240. The Romance of Tristan and Yseut by Beroul (1150-1200)

Tristan, a young knight and Yseut (Isolde) an Irish princess betrothed to King Mark of Cornwall, are accidentally given a love potion, and must forever keep their resulting overwhelming love a secret to protect their lives and honour. But the King’s barons suspect the truth and plot to reveal the affair.

Source :  The Romance of Tristan, translated by Alan S. Fedrick, published Penguin, 1970.

Thoughts : One of the goals of starting this mammoth task of reading all the classics was the awareness that there were many, many stories which are referred to, or which inspired other great literature. The story of Tristan and Isolde is definitely one of these ; retold in different ways and possibly the source of the Arthurian story of Guinevere and Lancelot.

It is billed as one of the world’s most tragic love stories, but I just can’t buy that. Their love may have initially been induced by the potion which lasted for three years, but they continued to yearn for each other, using trickery and murder to make clandestine meetings and cuckold King Mark. The ‘villainous’ barons are actually in the right but suffer chastisement and death because of it. And Tristan actually marries (but does not consummate the marriage) another poor girl called Yseut simply because she has the same name.

Favourite quotes/scenes:

Queen Yseut must swear upon every holy relic in Cornwall, in front of King Arthur and King Mark, and their entire courts, that she was not unfaithful to Mark with his nephew Tristan. The day before, Tristan disguised himself as a leper and piggybacked the Queen across the marshy ground to her tent. Her promise to all is “that no man has ever been between her thighs except King Mark her husband, and the beggar who carried her across the marsh.”

Personal rating: The story was interesting and, as I say, important in its place in Western literature, but there was nothing outstanding or beautiful in the language used or scenes depicted in this prose translation. 5/10

Kimmy’s rating: Lots of kudos to the faithful hound Husdant, who recognised and stayed faithful to his master Tristan.

In the years 1150-1159:

from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978.

  • Henry of Normandy, son of Matilda, inherits Anjou, Maine and Touraine, 1151, and marries Eleanor of Aquitaine, 1152, thereby gaining control of Gascony, Guyenne and Poitou. King Stephen of England makes Henry his heir, 1153, and then dies 1154, making Henry King of England, (Henry II, first of the Plantagenets). Pope Adrian IV (the only English Pope) “gives” Ireland to Henry, 1154. Henry also pushes back Malcolm and the Scots from northern England, and clashes with Welsh princes, 1157, but cannot hold Toulouse from King Louis VII of France.
  • Emperor Konrad III of Germany dies 1151, succeeded by Friedrich Barbarossa. Barbarossa helps Adrian IV regain Rome 1155, but by 1159, Adrian is backing the Milanese and Lombardians who are revolting against Barbarossa.

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