hold.jpg (17954 bytes)

Are Tristan and Isolt in Love?A Discussion of Gottfried’s
"Tristan and Isolt"

George Adamopoulos


In the romance of Tristan and Isolt, we witness a love that accords with the rules of courtly love. While this love adheres to the ideals of courtly love, we cannot help but question whether the love is true or the artificial result of a potion. In order to examine the nature of Tristan and Isolt's love, we first must be able to define love. Love, according to Andreas Capellanus, is a "certain inborn suffering caused by the sight of and excessive meditation on the opposite sex which causes one to carry out all the precepts of love in the embrace of the other." With this groundwork laid, we can begin examining a subject of long and serious debate: Are Tristan and Isolt in love? Though induced by a potion, their love for each other stands above all else. The power, endurance, and unity of their love all point to a genuine, courtly love. Though the potion sets their love in motion, Tristan and Isolt choose to accept and endure the inextricable joy and suffering of their love for one another. The potion just serves the purpose of explaining their love despite opposing forces. Their love overcomes all the obstacles which Love's weaker sibling, Lust, could not have. Regardless of the means in which they fall in love, Tristan and Isolt are bound in life and death by a genuine, everlasting love.


Are Tristan and Isolt in Love?

Among the rich literary traditions of the Middle Ages lie the tales of courtly love. Of all these tales, none seems to capture all the elements of courtly love more than the romance of Tristan and Isolt. In Tristan and Isolt, we see an undying and unlimited devotion between lovers, which lies at the heart of courtly love. Tristan and Isolt risk their lives and their social standing all in the name of Love. The fact that they endure the suffering and hardships of their love affirms its strength and sanctity. The nature of their love, however, has proven to be a controversial subject. This controversy stems from the way they fall in love- Tristan and Isolt drink a magic potion that sets their love in motion. Denis de Rougemont, in his analysis of their love, refutes that they are in love: "Tristan and Isolt do not love one another. They say they don't and everything goes to prove it. What they love is love and being in love." This criticism, however, seems to ignore the pre-potion preparation of the love that develops between Tristan and Isolt, Tristan's training of Isolt in music. De Rougemont's statement also disregards all the post-potion evidence of the constancy and true nature of their love. Even with the pressures placed upon them by society and their obligations to King Mark's court, their true love manages to grow and persevere instead of dwindling and wavering.

As soon as Tristan and Isolt drink the potion, both are changed forever. Whereas once their relationship was that of a teacher and student, they now are lovers. Their relationships with the other members of the court also change forever as they ignore social mores and restrictions to pursue their love. Only love and the satisfaction of this love matter to them. Tristan, though he tries to fight the pull of his heartstrings, cannot resist the overwhelming power of love and breaks the oath of loyalty to King Mark. Isolt, maiden and soon-to-be bride, also tries to resist the power of love. Though she stands to lose her reputation as a chaste woman and her position as Queen of Cornwall, she too surrenders to love. Gottfried compares her plight to that of a bird snared with lime: "She strove with all her power to free herself, yet the more she struggled the

faster was the hold Love laid upon her" (Gottfried, 163). In the medieval view, love leaves its victims helpless and forces them to surrender their will to love.

Tristan's and Isolt’s love affair threatens the social harmony of King Mark's court. This love is in direct conflict with the values of the court. Saville describes this conflict: "their love polarizes the world into two systems of values, two mighty competitors- it is a way of making the love affair into an independent world of value, a competitor of that other established world" (Saville, 40). Tristan and Isolt cannot adhere to both systems of value. If their love is to be true, they must wholeheartedly commit themselves to love's values and ignore the values of society, which stand in the way of their love. Tristan and Isolt's world of love defies reason, lacks boundaries and order, and promotes freedom of expression; in contrast, the world of King Mark's court embraces reason, establishes order, and places restrictions on its members. There is a struggle between Tristan's and Isolt’s private world of love which "seeks for unity and an increase in being" and the external world of society which "seeks for [their] separation and destruction" (Saville, 42). The pressures of society, however, do not thwart their love; instead, it "thrives in the constant tension of the obstacles they have to overcome within the courtly society of which they are part" (Kunzer, 190-1). Moreover, the stigma society places on their love, an adulterous love, provides "the ready-made obstacles, physical, moral, and social" and fuels their passion (Stevens, 37). Tristan and Isolt "achieve, by that very act, an exalted status love leading to marriage could scarcely attain" (Saville, 40). By engaging in an adulterous love and violating the rules of society, their love will face constant attacks from a society that disapproves of their actions. On a deeper level, this represents a battle between true love and society's conception of love. The ability of their love to survive, and even prosper, under constant scrutiny and surveillance supports the conclusion Tristan and Isolt are committed to each other and joined in a true love.

As they sail back to Cornwall, they do not have to concern themselves yet with the "mundane cares and social pressures" of the court (Kunzer, 147). However, with every crashing wave, they approach Cornwall and the reality that they must return to the confines of society.

The ship offers isolation and privacy, though temporary, from the meddling eyes of gossips and jealous courtiers. Once they arrive in Cornwall and reenter society, Tristan and Isolt must conceal their flourishing love from the members of the court while at the same time capitalizing on opportunities to meet and ease the suffering the absence of one lover imposes on the other. In contrast to the inborn suffering of love, society represents an external cause of suffering by preventing them from freely pursuing and expressing their love for one another. But it is also in this setting of suffering and frustration where their love reaches its highest intensity and gratification since each meeting is so precious. The fact that their love is able to endure and survive all impediments to their love points to its power and sincerity. The potion, one step in the love process, simply represents Tristan's and Isolt's recognition of their feelings and their mutual participation in the love affair. The potion is never used directly to explain their feelings or to rationalize their actions. Tristan declares, "I know not what may come of it, but such death it pleaseth me well! Shall fair Isolt indeed be my death, then would I die daily!" (Gottfried, ). The love comes of their own free will. The fact that they embrace all elements of love, pleasure and pain, joy and suffering, indicates their love is true.

With the drinking of the potion, Tristan and Isolt recognize their love for each other but this is only the beginning of the process through which their love will gradually grow and intensify. From the time Tristan was training Isolt in the powerful skill of music making, this process is at work. It is important to note that music and love are strongly related; they both touch the heart in profound ways and they reach their highest forms only when a perfect harmony exists. Only through this training can a harmony exist between Tristan and Isolt. A shared understanding and perception of the powers of music precedes their unity in love. With this training, Isolt is able to rise to the same level as Tristan. This will enable the mutual and harmonious love that eventually will flourish between them.

Gottfried continues to stress the correlation between music and love in the love grotto scene. The perfect harmony of Tristan's and Isolt's love is reflected in the songs the lovers sing to each other and in the naturally occurring music of the wilderness. Tristan and Isolt both participate in the activity of music-making in the love grotto: "now Tristan would strike the harp while Isolt sang the words, then it would be the turn of Isolt to take music while Tristan's voice followed the notes" (Gottfried, 212). They complement each other so perfectly it is impossible to distinguish between each lover's contribution to the music. They are united both in their love and in their music making. Their bond of love is not merely physical. When Tristan and Isolt venture out of the love grotto into the woodland, nature expresses its approval of their love: "Their service was the song of the birds, the little brown nightingales, the throstles, and the merles, and other wood birds. The siskin and the ringdove vied with each other to do them pleasure; all day long their music rejoiced ear and soul" (Gottfried 21 1). Their love and Nature are in perfect harmony. These subjects of the lovers' court of love observe Tristan and Isolt in the celebration of their love and join in the celebration. They do not try to stifle their love as do members of King Mark's court. The fact that Nature celebrates their love tells us there is a natural quality to this love.

We also encounter this theme, the power of music, in "Sir Orfeo." After losing the love of his life, Herodis, Sir Orfeo abandons his kingdom and retreats into the wilderness. Without his beloved, nothing else matters to him. The only possession Sir Orfeo takes with him is his harp; music is the only thing that can comfort him and ease his suffering. Ultimately, it is this same music which allows him to reunite with his wife. Tristan and Isolt also use music to forget suffering. After telling tales of tragic lovers, they turn to music to distant themselves from the trials of true lovers, of which they know all too well: "But when they would think of them no more, they turned them again to their grotto and took their harp, and each in their turn sang to it softly lays of love and longing" (Gottfried, 212). Just as love is a certain inborn suffering, music has the inborn power to ease this suffering by creating a harmony of feeling.

Even though the lovers reach a mutual appreciation and understanding of music, the evolutionary process of their love continues. The completion of this step leads to another step in the process. Since love has no set rules, Tristan and Isolt can only learn about love through their shared experiences. Each experience brings them closer to a full understanding of the nature of

love. Jackson describes this process as progressing gradually: "There is no such thing as falling [in love] but rather a gradual feeling of affinity which develops into a new phase of love, a new phase of understanding which, while it never neglects or underestimates the power of physical attraction, moves beyond it to a harmony of body, soul and spirit" (Jackson, 95). The physical consummation is a pleasurable, outward expression of love that unites two bodies as one, just as two hearts are united as one. But, we must not forget that love also entails suffering. Tristan and Isolt must learn to cope with this aspect of love.

As members of King Mark's court, Tristan and Isolt must endure separation. When King Mark asks Tristan to refrain from seeing Isolt, this marks the lovers' first forced separation. At this point, the pain of separation overwhelms them: "The sorrow of heart they bore in common was so manifest on their faces that few might doubt their love who saw the whiteness of their cheeks" (Gotffried, 185). With the constant suspicion surrounding their love affair, Tristan and

Isolt devise ways to meet secretly, concealing their love. Nonetheless, they must remain alert as Mardojo and Melot, gossips and guardians of society’s values, try to desecrate and destroy their

Love. As suspicions grow, the normal condition of their love eventually becomes separation. After Isolt’s ordeal by hot-iron, Tristan flees to Gilan's court. Hoping to ease Isolt's suffering, he wins and sends her Petitcriu's bell. Tristan is willing to suffer for Isolt. Isolt, however, breaks the bell because Tristan's suffering is, in fact, her suffering. The suffering of one lover is the suffering of the other. The music the bell produces is not the shared harmony of their love and therefore, cannot bring happiness. It can only ease some of the suffering. By having to endure periods of separation, they learn to cope internally with suffering as we see in their final parting. Isolt offers insight into how they can deal with this separation: "Our hearts and our souls have been too long and too closely knit together that they may ever learn forgetfulness. Whether thou art far or near, in my heart shall be nothing living save Tristan" (Gotffried, 221). No distance, no matter how wide, can lessen the love they feel for each other. They have been through and endured so much together that nothing could ever make them forget their love for one another. We see this holds true in the end, even after Tristan marries Isolt of the White Hands.

Finally, society can no longer allow the lovers to trample on their institutions and rules any longer. King Mark banishes Tristan and Isolt from the court. It is at this point where their love will be tested and proven to be true. In King Mark's court, the tension of their love in conflict with society fuels the passion of their love. In the wilderness and isolation from society, the power of their love will be tested. The characteristic that will ultimately distinguish their love from lust is whether it can sustain itself from within without the external pressures of society. Indeed, their love does sustain itself, and Tristan and Isolt need only the nourishment of their love to live: "...they needed little save each other; the true love and faith they bare the one to the other, such love as kindles the heart and refreshes the soul, that was their best nourishment" (Gottfried, 21 1). Only their hearts need nourishment and this nourishment is furnished by each lover's love for the other. They have everything they need in each other. They do not need the company of society; society only hinders and complicates their reaching the full potential of their love.

It is in the love grotto, their court of love, where they reach the purest and most natural form of love. Saville describes it as the "medium in which one discovers truth, value, meaning and oneself"(35). Here they do not need to resort to deceit and trickery to conceal their love. Without the hindrance of society's obstacles, they are free to explore the full depths of their love. In this tensionless earthly paradise, Tristan and Isolt are in perfect harmony with their surroundings. They are shielded from the forces that had doomed other lovers: Queen Dido, Phyllis of Thrace, and Biblis. As they tell each other the tales of these tragic lovers, the tales surely remind them of their own love experience. These stories give them an appreciation of how precious their love is and how blessed they are to have a sanctuary for this love. Queen Dido, Phyllis of Thrace, and Biblis were not as fortunate. When they want to forget the sufferings of these lovers, they retreat into the love grotto where there are no reminders of the conflict of lovers with society.

These trials, the trials of true lovers such as Tristan and Isolt, trace back to the time of giants. These giants built the love grotto because they shared this need for privacy and secrecy in the pursuit of true love. This points to the timelessness of love and the trials all true lovers face. In effect, love transcends time and the love grotto, the world of love, is removed from time. All material needs are suspended and "only spiritual sustenance" is necessary (Jackson, 124). Tristan and Isolt can only achieve this ideal and absolute form of love in the love grotto where only true lovers are admitted: "Not only does their love mark the supreme hour of the cave of lovers but it also marks the supreme hour of the lovers themselves" (Jackson, 129). Separated from the transient needs of society, they are able to devote themselves to their one true need, each other.

The love grotto itself takes on allegorical significance as to the perfect and absolute love Tristan and Isolt realize in their seclusion. The grotto itself resembles a church within which Tristan and Isolt are able to devote themselves to the religion of love. The parts and features of the love grotto represent the universal qualities of the love between true lovers. Its roundness implies simplicity- "there are no corners since true love needs not cunning or treachery" (Kunzer, 169). The bar of ivory on the gate stands for Understanding, Purity and Modesty, while the bar of cedar signifies Wisdom and Discretion; together, they lock out Deceit and Treachery, (Kunzer, 172) Tristan and Isolt have distinguished their love from simple passion and have gained the supreme knowledge of love. The three windows of the grotto represent humility, kindness, and breeding. These windows "allow the blessed radiance of honor, the best of all lights, to illuminate the cave of earthly bliss" (Kunzer, 173). The crystal bed on which Tristan and Isolt consummate their love itself symbolizes pure love. The transparency and translucence of the bed represent the fact the lovers hide nothing from each other and that they can see into each other's heart and soul. The bed, because it is crystal, literally and metaphorically reflects the harmony of these true lovers. Their perfect love is mirrored in the perfect setting of the love grotto.

Despite their paradise-like existence in the love grotto, Tristan and Isolt must compromise between their love and their roles in society. Their decision to return to King Mark's court and the confines of society marks maturation in the lovers and a defining moment in their relationship. The narrator conveys the message that no such paradise exists, and realistically we must all function as members of society. This physical return to the "normalcy" of society can never offer the same blissful existence of the love grotto. Emotionally, Tristan and Isolt can never have normalcy; their love is abnormal in the sense that it is pure and true. Originally, the lovers attempt to avoid discovery by spreading the rumor they left for Ireland and by Tristan training Huidan to hunt in silence. When they awake to find leaves blocking one of the grotto's windows, their fear of being discovered is realized. Even though King Mark cannot enter the love grotto, he manages to intrude on their blissful existence. The illusion of the paradise is broken and they realize they cannot escape the bounds of society. They will always have the fear and anxiety of being discovered. But, they will also always have each other's love and the memories of their existence in the love grotto. For now on, they will have to control their desires and endure longer intervals of separation, and therefore suffering. By returning to society, they are not abandoning the ideals of their love. They are merely adapting them so that they seem to be conforming to the expectations of society. In contrast to the infant stages of their love, they are not as reckless or desperate for sensual satisfaction. The existence of the love provides consolation to the lovers even though physical fulfillment is impossible.

When we contrast the love between Tristan and Isolt and the understanding and perception of love by other members of medieval society, we must conclude without a doubt that theirs is the truest and highest form. Jackson comments on medieval society's grasp of love: "society's conception of love is such that it cannot recognize true love when it sees it but prefers to encourage hole-and-comer liaisons rather than open and frank love" (93). The seneschal of Isolt's Ireland, Isolt of the White Hands, Gandin, and King Mark all exhibit a faulty comprehension and appreciation for the meaning and power of love. In the case of the seneschal, his motive to marry Isolt is not love, but ambition. By marrying Isolt, he will be next in line to become King of Ireland. Not only does he pursue Isolt for the wrong reasons, he is not even brave enough to kill the dragon himself. His heart is not capable of attaining a true, sincere form of love.

Isolt of the White Hands also lacks a heightened awareness to sight true love. In contrast to Isolt the fair, the other Isolt is a "passive listener, never sharing the performance, never aspiring to learn the music he provides" (Jackson, 76). She mistakes Tristan's obsession with the name "Isolt" when he sings to the court as reflecting his love for her. The fact that she is not on the same level as Tristan in her knowledge of music points to the fact that a mutual love between them could never have existed. In this case, "music fails to bring harmony and achieves only confusion" (Jackson, 76). Jackson emphasizes that the relationship between Tristan and this Isolt "shows what disharmony can arise when a man and a woman seem to have a basis for love and do not" (76). The "normalcy" of their socially acceptable marriage is not a source of true happiness. Tristan is truly happy only with Isolt the Fair. It is only Tristan's longing for his one fair Isolt and his pain at his separation from her that compelled him to pursue a woman with the same name.

Gandin' s faulty understanding of love can be attributed to his belief that by winning Isolt from King Mark that he is also winning her heart. In contrast to the love shared between her and Tristan, this love would not be mutual, but one-sided. He can steal Isolt away, but he cannot steal away the love in her heart for her true love, Tristan.

King Mark's love for Isolt is also one-sided and therefore not true love. First of all, he only desires Isolt's hand in marriage to please the members of his court and chooses her only because of Tristan's description of her beauty. King Mark, in essence, is only concerned with the physical bodily pleasures love offers: "Mark represents a type of love which is not degrading or reprehensible in itself but which is imperfect, since it consists in physical attraction coupled with admiration for physical beauty" (Jackson, 99). His fixation with Isolt's physical beauty blinds him to the truth of the love affair; he wishes to hold her in his arms again. Gottfried emphasizes this point through King Mark’s unsuccessful attempt to capture the white hart, a symbol of true love, and his inability to enter the Love grotto, the chapel of true love. Gottfried, is in effect, criticizing marriage in medieval society for creating only an artificial love. It is ironic that the social institution of marriage supports an artificial love while the Love Grotto, built by heathen, brutish giants, represents the existence of a natural love between two people.

The ultimate affirmation of the true nature of Tristan and Isolt's love is its transcendent power over social norms, other magical elements, and death. Isolt breaks Petitcriu's bell; she can have no comfort as long as she knows Tristan is suffering the effects of their love. Their love is also able to survive the death of one of the lovers, namely Tristan, when he can no longer bear the separation from his true beloved. The love for Isolt in Tristan's heart allows him to linger and fend off death just for the chance to see his beloved one last time. When Isolt of the White Hands dashes this hope, Tristan is overcome by intense heartbreak, not the poison. Their love even survives after the death of both of the lovers. Death we presume should break the effects of the potion but their love is so powerful that it joins Tristan and Isolt in death, as it did in life. Since their hearts are one, the death of one means the death of the other. However, their physical death does not mean the death of their love. As we see in the ending added to Gottfried's version, the branches of the tree on Tristan's grave and the vines from Isolt's forever intertwine as a sign of their continued unity in love.

In Gottfried's Tristan and Isolt, we witness the struggle of two lovers against a society that could learn from them the true definition of love. Instead, society represented by King Mark and his court, is bent on imposing its values on the two lovers and breaking the bonds of their love. The fact the lovers attain an absolute and perfect love only when they flee from society is Gottfried's attempt to convey a powerful message about the medieval society in which he lived and about society in general: "Perfection in love is more than humans can bear. Permanency can only be found in the work of art whose perfection enshrines the lovers in the timelessness of fame" (Kunzer, 203). Even our society is beset by a faulty conception of love. All we have to do is look at the divorce rates in our society. Although women now have the freedom to choose whom they marry, marriage is still not a stamp of true love. Love is cheapened when what was supposed to be love can be negated by divorce papers. At the first sign of trouble, one can choose to file for divorce. Therefore, we should not be surprised by Gottfried's view of perfection and absolution in love as being attainable only in the fictional romance of Tristan and Isolt. In reality, we can only hope to approach the form of love Tristan and Isolt embody. If we choose to love, it should be a true love.

Back to Front Page