Helmut Beifuss

title.none: Thomas, Wirnt von Gravenberg's Wigalois (Helmut Beifuss)

identifier.other: baj9928.0601.019 06.01.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Helmut Beifuss, University of Leipzig,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Thomas, Neil. Wirnt von Gravenberg's Wigalois: Intertexuality and Interpretation. Series: Arthurian Studies, vol. 62. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2005. Pp. viii, 167. $80.00 (hb). ISBN: 1-84384-038-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.01.19

Thomas, Neil. Wirnt von Gravenberg's Wigalois: Intertexuality and Interpretation. Series: Arthurian Studies, vol. 62. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2005. Pp. viii, 167. $80.00 (hb). ISBN: 1-84384-038-3.

Reviewed by:

Helmut Beifuss
University of Leipzig

Thomas' book is divided into five main chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion. The introduction begins with a short summary of the content and a view of the mentions and allusions found in other medieval works. After that Thomas informs the reader about the widespread reception, the various adaptations and the continuing popularity of Wirnt's romance. In spite of this past popularity, Wirnt's work has for a long time only been regarded as epigonal, a point of view which has been changing in recent years. The next pages deal with speculations about the author, the patronage and the dating of medieval works and especially of Wirnt and the Wigalois. All in all, this section is really a summary of previous scholarship.

The basis of the discussion in chapter one "Contesting the Canon" is the traditional donor-recipient model. Thomas wants to show by means of an extensive corpus that the works of the later authors are in fact not simply derivative. This finding Thomas relates to Wigalois and its position in the literary sequence. Neither the evidentiary basis nor the attempt to show that Wirnt's work is more than derivative can be seriously criticised; it will be more instructive to explain how Thomas reaches his conclusions.

Although the main focus is laid on Arthurian romances, the promise to base the discussion on an extensive corpus is fulfilled. This procedure is necessary to show the various relations between the so-called "Klassiker" and the literature of the following generation(s). The brevity of the comments assumes a well-informed reader. The short summaries of the more important works at the end of the book make it difficult to follow all the arguments. However, Thomas makes it clear-- as has pointed out by recent, and widely accepted, scholarly investigation--that comparison is dangerous and leads to inadequate interpretation when descriptive observations on a few works are changed into prescriptive poetics for an entire genre. A point of view which links such statements to notions of a universally acknowledged canon is problematic. Another conclusion, which might not be as commonly acknowledged and or as acceptable, is "that words as 'classic' or 'masterpiece' tell us nothing about the structure of literary works: (...), and there are no inherent formal qualities that classics or masterpieces have that other works do not have."

The chapter "Tradition and Innovation" deals with an intensive discussion of possible sources and the question of how Wirnt came across his diverse materials, which is still unknown. Some of them were of French origin. Using comparison, Thomas highlights the point that Wirnt's romance supplies idiosyncrasies of its own. Therefore, Thomas focuses the innovations of Wirnt's work by contrasting it to various other romances with special reference to Wolfram's Parzival. In what follows Thomas explores how Wirnt might have attempted to revise aspects of Wolframian ethics and/or give them a more clearly programmatic form.

In the first part of "Knights of Fortune" Thomas focuses on "Vorgeschichte" and shows the consequences for Wirnt's description in contrast to other works which results from Wigalois 'Idoneitat'. In "The Knights of Fortune's Wheel" Thomas discusses the importance of the girdle and the wheel of Fortune for Wigalois. The mythological significance of both Thomas regards as largely empty for Wigalois, which is demonstrated by close reading. The reference to other "Fair Unknown" tales may show Wirnt's idiosyncratic treatment, but this is an aspect which is well known and related to Christian influence. Besides the description of specific elements which Wirnt inserts in Wigalois, in contrast to his possible sources like "Le Bel Inconnu", Thomas points out by comparison that Nereja's role too shows Wirnt's independence of sources.

In the chapter entitled "Saint and Sinner" the Otherworld dimension, the descensus, and the terrestrial entrances to Purgatory are shown as widespread motifs over a long period and in different genres. For his journey to the infernal realm Wigalois is endowed with large quantities of apotropaic. In contrast to Le Chevalier du Papegau Wirnt's Wigalois has greater dependence on God's mercy. In what follows Thomas demonstrates that Wirnt's text is more than a mere compilation. In the Roaz sequence it is evident that Wigalois is indeed a predestined hero, who offers both his soul and his life to God. There is no attempt to prove the spiritual standard of the protagonist. Thomas acknowledges that saintly status distinguishes Wigalois from the sin-and-rehabilitation pattern of the 'classical' Arthurian romances. Gawein's guilt, his problematic sexuality--deployed in order to save his face--and his unjustified desertion of the protagonist's mother, are further items which show that Gawein's rehabilitation is fulfilled by Wigalois's invitation and welcoming gestures. There is indeed a father-son reunion but nevertheless the text does not offer a clear indication what Wirnt considers in the behaviour of Gawein a failure. The pragmatic realism in the final section may imply a critique of vague Wolframian evocations of the Grail realm, and may suppose a close interdependence of the two works. Moreover this viewpoint is expressed by Thomas himself who finds it "almost certainly a Wirntian innovation". Why we have to see the innovation in dependence to another work, instead of interpret it as a result of Wirnt's own conception is not clear.

In the fourth chapter Thomas deals with the question of whether Wirnt's work is a literary stimulus to crusading activity, as Brinker pointed out. Thomas raises valid objections to this interpretation using textual evidence and other scholars' arguments. The attempt to connect Wirnt's romance with "Realpolitik," made by Saran and which Thomas refers to in his introduction, should be discussed in a chapter like this, even if the author thinks that this attempt ultimately fails. Nevertheless, Thomas deals with Wolfram's Parzival and Titurel and Albrecht's Jungerer Titurel in order to review the important differences between these works and Wirnt's Wigalois, which are sometimes overlooked. Surely this is right, though it could also be ascribed to intertextuality: Wolfram's Parzival is fiction and in certain parts, e.g. the Oriental, he evokes a utopia, while Wirnt's Oriental description is in no sense a utopia, although it too is far away from realism. After having explained the differences, Thomas comes to a surprising result--if the reader thinks back to the introduction and chapter one--for Wirnt's romance now is seen as an independent critique of Wolfram's Grail utopia and Thomas thinks of it as a literary anticipation of Willehalm. The uncertain knowledge about the relative chronology of Wigalois and Willehalm makes this indeed possible, but it is not probable. The assumption that Wirnt knows Wolfram's Willehalm is not new, however Thomas shows this interpretation is problematic and argues that Wirnt's dependence on Willehalm is not evident. In consequence, Wirnt's Wigalois is seen only as the result of dealing with the classical predecessors.

In the last chapter "Romance and Exemplum" Thomas wants to show that Wirnt is both entertainer and pedagogue. This thesis leads to the assumption that there are close parallels in the working methods to French tradition, especially with the anonymous Durmart Le Galois, which is described as a 'mirror-for-princes.'

That Wirnt: "viewed the fabled king (Arthur) as a primary locus of chivalric value", is not astonishing. Thomas explains that King Arthur and Arthurian chivalry--including Gawein--is seen as an ideal way of life, which Wirnt even applies to the Otherworld section of his romance. A point of view which overlooks that Wigalois fights in Korntin, not as an Arthurian knight. He depends only on God, and with His help Wigalois grows and is able to fulfil his task as a saviour of Korntin. Moreover the "epische Achtergewicht" makes it clear that Wigalois is not merely an ideal Arthurian knight. Thomas' statement that: "Arthur was the proximate author of Wigalois's act of salvation of Lar, but that God's hidden hand had also been behind the hero's intervention" (113), seems to be an incorrect judgement of the influence over Wigalois.

The place of Wigalois in the German literary history is the last item, with which Thomas deals. In comparison with other works, and taking the historical background in consideration, Thomas comes to the conclusion that: "The objection to the term 'homiletic romances' on the grounds that such are 'mainly feudal romances which incorporate Christian values' hardly seems a fatal one to the present writer when applied to Wigalois, and, indeed (...) to fit Wigalois adequately." (117-118). This judgement is indeed problematic and it is rather doubtful whether this may be an acceptable solution for the term "homiletic romances," which stands for a disparate group of Middle English romances.

As results of his investigations Thomas argues "that the phenomenon of later writers' criticising the terms of their predecessors compositions" (119) and that their works are: "a phenomenon as mere poetic imitation". These two items-- especially the second--are meanwhile almost 'common sense'. In regard to the source Thomas points out "the possibility that the 'squire' invoked by Wirnt as his source (...) but was rather invoked as a means of disarming any possible criticisms" (119). In fact, this is hardly a result of new investigations. As his final conclusion, Thomas explains that Wirnt succeeds in showing "the much invoked but little realised ideal in action" (123) and that this is Wirnt's creation, which is the product of melding together disparate traditions with his own commentaries. This statement does not advance the discussion of the status and interpretation of Wirnt's work.

The worth of the book is that Thomas deals with relevant aspects of scholarly discussion in regard to Wirnt's romance. He summarizes many scholarly results and the widespread comparison with other works brings up the specific status of Wirnt's Wigalois. In this regard, the book is a welcome contribution to the endeavour to interpret Wirnt's work; however some of the conclusions however may provoke contradiction.