Tristan & Isolde

The story of Tristan and Isolde is the story of love as the guide, love as a divine infusion.  The date for the early troubadours, who were the first to celebrate this great theme, was the twelfth century – the troubadour century.  The great theme was what is known as courtly love, which was by definition adulterous love. 

   (I) want to talk about the Tristan problem, which leaves a tension between the social order – which is imported, implanted, and put on the person – and the individual life.  They don’t go together.  The word amor, Provençal for amor, spelled backwards is roma.  So roma is the Roman Catholic church and its sacraments, and amor is individual experience.  By what kind of magic can people put God in your heart?  They can’t.  He’s either there or not there, out of your own experience. 

     The story of Tristan is that of a typical epic hero whose parents have died.  He is the orphan son.  His mother’s brother is the king of Cornwall (here we have the uncle-nephew relationship), but Tristan himself was born in Brittany.  So we have the whole Celtic world.  Tristan goes to his uncle’s castle in Cornwall and arrives at the same time that an emissary has come from the court of Ireland.  The Irish king conquered the Cornish king and requires a tribute: every four or five years young boys and girls must be brought to the service of the Irish throne.  The queen of the Irish court is Iseult’s mother, whose name is also Iseult, and her brother Morholt is the emissary who has come to collect the tribute: the Dragon Knight, whose shield bears the emblem of a dragon.  

   This tale is based, of course, on the story of Athens and Crete, of Theseus and the Minotaur.  In other words, we can see a perfectly standard mythological syndrome in this sequence, and that will continue.  The arrival of the Irish champion, the queen’s brother Morholt, marks Tristan’s call to the hero adventure.   His journey will continue with a dragon battle, an underworld journey, a bride theft, and a return.  Tristan’s story and Iseult’s look closely at the themes of death and resurrection on the one hand and sickness and healing on the other, ringing changes on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, with the elder Iseult as Persephone, Queen of the Netherworld, in whom – as in Medusa and many other female monsters of this kind – the powers both of healing and of death reside.  And the poet Gottfried von Strassburg, obviously, was perfectly aware of these analogies. 

The story of Tristan is that of a typical epic hero whose parents have died.  He is the orphan son.  His mother’s brother is the king of Cornwall (here we have the uncle-nephew relationship), but Tristan himself was born in Brittany.  So we have the whole Celtic world.  Tristan goes to his uncle’s castle in Cornwall and arrives at the same time that an emissary has come from the court of Ireland.  The Irish king conquered the Cornish king and requires a tribute: every four or five years young boys and girls must be brought to the service of the Irish throne.  The queen of the Irish court is Iseult’s mother, whose name is also Iseult, and her brother Morholt is the emissary who has come to collect the tribute: the Dragon Knight, whose shield bears the emblem of a dragon.  

   This tale is based, of course, on the story of Athens and Crete, of Theseus and the Minotaur.  In other words, we can see a perfectly standard mythological syndrome in this sequence, and that will continue.  The arrival of the Irish champion, the queen’s brother Morholt, marks Tristan’s call to the hero adventure.   His journey will continue with a dragon battle, an underworld journey, a bride theft, and a return.  Tristan’s story and Iseult’s look closely at the themes of death and resurrection on the one hand and sickness and healing on the other, ringing changes on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, with the elder Iseult as Persephone, Queen of the Netherworld, in whom – as in Medusa and many other female monsters of this kind – the powers both of healing and of death reside.  And the poet Gottfried von Strassburg, obviously, was perfectly aware of these analogies.  RG 95  

Tristan 

   In the Tristan story, there are echoes of Theseus and the Minotaur all along the line.  This is the conflict: love against marriage, amour against honeur.  How do we bring these things together?  The marriage situation was that of normal medieval and Oriental custom, with the family arranging the marriage.  But the aristocracy of Europe regarded this as intolerable, as is particularly evident in two of the greatest poems of the Middle Ages, Gottfried’s Tristan and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival.    RG 109

The story of Tristan is of choosing love over marriage.  Marriage in the Middle Ages - as in most of history - was a socially arranged affair wherein the family would make the arrangements for political or financial reasons.  In twelfth-century France, there was a protest against this; the protest was enunciated by the troubadours and the whole tradition of Amor.  If you spell Amor backward you get Roma; Roma means the Church and the sacrament of marriage, and Amor means the awakening of the heart.  The poets or troubadours of southern France were writing in a language called Provencal, and this is the world which Eleanor of Aquitaine came - her grandfather, William X of Aquitaine, was the very first troubadour.