1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Tristan

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TRISTAN, or Tristram, one of the most famous heroes of medieval romance. In the earlier versions of his story he is the son of Rivalin, a prince of North West Britain, and Blancheflor, sister to King Mark of Cornwall. Rivalin is killed in battle, and Blancheflor, after giving birth to a son, dies of grief. The boy is brought up as his own by Roâld, or Rual, seneschal of the kingdom, who has him carefully trained in all chivalric and courtly arts. With the possible exception of Horn, Tristan is by far the most accomplished hero in the whole range of knightly romance; a finished musician, linguist and chess-player, no one can rival him in more knightly arts, in horsemanship or fencing. He has, besides, the whole science of “venérie” at his finger-tips; in fact Tristan is the “Admirable Crichton” of medieval romance, there is nothing he cannot do, and that superlatively well—it must be regretfully admitted that he is also a most accomplished liar! Attracted by his gifts, pirates from the North Sea kidnap the boy, but terrified by the storms which subsequently beset them, put him ashore on the coast of Cornwall, whence he finds his way to the court of his uncle King Mark. Here we have a first proof of his talent for romancing; for alike to two pilgrims who show him the road and to the huntsmen of Mark’s court (whom he instructs in the rightful method of cutting up and disposing the quarry), Tristan invents different, and most detailed, fictions of his land and parentage. He becomes a great favourite at court, and when Roâld, who has sought his young lord far and wide, at last reaches Tintagel, Mark welcomes the revelation of Tristan’s identity with joy. Cornwall is at this time in subjection to the king of Ireland, Gormond, and every third year must pay tribute; the Irish champion, Morôlt, brother to the queen, arrives to claim his toll of thirty youths and as many maidens. The Cornish knights (who in Arthurian romance are always represented as hopeless cowards), dare not contest his claim but Tristan challenges him to single combat, slays him and frees Cornwall from tribute. Unfortunately he himself has been wounded in the fight, and that by a poisoned weapon; and none but the queen of Ireland, Isôlt, or Iseult, possessed the secret of healing. Tristan causes himself to be placed in a boat with his harp, and committed to the waves, which carry him to the shores of Ireland. There he gives himself out for a minstrel, Tantris, and as such is tended and healed by Queen Iseult and her daughter of the same name. When recovered he makes a plausible excuse for leaving Ireland (pretending he has left a wife in his native land) and returns to Cornwall. His uncle receives him with joy, but the barons of the court are bitterly jealous and plot his destruction. They persuade Mark that he should marry, and Tristan, who has sung the praises of the princess Iseult, is despatched to Ireland to demand her hand, a most dangerous errand, as Gormond, incensed at the death of Morôlt, has sworn to slay any Cornish knight who sets foot in Ireland. Tristan undertakes the mission, though he stipulates that he shall be accompanied by twenty of the barons, greatly to their disgust. His good fortune, however, does not forsake him; he lands in Ireland just as a fierce dragon is devastating the country, and the king has promised the hand of the princess to the slayer of the monster. Tristan achieves this feat, but, overcome by the venom exhaled from the dragon’s tongue, which he has cut out, falls in a swoon. The seneschal of the court, a coward who has been watching for such an opportunity, cuts off the dragon’s head, and, presenting it to the king, claims the reward, much to the dismay of Iseult and her mother. Suspecting that the seneschal is not really the slayer of the dragon, mother and daughter go secretly to the scene of the combat, find Tristan, whom they recognize as the minstrel, Tantris, and bring him back to the palace. They tend him in secret, but one day, through the medium of a splinter from his sword, which had remained fixed in Morôlt’s skull, and been preserved by the queen, the identity of Tantris and Tristan is made clear. The princess would slay him, but is withheld by her mother, who sees they have need of Tristan’s aid to unmask the seneschal. This is done in the presence of the court; Tristan is pardoned, formally declares his errand, and receives the hand of Iseult for his uncle King Mark.

Tristan and Iseult set sail for Cornwall, Iseult accompanied by her waiting-woman, Brangaene (who, in some versions, is also a kinswoman), to whose care the queen, skilled in magic arts, confides a love-potion. This is intended to be drunk by king and queen on their bridal night and will ensure their undying love for each other. Unhappily, on the voyage, by some mistake (accounted for in different ways), Tristan and Iseult drink the love drink, and are forthwith seized with a fatal passion each for the other. From this moment begins a long-drawn-out series of tricks and subterfuges, undertaken with the view of deceiving Mark, whose suspicions, excited by sundry of his courtiers, from time to time get beyond his control, and are as often laid to rest by some clever ruse on the part of his nephew, or his wife, ably seconded by Brangaene. In the poems, Mark is, as a rule, represented in a favourable light, a gentle, kindly man, deeply attached to both Tristan and Iseult, and only too ready to allow his suspicions to be dispelled by any plausible explanation they may choose to offer. At the same time the fact that the lovers are the helpless victims of the fatal force of a magic spell is insisted upon, in order that their career of falsehood and deception may not deprive them of sympathy.

One episode, in especial, has been most charmingly treated by the poets. Mark, in one of his fits of jealousy, banishes Tristan and Iseult from the court; the two fly to the woods, where they lead an idyllic life, blissfully happy in each other’s company. Mark, hunting in the forest, comes upon them sleeping in a cave, and as Tristan, who knows that the king is in the neighbourhood, has placed his sword between them, is convinced of their innocence. Through a cleft in the rock a ray of light falls upon Iseult’s face, Mark stops up the crevice with his glove (or with grass and flowers), apd goes his way, determined to recall his wife and nephew. He does so, and the same drama of plot and counter-plot is resumed. Eventually Mark surprises the two under circumstances which leave no possible room for doubt as to their mutual relation; Tristan flies for his life and takes refuge with Hoel, duke of Britanny. After some time, hearing nothing of Queen Iseult, and believing himself forgotten, he weds the duke’s daughter, Iseult of the white hand, but weds her only in name, remaining otherwise faithful to Iseult of Ireland. Later on he returns to Cornwall in disguise, and has more than one interview with his mistress. Ultimately, while assisting his brother-in-law in an intrigue with the wife of a neighbouring knight, Tristan is wounded by a poisoned arrow; unable to find healing, and being near to death, he sends a messenger to bring Queen Iseult to his aid; if successful the ship which brings her is to have a white sail, if she refuses to come, a black. Iseult of the white hand overhears this, and when the ship returns, bringing Iseult to her lover’s aid, either through jealousy or by pure inadvertence (both versions are given), she tells Tristan that the sail is black, whereon, despairing of seeing his love again, the hero turns his face to the wall and dies. Iseult of Ireland lands to find the city in mourning for its lord; hastening to the bier, she lays herself down beside Tristan, and with one last embrace expires. (One dramatic version represents her as finding the wife seated by the bier, and ordering her away, “Why sit ye there, ye who have slain him? Arise, and begone!”) The bodies are sent to Cornwall, and Mark, learning the truth, has a fair chapel erected and lays them in tombs, one at each side of the building, when a sapling springs from the heart of Tristan, and reaching its boughs across the chapel, makes its way into the grave of Iseult. However often the tree may be cut down it never fails to grow again. (In some versions it is respectively a vine and a rose which grow from either tomb and interlace midway.)

We need have little wonder that this beautiful love-story was extremely popular throughout the middle ages. Medieval literature abounds in references to Tristan and Iseult, and their adventures were translated into many tongues and are found depicted in carvings and tapestries. Probably the story was first told in the form of short lais, each recounting some special episode, such as the lai known as the chêvrefeuille; how old these may be it is impossible to say. Professor Zimmer, in his examination of the story, sees reason to believe that the main incidents may repose on a genuine historic, tradition, dating back to the 9th or 10th century, the period of Viking rule in Ireland. The name of Iseult’s father, Gormond, is distinctly Scandinavian; she, herself, is always noted for her golden hair, and it is quite a misrendering of the tradition to speak of her as a dark-haired Irish princess. In the German tradition she is die lichte, Iseult of Britanny die schwarze Isôlt; it is this latter who is the Celtic princess. The name Tristan is now generally admitted to be the equivalent of the Pictish Drostan, and on the whole, the story is now very generally allowed to be of insular, probably of British, origin.

Some time in the 12th century the story was wrought into consecutive poems. The latest theory, championed with great skill by M. Bedier, is that there was one poem, and one only, at the root of the various versions preserved to us, and that that poem, composed in England, probably by an Anglo-Norman was a work of such force and genius that it determined for all time the form of the Tristan story. The obvious objection to this view is that a work of such importance, composed at so comparatively late a date, is scarcely likely to have perished so completely as to leave no trace; if there were one poet held as an authority, the name of that poet would surely have been mentioned. Moreover the evidence of the author of the principal Tristan poem preserved to us points in another direction. This poet was an Anglo-Norman named Thomas; and, although little over 3000 lines of his poem have been preserved, we have three translations; a German, by Gottfried von Strassburg; a Scandinavian, by a certain Brother Robert; and an English, by Thomas, sometimes identified with Thomas of Ercildoune, though this is doubtful. With the help of the extant fragments and these translations we can form a very good idea of the character and content of Thomas’s work, a task now rendered far more easy by M. Bédier’s skilful reconstruction (cf. vol. i. of his edition of Thomas). It was certainly a work of great merit and charm. As authority Thomas cites a certain Bréri, who has now been identified with the Bleheris quoted as authority for the Grail and Gawain stories, and the Bledhericus referred to by Giraldus Cambrensis as famosus ille fabulator. This is what Thomas says:—

Seignurs, cest cunte est mult divers,
E pur ço l’uni par mes vers
E di en tant cum est mester
E le surplus voil relesser.
Ne vol pas trop en uni dire!
Ici diverse la matyre.

Entre ceus qui solent cunter
E del cunte Tristran parler,
Il en cuntent diversement:
Of en ai de plusur gent.
Asez sai que chescun en dit
E co qu'il unt mis en escrit,
Mes sulun ço que j’ai oï
Nel dient pas sulun Bréri
Ky solt les gestes e les cuntes
De tuz les reis, de tuz les cuntes,
Ki orent este en Bretaingne.”
(Thomas, i, 377).

These are not the words of a man who is following a complete and authoritative poem; judging from the context of the other references to Bleheris he was rather a collector and versifier of short episodic tales, and it seems far more natural to understand Thomas as having wrought into one complete and consecutive form the various poems with which the name of Bréri was associated, than to hold that that, or a similar, work had already been achieved by another.

Thomas’s work, fortunately, fell into the hands of a true poet in the person of Gottfried von Strassburg, whose Tristan und Isolde is, from a literary point of view, the gem of medieval German literature. Gottfried is a far greater master of style than Wolfram von Eschenbach, and his treatment of some of the episodes, notably the sojourn in the woods, is most exquisite. He did not live to complete his poem, but happily he carried it up to the point where the original fragments begin, so that we can judge very fairly what must have been the effect of the whole, the style of the two poets being very similar. Inspiring as the Tristan story is, it seems improbable that it should have been handled, and that within a comparatively short period, by three writers of genius, and that of these three the first, and greatest, should have utterly disappeared! The translators of Thomas do not fail to quote him as their source, why then has no one quoted the original poet?

Besides the version of Thomas, we have a fragment by a certain Beroul, also an Anglo-Norman, and a German poem by Eilhart von Oberge, both of which derive from a common source. There also exists in two manuscripts a short poem, La Folie Tristan, relating how Tristan, disguised as a fool, visits the court of King Mark. This poem is valuable, as, presuming upon the sufficiency of his disguise, Tristan audaciously gives a resume of his feats and of his relations with Iseult, in this agreeing with the version of Thomas. The "Gerbert" continuation of the Perceval contains the working over of one of two short Tristan poems, called by him the Luite Tristran; the latter part, probably a distinct poem, shows Tristan, in the disguise of a minstrel, visiting the court of Mark. Here the tradition is more in accordance with Beroul.

Besides the poems, we possess the prose Tristan, an enormous compilation, akin to the prose Lancelot, where the original story, though still to be traced, is obscured by a mass of later Arthurian adventures. The interest here centres in the rivalry between Tristan and Lancelot, alike as knights and lovers, and in the later redaction, ascribed to Helie de Borron, the story is spun out to an interminable length.

Certain points of difference between the poetical and the prose versions should be noted. Tristan is here the son of Meliadus, king of Loonois; his father does not die, but is decoyed away by an enchantress, and the mother, searching for her husband, gives birth to her child in the forest and dies. Meliadus marries again, and the second wife, jealous of Tristan, tries to kill him. Mark has another nephew, Andret, who is Tristan’s enemy throughout the romance. Mark himself is a cowardly, treacherous and vindictive character. Some of the early printed editions follow the original version of Tristan’s death, now found in one manuscript only (B.N. 103), the majority represent him as having been stabbed in the back by Mark in the presence of the queen, as we find in Malory, who drew the larger portion of his compilation from the prose Tristan. It should be noted that Tristan is never more than superficially connected with Arthur, an occasional visitor at his court; though in its later form ranked among the Arthurian romances, the Tristan is really an independent story, and does not form a part of the ordinary cyclic redaction. The Italian prose text, La Travola ritonda differs from the French in adhering to the original version, and is classed by N. Bedier among the derivatives from Thomas. Like the story of Perceval that of Tristan has been made familiar to the present generation by Richard Wagner’s noble music drama, Tristan und Isolde, founded upon the poem of Gottfried von Strassburg; though, being a drama of feeling rather than of action, the story is reduced to its simple elements; the drinking of the love-potion, the passion of the lovers, their discovery by Mark and finally their death.

Bibliography.—Thomas, Roman de Tristan, ed. J. Bedier (2 vols., Societé des anciens textes français, 1902, 1905); Beroul, Roman de Tristan (ed. E. Muret. same series, 1903); E. Kolbing, Die nordische und die englische Version der Tristansaga (1877, 1883), pt.i., Tristrams Saga, pt. ii., Sir Tristrem. "La Folie Tristan" was published by F. Michel in his Tristan (1835), a collection of all the extant fragments of Tristan poems; "Tristan Menestrel" from the Perceval, ed. J. L. Weston and J. Bedier (Romania, vol. xxxv., Oct. 1906). Gottfried’s Tristan und Isolde has been several times published; the best editions are those of Bechstein (1890) and Golther (1889); modern German versions by Kurz, Simrock and Hertz; English prose rendering, J. L. Weston, 2 vols. {Arthurian Romances, No. ii.). Cf. also Piquet, L'Originalite de Gottfried de Strassburg (1905). Eilhart von Oberge, Tristan, ed. Lichtenstein (1877); La Tavola ritonda, ed. Polidori, (3 vols., 1864-1865). There is no modern edition of the prose romance, but a detailed analysis of the contents, compiled from the numerous manuscripts in the Paris Library, was published by E. Loseth in Le Roman en prose de Tristan (1890). The general reader will find Gaston Paris’s study of the legend in Poemes et legendes du moyen âge most interesting; also Joseph Bédier’s popular retelling of the tale Tristan et Iseult. For Wagner’s version cf. J. L. Weston, Legends of the Wagner Drama. For an exhaustive study of the Tristan legend and literature, see the recent work by Professor Golther; also an examination of the Welsh fragments by Ivor John in the Grimm Library.  (J. L. W.)