Goodreads: The Romance of Tristan
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.
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.