Before they left Ireland, Yseut's mother prepared a love potion which she entrusted to Brangain, Yseut's maid, and instructed her to give it to Yseut and her husband to drink on the wedding night. (1.44)
Yseut's mother wants to make sure that her daughter feels love for her new husband. It seems like she has a more "modern" view of marriage—one in which it is ideally a love connection between the husband and wife, rather than just an exchange of property. Boy, do things turn out differently.
By mistake, Brangain brought the love potion and handed it to Tristan, who drank and passed it to Yseut. Both thought it was good wine; neither knew that it held for them a lifetime of suffering and hardship and that it was to cause their destruction and their death. After some hesitation Tristan and Yseut confessed their love, and it was soon consummated. (1.44-45)
Yup, that's right: the greatest and most famous love affair in all of medieval literature is a tragic mistake. Tristan and Yseut aren't initially attracted to one another because they're soul mates but because they're under the influence of magic. (Or, wait, is that the same thing? Metaphorically speaking?) Although this fact might seem to cheapen their love just a little bit, the love potion may symbolize the way all love supposedly makes the lovers powerless to resist it.
'Tristan, I am sure the king does not realize that I have loved you for his sake; I loved you because we were related. I used to think that my mother dearly loved my father's family, and she said that a wife who does not do so does not love her lord: I am certain this was right. I have loved you because of him and by doing this I have lost all his good will.' (2.49)
Yseut knows that Mark is listening to her at this point, so she plays the role of a dutiful wife who loves her in-laws for her husband's sake. The kind of love that Yseut feigns here—platonic filial love—is the same category of love she will claim she actually feels for Tristan after the potion wears off. But her deception here makes that later claim of filial love suspect by association.
'If he loved me wickedly, you would have seen signs enough. On the contrary, by my faith, you saw that there was no hint of his coming up to kiss me or behave in an unseemly way. Surely, Tristan's love for me is blameless. Sire, if you had not seen us just now you would certainly not have believed me.' (2.58)
Here Yseut makes an argument that the narrator will reiterate a few pages later: that the signs of love are impossible to hide. This "truth" is the reason that Tristan and Yseut's affair is eventually exposed. Their inability to hide their love is proof of its depth and truth. Yet Tristan and Yseut have hidden their love from Mark, testifying to their skill at slipping easily in and out of the different roles they must perform.
Who can be in love for a year or two and not reveal it? For love cannot be concealed. Often one lover would wink at the other, often they would speak together both alone and in the sight of others. They could not find their pleasure everywhere and they had to meet many times. (3.60)
The narrator's certainty that "love cannot be concealed" is ironic given that Tristan and Yseut have done just that a few pages earlier. Of course, at that point the lovers were both aware of Mark's presence. It's only when they drop their guard that they reveal themselves, suggesting that they are so absorbed in their love that they don't think of anyone but themselves. That's probably why they never notice the barons watching them make out.
'Sir, I love Yseut so much. Because of her I cannot sleep nor even doze. My decision is soon taken: I would rather be a beggar with her and live on herbs and acorns than possess the kingdom of the rich King Otran. I beg you not to ask me to leave her, for I cannot do so.' (7.79)
Like a lot of other heroes in romance, Tristan suffers for love. Although Ogrin has counseled repentance both for the sake of God and for worldly position, Tristan appears to consider only the latter, weighing his love for Yseut against a rich worldly kingdom, rather than a heavenly one.
'If he were mine, I should let him off the leash. It would be a shame if he were to go mad. There was never a dog like Husdant, always so quick and now so sad for his master. There was never such a loving animal.' (8.80)
Husdant's refusal to eat and impending madness without his master, Tristan, foreshadows Tristan's condition when he is far from Yseut in Brittany. The proof of the depth of both of their loves is their inability to thrive when separated from their beloved.
Yseut's mother, who brewed [the love potion], made it for three years of love. She made it for Mark and her daughter; another tasted it and suffered because of this. For as long as the three years lasted the potion had such power over Tristan and the queen that each of them could say: 'I am not weary.' (11.96)
The love potion's effect is to create a love so strong that the drinkers will suffer any indignity for love. As soon as it wears off, Tristan and Yseut become unwilling to sacrifice worldly comforts and position for their love. What is ambiguous is whether or not they really stop loving one another at this point, or whether they simply stop being willing to live in exile for the sake of love.
'Never for the rest of my life shall I have any thoughts of wickedness. You understand that I am not saying that I repent on Tristan's account nor that I do not love him honourably and without shame as a friend. But our physical intercourse is at an end.' (12.99)
Yseut's decision to stop having sex with Tristan does not last long. What's interesting here is that Yseut speaks these lines rather than Tristan, suggesting that she is the one who does what she wants with her body when it comes to sex. This may seem like no big deal to us modern readers, but for a medieval woman this is something unusual.
'God,' said Tristan, 'what sorrow it is to part! How unhappy is the man who loses his beloved! But it must be done to make up for all the suffering you have endured on my account; you need suffer no longer. When the time comes to take leave of each other I will pledge my love to you and you shall pledge yours to me. Whatever land I am in, neither peace nor war will prevent me from sending my news to you. And send me your greetings, my love.' (12.107)
Tristan and Yseut are still behaving like romantic lovers despite the effects of the potion wearing off. Maybe this means that their love is actually true: even without magic, they are still devoted to one another.
'Oh God,' he said, 'what a fate! What I have suffered for the sake of love! I never complained of my love, nor do I now lament my distress. But why does love assail me? Why wound me? God, what should I do? [For it seems to me that I have already suffered greatly because of my love.] Have I not done all that love requires? [. . .] May love, which conquers all things, grant me my desire to hold her once more in my arms.' (18.152)
Here Tristan behaves like a "typical" medieval romance lover. He speaks about his love as a "wound" that causes him to suffer greatly in a figure of speech that emphasizes the physical effect of love on the body. He also personifies love itself as a god or sovereign that can grant or deny petitions at will. Long gone is the Tristan under the influence of magic who could declare, "I am not weary."
As [Tristan] lay there, the Irish king's seneschal passed by and saw only the dead dragon. He hastily cut off its head and bore it triumphantly back to the palace, where he announced that he had slain the dragon. He thought that the dragon's real slayer must have been killed, and he claimed Yseut as his prize. (1.43)
The whole point of the Irish king's stipulation that the man who kills the dragon gets Yseut is to ensure that she ends up with a knight strong enough to protect her. The seneschal's deceit undermines all that. This episode introduces the idea of Yseut being given to the wrong man, something that will later haunt her relationship with both Mark and Tristan.
When it was time for Mark and Yseut to retire Tristan conducted them to their chamber and extinguished all the lights, explaining that this was an Irish custom. Brangain took Yseut's place in bed without Mark noticing the substitution; when the king was asleep Yseut replaced Brangain and the deception was successfully accomplished. (1.45)
Brangain has to take Yseut's place in the marriage bed because Yseut has already lost her virginity to Tristan and is afraid Mark will notice. Now there's a plan. Some people think Mark's inability to recognize the switch is evidence of his stupidity or that he does not really "deserve" Yseut. Of course, he has just met her, after all. Plus, it's dark. It's also a pretty common thing to happen in medieval literature, and even Shakespeare uses it in some of his plots. So make of it what you will.
'Tristan, for God's sake, it is very wrong of you to send for me at such a time!' Then she pretended to weep. For the sake of the Lord who created all things, never send for me again. I am sorry to say this, Tristan, but I am sure I should not dare to come. The king thinks that I have been wicked enough to love you. But before God I swear I have been loyal: may He scourge me if anyone has ever had my love except the man who had me as a maiden.' (2.48)
A common medieval anti-woman proverb said that "deceit, weeping, and spinning" were God's gifts to women. Well, it's 2 for 3 as far as Yseut is concerned. Here Yseut foreshadows the oath she will take in Part 15 when she swears before God that only Mark and the leper who carried her across the ford have been between her thighs. It's technically true that the only man Yseut has loved is the one who had her as a maiden. But that's not Mark; it's Tristan. The oath Yseut swears here is called an "equivocal oath." It's an oath that is true to the letter, but not the spirit, of the law. It plays on Mark's misconception about the identity of the man who took Yseut's virginity, relying upon deception for its effectiveness and validity.
'[Mark] is very angry with me because of his evil counsellors; he is very wrong to believe them, he does not realize how they have deceived him. (2.50)
Tristan and Yseut continually insist that the barons are deliberately deceiving Mark. The irony, of course, is that Tristan insists this while pulling Mark's leg and insisting that he and Yseut are not lovers.
'Tristan, queen, listen to me carefully: to escape the shame and to cover up the wrong we shall have to think of some suitable falsehoods.' (12.100)
The "suitable falsehoods" that Ogrin advises Tristan and Yseut to tell Mark are that they have never been lovers and that Tristan only fled with Yseut to protect her. The fact that it's a religious man advising them to engage in this deception might be the story's way of saying this behavior on the part the two lovers is okay. This also suggests that Tristan and Yseut always did right to attempt to hide their adultery from Mark.
'Where are you from, leper?' asked the king. 'From Caerleon, the son of a Welshman.' 'How many years have you been living away from people?' 'For three years, sire. I am not lying. For as long as I was healthy I had a very noble lover, now because of her I have these bumps on my skin.' (15.132)
Here, Tristan pretends to be a leper in order to help Yseut with the oath she is about to swear. Like the oath she swore to Mark earlier, Yseut's deception depends on Mark's misunderstanding of someone's identity in order to work. Notice that much like Yseut's equivocal oaths, a lot of what Tristan says to Mark here is true: he has been living away from people for about three years, and it is because of his noble lover—Yseut—that he has bumps on his skin, since it was she who prompted him to don his disguise.
'King Mark,' he said, 'whoever advised you to make this accusation did you a terrible wrong and certainly acted disloyally. You are easily influenced, but you must not believe false words.' (15.140)
Arthur is correct that Mark is easily influenced, but not to say that Mark has believed "false words." What his barons have told Mark is technically true. However, their words may be false in the sense that they are not uttered with Mark's best interests at heart, but out of jealousy and spite for Tristan.
'She has done everything that justice demands, and she put more into her oath than the villains required her to. She needs to make no defence concerning the king and his nephew beyond what all of us have already heard. She swore in her oath that no man ever came between her thighs, except the leper who carried her across the ford yesterday morning and King Mark, her husband. A curse on anyone who mistrusts her now!' (15.142)
The audience for Yseut's oath believes she has done more than was required by giving the details of her sexual history, since in fact all that she was asked to swear was that she never had Tristan as a lover. Yseut's oath here is "equivocal" because it is technically true, but misleading. It depends on everyone's misunderstanding of the identity of the leper who carried her across the ford, and on their assumption that he has been between her thighs only once.
Yseut of the White Hands had heard Tristan's instructions to his messenger, and out of jealousy she told him falsely that the sails were black. Believing that at the last his beloved Yseut had failed him, Tristan fell back on his bed and died. (19.165)
It's possible to read Tristan's death as a taste of his own medicine, in more ways than one. He has received his wound helping a friend carry on an adulterous affair. (What does this say about Tristan's attitude toward adultery in general?) But he dies because of a lie his wife tells. Given the lies and deception in which Tristan and Yseut have engaged, their deceit-driven death seems somehow appropriate.
Yseut decided to have Brangain killed by two of her servants. One day they accompanied Brangain into the forest and suddenly drew their swords and seized her. Before killing her, they asked what wrong she had done to Yseut. She answered that her only misdeed was to lend to Yseut a clean white tunic when Yseut's was soiled. The two men felt pity for her and, instead of killing her, bound her to a tree. They returned to Yseut and related what Brangain had told them. Yseut was deeply touched by Brangain's loyalty and at once ordered the men to bring her back.
Even though Yseut betrays Brangain by trying to have her killed, Brangain remains loyal. At this point, she's got nothing to lose by revealing Yseut's adultery, but she chooses to make up a story about a "clean white tunic." The white tunic as a substitute for a soiled one might symbolize Brangain's substitution of her virginal body for Yseut's "soiled" one in Mark's bed on Yseut's wedding night. This could be Brangain's way of reminding Yseut of what she did for her, in code.
'I know the king hates me. All my weapons are pledged to him: let him give them back to me and I will take my leave, for I dare not stay. I know I am brave enough [for my service to be welcome] in any land I go to. I know there is no court in the world whose lord would not have me if I went there. I have been glad to serve the king, Yseut, and by my own head I tell you that before a year has passed he will wish for all the gold in the world that he had not thought of banishing me.' (2.51)
Tristan's description of his weapons as "pledged" may be both literal and figurative. Since Mark has grown suspicious of his relationship with Tristan, he may have actually required Tristan to hand over his weapons. At the same time, a knight's pledge of his weapons to a lord is a way of talking about his loyalty to that lord, of the fact that he belongs to him as his vassal. Tristan says he has been "glad" to serve the king, emphasizing his past loyalty to Mark. As Mark's vassal, Tristan is not free to go where he wishes: Mark must release him from his service—give Tristan's weapons back—before Tristan is free to seek another lord.
'My lords, you are loyal to me. As God is my help, I marvel that my nephew should have sought my shame; but he has served me in a strange way. Give me your advice, I beg you. You must advise me well, for I do not want to lose your service.' (3.61)
At this point, Mark views his barons' decision to refuse to accept Tristan and Yseut's continued affair as a sign of their loyalty. Accordingly, he demands what any good lord expects of a loyal vassal: advice. His willingness to listen to and accept that advice is how he demonstrates that he is also loyal to his vassals.
'And if it was Mark's wish, when you made this defence, to allow me to remain in his household, I should serve him with honour as my uncle and my lord. No warrior in his land would give him better support in war.' (11.97-98)
Tristan owes Mark two forms of loyalty; one as a family member, the other as a vassal. The "support in war" Tristan offers as part of his loyal service has been his trump card throughout the story. He often reminds Mark and other characters of the time he was the only one willing to serve as Cornwall's champion against Morholt of Ireland. He seems to believe that the reciprocal loyalty Mark owes him is to believe his word over that of his barons, who shirked their duty at that time.
'Dinas, listen to me for a moment: I am departing from here, and you know very well why. If I send Governal to you for anything I need urgently, give it to him, for you owe this to me.' (13.113)
Tristan tells his friend Dinas that he has to give in to any request that Tristan makes, that Dinas "owes" this to Tristan. In the medieval romance, ideal friendship between two knights does indeed require this level of loyalty. A true friend must be willing to sacrifice even his life for his fellow knight.
'You are angry and resentful because we have spoken to you about your honour. It is right that a man should advise his lord, yet we have gained your ill will. Cursed be the man who hates you, however strong a knight he is. He would certainly be harshly treated by you and he would go away. But we are faithful to you and we give you loyal advice.' (14.117)
Mark's barons' argument when he objects to their continued doubts about his wife's faithfulness is that they only demonstrate their loyalty by giving him good advice. While it's technically true that a vassal can demonstrate his loyalty with good advice, Mark's barons act out of hatred for Tristan rather than true loyalty to Mark. If this feeling were not the source of their concerns, they would be well within their rights to demand that Yseut prove her innocence. A vassal's loyalty to his lord extends not only to him, but to his bloodline. If the lord's wife has been unfaithful, she jeopardizes the legitimacy of that bloodline.
'Fair Yseut told him that she would justify herself only in your presence. She begs and beseeches you, as your dear friend, to be at Gué Aventurous at the appointed time, and to have a hundred friends with you; may your court be loyal then and your household sincere.' (14.124)
Yseut asks Arthur to fulfill the obligations of friendship by serving as her surety when she takes an oath. In other words, Arthur must witness the oath and be willing to testify to its truth with his sword, if necessary. Yseut is wise to call upon a friend who has lots of other "friends" with swords for this purpose. Enlisting Arthur and his knights as her surety guarantees that no one will question her oath, since they will make enemies of the Round Table if they do. Yseut's use of Arthur's household as her surety demonstrates the way in which medieval justice depends upon a network of loyalties for it to work.
Yseut realized that Brangain constituted a potential danger, since she alone could betray the lovers to Mark. For her own safety, Yseut decided to have Brangain killed by two of her servants. (1.45)
Fearing Brangain's betrayal, Yseut betrays her first. She has no reason to believe her trusted servant (who, by the way, obligingly took Yseut's place on her wedding night) will turn on her but decides to have her killed anyway. Yseut doesn't come out looking too great in this episode. The story may be trying to make a point about how the paranoia surrounding adulterous love causes people to do things they might otherwise regret.
'Fair maid, I have good reason to be sad and anxious. Brangain, I will tell you everything. I do not know who wanted to betray us today, but King Mark was in the tree by the marble block.' (2.54)
Here, Yseut uses the word "betrayal" in the sense of an exposure or revealing, a meaning it will often have in Tristan. Of course, following the values of the story, the greatest of which is love, doing anything to prevent or thwart love does represent a betrayal in the other sense as well.
'My lords, you are loyal to me. As God is my help, I marvel that my nephew should have sought my shame; but he has served me in a strange way. Give me your advice, I beg you. You must advise me well, for I do not want to lose your service.' (3.61)
By saying that Tristan has "served" him in a strange way, Mark uses the language of feudalism, in which a vassal serves his lord, to indicate that Tristan's shaming of him is also a betrayal of his lord. He contrasts Tristan's betrayal with the loyalty of his barons, showing he trusts their loyalty implicitly by asking for their advice and "service."
'There is no man in your household, if he uttered the treason that I have wrongly and wickedly loved the queen, who would not find me armed in the field.' (3.65)
By calling the statement of his and Yseut's adulterous affair 'treason," Tristan compares it to a vassal's betrayal of his lord. Although they are carrying on an affair, Tristan may feel that those who wish for its exposure do not have Mark's best interests at heart. Or he could just be trying to cover up his guilt.
'God, how dearly my uncle would love me if I had not caused him such distress. God, how badly things are going for me! I ought now to be at the court of a king with a hundred squires in attendance, preparing to win their spurs and enter my service.' (11.96)
Tristan's words here are the only time in the story when he acknowledges that he has wronged his uncle. He recognizes that by betraying his uncle, he has forfeited not only the love of his uncle but also of his own vassals, the "squire in attendance" who he would mentor to knighthood if he were not a fugitive.
'But, with your permission, Father Ogrin, let it be added to the parchment that I dare not trust him. He offered a reward for my head.' (12.101)
Tristan's refusal to trust Mark is sort of reasonable: he has after all, offered that reward for Tristan's head. But Tristan might also be implying that Mark should have refused to believe his barons and shown loyalty to Tristan and his wife instead of them, and that after this betrayal, he lost Tristan's trust.
Hear now of the three—may God curse them! They had acted very badly to the king in making him angry with Tristan. Not a full month had passed before King Mark went hunting one day; with him went the traitors. (14.115)
The narrator leaves us in no doubt about where his sympathies lie, calling the three barons who revealed Tristan and Yseut's affair "traitors" and saying that they acted badly toward the king. On the one hand, we know the narrator is biased: Tristan is the hero, after all. But on the other hand, we also know that the barons acted out of jealousy for Tristan, and not because they had Mark's best interests at heart. In this way, they are traitors to their lord.
'A hundred curses on the mouth that told me to send him away! By St Stephen the Martyr, you are pestering me and I am very annoyed. I marvel how you can be so quarrelsome! If he did do wrong, he is now suffering for it. You have no care for what pleases me; while you are here I shall never have peace.' (14.116)
Mark accuses his barons of being troublemakers and of having "no care for what pleases" him; he basically tells them that they are disloyal barons. Mark finally seems to be on to his barons' game: that they are not loyal to him, but simply enemies to Tristan. "While you are here I shall never have peace" is perhaps the most perceptive line Mark speaks in the whole story.
'Tristan offered to clear himself and to defend the queen against the accusation of disloyalty, but no one was bold enough to take up arms.' (14.124)
Calling Yseut's alleged adultery "disloyalty" highlights the unique position of a queen when it comes to medieval feudal law. Because she is married to the king, the queen's adultery is also treason, disloyalty comparable to that with which a vassal might betray his lord.
'This very day I am going to ask you as a recompense to help me in getting the queen to give me a fair reward for only a quarter of my service to her, or for a half of my suffering […] They say, "Whoever serves love will one day be rewarded for everything." From what I have seen here, that is not true in my case.' (18.157, 161)
When Tristan visits Yseut disguised as a fool, he plays the role of a scorned vassal who has been denied a reward for his "service," in this case, his love for his "lord," who is either Yseut, or love. The figure of love as a feudal lord with lover-vassals at her service was a common one in the poetry of this time period. It emphasizes love's power over the lover, and its ability to both reward and punish him, depending on the circumstances. Here, Tristan implicitly accuses love of betraying her vassal by failing to reward him for his loyal service.
The three barons came into the room, angrily they took Tristan in his bed. Because of his prowess they had begun to hate him, and also the queen. They abused her and threatened her. They would not rest until justice was done. (3.64)
This passage raises an interesting question: is justice really justice when it is undertaken out of spite? The barons are technically within their rights to insist that Tristan and Yseut be prosecuted for treason, but they do so not out of an impartial love for justice, but out of hatred for Tristan and jealousy of his prowess. It may not be fair to call prosecution undertaken with such motives "justice."
They could see Tristan's leg bleeding. 'This is only too clear proof. You are guilty,' said the king, 'you will only waste your time trying to defend yourself. Tristan, you may be sure that you will be put to death tomorrow.' (3.64)
The medieval justice system had no concept of "innocent until proven guilty," and even if it did, we have to admit that the evidence against Tristan—blood all over Yseut's bed and the floor around it, plus a bleeding wound on his leg—is pretty incriminating. (But hey, they could just have been jumping on the beds, right?) The ultimate word on guilt or innocence is not a jury, but the king. This means that the quality of justice depends on the king's powers of reason and judgment. That means the king is more than just another human being influenced by selfish motives. People think that he is divinely appointed and that he possesses appropriate powers for his office because of his divine ordination.
So great was his trust in God that he firmly believed that, if he were allowed to defend himself, nobody would dare take up arms against him. He counted on being able to defend himself in combat. (3.65)
The kind of trial Tristan is after is not a trial-by-jury; he wants a trial-by-combat in which he pits his armed strength against the skills of a knight representing those who accuse him of a crime. The thinking goes that God will allow the innocent to prevail in such a trial. Of course, Tristan knows he is not innocent, but he places just as much faith in his superior knightly skills as he does in God. His certainty about his ability to prevail reveals the flaw in the trial-by-combat system.
It was proclaimed throughout the kingdom that everyone should come to court. They came as quickly as they could until all the Cornish people were assembled [...] The king addressed them, saying that he was going to burn his wife and his nephew on a pyre. All the people in the kingdom cried out:
'King, you would do them too great a wrong if they were not first brought to trial. Afterwards put them to death. Sire, mercy!' (4.67)
Since we know from earlier lines that the Cornish people do not want Tristan and Yseut to die, they must be convinced that a fair trial will prove their innocence. Mark's refusal to do what his barons want him to do suggests that their importance to the process of justice goes only so far. They must assemble to serve as witnesses to the death penalty to elevate it above the charge of petty vengeance. The presence of the audience legitimates Tristan and Yseut's deaths as part of the legal system. But the audience's opinion seems to count for nothing with the "judge," King Mark, who has already passed sentence on his "criminals."
'Sire, you wish to do justice by burning your wife like this. It is a harsh punishment but, if ever I knew anything, it will not last long […] But if you would listen to me [I could tell you of a way to punish her so] that she would rather have been put to death than still living in dishonour. Anyone who came to hear of this would think the more of you.' (4.73)
The leper's suggestion that Mark give Yseut to the lepers rather than burn her plays upon Mark's understanding of the purpose of punishment. Rather than viewing it as a way to uphold justice, Mark seems to value it as a means of exacting personal vengeance and bolstering his own power and reputation.
'I want to request you to allow me to clear myself and make my defence in your court. Never at any time did she or I love each other wickedly. You have been led to believe lies; but, as God gives me joy and happiness, they never put it to the test in a combat on foot or otherwise. If I agree to this taking place in your court, then burn me in sulphur if I am found guilty! If I can come through the ordeal, let no one, long-haired or bald, [ever accuse us again.] (13.111)
Once again, Tristan requests to be allowed to prove his innocence in a trial-by-combat. The continued refusal of Mark's barons to face Tristan in such a trial lends support to Tristan's claim of innocence, even though what motivates the barons' refusal is likely simple fear.
'Sire, listen to us: if the queen has behaved wickedly, she has never exculpated herself. This is spoken of as shameful to you; and the barons of your land have begged you many times to make her defend herself against the accusation of loving Tristan. She must vindicate herself if this is false.' (14.115)
As far as Mark's barons are concerned, Yseut is guilty until proven innocent. They want her to prove her innocence by taking an oath never to have loved Tristan wickedly. The barons try to play on Mark's sense of honor and pride, implying that continued speculation about Yseut's integrity reflects shamefully on the king.
'I should be perfectly willing to make my defense. I pay no heed to their chatter. If they want me to swear an oath, or if they want a trial by ordeal, let them fix a time—they cannot make any ordeal so harsh that I will not undergo it. At the appointed time and place I will have King Arthur and his household; if I exculpate myself in his presence, then if anyone seeks to calumniate me afterwards, those who have witnessed my defence would come to my protection.' (14.120)
Yseut craftily demands to have Arthur and his court as "surety" for her oath. They will witness it and prevent anyone from accusing her again by defending the integrity of her word with their swords. The system of surety reveals how medieval justice depends upon a network of loyal friends and allies for its operation: trial outcomes must be backed by swords. (Yeah, we have some questions about this, too.) Yseut's request for Arthur also buys her time to arrange a plan to come through the trial unscathed.
A cloth of dark grey silk, embroidered with small animal figures, was placed before the king's tent and spread out on the green grass. The cloth had been bought in Nicaea. Not one holy relic was left anywhere in Cornwall in a treasure-chest, in a casket or a phylactery, in reliquaries or boxes or shrines, not even those that were set in gold or silver crosses or amulets, for they had all been placed on the cloth and arranged in their order. (15.140)
Yseut will prove her innocence by swearing an oath over these relics—pieces of the bodies of saints or objects associated with them. She appears to take seriously the belief that God will immediately strike her dead if she lies while swearing on the holy objects. She goes to elaborate lengths to be sure she can give a truthful oath without implicating herself for infidelity.
'My lords,' she said, 'by the mercy of God I see holy relics here before me. Listen now to what I swear, and may it reassure the king: so help me God and St Hilary, and by these relics, this holy place, the relics that are not here and all the relics there are in the world, I swear that no man ever came between my thighs except for the leper who carried me on his back across the ford and my husband, King Mark.' (15.141-142)
Since the leper who carried Yseut across the ford is in fact Tristan in disguise, Yseut's oath here is technically true, but it's still deceptive. Everyone present assumes that her oath exonerates her of an affair with Tristan when in fact, it does just the opposite. This story's definition of a truthful oath is extremely literal. If what Yseut says is technically true, her oath is truthful whether or not it really fulfills the intention of the trial—to prove her innocence.
Soon after Rivalen had defeated his enemies, Blanchefleur gave birth to a son, but amid great lamentation died in childbirth. The child born in sorrow was named Tristan. (1.39)
Tristan's name, given to him because of the circumstances of his birth, literally means "sadness." (triste is the French word for "sad.") His name and birth foreshadow the rest of his life, which, because of his ill-fated love for Yseut, will largely be one of suffering.
By mistake, Brangain brought the love potion and handed it to Tristan, who drank and passed it to Yseut. Both thought it was good wine: neither knew that it held for them a lifetime of suffering and hardship and that it was to cause their destruction and their death. (1.44)
Tristan and Yseut's ingestion of the love potion has religious overtones of the Fall of Adam and Eve, in which ingestion of the fruit of knowledge brings about suffering and death on earth. Like Adam and Eve, Tristan and Yseut believe that what they are about to ingest is good, but seem to be mistaken.
If you give her to us lepers, when she sees our low hovels and looks at our dishes and has to sleep with us—in place of your fine meals, sire, she will have the pieces of food and crumbs that are left for us at the gates—then, by the Lord who dwells above, when she sees our court and all its discomforts she would rather be dead than alive. The snake Yseut will know then that she has been wicked! She would rather have been burnt. (4.74)
The leper's vivid description of the suffering in store for Yseut if Mark gives her to the leper colony serves the double function of persuading everyone that life with the lepers is worse than burning, and of making our desire for Yseut to escape her fate that much stronger. The leper thinks that the purpose of suffering is to make people understand their sinfulness. Yseut's suffering will teach her "that she has been wicked."
They were very short of bread in the wood, they lived on flesh and nothing else. How could they help losing their colour? Their clothes were ragged, for branches tore them. 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)
Several times, the narrator comments on Tristan and Yseut's lack of bread as evidence of their suffering, possibly because bread was the most basic and cheapest food available to medieval Europeans. It may also symbolize their excommunication from the church and its Eucharist because of their life of sin. But Tristan and Yseut do not mind the hardship they are suffering "on the other's account"—because each one is more concerned about the other than himself.
She made it for Mark and her daughter; another tasted it and suffered because of this. For as long as the three years lasted the potion had such power over Tristan and the queen that each of them could say: 'I am not weary.' (11.96)
Although Tristan and Yseut are suffering physical hardship in the woods, the effect of the love potion prevents them from experiencing psychological suffering. They simply do not mind their harsh living conditions, because of their love.
'God, I have had so much hardship! For fully three years today there has not been a moment when I was not suffering, either on a feast-day or a week-day. 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. God, how dearly my uncle would love me if I had not caused him so much distress.' (11.96)
The types of hardship Tristan laments once the love potion has worn off tell us what he values most: chivalry, the knightly life, fellowship with other knights and his king and—this is random!—light and grey furs, which represent material luxuries.
'Alas, poor wretch, why were you give youth? You are here in the wood like a slave, you can find few people to serve you [. . .] I ought to have around me in my rooms the damsels of the kingdom and the daughters of the free vassals, and I should be arranging good marriages for them with noblemen. (11.97)
The things Yseut regrets are slightly different from Tristan's: she misses having servants and ladies-in-waiting. Life is tough! Like Tristan, though, she also regrets the obligations she can no longer fulfill as part of her social role, like arranging the marriages of her ladies.
'God,' said Tristan, 'what sorrow it is to part! How unhappy is the man who loses his beloved! But it must be done to make up for all the suffering you have endured on my account; you need suffer no longer.'
Tristan sees his return of Yseut as his way of making restitution for the things Yseut has lost because of him. For her suffering in the woods, he offers his suffering at their separation. In this, Tristan is truly unselfish in his love for Yseut, raising the possibility that his potion-induced possession of her was actually selfish.
'Why does love assail me? Why wound me? God, what should I do? [For it seems to me that I have already suffered greatly because of my love.] [...]Because of her I am in great agitation at every moment of the night and day. When I do not see her I nearly go out of my mind.' (18.153)
The description of love as a wound, disease, or madness, is typical figurative language to describe love in French courtly poetry of this time period. It emphasizes the effect of love on the lover's body and mind. Tristan's love-induced madness inspires him to put on the disguise of a fool or madman. In this way, his exterior costume matches what he feels inside.
'She could soon cure my sickness just by calling me her love. I am a lover, so is she. Our love is not equally divided: I suffer doubly, but she has no pity for me. I have suffered many hardships, hunger and thirst, rough places to sleep, and the deep grief that I bear in my heart. [...] May God inspire her to rid me of this madness.' (18.159)
Continuing to describe his love for Yseut in the traditional manner of French courtly poetry, Tristan holds out the return of his lady's love as the only "cure" for his "sickness" and "madness." This figure resonates with the story of Tristan and Yseut specifically because Yseut has healed Tristan of actual life-threatening wounds twice now.
Rivalen served Mark so well that as a reward he was given the hand of Mark's sister, Blanchefleur, with whom he had fallen in love. They were married in Tintagel, but news of an attack on his own land immediately recalled Rivalen to Lyonesse. Soon after Rivalen had defeated his enemies Blanchefleur gave birth to a son, but amid great lamentation died in childbirth. The child born in sorrow was named Tristan. (1.39)
Like father, like son: Tristan will also be "given" two women for his service to their fathers in defeating an enemy. Here, Tristan's identity as Mark's nephew and a prince of Lyonesse is established, as is his connection to sorrow. The name Tristan, which means sorrow, signifies both the circumstances of his birth and the suffering he will endure for love.
He arrived at the court of his uncle, King Mark, at Tintagel in Cornwall. He concealed his identity, preferring to serve the king on the same footing as the other knights-bachelor. But his prowess and his accomplishments made him stand out above the rest, and he quickly became a favourite of the king's, and was liked and admired by all the courtiers. (1.39)
The knight who conceals his identity upon his arrival at court is a common plot in medieval romance. Often, as is the case here, the concealment occurs because the knight wishes to prove himself independently of his family connections. The knight's superior birth always reveals itself in his excellence, though, revealing the medieval idea that aristocratic background is evident in the character and figure of a person.
Tristan offered to do battle with Morholt; Mark was glad to consent to this. However, the Irish messengers declared that Morholt could not fight against an adversary who was not his equal in birth. Tristan then revealed his identity as a king's son and Mark's nephew. Mark was overjoyed at finding his nephew and tried to dissuade him from the dangerous undertaking; but he could not alter Tristan's decision to fight, and the combat was arranged for a few days' time on the island of St Samson. (1.40)
Tristan reveals his true identity just at the moment that he resolves to serve as Mark's champion against Morholt. This coincidence of events solidifies Tristan's identity as irrevocably linked to this fight: he is the guy who steps up when nobody else will. He will remind Mark of this when Mark believes his barons over Tristan.
One day when Tristan was in the bath Yseut began to clean his sword. She noticed the notch in the blade, and compared it to the splinter taken from Morholt's skull. To her horror the piece fitted perfectly. She advanced angrily on Tristan, brandishing the sword and accusing him of being the slayer of her uncle. (1.43)
It's appropriate that Tristan's sword is the means by which Yseut discovers his true identity, because a knight's sword is such an important part of his life that it often comes to symbolize the knight himself in medieval romance. It's also a symbol of masculinity, so that Yseut's "uncovering" of its truth might represent or foreshadow her recognition of Tristan as a romantic interest.
'Alas, we have much to weep for! Alas, Tristan, noble knight! What a shame that these wretches have had you taken by treachery. Noble, honoured queen, in what land will a king's daughter be born who is your equal?' (4.66)
The Cornish peoples' descriptions of Tristan as noble and Yseut as noble, honored, and peerless, contrast with other characters' characterizations of the barons and the dwarf Frocin as wicked, trouble-making villains. Reputations, well founded or not, are an important part of identity in this story.
'Let him stand on the mound at the end of the plank bridge on this side of Blanche Lande wearing the garments of a leper. He is to carry a wooden drinking-cup tied by a strap to a bottle underneath, with a staff in the other hand. Then let him hear my plan: on the day he is to be seated on the mound; his face will be badly pock-marked. He must hold his cup in front of his face, simply asking for alms from the passers-by.' (14.121)
Since her oath depends upon Tristan's disguise, Yseut is careful to lay out exactly what he should wear and how he should behave. She takes care to make sure that Tristan is well known to everyone as the leper before she even encounters him; this is why she requires him to beg alms from everyone he meets.
'My horse is as white as flour; cover him all over so that he will not be recognized or noticed by anyone. Arthur will be there with all his men and King Mark likewise. The knights from other lands will be jousting to win renown; and for the love of Yseut, I shall make myself a quick sortie. Have the pennant which my love gave me fixed on top of my lance.' (15.128)
Since Tristan is supposed to be in exile, he cannot appear openly at the joust in Cornwall. He has Governal disguise his horse and wait in hiding with his armor so that he can take up the role of knight once his performance as a leper ends. Fixing Yseut's pennant to the top of his lance is Tristan's way of saying that he jousts for her. His identity as a knight is therefore mixed with the identity of his beloved.
Gawain, Arthur's nephew, said to Gerflet:
'Look at those two coming! They are riding very fast. I do not know them. Do you know who they are?' 'I know them well,' replied Gerflet, 'a black horse and a black pennon must belong to the Black Knight of the Mountain. I know the other by his bright arms: there are not many like that in this country. I know beyond doubt they are enchanted!'
[...] Indeed, they thought the two knights were phantoms.
Dressed all in black with their faces covered, Tristan and Governal manage to convince Arthur's knights that they are two other well-known knights, apparently rumored to be enchanted. They mistake them for "phantoms," or ghosts. This characterization of the two men's identities is apt, though, given that in his existence on the outskirts of society, Tristan does indeed resemble a phantom in some ways.
'I could always go to her in secret, or dressed like some pitiable madman. For her sake I am willing to be shaven and shorn if I cannot disguise myself in any other way' [...] He did not want anyone to think he was in his senses and he tore his clothes and scratched his face. He struck any man who crossed his path. He had his fair hair shorn off [...] He walked along looking like a fool and everyone shouted after him and threw stones at his head. Tristan went on without stopping. He walked like this through the land for many days, all for the love of Yseut. (18.153-154)
Tristan's willingness to go about as a madman, or fool, signifies his devotion to Yseut. He is willing to do anything—even change his identity—in order to be with her. Yet since only a few lines earlier, Tristan has declared that his love for Yseut makes him go out of his mind, his disguise is actually an accurate representation of the way his love for Yseut makes him feel.
'Even now, king, there is more to tell. Look me straight in the face: do I not look like Tantris? I have leaped and thrown reeds and balanced sharpened twigs, I have lived on roots in a wood and I have held a queen in my arms.' (18.155)
Ironically, Tristan is only able to tell the truth to his uncle when he is in disguise. Tristan obviously feels enormously liberated by his disguise, going on for pages about his relationship with Yseut. It must be a relief for him to finally be able to admit the truth to the person it most concerns.
'She shall see now the proof that I am telling the truth: when we parted sorrowfully from each other she kissed me and gave me this little gold ring. I have always carried it with me. Many a time I have spoken to it, hoping to be consoled; and when there was no reply I felt I should die of grief. For love I would kiss the emerald, and my eyes would be wet with hot tears.'
Yseut recognized the ring and saw how the dog was nearly mad with joy. Then she knew in her heart that she was speaking to Tristan.
Tristan has repeated all the events of his and Yseut's life together to try to get Yseut to recognize him, but it's only now, when he produces the ring she gave him, that Yseut finally believes him. Her recognition of Tristan depends upon his proof of his devotion to her, which is what he is really revealing when he produces the ring and describes his response to it. Tristan's identity is defined by his feelings for Yseut.
By mistake, Brangain brought the love potion and handed it to Tristan, who drank and passed it to Yseut. Both thought it was good wine: neither knew that it held for them a lifetime of suffering and hardship and that it was to cause their destruction and their death. (1.44-45)
According to this quote, once Tristan and Yseut drink the love potion, their fate is sealed. There seems to be no opportunity for Tristan and Yseut to make a choice to love one another, or at least, to act any differently from the way they eventually do. The love potion symbolizes both powerlessness to resist love and powerlessness to change your fate.
Hear now of the hunch-backed dwarf, Frocin. He was outside looking at the heavens, and he could see Orion and Venus. He knew the courses of the stars and he observed the planets. He knew what was to happen in the future: when he heard that a child was born, he could predict all the events of its life [...] He looked at the conjunction of the stars and his face flushed and swelled with rage, for he learned that the king was menacing him and would not rest until he had killed him. (2.54)
Frocin's ability to predict the future from reading the stars seems to eliminate the possibility of free will, since the events of a child's life are determined from the moment he is born. Yet Frocin's response to the future he reads for himself—flight to Wales—suggests that if you know your own future, you can change it.
'Indeed, sir, you do not know the reason for her love for me. It is because of a love potion that she loves me. I cannot part from her nor she from me. That is the truth.' (7.79)
The removal of choice from Yseut's love for Tristan also means that Tristan does not do anything to deserve it. His understanding of Yseut's reasons (or lack thereof) for loving him is interesting in this context, in which a holy hermit has just asked Tristan to turn to God. That's because in traditional Christian theology, what makes God's love unique is that it, too, is totally unconditional.
'Sir, by Almighty God, he loves me and I love him only because of a draught that I drank and he drank. That was our misfortune. Because of this the king has driven us out.' (7.79)
Like Tristan, Yseut understands their love for one another as the result of a specific fate (misfortune) rather than as a choice. She also implies that she and Tristan could not possibly have acted otherwise than in the way that caused the king to drive them out.
No man can turn aside his fate. The villain was not on his guard against revenge for the harm he had done Tristan. (9.86)
Although the evil baron's choice to expose Tristan and Yseut's affair sets his death in motion, the text characterizes it as his fate. Of course, a few pages later, this baron mysteriously appears again, alive, with no explanation. Hey, in stories, at least, fate is reversible.
'Oh God!' he said, 'what a fate! What I have suffered for the sake of love! [...] Alas, how unhappy I am! I was indeed born in an unlucky hour!' (18.152)
Even though the love potion has worn off at this point, Tristan still regards his love for Yseut as an unlucky circumstance, a fate outside of his control. The idea of love as a fate one is powerless to resist is further emphasized by the way Tristan speaks of love as a cruel master before whom he is a suffering servant.
The story is told of two trees that grew miraculously, one from Tristan's tomb and one from Yseut's; their branches intertwined over the apse. Three times King Mark had the trees cut down and three times they grew again. Some say it was the power of the love potion that did this. (19.164)
If the trees growing above Tristan and Yseut's grave represent them, Mark's repeated attempts to cut them down symbolize his desire to separate them and destroy their love. Just like Tristan and Yseut when they were alive, Mark is unable to end their love. These trees' resistance to separation might symbolize the inevitability of Tristan and Yseut's love.