Tristan and Isolde Legend Essay - Critical Essays

Tristan and Isolde Legend


Tristan and Isolde Legend

Legend with possible Celtic origins, dating from the twelfth century or earlier.

The legend of Tristan and Isolde, a tragic tale of doomed romantic love, was one of the most popular romances of the Medieval era. It is extant in three twelfth-century versions: a fragment by Béroul, in the Norman dialect, dating from circa 1190, a French fragment by Thomas written circa 1170, and Eilhart von Oberge's German translation, also from circa 1170. These writings, and the legend itself, likely evolved from Celtic legends. Eventually, the tale was translated into several languages, and was incorporated into Arthurian legends, such as Thomas Malory's Morte D’Arthur (1485). Within the different versions of the Tristan and Isolde story, many variations in content and especially the poetic treatment of the lovers are found, yet the relationship between the two characters is unchanging. Tristan and Isolde are brought together travelling by ship to Cornwall. A love potion intended to be given to Isolde and her betrothed, King Mark of Cornwall, on their wedding night is mistakenly imbibed by Isolde and Tristan, binding them forever in love. Their passion for each other, despite Isolde's marriage to the King, is the center of each version of the story.

Much of the critical debate concerning Tristan and Isolde centers on the sources, origin, and development of the legend, as well as the relationship between the extant versions of the legend. Joseph Bedier acknowledges that while the legend sprung from Celtic thought, the origin of the extant versions of the legend is a single, French poem from the early twelfth century, composed by one author. Gertrude Schoepperle, on the other hand, rejects the notion that a single French source inspired each of the extant versions; she does suggest, however, that a French source—the estoire—accounts for the versions by Eilhart and was perhaps Thomas's source as well. Schoepperle also examines the courtly elements of the legend and concludes that since a portion of the poem embraces unlawful love, it may be dated from the second half of the twelfth century, when the cult of such immoral love was in vogue. Like Bedier, William Henry Schofield highlights the influence of Celtic material on the legend. Schofield then compares Thomas's version of the poem with the fragment by Béroul and the German translation by Eilhart, observing that Thomas's poem consists of simple and “flowing” octosyllabic couplets, typical of French romances. In tracing the development of the legend in Scandinavia, Henry Goddard Leach also comments on the characteristics of Thomas's version, which was translated into Norwegian prose by a Brother Robert in 1226. Leach finds that the psychological motivations in the Thomas poem are more refined than in the Norwegian translation, as are the “brutal” elements of the story, and that the tale is characterized by the profound passion of the lovers. In his analysis of the transmission of the legend, Roger Sherman Loomis comments on the influence of the Irish legend of Diarmaid and Grainne on the Tristan romance, and traces the development of the legend from its Celtic origins, through its Welsh versions, and later to the French treatments of the legend. Loomis focuses particularly on the role of the Welshman, Bleheris, (who is referred to in some versions of the legend, including Thomas's) in the transmission of the legend. Summarizing the views of a number of critics, James Douglas Bruce states that there is “substantial agreement among authorities on the subject” that the extant versions of the Tristan legend have their source in a “lost French romance” of a much earlier date than the extant versions. Bruce goes on to survey those extant versions and to review the plot of the legend. Additionally, Bruce stresses that the Celtic Aithed, or elopement story, of Diarmaid and Grainne (or a similar Aithed) served as the original inspiration for the Tristan legend. Also regarding the issue of the source poem from which the extant versions drew, Frederick Whitehead differentiates between the poems of Eilhart and Béroul on one hand and Thomas on the other, maintaining that the Eilhart and Béroul versions drew from a single source Whitehead refers to as the “archetype.” Whitehead dates the archetype from 1150 or 1160 and discusses some of the qualities of the extant versions, noting that Eilhart's text is simple and lacks psychological motivation, while Béroul's is characterized by epic features.

Other critics examine specific episodes within the legend and compare how the episodes are treated in the extant versions of the legend. A. G. van Hamel studies the elements of the dragonslaying episode in the Tristan legend in which an imposter claims to have killed the dragon slain by Tristan, and in which Tristan, as the true dragon slayer, offers a suit for Isolde on behalf of King Mark of Cornwall. Van Hamel compares similar Celtic and Breton folk tales to the Tristan legend, noting that in the Tristan legend, some details were modified in order to highlight the “chivalresque” quality of the romance. Helaine Newstead traces the literary history of the episode in which the lovers meet secretly beneath a tree only to discover King Mark hidden in the branches above them. Through a series of deceptions, Tristan and Isolde escape the king's trap. Newstead finds that while the narrative framework of the story is constant in the different versions, variations nevertheless appear in the treatments by Béroul, Eilhart, Thomas, and in the Norse translation. Another element that appears repeatedly in the extant versions but with notable variation is that of the love potion motif. Eugene Vinaver examines the treatment of this motif in the extant versions of the legend, maintaining that the depiction of the role of the love potion in the Eilhart and Béroul versions represents the original Tristan romance. Vinaver argues that the romance presents the potion as symbolic of unchangeable love.

Representative Works

Sir Tristrem (poem) c. 1300

*Tristan (poem) c. 1190

*Tristan (poem) c. 1170

Eilhart von Oberge
*Tristan (poem) c. 1170

Gottfried von Strassburg
*Tristan (poem) c. 1210

*These works exist in fragments and their exact titles are uncertain.


Joseph Bédier (essay date 1904)

SOURCE: “The Legend of Tristan and Isolt,” in International Quarterly, Vol. 9, 1904, pp. 103-28.

[In the following essay, Bédier examines the origin and development of the Tristan and Isolde legend and maintains that there was one single source poem from which the extant versions proceeded.]

In all the realm of legends, there is none more wonderful than the story of Tristan and Isolt. Long ago, a trouvère, dedicating it to posterity, wrote in gentle verse: “I have told this tale for those who love, and for none else. May it go down through the ages to those who are thoughtful, to those who are happy, to those who are dissatisfied, to those who are full of...

(The entire section is 12286 words.)

Roger Sherman Loomis (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: “A Survey of Tristan Scholarship After 1911,” in Tristan and Isolt: A Study of the Sources of the Romance, Vol. II. Reprint. Burt Franklin, 1960, pp. 565-587.

[In the following essay, Loomis comments on the critical reception Gertrude Schoepperle's 1913 study of the Tristan legend received, and discusses the origin, development, and transmission of the legend.]


The reviews of Miss Schoepperle's Tristan and Isolt were, broadly speaking, highly favorable. Her critique of Bédier's reconstruction of the poème primitif in his edition of Thomas's Tristan on the basis of its assumed logical structure and...

(The entire section is 6812 words.)

Gertrude Schoepperle (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: “Courtly Elements in the Estoire: Its Date,” in Tristan and Isolt: A Study of the Sources of the Romance, Vol. I. Reprint. Burt Franklin, 1960, pp. 112-83.

[In the following excerpt, Schoepperle examines the treatment of love in the estoire (the French source believed by some critics to be the source of extant versions, including the Germanic and English versions), and argues that the appearance of courtly and immoral elements in some portions of the legend indicate that these episodes were composed during the second half of the twelfth century, when the “cult of unlawful love” was in vogue.]


(The entire section is 4221 words.)

Henry Goddard Leach (essay date 1921)

SOURCE: “Tristan in the North,” in Angevin Britain and Scandinavia. Reprint. Kraus Reprint Co., 1975, pp. 169-98.

[In the following essay, Leach examines the characteristics of the Scandinavian version of the Tristan legend, which was derived from Thomas's Anglo-Norman version of the late twelfth century.]

Deim var ekki skapað
Nema að skilja.

Tristrams Kvœði

In the north-west part of Iceland there is a fjord which until modern times bore the name of Trostansfjord. It lies in a district where many names of Celtic origin have survived since the time when they were first bestowed in the ninth century by Celto-Scandinavian...

(The entire section is 7270 words.)

William Henry Schofield (essay date 1921)

SOURCE: “The Matter of Britain,” in English Literature from the Norman Conquest to Chaucer, Macmillan, 1921 pp. 201-14.

[In the following excerpt, Schofield compares the versions of the Tristan legend written by the Anglo-Norman poet Thomas and the Norman Béroul and offers a discussion of Thomas's version, including commentary on the poet's form and style.]

… It is appropriate that our study of the Tristram stories should follow directly that of the Breton lays, for in no legendary cycle is the influence of this form of Celtic material more manifest. Several of the most charming episodes in which the famous lovers appear are easily detachable from their...

(The entire section is 5234 words.)

A. G. van Hamel (essay date 1924)

SOURCE: “Tristan's Combat with the Dragon,” in Revue Celtique, Vol. 41. Reprint. Kraus Reprint Ltd., 1966, pp. 331-49.

[In the following essay, van Hamel studies the details of the dragon-slaying episode in the Tristan legend and compares these elements as they appear in different versions of the legend.]

When Tristan and his men, in quest of the Princess of the Swallow's Hair, have reached the Irish coast and lie in the harbour, they learn that the country is being devastated by a fiery dragon, and that the king has promised his daughter and the half of his kingdom to the man who will slay the monster. The next day the hero sets out alone and accomplishes the...

(The entire section is 7156 words.)

Roger Sherman Loomis (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: “Problems of the Tristan Legend,” in Romania, Vol. 53, 1927, pp. 82-102.

[In the following essay, Loomis examines several areas of critical disagreement regarding the Tristan legend: the influence of the Welshman Bleheris on the development of the legend, the relation of the legend to the Irish tale of Diarmaide and Grainne, and the dating of Thomas's poem.]

Readers of Romania are aware that in vol. LI M. Ferdinand Lot attacked with some severity the theory, proposed by Miss Weston and elaborated by myself, that a certain Welshman Bleheris was to be regarded as an important figure in the development of Arthurian romance1. Giraldus...

(The entire section is 7267 words.)

Eugène Vinaver (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: “The Love Potion in the Primitive Tristan Romance,” in Medieval Studies in the Memory of Gertrude Schoepperle Loomis. Reprint. Slatkine Reprints, 1974, pp. 75-86.

[In the following essay, Vinaver reviews the critical debate surrounding the nature of the origin of the extant versions of the Tristan legend. He also examines the treatment of the love potion motif found in the various versions of the legend.]

In his epoch-making introduction to the poem of Thomas, M. Bédier inserted a reconstruction of the original Tristan poem. He gave there the following version of the episode of the love potion:

«Quand le temps du départ fut venu, la...

(The entire section is 3470 words.)

James Douglas Bruce (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: “Tristan,” in The Evolution of Arthurian Romance From the Beginnings Down to the Year 1300, Vol. I. Reprint. Peter Smith, 1958, pp. 152-91.

[In the following essay, Bruce maintains that most modern critics agree that a “single primitive Tristan romance” is the source of all extant versions. Bruce then surveys those versions, and discusses the plot of the Tristan legend and its similarity to the Irish Diarmaid and Grainne legend.]

In one important respect the study of the story of Tristan is easier than is the case with that of Lancelot: there is substantial agreement among authorities on the subject that all the mediaeval romances and shorter poems...

(The entire section is 17217 words.)

Grace Frank (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: “Marie de France and the Tristram Legend,” in PMLA, Vol. 63, No. 2, June, 1948, pp. 405-11.

[In the following essay, Frank maintains that the Chievrefueil, a lay by Marie de France, was derived from longer versions of the Tristram (Tristan) legend.]

Chievrefueil, the shortest and perhaps the most charming of the lays by Marie de France, has troubled critics because, unlike her other poems, it seems to lack clarity. Is it not fair to assume, however, that in this instance the usual limpidity and forthrightness of Marie's narrative style may have been clouded by her modern interpreters, rather than by Marie herself? I hope to show that to her...

(The entire section is 3164 words.)

Helaine Newstead (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: “The Tryst beneath the Tree: An Episode in the Tristan Legend,” in Romance Philology, Vol. 9, No. 3, February, 1956, pp. 269-84.

[In the following essay, Newstead traces the literary history of the “tryst episode” of the Tristan legend, finding that it originated in three Celtic stories before it developed in various forms in Welsh, Breton, and French tales.]

The modern reader, schooled to appreciate the legend of Tristan and Isolt as a tale of tragic and overwhelming passion, may be startled to realize that the episode most familiar to the medieval public was no moment of exalted romance but rather a scene of audaciously successful deception. The...

(The entire section is 8797 words.)

Helaine Newstead (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: “King Mark of Cornwall,” inRomance Philology, Vol. 11, No. 3, February, 1958, pp. 240-53.

[In the following essay, Newstead evaluates the significance of the role of King Mark of Cornwall in the Tristan romances, observing that the character figures prominently in the stories, as does the setting of many incidents in the King's castle at Tintagel.]

In the dramatic action of the Tristan romances King Mark is almost as important as the lovers themselves. Tristan, as the son of his sister, is bound to him by close ties of kinship, and the hero's first spectacular exploit is the liberation of Mark's kingdom of Cornwall from the annual human tribute demanded by...

(The entire section is 7775 words.)

Further Reading


Shirt, David J. The Old French Tristan Poems: A Bibliographical, Guide. London: Grant and Cutler Ltd., 1980, 186 p.

Bibliographic listing in which the works are grouped by author or version of the legend (i.e., the Beroul fragment, the Thomas fragment, etc.), and are divided into several categories, including manuscript and critical editions; translations; textual comment and exegesis; authorship; literary context; feudal context; moral context; narrative structure; and style.


Brégy, Katherine. “Tristram, The Perennial Hero of Romance.” The Catholic World CXXVII, No. 760 (July 1928):...

(The entire section is 488 words.)