(Image used on the current Penguin Classics edition of The Romance of Tristan; found here)
In the introduction to his translation of Béroul’s Romance of Tristan, Alan S. Fedrick warns us:
[…]Beroul’s poem contains much that will startle and baffle a present-day reader who judges it by the modern aesthetic criteria of fictional narratives. There is no doubt that Beroul’s poem is sadly defective by modern standards; for it is far from easy to imagine that a piece of narrative fiction can exist as a serious work of art while dispensing with elements as fundamental as a coherent plot, an ordered flow of events with a clearly discernible causal nexus, and convincing characterisation.
If that is a little offputting, postmodernism has interposed itself between the contemporary reader and Fedrick, whose words were published in 1970. I don’t think that we now apply those aesthetic criteria to all fiction, and in fact this passage seems more dated than Béroul’s poem, written down in c. 1170–90. It is true that the poem is studded with contradictions – for instance, several enemies are killed off more than once, gleefully – so that it can occasionally feel as if you’re reading several palimpsests laid one over the other rather than a single poem. These may be accounted for by the oral origins of the poem, the inattention of the scribe who copied it down into the only surviving manuscript of it or its author being not one but at least two poets; they may also be deliberate aesthetic choices. In any case, the poem is held together by its central concern, the love affair of Tristan and Yseut.
‘Sir, I love Yseut so much. Because of her I cannot sleep nor even doze. My decision is soon taken: I would rather be a beggar with her and live on herbs and acorns than possess the kingdom of the rich King Otran. I beg you not to ask me to leave her, for I cannot do so.’
Still, while this version of Tristan and Yseut may be the earliest written one still in existence, any reader expecting a wonderful romance of noble, star-crossed lovers will be surprised. The narrator of the poem is cheerily partisan, vituperating the lovers’ enemies (‘Whoever would think of such a low trick?’; ‘May God curse them!’) and exclaiming excitedly at moments of high tension (‘God, what folly! He was too rash’). What is odd is that Tristan and Yseut do not seem to justify such support. They suffer no qualms of conscience over their illicit relationship and deceive with both outright lies and, more usually, with ambiguous oaths. Tristan, who even before meeting Yseut has amassed a lot of experience in disguise and deception, repeatedly avows that he will prove his innocence in trial by combat, well aware that he is such a great warrior that nobody will dare challenge him. This is not the spirit of trial by combat, during which God is supposed to support the virtuous, not the strong. Tristan’s reasoning seems to be he is strong so therefore must be virtuous and supported by God, and he’s certainly right that nobody will risk fighting him. He is really little more than a bully, and not averse to murdering unarmed opponents either. And Yseut? Having persuaded her maid, Brangain, to take her place on her wedding night, Yseut tries to have Brangain murdered to safeguard her secret. She also swears on the holiest relics in Cornwall that ‘no man ever came between my thighs except the leper who carried me on his back across the ford and my husband, King Mark’. The leper is Tristan in disguise, so while Yseut’s vow has one meaning for us, the readers, it intentionally deceives the other characters. In fact, there is no moral heart to the story: the only religious character, Friar Ogrin, advises the lovers to lie to the king in order to be pardoned. King Mark himself is not at all sympathetic, quick to violence and easily persuaded by whichever of his barons has his ear at any one moment. We may not be able to approve of Tristan and Yseut’s behaviour, but we can’t feel in the least sorry for the cuckolded husband. Powerful as Mark is, especially compared to a foreign knight and a woman, he is easily outwitted by their resourcefulness and courage.
(Illustration used for the cover of Joseph Bédier, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult, translated by Hilaire Belloc and completed by Paul Rosenfeld, New York: Random House; found here)
So what is going on here? Well, it seems to me that Béroul has chosen this legend, which would already have been in circulation orally for many years, to undermine mediaeval ideas about courtly love. Although their love for each other is strong and they willingly suffer for one another, and although their ingenuity is admirable, Tristan and Yseut are portrayed by Béroul as selfish and deceitful adulterers. They play with words and distort the truth (even in the quote above, in which Tristan claims he cannot sleep for love of Yseut, he is fibbing for effect). Courtly love is, like the lovers’ language, just a disguise for a rather less glamorous truth, a pretty dress to cover selfishness. Is Béroul also criticising an equivocal Church and a violent feudal society? That I don’t feel qualified to answer. However, I do urge you to settle down with this ambiguous, lively and often funny little book one evening and draw your own conclusions.