Tristan and Courtly Love

Tristan and Courtly Love March 3, 2016

According to WTH Jackson’s Anatomy of Love, Gottfried of Strausburg’s version of the Tristan story marks a critical change from courtly romance. Instead of the shadowy, unknown lady of those poems, she is a real character. Isolde is no mere “psychological catalyst” for Tristan, as Laudine is for Chretien’s Yvain.

Further, “he rejects totally the idea of love service and the subordination of the man to the woman and substitutes for it a partnership which is based on sexual attraction and recognition in the other of the fulfillment of a need. In such a relationship the need of the woman for the man is as great as the need of the man for the woman, and the concentration of the poem is not on bringing his story to the point at which the knight wins his lady . . . but rather on the exploration of the continuation of love and its ultimate fulfillment. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Gottfried begins his study of courtly love where the authors of most romances end it.” He is not merely concerned with “winning” the lady, or with the consummation of the male desire. He is interested in the capacity of their love to continue and endure (64-5).

Gottfried is self-conscious in presenting two different paradigms of love, rejecting the one and affirming the other. The first is the love of Tristan’s father Riwalin and his other Blanscheflur, the second of Tristan and Isolde. Jackson writes,that they are presented in “two completely different ways. His first pair of lovers are motivated by the social conventions and by visual, physical proximity. The process of falling in love corresponds to the lyric formula – used by narrative poets too – of the image which is seen by the eye corresponding to the image of ideal beauty in the beholder’s soul. Except for Riwalin’s physical beauty, Blanscheflur has no impression of him and he has even less of her. The reader is invited, as he is Chretien de Troyes, to watch this spectacle of two people going through the agonizing of wondering whether their love is reciprocated, when he knows all the time that their puffings and blowings are part of a ritual that will end with mutual protestations of affection and happiness ever after” (67).

By contrast, “Tristan and Isolde . . . show none of the accepted signs of love.” Riwalin and Blanscheflur fall in love as a result of the visual impact of each upon the other.” Isolde by contrast gets her first glimpse of Tristan while he plays the harp: “The first impact is that of a man of music.” And Gottfried tells us that the effect is to make Tristan play the harp better than ever. They fall in love not because of visual attraction but “as a consequence of a developing common artistic sensibility” (71).

It is Tristan’s musical ability more than his appearance that gives his power over others: “Boetheius had long before this commented on the power of music to bring out and play upon specific aspects of character. Tristan’s music is such that it deprives men of their rational faculties. They are completely in its power and prepared to grant almost anything to the man who possesses such skill” (73). Tristan comes to Isolde as a music teacher, and “the greatest gift he imparted was again an irrational and intangible one – the power to make an audience forget itself, its history, its prejudices, and hand itself over to the judgment of the musician. This was the power of Orpheus, of the Sirens, of the Muses, this indeed was true lyric poetry” (73).

Joan Ferrante (The Conflict of Love and Honor, 15) likewise highlights features of the story that set Tristan off from the courtly tradition. According to Ferrante, the dilemma presented by the Tristan story is that “the woman is the man’s creation and ideal; she is educated, molded by him, and therefore his possession spiritually, but she is at the same time not available to him within society.

To serve and possess her, to attain his own ideal, he must turn his back on other obligations and commitments. He is, in other words, trapped between two responsibilities, two desires, two ideals, both valid; he cannot solve his dilemma because to serve one he must deny the other. The problem is further complicated by the fact that without the perfection of love he cannot be an ideal knight, and without being a responsible knight, he cannot be the ideal lover. The problem is insoluble, the two demands are incompatible, and thus the conventions of Arthurian romance cannot work.”

Arthurian romance cannot deal with conflicting loyalties. If they are to work “one must believe that worldly honor can be achieved without damage to one’s soul; that honor in the world and morality are not only compatible but inseparable.” Tristan’s problem is a tragic one, without solution in the terms that Gottfried sets for it. Gottfried resolves the problem by making Tristan a “martyr of love” (17).

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