I love sad and dark stories where you can actually see good and evil engaged in battle… I don’t really know why, but ‘beautiful’ stories usually do not catch my attention. The same runs true for films, “Dancer in the Dark” would be a good example -though I still think that Von Trier is totally nuts-. But from time to time it’s very healthy to leave the Brodies, Sutpens, Stavrogins and the like and take a deep breath of pure clean air. So to forget the aftertaste of Miss Brodie I spent some days with the Tristan of Gottfried von Strassburg.
This version is called by my Oxford Guide to Arthurian Legend (a real treasure for those who like these stories) as one the great masterpieces of medieval literature…and it is indeed it beautifully written. It avoids those interminable and tiresome descriptions of battles, brocades and dresses like the ones you get in Lancelot du Lac and centers the attention of the reader on the plot and characters. But what really surprised me was the following passage:
One reads in the old Tale of Tristan that a swallow flew from Cornwall to Ireland and there took a lady’s hair with which to build its nest -I have no idea how the bird knew that the hair was there- and brought it back to the sea. Did ever a swallow nest at such inconvenience that despite the abundance in its own country, it went ranging overseas into strange lands in search of nesting materials? I swear the tale grows fantastic, the story is talking nonsense here!
It was very surprising for me to find Gottfriend addressing the reader in a way that looks very modern, like a device of metafiction. Maybe I’m exaggerating and his aim is just to criticize his sources (in this case the Tristan of Thomas of Britain) and to state they are talking nonsense. But this critical attitude towards his predecessors is not restricted to this passage: it can be seen almost everywhere in the book. He says in other occasions he will not describe the magnificence of the dresses and fabrics or discuss the nature of love because he is not able to show the eloquence of other poets… Well, I tend to think he’s not being completely sincere, because when he finds a topic that he really cherishes -like Isolde’s beauty for example- Gottfried shows he’s got an arsenal of rhetoric resources or ‘eloquence’:
Never again shall I believe that the sun comes form Mycene. Perfect beauty never shone forth over Greece -here is where it dawns! Let all men in their thoughts gaze only at Ireland, let their eyer take pleasure there and see how the new Sun following on its Dawn Isolde after Isolde, shines across from Dublin into every heart.
Gottfried is just very aware of what he likes telling and has got clear ideas on how the story should be told. If you compare the two versions, the one of Thomas of Britain and Gottfried’s there is a huge difference in style -and improvement I daresay-; and there are just around 50 years between them! It just proves how far the Middle Ages were from being a static and rigid period. Authors were reading, learning, changing…and improving very quickly.