Notes on: Gottfried von Strassburg/Tristan
Bernhard Gaul, March 2010 - on-going

Tristan doesn’t do the honourable thing. He does the useful thing. Like Ulysses he has the enlightened view that cuts through convention to assess material needs. Like Ulysses Tristan is first of all a survivor, but unlike Ulysses he isn’t king himself – he merely works for one.

Copyright and Trial

Copyright is an invention of the 18th century. In a time when artists and intellectuals strive to become independent from their patrons a law is needed which protects what, from now on, will be called intellectual property as a sellable product on the market place. With it comes an emphasis on the novelty of intellectual products: there must be at least something in it which the creator can claim to be new and unique to be able to rightfully charge for it. At the height of the debate (Goethe, Schiller, Sturm und Drang) intellectuals claim to be geniuses who produce entire worlds solely from within themselves.

No such thing in Gottfried’s time around 1200 A.D. His approach is very much the opposite. He starts off, quite confidently identifying himself as re-teller of a known story not without some harsh criticsm of some of his predecessors - and praise for some of them who knew how to tell the story right. Still, he obviously has a new take on it.

So, the story of Tristan and Isolde, like the plot of many similar novels or epics, quite expressly isn’t an invention of Gottfried’s. It is an express re-take and as such it is also a re-examination before a court (that is the audience) of the commonly known case of Tristan and Isolde and their specific crime, that is the prolonged conducting of an adulterous affair, which is, due to Isoldes position as queen, not only a general sin and transgression against god's law but also a threat to the authority of her husband, King Marke.

What interests me here in the aspect of re-examination and trial:

  1. It is not the only interest Gottfried has. He also wants to entertain. His task: to present the audience a prolonged spectacle that guarantees its sustained interest over a period of time. (Medieval epics being composed first of all for public recital in instalments rather than private consumption as a reader).
    For that Gottfried digs up the material and re-tells it. He puts his own slant on things where he wants to, but there is not always a coherent interest at work. Some episodes just read like fillers, or fulfil certain genre needs (magic, the slaying of a dragon,…), very much like modern TV series might calculate-in romantic or action elements in a very formulaic manner to satisfy the audience or extend the running.There are other variations of interest in Gottfired's approaches. As a result there are layers of incoherence in the novel, which I am not interested to detangle entirely. But an aspect that I am interested in is that this text, much more than just being a pure projection Gottfried’s, is more like a public corpus with its own logic and strands which Gottfried engages, plays and sometimes wrestles with. Himself being more a player in that game rather than its sole master.
  • Gottfried embarks on a form of cross-examination of the case in which he writes both the parts of prosecution and defence, and the audience, if you want, playing the role of judge or jury. It is very much like a game of chess, where Gottfried wages argument against counter argument with their own intrinsic logic, which, at times, is beyond the author’s control and capable of catapulting him way beyond what he intended to discover…

The text remains unfinished, a fragment - for a reason.

Quote: prologue, sympathy for the pair

The Bold and The Beautiful

The beginning/the pilot: Riwalin is introduced as a splendid knight from Brittany who sails across the channel to spend some time at the court of the equally splendid king Marke of Cornwall. It doesn’t take long until he and Marke’s beautiful sister Blansheflour fall in love. The pace of the story is fast. Gottfried excels in describing the detailed affects of the pair as they go through the motions from first interest to uncertainty, to mutual recognition and then to despair as their hope of ever getting together is cut short by Riwalin being heavily wounded in battle: physical pain, disorientation, being “like blind” - Blansheflour tries to battle the pain of her desperation by physically battering her body - in vain.

As Riwalin is not believed to survive any longer, Blansheflour schemes to get to him: a nurse can be persuaded to let her in (after all, what harm can it do at that stage), her kisses give him vigour, they go further - Blansheflour gets pregnant, Riwalin survives. They have a few happy weeks before Riwalin gets called back on business: the mighty Morgan, who’s country Riwalin previously subdued, is back to take his revenge.

Blansheflour reveals her pregnancy to him, considering her options (in order of severity): die in childbirth (not bad), get killed by her brother (to be considered), being let live (sic!) as an outcast, having to bring up her child on her own (not an option), having disgraced the whole country (unbearable).

Riwalin kind of does the right thing: he takes Blansheflour with him (they escape at night), marries her back home in Brittany but soon leaves her a widow, having been slain in the battle against Morgan. Again the physical effect of emotions: she faints, lies in pain for four days until she dies, giving birth to a little boy. End of the pilot (Tristan’s first survival).

The dramatic set-up strongly resembles a soap opera in the way the conflict between physical desire and social respectability and indeed integration is driven to the extreme in a combination of highly unlikely circumstances and character disposition. The pace and tension keep you on edge, however, Gottfried, too, highlights real social issues and is in no way cynical or ironical about them. The quality of the narration lies in the exactness of descriptions and detailed development. Even though appealing to sentimental sensitivity is one of his core strategies in justifying social transgressions in the cause of love (quite explicitly described as a physical desire) Gottfried doesn’t just write about lofty ideas, but hard edged social drama on the go. Blansheflur’s dilemmas stem from real social infringements and his first words after mentioning Riwalin’s death reflect the social situation of all those dependent on Riwalin, now without protection.

Enter: Tristan

Right from the outset Tristan’s life (conceived in deception) depends on deception: Rual, Riwalin’s marshal, and his wife Floraete decide to bring up the child as their own. To protect him from Morgan’s persecution, they claim Blansheflur’s child has died, then Floraete pretends to have been pregnant and goes into “labour”, putting on all that is necessary to make everybody believe, that it is indeed she who had born a little boy, who they name Tristan, from “triste”: grief or sadness.

from bgxblog 20 January 2007, 16:06:18 | Bernhard Gaul

If you only know about medieval epics from what you may have been taught at school you might rightly believe that they are quite boring stuff: caricatures of idealized men going through invented feats to impress idealized women and the very idea that they could possibly want more from them than being recognized almost makes them faint - well it is not all that. In fact some of them are just full of drama, forbidden sex and betrayal and are brilliant reads - well they had to be because what they really were was the Desperate Housewives of the 13th century, properly composed like series today with a pilot that sets up the context and then episode after episode that elaborates on it. You can just imagine the agony if some unannounced visitor or unforeseen errand prevented you from catching up on the latest installment of Tristan and Isolde at court, what a nightmare.

Anyway, here are two of my favorites:

My number one epic will always be Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg. The story of Tristan and Isolde was told and re-told over the centuries and different people made differnet things out of it, but the version by Gottfried, in my eyes, is real flesh and bones, and effectively not that ideal love cr*p that it appears to be on the surface. So what is it about? Imagine the king sending off his best man to win the lovely Isolde for him because he bloody well knows he wouldn't stand a chance himself. Imagine Tristan 'wins' Isolde against all odds by being cunning and actually getting close to her (the usual I kill a dragon for you so you must fall in love with me wouldn't work on its own because Tristan - again in the name of the king - has already shown too much physical prowess by killing Isolde's invincible uncle in spectacular fashion, sending four quarters of his head into the four corners of the universe) and then guess what happens: surprise, surprise Isolde cares very little for the king but all the more for Tristan and what they do is not just sighing and writing letters, no, they have a good regular go at it, right there under the nose of the king - which plainly drives him crazy. And that's when the extended episodes start, most to the same pattern: the king tries to prove that they are at it and Tristan and Isolde outsmart him.

The other epic I want to mention is Erec by Hartman von Aue: Now there is a man who is very much the opposite of Tristan, all defined by convention, all huff and puff, but regularly tall and handsome in his youth and having all the right moves. So he wins the hand of Enite (quite literally this is what they do in these books, they win their wives at joists and the like) and off they go. However, having proven himself and being now married Erec gets lazy and some day Enite makes the mistake to say something (maybe she hinted that he was getting fat, the official version is that she was informed that the guys at court started talking) which upsets him completely, so he saddles his horse, puts on his armor and rides out to confront giants and other mythical creatures. But not only that: to prove to his wife just how upset he is by her insinuations and that it is really all for her that he is doing this, he has her riding behind him, a good distance behind him and under strict order never ever to utter a word or try to communicate with him in any other way.

So off they go but it doesn't take long until Enite is in a dilemma: because of his stupid armor with its little see slot and all the noise it makes Erec is not actually able to register the mortal enemies who, unfair as they are, regularly approach from the side. If she says nothing, as she was told, she will surely get her husband killed, but if she tells him she just gets him all upset again. Of course she tells him, he defeats the danger and of course gets mad with her and off they go again. Would you not just be dying to tune in next week again and see how poor Enite gets through all this again? And would you not just die if you missed the episode where she finally has enough and lets him run into it?

In progress...  


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