- “And All Her Power Forsook Her”: Female Bodies and Speech in the Middle High German Tristan-Continuations
Among the four main Middle High German Tristan-texts, only two earlier ones—by Eilhart von Oberge (ca. 1170–75) and Gottfried von Strassburg (ca. 1210)—are commonly praised as masterpieces, particularly Gottfried’s unfinished torso. The two later thirteenth-century works by Ulrich von Türheim (ca. 1240) and Heinrich von Freiberg (late 13th c., before 1290) have traditionally been dismissed as second-rate and unworthy of their sources—either Gottfried, whose text they purport to continue, or Eilhart, whose plotline they actually follow.1 Both continuations are said to fall short conceptually and artistically, to misunderstand the messages of their originals and lack both Gottfried’s narrative and rhetorical virtuosity and Eilhart’s dramatic flair.2 And yet of the two, Heinrich von Freiberg has always been regarded more favorably by literary critics who commend his style, his attempts to approximate his predecessor, his use of gnomic material, and even the length of his work.3 Even though William [End Page 202] McDonald’s more balanced look at both sequels has somewhat redeemed Ulrich von Türheim’s Tristan as an ambiguous and complex text, whose distinct ethos many critics simply fail to recognize, the prejudice against this poet’s version endures.4
One cannot but agree that neither of the two authors can compare in poetic skill and sophistication with Gottfried von Strassburg, one of the most illustrious minds of the German Middle Ages.5 Ulrich’s narrative is concrete and simple, always looking forward, making ample use of dialogue and offering only barebones narration, often lacking in detail and explanation, which McDonald describes as a “linear and sequential method of story telling.”6 The poet follows the original storyline only loosely, condenses and merges certain episodes, and clearly relies on the reader’s general knowledge of the legend.7 Undoubtedly, such experimentation does not produce very elegant writing, and yet it is not without its merits, for it allows Ulrich to pursue his main message—to glorify the virtue of fidelity (triuwe)—and thus enables him and his audience to forgive the adulterous love of the two protagonists, Tristan and Isolde the Blond. Whatever his poetic imperfections, Ulrich stays closer to Gottfried’s message by echoing the earlier poet’s sympathy for the unhappy couple: he shares his view that such understanding is a gift that only the select few—Gottfried’s edeliu herzen (noble hearts), Ulrich’s rehte minnaere (true lovers)—possess, namely, those who embrace all the joys and tribulations of love.8
Compared to Ulrich von Türheim, Heinrich von Freiberg’s work may [End Page 203] appear to be more palatable to the modern reader in style and structure. Almost double in length (6890 vs. 3730 verses), it demonstrates the poet’s indebtedness to all three of his predecessors—Gottfried, Eilhart, and Ulrich himself.9 Max Wehrli’s description of this text as merely “hübsch und liebenswert,” “gewandt,” and “lebhaft”10 downplays its merits: the work of Margarete Sedlmeyer and William McDonald has uncovered schematic and thematic complexity that “should assure that this Tristan is recognized for more than graceful diction.”11 But if Ulrich’s failings are insufficient motivation and occasional lack of clarity, then Heinrich occupies the opposite end of this continuum: he is overly preoccupied with motivation, which sometimes results in excessive repetitions.12 The most important defining feature of his work is his conscious return to the tradition of courtly epic, as manifested by its plot, value system, gender ideology, and language. Written at the royal court in Prague during its cultural revival, the text reflects that society’s enthusiasm for knightly life and courtly values.13 The protagonist’s chivalric adventures, including those at King Arthur’s court, offer a favorable contrast to his failings in love, both with his wife and with his lover. Heinrich portrays Tristan as a splendid courtly hero whose Achilles’ heel is his adulterous liaison with his uncle’s wife. To Gottfried’s and Ulrich’s understanding of passion, this poet prefers a more conventional view of love and marriage. He...