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Romance of Tristan and Isolde

Marriage as a medieval institution was a male right of ownership and control over the woman, her sexuality and reproductive function. But courtly love, as the historical basis of romantic or “true” love, was something radically different. From the point of view of goal-oriented sexual contest and possession, chivalry was impossible love, frustrated but driven, and condemned to a shadow existence outside the mainstream order and mentality of patriarchy and property. It was about passion, therefore, and not the action of conquest, control, or the triumph of will. Chivalry involved restraint of animal motivations and channeling of ego drives that usually served external power and control. The loss of control in passion leads symbolically, and sometimes literally, to death, as the ultimate defeat of ego, reason and control. Surrender to love, and in love, is a kind of ego death, a surrender of masculine purpose and presumption. In the romance of Tristan and Isolde, she is betrothed to King Marc, Tristan’s uncle and liege. It is an arranged marriage of state, since Isolde is heiress of a neighboring kingdom. In marriage, she becomes Marc’s property, extending his power. His nephew is bound to him by kinship and fealty, and is therefore his property as well. Nevertheless Tristan falls in love with the new queen and she with him. They conspire to meet in secret, are suspected, and much of the tale relates the charming and suspenseful ruses of their clandestine adventures. But Tristan is torn between his duty to Marc and his passion for Isolde; he is also concerned for the danger he places her in, since their illicit affair is treasonous and punishable for both by death. He resolves to avoid her, and meets another woman, who is curiously also named Isolde, as if to underline the parallel lives he must choose between. Her he marries, but never consummates this marriage, always tormented by his forbidden love for the first Isolde, which does finally lead to the death of both lovers. However, the tragedy of the story is not mortality, which symbolizes surrender, but the conflict between two modes of love and relation to the feminine that could not be resolved in the life of the times. Tristan, the man of action, does not simply run off with Isolde the Fair, to steal her to be his own property.294 Nor does he resign himself to a conventional married life with the other Isolde who is his lawful possession. Either of these options would have signified the business-as-usual of patriarchy and masculine assertion. His passion is bound up with a fate he cannot and does not wish to control, and he passively allows it to overtake him. From the perspective of conventional wisdom, this is a cautionary tale. But symbolically, from the perspective of a greater wisdom that would balance control with surrender, Tristan’s fatal indecision is a higher-level choice to transcend the masculine ethos of medieval Europe.

RELATED TAGS: [Tristan and Isolde/Iseult, (medieval) chivalry, courtly/romantic/true love, Troubadours, romantic passion, marriage and patriarchy, patriarchal marriage, woman as property, ownershop of woman, goal-oriented sex, medieval romance/romanticism, sexual surrender]

© Copyright Dan Bruiger 2008. All rights reserved.