Tristan and Isolde
Gottfried Von Strassburg’s Tristan testifies to the sophistication of medieval Germany as the work presents a complicated perspective after the fin amor tradition. Superficially concerned with the nature of love, the work almost advances a platonic conception but falls far short when readers confront the material necessity of the love affair which develops between Tristan and Isolde.
In fact, in order to maintain narrative coherency and politics within the microcosm of the narrative, Gottfried’s Tristan and Isolde must develop and maintain a love affair outside of the bounds advocated by the Church and medieval society. Of foremost importance in proving the above is the fact that Mark’s court does not exist, with regard to narrative, without Tristan. In fact, there is no narrative reason to revisit Mark’s court save that events in Tristan’s life return readers to Cornwall. With the acknowledgement of Tristan as Blancheflor and Rivalin’s son King Mark gains a nephew and heir.
Gottfried on the other hand preserves the narrative usage of Mark’s court, tying the fate of his protagonist, Tristan, to its well-being. There Tristan’s roles manifest with variance and complexity so that in addition to becoming Mark’s heir, he also comes to comprise the power behind the throne. While a stabilizing force Tristan soon symbolizes a threat to the kingdom as his both his good deeds and affair with Isolde rouses Mark’s nobles to ire whether from envy with regard to the former or concern in the latter.
Still Tristan fulfills another role as protector of Mark’s court. By turns courageous and sagacious Tristan defeats potential foes in battle whether called to match arms or wits… Whenever there is the possibility that Tristan could leave this world, one after the fin amor tradition and concerned with the court, and pursue a characterization after the Arthurian tradition, where a love affair becomes incidental along with the court, another use for him develops.
Gottfried seems intent upon advancing the idea that Tristan and Isolde’s love is both logical and necessary because of the many functions the former performs in Mark’s court: It is as Will Hasty notes in his essay Tristan and Isolde, the Consummate Insiders; “Tristan and Isolde’s love simultaneously upholds courtly order while threatening it (Hasty, 1998, page143). Hasty also notes that an important function of love, with respect to Tristan’s situation, “is to reward socially constructive actions” (144).
In Gottfried’s poem, power and its maintenance works hand in hand with love for the preservation of the existing social order, in this instance Mark’s court. This hints at the ultimate function of the love potion which other versions of the Tristan poem has King Mark drink along with the lovers, for example the Norwegian saga Tristram and Iseult. Mark’s court as mentioned above cannot exist without Tristan’s presence but it also requires Mark and Isolde. Most important Mark, who ties the narrative to its beginnings with his connection to Tristan’s, parents Rivalin and Blancheflor.
An important couple because of the way their relationship parallels Tristan and Isolde’s while foreshadowing its outcome. Out of narrative necessity, a triangle develops between Mark Tristan and Isolde, nearly mirroring the triangle between Mark, Rivalin and Blancheflor. Each triangle develops out of a necessity to fool Mark but this begs the question of how complicit Mark is his own deception. Nevertheless, Mark not Tristan must marry Isolde even though the latter is heir to the former and could achieve the same political alliance.
Here is where the importance of love holds sway as Gottfried seems to suggest Tristan does not meet whatever standards exist to marry a future queen. After all Rivalin and Blancheflor eloped suggesting Tristan’s father lacked the proper pedigree to marry a king’s sister. To overcome medieval socioeconomic ideas regarding social estates and marriage Gottfried introduces the famed equalizer and French take on fin amor where a love affair is as binding as marriage vows. However, Gottfried’s Tristan prior to the affair seems, at least in character, as worthy of the Grail as the famed Sir Galahad.
In short his character is not that of Galahad’s father, Lancelot, and does not allow for the likelihood of committing treason in forming a relationship with Isolde. Especially not in light of the earlier concern he shows for removing threats to Mark’s kingdom. The love potion, and thereby love, overcomes Tristan’s character and leads him to engage in deceptions unworthy of him for “love instructs honest minds to practise perfidy, though they ought not to know what goes to make a fraud of this sort” (Gottfried, 1960, page205). Referring of course to Isolde’s bed trick and the lovers plot to substitute Brangane’s virginity for Isolde’s.
She would “lie at Mark’s side during the first night in perfect silence and keep him company [and] he could be denied his due in no better way, since Brangane was beautiful and a virgin” (205). While the statement embodies the medieval attitude towards women it also illustrates something unpleasant about love, or at least its physical expression. Apparently Mark does not experience what Wendy Doniger terms in Sex, Lies and Tall Tales as “veritas in coitu” and one woman is the same as another, suggesting “sexual love is the most deluding form of love” (Doniger, Wendy, 1996, page 665).
Still the other side of Doniger’s argument makes deception impossible and when Tristan and Isolde’s express their feelings “sexual love [becomes] the most reliable criterion of personal identity: the one you love is the one you know, and the one you know is the real one” (Doniger, Wendy, 1996, page 664). This suggests the implausibility of Mark’s role as unwilling dupe. Surely, as Doniger states “self-delusion is indeed the key [and] we lie to ourselves in bed when we lie about who our partners are” (Doniger, Wendy, 1996, page 666).
Mark’s compliance with the deception goes beyond the bed trick as he entertained doubts beyond that night. “He deeply suspected his darling Isolde; he had doubts about Tristan, in whom he could find no sign either of deceit or of treachery” (Gottfried, 1960, page 223). In all honesty, Mark did not truly wish to know whether he was being duped. As Doniger states “people can be fooled because they want to be fooled, they want the trick to succeed; their will to believe leads them to ignore glaring inconsistencies and the debunking implications of hard
evidence, however blatant. Sexual masquerades work because the victims do most of the work themselves (Doniger, 1996, page 685). And every night Isolde perpetrates a sexual masquerade upon King Mark, both of them pretending she is Brangane, the woman whose virginity Mark took in place of Isolde’s. Therefore “the key to the deceptions perpetrated by Tristan and Isolde on King Mark… [is explained by reason that] the king ignores countless hints, and even proofs because he does not want to admit that his wife is sleeping with [his nephew]” (Doniger, 1996, page 686).
Mark knew about Isolde and Tristan, “yet he did not wish to know it” (Gottfried, 1960, page 275). The question remains of why this narrative chooses to present a love affair against such a backdrop. One in which the involved lovers can only affirm their love through furtive assignations. And it raises the even larger question of why the lover’s choose to return to court when they could have loved openly in exile. The obvious answer is that this would remove necessary people from the narrative’s microcosm, which has been established as Mark’s court.
Without Tristan and Isolde the narrative thread is lost; however it is best to examine why love in exile is not feasible for Tristan and Isolde. Many have proposed answers to this question but the consensus amounts to the lovers not being able to love as intensely in exile as they did at court. According to William D. Cole in Purgatory vs. Eden: Beroul’s Forest and Gottfried’s Cave, Tristan and Isolde “entertain thoughts of reintegration into the society from which they came” (Cole, 2001, page 6) and “when they place the sword between themselves in order to fool
anybody who might see them…they succumb to external pressures; they worry about external effects [and] need external stimulus [and as a result] desecrate the altar of love with deceit, [a] ruse…allowing them to return to society… [which] had they to declined to employ… would have forever remained in the cave, and the story would have come to an end” (Cole, 2001, page 6) But the narrative does not end here and readers must remember the love affair between Rivalin and Blancheflor which foreshadows the sorrowful end of the relationship between Tristan and Isolde.
The end of the story must return to the inauspicious beginning and thereby to Mark’s court. Narrative coherency and microcosmic politics surmount platonic love, for that is what Tristan and Isolde find in the cave. Love in its most ideal form is not a human achievement, speaks Gottfried, the man of the cloth, a religious voice asserting itself over his secular interest in love. Love cannot trump the essential reason why Tristan and Isolde return to court, at least not without invalidating the logic of the narrative and violating the rules upon which the narrative microcosm depends.
Isolde is a queen and Tristan is next in line for the throne after any children she and Mark produce from their marriage; so neither of these characters can disappear from their world. Yes, they essentially return Mark’s court to its heirless state but as mentioned their roles are such in their society that necessitates a return. For example Tristan has established himself as protector of Mark’s kingdom and architect of peace with Ireland. He defeats and kills Morold, brother of Queen Isolde of Ireland, immediately eradicating a constant threat to Mark’s sovereignty over Cornwall and Britain from the outside.
He defeats, through trickery, Gandin who successfully fools Mark into giving him Isolde. That Tristan recognizes Isolde’s importance to the sanctity of the kingdom, while Mark seems apathetically unaware of his Queen’s worth is significant. It is as important as noticing Mark’s inability to retrieve his Queen from Gandin without Tristan’s intervention. But the threats to Mark’s kingdom are at times from within and it is Tristan who makes Mark aware of the plots against him, Tristan, and the ever pressing need for an heir other than himself.
Yet, just as it seems the envy of Marks nobles will drive Tristan away from court the protagonist’s concern for his uncle results in a wooing expedition for Isolde. “He [Tristan] was merry and gay… till cursed meddlesomeness, damned envy… began to stir among them, and cloud the minds and behaviour of many lords, with the result that they begrudged him the honour and distinction which the people accorded him… [and] thereafter Mark’s councilors adopted a policy of importuning him morning and Evening, with urgent advice to take a wife from whom he could get an Heir…And
he [Tristan] begged his uncle …to give thought to his fears and the danger he was in, and fulfill the baron’s wishes” (Gottfried 151). As for being the architect of peace Tristan twice undergoes a symbolic healing of the breech with Ireland On the first occasion he appears at the Irish court in the guise of an ailing troubadour named Tantris whose wounds Queen Isolde dresses herself. On the second occasion he comes to the court as the Dragon slayer whose heroic efforts save Isolde from the designs of a social climbing court steward.
Though the Queen knows him to be Tristan and the slayer of her brother Morold she nurses him to health once more. Her labors are by no means altruistic as in learning Tristan’s identity she also learns his purpose to woo her daughter Isolde by-proxy for King Mark. Queene Isolde bears mentioning because she illustrates why Isolde’s placement as Mark’s queen is necessary to the sanctity of his court. Tristan’s dealings with Queen Isolde portray her as the power behind the Irish throne. Should Mark lose Isolde whatever pax develops between Cornwall and Ireland will erode.
This alliance needs to last, at least until the end of the poem when all reverts to its ominous beginnings. Tristan and Isolde die, their love affair ends sorrowfully, mirroring the love affair between Rivalin and Blancheflor, which occurs in the opening of the poem. Tristan, the result of tragedy, meets a tragic end. Mark’s kingdom returns to its former precarious state. The love-potion, originally intended to enact a good marriage between Mark and Isolde has resulted in the tragic death’s of Tristan and Isolde, symbolizing, in finality that romantic love amounts to no more than adultery.
In enacting a tragic end for his lover’s, where Tristan dies before Isolde reaches him Gottfried proves true Sara S. Poor’s take on the male protagonists of medieval male poets who “through their suffering under Lady Love’s power…were able to make claims on such prized courtly virtues as constancy, moderation and patience…by constructing women as objects – not so much of love as of poetry” (Poor, Sara S. , 2001, page 123). Isolde always described in terms of her beauty and its effect is never praised as the lover who remains constant and true.
This role belongs to Tristan, even after he marries Isolde of the White Hands to: “I have indeed found Isolde, but not the fair one, who fives me such gentle pain: It is Isolde…the maid of Arundel and not Isolde the Fair, whom, alas, I do not see” (Gottfried, 1960, page 291). . Readers of Gottfried’s medieval German perspective on Tristan are confronted with an inescapable reality which negates the facile assumption that Gottfried is solely concerned with the nature of love so much as presenting a narrative where an illicit love affair functions as the glue for an entire narrative microcosm.
He sets out to write a love story but is constrained by a need to maintain narrative coherency and politics within the microcosm of the narrative. This is why Mark, not Tristan, marries Isolde even though the latter is heir to the former and could serve the same political function. It also explains Mark’s complicity in his own deception as well as that perpetrated by Tristan and Isolde. Last but most important to consider is that the lovers choose the secrecy of adultery rather than the freedom to love each other openly in exile.
In short, the novel’s world exists in relationship to Mark’s court, ultimately deciding the fate of the lovers, Tristan and Isolde. Works Cited Gottfried von Strassburg. Tristan: With the Tristan of Thomas. Translated by A. T. Hatto. Penguin Books: New York. 1960. Doniger, Wendy. “Sex, Lies, and Tall Tales. ” Social Research. Fall 1996: 663-699. Hasty, Will. “Tristan and Isolde, the Consummate Insiders: Relations of Love and Power in Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan. ” Monatshefte. 1998: 137-147. Poor, Sara S. “Gender Studies and Medieval Women in German. ” College Literature.
Spring 2001: 118-129. Cole, William D. “Purgatory vs. Eden: Beroul’s Forest and Gottfried’s Cave. ” The Germanic Review. 2001: 2-8. Bibliography Finlay, Alison. “‘Intolerable Love’: Tristram’s Saga and the Carlisle Tristan Fragment. ” Medium ? vum LXXIII: 205-224. Zizek, Slavoj. “Deeper Than the Day Could Read. ” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities. August 2002: 197-204. Volfing, Annette. “Gottfried’s Huote Excursus. ” Medium ? vum. LXVII: 85-103. Rabine, Leslie W. “The Establishment of Patriarchy in Tristan and Isolde. ” Women’s Studies. 1980: 19-38.Sample Essay of AssignmentExpert.com