Richard Wagner’s opera follows the basic plot of Gottfried von Strassburg’s earlier version of this famous tale. The version Wagner chose, nineteen thousand or so lines of which are attributed to Gottfried, is an excellent and extensive telling of one of the most famous love stories of all times. This metrical romance does not follow the line of chivalric romance developed by other writers, and there is no wearisome repetition of knightly deeds of valor in war and tournaments. Instead, Gottfried celebrates romantic love as being greater than chivalric love; his conception of love is more inward, at once enchanting and enthralling, bewildering and ecstatic, one that sways the soul and makes martyrs of those who partake of love’s sacrament. The landscape against which Tristan and Isolde move often suggests an inner dreamworld of mysterious compulsion.
Tristan and Isolde is unique in many ways. Although its material is courtly in nature, the poem concludes tragically rather than in the usual redemptive ending, and the sphere of reference is not specifically courtly. In his prologue, Gottfried defines his audience as those “noble hearts” who share the sufferings and joys of love and who are willing to accept the power of love as the central value in life. All other courtly values—honor, religious faith, feudal fidelity—are subordinated to the one overriding force of passion, conceived as an external objective force and symbolized in the magic potion. Even Gottfried’s conception of love departs from the courtly pattern, for rather than the usual unfulfilled longing and devoted service of the knight, love in this story is mutual, freely given, and outside the conventions of courtly society. It is a law unto itself and destructive of the social order.
The material of the legend, like that of the Arthurian sagas, may be traced back to Celtic origins, although no versions prior to the twelfth century are extant. In the late twelfth century, the story took shape, and it is the French version by the Anglo-Norman poet Thomas of Brittany or Britain (c. 1160) that provides the direct source for Gottfried—and which enables scholars to construct the probable ending of Gottfried’s unfinished work. In Thomas’s version, the approach is still distinctly courtly; Gottfried’s departures from the norm may be attributed both to his own origin and to his time. Gottfried was most likely not a member of courtly society himself but rather a member of the middle class of the important commercial city of Strassburg. He was wealthy and well educated—as evidenced by his extensive knowledge of theology and law—and familiar with French and German literature, as well as the Latin that was the universal language of higher education at the time. His work shows mastery of...
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