Attila. Bronze medal after an antique original.
Reading Mary Stewart’s historical novel The Crystal Cave, introduced me to the idea of building a completely believable world on the foundations of history, legend and myth. For me, her Merlin became the Merlin and her Britain the Britain. As I now craft my own tales from similar material, I try to reach that same level of believability.
Stewart placed her stories against the background of the Arthurian history of Britain in the Dark Ages. I am working with the Völsunga Saga. These two sources share a common historical theme -- the battles between migrating tribes of barbarians and the Late Roman Empire. In Stewart’s world, the Romanized Britons fight the Saxons. In the world of the Saga, the invading Germanic Tribes fight for their places in the empire.
The history is similar but the word “historical” can be misleading. Long after I first read Stewart, I learned that the British chroniclers of the era made little if no mention of Arthur and the legends of Camelot were not recorded until several hundred years later. In the same way, the Saga material is also only loosely connected with the records of its time. I suspect that the stories of the British Arthur, the Germanic Gundahar, and the Hunnish Attila all followed the same path from the actual event to the stories told about the event in gossip, legend, epic, and fiction.
A British leader bearins some form of the name Arthur could well have fought the invading Saxons. Slightly more than a century earlier, Gundahar, the leader of a Germanic tribe known as the Burgundians, established his people on the Roman side of the Rhine River. He acquired this territory by supporting the local would-be emperor. A Roman general loyal to the legitimate emperor hired an army of Hunnish mercenaries to fight the Burgundians and Gundahar lost his life in the subsequent battle.
Attila, the most famous of the Huns, took no part in that battle. His formidable army did not enter the empire until some years later when he swept through Roman Gaul into Italy where he was defeated. During his retreat, he took a bride but suffered a nosebleed and drowned in his own blood on his wedding night. That has got to be one of the most unexpected and dramatic deaths in all of history! Apparently Attila was in a drunken stupor at the time.
The separate fates of Gundahar and Attila were recorded in the chronicles of the time. The information is also compiled by later Roman historians who drew from those chronicles. Those historians and chroniclers shaped the material to fit their needs. One chronicler, writing eighty years after the death, reported that Attila had been stabbed to death by his bride whose name, Ildico, indicates that she might have been Germanic.
Historians and chroniclers were not alone in reporting and repeating the stories of what happened. Somebody shaped the set of Arthurian legends that finally appears in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth. Somebody turned Gundhar’s death in battle into the scene in the Völsunga Saga where Gunnar lies in the snake pit, charming the serpents by playing his lyre with his toes. He died when the instrument broke, the music ended, and the snakes woke up.
Somebody crafted Attila's rather unusual death into his murder at the hands of his wife, Gunnar's vengeful sister Guðrún.
All these stories probably grew in the hands of the wandering merchants who carried gossip from place to place, the storytellers, and the praise-poets, the crafters of tales told to and about kings. Everybody from earliest chronicler to historical fiction to storyteller is doing the same work – taking what seems to have happened and shaping it into a believable compelling world. That is the work I saw when I read Mary Stewart’s book. That is the work I try to do.