Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan (20th February)

Portrait of Gottfried von Strassburg from the Codex Manesse (f. 364r)

Next Meeting: 20th February 2019 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

Very little is known about Gottfried’s life. He died in 1210 before finishing Tristan. Along with Hartman von Aue, who translated two of the romances of Chretien de Troyes into German, and Wolfram von Eschenbach, who is best known for the Parzival, Gottfried is one of the great writers of German Arthurian romance. W. T. H Jackson writes that

[o]f all the German courtly poets, he [Gottfried] gives immeasurably the greatest evidence of formal learning – his knowledge of the classics, his skill in the formal style which some rather unwisely persist in calling rhetoric, his acquaintance with French literary, and his grasp of mystical theology and its terminology – all these stamp him as formally trained, as a magister or dominus.[1]

Later writers and Gottfried’s continuators referred to him as meister (master) – rather than hêr (sir) – which designates educational or social status. Gottfried’s occupation is uncertain: he was probably a member of the urban patriciate of Strassburg, but he could have also been a local urban or episcopal secretariat.

 

Overview

Gottfried’s Tristan ‘is the most ambitious and sophisticated treatment of the story in German’.[2] The story begins with the romance of Tristan’s parents, Rivalin and Blancheflor (King Mark’s sister). Gottfried also dedicates a large portion of the text to Tristan’s youth, including his education by his tutor Governal, his arrival at King Mark’s court, and his adventures in Ireland. The main narrative focuses on the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde.

Like many Tristan texts, Gottfried’s version is incomplete. The poem (19,416 lines) breaks off as Tristan is contemplating marriage to Isolde of the White Hands. The remainder of the plot, including Tristan’s marriage, his return to Isolde, and the deaths of Tristan and Isolde, can be reconstructed from Gottfried’s Anglo-Norman source, the Tristan of Thomas (1170-5). Two later poets, Ulrich von Türheim (1235) and Heinrich von Freiburg (1290), continued Gottfried’s narrative in Tristan; however, they used Eilhart von Oberge (1175) as their main source rather than the Tristan of Thomas.

Gottfried’s Tristan is extant in fourteen complete manuscripts (including three now lost), as well as twenty-one fragments from seventeen manuscripts. The manuscripts were produced between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, primarily in the Upper Rhineland and Central Germany.

 

Selected Extracts

In addition to the prologue, we are reading a selection of chapters from the Penguin edition of Tristan translated by A. T. Hatto.

Chapters 15 and 16

In ‘Chapter 15’, Tristan and Isolde mistakenly drink the love-potion (or liebestrank) that Queen Isolde – Isolde’s mother – intended for King Mark and Isolde. Gottfried was the first writer to make Tristan offer the cup to Isolde before he drank it. ‘Chapter 16’ describes the anguish and pain of the lovers before they succumb to their desires; it also includes one of Gottfried’s commentaries or discourses.

Chapter 22

In this chapter, Melot and King Mark hide in an olive tree to discover Tristan and Isolde’s adultery; however, Tristan recognises their shadows and alerts Isolde. The lovers deceive Melot and Mark and disprove the rumours of their relationship. In the following chapter (not included), Melot and Marjodoc trick Tristan and provide evidence of adultery. Isolde is subsequently tried by the Bishop of the Thames and at the final judgement she convinces the court of her innocence.

Chapters 25 to 28

These four chapters describe the banishment of Tristan and Isolde from King Mark’s court, their refuge in the Cave of Lovers, their discovery by King Mark’s huntsman, and the return of Tristan and Isolde and their final parting. In the final chapter (not included), Tristan flees to Brittany and the text breaks off as he is considering marriage to Isolde of the White Hands.
Questions for discussion

  • How does Gottfried’s Tristan compare to other versions of the legend? (Béroul, for example). Why does Gottfried choose to follow the Tristan of Thomas?
  • How does Gottfried address his audience in the prologue?
  • Denis de Rougement proposes that the Tristan story ‘set passion in a framework within which it could be expressed in symbolical satisfactions’.[3] How are love and desire described and articulated in Gottfried’s Tristan?
  • What is the function of the love-potion – or liebestrank – in Gottfried’s Tristan?
  • Is Mark a jealous husband or a pathetic figure?
  • How do the discourses on love (pp. 202-4) and surveillance (pp. 275-9) comment on the narrative of the text?
  • What is the significance of sight and vision in the text?
  • Gottfried appropriates represents various discourses from religious allegory, hagiography, mysticism, Ovidian love-discourse, classical historiography, medieval Platonism, Christian salvation history, and Arthurian romance (among others). How do these discourses function in dialogue with each other?
  • William D. Cole describes the Cave of the Lovers as a ‘bizarre, multivalent, and ultimately undefinable symbol’.[4] Is it possible to interpret the meaning of the Cave? What could it signify?

 

References

[1] W. T. H. Jackson, ‘Tristan the Artist in Gottfried’s Poem’, in Tristan and Isolde, ed. by Joan Tasker Grimbert (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 125-146 (p. 125).

[2] Mark Chinca, ‘Tristan Narratives from the High to the Late Middle Ages’, in The Arthur of the Germans: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval German and Dutch Literature, ed. by W. H. Jackson and S. A. Ranawake (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011), pp. 117-134 (p. 120).

[3] Denis de Rougement, Love in the Western World, trans. by Montgomery Belgion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 22-3.

[4] William D. Cole, ‘Purgatory vs. Eden: Beroul’s Forest and Gottfried’s Cave’, The Germanic Review, 70.1 (1995), 2-8 (p. 2).

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