by Gottfried von Strassburg
(ca. 1210)
   GOTTFRIED VON STRASSBURG’s version of the TRISTAN story sets in with a highly significant prologue in which the narrator characterizes true love as a quasi-eucharistic experience, possible only for those with a noble heart, a spiritual form of nobility. The ROMANCE begins with Tristan’s parents, Rivalin and Blanscheflûr, who beget their child outside of wedlock. Whereas Rivalin soon dies in battle, Blanscheflûr succumbs during labor. The young orphan is raised in hiding by the country’s marshall, Rual li foitenant, and his wife, Floræte, and receives the best possible education, soon proving to be a child prodigy, excelling particularly in music and foreign languages.When Norwegian merchants try to kidnap him, a wild storm forces them to drop him at a distant coast. From there he finds his way to the court of King Mark, whom he does not yet recognize as his uncle, until his tutor Rual arrives four years later and explains the relationship. Subsequently Tristan frees his deceased father’s country, Parmenie, from King Morgan’s suppression by killing his opponent, but he quickly returns to his uncle, leaving Parmenie in Rual’s and his sons’ hands. In Cornwall Tristan proves his outstanding chivalric abilities when he kills the Irish knight Morold, who tried to collect tribute from Mark, but Tristan is poisoned in the process. He finds healing only with the Irish queen Isolde, who asks him to instruct her daughter, Isolde the Fair, in the arts.After Tristan has returned home, he faces serious envy on the part of Mark’s barons, and to protect himself from their enmity he promises to win Isolde the Fair’s hand for Mark. Tristan accomplishes his goal by killing a dragon that had ravaged Ireland, and so he gains the right to ask for Isolde’s hand on behalf ofMark.However,while traveling back to Cornwall, the two young people drink a love potion—clearly to be understood metaphorically—that her mother had brewed for her daughter and her future husband. Thus begins their lifelong love affair that occupies the rest of the romance.
   Tristan and Isolde soon fall under suspicion of committing adultery, but they manage to hide their affair for a while until bloodstains—Tristan had jumped to Isolde’s bed to make love with her right after a blood-letting session—on both their beds betray them. Isolde denies the charges yet must undergo an ordeal with the hot iron to prove her innocence. Swearing to God, however, that she lay in no other man’s arms than her husband’s and those of a poor pilgrim who had carried her from the ship to the shore and then had fallen, she tells the “truth” and does not burn herself because she had asked Tristan to pretend to be a pilgrim. In the meantime Tristan wins, as a gift for Isolde, a magical dog, Petitcrîu, whose bell hanging from its neck produces music that makes every listener completely happy. Nevertheless Isolde, realizing the deceptive quality of this music, tears off the bell and destroys the magic to protect her true love for Tristan. Mark, however, clearly recognizes that his wife and nephew love each other and expels both from his court.
   Tristan and Isolde retire into a love cave where they enjoy each other as in an erotic utopia, until one day Marke happens to discover the cave and observes both sleeping next to each other in bed. Yet even here he is deceived by Tristan, who makes him believe that a strategically placed sword between them confirms their innocence.Consequently Mark allows them to return to his court, but they cannot contain their love and are finally caught in flagrante. This time Tristan leaves for good and traverses various countries until he comes across another young woman called Isolde (Whitehand). A new love relationship develops, but it seems to be only one-sided, as Tristan always longs for Isolde the Fair, yet misleads Isolde Whitehand by apparently wooing her. Since Gottfried’s text breaks off at this point, we don’t know how he would have concluded his romance. Both the Old French versions and the 13th-century German Tristan romances suggest a number of variant conclusions, each of them leading up to Tristan’s and Isolde’s deaths. Ultimately Isolde emerges as the true heroine, fully capable of manipulating her environment to her profit, maintaining extraordinary self-control, and demonstrating the highest degree of loyalty to her lover, whereas Tristan begins to waver in his love and seems torn between Isolde the Fair and Isolde Whitehand. While Isolde has to go through a lengthy learning process and then achieves the triumphs of a true lover with a noble heart, Tristan hardly needs any development and seems to pale as a character at the end of the narrative in comparison with Isolde.
   ■ Bekker,Hugo. Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan: Journey Through the Realm of Eros. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1987.
   ■ Chinca,Mark. Gottfried von Strassburg: Tristan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
   ■ Gottfried von Straßburg. Tristan. Edited by Karl Marold.Werner Schröder, 1906. 3rd revised edition, Berlin: de Gruyter, 1969.
   ■ ———. Tristan and Isolde. Edited and translated by Francis Gentry. New York: Continuum, 1988.
   ■ Grimbert, Joan Tasker, ed. Tristan and Isolde: A Casebook. Arthurian Characters and Themes, 2. New York: Routledge, 2002.
   Albrecht Classen

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

Look at other dictionaries:

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