Something that can be clearly taken from both my reading and others’ analyses is that Gottfried was unkind in his description of court life. The kings are incapable of acting on their own, deferring their decisions to the desires of others whenever possible.

[This is the part III of a three part series. To start at part I, click here. To start with part II, click here.]

Mark, Tristan’s seigneur, is so ineffectual that when he spies his wife and Tristan making love, he seeks out his vassals rather than draws his sword. The members of the court are involved in intrigues against the king and each other. They plot to steal Isolde and to destroy Tristan. However, they are incapable of succeeding at even those endeavors.

And they are incapable of love. The only good hearts are Tristan’s adoptive family in Normandy and his birth parents, Blancheflor and Rivalin. We never learn what type of lovers Tristan and Isolde could have been without the love potion. Courtly virtue, including courtly love, are imitations. True virtue and true love are independent of the aristocracy. In Joachim Bumke’s analysis, noble love stands in opposition to the established social hierarchy.

Tristan, himself not a lover, stands above everyone else in terms of his virtue and prowess. He hones his abilities as a warrior, leads the court in combat and ritual, and has the ear of the king in every decision. The first third of the romance discusses his exceptional upbringing and character. He charms men and women with his poetic tongue, his musicianship, and his hunting. Every king is inferior to him, practically deferring to him as if they were his vassals.

Tristan, however, sharpens the distinction between himself and the court when he pretends to be the son of a merchant. Twice in the story he claims a humble birth in order to disguise himself. The rouse ends only when he is discovered.

In the first instance he claims to be a boy abducted and brought to Cornwall. The court is so surprised by his eloquence in all languages, his knowledge of the customs of court, and ability to sing and play the harp, that they ask how a poor burger could know these things. He answers: training and education, those things that the bourgeoisie use to imitate the aristocrats.

The second time he pretends to be a minstrel who has tried his hand at trade but has fallen on hard times. He disguises himself so that he can been cured by the queen of Ireland, the sister of the man whom Tristan has killed and who poisoned him. Known as Tantris, he gives lessons to Isolde in music. He returns in this guise again, slaying a dragon that has plagued Ireland but that no one could stop. Severely wounded, and again in the care of the queen and Isolde, the young woman bemoans the social position that fate has given Tantris.

“By rights he should rule a kingdom or some land of suitable standing. It is an odd world, where so very many thrones are filled by men of inferior race and not one has fallen to his lot. … He has been greatly wronged: Lord, Thou hast given him a station in life out of keeping with his person!”

Tristan is part trickster, and he has the station that Isolde imagines he deserves. Nevertheless, his superiority casts a light on the inferiority of the nobility. They follow his example, learning from him, imitating him. The seeds of virtue are not in their birth, but in their self-improvement, which they pursue half-heartedly.

It may go to far to read Gottfried’s bourgeois credentials in his critique of court life. I am tempted to compare the discussion of virtues, imitation and education with Norbert EliasCivilizing Process and the history of manners. However, the similarities reflect less on Gottfried that on Elias’ passions and the interests of 19th and early 20th C social scientists. Back in the 19thC, Tristan might have contradicted imperial ideology by showing how inferior kings weigh down nations. A strong portrait of aristocratic depravity, the Hohenzollerns would want to separate themselves from the romance. At the academic level the social critique of the romance was taken more seriously, placing Gottfried against the politics of nationalism and the compulsion for cultural purity.

BTW, get Gottfried’s book and read it

History : Germany : Literature