The theme of love develops through several different levels in Arthurian Literature. Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace equate love with sexual desire, and little else. The concept becomes less one-dimensional in Hartmann von Aue's romances. In Erec and Iwein, Hartmann's definition of love includes emotional attachment and a degree of commitment. He also discusses the importance of love in proper measure. Sex still plays an important part in Hartmann's discussion of love, but "love" in his works connotes far more than just physical desire. It can be an ennobling or a degenerating entity with the power to refine or to condemn. Wolfram von Eschenbach's concept of love strays even further from sexual gratification and physical pleasure. In his epic poem, Parzival, Wolfram lauds the recognition and embracing of a divine love that transcends the earthly realm altogether. He, like Hartmann, acknowledges that earthly love can be a detrimental "padlock on our reason" (Wolfram, 153). Love in Parzival thus entails many of the same characteristics that it does in Hartmann's works as far as love among human beings is concerned. But Wolfram develops love's definition to the point where the only true love is the love and service of God. In order to clarify this development of the concept of love from simple human desire to a sublime commitment to the almighty, let us examine in detail the works of these perpetuators of Arthurian Legend.
Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain contains an account of the events that lead up to the birth and reign of King Arthur. Geoffrey tells of Uther, the King of Britain whose longing for Queen Igerna culminates in Arthur's conception. When Uther sees Igerna at his Easter festival, an overwhelming desire for her ensnares him. Unfortunately for Uther, Igerna is married to Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall, who takes offense to the king's advances toward his wife. Uther laments this predicament as he expresses his feelings to a soldier of his:
"I burn with love for Igerna, and I do not think I can avoid
danger to my health unless I win her. Tell me how I can satisfy
my desire, or I shall die from torment" (Geoffrey, 61).
Uther says he burns with "love" in the first sentence, but then in the next one he speaks of "desire." This suggests that from Uther's standpoint, love and desire are one and the same. His burning love is actually a powerful sexual drive that Uther feels impelled to satisfy. He makes no mention of any attraction or allure to Igerna for anything other than her stunning beauty. The author does not give any account of her other attributes, something Hartmann von Aue and Wolfram von Eschenbach both do in their descriptions of various female characters. Geoffrey leaves the reader with a narrow image of Igerna. All he tells us is that her beauty "surpassed that of all the other women in Britain" (Geoffrey, 61).
Uther then summons Merlin to devise a plan that will enable the king to have sexual relations with Igerna. That is his primary goal: to sleep with Gorlois' wife. Uther's intent becomes explicitly clear on page 62, when Geoffrey states that "The king then spent the night with Igerna and satisfied himself with the lovemaking he had longed for
." Sex is most definitely foremost on Uther's mind. He longs for lovemaking, not interpersonal discourse. The author adds that "Merlin marveled at [Uther's] great love" (Geoffrey, 62), a statement which gives additional weight to the idea that love equals sex or sexual desire in The History of the Kings of Britain. Merlin marvels at the intense anguish Uther's unfulfilled instinctual drives have placed on him; the wizard refers to that anguish brought about by physical attraction as "love."
In Wace's Roman de Brut, the exact same scenario unfolds with Uther and Igerna. Wace tells the reader that Uther's "love for Igerna
exceeded everything else" (Wace, 13) and that it "was constantly urging him forward" (Wace, 13). The...
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