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The Importance of Ambiguity in "Der blonde Eckbert"

Ludwig Tieck's reputation as one of the founding fathers of German Romanticism rests primarily in the strength and complexity of his Märchennovellen. This genre, which quickly became a standard for the time, draws on both the eighteenth-century ideals of the novella (as seen, for example, in the writings of Goethe and the Schlegel brothers), as well as on the contemporary theories of Volks- and Kunstmärchen, propagated by Novalis and, again, the Schlegels. In Tieck's hands, however, the combination of these two fairly straightforward forms takes on a life of its own, confronting the reader with an astounding depth and intricacy: the interweaving of both mundane and fantastic, even demonic occurrences, the emphasis on psychology and subjectivity, and the insistence on unresolved ambiguities leave the reader at once frustrated and intrigued -- and open up nearly endless avenues for interpretation.

Tieck's "Der blonde Eckbert," published in 1797, is a classic example of this genre in early Romantic writing, incorporating representative philosophical as well as literary tendencies. The motifs of nature, motion, friendship, and isolation, to name only a few, are given such emphasis here as to appear for a modern reader nearly clichéd. Significant, however, is that none of these themes is presented unambiguously; each is portrayed at times as positive, only to prove destructive or impossible in the end. For Tieck, daily life and the fantastic have become inseparable; any attempt to live one without the other is doomed to failure. Psychology and philosophy, most notably conceptions from both Karl-Philip Moritz and J.G. Fichte, work together in this complex system: the subject becomes, as an autonomous creative force, both accountable for its actions as well as the agent of its own punishment. The bourgeois society is condemned, but, as in Germany in the aftermath of the French Revolution, no redemptive paradigm can be found. Eckbert seeks to end his "entsetzliche Einsamkeit" but finds only dementia; in so doing, he destroys his previous lifestyle but is incapable of creating a new one. As Ribbat writes, the subject in Tieck's narratives "sucht [...] nach Überwindung seiner Isolation durch den poetischen Traum, und es beteiligt sich gerade dadurch an der Auflösung der es bislang integrierenden Gesellschaft." [1] This has serious consequences for the understanding of Tieck's world view: his romantic vision is, we see, not always productive; instead, his creation has the power to destroy, to negate even its own reality, as Eckbert indeed discovers.

The seemingly idyllic (if unfruitful) life of Eckbert and his wife Bertha, both of whom profess to be content in their protected isolation from society, is dealt a severe shock when Eckbert's only close friend Walther comes to visit. Eckbert, feeling a compulsion to reveal any and all secrets to his friend, prompts his wife to recount the odd story of her youth: after running away from her abusive parents as a child, Bertha found her way to a secluded hut in the forest, where a strange old woman gave her shelter. During the woman's frequent absences, Bertha learned to take care of the dog and the magic jewel-laying bird. One day, however, at the age of fourteen, Bertha decided to abandon the hut in search of human company and adventure. Leaving the dog behind but carrying the bird, whose jewels she sold for a fortune, she fled; soon afterwards, however, she was besieged by guilt, and strangled the bird. Finally, still fearing retribution, she settled down and married Eckbert. As she closes her tale, Bertha notes that she cannot remember the name of the old woman's dog; then, to her surprise, Walther reminds her rather offhandedly of the dog's name, and takes his leave. This strange coincidence sends Bertha to her deathbed, wracked by doubts, and drives Eckbert to murder Walther in the woods. Later, having found a new friend in Hugo, Eckbert is again compelled to confess his story in full. After doing so, however, Eckbert becomes insanely suspicious of his friend; Hugo then proceeds to take on, to Eckbert's eyes, the features of Walther, and finally, after his journey through the forest and to the secluded hut, the features of the old woman as well. Approaching insanity, Eckbert reels when the vengeful old woman reveals to him that Bertha was, in fact, his own sister. Bewailing his life of horrific isolation, Eckbert collapses in madness and despair.

Tieck's narrative raises many questions, none of which can be answered simply, and all of which have provided critics and readers with ever-changing analyses and interpretations. Perhaps the most banal question is at once the farthest-reaching: to what genre does this "Märchen" belong? As noted above, Tieck's innovations in combining aspects of the novella and the Märchen lead to certain narrative ambiguities; for example, the magic of the traditional fairy tale is replaced here by gruesome illusion, even insanity, and conventional morality can no longer be considered unwavering. The psychological motivation for much of the story's events is an element typically seen in novels, not Märchen; in addition, Tieck's decision to publish "Der blonde Eckbert" in a collection entitled Volksmärchen, even though the story is clearly not derived from oral tradition, calls for further discussion. Another question arises from Tieck's rather ambivalent placement of natural elements: just what, precisely, is the role of nature in the tale? Some critics accuse Tieck, as the Berlin city-dweller, of sentimentalizing nature, and for evidence point to the first refrain of the bird's chorus about the blissful innocence of Waldeinsamkeit. This view ignores, however, the significant failings of nature for the characters themselves: in the end, even the secluded hut in the forest proves unable to satisfy Bertha's human needs, and the reader is led to question whether a life of natural simplicity can, in fact, accommodate the adult mind and the power of human emotion and reason.

The ambiguities that necessarily appear upon closer analysis of Tieck's work have, to my mind, their center in the ethical questions raised by the story. Is Eckbert responsible for his own undoing? Is the old woman a symbol of judgment or revenge, meting out punishment to the wicked? What, then, was Eckbert's sin, and even Bertha's, for that matter? And finally, does the outcome of the story lead us to believe that Eckbert had made a choice of free will, or is this simply the fulfillment of his fate?

It is clear that Eckbert and Bertha are punished, even victimized, in the story; the question remains, however, with what justification, and why? For Bertha, the answer can perhaps be found in her abandoning the dog and her duties in the secluded hut, thus violating the old woman's trust; if this is true, however, then the figure of the old woman must be seen as having extended a trustworthy offer. Significantly, though, this is not the case. If Bertha has failed her Probezeit in the forest, so too has the old woman failed: unable to satisfy Bertha's very natural human needs for companionship, knowledge, and societal awareness, she leaves Bertha totally unprepared for her adult life. [2] Indeed, the woman has not even provided Bertha with any ethical instruction, offering no more than a vague mention of the dangers that come if one strays from the right path. As such, holding Bertha responsible for her actions is at best a questionable endeavor. So too is Eckbert's punishment rather inexplicable: certainly the crime of incest, if premeditated, would justify his downfall, but why is he then confronted by the old woman, who had little (if anything) to do with this aspect of Bertha's life? Here the ambiguities surrounding the woman's character run deep: she could exist as a symbol of nature's revenge, as a supernatural presence, or as a figment of the deranged knight's distressed imagination, but the revelation she makes is all too real, as is Eckbert's belief in her existence. Having led his life in a world of his own construction, holding firmly to his belief in free will, Eckbert has prohibited any intrusion of the irrational workings of his subconscious; as a result, he, like Bertha, is unprepared for the "fate" which awaits him in the form of the old woman, and cannot withstand the shock. For the reader, the disturbance is similarly unsettling, leaving a distinct sense of unease and confusion, yet fulfilling precisely Tieck's poetic goal. These ethical ambiguities, though, centering around the character of the old woman, remain and give rise to a multitude of other dilemmas and considerations, many of which have yet to be satisfactorily examined.


(1)  Ernst Ribbat in: Viktor Zmegac, ed: Geschichte der deutschen Literatur, Band 1/2 (Frankfurt, 1992), p. 133. [return to text]
(2)  cf. Alan Corkhill, The Motif of "Fate" in the Works of Ludwig Tieck (Stuttgart, 1978), p. 149-150. [return to text]

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1995 for German 704 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "The Importance of Ambiguity in 'Der blonde Eckbert'." Website Article. 28 September 1995. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/704Tieck.html>.