Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Tristan and Isolde

Anyhow, onto something really important - Love. 

If you've never heard the story of Tristan and Isolde, you've really missed out on something.  You could start by reading it in a children's version, perhaps one of the ones I read as a child.  Following Thomas Malory's 15th century lead, they wove it in between that more famous love triangle involving Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot.  You could attempt to listen to Wagner's operatic treatment of it, if you understand German and can stand opera.  Or you could read this most beautiful version, written in the 13th century by the German poet Gottfried von Strassburg and translated into English prose by AT Hatto.

The heart of the story is simple and well-known.  Yes, there is a love potion, a dragon, a giant, a fairy dog and a magic lovers' cave, but these are just entertaining diversions from the all too recognisable humanity of the tale.  Tristan is commissioned by his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, to travel to Ireland and negotiate a marriage with Isolde, daughter of the King of Ireland.  Tristan is successful in his mission and escorts Isolde back to Cornwall for her marriage.  The love potion, which Isolde's mother has instructed her companion Brangane to serve to the newlyweds on their wedding night, is accidentally served instead to Tristan and Isolde during the voyage.  They commence a steamy affair and although the marriage goes ahead as planned, the affair carries on under the nose of King Mark before being finally exposed.  Tristan is then banished, and both parties pine for one another until their tragic deaths.

In lesser hands this could be dull and depressing.  The version written by an otherwise unknown Thomas of Britain, which was Gottfried's main source and which Hatto uses to close Gottfried's unfinished epic, is a clumsy affair.  Yet in Gottfried's hands, even in translation, the story breathes life and passion. Out of a chivalric romance he creates an extended tribute to the agony and ecstasy of love.

It almost goes without saying the author of such a love-story must have known love himself, and Gottfried confirms this.  He concludes his description of the mystical lovers cave:

I know this well, for I have been there....But never have I had my repose in it....I have known that cave since I was eleven, yet I never set foot in Cornwall.

Gottfried's tale breathes all the suppressed passion of the frustrated lover.  His vision of the joy and sorrow of love, of the pain that gives pleasure and the pleasure that gives pain, transcends time and place. 

He lets you know what is to come in the tale of Tristan's parents which begins his story.  They meet, and fall in love.  Gottfried compares the event to a bird caught in a sticky trap.

...a lover's fancy acts like a free bird which, in the freedom it enjoys, perches on a lime-twig; and when it perceives the lime and lifts itself for flight stays clinging by the feet.  And so it spreads its wings and makes to get away, but, as it does so, cannot brush against the twig at any part, however lightly, without the twig's fettering it and making it a prisoner.  So now it strikes with all its might, here, there and everywhere, till at last, fighting itself, it overcomes itself and lies limed along the twig.  This is just how untamed fancy behaves.  When it falls into sad love-longing and love works its miracle of love-lorn sadness on him, the lover strives to regain his freedom: but love's clinging sweetness draws him down and he ensnares himself in it so deeply that, try as he may, he cannot get free of it.

This sense of love as a trap, as something which overcomes and masters us, something against which we are powerless, is sealed by the motif of the love potion which Tristan and Isolde accidentally drink.  Before the drinking, Isolde hates Tristan because he killed her uncle in battle.  Tristan's duty and his sole intent is to see her married to his uncle and patron.  Yet once they are served the drink, everything changes. 

Now when the maid and the man, Isolde and Tristan, had drunk the draught, in an instant that arch-disturber of tranquillity was there, Love, waylayer of all hearts, and she had stolen in!  Before they were aware of it she had planted her victorious standard in their two hearts and bowed them beneath her yoke.  They who were two and divided now became one and united....They shared a single heart.  Her anguish was his pain: his pain her anguish.  The two were one both in joy and in sorrow....

Well may Brangane lament:

Ah, Tristan and Isolde, this draught will be your death!

The potion is hardly necessary.  It is Love itself which is all powerful, which changes their destiny and ties them to the wheel of deceit.  There can be no question of cancelling the marriage, but nor can there be any question of them parting, or refraining.  The couple feel no remorse about deceiving their husband and patron.  The only pain they feel is the result of Love itself.

At times they were happy, at others out of humour, as is Love's custom with lovers; for in their hearts she brews pain beside pleasure, sorrow and distress as well as joy.  And distress for Tristan and his lady Isolde was when they could not contrive a love-meeting.

In such a tale it is easy to start to think of the young lovers as hero and heroine, and wish them all joy.  What of poor Mark?  Malory, in his heavy-handed way, gives in and makes Mark the villain, a cruel, cowardly ruler, and it seems a crime to sentence the lovely young Isolde to his bed.  Not so for Gottfried.  His Mark may be weak and indecisive but he is kind and generous, a faithful, noble ruler loved by his people.  For Gottfried, Love is the only villain, and Mark too is its victim - doubly so, for not only does he love Isolde deeply, but Tristan is his closest friend and confidante, and Love takes them both from him.

Mark, meanwhile, was burdened by a double sorrow....His friend Tristan, his joy Isolde - these two were his chief affliction.  They pressed sorely on him, heart and soul....He bore with this double pain after the common fashion and desert, for when he wished to have his pleasure with Isolde, suspicion thwarted him, and then he wished to investigate and track down the truth of the matter.  But since this was denied him, doubt racked him once more....

Much though they may try, Tristan and Isolde can't hide their love, can't refrain from showing it even in Mark's presence.

How right he was who said that however one guards against it, the eye longs for the heart, the finger longs for the pain.  The eyes, those lodestars of the heart, long to go raiding to where the heart is turned; the finger and the hand time and time again go towards the pain.  So it was with these lovers.  However great their fears, they had not the power to refrain from nourishing suspicion with many a tender look, often and all too often....Mark had found Love's balm in them, for he was always watching them.  His eye was always on them.  He secretly read the truth in her eyes many, many times, and indeed in nothing but her glance - it was so very lovely, so tender, and so wistful that it pierced him to the heart, and he conceived such anger....

This tragic triangle can't go on forever, especially when other courtiers begin to suspect, and spies begin to set traps of the lovers.  Despite Mark's willful blindness, and every trick and strategem Tristan, Isolde and the cunning Brangane can devise, eventually it all has to end and tragedy take its course.

You might find this depressing.  You might feel that if this is love, you would be better off avoiding it, staying single or perhaps settling for a conventional, companionable but passion-free marriage.  Gottfried has two answers for you.  The first is, of course, that you don't get to choose.  If love lays siege to your heart, it will fall.  The second is this:

...when we are deeply in love, however great the pain, our heart does not flinch.  The more a lover's passion burns in its furnace of desire, the more ardently will he love.  This sorrow is so full of joy, this ill is so inspiriting that, having once been heartened by it, no noble heart will forego it! 

May it always be so!

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