Classics Retold – Tristan and Iseult – Book Review

classicsretold* CONTAINS SPOILERS

Book bloggers have all the fun, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I’m very excited to be signing up for the massive Classics Retold event hosted by Books Take You Places under the Ancient to Renaissance Lit Classics category.

Tristan and Iseult is where it all begins. Every story about star-crossed lovers, love triangles and tragic heroes we have ever known originates from this medieval tale of a knight and princess from opposing lands who fall in love. In fact, all of our ideas of what romantic love is or should be starts with Tristan and Iseult.

The book is about love, honour, betrayal, duty and tragedy. The Cornish knight, Tristan is responsible for delivering the Irish princess, Iseult to be the bride of his uncle, King Mark. However, a magic potion that he and the princess accidentally drink causes them to fall madly in love. The young lovers decide the right thing to do is forget about each other. But even after she marries Mark, Iseult and Tristan can’t resist the powers that draw them together. Whether they run away or honour their duties to the king, there is no place in the world where they are free to love one another. Broken-hearted by separation, the story ends tragically with one last attempt to be united in love.isolde

The legend of Tristan and Iseult is believed to date back to the 11th century and with new translations and interpretations over the centuries, the story branched out into several distinct versions. Trying to follow the timeline of how the story evolved and what version is what and written by whom was overwhelming. It was a maze of information that I got lost in very quickly, so I won’t get too heavy with the historical facts.

For Classics Retold, I read an English translation of Joseph Bedier’s Roman de Tristan et Iseut (1900), best known for being a collection of materials that Bedier deconstructed and put back together to create a whole, cohesive story. His version has been acknowledged by scholars as being a plausible interpretation of the Tristan and Iseult legend. I found Bedier’s version a quick, easy read that was still full of substance.

As the ultimate love story, Tristan and Iseult didn’t disappoint as there are some wonderful romantic scenes and quotable lines. The lovers constantly call each other “friend” which I thought was absolutely adorable and I also enjoyed the clever little tricks Tristan and Iseult played on Mark to hide their affair. It makes for some of the lighter moments in this tragedy.

One thing that bothered me was that it takes a magic potion for Tristan and Iseult to fall in love as opposed to it happening on its own like in the movie, Tristan and Isolde. I questioned if it can really be true love if there is an outside influence. Is it just an excuse so the lovers don’t have to take responsibility for their actions? Not very romantic, I know. But I realized that with dragons, fairy dogs and the like, maybe magic is the most natural thing in this medieval world for two young people to drop their prejudices and only see each other.

As the poster boy for chivalry, Tristan does numerous honourable acts for both Mark and Iseult in the book. He is brave, strong and fiercely loyal. I’m surprised Mark wasn’t more concerned about Iseult ruining his relationship with Tristan. But the knight’s affair with Iseult is the beginning of his end, as he is forced to leave Cornwall in disgrace and starts to make bad decisions. Example one, marrying a woman he doesn’t love (the first relationship rebound ever, perhaps?). Example two, he shaves off his beautiful hair!

It’s obvious that Tristan is the star of the story and Iseult is meant to be best known as fair, clever and emotionally faithful. But she definitely has the most romantic lines in the book, such as: “Oh friend … fold your arms round me close and strain me so that our hearts may break and our souls go free at last. Take me to that happy place of which you told me long ago. The fields whence none return, but where great singers sing their songs for ever. Take me now.”

Okay, you can stop sighing now.

Overall, Tristan and Iseult is a beautiful story about star-crossed lovers. All of the romantic literary archetypes we know originate from this medieval tale. From Romeo and Juliet to Bella and Edward, the presence and impact of this story is still being felt to this day and we can’t seem to get enough. As for me, I started to think I was a little over the hill and not easily moved by love stories anymore, but Tristan and Iseult was touching and made me sad. The good kind of sad.

3 comments on “Classics Retold – Tristan and Iseult – Book Review

  1. Pingback: Classics Retold Challenge and Wrap-up | ebookclassics

  2. Galen Sherwood
    December 23, 2015

    In the introduction to his reconstruction of the T & I legend, Mon. Bedier declares that he has taken pains not to introduce modern concepts into the story that distort its meaning for the sake of making it more easily understandable to the modern mind.
    However; Bedier chooses to use the words “lovers” and “friend,” which are consistently misinterpreted by modern readers, as they are above.

    To us, “lovers” means people who have sex. In the context of Tristan and Iseult (as told by Bedier) it means solely people who love one another. The whole point of the story– the only thing that gives it any sense or cohesion, is that the two principals do not consummate their carnal desires. This is why Iseult survives the Ordeal by Iron. This is why Tristan is able to challenge anyone who doubts his word to trial by combat, and declare “if I am defeated, burn me before your men.” (Essentially: if I am lying, I will go to hell). This is why the four felons are delivered unto death when they seek to destroy the lovers.

    God’s love and blessing are what Tristan is talking about when he says: “I go to prepare that shining house I vowed (Iseult)- of crystal, and of rose, shot through with morning. How many houses built of crystal do you suppose there were in the real world in the 11th century? Hmmmm……

    The repeated use of the word “friend” is not an “adorable” affectation. It is an indication that the meaning they ascribe to friendship is NOTHING like what we think of it today. When they use it to refer to each other, it is a symbol of the highest respect and affection. In the age of infinite fake friendships, this usage is one of my favorite aspects of the narrative. Just imagining so much weight being given to a word that we toss around so lightly today almost (and sometimes does) bring me to tears.

    The first time I read the story I thought: “That was really weird. What was the point of all that if they never really get together and then they die because some bitch tells Tristan that the approaching ship is flying a black sail? That ending suuuuuuuuucks. But then I read it again and realized that the profound reversal of typical actions and motivations make it an invaluable counterpoint to all the self-obsessed lust narratives masquerading as love stories.


    • ebookclassics
      December 23, 2015

      Thank you for your insightful comments. I haven’t thought about this story for awhile and your points brought back some of the memories of how I felt reading Tristan and Iseult. Their ending is tragic, but I agree it is the beauty and purity of their love that will ensure their legacy never dies.


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