The legend of Tristan and Iseult’s love is one of the founding and most enduring myths of Western culture. The exact origins of the legend are difficult to pinpoint, as the story appears in Celtic, Persian, Irish, French, German, British, and Welsh traditions. Over time, its appeal spread to Italy, the Iberian Peninsula, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe. Norman French, Anglo-Norman, and Middle High German versions of the story appeared in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, written by four authors: Béroul, Eilhard von Oberg, Thomas of Britain, and Gottfried von Straßburg. Although each of these versions is slightly different, they all share a similar narrative about Tristan and Iseult, who fall in love after drinking a magical potion and who, despite their best efforts to remain true to their other marital commitments, are unable to conquer their passion for each other.
Throughout the centuries, the tale would take on different moral tones, with some emphasizing the transgressive nature of the relationship and others the power of their love. However, as the scholar Joan Tasker Grimbert puts it: “At the core of the legend as it evolved in the Middle Ages is a passionate love that is both fated and fatal, a mutual ardor so strong and exclusive as to override the most compelling family, social, and religious taboos. The potion/poison that is the source of this passion maintains the lovers in a constant state of unrest and drives them to a premature death” (xvi).
Although the later versions of the story emphasize the reciprocity of the lovers’ feelings and Iseult’s inability to refuse her father’s wish to barter her in marriage, in the early Celtic version Iseult is represented as goodness capable of magical power. She uses the potion to cast a spell over a male who would otherwise be indifferent towards her and thus chooses her own mate. In the later version, the lovers drink the love potion by accident; in the earlier version, it is Iseult who tricks Tristan into drinking it. Some scholars note that the changed story paralleled the emergence of patriarchal structures promoted by the emerging Church and State.
The Poison and the Cure
The idea of a potion that is both poison and cure had its origins in Plato’s Phaedrus, a Socratic dialogue about aesthetics, madness, and the nature of erotic love. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida noted that in Phaedrus, Plato uses the word pharmakon to mean both poison and remedy. The Egyptian god of writing, Theuth, offers King Thamus writing as a receipt (pharmakon) for memory and wisdom. However, Thamus rejects the gift, arguing that it is merely a way of reminding, not remembering. Writing is thus a poison, not a cure. He says: “Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt (pharmakon) for recollection not for memory” (275b).
As Derrida points out, the Platonic use of the word pharmakon questions the binaries of remedy/poison, good/bad, true/false, positive/negative. Derrida writes: “The ‘essence’ of the pharmakon lies in the way in which, having no stable essence, no ‘proper’ characteristics, it is not, in any sense (metaphysical, physical, chemical, alchemical) of the word, a substance . . . It is rather the prior medium in which differentiation in general is produced” (125–26). Pharmakon, the magic potion that is both cure and poison, erases the boundaries between the opposites that define our social and linguistic structures.
In the myth of Tristan and Iseult, the love potion is what incites the lovers’ passion, but also what, ultimately, brings their demise. The potion, with its ambivalent function, unravels the taboos and traditional boundaries between licit and illicit feelings and emotions. Contrary to medieval social customs that treat marriage as foremost a legal and business arrangement, the legend privileges physical attraction over all other considerations, thus pitting the needs and desires of the individual against the needs of society. Hence the potion brings both love and death.
Love and Marriage
In his book Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont points out that the myth of Tristan and Iseult emerged in opposition to the Christian emphasis on marriage: “The cultivation of passionate love began in Europe as a reaction to Christianity (and in particular to its doctrine of marriage) by people whose spirit, whether naturally or by inheritance, was still pagan” (74). Passionate love was seen as incompatible with marriage: “Whatever turns into a reality is no longer love” (34). The story also illustrated “a conflict between chivalry and feudal society – and hence a conflict between two kinds of duty and between two ‘religions’”
Rougemont argues that in Western culture, the motive of eternal love developed from Platonic love, which was the love of two souls joined together in spirit above and beyond the physical connection of two bodies. Indeed, in Phaedrus, Socrates argues that the greatest fulfillment for lovers comes not from the physical consummation of love, but from the conscious feeling of oneness and self-mastery they share. Platonic love is “‘a divine delirium,’ a transport of the soul, a madness and supreme sanity both. A lover with his beloved becomes ‘as if in heaven;’ for love is the way that ascends by degrees of ecstasy to the one source of all that exists, remote from bodies and matter, remote from what divides and distinguishes, and beyond the misfortune of being a self and even in love itself a pair” (61).
Originally posted at Boston Lyric Opera blog (11/10/14).
Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Eming, Jutta, Ann Marie Rasmussen, and Kathryn Starkey, eds. Visuality and Materiality in the Story of Tristan and Isolde. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012.
Grimbert, Joan Tasker, ed. Tristan and Isolde: A Casebook. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Hardman, Phillipa. The Growth of the Tristan and Iseut Legend in Wales, England, France, and Germany. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2003.
Plato. The Phaedrus. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Phaedrus. Translator: B. Jowett. Posting Date: October 30, 2008 [EBook #1636]. Release Date: February 1999. Retrieved from: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1636/pg1636.txt