Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Heroes in Literature, Part 2: Ogier the Dane

Ogier the Dane (French: Ogier le Danois or Ogier de Danemarche; Danish: Holger Danske) was a widely known and exceptionally popular hero both during the medieval period and later. He was known for being one of Charlemagne's finest knights. The legendary character first appeared in The Song of Roland (c.1100), and is the central hero in La Chevalerie d'Ogier de Danemarche (c.1200). La Chevalerie is a chanson de geste (Old French epic) that details the tale of Ogier the Dane. The form that has survived to the present day was likely composed around 1200 by the poet Raimbert de Paris.

La Chevalerie d'Ogier de Danemarche
According to the poem, Ogier was the son of the Duke of Denmark and a hostage at Charlemagne's court in his youth. His father had neglected his duties to Charlemagne, and as a result Ogier was imprisoned in the fortress of Saint-Omer. Here Ogier met and fell in love with the mother of his son, Baudouinet. Ogier was later knighted for his heroic deeds in a battle against the Saracens to defend Rome. There are several accounts of Ogier's heroism after this, including the tales of how he won his sword (Courtain) and steed (Broiefort).

The story then jumps forward to tell of events concerning his now grown up son Baudouinet. In a pivotal part of the poem, Ogier's son plays chess with Charlemagne's son (Charlot) and wins. Charlot was obviously a pretty sore loser; he became so angry that he struck at Charlot with the chessboard and killed him. Ogier then tried to kill Charlot in an attempt to avenge his son, which resulted in Charlemagne banishing him. 

After a series of other dramatic events (including Ogier's second attempt on Charlot's life) it happened that the Franks had to go to war against a pagan enemy which only Ogier could defeat. When Charlemagne requested his help, Ogier agreed but only on the condition that he was granted permission to murder Charlot beforehand; Charlemagne had to accept in order to save his kingdom. However, when this moment arose God sent a divine message via St. Michael. Ogier was told he must be content with simply giving Charlot a box on the ears! Because of this Ogier was able to turn his unused strength and might on the enemy. During the battle he reportedly killed a giant in single combat, and rescued the daughter of the King of England. The story ends with Ogier's marriage to her.

12C tomb of Ogier and his comrade at the hero's apparent resting place in Meaux, also featuring figures from Carolingian epic (including favourites Bishop Turpin, Roland and Olivier)
Beyond the Epic
Wall painting of Ogier in a church in Denmark
Due to Ogier's popularity, the Chevalerie version of the story was extended with other adventures, such as Roman d'Ogier en alexandrins, c.1335. Another version of the tale of his youth (Les enfances Ogier) was recorded c.1275 by Adenet le Roi and presented to the Queen of France. The story was also published in late fifteenth century Paris, and reissued many times throughout the sixteenth century. However, Ogier's popularity was not restricted to France. He was well known all over Europe, in particular Northern Europe. His story was included in the thirteenth century Old Norse collection of Carolingian narratives, known as the Karlamagnús saga. It is likely that the translation of this was the cause of Ogier's growth in popularity in Sweden and Denmark. He was even featured in two church murals which can be dated to around this time.  A Danish version of his tale was printed in 1534, titled Kong Olger Danskes Krønike. 

Statue at Kronborg Castle, Denmark
By the nineteenth century the hero had become a national symbol of the Danish people. A new version of his story was recounted in the famous fairytale Holger Danske by Hans Christian Anderson (1845). A large statue of Ogier now sits at Kronborg Castle in Denmark.This is to fit with the Danish legend that in a time of great need when the kingdom is threatened by a foreign enemy, Ogier will rise from his sleep and save his country.

  • Willem P. Gerritsen and Anthony G. van Melle (eds.), A Dictionary of Medieval Heroes (The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, 2002), see pp. 186-8 for the section on Ogier the Dane.
  • Kronborg Castle website