Friday, March 20, 2009

Tristan & Iseult

I'm reading the Romance of Tristan & Iseult, the prose retelling by J. Bedier as translated by Hilaire Belloc. It's an old tale of romantic love and has much in common with the English cycle of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. This one deals with Tristan, son of the sister of King Mark of Cornwall. He is sent to Ireland to find Iseult of the Golden Hair to be queen of Cornwall. On the way back the two accidentally drink a love potion meant for Iseult and King Mark. The two become bound in their passion even as she marries Mark as promised. (The theme of illicit love and a cuckolded king points toward Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur.) I won't go into detail but the two die together on a foreign shore and the king brings their bodies home.
It's not so much the story that holds my interest as it is the tradition by which it came to us. The most ancient is a series of poems about the story, not all authored by the same poet: the German poets Eilhart von Oberg and Gottfried von Strassburg, the French poet Beroul, the Anglo-Norman Thomas the Rhymer. (Malory used a fragment for his passage in his Mort d'Arthur as a foil to the adulterous love of Guinevere and Arthur's best friend.)

As the recitals became popular and written down as poems, another version appeared in the "vulgar" language, that of the people rather than the nobility. Instead of poetry it was set down as prose, a collection of tales.Still, it all takes me back to a time when poetry was entertainment, a social activity, a means of bonding and communicating. We have given up much by passing poetry from page to eye rather than from mouth to ear.

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