Five scattered fragments of great variety in dialect, and which do not fit together, is all that is left of the Tristan written by an Anglo-Norman scribe called Thomas. They are known as the Cambridge Fragment (discovered by accident in the University Library by Théodore Claude- Henri Hersart, vicomte de La Villemarqué, in 1856, in the shape of one single sheet of parchment eaten away at the bottom, and containing 26 lines on either side); the Sneyd Fragments, after the name of the reverend M. W. Sneyd, from Cheverell's Green in Hertfordshire, who bought them from a notary in Venice and then handed them over to the Bodleian Library in Oxford; the Turin Fragment, lost at the moment, but its contents are preserved in a transcription from the original carried out by Francesco Novati in 1887; the Douce Fragment kept in the Bodleian Library;_it contains the End of the Poem, followed by the Folie Tristan of Oxford.
Beroul tells the story of Tristran in a simple way, and without really paying heed to ideas or fashions circulating in the society of his time; Thomas's main concern is to meet his contemporaries' tastes. He is not only a narrator, but above all an architect and a builder who leaves to others, like Beroul, the task of singing the desperate fight of human beings against an inevitable destiny. In order to adapt a well-known story to the norms of his time, a new approach has to be taken. Therefore, Thomas places his characters in different psychological situations, and then analyses their reactions for the benefit of an audience which is used to the learned explanations of casuists, whether or not in matters of love. The crude and often angular episodes that emerge in the flow of Beroul's narration are eliminated or softened: for example, the king who hands Iseut over to the lecherous lepers, or the rigours of exile in the Forest of Morois, are depicted in the manner of a rural idyl in Ovidian surroundings, if we follow Gottfried's version whose direct source was Thomas's Tristan.
Yet, the theme of Tristan and Isolt does not have much to do with the courtly ideal, and Thomas must have been quite aware of this discordance; he understood that he could not present an orthodox story made up of elements so inconsistent with the current taste, and probably considered that the way of telling the story was worth more than the story itself.
In the beginning was the 'flaw'. Thomas accepted this illegal love outside Christian marriage, even if the love potion does not constitute an extenuating circumstance for the lovers who are confronted with a new jurisdiction:_the courtly jurisdiction whose rather rigidly defined rules concerning moral and social behaviour leave little room to ruthless destiny. In the trio Marc, Tristan and Isolt, Thomas believes that he is holding the threads which determine the movements of the secular puppets on the cathedral stage of orthodox Christian Europe. The real courtly doctrine is that moral progress is achieved by the efforts of the individual himself : Tristan's and Isolt's love being of an absolute character, no possible improvement can be expected. Thomas has understood that he cannot work a complete change in a story too firmly rooted; he is therefore led to analyse the problems of this 'anti-matrimonial' or 'adulterous' situation with the help of the rules dominating courtly everyday life, the events of the stream of consciousness being the fundamentals of the narrative. Thus, Tristan and his wedding night with Ysolt of the White Hands
'Si jo me chul avoc ma sspuse
Ysolt irt tute coreüse...',
a confession which finds its parallel in the interminable monologues of the Sneyd Fragments where Tristan wonders whether he will find in conjugal love the sensations Isolt must experience with Marc; courtly prowess as well, for Thomas points out that it is not 'real love' which makes Tristan marry Ysolt of the White Hands, but rather this uncontrolled longing for Isolt the Fair, longing which will not abide by the laws of the Tractatus de Amore or of the De Arte Honeste Amandi of Andreas Capellanus, chaplain to Marie de Champagne. The readers of André le Chapelain, well-versed in the psychological analyses of a period when the dialectics of confession managed to be an end in themselves, could only be pleased about this kind of argumentation: is it not Tristan, the jealous one here?
Is it therefore surprising that Thomas's sympathy is with the nice Ysolt of the White Hands, latest and innocent victim of this outlaw in matters of love who, together with Isolt the Fair, is so skilled in the vile actions of this world? The final treason by Ysolt of the White Hands is thus prepared and already half forgiven.
However, this wedding night also reveals the hopelessness of a situation in which Tristan is lost: a psychological impasse. The intervention of Kaherdin, brother of Ysolt of the White Hands, is necessary for Tristan to find his way out. Without the incident of the 'indiscreet splash' which affects the thighs of the Rider of the White Hands in a place where Tristan's hand has never been (Turin ms.), Kaherdin would not have received his sister's confession, and could not have reprimanded Tristan. The latter replies by leading Kaherdin into the sculpture gallery where he has so skilfully reconstituted the physical silhouettes of Isolt the Fair, her dog and Brenguainn that they appear alive. On the spot, Kaherdin falls in love with the statue of Brenguainn, and wishes to meet the model, which is the reason for the departure of the two acolytes to Marc's kingdom.
Tristan and Isolt meet again, and resume their love relationship, even if they are heavily criticised by Brenguainn - a valiant mouthpiece of the 'courtly' Thomas - who refuses to grant Kaherdin the favours which motivated his journey:
'Il voleit aveir cumpagnie
A demener sa puterie'
she comments before finally abandoning herself, yielding to the urgent request of Queen Isolt whom Brenguainn will not spare during the dramatic dispute which develops between the two women, later on.
This outburst of violence on the part of the implacable Brenguainn who, it is true, had reason for complaint, is met by Isolt in a feeble way, in turn worried and conciliatory, so different from Beroul's heroine._The final episode then follows.
The knight Estult l'Orgillius Castel Fer has abducted Tristan the Dwarf's ladyfriend ('bele amie'), and keeps her by force in his castle where he does 'quanques li est bel', that is to say, as he pleases. Tristan the Dwarf beseeches Tristan to help, because in everybody's view he is the defender incarnate of the oppressed and the model of all lovers: Tristan l'Amerus 'qui plus ad amé, de trestuz ceus qui unt esté'. Tristan hesitates at first, then yields to Tristan the Dwarf's arguments. He is now no more an exile banished from society. He is the society, its last resort, respected and admired by everybody, except the jealous, in this country of Brittany which dubbed him a knight, and who will unite in lamenting when his death comes about.
However, the lady does not escape her fate. Tristan the Dwarf is slain in the adventure.
Tristan the Lover, wounded by an infected blade, will again have recourse to his only helper : Isolt the Fair. She is in a Distant Realm. He has to persuade Kaherdin to go and fetch her, and not his loyal equerry Governal, for Thomas is pleased to announce that, in this case, he follows the tradition of Breri
'Ky solt lé gestes e lé cuntes
De tuz lé reis, de tuz lé cuntes
Ki orent esté en Bretaigne'.
Breri is identified by some as a certain Bledhericus, who was well-informed about the adventures in war and love of the nobility of Brittany, which he told at the court of Poitiers. Others have seen in him the character of Bledri ap Cadivor, Welsh poet and nobleman, an ally of the Normans and contemporary of Thomas, often designated as Latinarius, id est interpreter.
Unfortunately Ysolt of the White Hands overhears the conversation, and wonders, first, whether Tristan does not want to leave the world and become 'muine ou chanuine' (monk or canon) before hearing the man she loves admit to Kaherdin that it is because of Queen Isolt that she herself remains 'mechine' (maiden). Thomas shies away from the scene that should follow, and prefers to appeal to popular common sense:
'Ire de femme est a duter
Mult s'en deit chaschuns hum garder'
(Frightful is the rage of woman,
may all men beware of it).
Kaherdin is, accordingly, going to London 'mult riche cité' where 'Li hume i sunt de grant engin' (people there are shrewd). He reaches the City after a twenty days' voyage, in a ship laden with precious cargo worthy of the Plantagenets: crockery from Tours, wine from Poitou, birds from Spain, which will all help him to camouflage better his mission. He meets Isolt the Fair, and throws her into confusion about the object of his journey. She, however, is undecided, and rather pitiful before appealing for advice to Brenguainn who urges her to go to Brittany and help Tristan.
Will they, will Isolt arrive in time, within the forty days' adjournment granted by Tristan to Kaherdin, a biblical, if not judicial respite at the end of which Tristan will die, irrespective of the colour of a sail?
The small ship travels without incident via Wissant, Boulogne and Le Treport when suddenly a storm breaks, obliging the crew to change course and causing considerable distress to Isolt whose greatest wish apparently is to end up in the entrails of some fish, being certain that Tristan swallowed by the same cetacean would find her there; thus they would have the same burial place. On the fifth day the tempest abates, Brittany is in sight, the white sail is hoisted, but now there is no wind, and the dinghy has been destroyed in the storm. Isolt is in despair.
All that time, Tristan sighs, groans, and says not a word, resigning himself to the absence of her he loves. Three times he says 'Isolt my love', then expires.
Out at sea, the wind rises. Isolt goes ashore, she hears the bells tolling, the people wailing, she receives the news:
'Tristan, li pruz, li francs, est mort.'
Isolt turns eastward, prays for her love Tristan, stretches out next to him, kisses him and dies...
His skill as a poet who has a feeling for the music of words, enables Thomas to express in this last episode - with the help of sonorous ur, ei, or - pity and affliction which will move his audience since in medieval texts words and music were closely linked, as the troubadour points out:
'cobla ses so es en aissi
co'l moles que aigua non a'
(a couplet without music
is a mill without water)
In any case the audience were highly critical of shortcomings in the versification or deficiencies in the chant, not necessarily Gregorian, whatever has been said about it.
Beroul, in spite or because of his simplicity, remains master in the art of narrative. Thomas keeps at a greater distance from the realities of this world; the desolate scenery, and the windswept rocks of Cornwall accompanying the immense inner solitude of the fugitive Tristan, and the lepers' rags, are hardly compatible with the civilised Thames running at the foot of the ramparts, transporting Kaherdin and his rich cargo.
Yet, the difference between the versions of the two poets is perhaps most obvious in the treatment of the character of Marc. In the Folie Tristan of Oxford which follows Thomas's poem, Tristan
'... surjurne en sun païs
Dolent, mornes, tristes, pensifs';
in the Folie Tristan of Bern, closer to Beroul's text, the King has warned Tristan:
'Se de lui puet avoir saisine
Mout li vaudra po son uorine
Que par lui ne reçoive mort';
here, Marc is granted this tragic, if not moving dimension denied him by Beroul, a sometimes strangely passive role in which he simply doubles other characters: the dwarf, the lepers or even Tristan.
Nothing as dramatic occurs in Thomas's dissertation. There the courtly rules prevent Marc from fully carrying out his vengeance, motivated by jealousy, especially since he is not certain of Isolt's guilt, and is easily duped by Brenguainn with her allusions to Cariado. Marc's psychological inertia weighs heavily on an almost static work. As for Tristan, he has put back on his armour of chivalrous virtues and good manners; he likes a life of contemplation, occupied as he is by his inner life with its pleasures and sufferings on which he feasts. As far as Isolt is concerned, a lady of noble origin, she gives herself up, as an experienced spectator, to the sweetness of melancholy and pity caused by the obstacles imposed on the noble protagonists of the Tristan legend.
Whether out of courtesy or artistry, Thomas assures his listeners that he has, at last, ended his story and takes the liberty to greet all lovers and all those who listen to his verse - whether or not they are satisfied with them. Thomas has said the whole truth as promised, even if the legend is embellished in places in order to please lovers who can find there a measure for their own passion, or comfort against the tricks of love...
The story of Tristan and Isolt could have ended here.