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by Luca
The origin of the Tristan myth is lost in antiquity. The Welsh Triads, of unknown date, but very ancient, know of one Drystan ab Tallwch, the lover of Essylt the wife of March, as a steadfast lover and a mighty swineherd. It is indubitably Celtic-Breton, Irish, or Welsh. There were different versions of the story, into the shadowy history of which we need not enter; the only one which concerns us is that of a certain “Thomas.” Of his French poem fragments alone have come down to us, but we have three different versions based upon it: 1. The Middle-High-German poem of Gottfried von Strassburg, composed about 1210-20. 2. An old-Norse translation made in 1226 by command of King Hakon. 3. A Middle-English poem of the thirteenth century preserved in the so-called Auchinleck MS. of the library of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh, and familiar to English readers from the edition published by Sir Walter Scott. The poem was probably composed by the famous Thomas the Rhymer of Ercyldoune or Earlstown in Berwickshire. A reliable edition by G. P. MacNeill has been published by the Scottish Text Society, with an introduction giving a full and interesting account of the legend in its various recensions. In these versions the story of Tristan and Isolde has nothing whatever to do with the Arthurian court or the quest of the Grail. It became exceedingly popular and was told again and again in varied forms in every language in Europe. But even before this Sir Tristan had sometimes been included among the Knights of the Round Table, such honour being deemed indispensable to the dignity of every knight who had any pretensions to fame. Wagner was well versed in all the Tristan literature, and composed his own version for the stage out of the materials which he found. In order to understand his way of dealing with his subject-matter it will be worth our while to follow the outlines of the old story, which is essentially the same in all the three versions, though the incidents, and especially the names, are somewhat varied. I shall follow in the main the most important of the three, that of Gottfried von Strassburg, so far as it goes, with occasional supplementary additions from the Norse and English. There was a certain King of Parmenia named Riwalin Kanelengres (in the Norse saga he is King of Bretland; in the English he is called Rouland rise, King of Ermonric), who, leaving his own country in the charge of his marshal, Rual li foitenant, joined the court of the powerful King Marke of Cornwall “and of England” in Tintajol. There he falls in love with Blanscheflur (Norse: Blensinbil), the king’s sister, but, on his being recalled to his own land to meet an invasion from his enemy Morgan, she begs him to take her with him. “I have loved thee to mine own hurt,” she says. “But for my being pregnant I would prefer to remain here and bear my grief, but now I choose to die rather than that thou, my beloved, shouldst be put to a shameful death. Our child would be fatherless. I have deceived myself and am lost.” She is married to Riwalin and placed for safety in his stronghold Kanoël while he marches to battle. He is killed, and she, on hearing the news, dies after giving birth to a son who, in allusion to the melancholy circumstances of his birth, is named Tristan. Tristan is instructed by his tutor Kurwenal in the seven arts and the seven kinds of music, and in all languages. One day he is carried off by some pirates, and, on a furious storm arising, he is put on shore alone on the coast of Cornwall, and finds his way to King Marke’s court at Tintajol, where he is honourably received. Meanwhile his marshal, Rual li foitenant, has set out in search of him, and, after wandering through many countries, arrives disguised as a beggar at Tintajol. Tristan brings him before the king, to whom he relates the whole story of Tristan’s birth and parentage, which he has hitherto kept secret, showing how he is King Marke’s own nephew. He is now overwhelmed with honours, and dubbed a knight, but is soon obliged to return to Parmenia to fight the old enemy Morgan. He is victorious and after some time returns to Cornwall, where he finds that the country has been subjugated by the King of Ireland, Gurmun the Proud, who has sent his brother-in-law, Morold, to collect tribute–thirty fair youths–from the Cornishmen. Tristan, on arriving, at once challenges Morold to decide the question of tribute in single combat with himself. They fight: Tristan is wounded; Morold calls upon him to desist from fighting, saying that his weapon is poisoned, and that the wound cannot be healed except by his sister Isot, the wife of King Gurmun. Tristan replies by renewing the attack; Morold falls, and Tristan severs his head from his body, and, on Morold’s discomfited followers embarking hastily for their own country, Tristan throws them the head, scornfully bidding them take it as tribute to their king. But on their reaching Ireland, Isot the queen, and Isot the Fair, her daughter, cover it with kisses, and treasure it up to mind them of vengeance upon the slayer of their kinsman. In the skull they find a splinter from the sword, which they keep. Tristan’s wound refuses to heal, and he sets off for Ireland accompanied by Kurwenal to be treated by Queen Isot. On reaching Develin (Dublin), he puts off alone to the shore, in a small boat, taking only his harp with him. He introduces himself to Queen Isot as a merchant named Tantris; she receives him favourably, heals his wound, and appoints him tutor to her daughter, at last, on his earnest entreaty, dismissing him to return to his home. On returning to Marke’s court he finds that intrigues have arisen and a party has been formed to overthrow him. As the nephew of the childless king he is the next heir to the throne of Cornwall, but, being in fear of his life, he persuades Marke to marry, that he may beget a child to be his successor. Reluctantly King Marke permits him to return to Ireland to obtain “the maiden bright as blood on snow,” Isot the Fair (“by cunning, stealth, or robbery,” says the Norse). There now follows an episode of the regular type. On Tristan reaching Ireland disguised as a merchant, he finds the country being ravaged by a terrible “serpant,” and the king has promised his daughter with half of his kingdom to whoever shall rid them of the scourge. Tristan slays the monster, a certain “Trugsess” or steward, who wishes to marry Isot, claims to have achieved the deed, but his fraud is exposed through the machinations of the women. Queen Isot and her daughter have recognized in Tristan their former acquaintance Tantris, and when polishing his armour the princess finds the sword with a gap in its blade exactly fitting the splinter which she has taken from Morold’s skull. She now realizes who Tristan is, and, filled with anger and hatred, she goes with the sword to where Tristan is in his bath, determined to wreak instant vengeance upon the slayer of her uncle. Tristan cries for mercy, obscurely hinting that he is able to reward her richly if she will only spare his life. Her mother enters with her attendant or companion, Brangäne (Norse: Bringvet); matters are discussed, Brangäne argues with great eloquence that he will be much more useful to them alive than dead, and at last a bargain is struck. In return for his life Tristan promises that he will find the Princess Isot a husband who is much richer than her father. They all kiss and are reconciled, the princess alone hesitating to make peace with the man whom she hates in her heart. Everything is speedily arranged, King Gurmun consenting to the marriage of his daughter to his country’s enemy, the slayer of his kinsman. Before they depart on the voyage to Cornwall, Queen Isot brews a philtre, which she entrusts to Brangäne, directing her to administer it to King Marke and his bride on the day of their wedding. On the ship Isot continues to nurse her hatred for Tristan. “Why do you hate me?” he asks. “Did you not slay my uncle?” “That has been expiated.” “And yet I hate you.” By and by they are thirsty, and a careless attendant finding the love-potion handy, gives it to them to drink. At once they are overcome with the most ardent love for each other. Brangäne is drawn into the secret, and on reaching Cornwall, is sent to take Isot’s place in King Marke’s bed. It will not be worth our while to follow the details of the rest of the story, which is made up of a series of shameless tricks played by the lovers upon King Marke, whereby they are enabled to enjoy their love together in secret. At last Tristan is banished the court, and takes refuge with a duke of Arundel in Sussex, named Jovelin, who has a daughter, named Isot of the White Hand, of whom he becomes enamoured. Here Gottfried’s story ends, unfinished, but it is continued in the other versions. Isot of the White Hand is married to Tristan, but remains a virgin. We can omit the adventures with giants, etc., which follow, but the end must be related. Tristan has been wounded in a fray, and again no one can heal the wound but his former love, Isot the Fair. A messenger is sent to bring her, with orders that if he has been successful he shall hoist a blue-and-white sail for a signal as the ship approaches; if unsuccessful, a black one. She comes, and the blue-and-white sail is seen; but Isot of the White hand, out of jealousy, informs Tristan that the sail is a black one. Uttering the name Isot he expires. She enters too late, and dies with her arms around him. “And it is related that Isot of the White Hand, Tristan’s wife, caused them to be buried on opposite sides of the church, that they might not be together in death. But it came to pass that an oak grew from the grave of each, and they grew so high that their branches twined together above the roof.” Such is the story from which we are asked to believe that Wagner drew the materials for his Tristan drama. The earlier part of Gottfried’s story is not unskilfully told; all that relates to Riwalin and the birth of Tristan is worthy to stand beside the best products of German mediaeval poetry. But from the time when Isot and her intriguing mother enter on the scene the story is as dull as it is immoral. What sane-minded person can possibly take an interest in a succession of childish tricks played by two lovesick boobies upon a half-witted old man? The plot is trivial in the extreme, and the characters are contemptible; most contemptible of all are the hero and the heroine. The spectacle of a knight on his knees before two women, imploring them to have mercy upon him, and, in return for his life, promising to find a rich husband for one of them would be hard to match. Add to this the constant obtrusion of the poet’s own personality, with his moral reflections and trite philosophy, one can only wonder how the much admired epic can ever have been listened to with patience. Deep indeed must culture have sunk at the courts of Germany when princes and nobles could take pleasure in such fustian while they possessed the stories of the great epics, the Nibelungenlied, the Gudrunlied, and the delicate lyrics of Walther von der Vogelweide. Wagner’s procedure in dealing with such a story as this is that of Siegfried with the sword. Instead of trying to patch and adapt he melts the whole down to create something entirely new out of the material. Wagner’s story is not the same as that of “Thomas” and Gottfried, if for no other reason than that he has only one Isolde. Whatever dramatic interest the older story may possess lies in there being two Isoldes, and in Tristan’s desertion of one for the other, of an unlawful mistress for a lawful wife. It seems from certain remarks of Wagner[26] that he at first intended to preserve this feature of the original, but discarded it as the emotional unity of his subject-matter grew upon him. [Footnote 26: Especially his remark on the kinship of the Tristan and Siegfried myths (Ges. Schr., vi. 379), for the kinship lies in the feature I have mentioned, the desertion of one love for another.] The essential feature of Wagner’s drama is that the love of the hero and heroine remains unsatisfied. Their motives are consequently quite different from what they are in Gottfried, and all the complex intrigue which is the chief interest of the older story falls away of necessity. On the other hand he has retained from Gottfried much more than the names of the persons, many subordinate motives, not vital to the story, and likely to be unnoticed by many, but which his skilled eye detected as effective for scenic representation. Such are Isolde’s hatred and violent denunciations of Tristan before they drink the philtre (Gottfr. 14539, 11570),[27] Brangäne’s distress and remorse at the effect of her trick (11700, 12060); the play upon his name, “Tantris” for “Tristan.” Kufferath quotes – unfortunately without giving a reference – a Minnelied of Gottfried, which is obviously reproduced in the second act, where the lovers keep harping upon the words “mein und dein.” Many references which are obscure in Wagner are explained in Gottfried’s epic, such as the circumstances of Tristan’s first visit to Isolde in Ireland, with the splinter in Morold’s skull. Even the description of the boat in which he came as “klein und arm” is accounted for by Gottfried (7424 seq.). Tristan’s motives for insisting upon Marke’s marriage are, as we gather from casual indications, the same as those set forth in Gottfried. He has been entangled in political intrigues. Utterly free himself from any sordid or selfish motive, he insists upon Marke’s marriage as the only possible means of obtaining tranquillity for his distracted country, whereas in Gottfried he acts under fear of assassination.
[Footnote 27: I quote from the German translation of Karl Pannier in Reclam, which is the most recent.]