1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gottfried von Strassburg
GOTTFRIED VON STRASSBURG, one of the chief German poets of the middle ages. The dates of his birth and death are alike unknown, but he was the contemporary of Hartmann von Aue, Wolfram von Eschenbach and Walther von der Vogelweide, and his epic Tristan was written about the year 1210. In all probability he did not belong to the nobility, as he is entitled Meister, never Herr, by his contemporaries; his poem—the only work that can with any certainty be attributed to him bears witness to a learned education. The story of Tristan had been evolved from its shadowy Celtic origins by the French trouvères of the early 12th century, and had already found its way into Germany before the close of that century, in the crude, unpolished version of Eilhart von Oberge. It was Gottfried, however, who gave it its final form. His version is based not on that of Chrétien de Troyes, but on that of a trouvère Thomas, who seems to have been more popular with contemporaries. A comparison of the German epic with the French original is, however, impossible, as Chrétien's Tristan is entirely lost, and of Thomas's only a few fragments have come down to us. The story centres in the fatal voyage which Tristan, a vassal to the court of his uncle King Marke of Kurnewal (Cornwall), makes to Ireland to bring back Isolde as the king's bride. On the return voyage Tristan and Isolde drink by mistake a love potion, which binds them irrevocably to each other. The epic resolves itself into a series of love intrigues in which the two lovers ingeniously outwit the trusting king. They are ultimately discovered, and Tristan flees to Normandy where he marries another Isolde—“Isolde with the white hands”— without being able to forget the blond Isolde of Ireland. At this point Gottfried's narrative breaks off and to learn the close of the story we have to turn to two minor poets of the time, Ulrich von Türheim and Heinrich von Freiberg—the latter much the superior—who have supplied the conclusion. After further love adventures Tristan is fatally wounded by a poisoned spear in Normandy; the “blond Isolde,” as the only person who has power to cure him, is summoned from Cornwall. The ship that brings her is to bear a white sail if she is on board, a black one if not. Tristan's wife, however, deceives him, announcing that the sail is black, and when Isolde arrives, she finds her lover dead. Marke at last learns the truth concerning the love potion, and has the two lovers buried side by side in Kurnewal.
It is difficult to form an estimate of Gottfried's independence of his French source; but it seems clear that he followed closely the narrative of events he found in Thomas. He has, however, introduced into the story an astounding fineness of psychological motive, which, to judge from a general comparison of the Arthurian epic in both lands, is German rather than French; he has spiritualized and deepened the narrative; he has, above all, depicted with a variety and insight, unusual in medieval literature, the effects of an overpowering passion. Yet, glowing and seductive as Gottfried's love-scenes are, they are never for a moment disfigured by frivolous hints or innuendo; the tragedy is unrolled with an earnestness that admits of no touch of humour, and also, it may be added, with a freedom from moralizing which was easier to attain in the 13th than in later centuries. The mastery of style is no less conspicuous. Gottfried had learned his best lessons from Hartmann von Aue, but he was a more original and daring artificer of rhymes and rhythms than that master; he delighted in the sheer music of words, and indulged in antitheses and allegorical conceits to an extent that proved fatal to his imitators. As far as beauty of expression is concerned, Gottfried's Tristan is the masterpiece of the German court epic.
Gottfried's Tristan has been frequently edited: by H. F. Massman (Leipzig, 1843); by R. Bechstein (2 vols., 3rd ed., Leipzig, 1890-1891); by W. Golther (2 vols., Stuttgart, 1889); by K. Marold (1906). Translations into modern German have been made by H. Kurz (Stuttgart, 1844); by K. Simrock (Leipzig, 1855); and, best of all, by W. Hertz (Stuttgart, 1877). There is also an abbreviated English translation by Jessie L. Weston (London, 1899). The continuation of Ulrich von Türheim will be found in Massman's edition; that by Heinrich von Freiberg has been separately edited by R. Bechstein (Leipzig, 1877). See also R. Heinzel, “Gottfrieds von Strassburg Tristan und seine Quelle” in the Zeit. für deut. Alt. xiv. (1869), pp. 272 ff.; W. Golther, Die Sage von Tristan und Isolde (Munich, 1887); F. Piquet, L'Originalité de Gottfried de Strasbourg dans son poème de Tristan et Isolde (Lille, 1905). K. Immermann (q.v.) has written an epic of Tristan und Isolde (1840), R. Wagner (q.v.) a musical drama (1865). Cp. R. Bechstein, Tristan und Isolde in der deutschen Dichtung der Neuzeit (Leipzig, 1877).