03.05.11, McLelland, Ulrich von Zatzikhoven's Lanzelet

Main Article Content

Graeme Dunphy

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.011


McLelland, Nicola. Ulrich von Zatzikhoven's Lanzelet: Narrative Style and Entertainment. Authurian Studies xlvi. Rochester: D. S. Brewer, 2000. Pp. v, 260. ISBN: 0-859-91602-2.

Reviewed by:
Graeme Dunphy
Universitat Regensburg

Ulrich von Zatzikhoven's Middle High German romance Lanzelet is interesting as the only mediaeval version of the Lancelot material not to include the motif of the hero's adulterous relationship with Arthur's queen, Guinevere. Orphaned as a child, he is brought up by a sea fairy who intends him to avenge her against King Iweret. In the first half of the romance he seeks out and defeats Iweret, and marries his daughter Iblis, while in the second half he rescues the abducted Ginover. Scholarship to date has concentrated on questions of structure and ethics, and has generally concluded that Ulrich's work (and presumably that of his French source) is a poorly integrated hotch-potch of disparate elements which have not been successfully fashioned into an evenly-told story or a clear and consistent message.

Riding chivalrously to Ulrich's rescue, Nicola McLelland attempts in her very thorough examination to show that, while he does not necessarily fare well when judged by criteria he did not aspire to, he did have a concept and was successful in what he attempted to do. When commenting on a literary work which has been disparaged by generations of scholars, it is easy to fall into the role of the apologist, but if McLelland occasionally succumbs to this temptation, she is able to back her position with sustained sound argumentation, and is generally very convincing. Her case is that Ulrich stands at a point of departure at which chivalric literature begins to move away from the ideals of classical courtly culture. Precisely his "failure" to adhere to courtly norms is what is innovative and admirable in his work.

The book opens with a reassessment of source and dating, questions which have been discussed at great length before; though McLelland has little to say here which is truly new, rehearsing the basic data is useful. One quibble here: there appears to be a confusion on dates at the bottom of page 4; the expropriation of Hugh de Morville's lands in 1173-74 in consequence of his participation in the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, was not "at the time" hostages were being held for Richard I in Germany, but 20 years earlier. Since we know that some of Becket's murderers were eventually able to regain the king's favour, Hugh could easily have been fully rehabilitated at court by 1194. Thus the argument that he could not have been the hostage Huc de Morville who lent Ulrich the source manuscript falls. Otherwise, the first two chapters appear to provide a very useful overview, and indeed a spring-board from which the subsequent argument can progress.

The bulk of the volume is dedicated to proofs that the two major criticisms of Ulrich -- his lack of a courtly ethic and his failure to maintain a courtly style -- are judgements based on misplaced criteria. McLelland wishes to defend him, not by discovering the missing ethical and stylistic elements as others have attempted, but rather by showing that their absence is programmatic and appropriate.

Drawing attention to the fact that, unlike all the "major" poets of the Bl├╝tezeit, Ulrich nowhere even hints at any aspiration to an ethical purpose, McLelland insists that the propagation of courtly ideals has no place in his perception of his own task. His aim was to entertain his audience with stories of knights rather than to transmit knightly values. "The sheer prevalence of humour as a stylistic trait lends credence to the view...of Lanzelet as a romance which does not take itself too seriously, but aims primarily to amuse" (128). The Unterhaltungsroman tag has been used of Lanzelet before, but generally disparagingly. However, if we acknowledge that a conscious distancing from the pretentiousness of the moralist may be a legitimate choice for an author, the absence of a didactic element need not be regarded as a deficit. On the contrary, it sets the trend for the "post-classical" romance -- McLelland uses the term with careful caveats -- in giving prominence to the pure pleasure the readers and listeners are expected to find in the narrative. This also explains why, as a character, Lanzelet does not develop in the course of the romance. In contrast to the knights of the doppelter Cursus, who first fail, then grow and learn, ultimately becoming models of personal triumph over their own particular weakness, Lanzelet is the ideal knight from the beginning. The conflict which sustains the plot comes not from his struggle to attain knightliness but from the demonic nature of the opposition.

The most original contribution of this book, and certainly that which will provoke most intense discussion, concerns the unevenness of Ulrich's style. Here again McLelland rescues Ulrich not by challenging the criticism but by reinterpreting it as a virtue. Through a careful analysis of the stylistic features of each episode, she demonstrates that they are indeed so disparate that this must be deliberate. Under the rubric "the hero as a literary all-rounder" she suggests that Ulrich has in fact set out to incorporate into a single story the styles of all the literary genres known in his day, in order to show his title figure as pre-eminent not just in one fictional world, but in any. Lanzelet's childhood is described in a manner reminiscent of the Maerchen; the Moreiz episode presages the style of the later Schwank; the encounter at Limors smacks of Heldenepik; the scenes at Arthur's court are hoefisch in the proper sense. In this way, Lanzelet offers what McLelland calls a "smorgasbord" of literary styles. True, sections of the work are "uncourtly", but calculated variation may be deemed part of a story-teller's art, and no-one can deny that Ulrich is an exciting narrator. It is not implausible that he might use stylistic variation as a technique to heighten interest and complement his humour. But McLelland wishes to go even further, elevating stylistic variation to a structural principle. On page 77 she offers her own stylistically-based structural schema which shows a greater degree of symmetry in the work than any systemisation previously attempted.

If McLelland is right, it is no wonder that nineteenth-century scholars, with their obsession for genre-categories, found Ulrich simply irritating, for he cuts right across received norms, sacrificing an aesthetic of consistency for one of diversity. The touchstone of this thesis is of course the discussion of style. Here, I do have some reservations about how fully McLelland has in fact isolated the styles of the various passages. Her focus is on key words, but individual words can be dictated by content; for example, it may be that a narrative with a sea-fairy inevitably reflects the vocabulary of the fairy-tale, whereas the lexical choices in the scenes at Arthur's court may be more courtly simply because the setting leaves the author no other choice. To define variety of style it would also be necessary to look at variation of syntax and construction, at register, at figures of speech and patterns of repetition, at questions of metre and rhyme, none of which really been systematically attempted. However, there is no doubt that McLelland's investigation succeeds in highlighting the very different tones of these passages, and her interpretation of these, while daring, has much to commend it.

An interesting little excursus on pages 141-44 finally gives a plausible explanation of the hitherto troublesome wahsende warte. This defended mound is clearly the object of some enchantment, but the exact nature of the magic had never appeared quite satisfactory. By altering the punctuation, reading verse 5125 as a conditional clause and 5127 as parallel to it, McLelland produces a fortress which is always defended by a force equal in size to the attacking force, be this a large army or a single man, and which grows or shrinks in size to accommodate the ensuing battle. This is one of those insights into the syntax of a passage which are so obvious once we see them that we wonder how we ever missed them.

In this important contribution to Arthurian scholarship, Nicola McLelland offers a highly imaginative interpretation of an enigmatic work. It is unlikely that this will be the final word on the complex questions involved, but no-one will be able to write on Ulrich von Zatzikhoven in future without taking McLelland properly into account. A full index and an admirably comprehensive bibliography greatly enhance the usefulness of the volume, while the lucid manner of writing -- dare I say style? -- makes for a very enjoyable read.

Article Details

Author Biography

Graeme Dunphy

Universitat Regensburg