What the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote about Driving Through the Dark Ages.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung - FAZ - is Germany's most serious and most respected daily newspaper. Their literary critics are known to be academic specialists and their prose is often more literary than the books they review.
By Oliver Jungen.

September 3, 2004
Excuse me, is This the Way to the Holy Grail?

A Tacitus for our time: Eric T. Hansen on the trail of the Nibelungs
 

Watch out, barbarians: The empire writes back. This is the hour of the anthropologist - they're coming at us from all sides. There stands Tacitus, here stands Eric T. Hansen, and between them stand the proud, wild Germanic tribes of ancient times, the subject that drives both writers to the quill. Much like in the pamphlets of the old Roman scholar, who idealized the beer-swilling Germanics into noble barbarians, always in contrast to his own culture, so does the American Hansen contrast that prehistoric society of the world of Germans today. Poetologically speaking, the one word that both Hansen and Tacitus have most in common is: associative. The difference is that the former Mormon missionary hails from the far fringes of the Empire: "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."
 
The Middle Ages were available, however: Hansen came to Germany twenty years ago, studied medieval literature and became a journalist in Berlin. That's when he made a discovery that could hardly have come as a surprise to an American: the Middle Ages never ended. His second discovery may well have had something to do with the aforementioned high school teacher: the real Middle Ages are German. Thus Hansen entitled his meditative ramblings through the remnants of Charlemagne's empire "Die Nibelungenreise" - "The Nibelung Trip". Slyly, the book's subtitle dodges any one genre: "Driving a VW-Bus Through the Middle Ages." That sounds like a high-speed cultural pile-up. But really it's much more a sentimental travel book that imparts a monstrous amount of knowledge quite in passing. In the Middle Ages, everyone was always searching for something: The Holy Grail, some hoard of happiness somewhere. Hansen goes questing for the quest. For months he cruises down the trials of the Holy Roman Empire through post-reunification Germany in a camping van. The idea is not as odd as you might think: The emperor, as we all know, still sits in his secret mountain realm somewhere, waiting to return.
 
The enchanted journey in a sponsored van takes him from Berlin to Hamburg (Störtebeker the Pirate), via the Harz Mountains (Theophanu the Byzantine princess) to Xanten (Siegfried the legendary dragon-slayer), Cologne (Ursula the virgin martyr), Aachen (Charlemagne) and then down the Rhine into the land of the Nibelungs, to the city of Worms. Finally Hansen accepts the invitation of Attila the Hun to the far Hungarian city of Esztergom. On his way back, he stops in Vienna (the poet Walther von der Vogelweide), Heidelberg (the medieval illustrated Codex Manesse), Judenburg (the cross-dressing knight Ulrich von Liechtenstein) and Eschenbach (the poet Wolfram). But the focus of the journey is clearly the medieval epic "The Song of the Nibelungs." Germany is a land of heroic poetry, not of courtly literature.
 
The Hansen Method consists of radical empathy. To get a feeling for knightly mentality, he sleeps in a horse stable; subsisting only on porridge and medieval donuts, he tries to channel Wolfram von Eschenbach by osmosis. Despite all the exoticism, the well-prepared writer hits the important notes with considerable precision. But the book makes good on its promises in even more subtle ways. More than anything, the form is medieval - though its often refreshing oral style ("Man, did Reinmar have the blues") can grow taxing with time: "Siegfried has barely arrived in town and already he's acting like a Superbarbarian. He hammers on the gate. He threatens every Tom, Dick and Harry."
 
At the same time, Hansen relies on traditional authentication: By eye-witnessing as much as possible himself and by gathering the wisdom of experts. As far as the eye-witnessing goes, there's the entire trip. The modern pilgrim even gets a look at the Codex Manesse, which is guarded like a national treasure, and he is immediately overcome by a medieval desire: "Can I touch it?" Conspicuously, though much of the knowledge relayed here is available in the Lexikon des Mittelalters (Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages), he gleans it from interviews with experts: The text is laced with "he said's." Historical knowledge comes via omniscient archivists, museum curators, historians, community researchers or local heroes. The theories of medieval historians are given egalitarian space next to New Age ideas, Rennaisance fair hobbyists and treasure hunters.
 
Something else is more dubious. Hansen's central expert on the rivalry between the poets Reinmar der Alte and Walther von der Vogelweide, which supposedly took place in the Babenberg court in Vienna, is the literary scholar Helmut Birkhan. Hansen accepts his opinion that the clash of two conflicting theories of medieval love poetry led to the struggle between them and goes one step further to stylize Walther as a sentimental poet, thus single-handedly erasing an entire century of scholarship as far back as 1919, when Carl von Kraus first postulated a "poetic rivalry" between the two. Günter Schweikle has long since consigned that theory to the Hades of literary legend, as it is impossible to show that Reinmar ever worked in Vienna. This seemingly minor point is typical. Hansen doesn't let petty obstacles like cultural poetics get in the way of his view of the Middle Ages. It's swarming with heroes of the sword and heroes of the quill, grand individuals of the kind loved by positivism. Hansen vanquishes any academic prejudice toward details with the powerful might of a well-stated punch line and succeeds in making the past astoundingly vivid, but at the price of academic recidivism.
 
Hansen compensates with his impressive honesty that doesn't try to conceal his preferences. No dead-end is glossed over, even the people he meets in his travels suddenly find themselves - as in a vacation journal - mentioned with their full names. Only a true enthusiast can write so unscrupulously. Even the Hawaiian's amazement at what we Germans call a "beach" is real - and in no way deprecating: "It was all black muck and green slime," he writes when he discovers the mudflats of the Wadden Sea. Only gradually does it dawn on the reader that Hansen's purpose is not what it first seemed. He's not only looking for the Middle Ages in Germany, he's looking for Germany in the Middle Ages: "If I can explain why I love America, I also want to be able to say what makes me love my second Heimat." One thing that doesn't bind him is the whinging. He snaps back at the simplistic America-criticism of a bratty Passauer girl undiplomatically: "You didn't invite us. We came here to conquer you and we did just that." But in the middle of his trip, Hansen suddenly understands what it is he loves about this country: the extremes. The Cologne Karneval and the reckless determination of a Kriemhild in the epic tale of the Nibelungs. That, again, is evocative of Tacitus. Who knows? Maybe they're both just plain right.
 
 
Original text online here.
 

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