19.03.05 Nieser, Die Lesbarkeit von Helden

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Albrecht Classen

The Medieval Review 19.03.05

Nieser, Florian. Die Lesbarkeit von Helden: Uneindeutige Zeichen in der Bataille d’Aliscans und im Willehalm Wolframs von Eschenbach. Berlin, Germany: J. B. Metzler, 2018. pp. xi, 256. ISBN: 978-3-476-04789-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Albrecht Classen
The University of Arizona

Wolfram von Eschenbach's Willehalm is today enjoying a much higher reputation than in the past decades. Based on the Old French Bataille d'Aliscans, it pursues not only the goal of telling the story of Margrave Willehalm and his wife Gyburg (formerly Arabel when she was still married to her Muslim husband), but it also explores deeply the relationship between Christians and Muslims, sheds lights on the role of Jews supporting the Christian cause, mirrors considerable tensions between the French king and the margrave because of the former's shortcomings, incorporates many references to love and friendship despite the military conflicts, and presents numerous episodes in which constructive working relationships between the representatives of both religions develop tentatively. It would be erroneous here to recognize a medieval manifestation of tolerance, but there are certainly elements of toleration.

In his doctoral thesis submitted to the University of Tübingen in 2018, Florian Nieser offers a close reading of Wolfram's narrative in comparison with the French source, the, emphasizing the deliberate use of ambiguity to characterize individual figures in Wolfram's text, above all. There are, as he rightly claims, numerous passages that defy easy interpretation because the poet developed rather intriguing character portraits that are highly complex and resist a straightforward analysis. Whether we can therefore jump to the conclusion that Wolfram operated deliberately with duplicity or multiple meanings remains uncertain. At any rate, Nieser predicates his study on the strategy to identify a semiotic system illustrating how the individual figures interact with each other and what that would tell us about their inner feelings, ideals, and values. He calls this the over- or under-determination of actions (9), claiming that the poet projected his protagonists in a rather amorphous manner, which would need a little more specific demonstration than is offered here, irrespective of considerable efforts on Nieser's part to develop a systematic theoretical model to sustain his study.

Basically, the author argues that Wolfram's fictional characters undergo remarkable changes in the course of time, facing existential challenges, learning to control themselves better, experiencing new situations to which they must to adapt. In the first part, Nieser examines the following figures at greater length: Vivianz, Arofels, and Willehalm himself; subsequently, in the second part he turns to Rennewart who proves to be, as previous scholarship has already recognized many times, a complex, difficult individual. After all, he was the son of the royal Muslim house in the East, then sold into slavery; now he lives at Willehalm's court where he experiences considerable abuse, but finds a friend in the margrave. Consequently, Rennewart participates in the war against the Muslim aggressors and achieves heroic glory through his courageous fighting on behalf of the Christian cause, without himself being a Christian.

Nieser calls Willehalm a "wandelnde[n] Zeichenkomplex" (a shifting complex of signs, 170), but this applies to Rennewart as well, and it would be worth including here as well a closer reading of Gyburg as Willehalm's wife, as defender of their castle, as a spokesperson for some kind of toleration, even in war, and as ambassador between the religious groups on the battle field. Whether Vivianz and Arofels can really be identified as amorphous figures seems rather doubtful, since both are glorious heroes, both dying in the war outside of Willehalm's castle, the first in his fight against countless Muslim warriors, the latter in his struggle against the margrave.

The most useful aspect of this study might be the occasional comparisons with the Old French source, although the author does not quote from it enough and does not pursue a textual analysis that would meet higher standards. Rennewart normally fights only with a club, not with a sword, which situates him somewhat outside of the world of knighthood; nevertheless, he still proves to be a most worthy fighter and actually becomes the deciding factor for the outcome of the battle, even though he disappears from view at the end of the text, which leaves Willehalm as a kind of fragment. This does not seem to mean "ambiguity"; instead, we could agree with Nieser (if that was his intention) that Wolfram developed a rather complex set of characters in this epic poem. Most curiously, the one truly conflicted figure, Gyburg, is not considered at any length, which represents a badly missed opportunity.

The outcome of this investigation does not really surprise us; much scholarly ink has already been spilled on the close interpretation of the individual protagonists and their characters, whether they are changing, growing, or developing in the course of events. The theoretical model does not contribute in a significant manner to a deeper understanding of Wolfram's Willehalm, but we can welcome Nieser's work as a solid doctoral dissertation through which he proved his mastery of scholarship in Middle High German literature. The volume concludes with a bibliography, whereas an index is missing. The review copy was printed in a type that is much too small, and it is nothing but a cheap custom copy. Studies like these could be simply published online, as a dissertation, and would not need to be printed in a hard copy.

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