A tale from Arthurian and Celtic legend, this tragic love story has been sung by the bards, told and retold by word of mouth and finally written down on manuscripts. As with most legends the true story may never be known, but the main characters and events almost certainly existed, probably some time between 700 AD - 850 AD, and it is one of the few authentic Celtic British tales from the days before the Anglo-Saxons over-ran England.

There are probably as many versions of this tale as there are tellers of it; this one is a summary taken from a variety of sources. Let's call it The Everything Tragedy of Tristan and Iseult.

Princess Iseult (sometimes written Isolt or Isolde), daughter of King Angwish of Ireland, was betrothed to the King of Cornwall, King Mark. The King sent his nephew, Tristan, over the sea to Ireland to escort Isolde back to Cornwall.

Tristan (whose name means sorrow), was a noble knight, a great leader and warrior in his own right, as well as being the King's nephew.

Iseult's mother, fearful that her daughter might have her heart broken if the marriage was not a success, gave a love potion to Iseult's handmaiden, Brangraine, with strict instructions to keep it safe until they reached Cornwall. The potion would cause whoever drunk it to love each other for all eternity and was to be given to Iseult and Mark on their wedding night.

During the voyage back to Cornwall Tristan became thirsty. Not realising the nature of the bottle's contents he drank some of the love potion and offered some to Iseult. The young couple then fell hopelessly and deeply in love with each other.

Bound by duty, Iseult did marry Mark of Cornwall, but her heart was given to Tristan. On the wedding night Brangraine secretly took Iseult's place in the King's bed, and for several months the two lovers kept their affair a secret.

Eventually the love affair was found out. When Mark discovered this, he forgave Iseult, but Tristan was banished from Cornwall (in some variations Tristan banishes himself through shame). Tristan moved to King Arthur's court and later went to Brittany, at that time another Celtic land.

In Brittany he met another Princess Iseult, known as Iseult of the White Hands. He was attracted to her because of the similarity of her name to his true love. The pair were married but the marriage was never consummated as Tristan could not hide his feelings for his "real" Iseult back in Cornwall.

After being wounded in battle, he sent for Iseult in hopes that she would be able to cure him, as she had a reputation as a healer. If she agreed to come, the returning ship's sails would be white, but the sails would be black if she did not agree.

Iseult of the White Hands, jealous of her husband's love for the Cornish Queen, saw the ship arrive with white sails, but lied to Tristan and told him that the sails were black. Heartbroken and weakened by his battle wounds, Tristan died before his Iseult could reach him. When she finally arrived, upon finding her soulmate had died, her own heart broke and she too passed away.

Thus ends the tragic tale of Tristan and Iseult, and their doomed love for each other.

I'm noding my homework. This was written in 2004 for Marianne Ailes of Wadham College, Oxford. I assume a fair knowledge of the text, or at least of the legend. The Old French quotations are pipelinked to my English translations.

Discuss the relationship between appearance and reality in Béroul's Tristan.

There is a number of troubling elements in Le Roman de Tristan. The behaviour of its romantic hero and heroine is deceitful and cunning, and even what the poet tells us to be true of certain characters is seldom proved by their actions. The audience is in the privileged position of being able to see pretty much everything that happens, and so we can detect what is truth and what is illusion.

The Béroul fragment opens with Tristan and Yseut's illicit meeting under the tree in which King Mark is hiding in order to eavesdrop on his wife and nephew. By a stroke of luck - or by divine intervention as we are encouraged to believe - the couple is alerted to Mark's presence. This means that they can avoid detection, making their liaison appear quite innocent. The declaration which Yseut makes at the very beginning of the poem is perplexing. She swears an oath that she has only ever slept with the man who took her virginity:

"Mais dex plavis ma loiauté, Qui sor mon cors mete flaele, S'onques fors cil qui m'ot pucele Out m'amistié encor nul jor!" (22-25)

We know this statement to be literally true, and yet it is deliberately misleading. Because of her trickery of Mark even on their wedding night, he hears this declaration and believes it proves Yseut's innocence. The irony here is striking. This incident sets the trend for Mark's involvement in the story. He makes a habit of misunderstanding crucial words, and failing to see the reality in vital situations. This is no doubt partly due to his desire to believe in his wife and nephew, whom he holds dear, but mainly due to their calculated deceit of him.

The next time Mark is driven to investigate the relationship between Tristan and Yseut, he is once again persuaded of their innocence. The King ventures into the forest, looking for the lovers after their elopement. When he finds them, they are asleep side by side. Béroul makes a point of describing the distance between their bodies, which is reinforced by the presence of Tristan's sword between the two sleeping bodies. The appearance of innocence is enough to convince Mark that everyone is mistaken and there is in fact no adulterous relationship. There is also irony in the fact that the lovers believe Mark to have drawn precisely the opposite conclusion from seeing them lying together. One cannot help but wonder just why it is that the pair are arranged in the odd way they are. We know that their relationship is a sexual one, so it is as surprising for the reader as for Mark to see them so positioned. For once, it is not the lovers themselves who have colluded to trick others, yet luck seems to have been on their side once again. It is as if the fates have decided that Tristan and Yseut should be together, and will do all they can to ensure a smooth ride.

Once the effects of the love potion (taken during the voyage from Ireland) have worn off, Tristan and Yseut are supposed to instantly stop loving one another. We get the impression, rather, that they have simply come to their senses in terms of the privations they have suffered as a result of their actions. We hope and expect that they fall out of love, yet their behaviour confuses this matter. In his letter to his uncle, Tristan makes repeated explicit denials that he ever loved Yseut in an improper way. He claims,

"Qu'onques amor nen out vers moi, Ne je vers lui, par nul desroi," (2573-4)

This, as the audience knows, is a blatant lie. It is a little shocking that Tristan should tell lies in such a bare-faced manner, with no attempt at disguising them with a littte truth or clever wording. It seems he has no shame.

Tristan also acts in a disturbing way when he is disguised as a leper just before Yseut's adultery trial. His disguise plays a crucial role in his lover's elaborate plot to convince everyone of her innocence, but it is Tristan's conversation with Mark which is of interest here. When the King approaches his nephew, and asks him his story, Tristan tells lies which - although they do make his disguise more convincing - seem fabricated specifically to mock Mark. It is as if Tristan has enjoyed the necessary lies and deceit so much that he wants to continue, merely for his own amusement. In the tale he uses to explain his leprosy, Tristan claims that he had a "cortoise amie" (3762), whose husband was a leper. The daring Tristan even goes so far as to claim that his lover was "La bele Yseut"(3775), quickly following this remark with "Einsi se vest con cele seut" (3776). So we see the disguised Tristan, emboldened by his perceived lowly status, not merely having a sly dig at his uncle and King, but even daring to tell him something which resembles the truth for once. Tristan's behaviour here is not what one would expect from a knight who, as we are told repeatedly, is so very brave and chivalrous.

The irony in this part of the poem seems to be building to a climax, which takes the form of Yseut's trial. The Queen appears saintly as she swears her oath before all the people of the land, including King Arthur himself. Béroul writes that,

"La ro ne out de soie dras : Aporté furent de Baudas, Forré furent de blanc hermine"

(3903 - 3905)

With her long blonde hair and beautiful white clothes, it would be difficult to view Yseut as anything other than innocent and pure. The words she utters are resonant of the declaration she made at the beginning of the fragment, under the tree in which Mark was hiding. Once again, the words she speaks are literally true, yet intentionally deceptive. Having been carried across the mud on Tristan the leper's shoulders, she is free to admit that she has had that man between her thighs. There is even a degree of humour in her mentioning him at all! Just like Mark, his subjects are told the truth without recognising it as such. The force with which Yseut swears her faithfulness is striking - she swears on all the holy relics in the world. And why not indeed, when her words are technically true? One cannot help but wonder just why it is that Yseut feels the need to speak the literal truth. She clearly has no qualms about deceiving the entire kingdom, so why does she go to the effort of presenting her lies in such a tricksy way? It cannot be argued that a love of truth drives her to arrange her words in this manner, for she tells repeated lies in denying her love affair with Tristan. Perhaps she simply gains enjoyment from fooling so many people in such a clever way.

The only important incident where deception is not at play is the scene where the dwarf uses a sprinkling of flour on the floor at the foot of the royal bed to catch the lovers in the act. The plan works, and Tristan and Yseut are caught red handed. The most remarkable thing about this scene is that the audience and all the characters involved are aware of the truth of the situation for once. There is no ambiguity whatsoever, which makes the incident unique.

Béroul's role in the poem is not always clear. His presentation of events is what we read, yet his interpretation of them is often different from the natural conclusions we may draw. For example, the poet tells us repeatedly that the King's three advising barons are "felon", and yet all we really know of them is that they wish King Mark to know the truth about the adulterous affair between Tristan and Yseut. Surely having their King's best interest at heart - as is their job - does not earn them such a pejorative title? Similarly, Béroul's treatment of the two lovers in his narrative seems very biased. He seems very reluctant to fault them. Nevertheless, their actions throughout the poem show them behaving in a way which should be abhorrent to a member of their society. It is possible that the poet simply took a shine to Tristan and Yseut, and so chose to present them in a highly favourable light. It is more interesting to consider whether the audience is meant to view Béroul as a reliable narrator or not. There may be irony in his very presentation of the affair. Is he to be taken seriously?

Le Roman de Tristan, then, is a poem which takes as its basis a confusion between appearance and reality: the lovers are just that, but they do not choose to fall in love with each other. The poem is further complicated by a biased narrator, and two main characters who make a habit of telling lies and making a show of their wit with words. The reader holds the advantageous position of seeing what is happening as well as what is said, and it is this which allows us to judge the characters and see them as they really are.

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