Tristan and Isolde Legend Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.