Female Agency in the Nibelungenlied, Tristan, and Parzival

Women have long fascinated artists and poets alike. Though they have historically been excluded from participation in the creation of great works of art and writing, they consistently appear as both muses and subjects in paintings, poems, and reflections of the greatest creative thinkers across time and space. Literature, with its propensity to reflect and interpret the world as seen by its writer, is a particularly valuable case study in the agency of women, in this case, from Medieval Germany. Gottfried’s and Wolfram’s women, along with those of the anonymous poet of the Nibelungenlied, possess many unique traits and attitudes, as a reflection of the wide world of women these writers would have encountered in their lives. And, just like these real-life women, there is an overall lack of agency on the part of these great ladies in both their own lives and those of the heroes that encounter them. Instead of stopping with a neat label reading “antiquated and sexist,” however, it is crucial to take each poem and its ladies as its own particular case. When one does this, he or she finds a rich world of unexpected turns, curious contradictions, and a much greater complication of relationships between the sexes. These stories may be old, but they are not irrelevant.

The Nibelungenlied presents the most challenges to what might be perceived as the “Medieval norm,” as it is a story far older than the anonymous 13th-century poet who recorded it. Consequently, it has themes and attitudes that had fallen out of fashion by the time of its recording, and had to be reconfigured in a way that was true to the original and yet appealing to modern audiences. It begins with two maidens, Kriemhild and Brunhild, renowned far and wide for their perfect beauty. In Kriemhild’s case, this is the beginning and the end of her valuation; she is “fair,” “beautiful,” and “lovely”— and all this on one page (Rieu 17). Brunhild, on the other hand, is also a powerful warrior maiden, possessing outstanding strength that enables her almost total autonomy. This autonomy, however, is taken from her by Siegfried, first by assisting Gunther to overpower her and, in doing so, acquire her territories, and later by subduing her in order for Gunther to deflower her. The fact of these exploits, as well as the way they are described, is deeply indicative of women’s status at the time. In spite of her impressive strength and vast wealth, Brunhild’s primary function here is as a challenge to be overcome by the poem’s hero, Siegfried. This first conquest to win her as Gunther’s wife is particularly excellent for Siegfried, who is established as the only man who can truly stand up to Brunhild’s fantastic strength, but simultaneously allows for a graceful defeat on Brunhild’s part. She keeps her word and her pride, since the point of this episode is not to humiliate her, but rather to exult Siegfried.

Brunhild’s deflowering, however, is another matter entirely. Her rape by Siegfried and Gunther accomplishes the singular goal of eradicating her pride and her strength, the two things that maintained her position as Gunther’s equal, even his superior. The scene is hard to stomach, especially given the poet’s narration: Brunhild is called an “arrogant girl,” and Siegfried handles her so viciously that “she shrieked aloud” and “her joints cracked all over her body” (92). And when she is finally subdued, Gunther quite literally breaks her: “His loving had reduced her to this,” with “this” being a wife “no stronger than any other woman” (93). It is clear from the poet’s language that he acknowledges this violence, and perhaps even pities Brunhild, but the prevailing cultural expectation that women should submit to their husbands nevertheless prevails in his narration. Brunhild is humiliated and enfeebled, and appears in the Nibelungenlied from this point on as a humble wife and unfortunate victim— of trickery by Siegfried and Gunther and taunting by Kriemhild— until she eventually fades from the narrative without so much as a farewell.

Kriemhild’s story arc moves in the opposite direction from Brunhild’s. She begins the story mild-mannered, noble, and lovely; in short, the epitome of the “willing bride.” There is nothing remarkable or even interesting about Kriemhild in the first half of the poem; it is only after Siegfried’s death that she begins to defy her status as an ideal wife and woman and ultimately orchestrates the destruction of two entire kingdoms. She does not simply become the agent of revenge as defined and desired by herself alone, but rather zooms past being only controversial to being completely unmanageable by her husband, brothers, or enemy. The Huns and the Burgundians have no choice but to operate within an ordeal of her creating, giving her agency not only over herself, but over the entire cast of the Nibelungenlied. However, Kriemhild is vilified for her choices— rightly so, since they led to the slaughter of many men— with a particular emphasis on her sex, which was not supposed to seek revenge, let alone wield a sword. Kriemhild, however, clearly defies these conventions, most vehemently when she picks up a sword and uses it to kill both Gunther and Hagen. It is frequently mentioned how shameful it would be for a great warrior to be killed by a woman, and Hatto emphasizes that “Women should not take up the sword to slay. Their womanhood should prevent it” (319). But Kriemhild’s womanhood does not prevent her from slaying these two men. The implications thereof are hazy; it is difficult to say what Kriemhild is if she has defied her womanhood, but the conclusions are almost all negative. So though she may be a she-devil, she is a she-devil with extraordinary power that is rarely afforded any character, let alone a woman.

This mirroring of arcs between Brunhild and Kriemhild provides the audience a pleasant balance from start to end in the types of epithets for the leading ladies. When we are first introduced to Brunhild, she is “a rib of the Devil himself” and fit to be “the Devil’s drab in hell” (65-66). But as the plot progresses with Brunhild being subdued and Kriemhild becoming embittered at the murder of her husband, there is a reversal of the “Eve” and “Mary” archetypes, and Kriemhild becomes the new she-devil of the poem. The poet, then, allows for a dynamism in his female characters that male heroes hardly ever enjoy. The transformations of the kings and Hagen from the first to second half, though dramatic, are less the result of character development and more a side effect of our poet’s mashing two otherwise incompatible stories into one. Kriemhild and Brunhild, on the other hand, evolve as a result of distinct and pointed experiences. Consequently they become two of the most psychologically developed characters, especially compared to Siegfried. However, it is worth noting that, in both cases, the changes undergone by Kriemhild and Brunhild are the results of events entirely out of their control. Brunhild was  transformed by force and rape into a docile wife; Kriemhild’s husband was murdered, and her grief and rage become the agents of her revenge. Despite the relative complexity and force of these women, they remain largely without agency within the narrative.

Gottfried’s Tristan marks a shift in content from old mythology to courtly literature, and the characters reflect this. Isolde, the leading lady, is everything a woman should be: beautiful, talented, graceful, and educated. Her only shortcoming is that she is an unfaithful wife— which can hardly be counted her fault, since she is the unfortunate victim of a misused love potion. This seems to be a theme for Gottfried’s younger ladies: Isolde the younger, Brangane, and Isolde of the White Hands are all relegated to unfortunate circumstances wherein they still largely maintain their nobility, at least to the reader. In the cases of the two Isoldes, this honorable behavior comes with the obvious exceptions of an affair and sabotage, respectively; however, Gottfried, by way of framing his story, absolves these ladies of their misdeeds. Isolde the Fair, as previously stated, was the target of misplaced magic, and Isolde of the White Hands entered into a marriage under false pretenses with a man who would not be a good husband to her.

Brangane, however, possesses an agency of which neither of the Isoldes take advantage. Though it runs throughout the entire poem, one does not truly appreciate Brangane’s autonomy until “Brengvein’s Revenge.” Up to this point, Brangane is devoted to her lady and her lady’s lover, taking responsibility for the love potion mix-up. This, however, is a self-imposed duty. Brangane behaves exactly as she should when Isolde the elder gives her the love potion; the fact that it went to Isolde and Tristan rather than Isolde and Mark is a mistake that can hardly be pinned on someone. It is her own standards of nobility and honor that inspire Brangane to conspire with the lovers, even going so far as to sacrifice her virginity to protect their secret. But unlike Brunhild, this was a conscious choice on her part; Brangane decides for herself how to be involved, and eventually to not be involved at all.

Despite her perfect loyalty, though, Brangane eventually does reach a breaking point. The final straw is her brief affair with Caerdin, for which Cariado berates her and Ysolt is to blame, as far as Brengvein can tell. She recounts the scene in which Isolde tried to have her killed and disparages her as a Richolt for manipulating her into sleeping with Caerdin— which she truly believed was the case (325). Aside from this sticking point, however, her complaints against Isolde are well-founded, and the result is a refreshing scene in which a woman clearly understands her own self-worth and demands to be valued accordingly. In stark contrast, Ysolt responds by shifting the blame to anyone she can, starting with Tristran and eventually flinging the sordidness of her affair with Tristran back at Brengvein. In constructing the exchange this way, Thomas subtly frames the idea of agency in a new way by reminding the audience that Ysolt is more than just a victim of a love potion. Even if she does not choose to fall in love with Tristran, she chooses to take advantage the truest friend she is likely to find, and that friend chooses to stick up for herself.

What is particularly remarkable about this episode, however, is that it ends with no villains. Ysolt is placed back into the role of a star-crossed lover, and Brengvein makes her point without utterly betraying the lovers. She speaks to Mark about Ysolt’s behavior, yes, but instead of telling him the reality and extent of Ysolt’s affair with Tristran— which she certainly could have done— she only suggests that Ysolt is prepared to commit adultery, with no mention of her previous extramarital excursions. This enhances the perception that Brengvein is both a noble lady and deeply wronged— the two need not be mutually exclusive. Ysolt can be reprimanded, Brengvein can exact revenge for her tarnished reputation, and all this can be accomplished in a way that still allows for a peaceful and believable reconciliation. Though it is slightly disappointing that the greatest agency among Gottfried’s (and Thomas’) women is in regard to their jealousy and anger, it is nevertheless a testament to the writer that he allows these flaws into his ladies without compromising their overall nobleness.

Wolfram, the resident “ladies’ man” of our poets, unsurprisingly takes a different, rather more sympathetic approach. His cast in Parzival is much larger and more varied than that in either of the previous books, which makes an in-depth analysis of each of his women difficult to accomplish; most of the women are classic damsels in distress, beautiful and powerless against their woes until Parzival or Gawan enter the scene. Of course, there are exceptions to or complicated versions of this rule: consider Jeschute. Her unfortunate situation is the fault of two idiotic men and not herself, yet she is the one who must suffer. Eventually Parzival and her husband Orilus make amends, and Jeschute accepts her husband happily. The fact that her character is lauded for her patient suffering and quick forgiveness is highly indicative of the culture in which Wolfram wrote her story, a culture that prefers their ladies to suffer silently and gracefully rather than demand the respect and credibility they deserve. An angry woman is not a respectable woman, and the two are incompatible: Gottfried, working in the same time and place, writes, “those warring contradictions, womanhood and anger . . . accord so ill together” (176), causing one to wonder if he has ever met a female. Women are allowed to become angry, but at the cost of their womanhood— consider Kriemhild. Therefore, in order for Jeschute to continue to be perceived in a favorable light, she must relinquish her dignity and her right to anger until it is granted to her once again by her husband.

Even if a woman’s anger is justified and acknowledged by the writer, she does not escape scot-free. Messenger of the Gral and probable witch Cundrie berates Parzival for his failure to ask The Question and, by doing so, save Anfortas from his suffering. She is absolutely right, even if her speech is at Parzival’s expense. But Cundrie is not allowed both the truth and beauty; rather, she is unbelievably ugly. This is contrary to the Medieval convention of equating goodness with beauty and evil with ugliness. The state of Cundrie’s heart is not reflected in her appearance, as is the case with practically every other character in Medieval literature. One must wonder at this— something about her is distasteful enough to block her from the aesthetic realm of the “good.” Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that her authority supersedes that of Parzival— or any knights of the Round Table, for that matter. Maybe she is hideous because, by expressing her anger unabashedly, she has surrendered her womanhood in a very literal sense; more likely, however, is that some combination of these factors and others contribute in unison to the contrast in Cundrie’s character and her appearance. There is no way to ascertain a definite answer. What can be noted for sure, though, is that Cundrie is both the only ugly woman and the only woman to (correctly) disparage a well-respected man in Parzival.

Perhaps the starkest contrast to Gottfried’s delegation of female agency can be found in Antikonie. Where Isolde and Brangane can take credit only for their misbehavior, Antikonie is pardoned on all accounts for hers. In relieving her of her agency, Wolfram actually does her reputation a favor. Antikonie comes out of the lascivious episode with Gawan seeming rather loose and disreputable, which is, by most accounts, the worst thing a Medieval lady could be. However, Wolfram hastens to her defense: “We should welcome sweet, modest, true-hearted Antikonie with praises, for her conduct was such that her good name was never overrun by calumny” (218). It is interesting that she is defended in no uncertain terms, especially given the implication that, if Antikonie is blameless, Gawan is primarily to blame for their brief affair. He is, after all, the one who grabs Antikonie’s thigh without consent; however, remember that, when describing her physical appearance in great detail, Wolfram insists that “her form was made to kindle love’s desire” (210). This creates an awkward frame for placing blame.  There is clear attraction on both their parts, but while Gawan’s actions are explicitly at fault, Antikonie’s rests with her perfect beauty that was, in a sense, “asking for it.” So the blame can, after all, be distributed evenly, but in a way that indicates action or agency on Antikonie’s part. She is a perfect lady in demeanor as well as physical form, and it is the latter that put the former in a precarious position.

The common theme among all these pieces is that, though their writers had no aversion to putting their ladies centerstage, they could not seem to allow their womanhood and their agency to coexist. One is always sacrificed for the other, sometimes explicitly in the case of lovely Kriemhild who becomes a vengeful she-devil, but more often in subtle ways of justified (and eventually resolved) anger or absolution of moral transgressions. It comes as no surprise that, in a patriarchal society, ladies in literature take less action than their male counterparts. What is worth noting, however, are the varied ways this worldview comes through in each of these poems. The anonymous poet of the Nibelungenlied expresses a tension between empathy for Brunhild and Kriemhild and the expectation that they behave like ladies. Gottfried and Wolfram adore noble women and laud them to no end, but where Gottfried concedes their autonomy only in terms of unladylike behavior, Wolfram exonerates them fully or, when exoneration is not an option, subtly chips at her womanhood until the standards are no longer the same. It is easy to become frustrated with this parade of powerless women— as evidenced by copious margin notes along the lines of “ugh,” “this is gross,” or “cool it buddy”— but the frustration is alleviated by the diversity of women, particularly in Parzival. These poems may have been the product of a male-dominated society, but their creators cannot be accused of ignoring or hating women. After all, even among the aforementioned marginal comments there exist a handful of notes that say “yas gurl.”

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