The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Rivalin, a lord of Parmenie, tired of baiting Duke Morgan, the wicked ruler, signs a year’s truce and sets off for Britain where King Mark of Cornwall is establishing peace and order. Badly wounded while fighting in the defense of Cornwall, Rivalin is pitied and nursed back to health by Mark’s sister Blanchefleur, whom he takes back to Parmenie as his bride. Later, hearing of Rivalin’s death at Duke Morgan’s hand, Blanchefleur goes into labor and dies during the birth of her son. Rual, Rivalin’s faithful steward, and his wife rear the boy out of loyalty to their dead lord and mistress and to thwart Duke Morgan’s vindictiveness. The boy is named Tristan, in keeping with the sad events preceding his birth and a prophecy of grief to come.

Tristan’s education is courtly, both at home and abroad; it includes music, art, literature, languages, falconry, hunting, riding, knightly prowess with sword and spear, and jousting. He uses these accomplishments to great advantage throughout his short life. He is loved deeply by his foster parents, his stepbrothers, and the people of Parmenie.

Kidnapped by Norwegians, Tristan manages to make his way to Cornwall after an eight-day storm at sea. He immediately attaches himself to King Mark’s court as a hunter, later the master of the hunt. When his royal lineage is revealed, he becomes his uncle’s knight and vassal.

Known far and wide as a doughty knight, Tristan returns to avenge his father’s death by defeating and killing Duke Morgan; his lands he gives to Rual and to his sons. Meanwhile, Duke Morolt of Ireland, who exacted tribute from King Mark, demands further payment or a fight to the death in single combat with the Cornish king. Tristan acts as King Mark’s emissary to the Irish court, where his efforts to have Duke Morolt recall his demand for tribute are unsuccessful. Duke Morolt does agree, however, to let Tristan fight in King Mark’s place. They meet and fight in Cornwall. After wounding Tristan in the hip, Duke Morolt suggests that the young knight yield so that his sister Isolde, queen of Ireland, can nurse him back to health. This offer is refused, and the fight wages fiercely again. Tristan finally slices...

(The entire section is 903 words.)

Tristan and Isolde Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Bromwich, Rachel. “The Tristan of the Welsh.” In The Arthur of the Welsh: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Welsh Literature, edited by Rachel Bromwich, A. O. H. Jarman, and Brynley F. Roberts. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1991. Discusses the Celtic sources of the Tristan legend, and argues that they existed mostly in fragments until the fifteenth century.

Ferrante, Joan M. “‘Ez ist ein zunge, dunket mich’: Fiction, Deception and Self-Deception in Gottfried’s Tristan.” In Gottfried von Strassburg and the Medieval Tristan Legend, edited by Adrian Stevens and Roy Wisbey. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1990. Masterful essay discusses how all the characters perpetrate deceits upon others. Argues that Gottfried implies that emulation of the characters would cause one to be destroyed as the characters are.

Jackson, W. T. H. “Gottfried von Strassburg.” In Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, edited by R. S. Loomis. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1959. Asserts Tristan’s sensual love of Isolde is a reflection of the spiritual love they have for each other, and that this spirituality excuses their actions.

Jaeger, C. Stephen. Medieval Humanism in Gottfried von Strassburg’s “Tristan und Isolde.” Heidelberg, Germany: Winter, 1977. Argues that society is at fault for not being able to cope adequately with the love of Tristan and Isolde.

Rougemont, Denis de. Love in the Western World. Translated by Montgomery Belgion. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Rougemont describes courtly love, in particular, the relationship in the Tristan legend. Argues that it is self-defeating and even masks a death wish.