The adaptation of the Tristan and Iseult story into a long prose romance, The Romance of Tristan is the first to weave the subject entirely into the arc of the Arthurian legend. One of the most popular, european myths widely spread across the world, it tells the story of the star-crossed lovers, Tristan and Iseult. The author who wrote it down meshes both Celtic paganism and Christian traditions with the customs of the Middle Ages.
The story establishes a rich background by linking the fates of the main characters with Joseph of Arimathea, the lines his descendants established as well as with the quest for the Holy Grail. Tristan’s guardian, Governal, after the tragic death of his parents through which his name translates into sadness, takes him to France, where he is raised in the court of King Pharamond. When he is older, he travels to the court of his uncle Mark, King of Cornwall, and defends his country against the Irish warrior Morholt who demands a heavy sacrifice each year. Wounded in the fight, he travels back to Ireland where Iseult the healer and Morholt’s niece nurses him back to health. When the Irish discover he has slain their warrior, Tristan flees.
Tristan later returns, in disguise, to seek Iseult as a bride for his uncle. When they accidentally consume the love potion prepared for Iseult and Mark, they engage in an ill-fated affair that ends with Tristan being banished to the court of Hoel of Brittany. He eventually consents to marry Hoel’s daughter, also named Iseult of the white hands.
From this point, various episodes of adventures are tied into the narrative. Tristan goes on more adventures where he fights against Knights, joins Arthur’s court and the Round Table, engages in bloody battles with the Saracen knight, Palamides, who vies for Iseult’s love, forms a close friendship with Lancelot against whom he unknowingly fights several times and goes on a quest for the Holy Grail at Arthur’s request while he constantly clashes with king Mark and alternately returns to and flees from Cornwall.
A world where words and promises are regarded sacred, where friendships are strong and everlasting and where courtly love takes the spotlight, The Romance of Tristan provides the reader with a fascinating narrative full of intrigue, adventure, honour and melancholy where emotions and ideals reign supreme.
It’s a story built on the dialectics between love-passion and death. Having read Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World, I was able to view the story under a different light and understand the connotations of the mystical language applied. Rougemont makes a pretty valid point in his scholarly work when he analyzes the myth and concludes that what drives the lovers is not the love they nurture for each other, but a narcissistic love they nurture for themselves.
Passion as suffering. Tristan and Iseult are in love with the idea of love and ultimately with death, towards which their behaviour and all their actions are leading them. Countless reunions and separations and obstacles they themselves place between them fire their passion. Until they consummate their desire in the embrace of death that vindicates and purifies everything.