Like most medieval poets, Gottfried von Strassburg chose to adapt existing works rather than invent new ones. Whether a poem was composed for oral recitation or reading, it was considered good form for poets to take a story already familiar to their audience as their subject and embellish it, demonstrating their artistry by rhetorical flourish or new thematic interpretations. For example, the “matter of Britain”largely stories dealing with King Arthurwas retold and reinterpreted frequently. Similarly, the story of Tristan and Isolde had existed in many versions for hundreds of years before Gottfried decided to make it the subject of his long romance. The tale has its origins in Celtic folklore and became part of the medieval romance tradition sometime during the eleventh or twelfth centuries. As is evident in Gottfried’s Tristan and Isolde and other versions of the story, details of Tristan’s life and adventures have parallels in the Arthurian tradition; later writers, especially Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), go to great lengths to integrate the story into the Arthurian cycle. The story of Tristan and Isolde is emblematic of the courtly love tradition: A handsome, noble, highly skilled knight falls hopelessly in love with a woman he can never marry, and she often returns his affection. What might in other ages be considered either tragic or immoral becomes, in the hands of skilled medieval poets such as Gottfried, a noble passion that, in extreme cases, is held up as an ideal with religious overtones.
Tristan and Isolde
Relying principally on the version of the legend presented in the work of Thomas of Britain (twelfth century), Gottfried re-creates the story of Tristan in Middle High German, using rhyming couplets as his basic poetic form. His unfinished work extends for approximately twenty thousand lines. A prologue written in quatrains provides a moralizing commentary on human behavior that also serves to recognize Gottfried’s patron, Dieterich, whose name is spelled out in the first letters of a succession of stanzas. Gottfried begins the narrative proper with the story of Tristan’s parents, relates Tristan’s life as an orphan, and describes the exploits that eventually take him to the court where Isolde resides. His lengthy description of the effect of a love potion drunk by Tristan and Isolde on their way to the court of Tristan’s uncle King Mark, where Isolde is to become Mark’s bride, is followed by episodes describing the lovers’ efforts to pursue their passion without discovery, their brief interlude of undisturbed bliss in the Cave of Lovers, and Tristan’s banishment from Mark’s court.
Despite his reliance on previous versions of the Tristan legend for details of his story, the originality of Gottfried’s work is undeniable. Even a cursory reading reveals his familiarity with matters of law, hunting, poetry, and classical literature. Gottfried uses his wide knowledge to invest his poem with gravitas. Furthermore, a significant difference between Gottfried’s account of the Tristan legend and those of Thomas of Britain and other poets is his focus on the interior lives of the characters. Although the poem shares with other romances a certain episodic quality and contains sections of narrative describing the actions of the hero in combat, most of Gottfried’s work concentrates on the feelings of the lovers as they try to understand what is happening to them. Additionally, the poet uses the structure of his work to reinforce his thematic aims: Scenes and...
(The entire section is 1460 words.)