The Romance of Tristan
Love as Symptom in Beroul’s Tristan: The Original Text and Its Film Version
Thanks largely, if not entirely, to Shakespeare, audiences today can immediately recognize the promise of a romance in any title featuring the names of two characters. “Before Romeo and Juliet, there was Tristan and Isolde,” croons the leading tagline of the 2006 adaptation of the Celtic legend. But even if Tristan & Isolde had not felt the need to make this heavy handed claim to authority by evoking the lovers’ more famed Shakespearean successors, (perhaps in an attempt to capitalize on the success of the similarly stylized Romeo + Juliet a decade earlier) audiences likely would have made the association on their own anyway. As it happens, the film does not belie the promises of its tagline, and audiences looking to the 2006 production for a traditional, if predictable and ultimately fledgling, tale of tragic romance will not be disappointed. Audience members turning to Beroul’s The Romance of Tristan for a similar experience, however, likely will not find the same satisfaction.
Despite literary critic John Halverson’s claim that “in all its forms, the story of Tristan and Iseult is above all a love story,” Beroul’s adaptation largely eschews this classification, or at least any of its recognizable modern conventions (273). Readers expecting in Beroul the passionate confessions of undying, tortured love exchanged between the silver screen’s Tristan and Isolde will find little of the same between Beroul’s Tristan and Yseut. Instead of tragically tortured star-crossed lovers, Beroul’s readers find accidental and largely unwilling lovers, who calmly excuse and occasionally bemoan their love as the inconvenient result of an unfortunate mistake: the accidental drinking of a love potion.
Interestingly, the love potion that is the driving force behind Beroul’s tale is notably absent from the film version, creating, I propose, the central distinction between these two adaptations. In the literary world, much is made of the role of the potion in Beroul’s version and beyond. In her survey of the legend’s best known early incarnations, Beroul’s included, Molly Robinson Kelly goes as far as to assert that the drinking of the potion is the most unifying and integral feature of the legend, uniting its various texts as the “paradigmatic core” around which all versions center (180). Kelly goes on to emphasize the importance of the potion throughout the legend’s literary tradition, calling it “the legend’s most archetypal moment” as well as insisting that the drinking of the potion supersedes the lovers’ first meeting as the text’s first “pivotal moment” (181, 182). Amongst so much scholarly concern dedicated to the role of the potion across multiple versions of the legend, its complete absence from the film adaptation can hardly be ignored. What this absence does for the film, however, is ultimately less interesting than what it reveals about Beroul’s text. The film’s removal of the love potion simultaneously removes a confounding and much debated question of the validity of the lovers’ romance. Free of this complication, the film is free to soar to the predictable heights of the conventional Hollywood romance. In contrast to the easily recognized silver screen romance of Tristan & Isolde, Beroul’s tale emerges not as one of love, but of fate, in many ways more akin to the Greek tragedy than the Shakespearean romance. Mired in the unclear implications of the love potion, love in Beroul is not a driving force, but a mere symptom of the ironic twists of fate that propel the hero to his tragic end.
The love potion is not only pivotal within the legend itself, but is also of crucial concern within literary scholarship surrounding the Tristan romance, and Beroul’s work is certainly no exception. In defining what the potion’s absence means for the film—and, more importantly, what it illuminates about its presence in Beroul—it may be helpful to first survey common interpretations of the potion as it functions in The Romance of Tristan. Broadly, I see the potion serving two main and potentially overlapping functions. First, the potion raises a question as to the validity of the love between the tragic lovers. That is to say, the presence of the potion invites the question of how real or “true” a love generated by a potion can be. Second, the potion surfaces in answer to the debate concerning the lovers’ complicity in adultery. Depending on one’s stance regarding the implications of the love potion, it can be used to exonerate the lovers from blame.
As Norris J. Lacy neatly summarizes, “The traditional view of Tristan and Isolde is that they are a young couple tragically condemned to an illicit passion which neither of them wants” (21). They are not tragic lovers who doom themselves by falling in love of their own accord. Rather, according to this view, they are accidental lovers who would not have fallen in love at all were it not for the unfortunate intervention of the love potion. This reading is the one most likely to exonerate the couple, treating their love and resultant trysts not as acts of their own accord, but as the inevitable result of the potion over which they have no control. This provides an excuse for their conduct—indeed, one the couple themselves repeatedly turn to in an attempt to defend their actions, claiming that they cannot be held liable for their illicit affair if their feelings are not their own and are merely the product of a potion—absolving them of sin and reconciling both the reader’s and the narrator’s famed sympathy for the lovers despite their obvious moral transgressions. This reading is, I believe, the one best supported in Beroul’s text, wherein the love between Tristan and Yseut is repeatedly referred to as a “mistake” and at times even a “misfortune,” implying that their relationship is not one born of true love and would not have occurred at all were it not for Brangain’s fateful mix up with the love potion (44, 78).
An alternate reading, however, sees the potion as a metaphor, therefore rejecting the idea that the potion renders their love artificial. Instead, this reading suggests that the potion’s powers, because they are irresistible, make the love between Tristan and Yseut all the more real. In this reading, the potion comes to function as a metaphor for the intoxicating and inevitable powers of love. While this reading is certainly more palatable for readers looking to Beroul for a traditional and recognizable love story according to modern conventions, I see little support for it in the text. Even if one takes the romantic approach of seeing the accidental love as fated rather than manufactured, Beroul still treats love as secondary to fate, a mere symptom rather than a cause.
Readers primarily concerned with the lovers’ innocence tend to favor the former reading, while those who take true love as their primary concern often trend toward the latter. By removing the presence of the love potion altogether, the film adaptation avoids this complication, simply painting Tristan and Isolde as a tragic couple whose love, as a tearful Isolde declares against the cinematic backdrop of a stormy Irish coast, is no less true simply because it cannot be. While the absence of the potion also eliminates any chance of pardon on behalf of the lovers, their adultery is not likely to cause the same qualms among a twenty-first-century audience as those Beroul’s sympathetic portrayal of the sinners may have caused among twelfth-century readers. Ultimately, the absence of the love potion in the film is simply a useful device by which the storyline is simplified into a more palatable love story, in accordance with the conventions of the genre in Hollywood today. The film disposes of this element of the story to eliminate some of the more uncomfortable, and decidedly unromantic, implications of the mystical origins of Tristan and Ysuet’s love, conforming the story into the predictable modern romance promised in the tagline. In noting that the absence of the love potion transforms the tale into a conventional love story, it becomes clear that Beroul’s commitment to the presence of that element signals a different reading. As Kelly argues, “When the lovers drink the potion, the legend shifts from conventional romance to something radically new: a tale driven by the dark forces of magic and fate” (181). While I disagree that there is anything “radically new” about such a tale, I too argue that Beroul offers a tale of fate rather than the one of love viewers of Tristan & Isolde would expect.
Like most classic tales of twisted fate, Beroul’s Romance of Tristan relies heavily on irony, an element almost entirely absent in the film adaptation. Lacy makes much of Beroul’s use of irony, citing it as the root of the “esthetic distance between the reader and the story,” a detachment that makes it possible for a reader “to enjoy the story intellectually without criticizing it ethically” (22). While my reading takes little concern with the ethical implications of the tale, the irony Lacy points out does create significant distance between the reader and the characters, as he elaborates, “Understanding Beroul’s irony, we then view the lovers with a detachment which the traditional attitude toward them does not afford. This distance prevents our identifying with them.” This inability to identify with Beroul’s characters explains the unfamiliar technique of characterization that Alan Fedrick, in the introduction to The Romance of Tristan, numbers among the text’s “strange features” that alienate readers accustomed to modern practices and conventions of fiction (Frederick 14). Beginning with the exclusion of the potion, the film eliminates these ironic figures and episodes in an attempt to erase this distance and establish the modern conventions of characterization that audiences will expect from a love story.
Beroul, meanwhile, relies on ironic twists of fate which the film transforms into unironic acts of love. As has already been discussed at length, the main action of Beroul’s tale begins with and is propelled by the accidental drinking of the love potion, a twist of fate, while the film version instead presents two lovers who meet and fall in love organically, well before that love becomes complicated by extenuating circumstances. In fact, while Beroul uses irony to emphasize the role of fate over that of love, one of the film’s only ironic episodes ultimately reinforces the validity and intentional nature of the love between Tristan and Isolde. In the film, upon first meeting Tristan, Isolde lies about her identity, giving him a false name. They fall in love and later separate, assuming they will never see each other again. When the King of Ireland later holds a tournament in which he promises his daughter, Isolde, to the winner, Tristan has no idea he is fighting for the hand of his beloved. By the time the discovery is made, to the sincere regret of both characters, Tristan has already promised Isolde to King Marke. While the film makes it clear that Tristan would not have promised Isolde to the king had he known it were her, there is no such implication in Beroul’s version, in which Yseut has been promised to the king well before she and Tristan fall in love. In the film, it is an ironic twist of fate that separates the partners, not one that unites them to begin with. In Beroul, love arises as an inconvenience, the impediment to the already agreed-upon transaction.
While the film follows a conventional paradigm of introducing a series of obstacles to impede the lovers’ relationship, Beroul sees love itself as the obstacle that obstructs the normal course of events. For this reason, Beroul’s characters repeatedly reject and deny their love. While the Isolde of the film makes sweeping declarations asserting the value of their love, vowing, “We both know this cannot be. We’ve known that from the start. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It is,” her Beroulian counterpart argues the opposite, claiming that their love exists only “because of a draught that I drank and he drank.” Meanwhile, Beroul’s Tristan echoes his lover, also denouncing their love as the mere result of the potion (79). In addition to the lovers’ decidedly unromantic habit of literally denying their love for each other, Beroul’s Tristan and Yseut do not even truly suffer in the way tragic lovers are expected to. As Halverson points out, Tristan and Ysuet’s suffering is, not unlike their love itself, “an incidental matter, never raised to the level of theme and rarely even to the level of awareness” (285). Likewise, both Halverson and Lacy note that when the effects of the love potion wear off, neither character mourns the loss of their love. Instead, both characters immediately turn to pragmatic concerns of material loss, expressing only “a desire to regain the comfort and wealth of which passion has deprived them” (Lacy 25). Halverson elaborates, noting that, unlike traditional lovers in distress as a result of “separation and fulfillment,” Beroul’s Tristan and Yseut endure their most conscious suffering not when they are apart, but in fact when they are together in the forest: “When the effects of the potion wear off, they are acutely aware of their own and each other’s suffering, and the source of it is explicitly not in each other but in their wretched way of life; their misery is that of separation from civilization” (285). While the film appeals to mainstream audiences with a conventional love-centric plot detailing the struggles Tristan and Isolde endure for the sake of their love, in Beroul’s Romance of Tristan, both the author and his characters repeatedly treat love as a secondary concern.
The film diverges from Beroul’s text again at its conclusion, and once again, this divergence reflects the film’s initial rejection of the love potion plot, illuminating Beroul’s submergence of love beneath the dominant element of fate. In Beroul’s tale, Tristan dies in tragic irony when his wife deliberately lies to him about the color of the sails, leading him to believe Yseut has denied him. In the film, there is no such ironic twist of fate, with Tristan instead meeting his demise in a battle ignited by the discovery of his affair with Isolde. Once again, the movie treats its characters as victims of love, while Beroul sees them as victims of fate. Both incarnations of the tale conclude with the famed image of the intertwining trees growing out of the grave, illustrated in Beroul: “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.” In the tale’s concluding line, Beroul returns once again to the love potion, coyly revealing that “some” attribute the indomitable powers of the trees to the presence of the love potion in Tristan and Yseut’s bodies (165). In the film, however, a still-living Isolde plants the trees, once again turning one of Beroul’s acts of fate into a deliberate act of love.
Viewers of Tristan & Isolde encounter a comfortable and familiar Hollywood romance that steadily, if tepidly, checks off all the boxes when it comes to satisfying the expectations of the genre. As one New York Times critic notes, “There is something undeniably pleasant about an entertainment like Tristan & Isolde that delivers exactly what it promises, no less, no more” (Dargis). Beroul’s Romance of Tristan, however, will not afford the same satisfaction to fans of the movie looking to its literary predecessor for a continuation of the film’s predictable adherence to generic norms. Instead, readers of Beroul will find a tale of tragic fate in which love functions almost incidentally, as a rather inconvenient side effect. In his dedication to weaving a tale of fate, Beroul tells a love story between Tristan and Ysuet no more than Sophocles can be said to tell one between Oedipus and his mother. Time and again in The Romance of Tristan, love emerges as a mere symptom of fate—incidental, accidental, and never a driving force. Beroul’s romance is by no means the Shakespearean love story its silver screen adaptation promises. It isn’t a love story at all.
Beroul. The Romance of Tristan. Translated by Alan S. Fedrick, Penguin, 1970. Print.
Dargis, Manhola. “Young Lovers in a Cave Can’t Escape the World.” The New York Times, 13. Jan. 2006. Web.
Fedrick, Alan S. Introduction. The Romance of Tristan, by Beroul, Penguin, 1970, pp. 9-35. Print.
Halverson, John. “Tristan and Iseult: The Two Traditions.” Zeitschrift Für Französische Sprache Und Literatur, vol. 93, no. 3, 1983, pp. 271–296. JSTOR. Web.
Kelly, Molly Robinson. “Tristan and Iseut before the Potion.” The Hero’s Place: Medieval Literary Traditions of Space and Belonging, Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D. C., 2009, pp. 179–226. JSTOR. Web.
Lacy, Norris J. “Irony and Distance in Béroul’s Tristan.” The French Review. Special Issue, vol. 45, no. 3, 1971, pp. 21–29. JSTOR.
Web. Tristan & Isolde. Directed by Kevin Reynolds, Franchise Pictures, 2006.
Fate and Freewill in The Romance of Tristan
Béroul’s The Romance of Tristan exhibits the inevitable, predetermined relationship between Tristan and Yseut. Neither Tristan, Yseut, nor Mark is able to interfere with the lovers’ relationship, suggesting that fate takes away choice and freewill in love. Other characters, such as Frocin, prove that one’s fate can be changed if he or she knows about it in advance and actively tries to prevent this outcome. Tristan’s experience with love happens to be dictated by uncontrollable fate. However, the other characters have differing beliefs about the role of fate in an individual’s life, suggesting that the fate’s role may not be as powerful.
The love potion that Tristan and Yseut drink makes them powerless over their newfound love for one another. The element of choice is completely removed from love and their subsequent actions reflect this as well. Therefore, Tristan and Yseut’s fates are inevitable. When Tristan and Yseut drink the love potion, the narrator states “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” (Béroul 44.) It is fate that brings the two together through the love potion. Even after the potion wears off, Tristan and Yseut continue to love each other, exhibiting that their love had been fated from the beginning.
Tristan and Yseut lament the knightly and queenly lives that they may have led if fate, or love, had not interfered. When the potion is no longer in effect, Yseut returns to being queen and Tristan returns to the forest, yet they are still preoccupied with their loyalty to each other. This leads them to continue to miss out on their once lamented duties, proposing the idea that both Yseut’s and Tristan’s actions are controlled by fate. Tristan exclaims “‘What a fate! What I have suffered for the sake of love!’” (Béroul 152). Tristan speaks as if love is synonymous with destiny, and he is its eternal servant because he does not have the ability to control his desires to be back with Yseut.
It also becomes clear that the other characters in The Romance of Tristan cannot successfully interfere with Tristan and Yseut’s relationship. Mark is persuaded to do so by the barons, beginning with hiding in a tree to spy on them, and progressing to chopping down the trees that “grew miraculously, one from Tristan’s tomb and one from Yseut’s; their branches intertwined over the apse” (Béroul 165). Despite Mark’s effort to cut down the trees three times, they grow back each time. The last line of the story, “Some say it was the power of love that did this,” emphasizes the fate that causes their death and follows them to their graves (Béroul 165). This symbolizes both the powerlessness to resist predestined love or to change one’s fate.
Aside from Tristan and Yseut’s predestined relationship, fate is not a direct causal factor of the other events that take place. Frocin, the wicked dwarf, is an astrologer who “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” (Béroul 54). Frocin has a reputation for being cunning, manipulative, and malevolent, which are represented by his appearance. However, the barons who advise Mark trust Frocin to preach what was believed to be the truth, exhibiting that the characters believed in fate. Frocin’s ability to predict the future seems to eliminate the possibility of freewill if an individual’s fate is predetermined. Frocin is able to read his own future and decides to flee to Wales when “he learned that the king was menacing him and would not rest until he had killed him” (Béroul 54). Frocin’s flight implies that if one knows his or her future, he or she can change it, questioning the idea that fate is perpetually unchangeable. This example of freewill may be valid but it clearly does not apply to Tristan and Yseut’s situation, and quite possibly love as a whole. Thus, the theory that fate is generally inevitable in life is inconclusive as there is a lack in consistency among the unique situations of each character.
Béroul’s narration and Ogrin’s advice provide a context for the characters’ understandings of fate. Orgin is a hermit who represents the views of Catholicism and how the Church would view adultery. When Ogrin meets Tristan and Yseut, he encourages them to repent, saying “God will pardon the sin of a man who repents in good faith by making confession’” (Béroul 79). Tristian claims that their love is due to the love potion yet Orgin still sees Tristan as a sinner, suggesting the Christians’ lack of belief in fate. When Tristan and Yseut are reunited with Ogrin three years later, Ogrin still urges them to repent, and then helps them do so. In spite of this, Ogrin insists they must “think of some suitable falsehoods” to cover up their misdeeds, which is questionable coming from a religious figure (Béroul 100). Ogrin’s beliefs that sins can be repented and that one’s future can be changed opposes Frocin’s conviction that each person’s fate is written in the stars before birth. This discrepancy perpetuates the inconclusiveness over whether or not fate is inevitable. Along with Béroul’s narration, these differences in beliefs suggest the true role of fate in an individual’s life remains unknown.
The Romance of Tristan tells the tale of the love story between Tristan and Yseut that is brought upon them by fate, inevitably leads to their deaths, and is subsequently eternally present. Tristan and Yseut do not have the freewill or ability to make choices that are in the best interests of others, especially King Mark. Therefore, it can be concluded that Tristan and Yseut’s fate is inevitable because they could not live separately from one another, even after the power of choice was theoretically granted to them when the potion wore off. Mark and Yseut tried to do what they believed to be right, yet fall back into lies and deception because of their destiny. This is seen in Yseut’s literally truthful oath when she states “‘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’” (Béroul 141- 142). Although the role of fate in life in general is not concretely portrayed in The Romance of Tristan, it is evident that Tristan’s and Yseut’s love, lives, and deaths reflect the inevitable fate of their love.
The Tragedies of Two Heroes
In Beowulf and Beroul’s The Romance of Tristan, the heroes Beowulf and Tristan are magnificent fighters. Their numerous victories against seemingly insurmountable odds and powerful enemies are testaments to their battle-talents. Yet the two heroes employ violence in their exploits for different reasons and for different goals. While Beowulf engages in battle for almost purely an attraction to fighting and the recognition of violent success, Tristan does so out of passion and devotion to love.
The Geat noble Beowulf is described and praised as a superb warrior as soon as he is introduced to those in need of his help. When Hrothgar first encounters Beowulf in his battered court, he recalls the fame of Edgetheow’s son: “The seafarers used to say, I remember…that this fighting man in his hand’s grasp had the strength of thirty other men” (63). And Beowulf is quick to verify the rumor of the great power in his hands, relating the time “I had bound five Giants—their blood was upon me—” and when he “crushed on the wave sea-serpents by night in narrow struggle, broken the beasts” (64). Boastful, but seemingly able to substantiate his words with action, he asks as a matter of fact, “And shall I not try a single match with this monster Grendel, a trial against this troll?” (64).
Beowulf’s confidence in his abilities is quite apparent in this meeting of Geats and Danes, as is his desire to do battle as a gauge of his power. He offers to fight the monstrous descendant of Cain with more concern for testing himself than actually protecting Heorot. “So that my lord Hygelac, my leader in war, may take joy in me, I abjure utterly the bearing of sword or shielding yellow board in this battle!” the warrior declares (64-5). The battle with Grendel must be a fair one, so that if he wins Beowulf may claim renown and affirm yet another achievement for his legend. Conversely, if Beowulf’s concern were primarily saving Hrothgar’s kingdom, the Geat would certainly welcome the support of weaponry and his men, strong warriors in their own right and perhaps valuable assistance in dealing with Grendel (although Beowulf easily defeats the hellish behemoth).
The inclination toward battling for sport fuels Beowulf’s heart at an even earlier age. During the initial feast at Heorot, Beowulf relates his swimming race with Breca when they are teenagers. Although morning finds Breca but not Beowulf “cast by the sea on the coast of the Battle-Reams,” Beowulf sheds a different light on who has won (68). Even after destroying the sea creatures that drag him down into the sea as he and Breca race, Beowulf searches out and kills “seven sea-monsters, in the severest fight by night I have heard of” (69). Nothing compels this behavior in the future king of the Geats more than a fiery desire for contest and test of his limits.
In fact, Beowulf’s desire to fight for satisfaction and glory continues until his death. Following the battle with Grendel, the Geat prince pursues Grendel’s mother and vanquishes the monster in the Were; his prize for battling her is the head of Grendel. Having now saved Hrothgar’s people twice, Beowulf can joyously leave the Scylding state with a grand legacy for the Danes to forever remember him by.
Beowulf’s final battle with the dragon is another example of his desire for a challenge and a chance for triumph at an ancient age. While it should be noted that the elderly king of the Geats also sets out to fight because of the dragon’s decimation of his mead-hall and murder of his people, the dragon’s hoard is what Beowulf discusses in his speech to his subjects. “Now shall hard edge, hand and blade, do battle for the hoard!” he cries (130). “By daring will I win this gold; war otherwise shall take your king, terrible life’s-bane!” (131). And when Beowulf approaches death, the glory of his newly acquired treasure is what is on his mind. He tells Wiglaf, his beloved kinsman, “Make haste, that I may gaze upon that golden inheritance, that ancient wealth…more calmly then may I on the treasure’s account take my departure of life and of the lordship I have long held” (138). Once again, Beowulf here speaks also as a king who would like to leave his people a wealthy inheritance, but the fire of his pride and craving for triumph, however dimly lit, is still present as life wanes. Beowulf dies “an aged man in sorrow,” but he does take satisfaction at having lost his life fighting for something and winning it (139).
Contrary to Beowulf’s intentions for fighting, Rivalen’s son Tristan participates actively in violence for his love, Yseut the Fair. While his battle with Morholt is not motivated by passion for the Irish princess, most of the other battles and incidents of violence in which Tristan takes part involve some sort of symbol of devotion, protection, or retribution in the context of love. While Tristan, Yseut and Governal remain exiled in the Forest of Morrois, Tristan’s dog, Husdant, is released to determine “whether he is miserable because of his master” or it is mad (81). When Husdant is allowed to wander and finds his master, Tristan is the only person sorrowed by his appearance. Worried for him and his lover’s safety, the nephew of Mark decides that it is “Better for him to be killed than for us to be captured because of his barking. I regret very much that he will have to die, for he is a fine animal” (83). Here, unequivocal devotion is shown by the knight, who for love of a fair lady would kill his companion Husdant, so loyal, so devoted to its master. Only through the advice of the very person for whom he would sacrifice his dog does Tristan spare the canine and “try to teach him to hunt game without barking” (83).
Even after the love potion has worn off, the love Tristan has for Yseut is strong. When King Mark instructs Yseut that she must vindicate herself with oath, she devises a plan that would allow her to make a truthful swear, yet put Tristan in potential danger, should he be caught. While a simple lie for the Irish princess would suffice and not be such a dishonorable act (for she is already engaged in an adulterous relationship of her own will), Tristan is more than willing to shame himself in leper’s dress and appearance and risk being caught.
After Yseut’s vindication, Tristan further participates in violence to eliminate his enemies, the ones who know of his relationship to Yseut. Hiding in a thicket of thorn bushes, he first kills away Denoalan ruthlessly. “To save himself he cut off the villain’s head and did not even give him the time to say, ‘I am wounded’ (146). Adding to the brutality, Tristan cuts Denoalan’s hair off to show Yseut. When he visits Yseut’s chambers later, with her help “against the light by the curtain he saw Godwin’s head” (148). The battle-accustomed knight kills the nosy baron with a bow and arrow, which “pierced Godwin’s eye and went deep into his head and his brain” (148). If Tristan can help it, no one who jeopardizes his affair with Yseut will survive. The barons, evilly portrayed in the poem but simply harsh, disapproving advisors of King Mark, are brutal victims of Tristan’s deep love for Mark’s queen.
Tristan’s final and perhaps most blatant violent outburst occurs when he arrives at Cornwall from Brittany. Desperate to see his love, Tristan resorts to self-mutilation and mad force to find his way to Yseut. “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” (153-4). Although Beroul tells us that Tristan does these things to give the appearance of madness, his willingness to perform such acts lend credence to Tristan’s vulnerability to violent madness as a result of his deep passion. Nothing, not even his own dignity and identity, compromised through violent means, will deprive his loyalty to Yseut.
Both Beowulf and Tristan are examples of tragic heroes willing to use violence in extremes in order to arrive at goals or maintain happiness. Beowulf, in his desire for universal fame and for the joy of battle, risks his life without second thoughts. The Geat-king’s final endeavor, though he does not have to embark on it since the dragon only seeks to protect its treasure, is one that he cannot resist, and it costs him his life. On the other hand, Tristan has violent tendencies and a tolerance or fearlessness of violence because of his insatiable hunger for love. He is willing to kill his enemies, his companions, even hurt himself or let himself be hurt, for the sake of keeping his affair with Yseut alive and thriving. Ultimately, the tragedy lies in the fact that the violence cannot produce solutions for these heroes’ problems at the most important moments; for all Beowulf’s exploits and triumphs in battle, he does not gain the complete loyalty and respect of his men in his final battle (and perhaps dies because of their cowardice), and Tristan ironically dies from the attack of a knight victimized by his wife’s adultery, which Tristan helps perpetuate.
Representations of Desire and Love Using Fire and Light: Symbolism in The Romance of Tristan
In The Romance of Tristan and Iseult, Tristan and Iseult surrender their will to a powerful love potion that bonds them for eternity. The potion makes them betray their loyalties to King Mark and commit sinful acts in the name of chivalry and love. Though Tristan and Iseult’s love is enhanced by the love potion that they drank, there is still an underlying element of purity. Fire and light in the novel reflect the complex conflict between feudal law and chivalry, respectively. Because the narrators favor laws of chivalry to feudal laws, references to light start to replace those of fire as the story progresses in order to convince the reader that the love is true. The narrators use imagery of light to portray the purity of Tristan and Iseult’s love, which contrasts heavily with the portrayal of desire, symbolized by fire, as evil and immoral.
The fire in the novel represents the evil of the lovers’ desires for each other, as they are breaking feudal law to be together. As a vassal, Tristan was bound by loyalty and duty to serve King Mark. Tristan’s main job under feudal law, the main system of rules at the time, was to obey the king and ensure the king’s satisfaction and happiness. By sneaking around with King Mark’s wife behind his back, Tristan was not only committing adultery, a major sin, he was also betraying the one man he lived to serve. Tristan’s betrayal was fueled by “the fire of his fever, desire without redress” (60). Instead of it being fueled by his love for Iseult, it is described as desire, which usually has a purely sexual or lustful connotation. This burning fire represents the evils of Tristan and Iseult’s relationship, as it was morally wrong for them to be together. The narrators first mention fire in the story when King Mark sends Tristan to conquer a monster in a neighboring land in order to win Iseult’s hand in marriage. The monster, a menace to the land and people, had red eyes that “burned like coals of fire” (29). It is no coincidence that Tristan’s desire for Iseult is connected to the monster he had to fight; the desire itself is also a monster—a force within Tristan that causes him to betray the King and his duties as vassal. Fire also appears again at Tristan and Iseult’s trials, during which they are accused of adultery and sentenced to death. The burning fires represent the malice of the acts they have committed and show that their relationship is certainly rooted in sin and the breaking of feudal law. Again, this fire is linked to the sexual aspect of their relationship, as the sin was the physical act of adultery. The narrators use fire to show that Tristan and Iseult’s relationship, originally one of sexual passion and desire, begins from a place of evil.
The only references of fire in the novel appear within the first half of the story, when Tristan and Iseult’s love was still young and blossoming. As Brangien declares when she discovers that Tristan and Iseult drank the cursed wine, Tristan and Iseult were tricked by “the old Enemy,” the devil (45). Tristan and Iseult’s love was originally created by the devil, the most evil entity in Christianity. However, as the story progresses, the narrators favor codes of chivalry over feudal hierarchies, and thus to the narrators, the lovers are not sinners, but simply following the rules of chivalry. The lack of fire in the second half of the story shows that, although Tristan and Iseult’s love began from a place of evil, beneath the guise and veil of the potion, the love really grew to be based in purity and truth. The narrators no longer focus on the sinfulness of the relationship because it has become about much more than just sexual desire; Tristan and Iseult do truly love each other, which the narrators show through the use of light.
The narrators use light ito represent the underlying purity of Tristan and Iseult’s love and the purity of love under chivalry. Light is first mentioned in the story when two birds bring a strand of gold hair to the king, which “[shone] like a beam of light” in his hand (26). King Mark sends Tristan to Ireland to retrieve Iseult, to whom the hair belongs, immediately after this spontaneous delivery. It is by no chance that these birds bring the King Iseult’s hair; it only can be explained as being an act of God. The narrators bring Tristan and Iseult in this manner to demonstrate that God wanted the two to meet. If this encounter was truly orchestrated by God’s will, then there is already an underlying pureness of the love between Tristan and Iseult. The narrators again mention light when Tristan and Iseult have escaped their prosecutions and are hiding in the shack in the woods. The King finds the cabin and is prepared to kill the lovers, but when he looks down on them he sees a sword placed in bed between them and a sunbeam “[shining] white like ice” on Iseult’s face (96). The sword between their bodies represents chastity and purity, which deRougemont claims is contradictory considering the lovers have already sinned merely by being together and have consummated their relationship. In this instance, the sword does not represent literal purity, as in a sexual manner, but rather the pureness of the love that Tristan and Iseult have for each other. The purity of their love, represented by the sword, saves the couple from death because in this moment the narrators value chivalry over feudal law. Their love may be “unpure” under the rules of the kingdom, but as deRougemont points out in Love in the Western World, chivalrous love was considered the most pure form of love in the 12th century. Most marriages in that time were arranged, so to have a man “regard himself as the vassal of some chosen lady” and commit his life to serving her, not the king, was a purer love than almost any marriage at the time (de Rougemont, 33). Therefore, the sword is not a contradiction because it is not a symbol of the purity of Iseult, but rather the purity and genuineness of their love for each other.
One of the major conflicts throughout The Romance of Tristan and Iseult is the concept of feudal law versus laws of chivalry. Under feudal law, Tristan and Iseult’s relationship is immoral and sinful; the King and the baron’s see their “love” mearly as a passion and evil sexual desire. The narrators portray this interpretation of the love with images of fire. As the story progresses and the readers begin to realize that Tristan and Iseults love may be more than just a connection induced by a potion, references to fire slowly stop, and instead the narrators use light to represent the lovers’ relationship. This light portrays the pureness of Tristan and Iseult’s love, as the narrators hold chivalrous love to be more genuine and truthful than love through marriage.
Bédier, Joseph, trans. The Romance of Tristan and Iseult. New York, NY: Pantheon, 1945. Print.
Rougemont, Denis De. Love in the Western World. New York: Pantheon, 1956. Print.