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As most classic and oral tradition stories go, adventures of great men choosing between good and evil, or fighting for the good against evil men and characters are the main themes. From Greek comedy or tragedy to modern-day western heroism, heroes make the right choices amidst challenges and pains.
This paper, drawing from Tristan of Thomas as gathered by Gottfried von Strassburg and retold by M. Joseph Bedier, shall try to present Challenges, Pain, and Glory as the theme of Tristan’s story.
From the start when Tristan was far conceived, and prior to his father King Rivalen of Lyonesse met his mother Blanchfleur, many of the main characters have to go through challenges and pain to attain glory.
Rivalen and King Mark of Cornwall are friends. So that when Cornwall was besieged, Rivalen sailed forth to aid his friend as indicated that, “he crossed the sea to bring him aid; and so faithfully did he serve him with counsel and sword that Mark gave him his sister Blanchefleur, whom King Rivalen loved most marvelously,” (Bedier, 2004). Sinka (1977) noted this prevalence of epic characters undergoing challenges, then getting pained in the process so that she suggested wounds have become a sort of motif that “function structurally to foreshadow and motivate action,” (p 3).
However, pain is not everything that can be noted in the story of Iseult and Tristan. At most, a challenge serves as the battery that charges the characters of Tristan to life. First, there is his father Rivalen having to aid King Mark.
Ewert (1970) also noted how Thomas, aside from presenting craft for poetry, has elegantly intertwined “the lovers’ ordeal rehearses the operations of memory in a cycle of absence and return (Pitts, 1990, p 792).
Another characteristic of the Tristan of Thomas is the glory for every battle won. The reader note that the victory of Rivalen and Mark against the Cornwall invaders, and then, as a part of the victory process, the wedding of Rivalen and Blanchefleur.
Right after the wedding of Rivalen and Blanchefleur at Tintagel Minster, Lyonesse was captured by Rivalen’s old enemy Duke Morgan so that he had to painfully leave Blanchefleur to the care of Marshal Rohalt to fight. Here, another challenge is posed. Rivaken has to face his enemy, only to die in an ambush. This is another painful episode as it ends the life of a king, not only for the widowed Blanchefleur but also for the unborn Tristan.
After a long wait, while pregnant, Blanchefleur learned of the painful truth that she is already widowed, and bear their child as an orphan for she died after saying, “Little son, I have longed a while to see you, and now I see you the fairest thing ever a woman bore. In sadness came I hither, in sadness did I bring forth, and in sadness has your first feast day gone. And as by sadness, you came into the world, your name shall be called Tristan; that is the child of sadness,” (Bedier, 2004).
Already, as he enters life, Tristan was baptized with a name associated with pain: for Tristan meant sadness. This is accompanied by being an orphan, without a father and mother, in a land occupied by his parents’ mortal enemies.
Tristan, however, was well-taken cared of not only by Rohalt but by his master Gorvenal whom later Tristan considered his own father. He was brought up well and good with manners and skills fit for royalty.
He was one day beguiled by merchants from Norway to sail ship with them, but the sea showed its anger and stopped its storm only when Tristan was freed to sail. By a twist of faith, he met hunters who brought him to his own uncle King Mark. And when Rohalt was able to inform the king of Tristan’s true parents, King Mark was filled with gladness.
But right after this gladness was again pain as Tristan had to leave his newfound uncle. He decided to fight the Duke and take back the land that is his. After killing Duke Morgan, he returned the land in the care of Rohalt and left for Cornwall to serve his uncle king. He then learned of the faith that befallen Cornwall as a giant warrior Morholt was sent by the king of Ireland to fetch tribute that Mark had refused to give for years. Cornwall’s choice was between giving up young men and women or defeat Morholt in single combat. Tristan volunteered to fight Morholt and sailed forth to the island where they would fight. While Morholt was mooring his boat, Tristan pushed to seas his boat and saying, “One of us only will go hence alive. One boat will serve,” (Bedier, 2004).
Tristan won the battle but wounded with a poisoned weapon. Pitts (1990) observed that the wound originally was on the breast but was transferred on the hip as a prelude to the sexual and love pain he would suffer from Iseult (p 13). The wound is a stench, driving off his carers, except for the king, Gorvenal, and Dinas of Lidan. He wished for the king to let him set sail alone in a boat to die, only to be delivered to Iseult, who knew of potions, and healed him until he was strong to escape back to King Mark.
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Another battle that Tristan has to win was against a dragon in Ireland in exchange for the hand of Iseult, the king’s daughter with the Golden Hair whom King Mark wanted to marry. As Tristan fought the dragon, “he cut out the tongue and put it into his hose, but as the poison came against his flesh the hero fainted and fell in the high grass that bordered the marsh around,” (Bedier, 2004).
Iseult, too, had her own form of physical suffering, aside from the separation she and Tristan had to suffer as she was married to King Mark, but they loved each other. When the affair was found, both were sentenced to die on fire. Her hand-tied, Iseult learned of Tristan’s escape, “And though blood came at the cord-knots, so tightly had the traitors
bound her, yet still, she said, smiling: “Did I weep for that when God has loosed my friend I should be little worth,” (Iseult quoted at Bedier, 2004).
Tristan and Iseult were vanished from Cornwall by the king. But soon forgave them. And Iseult was returned to the King as Tristan cannot bear to give her suffering and poverty.
At the garden, they part with the messages:
“Ma doce dame je vos pri
Ne me metes mie en obli:
En loing de vos autant m’amez
Comme vos de pres fait avez.” (Wind 1960, 33:40-42).
Of which Iseult responded:
“…Amis, bel sire,
Bien vos doit menbrer de cest jor
Que partiostes a tel dolor…
Nos cors partir ore convient,
Mais l’amor ne partira nient.” (Wind, 1960, 33: 49-50)
They vowed to be loyal to one another and for two years, lived separate lives as comforted by a fairy dog’s bell. Tristan soon married Iseult of the White Hands or the Fair. However, Tristan returned to Cornwall disguised as a merry fool and went straight to the king and queen. Before the court as an audience, he spilled out his and Iseult’s past until Iseult could bear it no longer. The affair continued when Brangien was able to identify Tristan.
But the time came that Tristan has to leave before the king returns. And on the way back to Carhaix, he was ambushed. “When he was come back to Brittany, to Carhaix, it happened that Tristan, riding to the aid of Kaherdin his brother in arms, fell into an ambush and was wounded by a poisoned spear; and many doctors came, but none could cure him of the ill. And Tristan weakened and paled, and his bones showed.”
“Then he knew that his life was going and that he must die, and he had a desire to see once more Iseult the Fair, but he could not seek her, for the sea would have killed him in his weakness, and how could Iseult come to him? And sad, and suffering the poison, he awaited death.” (Bedier, 2004).
In Thomas’ poems, Tristan says:
“Dites li qu’ore li suvenge
Des emveisures, des deduiz
Qu’eumes jadis jors et nuiz,
Des granz peines, des trosturs
Et des joies e des dusurs…” (Wind, 1960, 134: 1214-18)
In the end, when Iseult the Queen of Cornwall came, Iseult of the White Hand has already avenged her scorned love, and successfully hastened the death of Tristan. Isuelt the Queen died beside him, thus, “And when she had turned to the east and prayed God, she moved the body a little and lay down by the dead man, beside her friend. She kissed his mouth and his face, and clasped him closely; and so gave up her soul, and died beside him of grief for her lover.”
Sinka (1977) suggested that pain or wound symbolizes Christian guilt and atonement adapted by early European believers in their story-telling. Sinka (1977) quoted Peter I, 2:24, “By his wounds you have been healed.” As such, Sinka suggested, “…because there is no completed version of Gottfried’s work, it is necessary to use Thomas of Britain’s version,” 9p 4).
Pitts (1990) suggested that “by means of anaphora or polysyndeton, or both, in every case, the poet evokes the bygone joys and woes of love,” (p 792). From many events, the reader understands the interdependence of Iseult and Tristan. Through pain by Morholt’s poisoned weapon, he was brought to Iseult for the first time. But through another pain, as he was wounded by the slain dragon, he was once again at her mercy.
But more than the wounds, the pain of a love unconsumed was what Iseult and Tristan suffered the most. As Sinka (1979) noted, “the churning and festering love wound prohibits the lovers from longer separations,” (p 5).
Tristan lives in adventures, so much like the other male characters presented to the reader earlier. of fighting his Norwegian kidnappers, the wars he had to wage for the duke that grabbed his father’s kingdom, Morholt, of the dragon, and many more adventures and challenges later. The challenges brought forth the manly character of Tristan amidst the challenge of loving his uncle’s wife. But most of all, the challenge was how to maintain that love without having to violate human laws.
At most, while Tristan may be wounded in battle, he brought forth victory for his own, for the king of Cornwall, for the King of Ireland, and for the king of Brittany. Many times, he brought victory for his uncle.
But at the end of it all, what he shared with his only love Iseult was besieged with pain and suffering as their love was never fully shared in the sight of men for theirs was considered immoral and illicit.
The story of Tristan of Thomas is so much like the classic Greek tragedies. While Sinka may have referred to Christian ideologies of pain as symbolism for penance and cleansing as Europe at that time had been Christianized, many elements of adventure, challenges, pain, and victory are considered prevalent themes.
Tristan of Thomas, therefore, provided the reader these classic elements intertwined with, not only physical challenges but at the most, the emotional and mental challenge for both Tristan and Iseult who were, like the Greek human victims of the Olympus’ gods’ carelessness, victims of fate. Iseult’s mother, although well-meaning, represents the Greek gods that intervene with human episodes through the use of a potion while Brangien, Iseult, and Tristan represent the victims of such intervention done in mistake.
This, the reader delves into the challenges, pain, and glory attained by the characters. Iseult for her losing her uncle Morholt, but gaining Tristan who killed a devious dragon. Then, only to experience pain with Tristan again by accidentally drinking the wine potion. Mark of Cornwall also experienced pain and suffering as he always had to choose between loving his loyal nephew, son of his sister Blanchefleur, and then, between the Queen Iseult and the barons’ loyalty. Most especially, the reader sympathizes with the dear Tristan who was pure, brave, and yet a victim of love despite all his glories.
Bedier, Joseph, M. (2004). The Romance Of Tristan And Iseult. Project Gutenberg. Web.
Ewert, Alfred, ed (1970). The Romance of Tristan by Beroul. A Poem of the Twelfth Century. 2 vols. Oxford: Blackwell.
Gottfried von Strassburg (___) Tristan (Translated Entire for the First Time with the surviving fragments of the Tristan of Thomas). Penguin Books.
Pitts, Brent (1990). “Absence, Memory, and the Ritual of Love in Thomas’s Roman de Tristan.” The French Review Vol. 63, No. 5. pp. 790-799.
Sinka, Margit. (1977). “Wound Imagery in Gottfried von Strassburg’s “Tristan””. South Atlantic Bulletin Vol. 42, No. 2, pp. 3-10.
Wind, Barthina (1960). Thomas, Les fragments du Roman de Tristan. Poeme du Xlle siecle. Geneve: Droz.