A Collection of Popular Tales from the Norse and North German

by Peter Christian Asbjørsen | 1907 | 107,268 words

The Norsemen came from the East, and brought a common stock of tradition with them. Settled in the Scandinavian peninsula, they developed themselves through Heathenism, Romanism, and Lutheranism, in a locality little exposed to foreign influence, so that even now the Dale-man in Norway or Sweden may be reckoned among the most primitive examples lef...

Chapter III - Legend of Tannhauser

One evening when the noble knight Tannhäuser was sitting in a miserable wayside inn, grumbling over the fate that had made him a poor man instead of a prince, he was startled by a loud knocking at the door. He felt a moment’s terror lest it should be the bailiffs come to arrest him for debt; but instead of that, it was his good lord, Duke Friedrich of Badenberg, who ruled the rich Danubian land of Austria.

The duke chid the young man for his debts and follies, and then, giving him a purse full of gold, desired him to return to court, where his music and society were much missed.

So Tannhäuser once more returned to court, and took part in the gay doings there. He also aided his liege lord in many a famous battle waged against the enemies of the realm. He was a great favourite of his master, both because of his gift of song, and because of his bravery. So Friedrich gave him the fair estate of Leopoldsdorf, near Vienna, as well as a large sum of money.

The Hohenstaufens, too, looked upon him favourably, both the Emperor Frederick II., and his son Konrad, who ruled in Germany after him. The minstrel received many gifts at their hands, and was devoted to their service.

But although large sums were thus continually passing into his coffers, he was always in debt. In course of time his patron the Duke was killed in the battle of the Leitha. He mourned him deeply, and wrote a number of beautiful songs in memory of the man who had been so kind to him. But at length his poetic soul began to turn with more pleasure to cheerful themes, so he collected what little remained of his wealth, and, setting out in the bright summer days, he wandered from castle to castle, and from town to town, sometimes hungry, sometimes happy, as he was ill or well received. He travelled through Bavaria, and remained some time at Nürnberg, where song was loved and studied; and after that he crossed the Alps into Italy. At Pavia, he made the acquaintance of a German knight, who was much drawn to the fascinating minnesinger, and he, in his turn, to the knight’s fair daughter, Kunigunde. The old knight, on being asked for his daughter’s hand, replied that he liked Tannhäuser very much, and would give him his daughter willingly if he had the wherewithal to support her. Minstrelsy was all very well, he added, but it would not keep a family in bread and butter. “You have both your sword and your harp to trust to,” he concluded with a smile; “go, and make enough money to set up house, and then I will give you Kunigunde.”

Tannhäuser took leave of his lady-love, promising to return in a year with the needful provision; and he hopefully intended to keep his promise.

He rode away sad at heart; but the weather was so beautiful, and the birds were singing so gaily, that he could not remain sad long. He sang wherever he could get an audience, but sweet and joyous as was the music he made, it brought him no gold. He therefore tried what his sword could do for him, and fought under the banner of King Konrad, against his rival Heinrich Raspe, the “pope’s king,” thereby helping to win the battle of Ulm. He was handsomely rewarded for his assistance. Then he went back to Italy, and fought there also for the Hohenstaufens, for which service he was richly paid. Once, soon after this, he sought and found shelter for the night in a castle where many knights were assembled. After supper he delighted every one with his minstrelsy. But immediately after he had ceased to sing, a stranger came in, dressed in black garments embroidered with gold, and wearing black feathers in his cap. He had a harp in his hand, and, seating himself, began to play and sing in a deep, powerful, and yet melodious, voice. His song was strange and eerie in its effect. The guests all glanced at each other in silence when it was done. They felt ill at ease, they knew not why.

Tannhäuser, throwing off the unaccountable feeling that possessed him, caught up his harp, and sang a merry ditty about woods and birds and flowers, and soon both he and the other guests were restored to their former cheerfulness. After that, they all began to play at dice. Tannhäuser won large sums, and lost them again immediately to the black stranger, and not only these, but some of the money he had put aside for his marriage.

The next day, when he left the castle, the stranger went with him, remained with him all day, and before night fell, had won all his money from him. Seeing how sad Tannhäuser looked, the stranger laughed, and said:

“Do not pull such a long face over so small a matter as the loss of a few gold pieces, but come with me to Wartburg; Landgrave Hermann has summoned a minstrel tournament to meet, in which the prizes are lands and wealth, but he who fails will lose his head. My name is Klingsohr, and I come from Hungary. I am willing to enter into an alliance with you. Your songs are like the bliss of heaven; mine, like the horrors of hell. If we are successful, you may have the wealth—I shall take the heads; if, on the other hand, we lose, we shall go together to heaven or hell; what does it matter which? You shudder like a weakling to hear me talk thus, for you believe the tales the priests tell you about fire and brimstone; but instead of that, it is the realm of Dame Venus, who gives her friends the most exquisite pleasures earth can afford, and both silver and gold in abundance. If you do not care for the minstrel tournament, you can visit the fair queen on the road to Wartburg, for she lives in the Hörselberg, which we shall have to pass.”

Tannhäuser listened to his companion with a shudder; but when he went on to describe the unspeakable glories of the Hörselberg, and to tell of the marvellous charms of the queen, he felt a growing desire to see Dame Venus with his own eyes. So he set out with his strange companion, forgetting, or nearly forgetting, Kunigunde, and his love for her.

When the travellers approached the mountains of Thuringia they were joined by a tall and stately man in full armour, with his sword at his side, and a white staff in his hand. As they walked on together, they exchanged confidences as to who they were, and from whence they came. The new-comer said:

“People call me the faithful Eckhard, the Harlung’s comfort, for I took care of the noble youths for many years; but, alas! wicked Ermenrich, and his evil counsellor Sibich, slew them in my absence, and all I could do was to avenge their death.”

“The Harlungs, Ermenrich, Sibich,” repeated Tannhäuser thoughtfully, “it must have been long ago.”

“Three or four hundred years or even more may have passed since then,” answered Eckhard. “I find it difficult to reckon time after the manner of men; but ever since those old days I have been busily employed in warning people away from the Venus Mount.”

Klingsohr burst out laughing, and cried, “Spare your words, old fool; so you are one of the idiots who blaspheme Dame Venus.”

“Get thee behind me, tempter,” said Eckhard; “I am going to take the good knight to the Wartburg, where he may win glory and wealth.”

“And I am going on to prepare his lodging in our queen’s palace,” answered the other, as he set off at a brisk pace towards the mountains.

The minstrel and Eckhard continued their way quietly, talking the while. At last they came to the beautiful Hörselthal, with its meadows, trees, and rushing stream, and, a little farther on, to a bleak mountain, out of which came a confused sound as of waves beating a rock-bound coast, the roar and clatter of a water-mill, human cries of rage, and the howling of wild beasts.

“That is the Hörselberg,” said Eckhard, “the place where Dame Venus holds her court, with the wicked who are under her dominion. Keep thine eyes and ears both shut, lest the temptress entangle thee in her net.”

The nearer the travellers came to the mountain, the more the confused and discordant sounds they had at first heard resolved themselves into harmony. Through a door in the rock they could see knights, beautiful women, and dwarfs. All seemed to be enjoying themselves to the utmost. At the entrance sat a fair woman in royal robes. The moment she saw Tannhäuser she smiled, and signed to him to approach. Eckhard in the same moment entreated him by all he held sacred to beware of the temptress, who was outwardly like an angel of light, but inwardly a fiend incarnate. He would have said more, but Venus interrupted him by beginning to sing a wondrous song about all the joys that awaited those who entered her kingdom; and Tannhäuser, as thoroughly enchanted as though a magic spell had been cast over him, thrust Eckhard aside, and hastened to the queen of beauty, who stretched out her arms towards him. She half drew him over the threshold, and he half staggered across. Then the door shut, and the faithful Eckhard saw him no more.

It would be impossible to describe all the wonders and delights that greeted the eyes, and ears of the lost knight. Every day brought new pleasures, which he enjoyed to the utmost. But at length he began to tire of it, and confessed to himself that satiety was not happiness. He had a horror of himself, and of the self-indulgent life he was leading; and his conscience, once awake, left him no peace. After an inward struggle, he made up his mind to go and seek out a pious priest, tell him all, and entreat him to show him how he might gain absolution.

Tannhäuser felt much happier when he had formed this resolution. He went to Queen Venus, and asked her to let him go. At first she refused, and then consented, saying that he might come back to her if he did not find what he was going away to seek. So he went out into the sweet fresh air, which was so pure that it gave him new life, but in a little while his resolution faltered. Could he be able to find a priest to shrive him!

He told his tale to priests, abbots, and bishops, but they one and all declared that they could not help him, that the Holy Father at Rome was the only person on earth who had power to absolve a sinner who had had dealings with the powers of the under-world.

He went to Rome, and confessed all his sin and sorrow to the Pope, whom he found walking in the garden, and awaited the answer of his Holiness with a broken and contrite heart. But the Pope replied with harsh voice and unbending brow:

“You are an adherent of the cursed race of Hohenstaufen; you have dwelt among the lost spirits in hell, and have been one with them: I tell you plainly that God can no more pardon you than this dry stick can put forth leaves and flowers”; so saying, he thrust his gold-headed walking stick into the ground, and walked away leaving it there.

Tannhäuser then exclaimed in his misery, “What shall I do? The high-priest of the Lord has cast me off, heaven is closed against me, and men will have nought to do with me.”

At this moment an unknown voice broke in, “There is a higher than this priest, even He whose dwelling is in heaven, and He that came to redeem men from their sins, and who said, ‘Come unto Me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’”

Tannhäuser started when he heard himself addressed, and, turning around, beheld the faithful Eckhard.

“Alas,” he answered, “it is too late; I cannot, dare not, pray any more. I will now return to Dame Venus, and the pleasures she offers me.”

So he went back to the Hörselberg in spite of Eckhard’s entreaties; for he was utterly hopeless.

Now it came to pass, three days after, that the Pope again walked in his garden, and behold, the walking-stick which he thrust into the ground had taken root, and put forth leaves and blossoms. The sight filled him with amazement, and.he remembered the words of the Saviour: “Be ye also merciful, even as your Father in heaven is merciful.” And he sent out messengers in search of Tannhäuser; but he could not be found, for he had returned to Dame Venus.

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