Sure, ironic and ambiguous stuff happens in The Romance of Tristan. But we, the readers, are never left in any doubt about where our sympathies should lie, nor about how to interpret the things that happen in the story. When Tristan leaps from his bed to Yseut's, causing his wound to open, dripping blood on the floor, the narrator interjects a cry of 'What bad luck!' just to be sure we know to lament the outcome for our lovers (3.64).
The barons, we are told, have "acted very badly to the king in making him angry with Tristan": never is there any suggestion that the barons might have done the king a favor by convincing him to get rid of the guy who was sleeping with his wife.
The message is clear: Tristan and love = good, evil barons who thwart him and it = bad. Of course, just because the tone of the story seems to resolve thorny moral conundrums without a second thought doesn't mean that we can't question whether anyone or anything in The Romance of Tristan is really as uncomplicated as it seems.
The title by which we know Béroul's version of the popular medieval legend of Tristan and Isolde, The Romance of Tristan, marks the story as part of the medieval romance genre of literature. Medieval romance was a genre that became popular among aristocrats beginning in the 12th century. These romance stories, usually written in verse, told of the adventures of a knight-errant as he sought to prove himself and define his identity against other knights, fantastic beasts, and evil villains. They often incorporated magic and the supernatural as an important part of the plot.
Medieval romances might also spend some time on the relationship between the knight and his lady, but this was usually a minor part of the story. That's where The Romance of Tristan differs from your typical medieval romance: it spends most of its time on the relationship between the two lovers. Even when Tristan's engaging in typical knightly behaviors—jousting, fighting, disguising himself as someone else—he's doing so in order to carry on his adulterous affair with Yseut. This narrative focus makes The Romance of Tristan more like what we expect of a modern romance story than a medieval one.
The Romance of Tristan is actually the romance of Tristan and Yseut, his lady. If that's the case, then why isn't she in the title? Well, folks, this is a medieval romance, a genre that is usually all about the knight.
The rules of the genre say that this is supposed to be mainly Tristan's story: it starts with his birth, ends with his death and, in the moments when the lovers are separated, usually follows Tristan rather than Yseut. The feminist in you may cringe, but take heart!: The Romance of Tristan actually spends a lot more time on its heroine than most medieval romances. Check out "Protagonist(s)" in the "Characters" section for more.
As Tristan lies dying in his bed, he asks his wife to look out the window and tell him whether the sails of an approaching ship are black or white. If the sails are white, he knows it's his messenger's way of telling him that he returns with Tristan's lover, Yseut, who he believes is the only person capable of healing him of his poisoned wound.
But Tristan's wife (oh dear) knows of her husband's secret arrangement and, out of jealousy, tells him that the sail is black when it is actually white. Believing that his lover has failed him in the end, Tristan dies before they can be reunited. Later, Yseut dies of grief in his lifeless arms.
We know, we know. You've seen that before. But this is where it all came from.
And it's one of the most tragic endings in literature, mainly because of its dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is a fancy way of describing a moment in a story or play when the audience knows something that the character doesn't. We know the approaching sails are white, because Béroul tells us so. If only we had some way of telling Tristan that! Oh, the dramatic irony of it all!
One of the most interesting minor characters in the Tristan legend plays an important role in this ending. That would be Tristan's wife, the "other" Yseut (of the White Hands), who lies about the color of the approaching sails out of jealousy. (Okay, but seriously, how many Yseuts are there in the world at one time? We haven't met any.)
Tristan has refused to consummate his marriage with Yseut of the White Hands because of his devotion to his first love. But, hey, that's not all! He has even convinced his wife's brother that Yseut the Fair is a worthier love interest than his sister. Ouch.
At the very end of the story, Yseut of the White Hands finally lashes out against her fate. She's been pretty silent until now, but when she makes her presence known she does it in a big way. The enormity of her impact on the ending makes us suddenly aware that Yseut of the White Hands is a person, too—one with normal human feelings.
Just when we should feel most sorry for the two main characters, we realize the negative consequences of their ill-fated romance on Yseut of the White Hands, whose life it's basically destroyed. Her presence in the ending forces us to reflect on what's destructive about Tristan and Yseut's love even as we're encouraged to contemplate what's beautiful and noble about it.
In a world… where lords battle for control… over territories near and far… with the help of loyal knights… who defend them other lords… and from the supernatural…
This is the world of Tristan.
But seriously, folks, this is a pretty awesome place. It's one in which the magic of a love potion can change the course of a character's destiny. It's one where treasured values—feudal loyalty and romantic love—don't always co-exist easily. This general setting is typical of a medieval romance, a genre in which brave knights prove themselves by overcoming physical and psychological challenges to their identity as knights.
The setting of Tristan differs from that of many other medieval romances, though. Guess why! That's right—because so much of it takes place in the bedroom. Oh, yeah. Most heroes in medieval romances are out on quests trying to find themselves. What they want most is public renown as knights, so they spend a lot of time in court halls, jousting plains, and battlefields. Not Tristan. Tristan is a lover. That's what makes him who he is. It's even the basis of his identity as a knight. So Tristan spends a lot of time in the bedroom, which is usually where the women spend their times in these kinds of stories.
Tristan and Yseut also spend a lot of time in the forest. In medieval romance, the forest is the opposite of civilization. It's a place on the margins of society, where society's rules don't apply and anything can happen. Sounds like the perfect place for Tristan and Yseut, since their illicit love places them on the margins of acceptable social behavior. It's like their time in the forest is a vacation from society's rules, though this is not always pleasant. As Tristan says, "I have forgotten chivalry and the life of a knight at court. I am an exile in this country and there is nothing left of the light and grey furs I had. I am not in the company of the knights at court" (11.96).
Either way, the forest is a place where Tristan and Yseut can allow their love to develop. "They were a long time in the forest of Morrois. Each of them was suffering equal hardship, but neither was distressed on the other's account" (9.85). Even if things are hard, they still have each other. When the magic potion wears off, though, Tristan and Yseut immediately become more concerned with the impropriety of their behavior. They return to court and re-establish their identities as members of medieval society.
You know, until they get it on again.
Since you, like us, will probably be reading Béroul's Tristan in translation, you're in for a quick and easy read. That changes if you decide to tackle Tristan in Old French, a language that, like Old or Middle English, looks very different from the modern French people speak today. Possible difficulties to be aware of, even in the English translation, include a lack of explanation for some characters' actions and a plot hole where a character dies only to mysteriously return whole and healthy a few pages later. Tristan doesn't follow the rules of modern-day storytelling. Once you accept that, though, it'll be smooth sailing.
Béroul's retelling of the legend is one of five of the earliest written versions we know of. All of these written versions probably come from a single original version that is now lost. This version is a prose translation from the Old French poem. Because the beginning and ending of the Béroul version are missing from the manuscript, the editor has reconstructed these portions of the story from other versions of the legend. He has also included in its entirety one lengthy episode near the end, the "Tale of Tristan's Madness," which is a translation of an anonymous short poem from the same time period and tradition, some variant of which he believes would have been included in Béroul's version of the legend.
Although you can't tell when you read it in translation, the original Old French version of The Romance of Tristan is in octosyllabic rhymed couplets. Whoa, yeah, let's see what that's all about. So each line of Old French is eight syllables long, and the rhymes proceed in pairs:
Dame, por amour Deu, merci!
Mandai toi, et or es ici;
Entent un poi a moi proiere.
Je t'ai je tant tenue chiere!(ll. 93 – 96)
[For God's sake, my lady! I asked you to come, and now that you are here I beg you to listen to what I have to say. I have always held you so dear. (2.49)]
Here, each line is eight syllables. Lines 93 and 94 make up a rhyming couplet with "merci" and "ici," while "proiere" and "chiere" make up the next rhyming couplet. This pattern continues throughout the entire poem.
The Romance of Tristan also uses an episodic structure typical of medieval romance. "Episodes" are kind of like the medieval version of today's chapters: each episode is a miniature story in and of itself. In medieval romance, episodes may sometimes be related to the plot in only a very minor way. Check out Part 6, "King Mark's Horse's Ears," in which the dwarf Frocin tells Mark's barons about his horse's ears, after which Mark cuts off his head.
This episode has very little to do with the main plot (though it's kind of hilarious). It does, however, involve many of the themes of the main plot, such as loyalty and discretion. It's usually a thematic relationship that ties the episodes of medieval romance together. So if we're reading medieval romance, we like to make sure to pay attention to the details of episodes that may seem like they don't have much to do with the main plot.
Love Potion Number Nine? Not quite: Tristan and Yseut don't go around kissing everything in sight. They just go around kissing each other.
Either way, the love potion is the most famous aspect of the story of Tristan and Yseut. It's a symbol the story uses to convey Tristan and Yseut's powerlessness to resist their love for one another. As the great literary critic Ke$ha tells us, their love is like a drug. The love potion makes them willing to sacrifice anything to be together, including their worldly comforts and social status. So the love potion might be a symbol for the way love is this big all-consuming thing, or for the way nothing matters to the lover more than the beloved.
One question we might ask is whether the love potion is real or more of a metaphor. Did Brangain really mix things up, or was the accident in any way intentional? Since fate is a big element of this story, couldn't Brangain's mistake be fated? Yseut's mother cooked up the love potion so that Yseut could be happy with her new husband. Maybe the point is that human emotions can't be forced, that love will have its own way. Then again, maybe it was just a random fail.
So, what on earth is a grave tree? If you guessed a tree that grows on a grave, you're right. After Mark buries Tristan and Yseut's bodies in a Cornish chapel, two trees with intertwining branches grow up over their graves—no matter how hard Mark tries to cut them down. So let's see: two things that refuse to say no? Yeah, we're pretty sure these trees symbolize the lovers themselves.
And guess what? The text thinks so, too.
And in case that wasn't in-your-face enough, Mark's failed attempts to cut them down are a slap in the face, saying "hey, this is the guy who couldn't separate Tristan and Yseut, either."
Also, if the natural world is going along with the love of Tristan and Yseut like this, does this suggest that their love is somehow natural, or part of the natural order of things? This detail might suggest that their love overrides human laws, or the laws of medieval society. Then again, it could just be the love potion at work again: "Some say it was the power of the love potion that did this" (19.164).
When Tristan gets all emo and starts lamenting all he is suffering because of his love for Yseut, he asks why love "wounds" him (18.152). He also complains that he is in "great agitation at every moment of the night and day" and going out of his mind because he cannot see Yseut (18.153). Tristan decides to put on the disguise of a "fool" or madman, so that his exterior costume matches the way he feels on the inside.
So what that means is that by pretending to be crazy, Tristan is actually showing everybody what he really feels like inside, because love sure is driving him off the deep end. And our suffering hero sure knows that only a trip to Dr. Love—er, Dr. Yseut can cure that achy breaky heart: after all, when he finally reaches Cornwall, he tells Brangain that only Yseut can "cure" this sickness, just as she previously cured him of his physical ailments.
So in this way, Yseut's role as a healer is a mark of her role in the love-relationship just as Tristan's disguise as a madman is a mark of his. The idea of love as a wound, disease, or madness that only the female beloved can cure is a very common one in French courtly poetry of this time period. It emphasizes the physical effects of all-consuming love upon the lover. But seriously, it's not like love feels that much different today, right? Love hurts! Don't we just want somebody to make it better?
Sometimes it just seems like the person you're into could ask for anything, and you'd give it. You feel almost like a vassal or servant to someone who has power over you because you're just so in love. Sounds a little rough, huh? Tristan and Yseut can tell you all about it.
Longing for the sight of Yseut, Tristan asks love to grant him his desire to hold her in his arms once again, personifying love as a deity or lord that can grant "boons"—special requests from her vassals (18.152). Later, he tells Brangain that he is seeking a reward from Yseut "for only a quarter of my service to her, or for a half of my suffering" (18.157), making himself into a loyal servant of his mistress, Yseut.
Tristan also complains that his mistress (love) has failed to reward him for his service as a good mistress ought to. These ways of personifying love and characterizing the beloved use categories from the feudal economy. Which is what you'd expect, really, since that was what Béroul knew about when he was writing this. The reward for loving—returned love, and sex, too!—becomes nothing more than what love or the beloved owes her faithful vassal.
The narrator of The Romance of Tristan is way omnipotent: at several points in the story, he tells us the fate that awaits his characters long before it comes to pass. He particularly delights in revealing the horrible deaths in store for his villains, like the dwarf Frocin or Mark's barons. The obvious pleasure he takes in punishing those who have it in for Tristan and Yseut reveals another characteristic of our narrator: he's emotionally involved in the story. Like, totally involved.
He shows us how involved he is when he criticizes the actions of his villains, like when he asks who would think of such a "low trick" as Frocin's. We also see it when he laments the missteps of his heroes, like when he interjects "God, what folly! He was too rash" about Tristan's spectacular leap to Yseut's bed.
The narrator's emotional commentary allows him to direct our sympathies and interpret the story for us as he tells it; it's also a narrative style typical of oral poetry. (That would be poetry that is spoken or recited rather than written down.) Whenever he says "Listen!" or "Hear how . . .," the narrator creates the feeling of oral performance. In fact, this scene may not be entirely fictional: it's possible that The Romance of Tristan was composed and delivered orally before it was written down.
After getting a nobleman's education, Tristan reveals his identity as Mark's nephew, is knighted, and serves as Mark's champion against Morholt of Ireland. Tristan is the perfect knight, skilled in both martial and peaceable arts. He's so great that he's the only guy who will stand up for Mark to Morholt of Ireland. But something is missing from Tristan's life: he doesn't yet have a lover.
Tristan drinks the love potion and gets it on with Yseut. From now on, Tristan's got it bad for Yseut. He's got it so bad that his love will determine the course of the rest of his life.
Mark's barons get suspicious of Tristan and Yseut's relationship and make plans to catch him with the help of the dwarf Frocin. Tristan desperately leaps from his bed to Yseut's despite the flour on the floor and the blood from his open wound. Guess what? This provides the evidence the barons need to convict him of treason.
Mark condemns Tristan and Yseut to death by burning. As Tristan is led to the pyre, he makes an epic leap from the window of a cliffside chapel to the seashore below, then rescues Yseut and escapes to the forest with her. Tristan's a new man now. Loyal nephew Tristan would have consented to be burned for treason; the new Tristan is Tristan the Lover, who will live in exile, on the outskirts of Cornish society and its laws, for the rest of his life.
Many years after Tristan leaps from the chapel, he receives a poisoned wound helping his friend Kaherdin get it on with a married woman. This is pretty much what kills him. Now Tristan has chosen the identity of lover rather than law-abiding citizen. He serves love no matter what. So this is probably why he helps out with Kaherdin's illicit affair. In a sense, Tristan's death is the result of a decision he made the moment he chose to abandon his position in the Cornish court in favor of his love for Yseut.
Tristan claims Yseut as a bride for his uncle and lord, King Mark.
All the ingredients for a classic love triangle are firmly in place: beautiful maiden, knight in shining armor, and a lord with a claim to the beautiful maiden. To make things even juicier, the knight in shining armor is a vassal to the lord, who also happens to be his uncle.
Once Tristan and Yseut fall in love, they're in conflict with the rules of their society and with Yseut's future husband, who we're guessing won't look too kindly upon his wife sleeping with another man. To complicate matters, Tristan owes his undying loyalty to Mark.
The cat's out of the bag for Tristan and Yseut. Once Mark's barons learn about their adultery, they throw up all kinds of obstacles for the lovers. First, Mark forces Tristan to move out of the palace, forcing him to arrange secret meetings with Yseut. Then, they get Frocin to spread flour all over the floor between Tristan and Yseut's beds. What's a lover to do?
The moment you always knew was coming is here: Tristan and Yseut get caught. Their capture, and the proof of their adultery, is the culmination of the events that were set in motion when they drank the love potion. Their fate was always leading them to this.
Tristan and Yseut's forest life is pretty much one long moment of suspense. On several occasions, like when one of the barons goes hunting near their hiding spot, or a forester discovers them sleeping in a bower and leads Mark to them, we're on the edge of our seats wondering: will they or won't they be captured? Also, will they repent of what they've done and try to make amends? Or will they live this forest life forever?
Well, that answers one of our questions. It turns out that the love potion only lasts for two years and, once it's worn off, Tristan and Yseut are no longer willing to suffer any indignity for love. Tristan returns Yseut to Mark. Although there are some mini-plots of near-discovery and clandestine meetings that occur after this, the lovers' lifetime of separation is pretty much a sure thing at this point.
Since the story was all about love, it ends when the lovers end. Both Tristan and Yseut die because of their dedication to love, and to one another; Tristan because he helped his friend Kaherdin carry on an adulterous affair, then thought that Yseut had abandoned him; Yseut because she simply can't go on without Tristan. Their love is undying though, as evidenced by the two intertwining trees that grow up above their graves.
Tristan of Lyonesse arrives at the court of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. He receives a festering wound while acting as Mark's champion against Morholt of Ireland and receives healing at the hands of Yseut, princess of Ireland. Later, Tristan returns to Ireland and defeats a dragon, winning Yseut for Mark. On the way back to Cornwall, he and Yseut drink a magic potion that causes them to fall in love.
Tristan and Yseut carry on their affair in secret until Tristan's blood in Yseut's bed betrays their affair. On the way to be burnt, Tristan escapes his captors and rescues Yseut, fleeing to the forest. The two live there for two years until the waning of the potion's effects causes them to regret what they have done. Yseut returns to King Mark. Tristan and Yseut again carry on their affair in secret until their discovery by Mark's barons prompts Tristan to flee to Brittany. In Brittany, Tristan marries Yseut of the White Hands but refuses to consummate their marriage. He makes a trip to Cornwall to visit Yseut.
Tristan receives a poisonous wound while helping his friend Kaherdin carry on an adulterous affair. He sends a messenger for Yseut the Fair, knowing she is the only one who can heal him. The messenger is supposed to raise white sails if he returns with Yseut. But when his ship is in sight, Tristan cannot leave his bed and asks his wife to tell him the color of the sails. Out of jealousy, she lies, saying they are black. Tristan dies in despair. When Yseut the Fair finds his body, she dies in his arms. King Mark gives them an honorable burial in a Cornish chapel, where two intertwining trees grow up over their graves.