Thoughts-ish: Tristan et Iseut, edited by Michel Zink

I’m not going to write a scholarly essay on this, sorry and you’re welcome. This is just closure for me, and letting myself brag a bit, because this was a really difficult read and I got through it!

(Musical accompaniment!)

This is a collection of fragments of Tristan and Isolt/Isolde/Isolda manuscripts and lais in Old French with very literal translations into now-French, and ending with a translation of the Nordic saga version based on the Thomas manuscript, which we only have as fragments now.

It was hard. It was dense and the incredibly faithful translation was dry, and a lot of the manuscripts overlapped so I found myself reading over and over again the story of Tristan dressing up as a leper called Tantris to hang out with Iseut* under King Mark’s oblivious eye, like some kind of farcical mediaeval Groundhog Day. I love mythology and all the reworkings such stories undergo through time and culture, but it was so much, I couldn’t have read it all in one go, and I don’t think it was designed to be read like that.

I got the book when I was at uni, because, surprising nobody, I did a module on mediaeval French, but it was an extra reading type thing as far as I remember – we did study Cligès by Chrétien de Troyes, in which there are Tristanian and Iseutian elements. I never read the whole thing though, and I thought recently that why not? Reading in French is always worthwhile.

And it was! I’m glad I read it. I find Tristan and Iseut themselves kind of fascinating – so many bad choices! the love potion that is responsible for everything! Tristan is such a meathead athlete! Iseut pulled some INCREDIBLY shady stuff with her bff handmaid Brangien! And yet you still kind of root for them? These “evil” councillors and seneschals are always trying to catch them out and dob them in, and in the end, they are totally committing adultery! But you’re still somehow glad when they get away.

And Iseut Blanchemains, horribly wronged by her husband and brother! Where do you even start? Okay, despite cheering on Tristan and Iseut-the-queen, I was absolutely on Blanchemains’s side here. She only has one life! Tristan is casually ruining it for no reason! Screw him! She did nothing wrong!

I’ll enjoy turning this one over in my mind for a long time, I think.

*Her name was spelt so many ways, I’m just going for the one on the front of the book for consistency

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