The Romance of Tristan by Béroul

Romance of Tristan book cover

Information

Goodreads: The Romance of Tristan
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1170

Summary (Penguin Classics)

This edition contains perhaps the earliest and most elemental version of the tragic legend of Tristan and Yseult in a distinguished prose translation. Alan S. Fredrick summarizes missing episodes and includes a translation of ‘The Tale of Tristan’s Madness.’

One of the earliest extant versions of the Tristan and Yseut story, Beroul’s French manuscript of The Romance of Tristan dates back to the middle of the twelfth century. It recounts the legend of Tristan, nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, and the king’s Irish wife Yseut, who fall passionately in love after mistakenly drinking a potion. Their illicit romance remains secret for many years, but the relentless suspicion of the king’s barons and the fading effects of the magic draught eventually lead to tragedy for the lovers. While Beroul’s work emphasizes the impulsive and often brutal behaviour of the characters, its sympathetic depiction of two people struggling against their destiny is one of the most powerful versions of this enduringly popular legend. 

Star Divider

Review

Béroul’s The Romance of Tristan is the earliest version we have of the Tristan and Yseult legend, often regarded as one of the world’s great love stories. Béroul’s version, however, entertained me with the wild antics of the characters and the story’s strange insistence that the two lovers were, in fact, worth rooting for in spite of their adultery.

Of course, the point of the story is that the two are forbidden lovers committing adultery in every version, but Béroul’s version goes through some interesting mental gymnastics to make this seem “acceptable.” For instance, the pair fall in love accidentally because of a love potion, so it’s “not really their fault,” and the story often suggests that God is on their side while anyone who opposes them and tries to expose their affair to the king is “evil.” For me, a lot of this raises the question of whether the story is really “romantic.” Do they really love each other if it’s because of a potion? I’d say no, but they seem to have feelings for each other even when the potion eventually wears off. And what does it mean for them to be the “good guys” of the story whom God apparently does not wish to punish?

There’s a lot to ponder in the story, but the text itself doesn’t always offer answers, in part because it’s frequently inconsistent. There are many examples of medieval texts where I would personally argue that “inconsistencies” and things that “don’t make sense” to modern audiences actually made sense to a medieval audience who might have approached things like the structure of a story differently. Here, however…the text really is at fault. A character who is killed off is later alive later in the story! So Béroul might not have gotten all his details tightly knit here.

I think the inconsistencies are entertaining, however, along with the general antics of the characters. There’s a whole scene of nobles falling in mud! Sadly, this text is only a fragment, and some interesting scenes can only be summarized by the editor to fill in the gaps, but I enjoyed what was there.

If you like medieval literature, classics, or just wild stories, this is for you.

Briana
4 stars

8 thoughts on “The Romance of Tristan by Béroul

  1. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    Great review. I didn’t know this was the oldest known version of Tristan and Iseult! Do you think any of the inconsistencies are from a translation issue? Or were these just part of the original text? I can never tell with translations…

    Like

  2. Michael J. Miller says:

    To have a theology nerd moment, the whole God part of this fascinated me. I often spend time wondering (you know, on those nights when you’re trying to get to bed but your mind has other ideas and it just runs for hours…) about the connection between love and God. We so often, across centuries and traditions, say “God is love” and/or “love is God.” So I wonder then, how much of our understanding/rules of love reflect that. I mean, we can’t control God (although we try) nor can we put God in a shape that works for us (although we try that, too). So, if God is love and love is God, is the same true of love? Real, full, divine love, anyway? Do we try and control love in a way that we really can’t? So, with the affair part of the whole Tristan and Yseult story, if it’s really love, if they are following their hearts wherever they lead them…is that what they should do? Is that giving themselves over to love in the way we should give ourselves over to God’s will? Is following true love the same as following God? Because, while fascinating in a theoretical level, that really freaks me out!!! I mean, in the most simplistic response, I’ve had an ex or two who I’d certainly not like to “justify” their actions by saying they were serving love/God in what they did. But is that just me being hung up on past pain? I don’t know!! Anyway, my rambling has gone on enough XD.

    Oh! One more thing – everything I was just rambling about in regard to serving love as we serve God and the two being analogous really would’t fit with classic, mainstream, medieval Christian theology. But that makes the question even more fascinating! Is that what the author was saying, anyway? Is there a theological angle I’m not seeing? Was there something far more complex going on? Hahahaha, I think I may have to read this now…

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      That’s a very interesting question! The narrative largely does posit their love as the highest good, so perhaps that’s part of what’s going on with God’s approval. Because you’re right. If God is love (or even if true love is a good thing), wouldn’t God approve?

      It’s just so frustrating because the narrative seems not to really deal with the inconsistencies this brings up because the reader really does feel bad for the king who is being duped this whole time, and it’s baffling why the people trying to tell him that his wife is having an affair are the bad guys instead of people looking out for him!

      The scholar who translated this mentioned this weirdness in the introduction, but even he seems to not get far beyond, “This is really weird and it’s hard to make sense of the fact God is approving of cheating and deceiving people.” I haven’t read any journal articles about the text or anything, but I’d hope the editor would be familiar with and would have brought up any that had a good explanation!

      I do think there’s a clearer cut position on love vs. duty. Once the love potion “wears off,” the lovers seem to still have feelings for each other (the introduction implied they did not, which I disagree with), but they kind of come to the conclusion that having an affair is wrong and they were being horrible to the king, so Yseult goes back and they stop having an affair but continue to admire each other from afar or whatever. So you could argue that their love is good but what they did about it was not (even though God was ok with it before???).

      This is why I find it tempting to kind of throw up my hands and say this isn’t well-written, even when I normally can make some sort of sense out of medieval texts. I mean, we do have the “issue” that we have any text that survived and think it’s worthy of study simply because it’s old and whatnot, but there were people writing books that don’t make sense and “aren’t very good” in every time period. Maybe this is one of them.

      Also, they fall in love from the potion before Yseult marries the king so…. I guess you could say they went through their duty there since her hand in marriage was promised to the king, and Tristan had arranged it all for the king, but you could also argue they could have avoided the whole cheating scenario from the beginning.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        It’s funny because all the frustrations you raise with the story here make me think, “Okay, yeah, there are plenty of things to read and so maybe you don’t waste your time here? Briana was nice enough to fall on this sword for you so maybe honor her sacrifice and don’t make this mistake?” But THEN I look at all the ambiguous questions about love and God and I think, “You need to read this NOW.” Hahahaha, so I’m trying to honor your warning! We’ll see how it goes.

        For me, from a theological standpoint, that dividing line between love and duty is everything. Because where does our highest duty lie? Do we have a duty to a vow or another that supersedes where love may call us? What does that say about life if we do? And, more unsettling, what does it say about life if we don’t?

        This is all the more complicated in the narrative with the text coming from a period where divorce and second marriages and even, to a fair degree, marrying for love weren’t a regular part of life. So, not that a modern version of this story wouldn’t be complicated in its own way, but this has complications in the form of a more set social order that we wouldn’t see today. While there can still be – and still often is – stigma surrounding divorce in some areas of life, it’s not the anathema (in both senses of the word) it would’ve been then. I wonder, if divorce was an option, if the text would’ve still ended with them admiring each other from afar while honoring their duty? I ask that as though the author gave a coherent narrative here XD. But I’m still curious! Would that have always been his answer? Because if he seems to intent on showing God supporting their love – which, once you bring God in, what God supports, by our traditional theological definitions, is the highest good – then maybe the end is a result of cultural norms? I don’t know.

        But it also comes back to the potion, right?? Because if there are no feelings outside of it, it’s a nonissue. The duty to the marriage vows trumps everything else. But if it IS true love as you take from the text, what does that mean? Does Yseult’s duty to love (and perhaps, to God-in-love) trump her vows then?

        Studying and teaching theology – especially the mystics – for as long as I have means I’ve spent a lot of personal and professional time contemplating this stuff. I always find the closer I think I get to understanding it, the more it slips away. But maybe the truth here can’t be understood from an academic/contemplative place? Maybe the truth can only be felt. Rumi used to tell his students (and I’m loosely paraphrasing here of course) that love (and by extension, God) can’t be learned academically. It can’t be found in books.
        It can only be felt. So, to know love and to know God, means we must abandon all logic and pursuit of anything other than dissolving our “self” in the beloved (or Beloved). Anything else, any other goal, was a waste of our life.

        Which is gorgeous to think about…but I always struggle with how that looks in real life. I like to joke with my seniors and ask them who’d be comfortable telling their parents they weren’t going to college and instead were just going to spend their life being a lover – or maybe go to a school where they can major in “ecstatic love” with a minor in “giving really good hugs.” Everyone laughs because NO ONE would do that! That’s no way to live! But is that really the point??

        Because if it is, than what Yseult and Tristan did was right. More than right, it was the very meaning of existence. It was the point and purpose of human life. But as wonderful as it is to think poetically about that, the idea of actually living that way seems scary (at best) or insane/morally bankrupt (at worst).

        It frustrates me (and I haven’t even read it!) to know the text doesn’t really explore these complications and inconsistencies in any serious or coherent way. Because, I would presume, we are right to feel bad for the king. Who ever wants to have their significant other cheat on them? It’s horrible! But for the sake of argument, provided the love-is-the-highest-law thing is true, then we’d also be right in rooting for Yseult and Tristan’s relationship. There would be SO MUCH to examine there and so many thoughtful, uncomfortable, and complicated issues to explore from the moral to the theological to the personal.

        Okay, now I’m back to letting your experience keep me from reading this. Because I am annoyed at the author not really addressing this! But who knows? I may still end up reading it because, clearly, I love (no pun intended, ugh, sorry) thinking about this stuff.

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        • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

          Oh, don’t let me dissuade you! I actually really enjoyed reading it, even if parts don’t make sense and other parts are literally missing! Some of it is just too weird. Like, the king finds the two lovers asleep next to each other in the woods but decides he must be mistaken about their infidelity because…they’re not naked! Yep, it’s not possible they ARE lovers and just not naked together at this particular moment in time. They must totally be not having an affair based on this one instance! (Even though their lips are touching! But they’re not naked, so it’s all fine!) So strange.

          Such an interesting question about divorce! You’re right that this story just couldn’t exist in this form if that were an option. I’m imagining Yseult somewhat amiably leaving the king because she’s just not in love with him and then…the end. (Ok, maybe the king would still be upset, but there still wouldn’t be much story.)

          It’s also interesting because her mother made the potion for her and the king so they WOULD be in love and have a happy marriage, but she and Tristan drank it by mistake and then everyone is unhappy! Is there a lesson about using potions to inspire love or something? Would she and Tristan have fallen in love anyway, since they seem to have feelings even after it “wears off?”

          Or maybe you are right and love IS some kind of greatest good, but the problem is the underhandedness. Perhaps if they had just run off to another country where no one knew them, instead of sticking around and deceiving and embarrassing the king, things would have blown over and everyone would have been mostly happy. So much to think about!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Michael J. Miller says:

            I think the underhandedness has to be part of it. Because there is a sometimes fine but always very, very important distinction between love and desire/possession/lust/ego/jealousy/etc. And perhaps, when love is wrapped in and expressed through those more “sinful” avenues, it is weighed down by them. Perhaps love, true love – the love we could equate with God, is a love free of all that. But this of course begs the question, what does love without possession look like?

            I want to comment on your point about the potion because I think you’re right. I think there’s something there. But I’m just not sure what it is right now. So I’ll leave it and then one day you’ll randomly get a comment from me saying, “Oh my gosh! The potion! Could it be this??”

            On a far. far less academic note than the rest of this conversation, the whole king-happens-upon-the-clothed-lovers scene made me think of my summers a decade ago running a Pre-K-to-5th grade summer camp. My friend and I were running it one summer, largely by ourselves, so we were working 60+ hour weeks. One morning, towards the end of the summer, we were exhausted. We came in. We got everything set up. And, since no kids were there yet, we left the lights off in the back half of the cafeteria and laid down in the pile of bean bags and blankets in the nap area to lightly doze with the radio on. Well a mom came in to drop off her daughter, sees us laying together in the dark as Phil Collins’ “A Groovy Kind of Love” is playing, and says, “Hey, you two have been working hard. Don’t let us interrupt you. My daughter had breakfast already so she’s just going to draw while you two finish up whatever you have going on. More power to you.” We jumped up and tried to explain we were just napping and she said, “Hey, you’re young and attractive and you’re here ALL THE TIME and they probably aren’t paying you much. You do you. Enjoy. I support it.” Hahahaha, it was sooooooo funny. So she was like the opposite of the king! She thought we were enjoying some extracurricular activities and was cool with it. It could’ve been one of the most uncomfortable, awkward moments of our careers but it ended up being one of the funniest. And I will never hear “A Groovy Kind of Love” without thinking of that morning!

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