Review: The Romance of Tristan and Iseult - Joseph Bédier

The Romance of Tristan and Iseult by Joseph Bédier.

The story of Tristan and Iseult was known to me because it was a bedtime story of mine. It's a tale which belongs both to the French and the British as part of their confusing entwined history due to the huge amount of ships which crossed the channel in both directions. I grew up believing it went a little differently than Monsieur Bédier here relates it, but I am satisfied and confused in new ways now that I've read the original translation.

Historical opinions on religion, filial piety, woman's roles, disease and racism aside, this story perplexes me because of the narrators deep sympathy for the characters. Perhaps I do not know about French stories, and perhaps this, like Le Morte d'Arthur, is merely the fashion, but I cannot reconcile the story that has survived until today with the sensibilities of those days.

Tristan is a blessed son of kings, and after a childhood spent in hiding, he returns to the lands of his uncle, King Mark, and becomes the Lancelot to his Arthur. Tristan cannot be defeated, in music, in combat, he is champion and is cherished and loved by all but four barons whose jealously or chivalry bring them to unfold some wicked plots against him.

Mark is a bachelor and when pressed to sire an heir, he mocks his counsel by taking a golden hair a sparrow has brought across the Irish Sea and requesting its owner to become his wife. Tristan, loyal to Mark to a fault, declares he shall find the maiden, and returns to Ireland - he'd been wounded by an Irishman and nursed back to health, unknowingly, by the woman who was his foe's sister. This is the woman he has a mind to find, as her fair hair was possibly the same gold as the hair the sparrows brought.

Iseult's mother brews a potion once Tristan is to take her back to Cornwall, and charges Branigen, Iseult's hand maiden, to make sure that Mark and Iseult drink it on their wedding night, so as to fall into a life long love. When a heatwave on the ship overtakes them, the potion is found, Tristian and Iseult quench their thirst with it, drinking their love, and their death. This is a sentiment often repeated in the tale, 'they drank their death', and certainly places the entire romance in a tragic light. For a while, they love on the sly. There is even a mention of Branigen, in her loyalty, taking Iseult's place in the wedding bed.

I will admit that in a story so entwined with God's implied will, that I have difficulty reconciling half completed ideas of what is moral and what is christian, with these myths embedded in the story and the tragedy itself. Religion isn't quite mythology for me, and I don't believe many atheists even view religion the same way they view some pagan belief they were never raised in. It's hard to reconcile something which represents an ancestral state with the present day.

It might surprise you that my favorite characters were those without a story: the narrator, who may not be a character aside from that part of Joseph Bédier which was projected into the story with his own opinions on events; Branigen and King Mark, who perhaps, unknowingly, have their own love story; if not with each other, I'd like to know about the family that Branigen left behind in Ireland; my favorite of all, Iseult of the White Hands, the fair princess of France whom Tristan marries after a long seperation from Iseult the Fair. Her trechery, as it may be called, is lightly forgiven by Joseph Bédier, and she herself atones for it, but I find it completed her character. She was a combination of Juliet and Lady Macbeth. She carried a dagger and used it on herself. She drank the poison she intended to give someone else. If I were directing the movie, I would make her the narrator, and leave Joseph Bédier to one side.

Tristan and Iseult is a poor story, critically, and it isn't complete for me. I don't sympathise with the lovers as much as I should, and I can't understand how their reprieves, said to be granted by God, are Christian. I think it says more about the narrator and the author being God, which is something my contemporary readers may find a common problem. Today we would call 'God's will' contrivance, laziness on some part to make the plot the action and the characters passive.

Using the phrase, 'God's will' isn't the problem, or even bringing God into the mix isn't so bad, but I really have difficulty seeing the Christian worth in all the things that God supposedly did in their favor. Was there a lesson that God was trying to teach them? Was God trying to offer them respite before their certain deaths? Apparently readers agreed with the Christian themes back then and for many ? years after. How about you? If you're familiar with the story, from the Wagnerian opera or James Franco's movie, or if you've also read the book, let me know, I'm open for any interpretation.