This is, as typical of lais, an episode from a larger narrative and the author relies on the fact that her audience is bound to be familiar with Tristran and Isolde’s story. King Mark is getting suspicious and he has banished Tristran to his home in south Wales. There Tristran spends a year, pining for his beloved. Finally he decides to go back to Cornwall, where he hides in a forest by day and comes to peasants’ huts by night. He learns one day that Mark together with his household are going to celebrate Pentecost at Tintagel and the cavalcade will be certainly passing through the nearby road. Overjoyed by this, he goes to the forest, cuts off a hazel branch, squares it and carves his name onto it. Then he puts it as a sign on the hillside near the road. These are lines which still are unclear to scholars: did Isolde know that Tristan was going to contact her? Because if she didn’t, then she must have been very sharp-sighted, to notice one peeled hazel branch in the forest. Anyway, she does. She tells her knights that she wants to take a walk in the forest [I strongly suspect it was “I want to pee], goes to the forest and has a brief joyous meeting with Tristran. She tells him that the king is going to forgive him and asks him to wait for a message from him. Tristran then composes a song about this meeting, which is this very lai – its English name is goatleaf (Marie actually uses the English word here), and its French name is Chevrefoil. This ties up very nicely the symbolism of the tale, because Marie writes earlier that Tristran and Isolde were like a honeysuckle (the contemporary name for goatleaf) and a hazel bush, so entwined that one would die without the other. Tristran uses the hazel switch as a signal, so Isolde is presumably the honeysuckle.
I wrote a nice long post and then pressed the wrong button and everything went puff! So just quickly – the lady eventually arrives, although she is building artfully the suspense, sending first one pair of her maids to announce her arrival, then the second one. Then she confirms Lanval’s story and picks him on her way back. He jumps on her horse, sits behind her and they ride off into the sunset, or rather to Avalon.
This is a charming story, which could easily veer into a sexist wish-fulfilment fantasy – after all, who wouldn’t like to have a hot girlfriend who is madly in love with him and throws money at him? But what saves it is not only the fact that it was written by a woman (after all, the author’s identity is rather vague), but also the fact that women call the shots in the romance. Lanval’s mistress picks him out, seduces him and ultimately saves him, while he remains curiously passive, which is emphasized by his riding behind her. So it’s a nice wish-fulfilment fantasy also for women – ladies, who wouldn’t like to be hot, young (presumably forever) and have enough dough to buy all the toyboys in the world?
When King Arthur returns home, the queen tells him the story, artfully mixing truth and lies. She claims it was Lanval who propositioned her (false) and when rebuffed, he said angrily that he has a more beautiful mistress anyway. The king sends his knights to fetch Lanval, who at this point doesn’t really care what happens to him because he realizes that by blabbing about his love he lost her. The following proceedings apparently follow what we know about 12th c. law to a tee. The king calls all his barons to judgment, because the case is too serious to be discussed just by the members of his household. In the meantime, he demands a surety. Lanval doesn’t really hope for one, because he is a stranger in a strange land, but Sir Gawain steps up and pledges his whole belongings as surety for Lanval, and his companions do it as well [Nice to see that they stick up for Lanval when he’s in trouble, not just when he is The Most Popular Guy in the Castle.] So Lanval can spend the time before the trial in his own rooms, not in a dank dungeon, while Sir Gawain and other knights keep an eye on him, making sure that he eats and doesn’t hurt himself.
The summoned barons gather in the castle and the proceedings begin. Lanval is cleared from the charge of propositioning the queen but he has to prove that his mistress is real, not imaginary, and so in his conversation with the queen he was just stating the facts, not offending her. But how can Lanval do it if his fairy mistress apparently now wants to have nothing to do with him?
Lanval leaves his love unwillingly and often looks back as he is riding away – is he ever going to see her? It seems too good to be true. But when he returns home, he finds that his servants are already dressed in rich liveries. From that moment on he has apparently unlimited amounts of money at his disposal, which he spends generously on presents, minstrels, paying fines for the prisoners etc., and thus becomes The Most Popular Guy in the Castle.
On one beautiful summer day the knights go to the garden to relax. Sir Gawain says “Why is Lanval not here? He is the coolest guy around, let’s get him”. [So now you like him, heh?] The queen (nameless here, but I’m going to call her Guinevere for the sake of the discussion) sees the knights from her tower, calls her ladies and goes down to the garden. In the garden everybody is immediately paired off except Lanval, who now sees the downsides of a long-distance relationship. The queen, seeing him alone, approaches him and offers her love, but Lanval rejects her, saying it would be a gross disloyalty to the King. The rebuffed Guinevere lashes back, accusing him of preferring boys (no, really) and suddenly feeling pious expresses her fear about how tolerating such sin could bring punishment on her husband’s court [while adultery is totally fine by God, I’m sure]. Lanval then overreacts, saying that he’s already got a girlfriend (good), but then overdoes it, saying that his girlfriend’s lowliest servant is more beautiful than the Queen. The mortified Guinevere goes inside and takes to bed, thinking about her revenge. Lanval, every woman could tell you that while the line “I have a boyfriend” is mostly effective (it’s sad that women have to resort to it, as if their “i’m not interested” were not a reason enough), it has to be delivered almost apologetically, in the “I would totally do you if I weren’t already the property of this other guy” way, not “My boyfriend is a multimillionaire and a total dreamboat and a schmuck like you doesn’t have a shadow of a chance with me” way.
Joking aside, one thing I would like to notice here: it’s not only important to be rich (which is always nice), it’s also important to be generous. It’s going to be a few centuries before the penny-pinching petit-bourgeois delayed-satisfaction ethics takes over. And it’s also not the kind of spending style we are familiar with today – when you spend millions on yachts, partying and drugs. It’s important to share your wealth with your friends.
The mysterious author identifies herself at the end of the cycle of lais (short romances) as Marie who was born in France. She wrote in the Anglo-Norman dialect and as the editors of the NAEL write, there is some circumstantial evidence that she lived at least for some time in England, mostly because there are quite a few of the manuscripts of her poetry preserved in Engiand. She must have been fairly educated lady, fluent in reading and writing both French and Latin and she also claims to be familiar with Breton poetry. There are several possible historical Maries, including the illegitimate half-sister of Henry II, Marie the abbess of Shaftesbury. It may be surprising for some modern readers because the poems are rather worldly. But then, the medieval abbesses were often rather worldly aristocratic ladies.
The first of the two lais selected for the anthology is Lanval. King Arthur is spending the Pentecost near the Scottish border because of the ongoing war with the Scots and Picts. He celebrates by giving away riches and wives [even a proto-feminist author has to relate the culture of her times, I guess] to his trusted knights. But Lanval is for some reason passed over. He is not very popular because other knights are jealous of his good looks, bravery and largesse. This largesse, however, now proved to be his undoing. He spent all his money, he got nothing from the king and he is too proud to ask. He is also the son of an unspecified foreign king and I guess writing home to ask for money is not an option. So he’s a foreigner, alone at the court of King Arthur, running out of money and with no friends. Not a very good situation, but it’s going to change soon.
The ship on which Ysolt is travelling is caught in a terrible storm which lasts for five days. Ysolt is wailing all the time [lady, you’re not helping – I imagine the sailors think]. “I am going to drown here and I know that you are going to drown, too. But you cannot drown on land so you have come to sea to seek me! And then maybe a fish is going to eat both of us and then somebody who catches the fish is going to discover our bodies and bury us together. But why should you come to sea in the first place? [coming a bit to her senses] No, I am going to die without you and it’s a comfort to me that you will never learn about my death. You are going to live for a very long time after me and it’s fine with me. But then you may forget me or find love with another woman and it’s totally not fine with me. God grant we can live together or die together!” As you can see, it’s not very coherent, but let’s not be too harsh on a woman in love and in the middle of a terrible storm.
When the storm abates, another misfortune stops the ship – the wind drops and they are stuck. In the meantime, Tristran’s wife, Ysolt of the White Hands senses something, even though Tristran hasn’t told her what he is waiting for. She comes to Tristran’s room and says she can see her brother’s sail on the horizon. “What colour ir it?”, asks Tristran eagerly. “Black”, lies Ysolt. Tristran, believing Ysolt refused to come, forgives her and dies of a broken heart. The wind finally picks up and the original Ysolt arrives breathlessly, to see the whole town in mourning. She runs to the place where Tristran’s body is exhibited, lies down next to him, and dies embracing him. The poem ends with Thomas’s dedication to all the lovers – “may they derive great comfort from it”.
And thus ends possibly the most famous love story of the Middle Ages. I have had some mixed feelings about it for a long time. On one hand, sure, it’s tragic and moving and the lovers are swept up by the powers beyond their control (their love was the result of drinking a love potion), on the other hand their egotism and the assumption that everybody (including their spouses) should just help them BECAUSE IT IS THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL TIMES CAN’T YOU SEE DAMMIT is kind of immature and just rubs me the wrong way. (This egotism of love is something that the modern retelling by a Polish writer Maria Kuncewicz picks up on very well.
But in the end, how can you be grumpy listening to this?
This is the Ur-text of the Tristran and Isolde legend – or, as in this story, Tristran and Ysolt. Only a fragment of the whole poem is extant, but the rest of the story is known from the later Norse and German translations/adaptations. It is author of the German version, Gottfried von Strassburg, who identifies the author as “Thomas of Britain”. Apart from that, all the evidence about the author having any links with England is circumstantial: there is of course the setting, partly in England, and the poem is written in Old French, with a smattering of Anglo-Norman forms. So the poem could conceivably be connected with the French-speaking court of Henry II. And who knows, maybe his name was really Thomas? He probably used some other source text, God knows in what language, which is now lost. The poem is written in rhyming couplets, but the translation in the NAEL is unfortunately in prose.
The excerpt printed here is the big operatic finale of the lovers’ death. Tristran is languishing from a poisoned wound and he sent his brother-in-law Caerdin to fetch Ysolt. Ysolt escapes with her maid Brengvein at night, makes her way to a ship and sails off to Normandy. Meanwhile Tristran is wrecked not only by the physical pain, but also by doubt: will Caerdin make it? will Ysolt be faithful to him? He asked Caerdin famously to signal with the colour of the sail whether he is bringing Ysolt with him. He at some point asked to be carried to the shore, but decided that he can’t stand seeing the sail of the bad news himself, so he asks to be carried back home.