Study Guide

The Romance of Tristan Themes

  • Love

    In The Romance of Tristan, Tristan and Yseut don't fall in love at first sight. In fact, they might not have fallen in love at all were it not for the influence of a magical love potion they drink by mistake. Once that's done, though, the effects of the potion make them throw it all away for the sake of love. When the potion wears off, Tristan and Yseut love each other like friends or a brother and sister might. It doesn't take long, though, for it to ignite once more into good old-fashioned romantic passion. The easiness with which Tristan and Yseut slide back and forth between the two types of love may suggest that the distance between them isn't as far as it seems.

    Questions About Love

    1. What different types of love do we see in the Romance of Tristan? How are they related to one another?
    2. How is Tristan and Yseut's love different after the potion wears off? Do they love one another as much as ever? Why or why not?
    3. What language and figures of speech do Tristan and Yseut use to express the way their love feels? Do they make love seem like a good thing? Why or why not?
    4. What other love-pairings occur in The Romance of Tristan? How do these "love affairs" end? How do they mirror the love between Tristan and Yseut? How do they make us think differently about Tristan and Yseut's love?

    Chew on This

    Tristan and Yseut's love is stronger before the love potion wears off.

    or

    Tristan and Yseut's love remains as strong as ever after the love potion wears off.

    The Romance of Tristan portrays being in love as an unenviable state that only causes suffering for everyone involved.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Lies only lead to more lies, or so the theory goes, and that's definitely true in The Romance of Tristan. Tristan and Yseut make up all kinds of stuff to hide their adultery from King Mark. Our two star-crossed lovers turn out to be skilled deceivers, dissemblers, and performers. Despite the inherent wrongness of what they do, though, the story makes it seem like their deceit is okay. We're encouraged to think of Tristan and Yseut's deceptions as justifiable to protect their love and the deceivers as clever for getting away with it.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. What is an "equivocal oath?" Where do they occur in The Romance of Tristan? How are they dependent upon deceit in order to function?
    2. Where else, aside from the equivocal oaths, do characters tell lies that are technically true, but false in spirit?
    3. Why does the hermit Ogrin tell Tristan and Yseut to invent some "suitable falsehoods" to tell Mark? What do his reasons suggest about the story's attitude toward lying?
    4. In what way might the barons' accusations be considered false despite the fact that they are technically true?

    Chew on This

    Yseut's equivocal oaths rely on misunderstandings of identity and deliberate deception in order to function successfully.

    Ogrin's authorization of lying suggests that social harmony is a more important value than honesty in this story.

  • Loyalty

    Medieval vassals must be willing to demonstrate their loyalty to their lord with their bodies if necessary. Tristan shows that he's willing to do this when he serves as Mark's champion against Morholt of Ireland. The same is also true of people like Brangain, and Governal, whose obligations as loyal servants require them to sacrifice their bodily safety and integrity for their masters if necessary. Another form of loyalty in The Romance of Tristan is the willingness to defend your friend's good word at sword point. Yseut depends on this when she calls her buddy, King Arthur, to witness her oath of fidelity before Mark and his barons.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. Who is loyal to whom in The Romance of Tristan? How do these characters demonstrate their loyalty?
    2. Who has divided loyalties? How do these characters handle the conflict?
    3. How does Brangain demonstrate her loyalty to Yseut? Governal to Tristan? What do these characters' actions suggest about the obligations of a servant?
    4. How do friends demonstrate their loyalty to one another?
    5. How is loyalty between friends important to the workings of justice in this story?

    Chew on This

    Servants, knights, friends, and spouses must all offer their bodies as signs of loyalty in The Romance of Tristan.

    Yseut's call to her network of friends and allies to witness her oath of faithfulness demonstrates the way in which medieval justice is dependent upon loyalty for its operation.

  • Betrayal

    The theme of betrayal is important in The Romance of Tristan, but not in the way you might think. The narrator is firmly on the side of Tristan and Yseut, so he doesn't spend much time dwelling on the fact that their adulterous affair is a betrayal of a lord, uncle, and husband. The real "traitors," according to the story, are the barons who stir up trouble by exposing Tristan and Yseut. They are traitors to the ultimate good, love, and to Mark, because they act out of jealousy for Tristan instead of for Mark's best interests.

    Questions About Betrayal

    1. Does Tristan portray Tristan and Yseut as traitors to King Mark? Why or why not?
    2. Why does the narrator call the barons who expose Tristan and Yseut's affair "traitors"? Whom have they betrayed? How?
    3. In "The Tale of Tristan's Madness," how does Tristan compare Yseut's failure to love him to a feudal betrayal of a vassal by his lord?

    Chew on This

    The ultimate betrayal in The Romance of Tristan is failing to act with your lord's best interests at heart.

    Tristan betrays Yseut the Fair by marrying Yseut of the White Hands.

    or

    Tristan's marriage to Yseut of the White Hands is not a betrayal of Yseut the Fair.

  • Justice and Judgment

    King Mark relies on the medieval version of detective work and forensic evidence to convict Tristan and Yseut of treasonous adultery: flour spread on the floor and blood all over Yseut's bed that testifies to Tristan's presence there. But that's where the comparisons to the modern justice system end. Mark condemns the lovers to death by burning without a trial, showing the complete lack of due process in medieval times. Even if there were a trial, it would be trial-by-combat, which Tristan would be sure to win. (How would that prove he's innocent, exactly?) These are only a couple of examples of the way in which the poem highlights the practices of the medieval justice system—a system that may seem just a little bit crazy today.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. On what evidence does Mark convict Tristan and Yseut of adultery? Does the process he uses seem fair? Why or why not?
    2. What makes Tristan and Yseut's adultery a punishable crime?
    3. How does Tristan want to prove his innocence? Why is he unable to do it? What does this impasse reveal about the problem with this system of determining guilt and innocence?
    4. Why does Yseut ask Arthur to serve as the guarantor of her oath? What is Arthur's job once Yseut has taken the oath?
    5. How does Yseut manage to swear a true oath without revealing her adultery?

    Chew on This

    The Romance of Tristan reveals the problems with several of the systems of justice and judgment it portrays.

    King Mark appears to view the purpose of punishment as personal vengeance and power-consolidation, rather than upholding justice.

  • Suffering

    In The Romance of Tristan, Tristan and Yseut love each other so much that they are willing to suffer any hardship—including a hardscrabble forest existence. They sacrifice everything – the relationships they value, their places in society, as well as the material comforts of their posh palace lifestyle. The fact that the loss of these things is what causes them the most suffering tells us what's most important to them and to their society. What's most important about Tristan and Yseut's suffering, however, is that they endure it for one another. The hardships they face for each other show the strength and depth of their love.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What hardships do Tristan and Yseut endure during their period of exile in the forest? How do they respond?
    2. After the love potion wears off, what losses cause Tristan and Yseut the most suffering and sadness? What do these tell us about what is most important to them?
    3. What kind of figurative language does Tristan use to characterize his suffering for the love of Yseut? How can Yseut bring his suffering to an end?

    Chew on This

    The Romance of Tristan presents the suffering Tristan and Yseut are willing to endure for one another as proof of their love and devotion.

    Yseut is a healer in two senses: one, in the literal sense, another in the figurative sense in her role as the one who can bring an end to Tristan's suffering.

  • Identity

    In The Romance of Tristan, Tristan initially conceals his identity when he arrives at Mark's court. When he finally chooses to reveal it, he has already built his reputation as an excellent knight independently of his status as the king's nephew. Throughout the story, Tristan wears numerous disguises. Because of his devotion to Yseut, he dresses as a leper or a madman. If you think about it, his madman or "fool" disguise is actually a true representation of the way Tristan's love for Yseut makes him feel, and it's one in which he can speak the truth about his relationship to Yseut freely, even in the presence of King Mark. When Yseut finally recognizes Tristan, it's because of the way he describes his sadness at his separation from her, revealing to the reader that no matter what costume he's wearing, the most important aspect of Tristan's identity is his love for Yseut.

    Questions About Identity

    1. What disguises does Tristan don throughout the story? How are these disguises revelatory of some aspect of his identity?
    2. What parts of Tristan's character are most important to his identity? How do we know?
    3. How does Tristan's disguise as a madman reflect his inner state? How does it free him?
    4. At what point do Brangain and Yseut finally recognize Tristan when he visits Cornwall disguised as a madman? What causes their recognition?

    Chew on This

    The disguises Tristan dons throughout the story are actually no less part of his character than his persona as a gallant knight.

    Tristan's disguise as a madman reveals the state to which his love for Yseut has driven him.

  • Fate and Free Will

    The love potion that Tristan and Yseut drink in The Romance of Tristan makes them powerless to resist their feelings for one another or to act any differently from how they proceed to act. It completely removes the element of choice from love. Even after it wears off, however, Tristan and Yseut continue to love one another, suggesting that in this story, love really is fated. This conception of love frees our hero and heroine from blame, for if they didn't choose to love one another, all the bad things that happen because of their love simply can't be their fault.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Why do Tristan and Yseut fall in love? How do these circumstances reinforce the idea of love as fated?
    2. Does The Romance of Tristan leave any room for the possibility of free will in life? Why, or why not?
    3. What does Frocin do when he reads his fate in the stars? How do his actions complicate the idea of fate?

    Chew on This

    The Romance of Tristan portrays love as fated, rather than as a freely made choice.

    The depiction of love as fated frees Tristan and Yseut of blame for the problems their love causes.