The Medieval Review 12.04.11

Flecken-Büttner, Susanne. Wiederholung und Variation als Poetisches Prinzip: Exemplarität, Identität und Exzeptionalität in Gottfrieds 'Tristan'. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, 2011. Pp. viii, 280. 99.95 EUR. ISBN 9783110253955. . .

Reviewed by:

Shami Ghosh
Oxford University
shami.ghosh@magd.ox.ac.uk

Gottfried von Straßburg's Tristan is, along with Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, one of the most important, widely received, and still relatively well-known works of Middle High German literature; like much other medieval German literary production, both texts are based on slightly earlier French sources; and Tristan, like Wolfram's text, includes a lengthy narrative about the eponymous hero's parents before we encounter Tristan himself. There was a substantial pre-existing tradition relating to Tristan, with at least two major French versions, of Béroul (rendered into German by Eilhart von Oberg) and of Thomas, on which Gottfried bases himself; all these texts are also to be read within the wider context of a burgeoning corpus of Arthurian literature concerned to a large extent with the themes of love, knighthood, chivalry, courtliness and how all these matters relate to the religious values that were the fundament of contemporary society, and the legal and customary structures which determined how that society functioned. Thus at a very basic level, this literature represents a form of art that is based on repetition and variation: repetition of stories already told, already known in one or more versions to the audience, and of subject matter that aimed both to reflect and (possibly) to influence the society whence these stories came; and the variation of these stories and the treatment of their themes by the authors of new versions. Because of the importance of the authority of the source in medieval literature, one can reasonably postulate that at least some of the aesthetic appeal would lie in the ways in which something familiar was made less familiar, in which old and well-known tales and tenets were made refreshing, startling, and potentially shocking; but one must not thereby discount the other side of the coin, namely that a good part of the appeal of these works lay also precisely in the fact that they told an old, well-known story once more. That repetition and variation, in the sense suggested above, was a crucial aspect of medieval German literature is not a new thesis; and that Gottfried was a master of this art, particularly in the way he uses the "principles" of variation and repetition the way he crafts his language, is also something that has long been appreciated. What the author of the book under review manages to do well is to demonstrate, on the basis of close readings of the text, just how carefully Gottfried elaborates on various themes, applying the principles of repetition and variation to the material presented at different points in his own work. Rather less weight is given to how this text varies themes presented in other works, but even in this regard, Flecken-Büttner offers some interesting insights.

The first substantive chapter of this book provides a (thankfully short) exposition of its theoretical baggage (it will be a relief when authors of the book-of-the-dissertation no longer feel obliged to retain this sort of thing in the book version), namely Roman Jakobson, Jurij Lotman, and to a lesser extent Claude Lévi-Strauss and Clemens Lugowski; these names make little appearance later on in the work, and even the terminology provided by these authors is relatively thin on the ground. What follows is a long chapter that the author organises around the themes of "Expositionen," "Metaphorische Relationen," and "Metonymische Relationen," but might also quite fairly be described in more old-fashioned terms as examinations of typological relationships within the text. The author examines three sets of characters: Riwalin and his son Tristan; Riwalin's wife Blanscheflur and Tristan's lover Isolde; Isolde of the White Hands, whom Tristan eventually marries; and Marke, Blanscheflur's brother, Tristan's uncle, and patron to both Riwalin and Tristan. The bulk of the chapter presents comparisons between various elements of the narratives of Riwalin and Tristan, concentrating, firstly, on the themes of "perception" and "interaction" with regard to hostility, recognition, and love; and secondly on how space, the concept of adventure, love, and God are depicted in these two narratives. This is followed by a shorter examination of how Tristan is placed in relation to his three father figures (his biological father, whom he never meets; his adoptive father; and his uncle Marke) and to the personified force of "Minne," all of which are seen as exercising a form of patronage and control over Tristan. Flecken-Büttner's analysis shows in painstaking detail how the ways in which the parental story is depicted prefigures and relates to, but is in significant ways different from, the story of Tristan himself; and equally how the female figures are presented to us in ways that stress both resemblances and divergences. The poetic method leads to an image of Tristan that allows us to recognise him as, predictably enough, a character surpassing his father, adoptive father, and uncle.

This chapter (II) is the heart of the book and takes up most of its pages. The following two chapters are relatively short; Chapter III is devoted to the placing of this work within its wider literary tradition by Gottfried and how (for example) the way in which this text is shown to relate to others may be compared to the way Tristan, within the text, relates to the characters whose stories have been narrated before his. The final chapter (IV) analyses the way this text asserts for itself an exemplary quality with some didactic intent, an aspect that is examined primarily with regard to how Gottfried positions himself in relation to Ovid, whose ars amatoria was at this point the principal antique authority on love and its place in the world; Flecken-Büttner argues that Gottfried takes pains to show a mutual interaction between life and literature, and gives his own text an important place in such interaction.

Flecken-Büttner is at her best in close readings of the text, and indeed it comes almost as a welcome surprise to see just how much of the text there is in this book. Her analyses of individual passages tend to be cogent and often insightful, and given the broad scope of her chosen themes, she covers most of the important aspects of the text, including, beyond the subjects mentioned above, such issues as the role of God and the significance of history and genealogy (though these matters are covered in less detail). Her work is remarkably uncluttered with references to earlier scholarship; indeed (and I would never have expected to say this about a work by a German scholar), she might well have wished to do a little bit more in the way of placing her own work within the scholarly traditions out of which it emerges. Typology, Gottfried's self-conscious relationship to the literary tradition, and even the interaction between life and literature in Tristan, have all been examined, though often in different ways and not always in the kind of detail presented here. Flecken-Büttner's work is certainly not lacking in originality, but much of what she says is also inevitably not entirely new; readers might have benefited from slightly more thorough indications regarding how the ideas presented here relate to those of earlier scholarship. [1] A further minor quibble, which has more to do with my own expectations than with the task the author set herself, is that while the author convincingly explores the poetics of repetition and variation at the level of stories and themes, there is little attention given to the more basic building block of any literary text: language. How does Gottfried use the techniques of repetition and variation of words and phrases, what does his practice in this regard say about his style and indeed his poetics, and how, if at all, does any of this contribute to our understanding of, indeed to Gottfried's creation of, the content that is analysed by Flecken-Büttner? These caveats apart, I think the book will prove to be very useful to scholars as a wide-ranging interpretation of Tristan from a particular set of perspectives, and its approach might well also be stimulating for the study of other medieval German texts.

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Note:

1. Readers may wish to consult the magnificent, 521-page-long commentary of the new edition of Tristan that appeared in the same year as the book under review, and could therefore obviously not have been consulted by the author: Gottfried von Straßburg: Tristan und Isold, ed. and trans. Walter Haug and Manfred Günter Scholz, Bibliothek des Mittelalters 11, 2 vols. (Frankfurt a. M.: Deutscher Klaßiker Verlag, 2011).