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Tristan and Iseult: A Fragmentary Tradition

Few literary works have had a cultural echo that could withstand to be compared with that of the story of Tristan and Iseult in occidental culture. From as early as the Middle-Age , their love story has influenced many other symbolical productions, and still to this day, many literary works are related in structure to this medieval chivalric romance, notably through their thematics. It set the narrative structures for many romances and adventure works, such as the love triangle dynamic, or love conceptualized as being the strongest passion, an unstoppable force that transcends death. Paradoxically, the Tristan and Iseult's philological origins remains uncertain, and while its topoi are widely known, their actual origin is still a matter discussed and argued about every year in European universities. Among all of the philological sources and the theories related to them, the brief analysis presented in this will be focusing on comparing three of the main known sources, the "common" branch of Béroul, the "courtly" branch of Thomas of Britain and finally the Bédier modern version, translated by Hilaire Belloc.

Figure 1: Tristan and Iseult drinking the love philter. Manuscript illumination.

Béroul's version of Tristan and Iseult is commonly regarded as the earliest version of the text. Probably composed between 1150 and 1170, the manuscript was discovered in the area of Northern France. The author himself remains shrouded in mystery, as little is known of his life, except that he most likely came from Normandy and was possibly a cleric who lived for a period in England.

Heavily damaged, the manuscript presents only a few of the myth's narrative elements. Indeed, the narration starts with the clandestine encounter between the two lovers spied on by King Mark, and ends with the death of three felon barons after the justification of Iseult in court. Although it is only a brief part of the whole story, these verses present narrative elements that seem to be shared by all of the subsequent fragmented literary tradition of the myth, and so, to that extent, it is commonly considered as the "original" source. First of all, the characters themselves are introduced in this version, and even if their treatment as narrative figures differs in later versions, the kernel of the narrative dynamics between them seems to be set in Béroul's version of the myth. Notably, the triangle structure between Mark, Tristan and Iseult is established as one of the main plot's elements, notably through the spied-on encounter episode:

"So did the King unwillingly; and at fall of night he left the hunt taking the dwarf in pillion, and entered the orchard, and the dwarf took him to the tall pine-tree [...] Hid in the branches the King saw his nephew leap the pallisades and throw his barks and twigs into the stream" (H.Belloc , 1903, p. 27)

This love triangle is the core of the Tristan and Iseult myth. While Tristan and Iseult are obviously essential elements because they are the lovers, Mark is also essential to the narrative development of the romance. Indeed, in all three of Béroul's, Thomas's, and also Bédier's versions of the story, Mark is a King, which makes him the representative and symbol of the highest social and cultural position in the feudal spatio-temporal background. It is precisely because he is the King that the romance between Tristan and Iseult may in turn be considered as an unstoppable force, a passion going beyond any social or cultural establishment. However, the king's figure in Béroul's version of the myth is, as in the other versions of the text, full of ambiguity. The king is the symbol of a social power, as in this version, Tristan and him not only share a parental link, but also a vassalage relation. Indeed, Tristan is not only Mark's nephew, but also one of his knights, a status reasserting the social superiority of the King. But in this version, the king is also a character being perpetually fooled and easily manipulated, either by Iseult herself, or by the antagonists, such as the three barons trying to influence him. Rather than being a superior figure taking decisions and giving orders, he appears as a man driven by other dynamics he does not perceive, blinded by his non-reciprocal love and desire for Iseult.

The treatment of its characters is actually one of the most noteworthy characteristics of Béroul's version. While the king is, in fine, presented as less clever and intrinsically powerful than the other characters, as he is driven by them in the narrative structure, Tristan and Iseult's approach is also particularly relevant to a myth's representation, which differs from courtly one. For instance, Iseult herself is made distinct from the strict codes of the fin'amor chivalrous ideals, as she lies to the king, remains ambiguous and evasive on purpose, and demonstrates a certain slyness, during her trial for instance. Tristan, on the other hand, is more focused on taking actions than on reflecting on the depth of his love for Iseult: this also strays from the classic tradition and codes of fin'amor.

Figure 2: "Yseult la blonde", oil painting by George Bussière, circa 1911-1913.

The three protagonists of the love triangle, which lies at the core of the myth's plot, do not correspond to the established codes of the courtly narrative, as each of them, in their own character narrative treatment, stands out as a strong character, not necessarily codified by the fin'amor, but rather settled in a feudal narrative type of structure.

Quite distinctively and in contrast, a most likely contemporary work of Béroul's "common branch" proposed a courtly version of the Tristan and Iseult myth. Indeed, estimated to have been written around 1170, Thomas of Britain's "courtly" version of the chivalric romance is also a fragmented philological source. Composed of six different fragments, this version conserved the main narrative elements of the myth, such as the love triangle, the spatio-temporal background, and secondary characters, but adapted it to the fin'amor literary tradition. A perfect exemple of this transposition of the myth into the courtly genre is the treatment of Tristan's character. Whereas in Béroul's work, the protagonist was treated more as a warrior, battle-oriented figure, perhaps influenced by Celtic tradition and mostly standing out through valiant actions, Thomas' version proposes a Tristan who is characterized by a courtly pathos. Often beset by intimate torments, the character is driven by introspective considerations, hesitations, and reflections on the uncontrollable nature of his passion for Iseult.

"In the strength of their love neither one nor the other felt these mortal things" (H.Belloc, 1903, p. 40)

For that matter, it seems relevant to notice that in Thomas' work, this passion is not caused by the love philter, but is a choice made by the two lovers instead. Adultery love is indeed one of the main topoi of the fin'amor genre, and is considered as being part of its moral codes. Thomas chose to emphasize it by not presenting the two lovers as victims, but as decision makers for their own passion. The episode of Tristan marrying another Iseult, but being unable to forget the Iseult he loves shows that it is, like in Béroul's version, an uncontrollable passion that moves him. However, the way this passion is treated as an element in the narrative structure exposes a different perception of the nature of this love, in this case motivated by a strong set of moral and artistic codes. The latter certainly participated in building the timeless aura of the myth, as the last scene of Thomas' version, telling the death of the two lovers, marked readers for the centuries to come.

Figure 3: Tristan und Isolde, illustration by Sassen for Wagner's eponymous opera. (1865)

Another remarkable version of Tristan and Iseult romance is the one presented in 1900 by Joseph Bédier. Influenced by Gaston Paris' critical work, Bédier operated a reconstruction of the myth, using the previously mentioned sources as well as others, and concluding that an original manuscript must have existed, before Béroul's one; Bédier referred to that hypothetically posited original manuscript as "Ur-Tristan". Paradoxically, even though Bédier rejected Paris' theory according to which Tristan and Iseult was an accumulation of different literary traditions, a Tale of tales, his version of the romance includes elements from different traditions. Indeed, elements from the feudal period are perceptible, such as when Tristan survives to his judiciary duel thanks to ruse, and in the manner in which legal innocence is assimilated with moral innocence. In addition to these two elements, and as in Béroul's version, the vassalage relationship between different characters nestles the plot in an chivalric narrative structure.

Nevertheless, it remains important to note that chivalric elements are not the only ones constituting Bédier's work. For instance, elements from the Celtic traditions can also be identified, such as as in the "Wood of Morois" episode :

" Tristan had known, ever since his childhood, that art by which a man may sing the song of birds in the woods, and at his fancy, he would call as call the thrush, the blackbird and the nightingale, and all winged things..." (H. Belloc, 1903, p. 40)

Other elements link Tristan and Iseult to the Celtic tradition, such as the presence of thaumaturgy and potions. Also, the onomastics and toponomastics analysis led by G. Paris could suggest a celtic affiliation: for instance, the name "Tristan" could likely be a transformation of a Celtic name, "Drostan".

Figure 4: Oil painting, "Tristan et Iseult", by Salvador Dali. (1944)

Bédier's work appears particularly relevant to the nature itself of the Tristan and Iseult myth, while it definitely includes a core plot with strong identifiable elements such as the love triangle, the perception of passion as an uncontrollable force, or the presence of strong protagonists, the uncertainty of its philological tradition has still allowed it to become a reflection of artistic and cultural codes since its supposed first publication during the Middle-Age. The three versions of the myth explored in the present article illustrate this versatility well: Béroul's version proposed a myth set in a feudal cultural context, while Thomas adapted it to a post-feudal perception of society and literature, leaning towards courtly considerations. Finally, Bédier, through its philological work of reconstruction of the myth, exposed the Celtic lineage of Tristan and Iseult, as well as the possibility of an original tale being the common factor to the very fragmented literary tradition of the myth.

It is precisely because Tristan and Iseult is a fragmented myth, carried through different traditions, with different codes and contexts, that it has grown to appear so universal and timeless. Whether Bédier's theory about a missing original manuscript is right or wrong, the core elements of the narrative structure of Tristan and Iseult's story, combined with its adaptability, work together and enable the myth to be transposed in a vast variety of contexts without ever losing its symbolical and emotional significance.

Bibliographical references

Bédier, J. (1900), Le Roman de Tristan et Iseult, Henri Piazza Éditeur

Belloc H. (1903), The Romance of Tristan and Iseult by Joseph Bédier - Translated by Hilaire Belloc, pp. 27-40

Paris G. (1894), Tristan et Iseut. Le Haut Enseignement Historique et Philologique en France

Quéruel D., Le Tristan de Béroul et celui de Thomas, BnF- Les essentiels, consulted on 19/02/2023

Sarlingrova N. (2019), The Development of the Tristanian Legend: A Comparative Study

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Martin Chef

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