The Ecphorizer

Companion to The Hare
Gareth Penn

Issue #44 (April 1985)

One of the major landmarks of medieval literature is the Tristan of Gottfried von Strassburg, a German poet of the early thirteenth century. His verse-romance about the fate of the lovers Tristan and Isolde was one of the two or three most popular works in the German-speaking countries for a couple of centuries after it was written, and it is still with us in one form or [quoteright]another. Gottfried's work was the literary model for Richard Wagner's opera, which is still a big draw at the box office, and fragments of the romance have found their way by folkloristic percolation into other familiar stories. When the huntsman charged with the murder of Snow White takes pity on the girl and spares her life, taking the heart of a slain animal back to show the wicked queen, he is simply acting out the same role that he had in Tristan where he was commanded by Isolde to murder her handmaiden, Brangaene.

Gottfried is a master of verse, and his Tristan still holds fascination for today's reader because of the way in which the author, a bourgeois, calls into question the courtly values that are celebrated in all the other contemporary romances. It is also of interest to the student of medieval literature because it contains an extensive literary evaluation of Gottfried's contemporaries.

Not long after having settled down into his narrative, Gottfried leaves it in order to discuss the literary merits of other writers of his day. He heaps praise on all of them in an excursus lasting several thousand verses. The only exception is an unnamed author whom he faults for composing such esoteric verse that it takes a learned commentary to understand it. Moreover, the unnamed writer has a habit of using metaphor drawn from the realm of gambling:

Who would be companion to the hare,
Upon the heath of words cavorting,
Widely browsing, springing, sporting,
Flinging words like dice upon the heath,
To him I'll grant no laurel wreath...

In this translation of mine, the sense has been sacrificed to euphony to some extent; what Gottfried actually says is that Mr. X is disporting himself on the "heath of words" (wortheide) with "dicing words" (bickelwort) There can't be too much doubt about the identity of the person undergoing this roasting. Gottfried's catalog of authors names everyone of prominence in German letters around the turn of the century except Wolfram von Eschenbach.
Wolfram, like Gottfried, was one of the classic authors for about two centuries following the composition of his major work, Parzival, which, like the Tristan, served as the model for a Wagner opera and survives in bits and pieces in folklore (the three drops of blood on the snow in "Snow White" are a detail from Parzival). Wolfram's verse style is often difficult to follow, as he adores obscure metaphors, and he quite frequently avails himself of the jargon of gambling. For instance, at one point, he offers this observation: "The man who aims for love and honor both is trying to roll a high double" ("high double" = hoher topel, Middle High German for "boxcars"). In other words, fat chance.

While there has never been any doubt about the identity of Gottfried's literary nemesis, one thing that has puzzled the scholarship for a long time is his characterization of his subject as "companion to the hare" (des hasen geselle). For the most part, Germanists have inclined to the opinion that what Gottfried is referring to is the opening verses of Parzival, where Wolfram employs a lengthy and involved metaphor that, he sniffs, the slow of wit will have difficulty grasping: diz vligende bispel ist tumben liuten gar snel–"this flying metaphor is much too quick for the dense"–because it hops and leaps in front of them like a startled hare (schellec hase). It is this passage to which the Gottfried scholarship attributes his characterization of Wolfram as "companion to the hare."

One of the nonclassic authors of this period is a moralist named Hugo von Trimberg. Hugo wrote one work in verse that we know of, which has not been used as the basis for an opera by Richard Wagner and which has not found its way into folklore. From the standpoint of literary quality, you are not missing anything by not reading his Runner ("This book is called The Runner because it shall run throughout the lands"), which consists of nothing but sermons on the evils of vice. While it is not particularly good reading, it is of interest to those who want to find out what people in the thirteenth century did for a good time.

One lengthy passage in the Runner has to do with dicing. Hugo gives example after example of what happens to people who indulge in gambling; e.g., von zinken, quater, esse/ sitzt manger in kummers esse–"because of five, four, one, many a man sits on the coals of trouble." The spot-numbers are borrowed from Old French (esse is our "ace"), and in every instance, Hugo cites three numbers. In four or five of his examples, he makes reference to a "hare"; for instance, in pointing out how foolish it is to try to find a hare in three dice where even a brace of greyhounds would fail. In another instance, he indicates that the "hare" he is talking about can turn on the hunter and destroy him, which would seem to mean that he is not talking about the genus Lepus. Not even in March do hares attack humans.

One of the most popular forms of gambling in the high middle ages was a game called "hazard," in which three dice were used. The modern form of this game goes by the non-euphonious name of "chuck-a-luck," which you can play at many casinos in Nevada. "Hazard," from the Old French hasart, itself a borrowing from Arabic, is in most respects just like the modern game of craps, except that the probability of getting any particular spot-total is different, since craps is played with only two dice. In craps, the most frequently occurring spot-total is seven. If you throw a seven on the first try, you win. If you don't, you have "made point," and in order to win, you must throw the same spot-total again ("come out for point"). If, in the attempt, you then throw a seven, you lose. This ambivalence is very succinctly expressed in our word "hazard." In the game called "hazard," the corresponding spot-total was twelve. A twelve on the first throw was a winner. A player trying to make point (old French chance) who then threw a twelve was wiped out: the hasart had turned on him.

The terminology of the game was borrowed wholesale from the French, including the name itself. There are several forms of the Germanized hasart listed in Middle High dictionaries, one of which is hasehart. By a process known to lexicographers as "Hobson-Jobson," the foreign word, which had no recognizable meaning, was made to resemble a native one (similarly, the Purgatoire River in Colorado was known for a long time as the "Picketwire"). Hase meant "hare," a familiar word, and -hart is a familiar suffix in German names (e.g., Engelhart, Gerhart, etc.). And to some extent, this folk etymology made sense: it is in the nature of hares to be elusive, just like the throw of twelve when you want it. Unlike the wild hare, this one can indeed turn on its hunter and destroy him.

It is possible that Gottfried had Wolfram's schellec hase in mind when he took him to task, but it seems more likely that when he refers to him as "companion to the hare" and as a user of dicing terminology, he is saying the same thing two different ways: the word "hare" itself is a gambling term, a short-hand form of the word hasehart.

For anyone who is interested in reading two classics of medieval literature not written by Geoffrey Chaucer, there is a modern English translation of Tristan by Hatto and one of Parzival by Mustard and Passage. Both are available in paperback. 

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