Tristan and Isolde: Gottfried von Strassburg is All About the Love…

 Gottfried reminds us that love is complicated – and, we can assume, chemical, too….

Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg (image courtesy Goodreads)

Back to  the 2014 reading list again. After taking a break from heavier (and, in one case, more depressing) works to read a little about fly fishing in my home state, I’m back to the sort of “serious” literature you’ve come to know and be bored out of your skulls by that I, ever needing to scratch the scholarly itch, adore wading through. And so we return to medieval literature.

If you remember, the last time we visited this area was to discuss Christine de Pizan’s remarkable The Book of the City of Ladies, a tour de force of proto-feminist argumentation against the deplorable depiction of women in the late 4th-early 15th century (Pizan’s work was published in 1405).  For this essay we jump backwards a couple of hundred years to the early 13th century and look at one of the great courtly/chivalric romances, Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg.

For those (though I assume there are few who don’t know a little something about the subject) who don’t know about courtly love, here’s the briefest of synopses: in medieval courts there arose the fashion/practice among knights/courtiers of “falling in love with” some unattainable woman. This woman might be a princess destined for marriage to another realm for diplomatic reasons or it might be the queen of one’s own realm. That unattainable element was supposed to serve as inspiration for knights’ noble deeds and feats of arms. In return they might be granted “favor” by their chosen lady. This could range from the relatively innocent gift of a scarf or other token of esteem that might be attached to a knight’s armor or saddle and carried into combat. “Favor,” though, got more complicated as time went on – and courtly/sexual/political intrigues began to influence the practice. In some cases such favor might even lead to the admiring courtier being given full access to the lady’s boudoir. As one can guess, this could lead to serious complications – especially if the lady was a princess – or the queen. I’m looking at you, Lancelot.

The story of Tristan, while it has all the elements of courtly romance (including that full access lovin’ thing I was just talking about above), also features those other elements of what we think of as medieval chivalric romance – there’s fighting (Tristan kills a dragon, a giant, and a couple of tyrants bullying weaker fiefdoms); adventure (Tristan is kidnapped by pirates, hides in a cave with his “true love” Isolde, and poses as a minstrel named, laughably, “Tantris” while visiting the sister of an enemy he slew to get his wound from a poisoned sword healed); and, of course, romance romance (Tristan gets himself mixed up with multiple Isoldes and Gottfried spends chunks of the tale expounding on the wonders, joys, and miseries of l’amour).

So. To the story.

Tristan is born of a romance between a knight named Rivalin of Parmenie and Blancheflor of Cornwall whose brother Mark plays an important role in the tale. When his parents elope from the court at Cornwall and return to Parmenie where they marry, Blancheflor is already pregnant with Tristan, so there is some dispute as to his legitimacy. Rivalin is killed in battle against an enemy trying to make Parmenie his fiefdom, one Morgan of Brittany. The shock of learning of Rivalin’s death is too great for Blancheflor; she goes into labor, gives birth to Tristan (whose name means, in French at least, sadness), and dies.  Luckily Tristan is “adopted” by Rivalin’s loyal marshal Rual and his wife Floraete (Floraete, at Rual’s direction, fakes giving birth to Tristan – mainly as a ruse to protect the child from Morgan).

The boy is brought up as the son of the marshal and given an excellent education in all things chivalric. Then, at the age of 14, he is kidnapped by pirates (Norwegians, no less), and ends up, coincidentally, at the court of his uncle, Mark of Cornwall. All Tristan does there is become a court favorite, then, after his real identity is revealed (one learns quickly reading chivalric romance that lying is a highly valued and valuable skill and Tristan has lied to the man who turns out to be his uncle), heir to the Cornwall throne, kill the emissary of the King of Ireland in single combat to end that country’s human tribute demands; go to Ireland to get healed from the poisoned sword wound he gets in that combat (where he meets his fate in the form of Fair Isolde, daughter of Wise Isolde who heals him, but who is no relation to Isolde of the White Hands who appears later in the tale); and arrange the marriage of Fair Isolde to Uncle Mark to create the diplomatic tie so popular with royalty throughout history – marriage and thus kinship.

But things go oh so wrong – or right, depending on your taste for romantic complications, asinine behavior, and the celebration of chivalric honor even to the point of bending the dominant religion to its perceived demands.

Tristan, hero that he is, kills a dragon troubling the Irish kingdom and then cleverly arranges to save Isolde from having to marry a cowardly knight who is the king’s steward who claims to have killed said dragon. He also saves his own bacon from the wrath of both Wise Isolde (the mother) and Fair Isolde (the daughter) for killing the Irish emissary mentioned above (the brother/uncle to the two Isoldes) –  by offering the marriage deal with King Mark – Tristan having gotten himself granted immunity from punishment for having saved the daughter by offering proof that he, not the steward, slew the dragon (when the steward finds the already dead dragon and takes its head, he doesn’t know that Tristan has already cut out the tongue as proof of his victory). The steward is exposed and humbled, the deal is struck for the marriage of Fair Isolde of Ireland to King Mark of Cornwall, and Tristan is given the duty of escorting the soon to be queen to Cornwall to his uncle. Fair Isolde takes with her her cousin and confidant Brangane. Brangane is given a love potion by Wise Isolde that the Irish queen admonishes her niece to have Mark and Fair Isolde drink on their wedding night – it will make the two who drink it love each other “forever.” Wise Isolde also admonishes Brangane to guard the potion with her life. Of course, she forgets. And a foolish young lady in waiting gives the potion, thinking it is wine, to – why Tristan and Fair Isolde, of course. They drink the potion and fall head over heels.

Tristan and Fair Isolde spend the rest of the voyage to Cornwall making the “beast with two backs.” When Tristan delivers the now “ruined” Fair Isolde to his uncle, they think of the first of many ruses to fool that trusting soul into thinking he’s the luckiest man in the world. On the wedding night, Brangane, who is still a virgin, subs in for Isolde of Ireland in the marriage bed. (One has the impression she does this out of guilt for having failed in her mission.) Mark is fooled and the long strange trip that is the doomed love affair of Tristan and Isolde begins.

There are many other ruses – many other ruses. And for years, it seems, Mark, Fair Isolde, and Tristan live what can only be called a willing lie, Mark in love with Isolde, Isolde in love with Tristan, Tristan in love with – Isoldes (more on this later) as Gottfried explains:

And who is to blame for the life so bare of honor that Mark led with Isolde? – for, believe me, it would be very wrong to accuse Isolde of deception! Neither she nor Tristan deceived him. He saw it with his own eyes, and knew well enough, without seeing it, that she bore him no affection, yet he cherished her in spite of it!

So what are we to think? That Tristan and Isolde are blameless? That the fault is on Mark for not seeing the truth and repudiating the pair? That’s certainly an interesting take on the proprieties of of marriage vs. the power of true love. But Gottfried offers us more:

Ah, how many Marks and Isoldes you can see today, if one may broach the topic, who are as blind or blinder in their hearts and eyes! … Who is to blame for this blindness? – In such a case lust has obstructed a man’s vision; appetite is the delusion…Whatever is said about blindness, no blindness blinds so utterly as lust and appetite… Although we avoid quoting it, it is a true word that says: ‘In beauty there lurks danger.’

Poor Mark. His flaw is finding his wife beautiful and desirable – and not seeing that she does not find him so. As Gottfried concludes, “He desired so much to be with her that he overlooked the wrong he suffered at her hands.”

It’s a wrenching moment for anyone who’s ever been in love – and been betrayed.

At one point Mark banishes both Tristan and Isolde and they have a romantic idyll in the “Cave of Lovers.” Mark, with his huntsman, stumbles upon them and spies them through a sort of skylight, but is fooled again by Tristan’s ruse of placing his sword between himself and Isolde as they lie on their bed. As a result of this “revelation,” Mark reconciles with both his wife and his nephew/best friend and brings them back to court.

But there is no escaping the truth. Mark comes in all innocence to Fair Isolde’s garden to speak with her and finds her in bed with Tristan. He goes to gather his courtiers to serve as witnesses to the crime – and to pronounce the death sentence on them – but, unbeknownst to Mark, Tristan has realized that Mark has spied them out and escapes so that when Mark returns with his courtiers, Fair Isolde sleeps alone. As Fair Isolde tells Tristan at their parting:

You and I, Tristan and Isolde, shall forever remain one and undivided…I am yours…you are mine, steadfast until death, but one Tristan and Isolde!

Tristan flees Cornwall and he and Isolde are left to pine for each other as she stays by Mark’s side (it is a political marriage, after all) and Tristan wanders Europe doing great deeds for this ruler and that one, further elevating his “knightly honor” even as he suffers the pangs of his and Fair Isolde’s forbidden, now lost, love. They become the apotheosis of tragic lovers.

Kinda sorta.

Because Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan is incomplete, the ending of the romance is problematic. Yes, Tristan still loves Isolde of Ireland. But, in helping the realm of Arundel free itself from interloping neighbors, Tristan has caught the eye of – and finds himself attracted to, the “Maid of Arundel” – Isolde (natch) of the White Hands. Gottfried’s tale ends with Tristan going through all the emotional and psychological contortions one goes through when “moving on” – Gottfried has a field day describing Tristan’s struggle:

He loved this suffering because he liked to see this Isolde; and he liked to see her because his pining for Fair Isolde assuaged him more than any pleasure. Isolde was his joy and sorrow. Yes, Isolde (of the White Hands), his distraction, both soothed and pained him! The more Isolde broke his heart in Isolde’s name, the more gladly he saw Isolde!

After going through several self-inflicted crises concerning his feelings for this Isolde and that Isolde, at times reaffirming his loyalty to Fair Isolde, at times transferring his affections to Isolde of the White Hands, Tristan seems about to give in and accept the advice of that noted psychologist Stephen Stills, love the one he’s with. As Gottfried explains:

Here lovers can see from this story that one can bear a distant sorrow for an absent love with much greater ease than loving near at hand and missing love within one’s reach. Truly, as I see it, a man can suffer want of dearest love in absence, desiring it from afar, better than wanting what is near and forgoing it….

The incomplete tale ends with Tristan offering himself this rationalization:

…she whom I love and cherish more than my body and soul cares but little for me. I avoid all other women for her sake, yet I must forgo her, too. I cannot ask that of her which would give me joy and a happy life in the world….

The Hatto translation of Tristan that I read offers readers the Tristran of Thomas of Britain as a way of completing the tale. Readers interested in what happens to Tristan, Fair Isolde, Isolde of the White Hands, and King Mark, can consult that work. I choose to end here where Gottfried “ends” – somehow, leaving the lovers immersed in their quandaries, with multiple love triangles looming and nothing really decided, reflects the wonderful/terrible messiness that is courtly love.

So in that sense, Gottfried’s Tristan is more interesting as it is. Gottfried died in 1210 with the romance unfinished. As Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales shows us (Chaucer, too, died without completing his magnum opus), a work need not be complete to have great interest and offer us insights into a culture and time distant from our own.