Critical Evaluation

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Richard Wagner’s opera follows the basic plot of Gottfried von Strassburg’s earlier version of this famous tale. The version Wagner chose, nineteen thousand or so lines of which are attributed to Gottfried, is an excellent and extensive telling of one of the most famous love stories of all times. This metrical romance does not follow the line of chivalric romance developed by other writers, and there is no wearisome repetition of knightly deeds of valor in war and tournaments. Instead, Gottfried celebrates romantic love as being greater than chivalric love; his conception of love is more inward, at once enchanting and enthralling, bewildering and ecstatic, one that sways the soul and makes martyrs of those who partake of love’s sacrament. The landscape against which Tristan and Isolde move often suggests an inner dreamworld of mysterious compulsion.

Tristan and Isolde is unique in many ways. Although its material is courtly in nature, the poem concludes tragically rather than in the usual redemptive ending, and the sphere of reference is not specifically courtly. In his prologue, Gottfried defines his audience as those “noble hearts” who share the sufferings and joys of love and who are willing to accept the power of love as the central value in life. All other courtly values—honor, religious faith, feudal fidelity—are subordinated to the one overriding force of passion, conceived as an external objective force and symbolized in the magic potion. Even Gottfried’s conception of love departs from the courtly pattern, for rather than the usual unfulfilled longing and devoted service of the knight, love in this story is mutual, freely given, and outside the conventions of courtly society. It is a law unto itself and destructive of the social order.

The material of the legend, like that of the Arthurian sagas, may be traced back to Celtic origins, although no versions prior to the twelfth century are extant. In the late twelfth century, the story took shape, and it is the French version by the Anglo-Norman poet Thomas of Brittany or Britain (c. 1160) that provides the direct source for Gottfried—and which enables scholars to construct the probable ending of Gottfried’s unfinished work. In Thomas’s version, the approach is still distinctly courtly; Gottfried’s departures from the norm may be attributed both to his own origin and to his time. Gottfried was most likely not a member of courtly society himself but rather a member of the middle class of the important commercial city of Strassburg. He was wealthy and well educated—as evidenced by his extensive knowledge of theology and law—and familiar with French and German literature, as well as the Latin that was the universal language of higher education at the time. His work shows mastery of formal rhetorical devices and a knowledge of Latin literature remarkable for his time. His literary sophistication is evident in the extended discussion of German authors of his day that he inserts into the story at a point where Tristan’s investiture is discussed. It is in this literary excursus that he voices his praise of Hartmann von Aue and castigates Wolfram von Eschenbach for having an excessively difficult and erratic style.

This critical attitude toward his courtly contemporaries is reflected in his approach to the conventions of courtly romance and helps to explain the uniqueness of his work. He is not above mocking even the rituals of the Church, as when Isolde successfully passes a trial by fire through an elaborate ruse that enables her to avoid perjury on a technicality but destroys the intent and integrity of the trial. “Christ,” Gottfried says, “is as pliable as a windblown sleeve.”...

(This entire section contains 1141 words.)

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One must in fairness point out that by 1210, such a mockery would not be terribly shocking to the educated classes, who would regard the whole idea of trial by fire as rather archaic and superstitious.

Gottfried’s discussion of love borrows heavily from the language of mystical writers. In the prologue, the elevating and ennobling qualities generally ascribed to courtly love take on religious significance through the use of specifically religious metaphors; in his imagery and in his presentation of a scale of values, Gottfried stresses the sacred and transfiguring power of love. St. Bernard of Clairvaux has been identified as a source of much of Gottfried’s religious love imagery. Scholars are divided on the degree to which one should view this cult of love as an attempt to create a surrogate religion; there is no question, however, that Gottfried viewed love’s claims as exerting a powerful counterforce against the social and religious conventions of the time.

The turning away from the public, external values of the courtly epics toward the inner, personal, emotional values of Tristan and Isolde is consistent with the wider cultural trends of the time: the new grace and sensitivity evident in the sculptures of the North Portal at Chartres and the break with the conventions of courtly love in the later songs of Walther von der Vogelweide, whose poems develop an ideal of love in which physical consummation replaces the state of prolonged yearning that is the subject of the poetry of the earlier phase of courtly love. The mystical qualities of this love are portrayed in the scene in the Cave of Love, which is an elaborate allegory expressing the ideal state toward which love strives. The sequence of trials and traps surrounding Tristan and Isolde, however, depicts the reality experienced by the “noble hearts” whom Gottfried addresses in his poem when they must live in a world that does not accord to the power of love its due respect.

In this world, the lovers are far from ideal. Isolde uses her servant Brangene shamelessly, and even considers murdering her to prevent possible exposure, while Tristan, banished from the court at last, falls in love with Isolde of the White Hands, lacking the fidelity that Isolde demonstrates. How Gottfried might have resolved this dichotomy can only be guessed, but it is clear that Gottfried sees the company of “noble hearts” as forever torn between love’s joy and sorrow, accepting both as equally valid. It is precisely this quality of bitterness that separates love’s votaries from the mundane world of pleasure seekers, and it is in relation to this ambivalent state that Gottfried explains the purpose of his work: Sad stories of love increase the pain of a heart that already feels love’s sadness, yet the noble heart cannot help but be drawn again and again to the contemplation of love. Like the sacraments of the Church, Gottfried’s work is mystical communion: “Their death is the bread of the living.” In this insistence upon the centrality of love, Gottfried’s romantic tragedy is both the culmination and the turning point of the tradition of courtly love in Germany.