Tristan and King Arthur -- an essay.

By Asa Montreaux, pen name Andrew James

The court of Cornwayle runs without Arthur’s interference, and as a result it is an efficacious correlative for Arthur’s court, that of the Round Table. The distance between them allows Marke’s to escape the colonial influence of Arthur’s realm, and mirror the action of the latter court. In particular, Trystram should be considered a correlative of Arthur’s greatest knight, Lancelot. Such a parallel would be difficult for any reader not to espy given the insistence with which Malory draws connections between Tristram and Lancelot, and their respective situations.
Malory would have it that Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair “be seen in the sharp, unflattering light of the Round Table as a whole, which makes his affair far from the single most apparent blemish in an otherwise perfect world.” Rather, in addition, and in dialogue with Lancelot’s affair, adultery is a central theme in Malory’s depiction of the dissolution of the Round Table.
In contrast to Trystram’s adventures, those of the Round Table are usually homo-social, undertaken for the benefit of all of the Knights. Though as much as this is true, Knights, particularly Lancelot, are much more agog to go on an adventure than Arthur is. This seems central to the love triangles of Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere, and King Marke-Trystram-Isolde. Lancelot’s life is far more exciting than Arthur’s. Similarly, Trystram is far more adventurous than King Marke. Critic William Schueler writes that although Trystram “does not reject love, he is nevertheless explicit about preferring the adventures of the battlefield to those of the boudoir.” (Schueler 59). He is given this particular quality by Malory. In the French prose Tristan, the adventure is always for the sake of the lady. What the adventure is for, is central to what I’m exploring. It is a question of what motivates Lancelot and Trystram to be exceptional Knights? They rival the great Kings Arthur and Marke, and it is precisely the instability created by these rivalries, and the closely related sexual deviancy of women, that Malory points to for the disintegration of the Round Table. On both a micro and a macro level, love gets in the way. Tormented love for Isolde ruins Trystram’s relationship with King Marke, and Lancelot sees women as a distraction, a threat to his love for Guinevere, and above all— the Grail can only be seen with virginity. Schueler writes further that “individual acts should not be thought to be entirely their fault.” Rather, they are “the results of the excesses of the whole chivalric system of social and sexual relationships.”
One very significant difference between Guinevere and Isolde is the timing of their affairs. Trystram and Isolde are already in love when she marries King Marke. Isolde’s culpability is negligible, because the love potion is compelling enough to disrupt her self-will. In contrast, Lancelot’s affair begins after she is married to Arthur. They both make choices to betray their beloved King Arthur. These choices relate to the continual disobedience of King Marke by Trystram and Isolde. One emphatic difference between this version of the story and the previous ones, is the extent to which their affair is drawn out. The abruptness and transcendence of their love is dampened, when it is placed in the context of so many others. Particularly, Trystram’s story is so much longer, with so many more battles, that it is as if he is more and more like every other knight as punishment for his affair. One significant aspect of the Round Table is the spread of a code of excellence, by which many Knights are great, and yet then in another way they are all normalized.
This is troubling for the Trystram story. Without his singular heroism, the story loses its appeal. We “find Malory systematically robbing the Tristram and Isolde legend of its courtly glamour.”  (Shueler 53). In fact we “presume the book of Trystram means the book of Tristram and Isolde,” but it does not. (McCarthy 52). The Knights of the Round Table seem to be the last great heroes — always they are in the distant past, in the epics of Homer, and by this point in the transition from orality to literacy, and at this point of the development of our societies, the great battle heroes disappear. In Malory’s rendering, Lancelot seems very human. He is opened up to criticism’s, including ones about the authenticity of his commitment to Guinevere, even when he strays from it so little. There is little room for adultery in the developing England.  Brotherly bonds are no longer as important, and the bonds of marriage are becoming more important. Even if Arthur is not incensed with the affair, others become so, and it is an issue then what to do with Lancelot.
One element stays constant to the Tristan story, that he is born into sorrow, as his father alludes to after Elizabeth passes away: “Now lat me se my ltytyll chylde, for whom I have had all this sorrow.” (229). Trystram is sent to France with Gobernayle to “lerne the langage and nurture and deis of armys. And there was Trystrams more than seven yere.” (231). He masters the harpe, hunting, and hawking. He is an exceptional individual, loved by all: “for ever astate loved hym, where that he wene. (233). Helen Cooper writes that it “falls to the Tristram to display Arthurian chivalry at its height, and it is accordingly by far the most substantial single section of the Morte. (185).” It is because of his detachment from the Round Table that he can reach such heights. Arthur reels in his knights. For example, the quest of Gawain concerning the Green Knight is only a part of the festivities inside the court, and more importantly, Arthur is incensed with Gawain when so many of his Knights leave for the Grail Quest. In this way the negative aspects of Arthur’s control are highlighted.
Another instance of control that goes awry, is King Marke’s insistence that Trystram win Isolde for him. The love potion is meant to make her fall in love with him, but it makes her fall for Trystram instead: ““Madame Isolde, here is a draught of good wyne that dame Brangwayne, your maydyn, and Governayle, my servaunte, hath keptre for hemselff!” Than they lowghe and made good chere, and eyther dranke so swete nother so good to them. But by that drynke was in their bodyes, they loved aythir so well that never hir love departed, for well nother for woo. And thus hit happed first, the love betwyxte Sir Trystrames and La Beale Isolde, the whyche love never departed dayes of their lyff.” (257). The attempts to control and manipulate reality don’t seem to be successful, — so the power they imagine, is seen as incomplete the farther they try to reach with their power, and the older and weaker they become. As Yeats puts it, if the old could, if the young knew. And Trystram and Isolde’s innocence in drinking the potion, or wine, absolves them from the responsibility of Lancelot and Guinevere, who know that they are betraying Arthur, and do have the will to act differently – to not engage in adultery.
An important analogy exists here of the patriarchs. As Knights die off one after another, and as Arthur and Marke’s greatness becomes normalized, chivalry is obviously flawed to begin with. The most unfortunate member in these triangles of love is Arthur/Marke. It closely resembles “King Lear”, in that Lear is as Gloucester is, the patriarch of the family. In their aging, is the aging of a realm, and a system of values.  Edmund’s Renaissance man ideas replace Lear’s more classical patriarchal, primogeniture oriented values. And in Malory, the hold of power is slowly slipping for Marke and Arthur, as they are outdone by younger men who are in the prime of their life. Having Trystram’s story extended and having it involved with the Round Table, strengthens the parallel with Lancelot’s story. Especially with Trystram, they are like sons, in a Freudian reading, killing their father and marrying their mothers(Guinever e and Isolde). They get what they want, if the love potion represents Trystram’s and also Isolde’s unconscious desires, at the price of patricide. As Gloucester is blinded mercilessly, as Lear dies entwined with Cordelia, the younger generation approaches, shuffling them into the next world.
Looking back to the Roman section of the Morte, the Round Table is not great in the same way as Rome. Whereas Portia will stab herself, murder herself for her loyalty to Brutus, while Brutus contemplates solemnly on his course of action, Lancelot and Trystram act briskly and strive for excellence in fighting, while Brutus and the Romans strove for good governance, and intellectual integrity. These Knights are temperamental, mean, and they rank themselves on their ability to kill one another. Presently, they have imagined themselves as possessing the grandeur and vitality of the Romans, but that grandeur is slowly slipping from the world, and already, the modern world, with its stifling normality, is suffocating the world.


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