In 2001/2002 I quit my job, got into a VW bus and drove through Germany and Austria for a year in search of the Middle Ages. When I got home, I wrote my first book.
|This is the entire first chapter.|
Banging My Head Against the Walls of the Wartburg
My Dream of the Middle Ages
and Why I Can't Go Home Until I Find It
When I was growing up in sunny Hawaii, the only thing sexier to me than the Middle Ages was my high school German teacher, but she was not available.
I lived a block from the beach, but while the other guys were out grooming their tans, surfing and entangling themselves in bikinis, I spent my days in a half-lit room, my cat curled up beside me on the bed, reading. Reading about castle ruins, monks chanting in candle-lit churches, ragged peasants running before thundering armies, alchemists with bleeding gums turning lead into gold, minstrels taming haughty ladies with a few simple words.
And the knights! The white knight fighting the black knight, the green knight battling the dragon, the red knight lost in the dark woods, stumbling upon a mysterious, lonely tent.
You're supposed to grow out of things like that, but somehow I never managed to. Like a particularly nasty cold, the Middle Ages found ways to come back to me again and again in ever-changing forms. My first chance to escape was when I was ten or so, but I was outsmarted when my big sister took me to see the movie musical Camelot. I cried to see King Arthur's dream of "right over might" collide with his equally beautiful dream of love, and I understood for the first time that even ideals are sometimes impossible in the flawed world we inhabit. For my sister, it was must another musical.
My next chance to leave these childish things behind came with puberty, when girls normally eclipse everything, but before I could make my escape, I discovered the gruesome worms and big-bosomed painted ladies of Conan the Barbarian. The cheerleaders who congregated under the big monkeypod tree in the courtyard of Kailua High School were attractive, but not as attractive as this. I didn't know yet that Conan's adventures full of unexplained desires and dark drives were really about sex, but it was beginning to make more and more sense that dragons preferred virgins.
Just when it had dawned on me that I would soon have to leave the nest and face adulthood, The Lord of the Rings appeared on the horizon. Somehow, that epic managed to boil down the frightening world out there down to an adventure that even a timid, overprotected little man with hairy feet could master. If Frodo could do it, so could I.
By this time, the fuzzy images in popular history books and fantasy novels were not enough for me. If I was going to be stuck in a love affair with an object of desire that had been gone for over 500 years, I was determined to get as close as I could to consummating it as I could. While still in High School, I visited a meeting of the Society for Creative Anachronism at the University of Hawaii, a club that recreated medieval armor, cooked food according to medieval cookbooks, practiced sword-fighting with padded sticks and escaped reality for a medieval dream each weekend. The members even discarded their modern persona and adopted an anachronistic one, including medieval name and clothing. It was the perfect club.
Determined to get myself not only accepted in it, but admired, I talked Mom into sewing me a costume, and the next weekend I showed up wearing a black cape and a black pointy cap and holding an all-black banner on a pole.
"There weren't really wizards in the Middle Ages, you know," they told me. And, "Where's your coat of arms? Oh I see. It's black on black."
Embarrassed and not entirely convinced there were no wizards in the real Middle Ages, I looked for other ways to live my dream, until the ultimate plan took shape.
I would go to Europe. I would walk the roads peasants had walked; dream in the monasteries where monks had meditated; climb the castle walls where knights had fought off bloodthirsty invaders.
I fantasized about finding a lonely hilltop where I would stand among the trees, watching the fog creep in as twilight came on. After a while, the faraway sounds of cars would fade and the distant voices coming up from the valley would take on a weird lilt, as though they were speaking a language lost in time.
If I waited long enough, a man would ride up through the mist: Charlemagne upon his stallion, drifting through the trees. As he drew closer he might notice me and pause. I would look at him, he would look at me. My heart would race. For an instant he would wonder what insignificant part of his vast realm I was from. Then he would turn and disappear back into the fog.
There were two ways to get to Europe. First, I could scrimp and save half my life and go as a tourist. Second, there was the Church.
I was raised a Mormon. When Mormon boys turn 18 or so, the local bishop sits them down and asks if they want to serve on a mission for two years. I didn't know yet what I was going to answer when that day came, but since I was a believer, I knew the chances were good I would probably say "yes."
As a missionary, you don't choose where you want to go, God does, and the Church informs you of God's decision. God could send me to Europe, but He could just as well send me to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Fortunately, I knew how to influence God's decision. If I spoke a second language, say, a European language, God might see an advantage in sending me to a place where that language was spoken.
That meant I would bypass England, with all its King Arthur castles, but that suited me just fine. I was sick and tired of England without ever having been there.
If you read a lot of fantasy books or historical novels about the Middle Ages, you read a lot about England. And the more you read, the more you realize: It couldn't have really been like this. Ye Olde England is all bright banners unfurled on pointy turrets, mysterious strangers in roadside inns and Milady this and Sir that. It's Masterpiece Theater with knights. Where is the mud, the disease, the drunken fools swinging swords at each other? The bad teeth? In England, I would end up seeing all the places I already knew about: Tintagel castle, Westminster Abbey, Stonehenge, the Tower of London. Why travel half way around the world just to get in line behind a tour guide? I wanted to do something that hasn't been done a million times before me.
Besides Hawaiian and Japanese, Kailua High School offered French.
Everyone loved France. My big sister had been there and told me all about the bar in Paris where Hemingway sat, about the Latin Quarter and the Louvre and goose liver pate. And the French Middle Ages! Joan of Arc! Abelard losing his penis for love!
It sounded great, and I was about to sign up, when I thought: If my big sister has been there, it's been done.
There was one other language available at Kailua High: German.
No one liked Germany. No one hated it, but no one liked it. There was just no attraction to a country where everyone wore Lederhosen. England had Robin Hood and France had the Three Musketeers. Germany had Heidi, The Sound of Music (true, those movies were about Switzerland and Austria, but they were close enough) and Nazis.
More importantly, no one knew anything about the German Middle Ages. I had never read a single book nor seen a single movie about medieval Germany. I knew of no German fantasy heroes.
I just barely made it through two years of German class, pulling in straight D's. I comforted myself with the thought that it would be easier to pick things up once I was in the country. The only reason I tried at all, and then signed up for a second excruciating year, was the instructor, who happened to be the sexiest woman in school. Then she got married and changed her hair. That cured me. After two years of straight D's and a vague awareness that my achievement was not necessarily evidence that I had the ability to master a foreign language, I gave up. And hoped against hope that the Church was desperate enough to send me to Europe instead of Scranton.
The day I was informed where I would go was sunny, salty and warm, like most days in Hawaii. I came home from the university, grabbed a sheaf of letters out of the mailbox and left my thongs at the front door. The house was empty. My dirty feet stuck to the floor as I opened the doors and windows to get a breeze going. One of the letters was addressed to me. It was from Salt Lake City, Utah.
Time froze. I heard my own breathing. My cat eyed me from the living room table.
This could be it.
I tore it open and skipped past the bla-bla in the first few paragraphs until I got to the part that said:
When I stepped off the plane in the Frankfurt Airport, making my way past green-clad cops carrying submachine guns, and chugged up the hilly, castle-strewn Rhine by train, I inhaled strangeness and excitement with every breath. The clothes were slicker, the cars were smaller, and the radio played English-language songs I didn't recognize.
This didn't have to be the Middle Ages. The newness and excitement of discovering a strange country was good enough, maybe even better, because it was so different and so real. No matter how many doors the Germans slammed in my face over the next two years, I loved every minute of it.
When my mission ended I went home, but in another one and a half years of saving money, was back in Germany. In a quiet little town on the Rhine called Krefeld, I married a German girl I had met, converted, baptized and fallen in love with on my mission. We moved to Munich so I could study medieval German literature.
At university, the Middle Ages mutated. Those medievals were supposedly our ancestors, but on closer examination they were so different from us that they could have been aliens. They let adolescent boys sit on a throne and teenage girls bear and raise children. They treated romance as a parlor game for the rich. And ideas like freedom, justice and the individual - ideas the Greeks and Romans had already known - our medieval forefathers never heard of them and wouldn't have liked them if they ever did. How did we evolve out of these people? Suddenly, the Middle Ages were a vast, juicy conundrum full of puzzles as fascinating as they were unsolvable.
But I was not made to be a scholar. I sat in that musty Munich library day in, day out, bored stiff trying to decipher Latin documents, and dreamed of one day actually visiting the places where the Middle Ages took place. These weren't places in a fantasy novel, they were places I could find on a map. Lübeck, the seaside metropolis. The imperial palace in Aachen. The court of poets in Vienna. The library where the Codex Manesse lies coolly under lock and key. I was that close, and I imagined that something would happen to me when I actually showed up there.
Someday, when I had the money and time, I would do it.
In the meantime, I graduated and began my career in journalism, writing about Germany for newspapers in England and back home. This was the excitement of real life, and I did all things you're supposed to do in real life: I broke all the Mormon rules, left the Church, got a divorce, moved to Berlin with its night spots and subcultures, found a new girlfriend, found a cool job working for a powerful Hollywood media trade paper, which would send me off to cool international film festivals. Real life had its joys.
But every once in a while I would duck down a narrow alleyway in the shadows of some ancient half-timber house, and for an instant I could picture myself stepping out again into the Middle Ages.
When I turned forty, it was time to go home. Then I remembered my old dream.
One part of me said: You were a kid then, forget it. Go to Los Angeles and get a career. Don't make a fool of yourself. The other part said: It was the most important dream of your life.
I made a compromise. I would take a week off and visit a castle somewhere. I would research it top to bottom until it was burned into my mind - a mental souvenir to take home with me. Yes, that should be enough to satisfy the yearnings of my youth.
On a drizzly March morning in Berlin I stuffed a sports bag with T-shirts and socks, crammed myself into a cheap rental and headed south out of Berlin.
Driving the autobahn in the rain: The sky was gray, the concrete was gray. Lumbering trucks from Hamburg, Amsterdam and Warsaw loomed and swayed. I drove for hours and still the concrete and smokestacks didn't go away, as if Berlin's big-city ugliness were some kind of gangrene that had spread to the neighboring towns without any bürgermeisters jumping up and shouting: "Call a doctor! We have to amputate!"
When I finally veered off westward, the sky cleared up, the construction sites dwindled and the traffic calmed down. The freeway funneled me into a broad valley that stretched halfway across Germany. I parked and walked to the rail.
The road hugged a hill covered with dense spruce trees. Wooded slopes foreshortened into the distance and the valley floor stretched on forever. This was the ancient Thuringian Forest. It was mostly farmland and small towns now, but once it was all trees and shrubs and shadows. The trees gathered in patches scattered about the valley floor and crept up the hillsides. Legends and fairy-tales still thrived in those woods. I could feel them brewing in there, like a witch's kettle in the shadow, distilling an endless array of dwarves and giants, robber barons and princesses.
I drove on, slower now, past historic towns full of monuments to dead geniuses. Every once in a while a hill would appear with a castle ruin atop it. There were dozens of those hilltop castles, standing around as in if some kind of castle convention.
Past another clutch of hills, I saw in the distance the uneven silhouette of two towers. A castle balancing on a thin ridge, looking heavy as iron, even from here. It was built to say: "I own this ridge. I own the land you are standing on now. I am watching you. Don't make any funny moves."
It was the Wartburg. This was the castle I had driven 200 miles to see.
Let me say something here about this word “castle.” I don't like it. It is too "Ye Olde England." The German word for castle, burg, does not suggest pointy turrets and banners billowing in the wind. There is nothing bright and cheerful about it. Sometimes it translates to "castle" and sometimes it translates to "fortress." Sometimes it just means, "Very big house built by a guy who no one likes." It always refers to a cold pile of stone and iron and oak designed to intimidate strangers. Imagine Martin Luther, a lowly monk who found refuge from the Catholics with murder on their minds in the Wartburg. He didn't write, in his famous hymn, "A pretty castle is my Lord." No, he wrote, "A mighty fortress is my Lord," and he knew the difference.
The Wartburg is unlike any other castle in Germany, maybe in all of Europe. While other burgs had their heydays and then faded away, history contrived to return to the Wartburg again and again, like an animal returning to its nesting grounds: Clinton in 1998 (just visiting), Wagner in 1842 (location-scouting for Tannhäuser), the so-called student revolution in 1817 (doomed, but unforgotten), Goethe in 1777 (inventing Romanticism). When Luther hid out here in 1521, under a false name and wearing a silly-looking beard, and translated the New Testament from Greek into German, he forever changed the rules of Christianity.
None of that was what made me pick the Wartburg.
Switchbacks wind their way up a steep hill to a shady parking lot. Steps lead up the rest of the way, to the walls of the Wartburg. Up close, the burg was a hodgepodge of styles: Renaissance, Romantic, Neo-Romanesque and more. It looked like Scotty tried to beam up a lot of mansions, towers, barns and half-timber houses from five different centuries, got them all scrambled together, then dumped the whole mess on a hill. That should have warned me, but I was too excited to finally be crossing this famous drawbridge.
I stepped between walls that leaned in so close it felt like I was entering a canyon. There was hardly room for two horses to pass each other here, much less room for jousting. The kitchens, living quarters, stables, the keep (rooms that had long since been turned into library, administration offices, café and museum) were all installed directly into the outer walls. Even then, there was not enough room, and when later castle lords wanted to expand, they had to roof over the tops of walls and install extra apartments up there. So much for princesses pining away on the parapets.
One of the few parts of the burg that had survived the Middle Ages intact was the palace.
It must have been a hot item back then. Its façade, facing the courtyard, was three stories of ornate pillars, big, airy arches and long arcades where the damsels could promenade in their imported finery.
The early lords of the Wartburg built that so-called palas in the Romanesque style, in imitation of the great Italian palaces that were all the rage at the time. You can just hear the wife of the castle's lord showing it off to a visiting countess: "We told the architects to make it look like that palace we stayed in last year when we visited Rome. Don't you think Rome is simply marvelous?"
I took a tour and saw the knights' quarters and chapel with carvings on the pillars that depicted lions, chimeras munching on knights and jealous warriors in armor fist-fighting over a girl. We walked the long hallways decorated with murals and awed at the golden, glittering chamber of Saint Elisabeth, the Princess Di of the Middle Ages. The Banquet Chamber takes up the top floor of the palace: A sweeping hall, big enough for a rock concert. The ceiling leaped heavenward, the floorboards glowed. You could see the Wartburg's lords entertaining kings here, knighting knights, declaring wars, accepting surrenders and celebrating victories. A concert given in this hall could have no wrong notes; a marriage closed here could never turn sour.
Finally, the room I had come to see: the Minstrels' Chamber.
The War of the Minstrels was the Academy Awards of the Middle Ages. Around 1200, in the thick of the age of knighthood, six poet/singers gathered here: Reinmar of Zweter, blind as a Delta bluesman; the mysterious Biterolf, whose name always makes me think "Bitter Wolf;" two Henrys: The proud Austrian Henry of Ofterdingen, and another Henry who worked at the Wartburg as a scribe. The stars of the gathering were two of the greatest minstrels ever: The revolutionary love poet Walther of the Vogelweide and the visionary epic novelist Wolfram of Eschenbach.
They came to compete. The singer with the best song would be named "Best Minstrel." To liven things up, the lord of the burg would award a second title: "Worst Minstrel." That poet's reward: Immediate beheading. An executioner would be present at the proceedings.
When you picture the minstrels of the Middle Ages, don't think sensitive poets in an attic somewhere, searching desperately for the right word. Think hobos traveling from place to place, chasing farm jobs and stealing chickens. When times were good, they found a castle lord who gave them room and board for as long as it took to translate a trendy French novel. The rest of the time they spent on the road, in caravans and in market squares, juggling for pennies, fiddling at village dances or staging bawdy shows about lusty knights and errant saints.
Socially, they were classified among the lowest of the low.
Nowadays, you can push a novelist into a room of four-star generals - commanders of great armies, lords over life and death - and before he leaves, someone will have muttered to him, "Someday, I'm going to write a book, too." In the Middle Ages, you could take the lowliest knight, no matter how poor, illiterate, mean, dumb and unwashed, place him in a room full of genius poets whose works are immortal, and every one of those poets would have told him, "I can joust too, you know."
How strange, then, that the War of the Minstrels was staged by one of the most powerful, prestigious and richest lords of the realm.
Hermann I, Landgrave of Thuringia, owned property all over Germany: Hundreds of castles, towns and patches of forest and cropland scattered between the Rhine and the Slavic border. He was a landgrave, but in terms of real power, his personal rung in the social ladder was just below the Emperor's. He dined with kings and bartered with bishops. He rode into battle eagerly, like a good feudal lord should, and his administration of justice was as cruel and arbitrary as his administration of vengeance. His life was about power, possessions and plundering.
I would like to have seen him on that night. Hushing the crowd in their glittering finery as the poets took the stage. Forgetting for a moment his war plans, land worries and court maneuverings. Pulling Walther of the Vogelweide aside and whispering surreptitiously into his ear: "You know, I write poetry too."
Finally, I was here, in the room where the War of the Minstrels took place.
It was gold, turquoise and crimson, like the pillow-strewn throne-room of the Sultan of Baghdad right out of "The Arabian Nights." Arches and elegant red pillars flanked a platform near the rear, where Hermann sat and passed judgment. Like no other room I had ever seen, the Minstrels' Chamber shimmered.
I might have gone home then, satisfied at seeing the room where all this took place, if the guide hadn't chosen that moment to open his damn mouth.
"Of course, none of this has anything to do with the Middle Ages," he said.
All of it - the Banquet Hall's high ceiling, practically every inch of the Minstrels' Chamber, not to mention the series of corny fairy-tale frescoes that turned the entire palas into a comic book in pastels - it had all been installed some 150 years ago. During the Romantic Age, a lot of poets, painters and dreamers rediscovered the Middle Ages, which, until then, had practically been forgotten. They saw something virtuous and true in the long-lost period. They embraced the fantasies of chivalry and King Arthur, and flocked to the Wartburg in hordes to turn it into a kind of Romantic-Age Disneyland.
Was anything about this place real?
I wandered out into the sun and knocked at the door of the burg's archives, where I coaxed a gray-faced librarian into the courtyard café. She seemed worried about being in the sunlight and couldn't bring her eyes up to meet mine. I suspected I was the first non-librarian she'd spoken to since entering the archives twenty-five years before, and I thought: If I had paid more attention in college, this is how I would have ended up. (Still, there was a moment in our short conversation when she was suddenly beautiful. For a brief moment, she smiled. It was when our interview was over and I asked her what she loved most about working in a castle. "Sometimes, on special occasions," she said, "we hold celebrations up here for the public, and the courtyard is lit up and full of voices, there is music in every corner, and the big tower is opened up for anyone who wants to climb to the top. It's only open once a year. The land all around is dark, and on some nights, fireworks go off in the sky. You're up there all alone - it's like flying. That's the best memory anyone can have.")
The Wartburg was fake, and it always had been, even in the Middle Ages.
The palas, with all its grand Romanesque arcades, she said, was impossible to heat in winter. It was built for Italy, not for Germany with its freezing cold weather eight months a year. If you got married in the Banquet Hall with its windows without glass, you were liable to spend your honeymoon nursing a cold; if you were a minstrel plucking away at your lute, your fingers would freeze off.
In a military sense, the mighty burg was well-positioned on that ridge, but it had no water source. A giant cistern in the courtyard collected rainwater, but it also collected moss and bugs. In the case of siege, the knights wouldn't have lasted long.
Most importantly, there was no evidence that any medieval ruler spent so much as a day up here.
If you were as powerful as the landgraves of Thuringia, hardly a day would go by when you weren't signing some kind of legal document or other. With every signature, you included the date and location of the signing. If you threw a big party for your fellow nobility - an event big enough to feature a "War of the Minstrels" - it would put you in one burg long enough to sign at least one decree. The Thuringian landgraves never signed a single document in the Wartburg.
Reluctant to badmouth a place she loved, she added that things may have gone on here historians don't know about: "It's unlikely that they would spend so much money building it, then never come to visit," she argued.
"What about the War of the Minstrels?" I asked.
It didn't happen. "If you read the story as it was written in the 13th century, you will find it hard to believe." There only reason we know about the War of the Minstrels at all is because other singers/poets wrote a few ballads about it that were later collected into a loose kind of chronological order that seems to tell a story. She recounted it for me:
The six poets gather to perform. You would think they present their best poems, the ones we know about, but instead they all sing about the greatness of Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia. There is an executioner in the room, after all. The only exception is the Austrian, Henry of Ofterdingen. He sings about the greatness of the Duke of Austria.
Walther of the Vogelweide is named "Best Poet."
Guess who loses?
The executioner grabs Henry by the scruff of his neck and the sword is about to come down when Hermann's wife takes mercy on the poor guy. She talks her husband into getting someone neutral to judge the poets - for example, the great Hungarian poet Klingsor.
Hermann agrees. He grants Henry a year to travel to Hungary and bring Klingsor back to the Wartburg. The War of the Minstrels would be repeated then, with Klingsor as judge.
Now the story turns into a fantasy adventure. Henry is racing against time, and loses. By the time he finds the elusive Hungarian, his year is over and it is too late to get back to the Wartburg. He's a dead man. But Klingsor is not only a poet, he is also a great magician, and a generally scary guy. He uses magical powers to transport them both to the Wartburg in time for the rescheduled event.
Now there's an evil magician in the house. Suddenly poetry is forgotten. It's about survival now. It comes down to a struggle of wits between the magician and Wolfram. Klingsor challenges him to a battle of riddles, but the genius Wolfram of Eschenbach solves every one. In anger and frustration, Klingsor conjures up the devil to spirit Wolfram away, but Wolfram beats the devil by making the sign of the cross. All ends well.
"Obviously," the archivist said, "a fantasy."
The only truth in it is the names of the minstrels, most of whom are historical persons. Walther and Wolfram really were geniuses, and Hermann really was a great patron of the arts. But Henry of Ofterdingen never existed, and Klingsor the magician was lifted right out of the pages of a medieval novel - one written, ironically, by the real Wolfram. In a weird case of medieval post-modernism, The War of the Minstrels pits a creation against his creator.
"What about the 'War' itself?" I said. "There must have been some kind of real minstrel competition that inspired the story?"
She just shrugged.
My trip in search of the Middle Ages had taken me to a 19th century tourist trap, a medieval Waikiki.
I checked into the Berghotel, a sprawling mansion that sat regally on a hill directly across from the burg. I finagled a discount from the manager by telling him I was writing something about the area. "I know how to handle journalists," he said, and he really did. He put me in a room that looked across the valley, directly at the Wartburg.
I ordered a whiskey from the bar, turned out the lights and sat at the window watching the greatest burg in the world only a mile or so away. The hill it sat on melted into the black night sky, but the burg itself was awash in yellow floodlights. It looked like a golden crown floating in space.
I would never be able to reach out and touch it. It felt like I had finally gotten up the nerve to call some woman whose telephone number I had written down in a bar. She had waited eighteen years for me to call, but now that I had finally got up the guts, she was seeing someone else.
When I woke up the next morning, fog had moved in and the castle was only a smudge in a gray sky. With a week to go and nothing reasonable to do, I walked down into the valley.
The town at the foot of the burg was Eisenach. The old houses were Baroque now, and the color of lemon meringue. Cobblestone streets jumped and twisted and occasionally burped out a little triangular square. Mothers pushed baby buggies to the grocery stores and bakeries. Newspaper trucks squeezed through the narrow streets, honking. Kids marched to school bearing those colorful backpacks that German schoolchildren wear – bulky square things almost as big as themselves, so you have to wonder what they carry around in there. A hard-faced man selling sausages from a grill on wheels eyed me as I rounded the town square. Cars rattled past the exhaust-blackened Romanesque church and through the medieval arch that looked about to crumble. Luther had gone to school in this town and Bach was born here, which would have been fascinating, had I not known that most towns in this area could say something like that about themselves.
Through the center of town stretched the so-called pedestrian zone. I used to love those things: a tangle of streets closed off to traffic and devoted to shopping. Germans think malls are American inventions, but their "pedestrian zones" are really open-air malls in the heart of every town. I sat down in front of the church where both Luther and Bach had sung as boys and watched unemployed men drinking beer on a corner and clusters of teenage girls drifting from department store to fashion boutique, picking at French fries with long, plastic fingernails.
I recalled the time I had discovered the German pedestrian zone as a missionary. I fell in love with it immediately.
On the surface, it was like any outdoor mall in America, but in subtle ways it was European. The shops all had different names and different looks. The fast food places were mostly not big chains, but family shops that sold slices of pizza, Turkish kebabs and German hot dogs through a window that opened right onto the street. The street musicians were Irish and Russian. The department stores all displayed compact stereo systems in their windows. Somehow, that seemed very German to me. Most pedestrian zones still showed their roots: At one end there was always an old church, and in front of the church the old marketplace. In most cases, the church and marketplace had been there since the Middle Ages.
But now it was just a mall. I wondered if this was going to be the lasting image of Germany I would take home with me. Was that what I was going to tell my nieces and nephews about my European adventure? "They have really cool malls over there?"
In the evening I asked a taxi driver for a restaurant with real Thuringian specialties. But when I got there, signs in the windows promised not only "Thuringian Specialties," but also "Bavarian Specialties" and "Italian Specialties." I thought, "I'm not a dumb tourist," and walked on.
Tucked away in the corner of the main square I stumbled upon a local nightmare: A working-class eatery. The door didn't close properly and the furniture was finished with a layer of plastic printed to look like oak; the knitted placemats were dusty and the flowers were fake. Deer horns hung on the walls, and they looked plastic too. It was gloomy and threatening, the kind of place you see in movies about the American south: there are only three customers in the place, and when you walk in they all stare threateningly.
In a perverse way, I loved it. It was the kind of place Germans are embarrassed of. You don't find them the tourist brochures. It's Germany when they think no one is looking.
I asked for a local specialty and the owner's wife brought me a plate of pork, dumplings and red cabbage drenched in gluey black gravy. She noticed my accent and said she had lived in America for ten years, in Chicago, to be close to her daughter, who had married an American. I told her how long I had lived in Germany.
"You must like it here."
"I'm going home soon. For good."
"Why go home if you like it here?"
"I feel like I'm losing my language," I shrugged. "I want to be somewhere where they speak English."
"If you're losing your language," she said, "it's time to go back."
I was glad someone could be so clear on that point. I certainly wasn't.
I stayed out my week in Eisenach. I walked the cobblestone streets that still followed the layout from the Middle Ages. I talked to people: The pastor of the medieval church, the head of the school that now occupies the old monastery. Looking for a glimpse of myself back when the dream of the Middle Ages consumed me, I went to a German high school or gymnasium and talked a history teacher into letting me interview a couple of his students who happened to be fans of the Middle Ages, like I had been. I even called the Mormon missionaries and spent a day with them, trying to remember how it had been to discover Germany back then. The Middle Ages stayed hidden.
Then my week was over, and it was time to go home. There was just one more call to make. The history teacher had made me promise to visit him before I returned to Berlin. He wanted to show me something.
I drove through the farming fields outside Eisenach for nearly an hour before coming to a tiny, off-the-map village called Mihla. The address he had given me turned out to be a U-shaped building with a barn in one side and a tractor in the courtyard. I rang at the doorbell with a sign that said Rathaus. The history teacher opened the door. He was a pudgy, middle-aged man named Rainer Lämmerhirt, which means "Lambherder." He reminded me of the father in Happy Days. During the day, he was a schoolteacher, but in his spare time he was bürgermeister of Mihla.
We got into his car and he drove me a ways outside Mihla, through well-tended rape, barley and wheat fields, along the Werra River, past a field where yaks grazed and then through patches of the Haineck Forest.
He told me the story of how he was working on his doctor's degree when the Berlin Wall came down. His professor had gotten a little too friendly with the Communist Party, and after Germany's unification, but before Lämmerhirt was finished with his doctor's degree, the professor was pushed into early retirement. That was the fate of many public officials in East Germany in the early nineties. The practical effect was that Lämmerhirt had the choice of starting his doctor's degree all over from scratch with another professor, or forgetting about it. He had already begun teaching gymnasium to support his family, so he gave up his doctor's degree altogether.
He pooh-poohed it now, but I could imagine his disappointment at losing a career as a historian to the most internationally glorified event in Germany since the end of World War II.
We drove up a dirt path through tall spruce trees to the top of a hill. There, crowded in by the woods, stood a shady castle ruin. "My burg," he called it, proudly.
The Haineck was small as burgs go. It was even small as houses go. It was constructed of gray chips of stone and had the dimensions of a shoebox standing on end. It had been a single large room with a roof over it, only the roof was long gone. A swath of ivy had climbed up one of the walls and eaten into the mortar, weakening it. Parts of the other walls had already collapsed.
This was the kind of burg you picture when you think about the Middle Ages - ruined, mysterious, warlike, simple. You only needed five or six good knights to defend it. It had a waterless moat, and the wall most accessible to attackers was curved, like a potbelly stove, to absorb catapult attacks.
It was built in the late 1300s to take road tolls and fend off the barons of the neighboring regions. It had housed Thuringian court bailiffs, crusaders, robber barons and burners of heretics and witches. In the 1500s it fell into disuse.
Lämmerhirt's father took him up to Haineck on Sundays as a boy. It was a real ruin then, hard to get to, stuck in the underbrush, overgrown with moss and ivy and filled with rubble. It drove his boyish imagination wild. He heard all kinds of legends about the burg, full of dwarves and imps, robber barons and ghosts of lovers.
His favorite was about a dashing outlaw named Florian Henning.
There is a huge hole in the burg's main tower. People say it was made by Henning, who was held prisoner there. In the night before he was to be executed, he broke a hole in the wall and escaped just before dawn. On the road out of there, he passed some peasants coming to the burg to watch the execution, and told them, "There's no rush, you'll make it on time. It can't start without me, and I have a long way to go!"
Around the time East Germany crumbled, Lämmerhirt began researching the Haineck. He discovered much about its history and demystified the legends (alas, the hole in the tower was not made by the robber, but by a falling tree). Lämmerhirt formed a restoration committee. They cleaned out the rubble, restored and roofed over the main tower and tore the mortar-devouring ivy off all the walls except for one, leaving it for atmosphere.
"It was the fulfillment of a childhood dream," he said. "It was the dream of being able to tell my kids a little bit more about it. It was accepting the challenge of finding out more. It was being able to do something for the public."
Though you couldn't call the restored Haineck burg a tourist trap - the out-of-the-way ruin has no signs, no personnel and no opening hours - Lämmerhirt admitted that it is no longer the fairy-tale castle of his boyhood. If cleaning it up ruined the romance and mystery of it, why did he restore it?
"Other people have asked me that too," he said. "The alternative was to leave it as it is, and in thirty, forty years it will disappear completely. You have to make a decision."
I asked Lämmerhirt if, as a boy, he had imagined someday seeing a knight come riding through the trees, if he stood near that ruin long enough. He smirked and said, "Something like that."
I drove back to Berlin and cursed that damned Lämmerhirt all the way. He had got himself a piece of the Middle Ages. For my eighteen years here, I hadn't.
By the time I reached Berlin, I was making a new plan. I drew up a list of all the medieval figures that had always fascinated me. Some of them I knew better than others. I had read the works of the poets, but I hardly knew anything about the princess, and my favorite knight didn't even live in Germany, but in what is now Austria. The list even included fictional names: I took my bloodthirsty barbarians right out of a medieval legend. Then I looked up the places where they were born and where they died, where they slept and had breakfast, to the landscapes they had walked through, the spots where their decisions changed the world. What I had was an itinerary that would take me on a zigzagging pilgrimage through Germany, from north to east, to west and to south, on the tracks of my personal medieval heroes.
It was my old dream of glimpsing Charlemagne, but with better odds. If he didn't show up on some misty hill, maybe one of the others would.
Only then did I realize what this was going to cost: Not just the money I had saved up for my return to America, but several years of my life in which I would lose the momentum my professional life had gathered until then. To make matters worse, that media trade paper in Hollywood offered me a job. In their editorial offices in Los Angeles.
It was the perfect job. It was the career I was meant to have. I would have to say goodbye to the dream of my youth, but that's what you do when you grow up. I was forty, and forty is not the right age to go off looking for knights in shining armor.
I took the job. It was to start in September. But I carried that list around with me in my back pocket for months.
One day I found myself in Munich, my old home. I was there ostensibly to cover a film festival, but that was largely an excuse to meet old friends and flirt with snobbish young actresses at the bar.
One night, after a few drinks with an old ex-pat friend of mine, I got sentimental about leaving Germany. She knew what I was really talking about: Should I go on that trip or not? She reduced the whole question to one sentence: "Once you're back in America," she said, "You'll never do it."
After that, I needed a few more drinks. It was after midnight when I phoned my girlfriend in Berlin and told her I was thinking about taking that trip after all.
This was a German girl. She had never been in love with the idea of moving to America with me, but September was getting close and she had made her decision to come along. She'd given advance notice at work and on her apartment, too. She had committed, and here I was, backing out.
She had a right to feel betrayed, and she told me so, complaining bitterly until I I felt like the jerk of a thoughtless male I was.
Then there was silence on the phone. She was crying with her hand over the receiver.
There was nothing I could do but cave in, and that's just what I was about to do when something powerful burst out of her, as if she'd been holding it in, but couldn't any longer:
"I want you to make the trip," she said.
"I want you to make the trip."
I called Los Angeles and turned down the job.
|Some notes on "Die Nibelungenreise"|
This is the only of my German books that I wrote in English first. Astrid translated it.
It appeared in German in 2004.
There were three editions: The hardcover, the softcover and a National Geographic edition entitled "Planet Mittelalter" (Planet Middle Ages).
Here's what the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote about it.
Buy the book.
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