Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Book 22: The Romance of Tristan

Tristan and Yseut rank up there with Lancelot and Guinevere for notorious/famous adulterous lovers.  In fact, King Arthur even appears in this story, and in some versions, Tristan is an Arthurian knight.  Despite this fame or infamy, I had never actually gone back to the beginning and read the original story, instead relying on references to the couple or reimaginings, or not so good James Franco movies.
A literature professor at one point was able to trace back all adaptions and versions of Tristan and Yseut to five different independent sources which appear to themselves trace back to one original lost version.  They don't appear to take from each other but refer to many of the same stories, thus the lost originator idea.  Of these, Beroul's version is commonly believed to be the oldest, and parts of it are missing so that the story here begins with summaries inspired from the other texts before taking up where the remaining text begins, and also ending with summaries as the conclusion of the story is also lost.
The story itself is simple, but I had a hard time wrapping my head around some of the specifics - what exactly is Berould trying to accomplish?  Does he want us to see Tristan and Yseut as tragic figures, or is he mocking our ideas of love?  For example, he constantly refers to a group of barons as evil and wicked when all they are doing is telling King Mark that his nephew is sleeping with his wife Yseut.  In other words, they are telling the truth.  There are other things they do in the text that clearly mark them as cowards, but are they evil?  One critic suggests taking Beroul's declarations as truth since conventions of writing were different then, while others suggests viewing this with irony.  When he talks about how virtuous Yseut is while she is in the middle of a tryst with Tristan, we aren't supposed to see them as unfortunate lovers, but instead use the distance Beroul's use of irony provides the reader to make independent judgments.
King Mark is clearly incompetent as he is much too trusting of his nephew and wife, constanly giving them the benefit of the doubt.  When he finally is convinced of their guilt and called to action, he once again messes up, delivering judgment without trial.
Beroul's writing is dated to mid 12th century Norman France, meaning he would have fallen under the rule of King Henry II.  While generally, the terms courtly love and chivalry refer to traditions developed around this time, Tristan and Yseut's relationship doesn't actually meet those conventions.  Technically neither does that of Lancelot and Guinevere even though the term was first based on them since they actually consummate their relationship.  Strictly speaking, courtly love, a term coined in the 19th century, refers unconsummated relationships where a knight worships a higher lady who looks at him with disdain, thus inspiring him to engage in various acts and quests.  I actually saw one theory that discussed the Celtic origins of this story - though the poem was written in Norman France, and set in Cornwall, there may be a tie to the Picts of present day Scotland, which appears to have been matrilineal, and may have had less strict ideas of marriage.  This argument suggests that the conflict in the text is between the patrilineal barons who want to deprive Tristan of his matrilineal inheritance as Mark's nephew when they convince Mark to marry.
Anyway, while the story itself is short and straightforward, it is greatly enhanced by what it may represent culturally and historically, and certainly leaves up lots of things to debate such as the nature of love, and whether Tristan and Yseut are actually good people.  Can you tell that I have to write my final paper on this piece?

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