The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth


tristan and iseultThe Romance of Tristan and Iseult

As Retold by Joseph Bédier (French, 1900)

Translation by Hilaire Belloc, completed by Paul Rosenberg Pantheon 1945, Vintage reissue 1994

Reviewed by Seana Graham

If you’ve been around literature or opera enough, or maybe are just mad for James Franco, you are probably already familiar with this tale. I happen to have taken it up because the legend of Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde) plays a big role in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which I am reading with a local group. At the moment we are in the midst of a part particularly indebted to the legend, and apparently Bédier’s version was a crucial source for Joyce.

Bédier was an esteemed French medievalist and literary theorist and although many different variations on the legend have come down to us, he believed that there was an “Ur-Tristan” and so attempted to assemble all the many scattered variants of the legend, which came down to him in fragments of French poetry, into one coherent tale. It’s interesting to me that the story resists such unity and even within this book, Bédier must fight off other alternative tellings.

Whether or not there was an Ur-Tristan story, there is certainly a Tristan archetype which has had enormous staying power. The different versions of how Tristran and Iseult come to fall in love are illuminating, mostly having to do with a love potion, though how and who it was administered by and to what lasting effect vary. In this version, the potion is taken mistakenly, but lastingly. Although Iseult has been promised to King Mark, her romantic destiny is with Tristan. It is something that neither can to any large degree either resist or control. Coping with this inevitability is what makes the story.

I started this book rather dutifully as background material, but it turns out that Bédier’s translation has a great deal of charm. It reminded me a bit of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King in its ability to take us into a world that is not quite our own but convincingly has our own sense of emotional consequences. There are dragons and giants and a magical dog, but if we accept the reality of love potions for the time being, the ways that Tristan, Iseult and King Mark all seek to deal with their shared predicament is much the way that we would, although perhaps none of us would be quite so persistent or so valiant. And, as it gives nothing away, I will treat you to the last paragraph that Bédier sets down:

“The good singers of old time, Béroul and Thomas of Built, Gilbert and Gottfried told this tale for lovers and none other, and, by my pen, they beg you for your prayers. They greet those who are cast down, and those in heart, those troubled and those filled with desire, those who are overjoyed and those disconsolate, all lovers. May all herein find strength against inconstancy, against unfairness and despite and loss and pain and all the bitterness of loving.”

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.

Tristan and Iseult at Vintage Books

Audio rendition of Tristan and Isuelt at Librivox (apparently very good)