Tristan, by Gottfried von Strassburg

Here's my third version of the Tristan and Iseult story, but the first one that has been available as a complete manuscript.  Gottfried von Strassburg was one of the great German Arthurian writers of the Middle Ages, and though we don't know much about him, he probably wasn't a courtier or a knight.  He seems to have been something more along the lines of a prominent town official.

He might not have been a courtier, but his story is more 'courtly' than the other two I've read, which are more straightforward and rough.  This Tristan has a lot in it about manners and rich clothing, and it's generally more elaborate, with fancy little touches.  It's not so detailed on the fighting; Gottfried is clearly more interested in clothes than in war (maybe he came from a family of textile merchants?).

Tristan gets a whole long backstory, with parents who fall in love and a foster father and a childhood.  That was quite fun; I've never read any of that before.  There's lots of good stuff about King Mark and Isolde's Irish home.  It's a very nice read that moves along pretty well.

Then, of course, there's the fatal potion and love affair between Tristan and Isolde.  Here, there is no three-year time limit.  It's permanent.  It's always interesting to me how the authors deal with this problem that they are in love, they are adulterers committing what would normally be considered a severe crime (queens don't get to have lovers!), but they're also the sympathetic protagonists of the story and it's not quite their fault...but it's still adultery.  You get incidents like Tristan praying:
O Lord in thy mercy and goodness have us both in thy keeping!  Stand guard over Isole on this path!  Guide her every step!  Make the blameless woman somehow aware of this vile ambush which has been set for us, lest she say or do anything that could give rise to ugly thoughts.  O my Lord, have pity on her and me!  I commend our lives and honour this night to Thee!

--this while hoping that Isolde's husband won't catch her talking with Tristan, because they don't want him to find out that they are indeed doing exactly what he suspects.  In fact, Isolde later goes through a trial by fire to prove her innocence, and she passes.  The author of the introduction, A. T. Hatto, explains this by commenting
So far as we can recover his thoughts, the author of the earliest discernible version of the story seems to be saying: 'Well, if the Lord will permit such things as love-philtres to ensnare innocent mortals, be it on his own head!'
Which I think is about right.

The potion does have a definite effect on the two though.  They both become willing to sacrifice everything to their affair, so that Tristan isn't so interested in knightly ideals like honor, and Isolde actually plots the death of her faithful maidservant Brangane.  I've never seen that before, so it was quite interesting to see von Strassburg pointing out the downside to the love potion.  (On the other hand, they also become able to live entirely on Love, needing neither food nor drink!)

Tristan spends a good deal of time playing the harp.
This was quite a good read.  Next I'm going to tackle another German story, the Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach.  After that I plan to read Thomas Malory, or at least I'll wind up with that, but I'll probably do another Arthur story too.  


  1. "be it on his own head" is a nice argument! :) I'm yet to read a Tristan story (if you don't count Cliges, which is basically the same), but I'm looking forward to it.
    Eschenbach's Parzival is already on my e-reader, and Malory on my table, scaring me with its volume :) Maybe we can make a read-a-long of it? :)

  2. Ha! That is a very good argument about the Lord. Presumably that's how Tristan and Iseult explained the thing to themselves. :p

  3. Parzival has me scared with the length. Hm, a Malory read-along...good idea! Maybe in October and November?

  4. I'm in the middle of the second continuation of Troyes's Perceval, and it's very long and meandering too..
    October/November sounds good! I'm sure there may be other readers interested in joining :) Reading such a giant alone can be a sad business :)


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