortal terror, he finds himself at the feet of the laughing duchess, who explains that she wanted to welcome him into her home the same way he welcomed her to his—by having him carried across the threshold.
Thus begins their relationship, with a playful competition of asserting dominance, which poor Ekkehard soon gives up all hope of winning. His desperation climaxes in a scene of dangerous emotional exposure within the darkness of the chapel where Hadwig’s late husband is interred. There was an illustration of this lustily reckless moment in one of the volumes I borrowed from a library (according to its list of plates), but it had apparently been torn out of the book sometime before I was born, adding to the tantalization of my reading experience.
Leading up to this climactic disaster, Ekkehard loses himself in the pleasure of teaching his favorite subject, Virgil, and of learning Greek from the Duchess’s charming slave and confidante, the spunky and sharp-witted Praxedis. The pretty young girl adds to the tension between Ekkehard and the Duchess as she slyly encourages and teases the pair, with a heart full of bravery and love for them both. Her character echoes the type of clever, good-hearted, and extremely valuable slave woman exemplified by Morgiana in the Arabian Nights, but Praxedis, like most of the Scheffel’s characters, is bursting with the nuances and energies of a real, complete person.
While Praxedis delights with her bold sass and merriment, I found myself laughing out loud at the duchess’s dry commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid and Ekkehard’s bewildered offense at her reactions. Hadwig makes no attempt to hide her disgust at Virgil’s depiction of Queen Dido and asserts that clearly, the text was written by a man who did not know women. Her evisceration of Dido’s story and characterization are so sharp, intelligent, and pitch-perfect that I momentarily forgot that Hadwig’s every thought and word were created by the hand of a nineteenth century old gentleman. I was impressed with Scheffel’s cutting insight into the experiences of women and the common misunderstandings of them by (forgivably inexperienced) men such as Ekkehard.
After several months of language lessons, the sexual and emotional tension that brews slowly between the two main characters is placed under intense pressure by the physical threat of “Huns” who race upon the scene, attacking Suabia and all of its monasteries, convents, and the Hohentwiel itself.
Duchess Hadwig finds herself taking on the role of army commander while studious Ekkehard is compelled to trade his pen and cassock for a sword and chainmail.
All along the gentle rises and steep precipices of the story’s epic sweep, Scheffel spins a web of heartrending stories involving the regular people of the castle grounds and surrounding villages. The author managed to lead me to care deeply about a vast number of minor characters, such as a mentally challenged monk, a reformed marauder, the blood-chilling Woman of the Wood, and a pair of innocent children whose imaginations carry the force of hallucinogenic magic. The spell-binding tales of these lively characters are peppered with Scheffel’s dry comments on certain facts of human experience, such as the way fools seem to stagger blindly around dangers that intelligent people are likely to fall into, and the importance of never underestimating the power of a child’s beliefs.
This book, while meticulously researched, appears to be the work of a man who had a deep and intimate knowledge of life, nature, and the human heart. Just as clear, to my joyous discovery, was Scheffel’s love of oral history, as evidenced by his inclusion of folksong lyrics, an entire chapter devoted to a pre-Christian, Germanic folktale-telling contest (as an amateur folklorist, I felt like I had struck a vein of raw gold there) and the full text of the real Ekkehard’s real contribution to German literature, the Waltharilied. Squee!
Ekkehard is a treasure chest filled with such glorious artistry and gripping entertainment that I am surprised it has fallen into relative obscurity since its publication not much more than a hundred years ago.
My one major complaint about the book is its inexplicably flat, incorrect, and unimaginative description of the “Huns” who invade Hadwig’s domain. Scheffel seems to have done a great deal of historical research and made every attempt to fully humanize each German, Irish, Belgian, Italian, or other Western European character, no matter how good or evil. It is mentioned in the book that the word “Hun” is being used as an abbreviation for “Hungarian,” and it is true that Hungary did attack Germany during this time period. However, with the jarring exception of a few joiners from other cultures, these “Huns” are described as racially distinct from the Suabians (which the Hungarians of the time were not), all looking “alike,” and described uncomfortably as racist caricatures of Far East Asians. I was reminded of Mickey Rooney’s racist “yellowface” character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which marred an otherwise enjoyable film with a completely unnecessary, totally embarrassing, racist throwaway gag. I was disappointed that not only did Scheffel take the lazy route of tacking an ugly, racist myth into the otherwise beautiful tapestry of his story, but he missed the opportunity of using his already-demonstrated literary skill to explore the far more interesting and nuanced realities of these wartime conflicts and the people who engaged in them.
With the caveat of this book’s great flaw regarding the “Huns,” I would recommend this book to anyone interested in historical romance, medieval history, German culture, or classic literature. It is the sort of work that appeals across gender lines and personality types, mixing raucous adventure with tender emotion, intellectual gymnastics with raw description, lovely prose with heart-stopping action, and deep insight with surprising humor.
It is a must-read for anyone enthralled with medieval, ancient, or courtly tales who is looking for an entertainment experience that, for the most part and despite its age, serves up a fresher and richer banquet than most dusty, canned storylines based in centuries past.