Beroul’s Tristan

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion

Tristan and Isolde with the Potion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1)     Symmetry in Beroul’s Tristan

One of the earliest versions of the Tristan myth is Beroul’s 12th century story of The Romance of Tristan. This is the story of Tristan, nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, and his passionate love affair with the King’s wife Yseut. The couple falls madly in love after mistakenly drinking a potion and their illicit romance remains secret for many years. As the potion wears off, the lovers are found out and their story ends in tragedy. The story is characterized by its brutality and passion and Tristan and Yseut are portrayed as two people who are struggling against destiny (as symbolized by the potion). Tristan enters the world in tragedy. His father is dead and his mother, Blanchefleur, dies giving birth to him. Similarly, he also exits the world in tragedy. His life is marked by death at both ends and this shows a kind of symmetry in the story telling process.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

2)     Tristan’s First Heroic Act

Tristan is raised by a tutor, Governal, and in his early teens he leaves with Governal and comes to King Mark’s court in Cornwall. King Mark is Blanchefleur’s brother (his mother’s brother), but Tristan conceals this family connection in order to serve the King as an equal to other bachelor knights. In early demonstration of strength, Tristan kills Morholt, who comes and demands payment of a tribute owed to Ireland by the Cornish. The payment requires that a number of young men and girls are taken to Ireland as slaves. After being knighted by King Mark, he reveals his true identity, fights and Morholt. This is Tristan’s first chivalrous and heroic act.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

3)     Tragedy as Driving Force in Beroul’s Tristan

Tristan’s life begins with tragedy and tragedy also allows him to meet his love, Yseut. In the end, their lives will end with tragedy as well. Tragedy seems to be driving force in the story as a whole. The wounds that Tristan gets from Morholt lead him to Yseut. His wounds refuse to heal, and he insists on putting his trust in God and setting out alone in a boat without oars. After spending many days and nights at sea, he arrives in Ireland where the King’s daughter Yseut nurses him to health. In another feat of strength, Tristan again finds himself on the Irish coast where he is wounded by a dragon, and is again nursed back to health by Yseut. Cleaning his sword, she notices that the notch on the blade matches the splinter taken from Morholt’s skull and she realizes that Tristan was the one who had killed her uncle. There are two tragic life endangering events that lead Tristan to Yseut. These events show that destiny links these characters together, and this destiny is in play even before the potion even enters the story.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

4)     Potion as Destiny in Beroul’s Tristan

Beroul’s Tristan has a very representative notion of destiny. The concept of destiny is encapsulated in the potion. As they travel to Cornwall, Tristan and Yseut mistakenly drink the potion that is meant for her and King Mark. They become infatuated with one another and consummate their love. The potion commits them to their fate; it binds them to each other for “a lifetime of suffering and hardship,” eventually causing “their destruction and their death” (Beroul 44 – 45). But Tristan is bound to his duty for the King, and he delivers Yseut as promised. Here, Tristan is showing his commitment to chivalrous behavior. He is bound to the King with duty just as he is bound to Yseut with love (infused by the potion). This tension between duty and love is examined throughout the rest of the story.

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

5)     Dwarf as a Villain in Beroul’s Tristan

Dwarfs were often used as villains in medieval literature, and Beroul’s Tristan is no exception. The barons in King Mark’s court are not oblivious to Tristan and Yseut’s relationship the way King Mark is and enlist Frocin the Dwarf to set a trap for them. The dwarf swears that he show King Mark that they are having an affair, and tells him to climb a tree and eavesdrop on them in the orchard. Tristan and Yseut arrive separately, but they both notice the King’s shadow. Angry with the barons and the dwarf, King Mark decides to never suspect Tristan and Yseut again, and allows them to use his bedchamber as much as they want. The dwarf again plays an instrumental part in uncovering their affair. Frocin sneaks into King Mark and Yseut’s chamber where Tristan is sleeping and spreads flour between the two beds so that footsteps between the two beds would be visible. Tristan, who was wounded in the leg by a large boar the night before, notices the flour and leaps onto the King’s bed while the King is out of the room. The wound opens up and bleeds onto the sheets. When he hears the King, Tristan leaps back to his bed and drops some blood in the flour. King Mark is satisfied with evidence of their betrayal and condemns them to death. If the barons are considered the villains of the story, the dwarf can then be seen as the head villain of the story (in that he facilitates the discovery of their affair).

Beroul.  The Romance of Tristan.  Translated by Alan S. Fedrick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1970.  Print.

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