Tannhaeuser The Minstrel Knight
This is a tale of long ago. It is a tale of the days of knighthood and
minstrelsy; of the days when field and forest rang with the clash of
arms, and baronial halls echoed with the sound of harp and voice; when
brave knights vied with one another not only in jousts and tourneys at
arms, but in tournaments of song as well.
In those strange days a majestic castle, called the Wartburg, stood on a
lofty peak overlooking the green and peaceful valleys of Thuringia. The
Landgrave Herman and his niece, the beautiful Princess Elizabeth, lived
there, and they were attended by a splendid court of nobles, knights,
and fair ladies.
The Wartburg was the scene of many gay festivals. Time and again the
good people of Thuringia would gather from near and far to watch
gallant, armor-clad knights ride out with lance and spear to mimic
warfare. But more often they would gather within the great castle hall
to listen to the melodies of well-tuned harps and sweet-voiced singers
in tournaments of song.
The white hand of the beautiful Princess placed the laurel wreath of
victory most often upon the brow of one bold young Minstrel Knight,
Tannhaeuser by name. His was the rarest gift of poetry, his the sweetest
voice. Nor was any one more beloved than he. His prowess in battle, his
skill with lance and spear, his fearless eye, had made him a favorite of
the Landgrave; while his noble bearing, the light touch of his fingers
upon the harp strings, and his clear young voice had won the heart of
the proud Princess.
But Tannhaeuser, unmindful of these great gifts of fortune, had, in a
rash moment, quarreled with his companions. Angry beyond reason,
forgetful of both friendship and love, he had cast himself away from the
Wartburg, and had sought the solace of solitude.
Opposite the Wartburg, black and foreboding against the blue of the sky,
like a giant of old, towered a mountain, the Horselburg. And thither,
sad to relate, the footsteps of the errant Minstrel Knight led the way.
Now, it seems that when Venus, the Goddess of Love, was banished from
the earth, she hid herself away from the eyes of all righteous men, deep
within the heart of that very mountain, the Horselburg. Brooding over
her fancied wrongs, she lived there and plotted evil against mankind.
Her domain was a wonderful cave, all shadows and mystery; and her
subjects were strange creatures of the underworld. And, the story went,
from a couch of gold where she sat arrayed in richest garments, she
lured guileless wanderers through an unseen portal in the mountain
side, straight into her kingdom. And while her siren voice cast its
spell, while her fatal beauty wove its charm, the poor wanderer was
powerless. He followed, and followed, forever and a day, and knew not
where. But the face of the earth saw him no more.
Do you wonder, with such a story abroad, that the Horselburg was shunned
by old and young? But what cared the bold Minstrel Knight for strange
goddesses or their powers? Tannhaeuser was clad in all the trappings of
knighthood; he had his armor, his lance; the harp of his minstrelsy hung
by his side. So he came to the foot of the Horselburg, dreamily,
heedlessly, but unafraid.
Still, as he paused to rest beneath an over-hanging rock at the mouth of
a cave, he fancied that he heard the sound of rushing water. He started,
looking both to the right and to the left. There was no water to be
seen. A moment later the faint tinkle of bells fell upon his ear; then
the echo of a distant melody followed. He arose and peered into the
cave. His venturesome spirit prompted him to take one step
forward,--then another. Through the shadows he detected the glimmer of
many lights, now red, now violet, now blue. What was the rosy haze that
enveloped him? And the faint music that drew him on and on? A delicate
odor assailed his nostrils. A delicious languor overcame him. "Where am
I?" he called. But the only answer was the clang as of a closing door,
and the sound of a rippling laugh. A moment later, led by unseen magic,
blinded by light and overpowered by sound, he stumbled into a region of
enchantment, into the presence of Venus herself.
A fascinating, bewitching goddess was Venus, and Tannhaeuser lingered at
her feet for a long time. Her magic drew a veil before his eyes, which
blinded and enthralled him. And he mistook the mocking cruelty of her
face for beauty and the lure of her glance for kindness and love. So he
played upon his harp and sang marvelous new songs to her and knelt
before her to pay her homage. He forgot all about the past, his
knighthood, his minstrelsy, his home, his friends. He even forgot his
Nymphs danced before him, elfin creatures made music for him, strange
flowers delighted his eyes, and all was an unceasing round of pleasure
day after day. There was no sun to shine, no moon, no stars. Spring
never came, nor winter. It was all as though the world had never been.
Still there came a day at last when Tannhaeuser awoke. He awoke as if
from a dream. For a sound had pierced the very rocks and reached his
ears. It was the chime of distant church bells.
Tannhaeuser ran his hand across his forehead and staggered to his feet.
With the remembrance came a loathing and a longing that were pain. He
hated the perfume-laden mists about him, the strange flowers, and the
nymphs with their songs and endless whirling dances. He longed for a
breath of pure woodland air, for the sight of rain-freshened grass, for
the sound of the lark's song at dawn.
So he seized his harp and sang to Venus and begged her to let him go
back to earth.
"Oh, goddess," he implored, "let me go."
But Venus only smiled a dreamy smile and spoke in soft whispers of the
charm of her domain. And the dancers circled about in a maddening whirl,
ever faster and faster. The odor of the strange flowers became still
heavier. Sparkling points of light gleamed among the shadows. A
mysterious blue lake appeared in the hazy distance, and misty clouds of
rose and gold floated in the air.
But Tannhaeuser still remembered. He loathed the never-ending delights;
the ceaseless ease and rest; the songs, the odors, the mist. Ah! for
but a sight of Heaven's clear blue, its clouds and sun of noonday, its
moon and stars of night; the changing round of seasons, seed time and
harvest; the mingled joys and pains; and work, thrice-blessed work!
Tannhaeuser took up his harp and sang to Venus once more. The strings
rang with the vigor of his touch; his voice soared high in
heart-stirring refrain. He promised that as long as he had life he would
sing the praises of Venus. Wherever he might roam, her name--and hers
alone--would bring a song to his lips. As her champion would he fare
forth upon the earth again. All this he promised, if she would only set
Anger overwhelmed the goddess--but she hesitated no longer. Let him
spread her fame and name through the upper world that had banished her!
With one sweep of her arms she broke the chains of enchantment that
bound Tannhaeuser fast. Crying,--
"If all hope is lost, return to me!" she bade him depart.
At that moment a terrific crash rent the air. It seemed as though the
earth had been burst asunder. The mists, the gleaming figures, the cave,
Tannhaeuser found himself lying on a grassy knoll in a sunlit valley. On
one side was the black and gloomy Horselburg; on the other a lofty peak
crowned by the Wartburg, stately, grand, majestic, as of yore.
Flowers bloomed all about; the sky was serene and beautiful; birds sang;
a gentle breeze swayed the trees.
From the cliff above came the sound of a pipe. A young shepherd was
watching his flock there, and he sang a tender little song, all
sweetness and melody. The simple beauty of it, the purity, touched
Tannhaeuser's heart, and as he listened his eyes filled with tears.
Suddenly the sonorous tones of men's voices filled the air. Then down
the winding pathway and through the valley came the tramp, tramp,
tramp, of many feet. And to the solemn strains of a song of prayer a
band of pilgrims passed slowly by on the way to Rome to seek pardon for
their sins. The little shepherd bared his head until the last pilgrim
had passed him by. Then, waving his cap, he shouted:
"God speed, God speed! Say one prayer for me!"
But Tannhaeuser sat as one spellbound, until all at once, deeply
overcome, he fell upon his knees. Ah, where could he look for pardon
for his sins? The memory of all that ill-spent time in the Venusburg
rushed upon him. Could he pray to the God whom he had forgotten? Tears
choked his voice, and although a prayer arose from his heart it found no
utterance. He lay prone upon the ground, weeping bitterly.
The song of the pilgrims, the measured tread of their feet, grew faint
and still fainter. It died away in the distance. Quiet ruled the
peaceful valley again, for even the shepherd boy had gathered his flock
and gone silently away.
Soon, however, the cheery sound of hunters' horns and the answering bay
of dogs broke the silence. A moment later, a pack of dogs ran down the
forest path from the Wartburg, followed by the Landgrave Herman and his
Knights, all clad in hunting dress.
Seeing the figure of a knight lying upon the ground, their curiosity was
at once aroused. One of the party, Sir Wolfram, ran hastily forward. A
single glance was enough.
"Tannhaeuser!" he cried. "Is it you?"
Tannhaeuser arose hastily, striving to control his emotion and bowed
mutely to the Landgrave.
At first the Knights were uncertain whether he had come back as friend
or foe. But his humble, downcast looks soon spoke for him. So they
welcomed him gladly into their midst.
But Tannhaeuser was loath to stay. He knew that if once the Knights
learned where he had been, they would shrink from him in horror. Looking
into their friendly faces, he was overwhelmed with disgust for all that
wicked time in the Venusburg. He longed to fly from their sight.
Since he would not listen to the entreaties of the Landgrave and his
Knights, Sir Wolfram, Tannhaeuser's old friend, added his plea:
"Have you forgotten Elizabeth?" he asked.
"Elizabeth!" Tannhaeuser exclaimed in a tone of awe,--Elizabeth, the
beautiful Princess, whose name he had forgotten--what of her?
Then Wolfram, speaking softly,--for he loved the beautiful princess
also,--told Tannhaeuser all. He told of that rare prize--the Princess's
love--which had remained constant during Tannhaeuser's long absence. Many
Knights had striven to win her, but she had remained true to the one who
had gone away. While Tannhaeuser had strayed in distant lands, she had
stayed in her bower saddened and alone, never gracing the tournaments
with her presence, never coming forth to witness joust or tourney. Would
he forsake a love like that?
Deeply touched, Tannhaeuser listened until the end. Then the light of a
great joy and a great hope illumined his face. If Elizabeth, the proud
Princess, had not forgotten him, perhaps he might still continue as a
Minstrel Knight in the Wartburg.
"Lead me to her," he cried,--"to her."
So the Landgrave sounded his horn, and to the lively baying of the dogs
and the joyous song of the Knights the whole party proceeded to the
When the news of Tannhaeuser's return spread through the Wartburg, there
was great rejoicing. Smiles of gladness appeared on every face. Tall
knights held out hands of welcome; small pages hastened to do him honor.
Him whom they should have loathed, they greeted as a comrade, hailed as
a hero. For they knew not where he had been.
And the joy of the Princess Elizabeth surpassed that of all the rest.
Misery vanished from her face. Delight took its place. All her years of
sadness were forgotten, and as she entered the Hall of the Minstrels, a
song of joy sprang unbidden from her lips. Had not the knight to whom
she had given her heart returned from his wanderings in foreign lands?
And would he not take his place among the minstrels as of old in a
Tournament of Song on that very day? His melodious harp and his rich
voice would ring out once again, and hers would be the hand to crown him
with the wreath of victory.
The Princess smiled happily as she walked through the great hall and
joined her uncle, the Landgrave, upon the throne. The Landgrave watched
her approach, and his face beamed with pride. Was there ever a more
beautiful Princess? Her lovely face was aglow. Her eyes shone with a
luster as deep as that of the jewels about her neck. Her skin was fairer
than the lilies that she held in her hand. From the shining tresses of
her hair where a little golden crown sent out glittering sparks of light
to the last heavy fold of silvery satin that trailed behind her, she was
a creature to be honored, to be reverenced, to be loved.
"How glad I am to have you at my side once more!" whispered the
Landgrave as they made ready to receive the nobles and fair ladies who
had been bidden to the contest. For already the measured tread of many
feet was heard in the distance.
Presently through the pillared doorway, to the sound of martial music
and the fluttering of flags, the guests entered the hall, and in stately
procession approached the throne. Then, after a bow from the Landgrave
and a word of greeting from the Princess, the pages led each to a place
in the huge semicircle of seats that half filled the hall.
When all had arrived, the Landgrave arose, and, turning first to his
guests and then to the Minstrels who were seated on low benches facing
them all, made his address of greeting. He told of the many song
festivals that had been held within the ancient hall, and how
each had added to the fair fame of the nation. Many deeds, many
emotions, had been celebrated in song, said he, but the sweetest of
all--Love--remained--and would be the theme of that day's contest.
The minstrel who could sing most worthily about love would receive
love's prize as a reward--the hand of Elizabeth, the Princess.
"Up then, arouse ye! sing, O gallant minstrels! attune your harps to
love! Great is the prize."
A great shout of approval marked the end of the Landgrave's speech.
"Hail, all hail, Lord of Thuringia!" cried hundreds of voices.
When all was still, two little pages carried a golden cup containing the
names of the singers to the Princess. She drew one folded paper and
handed it to the pages. They read the name and then advanced to the
middle of the hall. In high, clear voices they called out,--
"Sir Wolfram von Eschenbach, begin!"
There was a short pause while Sir Wolfram rose to his feet. Tannhaeuser
sat, as if in a dream, leaning upon his harp. His eyes strayed through
the open doorway far across the peaceful valley to the dark and gloomy
mountain beyond. And though an inner voice whispered: "Turn away your
eyes, Sir Knight! 'Tis the abode of evil to which your thoughts are
wandering. Have a care, or magic power will rule you again!" he heeded
But the eyes of Wolfram sought the pure face of the Princess on the
throne. His hands evoked a tender, rippling strain from the harp--and he
began to sing.
He sang a quiet song of unselfish love, pure love, which doubts not and
trusts ever; which gives more than it seeks.
He sang of a love, half sacrifice, wholly devotion--which asks nothing,
wants nothing, but gives, always gives. His song fell like a gentle
prayer upon the ears of his listeners.
"Bravo!" they cried, when he had finished. "You have done well, Sir
And they clapped their hands and nodded in approval, whispering and
smiling at one another. All but Tannhaeuser. His face had changed. It had
become angry, impatient, defiant. This gentle strain that spoke of
endless devotion and sacrifice; was that love? No, no. He arose
abruptly. He seemed to be looking beyond the familiar hall and the
well-known faces, to some unseen vision of delight. An uncanny smile
played about his lips. He touched the harp strings, and they jangled
with strange harmonies. The people were startled, alarmed. They half
rose from their seats. Was it madness that inspired the knight? Ah! if
they but knew.
Tannhaeuser, heeding naught, lifted his voice and sang. And while he
sang, the spell of enchantment enmeshed him again. Rose-colored mists
swam before his eyes and blinded him. He heard the far-off strains of
music, he saw the dancing figures, and a siren voice urged him on. He
thought of endless pleasure, ceaseless delight. Again he forgot work,
thrice-blessed work. He forgot the ancient hall; he forgot the pure
presence of Elizabeth; he forgot his God. He sang a wicked song, an evil
song, a song of sinful pleasure, a song of Venus. He had vowed that he
would sing her praises forevermore. Now he would keep his word. His
voice soared high in a wild hymn of praise.
"Would you know love?" he cried, flinging aside his harp and stretching
out his arms:
"Fly to Venus. She can teach you!"
His words struck the people like a thunder-bolt and left them stunned,
horrified. Suddenly, like a wave of anger, arose the tumult of cries.
"Listen! Hear him! Oh! Most horrible! He has been in the Venusburg."
The ladies hurried in consternation and affright from the hall. Only
Elizabeth stood, pale and trembling, leaning against the throne. All her
delight was turned to misery once more.
The Landgrave, the minstrels, the nobles, gathered together and gazed
with horror upon Tannhaeuser, who, oblivious of all save the evil vision,
gazed enraptured, straight ahead.
The horror of the men soon gave way to indignation, the indignation in
turn to fury and hatred. As from one throat, a mighty shout went up,--
And with one accord they drew their swords and pressed upon Tannhaeuser
to slay him. But at that instant a white figure with trailing draperies
rushed toward them. She threw herself before Tannhaeuser, shielding him
with her body. It was Elizabeth, the Princess.
"Stop," she cried. "Stay your hands!"
The men fell back in amazement as she fell upon her knees before them.
She, the proud Princess, most cruelly wronged, would she shield one who
had fallen so low?
Yes, she would shield him, even with her life. He had sinned. Ah, how he
had sinned! But he had sinned against God, and God must be his judge.
Who were they to judge him and deny him the opportunity to repent? Would
they rob his soul of its eternal peace? Thus she pleaded and begged for
Tannhaeuser's life, while tears rained down her white cheeks.
The men were touched. Anger slowly gave way to calm. One by one they
sheathed their swords and turned toward the Landgrave.
Meanwhile Tannhaeuser, at the sound of Elizabeth's pleading voice, turned
his head. As though just awakened from an evil dream, he stared at her
kneeling figure, the drawn swords, the horror-stricken faces. Suddenly
he remembered all that he had said, all that he had done. The enormity
of his sin rushed upon him. He realized how he had outraged friendship,
love, religion, all that was holy, pure, and good. In fearful contrition
he fell upon the floor, sobbing and crying out in his misery and
distress. Where could he look for pardon now?
Suddenly, through the open doorway, there came the sound of the song of
the pilgrim band on its way to Rome. It was a song of prayer and praise,
a song of repentance and confession, a song of peace with God. It
brought hope and a promise of comfort.
Silence filled the great hall as the notes died away in the distance.
Only Elizabeth's face, white and pleading, was lifted toward the
Landgrave's in silent prayer.
The Landgrave gazed at Tannhaeuser's bent figure, and feelings of pity
mingled with the loathing he felt. Advancing solemnly toward Tannhaeuser,
he bade him arise and join the band of pilgrims now on its way to Rome.
No other way was open to one who had sinned as he had sinned. And, if
after confession, he was pardoned for his grievous wrong, he might
return to the Wartburg. Otherwise they never wished to see him again.
At these words Tannhaeuser sprang to his feet. The echo of the pilgrim's
voice still lingered in the air. He listened a moment while a ray of
hope illumined his anguish-stricken face. Then with a cry "To Rome! To
Rome!" he hastened from the room.
(After a painting by Von Kaulbach)]
The road to Rome was rough and thorny, beset with hardship, fraught with
suffering. But Tannhaeuser, full of new-found hope, wholly repentant,
longing for pardon, pushed eagerly onward. No pilgrim was of humbler
mien, nor was any of more contrite spirit. The thought of Elizabeth's
devotion and her prayers dispelled all his former pride of sin, and made
the hardships of the journey seem all too light for his remorseful soul.
When other pilgrims sought smooth pathways through meadow and valley, he
trod unshod amid rocks and thorns. When they refreshed their lips at
cool mountain springs, he continued hungry and thirsty on his way. Snow
and ice did not daunt him, nor the scorching rays of the sun, nor the
tempest's roar. He gave of his life blood freely and faltered not. The
other pilgrims found shelter and rest in hospices high up among the
mountains. He made his bed in the drifting snow, the ice, the cold. Lest
the beauty of Italy delight his eyes, he went blindfolded over its
vine-clad hills, through its blooming meadows. For his heart burned with
penitence, and his soul ached for pardon.
Thus the weeks lengthened into months, and a long year went by. At last
the chime of bells was heard in the distance; the white towers of Rome
were outlined against the blue Italian sky.
Weary and footsore, the pilgrims crept one by one to the holy shrine,
and, one by one, each was told that his sins would be forgiven and was
bidden to go rejoicing on his way and sin no more.
Finally Tannhaeuser's time came. With a cry of relief he prostrated
himself before the throne and confessed his awful sin, his wasted years,
his deep repentance. He had dwelt in an unholy place, he had been the
slave of sinful pleasure, he had blasphemed his God,--but awakening had
come at last. Was there pardon for such as he?
The first solemn words of answer with their accents of horror brought
Tannhaeuser to his feet in terror. As in a dream he listened. No. There
could be no pardon for such a sin. He was pronounced accursed
The judgment continued:
"As this barren staff I hold
Ne'er will put forth a flower or a leaf
Thus shalt thou never more behold
Salvation or thy sins relief."
Tannhaeuser heard no more. Hopeless and despairing, he staggered wildly
from the room and away into the darkness. What mattered it which way he
wandered--now, since he was an outcast and accursed forever? Ah, to find
a path that would lead to forgetfulness!
The pilgrims had already gone on their way homeward to Thuringia. From
out of the distance, their joyous song of praise fell upon the air.
Tannhaeuser took up his staff and followed in their wake, hopeless and
Meanwhile throughout the long year the Princess Elizabeth had waited and
prayed day after day. And Sir Wolfram, watching her devotion from afar,
had grieved to see her body become weak with pain, and her face white
and drawn with sorrow and suffering.
At last there came a day when, kneeling at her shrine on the forest
path, the sound of the pilgrims' return broke in upon her prayers.
"They have come back!" she whispered as she rose to her feet.
The song, the steady tramp of feet, grew louder and louder. On and on
came the pilgrims. And, singing of God's goodness and His divine grace,
they passed Elizabeth and Wolfram, one by one. But he for whom she had
prayed was not among them. He had not returned. He had not been
forgiven. Her prayers had been in vain. All her strength was gone. With
a last look at the valley lying peaceful, in the glow of early eventide,
and with a farewell glance at Sir Wolfram, she passed wearily upward
toward the castle.
Night fell. The sky grew dark with clouds save where, over the Wartburg,
a single star hung. Suddenly, through the gloom, a dejected and footsore
wanderer made his way. It was Tannhaeuser.
As his eyes fell upon the familiar scene, and upon Sir Wolfram, in
knightly array, all his misery rushed upon him anew. Oh, if he could but
find the path that led to forgetfulness, the path of pleasure, the path
to Venus! In the days of his care-free youth, it had been but a step,
but now, laden with sin, weighted with the knowledge of evil, bowed with
repentance and suffering, his feet would not lead him there. With a loud
cry he stretched forth his arms and called,--
"Venus, goddess, do you hear my call?"
Suddenly the roseate light, the same alluring sounds of music, the same
sweet odors, enthralled him again. Venus, reclining upon her couch,
appeared amid the rosy clouds.
"Take me!" cried Tannhaeuser, rushing forward to throw himself beside
At that moment, the slow and solemn chant of a funeral dirge sounded
from afar. Tannhaeuser started. His arms fell by his side. He turned his
head. Down the path from the Wartburg, the Knights were bearing a bier.
Lighted torches were at the head, the foot. A bell was tolling. Voices
were singing in praise of Elizabeth, the beautiful Princess, who had
gone to join the angel band, the fairest angel of all the host.
"Ah! Elizabeth!" exclaimed Tannhaeuser. With a despairing cry, he
staggered toward the bier. Ah, yes, it was she, she who had prayed for
him, she who had loved him more than he knew. Better death beside her
than life in sin! Bending over Elizabeth's body, he sank slowly to the
ground, and God took him home.
For it is said that not long afterward the barren staff of the head of
the church blossomed and put forth leaves of green. And thus the Lord in
His mercy forgave Tannhaeuser, the sinner, and entered him into the
Kingdom of Heaven.
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