The Romance of Tristan by Beroul
The Romance of Tristan, authored by the Norman poet Beroul, is probably one of the earliest and mostly intact version of the legend of Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde, Yseult, etc.) and is of the “vulgar” or common form of the legend as opposed to the “courtly” version. This makes for a distinctive medieval feeling poem as it can be quite disjointed and episodic. I think that, while this does take away somewhat from the character development and can make the plot of the poem rather jarring, each individual episode in the poem has the potential to be much more hard-hitting and visceral.
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Essentially this is a love story between the knight Tristan and Iseult. The catch is that, even though Tristan earns Iseult’s hand, he has already done so to give her to his uncle and lord, King Mark. However, on the return voyage to Cornwall from Iseult’s native Ireland, the two accidentally drink a love potion and the effects are strong and immediate. Despite the love ption only lasting for three years, the two continue to love one another despite the difficulties of this at King Mark’s court. The king’s courtiers and agents have to be avoided or dealt with and in the end they know they cannot be together because they still love King Mark and do not wish him harm.
The poem is interesting in that it is an earlier version of the King Arthur/Queen Guinevere/Sir Lancelot love triangle. The lovers must use guile and wits to stay noble and honest as they are never caught directly lying because of their plays on words and things of that nature. The love between Tristan and Iseult has also influenced many artistic endeavors and played a prominent role in pinning down romantic love during the medieval era. From their “innocence” due to the effects of the love potion, through their companionship in the forest for three years, maturation at separation, and with their tragic deaths, it is easy to see why their love story resonated in the Middle Ages and continues to be examined down to our own day.
Overall, The Romance of Tristan is a straightforward medieval romance with a good helping of wit and tragedy. Also, Beroul’s version in the Penguin Classics series has a great introductory essay/commentary on the poem and has a few notes that attempt at explaining some obscure lines in the poem. If you enjoy either medieval romances or stories of King Arthur (he is a minor character in this work) you should look into reading this medieval poem.
5 out of 5 stars *I always give primary sources this rating*