We first meet Tristran when, as an infant, he's thrust into the gap in the wall in a basket. The guards hear him crying, and then see his "red, bawling face, with screwed-up little eyes, a mouth, open, vocal, and hungry" (1.223). Looks like somebody's off to a rough start in life.
At the beginning of his story, Tristran is a weird kid who doesn't fit in. This doesn't surprise us, since we know he's the product of a romantic evening between his father, Dunstan Thorn, and the nameless booth slave at the Faerie Market. But he doesn't know this yet, so he just feels like the odd one out a lot of the time.
Making things worse is the fact that he looks a little funny, too, which leads to his little sister Louisa teasing him all the time: "The right ear was flat against his head, and almost pointed; the left one was not" (2.8). Add in the fact that he's "painfully shy" (2.26), and we see that Tristran doesn't have things easy at home.
His mom never shows him any affection, either, which seems strange until we do some math. Tristran was born six months after his parents got married, which is also six months before his Louisa was born… So yeah, it's understandable why his mom (who's not his biological mother) might have mixed feelings about him. Between his sister teasing him and his mom being distant, we're surprised he hasn't run away from home sooner.
Some of his problems, of course, are age-related. What teenager doesn't go through an awkward stage? At the time the story starts, poor Tristran looks "half the way between a boy and a man […] equally uncomfortable in either role; he seemed to be composed chiefly of elbows and Adam's apples. His hair was the brown of sodden straw, and it stuck out at awkward, seventeen-year-old angles, wet and comb it howsoever much he tried" (2.25). Classic teenage awkwardness, right? At least in our experience, anyway.
When Tristran first steps into Faerie, he's "too ignorant to be scared, too young to be awed" (2.147). In other words, he's a lot like other young people who bite off more than they can chew while embarking on an adventure. Luckily, Faerie being what it is, Tristran being naïve will get him a little help along the way.
Maybe because he doesn't fit in, Tristran has fantasies about going on quests and doing something remarkable. This, we think, helps set him up for the promise he makes to Victoria to bring her back a fallen star. Growing up, Tristran's "daydreams were strange, guilty fantasies, muddled and odd, of journeys through forests to rescue princesses from palaces, dreams of knights and trolls and mermaids" (2.28). Yep, sounds to us like he's in a perfect position to make some grand romantic declaration of love.
When he gets up the courage to ask Victoria if he can walk her home from the store where he works, he tells her, "'You are the most lovely woman in all the world,'" and moreover, he says it "from the bottom of his heart" (2.59), so not only does he clearly have feelings for her, he's earnest in expressing them, too. He asks her for a kiss, and then for her hand in marriage, promising to bring her back treasures from India, Africa, America, and Australia.
Victoria, however, is not impressed. But that doesn't dissuade Tristran, oh, no sirree. He then vows to bring her the star she saw fall to the east. When she says she'll grant him his heart's desire if he manages that, he goes " down on his knees in the mud, heedless of his coat or his woolen trousers" (2.96). We'll see many more clothing items victimized thanks to Tristran's propensity for getting caught up in the moment.
His tattered and tarnished clothes are only a small example of the fact that Tristran's not so good with the logistical sides of things. When he declares to his father that he's going through the wall, for instance, he doesn't seem to have given it much thought, saying: "'I'm sure I can find a way […] If necessary, I'll fight my way past the guards'" (2.114). Yeah, sure you will, Tristran. Luckily his dad has things handled, so Tristran can be on his merry way to Faerie.
The little hairy man pegs Tristran as someone on a lover's errand right away, saying, "'that's the only reason a lad like you would be stupid enough to cross the border into Faerie'" (4.41). Notice the word stupid, and then recall that Tristran is all whatever, I'm sure I can figure it out as I go when he tells his dad he's leaving. Our main man's got a youthful (read: naïve) confidence to him, for sure, and he's fueled by what we can see is pretty much unrequited love.
To sum up, Tristran is:
Tristran is perhaps not the brightest crayon in the box, but he means well, and so he tends to greet the world as if it had the same good intentions as him. Which, you might imagine, leads to mixed results.
It takes him a hot minute to figure out that the crying figure under the hazel tree is the star he's been looking for. The star, who has known this all along, calls him "'a clodpoll […] a ninny, a numbskull, a lackwit, and a coxcomb!'" (4.266). Tristran good-naturedly agrees with her assessment, saying, "'Yes… I suppose I am at that'" (4.267). For the record, we might not respond so kindly to such name calling, so while we're at it, let's be sure to note Tristran's generosity of spirit.
When Tristran runs out of food and needs to eat something, he decides to go into a village to get sustenance, leaving the star with the unicorn in order to not attract attention. Doing this means undoing the chain that has them bound together, so he tells her, "'I'll have to trust you, on your honor as a star, not to run away'" (5.143). Of course she takes advantage of the opportunity to dash, though, and Tristran feels stupid when he returns to where he left them and finds them gone. We've said it before, but we'll say it again: Dude's a little naïve.
Then again, Tristran knows better than to spurn everyone that comes his way. Right after the star escapes and he meets the tree nymph, he thinks about refusing her offer to help him, but then realizes "that any progress he had made on his quest so far he had made by accepting the help that had been offered to him" (6.30). Not only does this demonstrate some solid assessment skills, but it also shows that, at least on this journey, Tristran's trusting behavior has often enough been rewarded that it can't be written off as without merit.
The tree nymph helps him, just like the hairy little man, Primus, and the airship captain do when their paths cross. So maybe part of Tristran's personal journey is about learning when to trust—to rein the instinct in just a bit—than it is about learning to be cynical or instinctively untrusting.
Once Tristran stops making silly mistakes, he turns out to be a pretty nice guy. He tells Yvaine that once they get back to Wall and sort out his promise to Victoria, "'perhaps we could do what you need'" (8.71). Maybe it's possible to return a fallen star to the sky, and maybe it isn't, but Tristran intends to try, gosh darn it, and he recognizes that Yvaine has been sucked into his journey for the time being.
Tristran isn't just nice to pretty girls, though (ahem, Victoria and Yvaine), and he also helps a beautiful bird (who happens to be his mom, though he doesn't know it at the time) when its chain gets tangled up in a tree stump. And when his first attempt to get back through the wall fails, he helps a lady shopkeeper set up for the Faerie Market.
We're thinking that part of what makes Tristran hero material is the combination of his good intentions, inclination to trust, and all around nice guy behavior. Read on to learn about the other parts of that equation…
Between being bumbling, naive, and a little deluded about his chances of shacking up with Victoria, Tristran doesn't strike us as hero material at first. But then unexpected stuff starts happening, and we have to revise our opinion of him.
When the serewood tries to trap and eat Tristran and the little hairy man, Tristran keeps a cool head and somehow manages to find a way out. Oh yeah, and it turns out that Tristran has a keen sense of direction while in Faerie, and can locate anything he can put a name to. Neat trick, huh?
Tristran also surprises us (and himself) with his bravery. When the star asks him to break up the fight between the lion and the unicorn, at first he's afraid, but then he complies. This act saves the unicorn's life.
Then, when the witch-queen is about to cut out Yvaine's heart, Tristran reforms the wax candle around a new wick, and thrusts his hand holding the candle into the fire. It works, and it gets them out of there, but "There was pain, and burning, such that he could have screamed" (7.82). If you ask us, that's bravery (with maybe a little foolishness and masochism mixed in, but so it goes sometimes with bravery).
So Tristran's courageous, which is cool, and he's a nice guy, which helps, but during his travels, he reaches a deeper kind of heroism as he realizes that people have the right to make their own choices and set their own boundaries… and that this is worth fighting for.
Tristran's attitude about boundaries has come a long way from the beginning, when he was being kind of pushy with Victoria in order to get her to kiss him. When he comes back from his journey, he tells Victoria that she didn't need a reason to withhold consent, saying, "'It was your right not to kiss me'" (10.69). He also realizes that "the star was not a thing to be passed from hand to hand, but a true person in all respects and no kind of a thing at all" (9.54). Self-determination for all, in other words.
Maybe this is what makes Tristran a good ruler—you know, when he eventually shows up to take the throne of Stormhold, that is. He's not thrilled about his post, since the wandering life agrees with him, but he can't put off his responsibility forever.
And when he does take the lead, Tristran pretty much nails it. He leads his people to various victories, makes wise decisions, and may well be "a member of the Fellowship of the Castle […] instrumental in breaking the power of the Unseelie Court" (Epilogue.17). In other words, he grows into his position as Lord of Stormhold, despite starting the book as someone whom we wouldn't necessarily consider obvious leadership material.
Then again, though, we were cheering for him all along. We're big fans of rulers we can root for.