The Medieval Review 16.11.30

Classen, Albrecht. The Forest in Medieval German Literature: Ecocritical Readings from a Historical Perspective. Ecocritical Theory and Practice. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2015. pp. 243. $95.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-7391-9518-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Russell C. Black
University of Washington

Genesis divides the natural world into two parts: the Garden and the wilderness. Eden is the natural space that is under direct oversight of the Creator, where Adam and Eve live in a paradisiac state in harmony with God's will. In opposition to this space stands the wilderness, the space into which post-lapsarian man is born, and the space in which he must struggle to find the way back to God's grace. The occupations of mankind, such as the city, the courts, and the Church, were naturally the closest, most immediate environment to God, whereas the wilderness, which in Northern European landscape is most often expressed as the forest, is the dangerous, wild, and chaotic region that is untouched by civilization. In the courtly literature of the high middle ages, these spaces were important literary elements that were indicators for the spiritual progress of the knight's development. The ideal goal for the knight was the attainment of his proper place in the court, in society, and in his spirituality. In this literature, the forest is understood to be a space in opposition to the court that serves as a transitional space for the knight, where he encounters dangers that interrupt the natural course of his life.

In this common interpretation of the forest in courtly romance, the forest possesses few qualities independent from its role in opposition to civilization. The Forest in Medieval German Literature by Albrecht Classen is both a fascinating and illuminating book that breaks with this simple binary configuration. Classen recasts the wilderness into a space that reflects the sophisticated relationship medieval people had with their own environment. This excellent study effectively shifts the focus of the landscape away from civilization and onto the wilderness. The forest becomes the critically important space that acts upon and drives the protagonist in his adventure. We also find in Classen's work that the qualities of the literary forest are not easily or clearly defined. The forest here becomes a complex variable that changes its qualities not only from one individual romance to another, but also from one individual scene to another. This fresh perspective adds a fascinating layer of social, environmental, and psychological complexity to these already rich texts. Eight chapters are dedicated to individual works including Erec and Iwein by Hartmann von Aue, the Nibelungenlied, the works of Wolfram, Gottfried's Tristan, the Pleier's Der Melerantz von Frankreich, Konrad's Partonopier und Meliur, Elisabeth von Nassau-Saarbrücken's Königin Sibille, and Thüring von Ringoltingen's Melusine. In each of these works, the forest is an important space for the protagonist, but each representation of the forest is fundamentally different and complex in its usage, each designed by the author to fulfill the specific needs of each composition.

The High Medieval German masterpieces witness the development of this important trope. In Hartmann von Aue's Erec, the forest is indeed a space filled with perils that counterbalance courtly spaces, and it is a transitional space through which the characters move from one phase in their development to the next. But we find in Classen's study that the forest also serves as a place for reconciliation, self-transformation, and that it can itself be the location for the court. When Erec encounters Arthur's court, it is situated inside the forest, giving Erec and Enite the rest and recovery they need to continue on their journey. The forest is also where Erec and Enite reconcile: "they entered the forest, free from the force of worries" (48-49). The forest in Hartmann's Iwein appears to have a very different function. The forest in this this work is never idyllic or associated with the court, but is a wild and dangerous place that represents Iwein's descent into insanity. The distinct differences between these two usages of the forest by the same author immediately clarify Classen's argument. In the Nibelungenlied, however, the forest is closely associated with Siegfried's own powerful body. He commands power over the animals, and appears very much like a wild animal himself.

Wolfram von Eschenbach's use of the forest in Parzival is particularly striking. In many ways Parzival is much like Siegfried, born into the forest, possessing many wild and uncivilized traits. But unlike Siegfried, Parzival is not in harmony with the forest. His mother naively guards him from natural processes so that when he develops his natural masculine impulses and kills a bird, he learns about death and is moved to tears. Despite the wild space he grew up in, he has too many inbred courtly characteristics. The courtly space his mother Herzeloyde constructed for her son is physically and metaphorically removed from the purview of the church, which frustrates his development throughout the course of his life. Parzival cannot approach the Grail and become its protector until he has gained enough knowledge of God and the rituals of the church. The Grail castle is also located in the forest, which is simultaneously a location on Parzival's journey and his destination. The two spaces, the court and the forest, are always close; it's often difficult to think of one place without the other.

Both Siegfried and Parzival are closely associated with wild spaces. In Gottfried's Tristan however, the protagonist is a personification of civilization and of courtly life. When the young Tristan is abducted and abandoned in the wilderness, the space is very dangerous and antagonistic, and he is completely out of his natural element. But in the forest Tristan is a powerful civilizing force. When he encounters a member of King Mark's court on the hunt, Tristan displays better skill at dressing the captured hart. When Tristan goes into the forest again with Isolde, the forest transforms into an idyllic utopian space that protects them from the civilized world.

The forest in much of the Plier's Der Melerantz von Frankreich is little more than an element of the mise-en-scène through which the principal characters move. Nevertheless, Der Melerantz contains enough elements common to other works that preceded it that it portrays the forest as an active agent. Like other such knights, Melerantz does have to traverse the wilderness to find his love Tytomie, a figure who has embedded a small parcel of her own courtly civilization in the forest, in the same manner as Herzeloyde. After this, the forest is often merely a medium for him to pass from one domain to another while he encounters giants and vanquishes his enemies. The Plier used the forest in his narrative to the best of his abilities, but the pattern Classen describes in Der Melerantz is more informative of the forms the Plier inherited from the genre itself.

Konrad von Würtzburg decorates the forest in Partonopier und Meliur with exotic trees known from the Bible and animals cataloged in Physiologus. Although the forest does serve the traditional function of being the complementary space to courtly society and the liminal space through which the protagonist undergoes psychological development, it is also the space that is under direct manipulation by the protagonist's love interest, the Byzantine princess Meliur. While Partonopier is hunting, Meliur uses her knowledge of magic to guide him toward her through the forest. But in courtly society and in the conventions of courtly literature, the woman must have no power over her knight's will. After Partonopier breaches her trust by breaking her invisibility spell, Meliur rejects him and he retreats into the forest in a fit of psychological despair evocative of Iwain. This better prepares Partonopier to enter his relationship with Meliur as a fully developed and more empowered knight. In this romance, the forest is an extension of Meliur herself, a tool that she wields to manipulate the knight. In the end, Partonopier properly subjugates Meliur and her magical control over the forest ends.

All these romances are centered on the points of view of men, and their relationship with the forest is designed to shape the development of the male psyche. In Königin Sibille by Elisabeth von Nassau-Saarbrücken, all the forms of courtly romance we have seen thus far are parodied. Literary forms common to the genre are reversed as it is not a male protagonist that must develop his masculinity to meet the standards of a courtly ideal, but a woman at the peak of her own powers who is unjustly expelled from her own court because her husband and his court failed to live up to their own proper courtliness. Sibille is unjustly accused of infidelity by the court and the king, and is thereafter expelled from the realm. Initially, the forest is a pleasant space removed from the chaotic and dangerous politics of the court, but this does not last very long. For Sibille, the forest is filled with murderers, brigands, and rapists, an environment that proves to be every bit as dangerous as the court. In a way, the forest is little more than an extension of Charlemagne's court; both are equally treacherous for women.

In Thüring von Ringolten's Melusine, the romance's namesake is a magical, elemental part of the forest. Once the knight Reymund enters the forest on a hunt and accidentally kills his lord, he encounters Melusine, a fairy who occasionally has the features of a serpent. Because of his transgression, she binds him to her, and frees him of his obligation to receive proper courtly punishment. After they establish their own court, they have children who in turn found the Lusignan dynasty. Their court is nestled inside the forest itself. Classen suggests a parallel with Parzival in that "the forest emerges as the origin and also the destiny of the protagonist's life goals" (195), and there is no question that the forest in Melusine likewise exists on its own terms. The forest in this text is highly metaphorical in that Reymund's mixed-breed children appear to carry the the wildness of the forest with them. Their son Goffrey becomes enraged, burns down a monastery, and kills his own brother while doing so. Goffrey does find his own redemption when his behavior becomes more civilized and he rebuilds the institution. I might also suggest that the romance is less about Reymund as an individual, and more about the spiritual development of the dynasty itself. Just as Parzival becomes guard of the grail, the House of Lusignan became the rulers of Jerusalem itself.

Ecocriticism is a very loosely defined term. The word itself is mentioned infrequently in Classen's study, and only in the introductory chapter. Classen himself acknowledges that ecocriticism does not offer "completely new perspectives for literary and other scholarship but offers a refined and more sensitized approach to the interaction between humans and the natural environment, both in the present and also in the premodern world" (11). The author could have easily omitted this usage entirely without substantially changing his argument. Nevertheless, an important underpinning in his analysis is Classen's attention to the ignored, or even suppressed, point of view and the importance of the natural environment as understood by the medieval readerships. As a critical tool, ecocriticism often requires the application of additional tools from other disciplines. Many questions about how Classen's estimation of the landscape in these works yield to a Marxist, feminist, or postcolonialist study warrant continued study. The Forest in German Literature should be a fruitful starting point for further examination.

The medieval literary representation of the forest has perhaps been neutralized by modern colonial relationships with natural spaces. There is little doubt that even the medieval nobility were much closer to the forest than many of us are. The Forest in German Literature reveals an important literary space that powerfully structures the narrative and interacts with the characters in ways that are unique to each work of literature. Classen demonstrates that the forest was much more than a passive space through which the knight wanders and encounters danger before finding his way back to the safety of the court. For the writers of these works, the forest was a body complementary to and independent from the court, the Church, and civilization. The forest could certainly be a dangerous place, but it was also a place that provided food, resources, and protection. The knight's journey was a pilgrimage though a post-Edenic landscape that could include both the forest and civilized space. To the individual, the forest was part of God's creation, a dangerous and chaotic space that nevertheless was a useful and necessary part of the medieval environment.

Copyright (c) 2016 Russell C. Black

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