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Tristan As The Ideal Chivalric Knight

Veronica Kam

Chivalry is an idealized concept of knighthood, and its development played an important role in medieval society by giving the warriors a set of honorable codes to follow. These codes dictated to the knights—an extremely prominent sector of feudal culture—specific guidelines governing their conduct. Honor and loyalty were the underlying principles of chivalry, which supported feudalism, the political structure of the Middle Ages. The nobles/knights pledged their allegiance to their lord in return for the latter’s lands and protection. Therefore, the notion of a knight’s service/duty to his lord and lady was at the core of chivalry. Furthermore, chivalry encompassed the rules overseeing the relationship between the knight and his beloved lady, whom he served. This idealized concept of knighthood was clearly a very prominent characteristic of medieval life, as proven by the tales which glorify chivalry, the warrior code, and knighthood. Tristan, the young hero in The Romance of Tristan & Iseult, is the perfect epitome of the ideal chivalric knight.

The root of chivalry could be found in the early history of the mounted warrior on horseback. Since constant warfare was such an inherent aspect of medieval culture and society, the role of the mounted warrior was extremely admirable and prestigious, resulting in the elevated status of the knight in literary works. A honorable knight is expected to abide by the codes of chivalry, "…which framed an ideal of the heroic character, combining invincible strength and valor, justice, modesty, loyalty to superiors, courtesy to equals, compassion to weakness, and devotedness to the Church…an ideal which, if never met with in real life, [is] acknowledged by all as the highest model for emulation" (Bulfinch 303). Therefore, a chivalric knight will fight to the death in order to protect his honor, for life without honor is despicable and not worth living.

Tristan, being the ideal chivalric knight, chooses honor over death constantly in The Romance of Tristan & Iseult. He first shows his valor by embracing his duty as a son to avenge his father—killing Duke Morgan and regaining his father’s lands. He does not shirk his filial responsibilities for his own safety but takes up his obligations willingly. Upon his return to Cornwall, Tristan once again acts the role of the ideal knight. He finds the people of Cornwall mourning, for the Morholt of Ireland has come to their land demanding tribute. No one is willing to face the Morholt in combat since they have heard of his prowess in battles and fear for their lives. Consequently, even though the nobles are grief-stricken, they are ready to draw lots to determine whose children shall follow the Morholt to Ireland, suffering their disgrace in silence. Tristan, however, admonishes the nobles and readily accepts the Morholt’s challenge to single combat. The young hero thus illustrates the conduct of the chivalric knight, fighting to protect one’s honor and spurning death in the process.

Tristan has also demonstrated another aspect of chivalry in his battle with the Morholt. He has served his lord, King Mark, by accepting the Morholt’s challenge, killing the adversary of the Cornish people, and thus redeeming the honor of Cornwall. The duty of the chivalric knight to serve his lord is constantly on Tristan’s mind. Even when he is suffering from the wound dealt by the Morholt and possibly nearing his death, Tristan still hopes for a chance to serve King Mark in the future: "perchance some day I will once more serve you, fair uncle, as your harper, your huntsman and your liege" (Bedier 20). Tristan not only possesses the chivalric trait of valuing honor more than his life but also holds a knight’s service to his lord in high esteem.

Tristan also displays his chivalric traits when he embarks on the quest to find the lady with the golden hair. He takes on this mission for two reasons—to serve his lord, King Mark, and prove to the envious nobles that he does not covet King Mark’s throne. The young hero lives up to the conduct demanded of the ideal knight by agreeing to carry out the task set by King Mark. He once again serves his lord whole-heartedly even though he has to travel to enemy territory and put his own life in danger. Tristan’s devotion to his uncle and his disregard for his own life when given an opportunity to serve King Mark is evident in the noble knight’s own words: "the search is perilous and it will be more difficult for me to return from her land than from the isle where I slew the Morholt; nevertheless, my uncle, I would once more put my body and my life into peril for you"(Bedier 27). Furthermore, since chivalric codes deem it necessary for a knight to shun anything dishonorable and evil, Tristan finds it necessary to uphold his loyalty to King Mark by bringing to the latter his future wife, hence proving that the young hero does not covet the throne. This act of Tristan depicts the chivalric aspect of valuing honor above everything, including one’s own life, for the young knight is clearly putting himself in jeopardy by going to Ireland in order to defend his own honor.

Tristan continues his role of the chivalric knight when he reaches Ireland. He engages a dragon in battle, for the king of Ireland has promised Iseult’s hand in marriage to the slayer of the dragon. The knight consequently risks his safety to win the hand of Iseult for King Mark, thereby serving his lord faithfully as the cost of his own life.

Another essential component to chivalry is courtly love. According to Richard Barber, "the magic spell which transmutes mere knighthood into chivalry is that of courtly love"(55). The rules of chivalry proclaim that the knight must serve his beloved lady with respect and dedication. Tristan faithfully fulfills his role as a chivalric knight in this respect too. Acting according to the demands of chivalry, Tristan has frequently come to the aid of Iseult when she is in a dangerous predicament. He disputes the claim of the seneschal to Iseult’s hand in marriage, for the seneschal is not the real slayer of the dragon. Tristan is willing to prove the validity of his words by single combat with the seneschal, thus saving Iseult from a fate she abhors. The knight also saves his beloved lady from the lepers when King Mark discovers their affair and hands Iseult over to the lepers to punish her. As an ideal knight, Tristan is always there to serve and save his beloved lady.

Tristan fulfills his role as an ideal knight to his lady by undertaking valorous deeds for her, as well as saving her from dangers. He volunteers to rid Duke Gilain’s lands of the giant, Urgan, in exchange for Pticru, which he wishes to obtain for his lover. Although Tristan continues to suffer, he hopes that Pticru will bring happiness to Iseult, placing her welfare above his own again according to the codes of chivalry.

Tristan not only embraces dangers for his lover but also follows the knightly rules of chivalrous love closely. He does so by keeping himself chaste for the sake of Iseult, one of the chivalric commandments. Tristan lies to his wife, Iseult of the White Hands, that he has made a vow to abstain from intimacy with his wife for one year after their marriage, hence remaining true to Iseult the Fair. Tristan’s loyalty to Iseult is clearly portrayed when he declares that "…[Iseult] has remained dearer to me than all other women…"(Bedier 164) to Dinas of Lidan. To Tristan, the ideal knight, Iseult is the only lady that he loves and faithfully serves. Therefore, as an honorable knight, he cannot and will not betray his lady by replacing her with another.

Tristan also lives according to the rules of chivalry by seeking adventures and freely granting aid to those who are in need of it. This can be seen in his assistance to Kaherdin and his father in guarding their keep of Carhaix against Count Riol. He learns of their dire situation and immediately rides to their aid voluntarily. As a chivalric knight, he treasures all things that are honorable, and his support is freely given. As the friendship between Kaherdin and Tristan deepens, the latter readily risks his life to help the former in his fight with Bedalis. Tristan does not back away from a battle for fear of losing his own life but lends his assistance willingly to those who are in need of it, especially if the person in need is his close friend.

Chivalry is an ideal concept that probably exists in the literary works more than it ever did in actuality. However, it was a notion that the people of the Middle Ages cherished and highly valued, which can be proven by the numerous works of literature glorifying chivalry. The Romance of Tristan & Iseult is one such literary work. Tristan is a young knight who embodies the chivalric codes. He serves his lord, lover, and comrades whole-heartedly without ever holding back his assistance for fear of risking his own life, but treasures honor above all else. As an ideal knight following the codes of chivalry, he accomplishes many valorous deeds for the sake for his lord, lover, and friends, eventually dying from one such courageous feat together with Iseult, his beloved lady. Tristan steadfastly upholds chivalry and its values; although such knightly behavior might have never existed in the Middles Ages to the idealized extent that it does in legendary tales, chivalry lives and reigns in full glory in the world of literature.

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