Tristan & Isolt from Bayreuth to Monsegur

Tristan & Isolt from Bayreuth to Monsegur Content : The Tristan Legend
The story of Tristan, attempted reconstruction
Legend and history
Beroulís Tristran
Thomas's Tristan
Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan
The Ur Tristan
Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde
Isolde's Song Contest (Mild und Leise / Liebestod / Tristan & Isolt / Richard Wagner)

Beroulís Tristran


          Beroul's language is related to the dialects of the border of Picardy and Upper Normandy (the Bresles parlance?). He chose to put the story of Tristran onto parchment, because - this is at least what he claims:_'Berox l'a mex en sen memoire' - he remembers it better than the practising contemporary narrators. The beginning and the end of his work are lost. The surviving lines deal with the adventures of Tristan and Iseut striving to live their love without the knowledge of Marc who surprises, punishes, and then forgives the lovers.

          'It would appear to be the work of a jongleur who did not care for courtly ways, of great simplicity, lacking descriptions, and depicting a fatal passion, and violent vindictive sensual characters without scruples' - such is the verdict of a fashionable critic who ignores the very qualities which make this work a masterpiece in the field of the externalisation of emotional analysis.

          Beroul reveals himself to be an adaptor like all the secular scribes of the remaining versions of the story of Tristan, the poet concedes it in his own way by refusing to let the hero kill the lepers who have seized Iseut; he willingly admits that he is departing from an earlier, and accepted tradition, and colours his story in a way which is more in harmony with his own idea of Tristan's character: 'preux et cortois' (noble and courtly), defender of the poor - in spite of a few harsh words addressed to the rabble.

          Beroul is a narrator rather than an inventor, who gives his story an aura of sympathy, the sympathy which he extends to his characters, without particular concern for the solidity of the construction which defies architectural laws.

          He cares little for the hierarchy or the progression of incidents or episodes or the linking up of events, artifices which characterise the author of the Chanson de Roland.

          Apparently Beroul does not put forward any preconceived idea to dominate the narrative. He accepts the story as it comes along, and seems to take pleasure unfolding, if not discovering it.

          His interest is held by human reactions as they arise on the spot: the running away of Husdent, the visit to the hermit, the letter delivered to Marc, Iseut handed over to the King, etc. We are inclined to accept the poet's personal participation in these scenes because of his ability to isolate, in the simplest 'oral' style, the emotions which generate the atmosphere in each sequence; for example, Iseut being led to the stake or Tristan's escape. No more an architect than a painter working on large frescoes, Beroul excels at drawing miniatures: the howling of the wind which sweeps under Tristan's clothes, threatening to break his body and limbs against the rock before depositing him safely on the soft sand of the beach; or the humourous episode in which Tristan, dressed up as a leper, misdirects those he hates into the worst part of the bog, his enemies who in their most beautiful attire, on their way to the Royal Tournament, ask him, of all people, the way.

          He does not prepare his audience in any way; he plunges them directly into the heart of the scene. The scene comes alive, then he picks up again the thread of a perhaps deliberately dull narrative where the outside world plays the most important part. If it is a matter of translating emotions or violent actions, the face changes colour, the limbs tremble, the body loses its blood; if, on the contrary, it is necessary to bring the action to a halt, the poet chooses a revealing gesture which he will fix for a moment like a static picture: the King on the tree spying on Tristan and Iseut, Tristan leaning on his bow, the hermit bent over his staff, Iseut at the hermit's feet - so many figurines recalling the illuminated Chansonniers of the Middle Ages.

          These small pictures which come to life by mere juxtaposition, like the images in the stained glass of cathedrals, translate the real or the traditional better than words.

          The unfolding of the action is made real by marking out with material objects the insignificant hours of everyday life - the notch in the blade of Tristan's sword, the dragon's tongue, the chips of wood, the flour, the sunbeam on Iseut's face, the rings on the fingers - all details which meet the expectations of an audience keen on concrete testimony. For example, Iseut in exile in the woods, far from the Court, suffers from the lack of the amenities of home life: milk, salt, hot baths, having only love and cold water.

          As for King Marc who set out furious and returns gentle, the naked blade between the lovers annuls the earlier evidence of the drops of blood on the flour. Also the traditional gestures he makes as a consequence, open the way for the lovers to return to the Court. He exchanges his ring with that of the sleeping Queen, puts his sword in the place of Tristan's, hangs his glove on a branch 'in order to protect the Queen from the sunshine', so Beroul says who, in this instance, ignores the allusion to the laws of chivalry, such as it probably occurred in an earlier version he used, since ring, glove and sword are the symbols of feudal investiture.

          Iseut, handed over to the lepers by her royal husband,now finds the renewed signs of her vassalage.

          Beroul's Tristran seems to have been assembled from a group of independent lais (poems); this might also lead to the conclusion that we are concerned with not one, but several authors. Beroul up to line 2764, a more courtly version taking over after that. The style changes, Iseut bids farewell to Tristan twice, the language becomes affected up to line 3217 which takes us back to the jongleresque style. Are these variations due to a later writer who adapted the story to contemporary tastes, or are we concerned with the interpolation of feats destined to please the readers who were keen on romances à la Wace? Even if strictly logical contradictions and improbabilities can be found in Beroul's story (the woodcutter dies twice, which does not worry many people), the aura of mystery surrounding the story is still not dispelled. For example, in the very heart of the plot, what is the exact function of the love potion? Does it free the lovers from all responsibility?

          Beroul seems to accept this hypothesis when the hermit Ogrin reprimands Iseut who, in tears, but without any compunction refuses to bow to the truths stated by the man of the Gospel: one cannot resist the love potion, she says, nor oppose destiny - an attitude compatible with that of the lovers who, repentant this time, are ready to leave the Forest of Morois, their three years' love-punishment at last purged, for'L'endemain de la saint Jehan aconpli furent li troi an Que cil vin fu determinez.' Is it surprising or not to see the name of a Saint quoted who - in spite of the place he occupied near the 'pere esperital' - does not appear on the official list of the chosen few in Beroul's Tristran: André, Estiene le Martïr, Evrol, Martin, Richier, Tremor, Ylaire, Lubin, Sanson, not forgetting... Thomas? All of them are Saints under the sway of Rome, guaranteeing - ever since the beginning of the fifth century when the regional practice of invoking them started - what the law of Rome, 'la Roma nobilis, la Roma, caput mundi christiani' ('noble Rome, Rome, head of the Christian world') has to say about the canons of obedience.

          As for Tristan's mental restrictions ('oublié ai chevalerie, a seure cort et baronie'), they will be of shorter duration than the ingratitude he will display a little later towards Marc.

          Why is the effect of the philtre so totally ignored at other times? Would it not constitute an adequate defence for the lovers who could have revealed its impact when they fall victims to the flour stratagem, and are sentenced to the stake? Instead, they protest their innocence in spite of overwhelming evidence against them. Later, after having given up their exile in the forest, and having returned to an apparently normal life, they yield again to their attraction for each other, without any more excuses or explanations, whilst the love potion - three years are up - has ceased to be effective. Do they really love one another now?

          Beroul sides with the lovers. He shares their ferocious hatred of the lozengier (the traitors, the envious) who abound in the lyrical and satirical pieces of the Occitan Songbooks; in this judgment he agrees with the common people, and what is more surprising, with the hermit who writes the famous letter, even if the latter redeems it, as befits, with the exorcising formula:_'Vale!'.

          Who will first cast a stone at this man of the Church, if one considers that fifty years after the death of Thomas à Becket, son of a Londoner and a Syrian mother, the members of the University of Paris founded by the confessor of Saint Louis (King Louis IX of France) tore each other to pieces over the question whether the archbishop's soul was in Heaven or Hell - such was the doubt concerning the orthodoxy of Thomas à Becket's piety.

          Although he seems to be satisfied with ethics based on tolerance, on the acceptance of the inevitable and a refusal to judge the Creation (others will take sides more openly), Beroul must have been aware of the moral issue at the heart of the Tristran story. In a society, be it immoral, for which the search of pleasure is sublimated into a pursuit marked out with obstacles that are instrumental to the ennoblement of the soul required from the newly-dubbed knight in matters of redemption, the Poet entertains, perhaps unknowingly, a layman's pure spirituality as compared with the permanent hypostatisation of the primitive Tale by the Zealots who will not fail to have - scribe's courtesy - the last word: 'Dex! confession...'.

          Beroul preserves much of the brutality and violence which characterise the earlier tradition: thus the theme of hatred, a driving force in Iseut's character. Not hatred of King Marc, but of the Dwarf and of the three slanderers who have denounced her and Tristan. The desire for revenge is stronger than the tender thoughts of love, and this is so from the moment she learns that Tristan is safe after his escape from the path that was leading him straight to the stake.

          As for King Marc's behaviour, he is wavering between utmost cruelty on discovering the lovers' guilt and his natural inclination to tolerance which makes him into a kind of arbiter, not unlike Charlemagne surrounded by his barons in the Chanson de Roland. Marc is by nature inclined to kindliness, even if the jealous keep his suspicions constantly awake, because his judgment of others is imbued with uncertainties, and because he does not understand this fatal series of events which determines the actions of two beings whom he had trusted.

          As far as Tristan is concerned, he escapes common measure. A hardened warrior, cruel and sly, he springs fully armed from pre-courtly epic legend. He handles bow, spear and sword with ruthless dexterity, thus filling the barons of Cornwall with the most salutary fright; once captured by Marc, and knowing that he is invincible, he offers to be tried by combat, which will prove his innocence. He lies in cold blood. Drunk with the love potion, the conqueror of Morhot and the Dragon betrays his King, his men and his God. There is no question for Tristan of the scruples that restrained him when faced with the miserable lepers, and forgotten are his promises to Marc on the occasion of Iseut's return: moral values, bonds of kinship, social relationships, nothing exists outside the passion of love.

          If Tristan is an unusual character, Iseut is so even more. She goes to extremes in her hatred as well as in her love: no sense of pity for her enemies, no trace of civilised emotional refinement; not the slightest sign of noble, chivalrous behaviour. For example, she will not shrink from physically eliminating her confidante Brangain. Reading the Folie Tristan of Bern it is clear that the bath-scene in Beroul's Tristran is more violent by far than its counterpart in Homer's Odyssey;_but can one expect a young Irish princess, promised the ordeal of the Redhot Iron, to abide by the mundane manners of a Debutante well-versed in the refinements of the courts of orthodox England ?

          In addition to the violence and hatred underlying Iseut's character, there is the volatile temper of that beautiful lady: la Dona è mobile...

          It is not that Beroul does not bestow his entire sympathy on the heroine: he becomes her accomplice; he does not hide the fact that she moves him. Thus when she decides to return to Marc ('Seignors oiez de la roïne'), or in the scene preceding the equivocal oath delivered in the presence of all the barons, when she swears that except for Marc and for the leper who enabled her to cross the ford, 'qu'entre mes cuises n'entra home' (No man has entered between my thighs). At a time when the ladies rode side-saddle in order to prevent any indiscreet splashes, Beroul sets up one of the most erotic scenes of western literature :

'Yseut la bele chevaucha
Janbe deça, janbe dela...'

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