It was a book with a dark blue cover, with a ghostly picture of a Mediaeval ship, in a paler blue and grey, on the front. My mother had brought it for me from the local library, in Nice, as I sat up in bed, age twelve, my neck all swollen with mumps.
“Seigneurs, vous plaît-il d’entendre un beau conte d’amour et de mort? C’est de Tristan et d’Iseut la reine. Ecoutez comment à grand’ joie, à grand deuil ils s’aimèrent, puis en moururent un même jour, lui par elle, elle par lui.” *
Thus Joseph Bédier starts his lay.
“My Lords, would it please ye to hear a beautiful tale of love and death? ‘Tis of Tristan and of Queen Iseut. Listen how, to their great joy and great sorrow, they loved each-other then died of their love upon the same day, he because of her, and she because of him.”
I did not want dinner, that evening, nor sleep. I could not bear to part with the book. The more I drank its bewitching prose, the more I thirsted after it. The words were light as air, fragrant as honeysuckle, vivid as a fire, soothing as the strings of a lute and haunting as moonlight. They wove a tale of such incomparable beauty, I felt I had been given the key to a realm of wonders. Some episodes were already familiar to me. I had heard their echoes in the Russian fairy tales my grandmother had told me. For instance, King Mark announces to his plotting barons that he will marry the woman whose golden hair two squabbling swallows have dropped on his windowsill that day. In the Russian story, it is two sparrows that fight over the golden hair. Other things were strange to me. Learning that Iseut has ordered to have her slain, faithful servant Brangien cannot recall ever causing her mistress any offence except, she says, by lending her her own nightgown for the Queen’s wedding night, since hers was torn on the sea voyage to Cornwall. I was shocked, and wondered at the extreme poverty of Celtic people. That the daughter of the King of Ireland should have only one nightgown, and have to borrow her servant’s for her wedding night, seemed odd to me. Had she been the heroine of a Russian or Middle Eastern fairy tale, she would have had caravans of nightgowns follow her train. All would have been richly embroidered in silver, gold and pearls, and stored in trunks of gold and gemstones.
I read and reread the book, renewing my library loan as many times as I was allowed, then went to a bookshop. Imagine my disappointment when I was told that it was out of print. Then, imagine my joy when, a few years later, I came across a battered 1920 paperback edition of the book amidst various pieces of junk in a bric-à-brac shop. The manilla brown cover has a Celtic lovebird pattern beneath the title. The pages are thick and their edges frayed, obviously cut with a blunt paper knife by its original reader. I must find a caring craftsman, a true lover of books, to bind the precious tome in the style it deserves.
First published in 1900, Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut is a poem in prose written by Mediaeval expert Joseph Bédier, in which he brings together several fragments by poets such as Béroul, Thomas, Marie de France and Gottfried of Strasbourg, and weaves them into a complete story. His work, which received an award from the Académie Française, is more than a translation. It is a pure work of art in its own right. Although written in prose, the book reads like a poem, so rich and evocative is Joseph Bédier’s style. The late 19th Century French captures – like a scent in a bottle or a colourful Flemish tapestry – the sensibilities and atmosphere of the 12th Century Celtic legend.
The spell cast upon me by Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut led me to explore Mediaeval literature, music and art. From there, I read La Chanson de Roland, Le Roman de Renart and the poetry of Chrétien de Troyes. I became fascinated with Arthurian legends. I read avidly anything I could find on the subject.
Years later, when, as part of a trial, the University of Durham French Department elected that all fourth years should choose to specialise in a specific period, I shrieked away in horror at 19th Century depression and 20th Century angst and, instead, chose Mediaeval and Renaissance French Literature. One of the set texts was the French poetry of the Tristan and Isolde legends. This time, of course, I required the help of a Mediaeval French dictionary. It was such delight to revisit the enchanted land I had first stumbled upon as a mumps-ridden twelve year-old.
Of all the tragic love stories, the legend of Tristan and his Isolt/Yseult/Isolde is the most poignant and the most romantic. It defies all the rules of State and Church, and yet carries a message of loyalty, courage, faith, integrity and hope. Its protagonists are flawed, but that is perhaps what makes them both so true to life. It is, after all, a story of true love. The magic love potion brewed by Iseut’s mother, I believe, is a narrative device to make the story more credible. How else could most people believe that such steadfast passion exists, if not triggered by sorcery? Unless, of course, they have known such love themselves. And that is how Joseph Bédier concludes his tale. He tells us that his story is meant for those who love – not for the others.
© Scribe Doll
* Joseph Bédier, Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut (Editions Piazza)
Please note that Joseph Bédier’s Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut is now back in print, and readily available – both in book and electronic reader forms.