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.
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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 […]