Hartmann von Aue, Iwein
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1988
Everything could have gone so smoothly, after Iwein – a knight from King Arthur’s famous Round Table – has married the beautiful castle lady Laudine. But when Iwein fails to keep his promise to Laudine to return from his tournaments after a year and a day, she ends the marriage. Iwein is punished for his lateness and expelled from the court. Left on his own, he experiences exciting adventures. He defends the lands of a noble lady and, through another heroic deed, wins a lion as a companion. By coincidence, he meets Lunete, a confidante of Laudine’s. Lunete is sentenced to death, and only a trial, set on the next day, can still save her. Iwein now has the unique chance to redeem his former negligence after marrying Laudine. But this will not be enough to win back his beloved Laudine.
“Iwein”, the second Arthurian tale by Hartmann von Aue, was probably written around the year 1200. Hartmann had freely translated the Old French original tale by Chrétien de Troyes “Yvain ou Le Chevalier au lion“, into Middle High German. With 33 preserved scripts, “Iwein” is one of the best recorded novels of its time and Hartmann von Aue is one of the most notorious poets of the Middle High German classic period, next to Gottfried von Straßburg and Wolfram von Eschenbach.
Although “Iwein” is already over 800 years old, the text is surprisingly easy to understand and has a truly fabulous way of illustrating an incisive conflict: Iwein has broken the promise he made to his wife. He was late and has to win her favour once more. Therefore everything Iwein does stays somewhat relatable and it is easy to identify with him – even though the considerable age gap between hero and reader makes up several centuries. But at the same time, his mission to rehabilitate himself, as all of us have to from time to time, is filigreed with dragons, knights and seemingly hopeless emergencies.
All the adventures of this charming and chaotic Iwein thus form one of the most exciting stories of Renaissance literature, which can easily compare to modern heroes like Harry Potter or Spiderman.
But most of all, a medieval novel like Hartmann’s offers a window to the past and makes us aware that all of these stories we see in Hollywood cinema or in crime literature have not changed that much after all since the Middle Ages. It is still all about honour, failure, love. We still like to listen to storytellers, be it in theatre or in front of the television, and let ourselves be enchanted just as people did hundreds of years ago. “Iwein” thus urges its reader to take a moment and look at this world, which has gotten so much more fast-paced and confusing, and then immerse oneself into the very early stages of our culture. It is texts like “Iwein” that show us: even though everything has changed, we have stayed the same after all.