12/03/2012 04:27 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2013

An Unknown Hero Named Dietrich

"What's in a name?" Juliet tells Romeo, insisting their differing surnames should not forbid their love. "That which we call a rose would by any other name smell as sweet."

True, but names are powerful in helping define who we are. Now, just in time for the movie of The Hobbit, I've discovered -- much to my surprise -- a legendary and heroic Dietrich who lent fuel to Tolkien's tale and many others.

I'm not talking about Marlene Dietrich, the actress, nor Nazi Josef "Sepp" Dietrich, a notorious SS general in World War II, nor anti-Nazi pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I mean "legendary" literally: Dietrich of Bern, the German King Arthur.

Never heard of him? I hadn't either until a few years ago, but have been gathering information about him since.

Ironically, his capital was Verona, Italy, the town of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers. The "Bern" was not the present-day Swiss city, but rather the Middle High German name for Verona.

Dietrich is a fairly common German name, but a rarer American one. One Internet site lists it as 2,112th most common surname in America: unusual, but not novel or exotic.

So far as I know, my own relatives and ancestors are not particularly prestigious or notorious. There was certainly no family crest, fortune, or castle to get excited about when I was growing up.

I was surprised, then, to learn that Dietrich von Bern was one of the great heroes of medieval legend. Facets of his adventures filtered down and can be seen as inspirations for such works as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, or Wagner's ring opera. Giants, dwarves, dragons, magic armor, invisibility cloaks, a mermaid, damsels in distress: this Dietrich guy got there first.

There are at least four major historical poems in which Dietrich is a fictionalized version of Theodoric the Great, King of the Visigoths, who lived from 454-526 A.D. Dietrich is a Middle High German equivalent of Theodoric, meaning "ruler of the people."

There is a statue of Dietrich of Bern in the nearby Alpine Italian town of Bolzano. I saw Otzi there, the frozen prehistoric man found in a glacier, but missed the statue of my namesake. I had no idea there was one to look for.

Even though Theodoric was born just after the death of Attila the Hun, in the legend Dietrich of Bern goes into exile to Attila's court, with Attila called Etzel in the stories. I didn't know that when working on The Scourge of God, my novel about Attila's invasion of Western Europe.

Dietrich's nemesis, Ermenrich, takes the place of Theodoric's historic rival, Odoacer.

Dietrich also shows up in at least a dozen medieval fantasy poems and as a supporting character in poems such as the Nibelungenlied, the ring cycle.

Like King Arthur, Dietrich is a king and not just a knight, has knightly companions who both save and betray him, and has both worldly and supernatural adventures.

If it sounds odd to have a German hero based in Verona, the legends originate from the time German tribes overran the Western Roman Empire and became entangled in the politics of Byzantium. The Germans poured down from the north to rule Italy, Spain, and much of North Africa. Theodoric's capital was Ravenna, Italy.

Lore about this period filtered back north in the medieval period, with Dietrich stories reaching Scandinavia as well as Germany.

One of the earliest mentions of Dietrich that survives is the Rok rune stone carved in Sweden in the 9th Century. I didn't know this when writing about another rune stone, Minnesota's Kensington, in my Ethan Gage novel, The Dakota Cipher.

In the historical poems, Dietrich wins an early battle over Ermenrich but his knights are later ambushed and captured. Dietrich saves them by agreeing to go into exile with Etzel/Attila. (Theodoric went into exile at the Byzantine court.) Dietrich then wins Etzel's support and returns after 32 years to conquer all and get the girl.

Turning history into oral legend in those days was like a game of telephone. The original facts became more and more garbled. Villains like Attila turn into good guys.

The fantasy legends are even more fun. In one, Prince Dietrich runs afoul of giants. Our hero manages to capture the dwarf Alberich, who promises to steal a sword he forged for the giants if the prince will set him free. The sword Naglering is duly delivered and Dietrich uses it to defeat his foes in bloody combat.

He often declines to fight, is called a coward, and then has to hack his opponents to pieces to keep his good name. It's a tough world out there.

In another tale, Dietrich is cast into a cavern dungeon and his buddy knight, Hildebrand, rescues him. Dietrich's knights then proceed to slaughter the dwarves in an underground city that likely inspired Tolkien. They loot its treasure.

Dietrich had a great red shield with a picture of a golden lion, and a golden helmet. He has to deal in various tales with invincible armor, dragons, a mermaid, and so on, while vying for princesses like Seburg, fairest of all maidens.

In another legend he penetrates a magic rose garden maintained by Laurin, King of the Dwarfs, who has a Cloak of Obscurity. Sound familiar?

In still another he wins a bride named Virginal.

As a writer, I'm fascinated by the German medieval world as portrayed by Donald Mackenzie in his 1912 book Teutonic Myth and Legend. There are no commoners in these stories. Women are objects of romantic desire, but not characters in their own right. The weapons have names. The natural world is enchanted. The male relationships oscillate between intense loyalty and rank betrayal. Life is brutish, nasty, and short -- but intensely heroic, in which honor means more than position or money.

Many of these conventions have influenced modern fantasy literature and games. Some modern authors deliberately stand them on their head.

Why isn't Dietrich of Bern better known? He's a German hero, not an English and French one like Arthur, and hasn't had a Sir Thomas Mallory, Tennyson, and T.H. White to make him a staple of English literature. His end is ambiguous; he leaps on a black steed in pursuit of a stag. The horse may represent the devil. He disappears.

Dietrich of Bern deserves an update and better story arc, not to mention a Disney option and sexier girlfriend names. (Seburg? Virginal?)

It's on my to-do list.