The saga starts with Dietrich's grandfather Samson, the first king in his family.
Chapters 1 to 20 are missing in the 13th-century Membrame manuscript and are taken from the much later Icelandic A and B manuscripts.
Here the saga starts with a knight born in the town of Salerni. A powerful jarl named Rodger ruled there with his brother Brunstein. The jarl had a daughter named Hildeswid, and the jarl and all men in the town loved her very much,
A knight was named Samson, who served the jarl well, and he was honoured as he deserved. Knight Samson loved Hildeswid and wanted to win her favour, whether with good or with evil.
One day the jarl was at dinner and Samson served him. Then the jarl sent the best dishes from his table to his daughter Hildeswid on silver platters, and Samson took them to Hildeswid's castle together with his squire. Then he told his squire: Go and take my horse and arms, and all my treasure, and stand ready with them until I come.
Now Samson asked the one who guarded the door to let him in, and the man did so. Then Samson went into the castle to the highest tower, where Hildeswid had dinner. And he greeted her, and they received him well and invited him to dine with them. He did so and then told them why he came
And shortly after, when dinner was done, she took her jewelry and said to her companions
Then Samson took the jarl's daughter in his arms and carried her from the castle, but all the women stayed behind weeping. And when he came to the court
Taking a woman from her father without his consent but with hers, also called elopement, was a form of marriage in the Middle Ages, though the details are unclear. The saga calls Hildeswid Samson's wife immediately, and the same happens when Walther elopes with Hildegund
This particular elopement leads to a feud, though, which goes on for years. Finally Samson kills first Rodger, then his brother Brunstein. When he is reinforced by his uncle Dietmar he starts to take towns in the area.
It’s interesting to see that in all cases of towns surrendering the leading citizens and/or the full citizenry comes together and decides on the matter in an assembly. It is unclear at which time this was a custom, in the 5th century or the 13th century or anywhere in between, or that it’s maybe an invention of the saga writer (but if the writer did so, why did he invent a custom that went against aristocratic prerogatives?)
Soon after duke Samson rode with five knights and a large retinue to another town that was richer and more populated. He sent men to tell the inhabitants to either surrender or defend themselves.
When the inhabitants heard this they held a meeting
And when duke Samson rode into the town all gates were opened, and he rode in with his entire army. And a general meeting
Then Rodger's capital Salerni also surrenders and Samson is declared king, or, as the saga puts it, given the king's name.
After that we hear about his sons: Ermenrik, Dietrich's evil uncle, who will play a major part in the saga, and Dietmar, Dietrich's father. A third son, Ake, is mentioned later. Even later it turns out Samson also has a daughter whose son is Walther of Waskastein
It’s fairly safe to assume that all these kings were polygamous. They might have a queen, i.e. a primary wife, as Hildeswid is for Samson, but children by other wives were also legal heirs, as Dietmar’s example shows. Ake’s relatively low status — he becomes duke instead of king — is likely caused by his mother’s family’s low social status, and not by the status of her relationship with Samson.
In fact, king Haakon IV of Norway, the saga writer’s patron, was of not-quite-legal birth similar to Dietmar’s, so it did not behoove the saga to dwell too much on accidents of birth.
Then it is said that king Samson and his wife Hildeswid got a son named Ermenrik. When the boy grew up he became strong, and Samson loved him very much. King Samson extended his realm and subjected many western lands and other places.
Now king Samson got another son from another wife
King Samson was already an old man, and Ermenrik his son mature, but Dietmar was fifteen
When young Dietmar heard this he went to his father and said: "Now you have given your son a kingdom and large realm, but I, too, have been in your following, and we have always been equal in everything, so now you should give me more power or a higher name
King Samson heard this speech and did not reply, but looked at him in anger, and Dietmar thought he had spoken too rashly. And when he didn't get a reply he went back to his room.
Samson writes an insolent letter to jarl Elsung of Bern, demanding among other things his daughter for Dietmar, and sixty hunting dogs, the best of which should wear a golden collar and whose leash should be made from jarl Elsung's beard. War ensues and Samson is victorious one more time. Bern also surrenders.
This is one of the few letters being written in the saga. Usually communication goes via messengers.
Now king Samson ordered a great feast in Bern, and here Odilia, jarl Elsung's daughter, was married to Dietmar, and Samson gave him the king's name and Bern and all the lands jarl Elsung had held. And the town called Fritila, which the Northmen call Friðsæla he gave to his son Ake, called Harlungentrost, and with it the name of duke
Then Ermenrik went south to Rome with his father king Samson, and on this journey Samson died. Ermenrik took his entire realm and then fought against Rome, and had several battles with the men of Rome and did many heroic deeds and conquered the best part of the territory of Rome and many other strong towns until even in Puli. He also conquered the larger part of the realm on the Greek sea
According to Ritter the Rome of the saga is Trier, also called Roma Secunda because in the 4th century it was an imperial capital. This chapter also implies Ermenrik did not conquer Rome immediately, and we later learn
Now that we have heard about his family Dietrich himself appears.
Now king Dietmar ruled over Bern, and he and his wife Odilia had a son named Dietrich. And he was large and strong, but not so long that he was called a giant, and as long as he lived he never grew a beard. And all who had known king Samson said that Dietrich resembled him very much.King Dietmar knighted Dietrich when he was fifteen winters
Throughout the first part of the saga heroes find their way to Bern to serve first Dietmar, and later Dietrich. The first of them is Hildebrand, who serves as Dietrich's foster and teacher and remains his follower until his death, which occurs very late in the saga. With him Dietrich has his first adventure.
Now it is said that Dietrich and Hildebrand rode forth from Bern with their hawks and dogs to the forest to enjoy themselves. They let the hawks fly and loosed the dogs. And when Dietrich followed a hawk he saw a dwarf walking. Dietrich spurred his horse and pursued the dwarf, and before he could come to his cave Dietrich took him by the neck and took him with him in the saddle, and this was the dwarf Alberich the famous thief from whom old sagas speak
The dwarf spoke: Lord, if I can buy my life with it, I'll show you where so much gold, silver and jewelry are that even the rich king Dietmar, your father, doesn't have such amounts. And this treasure is with two people, a woman called Hilda, and her husband is Grim, who is as strong as twelve men, but his wife is even stronger, and they are cruel and evil. He also has a sword called Nagelring, and it is the best of all swords. But you can only defeat them if you first take the sword. And it would be a greater heroic deed of you two to conquer this treasure than to take me with my small body and weak legs.
Dietrich said: I will never free you unless you give me Nagelring in my hand today, and even then you will show us where this treasure is. The dwarf agreed and swore the oath Dietrich required. Dietrich freed him, and he and Hildebrand hunted birds and animals the entire day until the ninth hour
Dietrich and Hildebrand dismounted, tethered their horses, and then Dietrich drew Nagelring, and both felt they had never seen a better sword.
Then they entered the gap and found the earth-house. Then they bound their helmets tight, donned their armour, and took their shields. Now Dietrich courageously went into the earthen-house, and Hildebrand close behind him. And when the giant Grim saw a strange man had entered his house he jumped to his weapon rack, but saw his sword was missing, and he understood that the dwarf Alberich, the famous thief, must have stole it. From the fire he took a burning tree and attacked Dietrich.
But Hilda took Hildebrand by the neck so tightly he could not move, and Hildebrand fell to the ground and Hilda on top of him. She wanted to bind him, and pressed his arms so hard that blood sprang from his nails, and so tightly she pressed her knees against his breast that he fell unconscious. Then Hildebrand called
I'll help you, Dietrich called, because I will not suffer my foster father to be brought into mortal danger by a woman. And with one stroke Dietrich beheaded Grim, and sprang to where his tutor lay, and cut Hilda in two. But she was so magical
And a third time Dietrich clove her in two, and stood with both feet between the parts, and her lower part was dead, but her upper part said: I would want that Grim had taken Dietrich as I have taken Hildebrand, then we would have won. And now both pieces fell apart.
Hildebrand sprang up and said: You have given me as much help as possible, and God thanks you for it. Then they took the gold and silver and jewelry, and they saw the dwarf had not lied. Under the treasure Dietrich found a helmet, and the dwarf Alberich had told Dietrich the following about it
Now Dietrich and Hildebrand took so much treasure as their horses could carry, and buried what was left. Then they went home, and Dietrich became famous in all lands because of this heroic deed.
This adventure is rather magical in nature, but it is worth pointing out two things. First, it is just about the only Dietrich story with strong magical elements, and second, if this story circulated within Dietrich's lifetime its source can only be Dietrich himself, who didn’t mind making himself a bit more heroic by giving his opponents magical powers.
The next hero to arrive is Heime, and he is the first young hotshot who wants to measure himself against Dietrich.
One day when Heime had taken his horse and his sword Blutgang he stood before his father and told him he didn't want to stay in this forest but ride forth, and meet famous men and win fame himself. And Studa asked where he wanted to go.
Heime replied that he wanted to go southwards to the town called Bern, there is a famous man there called Dietrich, and I want to find out if he or I is stronger with weapons. Studa said that wise men had told him of Dietrich, and that is was madness for Heime to measure himself against him, and that he should ride elsewhere. Heime angrily said he wanted to be a greater man than Dietrich or be killed quickly. Now I am sixteen
Angry as he was he jumped on his horse Rispa and rode away, along a long unknown road, and he didn't stop until he came to Bern, and rode into the town to the king's hall. He asked a man to hold his horse and spear, and went into the hall to the king's throne, greeted him, and , in the eyes of all who were there, came before Dietrich and said: Lord Dietrich, much have I heard from you, and a long way I have gone to see you, and I challenge you to a duel today outside of Bern, then we will find out who the stronger man is.
Dietrich thought this man was bold to speak these words, because no one had challenged him to a duel yet. But he did not hesitate and had confidence that this man would get what he deserved. He sprang up and left the hall, and Hildebrand and several other men with him, and had his weapons fetched. They brought him his armour and his red shield with a golden lion, and his helm Hildegrim, and his sword Nagelring, and his horse, which was saddled, and they gave him his spear, and Hildebrand held his stirrup for him when he mounted.
Then Dietrich rode from Bern, and with him Hildebrand his foster and several other men, and they went to where Heime awaited Dietrich. And they rode against one another with their spears, but neither of them hit the other's shield, and the horses ran past one another. They turned their horses and tried again, but the same happened. On the third try Heime hit Dietrich's shield and through his armour, but didn't wound him, but Dietrich stabbed his spear through Heime's shield and armour and wounded him slightly. And so powerfully rode Dietrich that his stallion almost sank to its hind legs and Dietrich's feet briefly touched the ground. Both spears broke.
Both dismounted and drew their swords and fought. Heime landed a big blow with his sword Blutgang on Dietrich's helmet Hildegrim, but the sword sprang in two pieces. Since he was now defenceless he surrendered to Dietrich. And Dietrich did not want to kill him and took him among his men, and from now on the two were the best friends. And Dietrich had increased his fame by yet another heroic deed.
This form of dueling will be repeated many times over in the saga: the two combatants first ride against one another with their spears but nothing much happens, then they dismount and decide their combat on foot with the sword.
If, as Ritter says, the saga depicts historical facts from the 5th or 6th century it is important to realise that in those days the stirrup was not yet invented, or had not yet come to Europe, so that a lance fight in high medieval style was not yet possible.
The saga was compiled to bring Norway’s nobility in line with the rest of Europe, and a knightly fight by lance was part and parcel of that. Thus it is possible the saga writer inserted lance fights everywhere, even if they were absent from his sources. This is unprovable, but it is suggestive that in all of the 441 chapters no fight is decided by lancing; the combatants always end their fight on foot, usually with the sword, occasionally with the spear.
Heime does one more thing for Dietrich, as the saga tells us much later.
Heime the Proud was a great warrior. After his duel with king Dietrich
Then Heime rode home to his father Studa and took from his stud farm a filly, three winters old, named Falke. And this stallion he gave to king Dietrich, and king Dietrich rewarded him many times over.
Falke, incidentally, is a brother to Heime’s horse Rispa
Now Dietrich has acquired two heroes: Hildebrand and Heime, as well as his helmet Hildegrim, his horse Falke, and his first sword Nagelring.
The next chapter is Wieland the Smith. Why and how Wieland the Smith forges Mimung.