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23.10.19 Oehme, The Knight without Boundaries

23.10.19 Oehme, The Knight without Boundaries

A short monograph of approximately 168 pages of body text, The Knight without Boundaries follows a 2020 book by the same author on women’s roles in the titular languages and texts, with the present work containing revised work from that monograph and several other already-published articles on the same themes. As an extended discussion of adaptation theories and storyworld frameworks, the book weaves deftly between periods, languages, cultures, and religions to highlight the narrative patterns behind a seemingly disjointed transmission history. Five chapters examine individual texts within the wider network of related texts, both commenting, usually briefly, on the texts themselves and much more situating them within an adaptation matrix that can serve various purposes.

The introduction immediately distinguishes German- and Yiddish-speaking communities as different “ethno-cultural groups” (2) whose interactions surrounding this narrative are intertwined across time and space, a unique literary history among the other medieval German literary monuments. Wirnt von Grafenberg’s well-attested early thirteenth-century romance of Wigalois, son of Gawain, and the anonymous Viduvilt, a Yiddish adaptation tradition found in three sixteenth-century manuscripts, though possibly older, present two starting points of adaptation. When the former text was largely forgotten in the early modern period, Johann Christoph Wagenseil’s 1699 Yiddish textbook transmitted the Yiddish text to new generations of would-be adapters and circumvented the Middle High German text from which it drew. More recent adaptations have returned to the “original” material that scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries elevated above the later Yiddish texts. The Yiddish tradition is comparatively shrouded in mystery with both the name of the compiler and the location of composition unknown, though perhaps in one the northern Italian centers of Yiddish publishing. During the period of the Yiddish texts’ popularity (the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries) the German version was lesser known, perhaps nearly forgotten--German audiences generally lost track of much Arthurian material during this period. Oehme views this reception history as it unfolds and resonates across the centuries, neither seeking Urtexte or separating language-specific threads, whereas most scholarship on Wigalois has largely overlooked this transmission history; the literature review is accordingly light. The introduction proposes a modified framework of adaptation studies, which accounts for medieval modes of textual transmission and reading competing variants and manuscripts (i.e., a storyworld model, which is mentioned with that term later).

Chapter 1 examines a 1786 anti-Catholic satire (Märchen) by Ferdinand Roth that blends contemporary satirical writing with an intentional “medieval” narrative style playing on established traditions from the Yiddish text Artis Hof in Wagenseil’s Belehrung--an “extensive experimentation with written and oral storytelling” (23). After reviewing the translation/retelling debate in medieval literary studies, the author here consciously embraces the ambiguity of both terms. In a reception-oriented analysis, texts are situated and diachronically contingent, but can also appear non-linear from the point of view of the reader and accessible at any stage in the trajectory of a reception history. The theoretical discussion is remarkably cogent and benefits from the following section on Roth’s own “narratological reflections” on the adaptation as a unique iteration among many possible texts and genres, on orality and music in the text, and on practices and experiences of listening and reading. Here one finds a discussion of the storyworld (38), an approach which appears to provide the same advantages as a “modified adaptation theory.” Because this chapter is not really about Roth’s text but a non-linear, achronological journey through the tradition it inhabits, most of the discussion focuses on its intertextual dimensions and their engagement with the metanarrative framing of adaptations qua adaptations. In the Wigalois/Viduvilt tradition(s), at least, translations and retellings appear not to be discrete categories.

In chapter 2, the medieval German Wigalois is placed within scholarly debates on religion, magic, and the supernatural. Oehme argues that Wirnt attempts to break down discursive religious boundaries between heathens and Christians, history and the present, and classical mythology and religion. The text is thus marked structurally and narratively by hybridity and existing narrative traditions across the Matters of Rome, Britain, and France. Within this framework, Wigalois is presented as a messianic figure of a Christianity that absorbs and adapts the world around it, providing a basis for later Jewish engagements with this heterogeneity. Later German adaptations sought to “correct” this aspect of the text, e.g., creating stronger divides between Christians and heathens. Perhaps this openness to crossing boundaries accounts for the presence of the romance’s hero in other genres, e.g., heroic epic, which is a strong characteristic of storyworlds (in this chapter the term appears also to signify the narrative world in the story itself, which may be an error, 69).

The third chapter examines Viduvilt, a sixteenth-century “non-religious” text supposed to be a sign of deep interest and engagement with the Arthurian world. Given different conditions for manuscript/textual survival and transmission in the Yiddish-speaking world, its thirteen printed editions and three manuscripts reflect a large presence in early Yiddish literature. Significantly shorter than the German text, it trims details and descriptive passages, as often occurs in other Early New High German prose adaptations of medieval texts. Particularly the omission of the battle in Namur, a divergence from the Arthurian tradition, aligns Viduvilt with classic Arthurian romances but the text also exhibits marked alterations in women’s roles, humor, and the deconstruction of knighthood, possibly parodically. Scholars have sought to explain the text as “Jewish” by virtue of parallels with other religious narratives, but Oehme gathers newer perspectives from across Yiddish and Jewish studies to show that it is neither Judaized nor completely removed from Christian trappings, but is nevertheless less religious than the original--and in some later adaptations made more religious over time. In a typical maneuver in Old Yiddish texts, the “heathen other” trope is absent, but overall Viduvilt demonstrates that the audience was familiar with Arthurian literature and knights, e.g., one finds consistent pictorial representation of fighting knights even in the Yiddish tradition where significantly fewer illustrations are available. The thirteenth-century Hebrew fragment Melekh Artus about Lancelot provides a foil to show in what ways the composer of Viduvilt could have Judaized the text but chose not to.

Chapter 4 presents Wagenseil’s textbook, which frames Artis Hof as a Judaized blend of Middle High German heroic poetry and English legend, marking the status of Arthurian literature in German lands in that period. The text provides a transcription, meant to convey both Yiddish and German to their respective opposite audiences and as a means to “improve” the improper language of German Jews. Wagenseil, the humanist, Christian Hebraist, possessed a massive private library of Judaica, including Yiddish literature, which he put to use in missionary and commercial contexts for popular but learned audiences. Artis Hof offers a multilingual, multiscript format of (not quite perfect) facing-page layout with clear principles of differentiation found in the selection of typefaces, rubrication, and other aspects. As with the other texts in the book, it highlights the notion of Yiddish as a hybrid language, in essence a corrupted German, that should be understood but also overcome. Adaptation here becomes appropriation, a missionary violence to the linguistic and other identities of the primary audience.

In the final chapter Oehme turns to China. Gabein, 1788-1789, an “update” of the literary tradition in a larger, more cosmopolitan world, presents a religiously universal worldview (specifically Judeo-Christian or monotheist, however one might interrogate one or both of these terms). A transliterated Yiddish text surviving only in a 1926 collection of Arthurian literature, Gabein exhibits a language mix of Old Yiddish and German, even to the level of individual words, e.g., a prefix and root with divergent forms. Furthermore, the extant edition adapted from a now-lost, nine-page original is commented by its editor, Leo Landau, placing the text already within a scholarly apparatus. While it has unsurprisingly received little critical attention, much remains to speculate about the audience, language, the meaning of linguistic choices. From the Arthurian court to the “real world” of Sardinia and China, Oehme discusses otherness and the familiar space of the other as a colonial preoccupation of a text from an orientalist milieu; it is not entirely clear to the present reviewer if it is such a marked category to employ the familiar to describe the foreign, but the influence of eighteenth-century debates about the place of Chinese religion(s) in the western framework is clear.

Oehme mentions Game of Thrones analogously as a filmic-literary space that can be accessed at any point and therefore functions as non-linear media--this sort of mythopoetic canvas lies at the heart of storyworld frameworks. Unusually free of typographical errors (only two were found, “translation and conversation” [conversion], 129, and “Chine” [Chinese], 158), the book follows a series-level stylesheet of replicating details across chapters (e.g., dates of works and abbreviations) that allows easy access to them individually. Although not every argument is supported by as much evidence as one might wish, the strength of the book lies in its application of newer directions in narratology across the centuries. In this regard it is a welcome contribution to the fields of German and Yiddish literature, medieval studies, and transmedial theory.