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The Poetics of Conversion

Number Symbolism and Alchemy in Gottfried's «Tristan»


Susan L. Clark and Julian N. Wasserman

This study approaches the question of the relationship of the part to the whole in a literary work, as evidenced in the theme and structure of medieval romance, and instantiates the problem through an examination of how the number symbolism and alchemical imagery in Gottfried's «Tristan» support the anti-social thrust of the romance. Awareness of the implications of Gottfried's literary iconography lends credence to a reading in which the lovers are evaluated positively, while King Mark and Cornish society are viewed negatively; the quantifiers one and three appear in descriptions of the lovers and those who would aid them, and the numbers two and four are used in portrayals of society. Similarly, metals high on the alchemical scale of value are used to describe the lovers, while strategic references to base metals in the text mirror society's attempt to debase the lovers.