The Romance of Tristan by Béroul.
|Tristan and Isolde with the Potion |
by John William Waterhouse (1916).
I decided to read Béroul's The Romance of Tristan after seeing references to Tristan in Book VI of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. Spenser wrote,
And Tristram is my name, the onely heire
Of good king Meliogras which did rayne
In Cornewale, till that he through liues despeire
Vntimely dyde, before I did attaine
Ripe yeares of reason, my right to maintaine.
After whose death, his brother seeing mee An infant, weake a kingdome to sustaine,
Vpon him tooke the roiall high degree,
And sent me, where him list, instructed for to bee.
At this stage Tristan is a young man who has been sent to Faerie Land in fear of the king's "gealous dread"; Sir Calidore goes on to knight him, but readers of The Faerie Queene would have been far more familiar with the famous myth surrounding him. I turned to Béroul to learn more.
The Romance of Tristan is a poem by the Norman poet Béroul who lived in the 12th Century (I read the prose translation by Alan S. Fedrick). It's a version of the myth of 'Tristan and Iseult': Tristan was, legend has it, a Cornish knight of King Arthur's Round Table. His father was King Rivalen of Lyonesse, his mother was Blanchefleur, who was the sister of King Mark of Cornwall (6th century A.D.). Iseult, which is spelled "Yseut" in Béroul's poem, also "Isolde" in Waterhouse's painting and various other places) is the wife of Tristan's uncle, King Mark. One day the young knight Tristan went to battle with Morholt, the brother of Iseult of Ireland (the mother of Yseut), and he kills Morholt, also sustaining a poisoned wound. Such is his pain he gets into a boat and prays to God to take him to someone who can heal him. He ends up in Ireland: Yseut the Fair is the one who heals him and he returns to Cornwall cured. Béroul goes on,
The barons at Mark's court were making efforts to persuade the king to take a wife, for they were jealous of Tristan and feared that he would gain the inheritance if Mark died without children. Tristan offered to do all he could to find a wife for the king. Mark was unwilling to accede to his barons' requests, and he attempted to evade a decision by means of the following stratagem: one day a swallow let a long fair hair fall from its beak in front of Mark, and the king promptly declared that he would only marry the woman to whom that hair belonged. The barons were angry at this trick, but Tristan at once undertook to set out with a few chosen companions on the strange quest for this woman.
Tristan and his crew set sail and are taken to Ireland (rather dangerous for Tristan given that he killed the Queen's brother Morholt), currently being terrorised by a dragon. Tristan succeeds in killing the dragon but again suffers from a poisonous wound, and again Yseut cures him, though in the process she realises that he is responsible for the death of her uncle. Nevertheless the family forgive him and his reward is Yseut, who he promises to give to King Mark as a wife. To help with this marriage Yseut's mother gives her maid Brangain a love-potion to be given to Mark and Yseut on their wedding night, however on the voyage back to Cornwall Yseut and Tristan consume the potion and fall madly in love.
Like an early Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Yseut's love is doomed. As a knight, Tristan is bound by his honour to be faithful and loyal to King Mark, something Tristan had proved when he defeated Morholt, and yet in his affair with Mark's wife he is anything but loyal and faithful. In a time when marriage was viewed as a contract, Tristan and Yseut flouted the terms; they lied and betrayed their king despite knowing they could face being put to death even without trial. Yet their love originated from magic, a love potion; they were victims of the mistake of Brangain (though as the potion wore off they remained loyal and continued to love each other, sustaining each other for as long as they could), raising questions of free will and determinism. This tale of two 'star cross'd lovers' is an old one, and The Romance of Tristan is one of the oldest versions, inspired by Arthurian myths as well as Vis and Rāmin (ويس و رامين), a poem from the 11th Century by Fakhruddin As'ad Gurgani (which I'm now very eager to read). I'm still rather new to Arthurian legends, but having read this great work (now a firm favourite) I'm hoping to read Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan (also 12th Century) and Chrétien de Troyes's Arthurian Romances, as well as Fakhruddin As'ad Gurgani's Vis and Rāmin very soon.