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 When the potion is no longer in effect, Yseut returns to being queen and Tristan returns to the forest, yet they are still preoccupied with their loyalty to each other.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.
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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 […]