Tristan und Isolde, c. 1210 (Tristan and Isolde, 1899)
Nothing is known of the life of Gottfried von Strassburg (GAWT-freet fawn SHTRAHS-burk) beyond what can be gleaned from his own work and from references to him by his contemporaries. He was certainly born in the late twelfth century. Unlike his contemporary court poets, Gottfried was probably from a bourgeois family, since he is referred to as meister rather than herr. The commercial center of Strassburg may have been his birthplace or may simply have been where he lived. The name Dietrich, perhaps a wealthy bourgeois patron from Strassburg, appears as an acrostic at the beginning of Tristan.
Whether in Strassburg or elsewhere, perhaps at a monastery school, Gottfried received an excellent education. The title meister may suggest that he was a learned man. He knew French and Latin very well and was particularly fond of Vergil and Ovid. He was acquainted with scholasticism and with law. He was a skilled versifier and was aware of the poetic currents of his time. In Tristan and Isolde, he refers to Hartmann von Aue as his master. He also refers to Reinmar der Alte as having died (Reinmar died in 1210) and alludes to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (c. 1200-1210) disparagingly. Wolfram responded to Gottfried’s criticism in Willehalm(begun c. 1212), which fixes the date of composition of Tristan andIsolde around 1210.
Gottfried based his version of Tristan and Isolde on Thomas of Britain’s version. In Gottfried’s tale, Tristan goes to Ireland in order to bring back Isolde, bride of his uncle, the king of Cornwall. By mistake, the two drink a love potion and so are bound irrevocably to each other. For a time, they deceive the cuckold king. When their guilty love is revealed, Tristan flees to Normandy, where he marries a different Isolde and where he is wounded by a poisoned spear. Only the Irish Isolde can cure him, but the jealous wife makes him believe she cannot come. The Irish Isolde dies of grief. Tristan’s death moves the king to pity, and he has the lovers buried side by side. This latter part is taken from fragments written in continuation by two followers of Gottfried, Ulrich von Turheim and Heinrich von Freiberg.
Besides Tristan and Isolde, Gottfried is believed to have written shorter poems which are no longer extant. Poems attributed to him in various manuscripts are spurious. However, scholars do believe that two lyrics previously attributed to Ulrich von Lichtenstein are probably Gottfried’s. Gottfried’s Tristan and Isolde is the best version of a story that many other French and German poets had tried: Chrétien de Troyes, the trouvère Thomas, and Eilhart von Oberge, among others, attempted the Tristan and Isolde theme. Many translations have been made of the epic, but none improves upon the original. The psychological overtones, the deft poetic insights, and the lack of didacticism make it one of the unique and original masterpieces of world literature.