Review of Le Roman de Tristan (The Romance of Tristan and Yseut)

Portrayal of Tristan and Yseut by Herbert Draper

Portrayal of Tristan and Yseut by Herbert Draper

Last month, I finished reading the Thomas version of the story of Tristan and Yseut. Le Roman de Tristan is a medieval courtly love poem written en octasyllabes (each line has eight syllables and the poem has an AABB rhyme scheme). Because I have great difficulty reading old French, I read a modern French version of it. There are quite a few Medieval versions of this story, but I read the Thomas version. For all you French speakers out there, there is also a popular condensed version of this story, called Tristan et Iseut by Joseph Bédier.

What was it about?

Tristan, an Arthurian knight, is in love with Yseut, the wife of King Marc. Tristan also happens to be Marc’s nephew. This is a classic courtly love poem because a noble (a knight) falls in love with one who is nobler than him (a queen). King Marc asks Tristan to bring Yseut to his kingdom so that he can marry her. But on the boat, Tristan and Yseut drink a love potion, and they instantly fall in love for each other. Of course, such a love is forbidden in the kingdom, so after tricking King Marc into sleeping with his wife’s maidservant so that Tristan can sleep with Yseut, Tristan leaves the kingdom and marries another woman named Yseut. He marries this Yseut aux Blanches Mains (Yseut of the white hands), because she has the same name as the queen and is beautiful. Tristan, assuming that the queen is enjoying her life with the king, marries this other Yseut because he wants to understand marital love. However after the marriage, he refuses to have sexual intercourse with his wife because he suddenly feels guilty for having cheated on his lover. Therefore, as a sacrifice for the queen, he sleeps next to Yseut aux Blanches Mains but doesn’t touch her. Dissatisfied with his present life, Tristan returns to Marc’s kingdom, in hopes of finding the queen.

What did I think about it?

I think we can all agree that Le Roman de Tristan has a pretty weird plot. The values of loyalty and sacrifice are turned on their heads. Tristan’s loyalty to a married woman prevents him from fulfilling his marital duties, and Thomas doesn’t seem to think that this is wrong.  In fact, Thomas intervenes frequently in defense of this illicit affair. Because passages have been lost in history, the story jumps around, and it is difficult to keep straight the two Yseuts and the two Tristans (yes, there are two Tristans as well). You really have to suspend all judgment when you read this poem because deus ex machina is the call of the day. While I think that there were better courtly love poems written in the Middle Ages such as Le Chevalier de la Charette by Chrétien de Troyes, I enjoyed reading this poem because of the characters of Yseut aux Blanches Mains and the maidservant Brangien. Both women, though neglected and/or used by their superiors, find ways to challenge the oppressive systems in which they find themselves.