Although not as ubiquitous as the various versions and adaptations of Romeo and Juliet—which predate Shakespeare and which afterward have spread to nearly every language and art form in the world—the story of Tristan and Iseult is one of the most potent and enduring tales of doomed love in Western literature. As a freestanding romance, or as part of the Arthur-cycle, or as an opera or film or inspiration for a novel (Graham Greene’s excellent The Heart of the Matter, for instance), this strange and mutable story of love and death is one of our central narratives about how romantic love does and doesn’t work.
In brief, the story goes like this: The orphaned Tristan joins his uncle Mark’s court at Cornwell, proves himself a worthy warrior, goes on a wooing expedition to Ireland to win Iseult the Fair for Mark, brings her back by boat, and accidentally drinks a love-potion with her that was intended to bond her to Mark. The pair then embark on an illicit affair that after discovery leads them to escape together into the wilderness, where after a time they become reconciled to returning to Mark’s court, where they continue their affair, which is discovered again, causing Tristan to flee to lands in Brittany. Joining another court there, he resigns himself to marrying his new sovereign’s sister, who also happens to be named Iseult (in Béroul’s version, both women’s names are spelled Yseut). When Tristan is mortally wounded in battle, he sends a message to the first Iseult (who is a powerful healer), but the second Iseult (Iseult of the White Hands) overhears his instructions and foils them, causing Tristan to die just before the arrival of Iseult the Fair, who in despair lays down next to Tristan and dies of grief.
Like the tales of King Arthur, whose love-triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot is predated and influenced by the Mark-Iseult-Tristan triangle, the story of Tristan and Iseult is almost definitely Celtic in origin, and as with the Arthurian tales, its descent through different ages and traditions has spawned interpretations that mirror the values and conventions of each culture that retells it. The earliest extant full (or nearly full) versions fall into two categories: the “common,” of which Béroul’s The Romance of Tristan is the most exemplary, and the “courtly,” of which the mostly lost Tristran of Thomas served as the template, later finding its highest expression in Gottfried von Strassburg’s unfinished Tristan. As a product of evolving folklore, it’s not possible to arrive at the true original version of the story, but almost all of its core elements are present in Béroul’s version, and this is probably why his Romance of Tristan has come down to us, fragmentary and peculiar as it is.
Nothing is known about Béroul other than that he composed the poem in Norman French in the middle of the twelfth century, and even this is somewhat uncertain. Béroul refers to himself and his version of the tale throughout the poem, but some scholars have suggested that this “Béroul” may have been a later scribe who either embellished the poem or simply inserted his name to make the poem his. In any of these cases, the only surviving manuscript is poorly copied and incomplete, the ravages of time having torn away both the beginning and the end and created several short lacunae throughout the text. Presenting even more problems for a modern reader looking for a complete and coherent narrative, what’s left of the poem itself (about 3,000 lines) is rife with incongruity, illogical motivation, strange assumptions, and unclear characterization. The accumulation of narrative inconsistencies is often hilarious, but even so, the poem’s raw power and unadorned thrust makes it as enjoyable and moving as many much “finer” Medieval romances. What Béroul lacks in subtlety and precision, he more than makes up for with his gift for keeping the reader engaged in his vivid, exciting, and heartwrenching rendering of this dramatic and ruinous love (to borrow a phrase from Jeanette Winterson). Like the early gospel of Mark, which served as the template for the more elaborately fleshed out gospels of Matthew and Luke, Béroul’s version shocks and amuses with its roughness, but it nonetheless stands as the startling original.
In order to create a more complete and comprehensible reader’s edition, translator Alan S. Fedrick has filled in the holes at the beginning and end by adding summaries of Joseph Bédier’s 1900 reconstruction of the romance (which Bédier traced back to a conjectural lost prototype of the poem by drawing on all known sources), as well as by including a short anonymous episode, “The Tale of Tristan’s Madness,” near the end. Fedrick also puts the poem’s style and approach in the context of its times with his excellent introduction, which draws attention to the poem’s oddities and clumsinesses while helping the reader to see them as a common characteristic of the part-oral/part-written style of his era. Fedrick’s apologies aren’t fully convincing, however—or even necessary—because Béroul has the agency to make his own mistakes, and his poem has the verve to remain unfazed by its own carelessness. Béroul’s The Romance of Tristan may not be an imperfect masterpiece anywhere near the scale of, say, Don Quixote, but this wonderfully memorable and poignant poem clearly stands on its own lopsided terms as one of the great flawed gems of Western literature.