Eilhart von Oberge Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Eilhart von Oberge fl. late twelfth century-

German poet.

A seminal figure among German courtly poets, Eilhart von Oberge is the author of the oldest complete version of the medieval romance of Tristan and Isolde (or, Tristant and Isalde, in Eilhart's orthography). In his Tristant (c. 1170) Eilhart relates the tale of a tragic love affair between the eponymous Cornish hero and an Irish princess wedded to his uncle. Featuring a protagonist controlled by his predetermined fate, Eilhart's Tristant is viewed by contemporary scholars as an homage to the already declining feudal social order and epic literary style of the medieval period. Because the work is presumed to be the closest among many versions to the narrative of the lost French prose archetype, scholars tend to value Eilhart's rendering of the tale particularly highly. Tristant is frequently studied in conjunction with other adaptations of the same material, including those by the French poet Béroul and the Anglo-Norman bard Thomas of Britain. In addition, the poem is important for its considerable influence on later versions of the story, including Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan (c. 1210) and its subsequent variations.

Biographical Information

Almost nothing is known about the life of Eilhart aside from his composition of the Tristant. Extant documentary evidence from the court of Braunschweig, including nearby Oberg, suggests that Eilhart may have been a vassal to Duke Heinrich the Lion. Some scholars speculate that he may have been commissioned to write the poem by Heinrich's second wife, Mathilde, but no conclusive proof exists to support this claim. While the majority opinion holds that Eilhart was born at Oberg and lived his life there, it is also possible that he may have composed his famous work elsewhere, or under the direction of another patron. In addition to the paucity of evidence concerning his life and career, no existing records authenticate the time or place of Eilhart's death.

Textual History

Scholars generally regard Eilhart's version of the Tristan story as the most faithful to the original French prose Tristan (speculatively dated between 1150 and 1160), which is now lost. Probably composed in about 1170, Eilhart's poem may have been written as late as 1190, according to some theories. Its survival into the contemporary period relies on a number of sources, including three fragmentary twelfth- to thirteenth-century manuscripts, three redactions from the fifteenth century (all complete), and a late-fourteenth-century Czech translation that includes added material to compensate for missing scenes from Eilhart's version. An extant medieval chapbook also offers a rendering of Eilhart's story in prose outline. Contemporary translations of the Tristant include one in French verse and an English prose adaptation by J. W. Thomas.

Major Works

Eilhart's sole work, the Tristant, depicts the life of the noble warrior Tristant, a peerless knight in service of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. Stoic and brave, Tristant brings high honor upon himself by successfully winning battle after battle. His main adversary off the battlefield, King Mark, is usually considered to be a rather conventional villain figure (although some critics have questioned this simplification of his character). The singular object of Tristant's desire, Isalde the Fair, returns the hero's love passionately, but remains unattainable to him because she is married to Mark. For her, love is a form of exquisite suffering, and life without Tristant is inconsequential. In an early encounter in the story, Tristant challenges the Irish duke Morolt, who has unjustly demanded that Cornwall pay him tribute. Engaging in single combat on a small island, Tristant emerges victorious after delivering Morolt a mortal wound to the head. He later learns, however, that Morolt has poisoned him during the battle. Now Tristant must visit Morolt's sister, Queen Isalde of Ireland, in order to acquire an antidote. Healed by the Queen, Tristant subsequently slays a dragon that has been terrorizing the kingdom of Ireland. In return he secures the Queen's daughter, Isalde the Fair, as a bride for King Mark. On the return trip to Cornwall, Tristant mistakenly drinks a love potion prepared by the Irish Queen for her daughter and King Mark and instantly falls in love with the young maiden. After the marriage of Isalde and Mark, the secret affair between Tristant and Isalde becomes the central feature of the tale, as Mark and other jealous noblemen of the Cornish court attempt to catch Tristant and Isalde in adultery. Meanwhile, the King engages a cunning dwarf to set traps for the lovers and gather evidence of their deceit. Eventually, Mark discovers Tristant and Isalde after they have run off to the forest together. Clothed and sleeping, they lie separated by Tristant's sword. Quietly, Mark exchanges the sword for his own (an act they will be certain to notice when they awake) and departs. Afterwards, Tristant is exiled and years pass. The hero marries another woman, but cannot forget his love for Isalde. When it becomes clear that he will never again be with his beloved, he loses his will to live and dies. Shortly thereafter, Isalde arrives to join the mourners of his death. Lying beside his motionless body, she dies as well. In a symbolic denouement, two trees spring up from their graves, their limbs intertwined. In addition to the main action described above, the poem also features several Arthurian interludes, including a visit to the court of King Arthur, a stag hunt, and appearances by other noteworthy knights of the tradition. Scholars perceive the poem only peripherally as a work of Arthurian legend, insisting that such sketches in Eilhart's Tristant occur only briefly, serving to juxtapose an established epic setting with the closer and more problematic court of King Mark. Thematically, Eilhart's Tristant has been viewed as a depiction of heroic valor subverted by reckless passion. The inexorable progress of fate looms large in the poem, demonstrating that nothing can be done to change its path once certain events have transpired, even if seemingly by pure chance. Overall, the poem's theme is thought to hinge on its blending of heroic honor, fate, and passionate love.

Critical Reception

Scholars have traditionally analyzed Eilhart's Tristant alongside other versions of the Tristan legend from roughly the same period, including those by the French poet Béroul, the Anglo-Norman Thomas, and the German Gottfried von Strassburg. Through such comparisons, Eilhart's work has been found generally lacking, whether it be in terms of exposition, character delineation, or thematic development. Thus scholars have variously deemed Béroul's version (with its emphasis on passionate love and high adventure), or Thomas's and Gottfried's more psychological renderings of the Tristan legend as superior to Eilhart's somewhat informal and stylistically simplified verse narrative. Additionally, a number of scholars believe that Eilhart may have omitted some original scenes from the story (later included by subsequent authors) for the sake of clarity or brevity. Such omissions are thought to have contributed to Eilhart's avoidance of psychological depth or motivation in his characterizations, a quality often thought to mar the Tristant. Others have questioned Eilhart's use, or misuse, of narrative motivation in the work. Many commentators have acknowledged a lack of traditional narrative plausibility in Eilhart's Tristant, arguing that the inexplicable and supernatural forces of fate and chance condition and carry the action of the poem. Still others have observed that Eilhart's narrative was perhaps intended primarily as a defense of the feudal social order and its ideology. The author's focus on the inexorable power of destiny, in contrast to his characters' actions or desires, frees Tristant, Isalde, and Mark from guilt or complicity and externalizes the concerns in the story, making it an exemplum of deterministic fate and providential order in action. In this sense, scholars have noted, the poem validates the status quo of feudal hegemony, rather than analyzing the individual merits of its protagonist or other principal figures. Despite all of these objections, a contemporary trend in critical thought on the Tristant has been to question the received view of the poem, and instead to study the work on its own artistic merits. Recalling elements that made the poem popular in a bygone era, late twentieth-century commentators have begun to admire the dynamic qualities of Eilhart's storytelling technique, including his exploitation of narrative intervention to carry the tale, his robust style unimpeded by the demands of psychological motivation, as well as his use of low, whimsical, and almost mock-heroic humor—features almost universally lacking in contemporaneous versions of the story. Minor elements, such as Eilhart's clever use of epithets in delineating character and foreshadowing action, have also been noted. Putting aside discussion of its similarities to or departures from other versions of the tale, commentators on Eilhart's Tristant have instead concentrated on its skilled blend of romantic and epic forms, and have admired its artistic integrity as it traces the heroic arc of Tristant's life and the events culminating in his tragic demise.