Chrétien Lives!

I walked into Tristan + Isolde not expecting to enjoy it very much. From the trailers it appeared entirely too much like a page out of the same book as Romeo + Juliet, right down to the stupid “+” in the title. Nevertheless, the demands of Hero Quest and the Holy Grail required my attendance, so I settled comfortably into my seat, determined to see what it was all about and give it a fair hearing. And the results were not nearly so bad as I had led myself to believe.

The story proceeds thusly: The various tribes of Ancient Britain are in a bad way. All of them, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and so forth, are being oppressed by the powerful Irish across the sea. Together they would have little difficulty keeping the Irish at bay, but the King of Ireland (a crafty son of a gun) is fairly good at keeping things fragmented.

As the movie begins, the leaders of the various tribes have gathered in secret to finally form an alliance under the leadership of the best of them: Lord Mark. However, a traitor has tipped off the Irish, and they arrive in force to break things up. In the process, they also kill the parents of young Tristan and Lord Mark’s pregnant wife. Mark himself loses a hand saving Tristan’s life, then takes him home and adopts him.

Years pass, the Irish maintain their position, and Tristan grows into a knight of considerable prowess. Finally, the Irish send out one raid too many after Mark’s womenfolk, and Tristan leads a bold assault on the Irish forces. The Celtic tribes win, but Tristan is poisoned and presumed dead. His grief-stricken comrades drop him in a boat and shove him out into the sea. He floats to Ireland, is discovered by Isolde, daughter of the Irish king, and is nursed back to health. Meanwhile, they (of course) fall madly in love and she deceives him about her identity, claiming to be a mere servant.

Tristan returns from the dead just in time to participate in a tournament that the king of Ireland is holding in hopes of keeping the various tribal leaders at each other’s throats while he rebuilds his forces. The prize is a sizable chunk of land and the king’s daughter . . . and Tristan enters the tournament in the name of Mark, not knowing whose hand he is actually fighting for.

The rest is fairly easy to predict (more or less). Isolde has no choice but to marry Mark, and Tristan has no choice but to let her. They struggle with their feelings for each other, and finally succumb to the lure of adultery. The traitor and the Irish king find out about the affair and use it to break Mark’s newfound unifying power over the other tribes, “stumbling” upon the couple’s final tryst with Mark and the other leaders. Finally, Tristan chooses his loyalty to Mark over his love for Isolde and sacrifices himself to undo the damage they have caused, and all of the main characters live unhappily ever after so that everyone else can live happily ever after.

Despite some decidedly angsty performances, particularly from Tristan, the movie worked quite well as a tragedy of courtly romance in the tradition of Chrétien de Troyes and other royal troubadours of the 10th to 12th centuries. I have only recently been introduced to their works, but already I could see the connections between the movie and the medieval romances. There is a strong sense of inevitable doom hovering over the characters and events thanks to an excellent use of foreshadowing.

When Tristan finally buys the farm, we realize that it had to happen that way. Adulterous couples don’t tend to end well in the medieval tradition. Additionally, the movie employed some striking symbolism, most notably with the relationship between Tristan and Mark. Mark loses his right hand to save Tristan’s life, and Tristan becomes his strong right hand as he grows up.

My group presented on “The Knight of the Cart” (of the four Arthurian Romances by de Troyes that we read for class). This story probably bears the strongest resemblance to the story of the movie because it is the only one which glorifies an adulterous relationship rather than marital fidelity (namely, the Lancelot and Guinevere connection). The two stories employ many of the same elements in approaching the relationship. The Mark-Isolde-Tristan triangle is an exact parallel of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle. Both Tristan and Lancelot perform great and daring feats of arms, inspired by their love. Both couples wrestle with the morality of what they are doing, but are unable to stop. In terms of the essentials, both movie and book are telling the same story.

Studying Chrétien de Troyes and the courtly romance genre definitely enhanced my enjoyment of the movie several-fold. By itself it’s nothing special, just a halfway decent popcorn flick, but with a bit of understanding of the long history behind its story, it became the latest incarnation of a centuries-old literary tradition. And that was a perspective which simply couldn’t fail to fascinate me.

~ by Jared on February 16, 2006.

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