Joseph Campbell On Courtly love: “You can’t call it just an aristocratic game”

*Joseph Campbell provides a synopsis of the classic romance tale of Tristan and Iseult

Tristan and Iseult

The great tale of Amor is the tale of Tristan and Iseult. Though we know that Chrétien wrote a version of this tale, it has not come down to us, and so the greatest of the existing versions was written by Gottfried von Strassburg in the very early thirteenth century.

Tristan was a young orphan who was born in Brittany, the place from which this whole tradition emerges. An enormously talented youth, he could speak no end of languages, play no end of musical instruments, and he knew how to butcher game— he knew everything. Tristan goes to serve his uncle King Mark in Cornwall.

There is an interesting aspect to these Arthurian stories: it is always the nephew and the uncle, the mother’s brother: the matrilineal line. You’ve got Tristan and Mark, Arthur and Mordred, and so forth.

When Tristan arrives he learns that a warrior has arrived from Ireland to collect tribute from the Cornish people because the Irish king had conquered Cornwall. The tribute consisted of youths and maidens to be brought to Ireland to serve in the Irish court, and the people didn’t want their children to go. Tristan said to his uncle Mark, “Let me take care of this. I’ll go and meet him in single combat, defeat him, and then there will no more tribute.” This is a deliberate echo of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, an intentional restating of ancient Classical motifs.

Morholt, the Irish champion, has a sword that has been anointed with poison by the queen of Ireland, who is named Iseult— and whose daughter is also named Iseult. This is a common trope in courtly love: poison on the sword. The combat takes place and Morholt’s sword comes down on Tristan’s thigh and cuts it, and the poison is introduced. Tristan’s sword comes down on Morholt’s helmet, cuts right through, and smashes Morholt’s skull, killing him, but a little chink of Tristan’s sword is left in Morholt’s head.

The tribute is finished, and Morholt is brought back to Ireland. Now, his little niece Iseult, the daughter of Queen Iseult, loved her uncle and when the chink was extracted from Morholt’s head she kept it as a memorial in her little treasure box.

Back in Cornwall Tristan’s poisoned wound begins to stink and nobody can bear it, and he says to Mark, “Put me in a little boat, and the boat will carry me by magic to the very place where the healing will be attended to”— the healing has to be accomplished by the one who injured him.

In Amor, the love wound— the sickness no doctors can cure— can be cured only by the one who issued the wound: namely, the one you fell in love with. This is a replay of the poison-in-the-sword motif.

So Tristan sails off in the boat and it carries him indeed to Ireland, to the court of the very person whose poison is killing him. He is playing the harp out in the little boat, feeling very sick, as he sails into Dublin Harbor. The people ashore go out and hear this youth play— this is Orpheus. They bring him ashore and lo and behold, they carry him to be cured by the very queen who poisoned him.

For some reason the queen doesn’t know that this man is the one who killed her brother Morholt. Of course, our hero had changed his name and called himself Tantrist (French: “too sad”) instead of Tristan, so how could she know who he was? So she works to cure him, as she is a compassionate woman. When the wound no longer stinks, she invites her daughter, Iseult, in to hear this wonderful harpist, and when the daughter enters, Tristan plays more marvelously than he’s ever played in his life. In other words, he’s fallen in love— only he doesn’t know it yet. This is the mystery of this whole tale: he doesn’t know it.

Finally Tristan is cured, and he goes back to Cornwall. He’s so excited about this wonderful girl that he talks her up to his uncle and says, “You ought to marry her!” Can you beat it? He’s so innocent of his own emotions that he thinks his uncle should marry this girl.

Well, everybody thinks his uncle should get married anyhow because they need a queen, so they send Tristan back— with his name still twisted around— to fetch this girl. Well, he arrives back in Ireland to find that there is a dragon making it tough for people. And the king has said, “Whosoever kills this dragon shall have Iseult in marriage.”

Well, of course, Tristan rides out to kill the dragon. There is also, however, a seneschal, a sort of courtier who isn’t capable of killing dragons, but he wants very much to marry Iseult. So whenever he gets a notion of somebody going out to kill that dragon, he trails along.

When Tristan has slain the dragon, he opens its mouth, cuts out its tongue as proof of his deed, sticks the tongue in his shirt, and walks away.

The seneschal comes afterward and cuts off the dragon’s head, then brings the head to court to claim Iseult.

Poor Tristan. One thing you should never do with a dragon’s tongue is stick it in your shirt— because it’s poisonous. So while he is walking away with the dragon’s tongue in his shirt, Tristan faints and falls into a pool, and the only part of him sticking out is his nose, so he’s breathing all right.

Iseult and her mother happen to be out for a stroll along the pool, and as they stroll along, they look and say, “There’s somebody down there!” So they pull Tristan out— for some reason they don’t even recognize that he is Tantrist, the one who was there before— and take him to court once again to heal him.

They put him in the bathtub to heal him. In the meanwhile, Iseult is fooling around with Tristan’s equipment in his room when she pulls his sword out of its sheath, and lo and behold, “My gosh, there’s a nick in this sword!” So she goes to her little treasure box and there is this missing piece. She sees that it fits, and oh, she loved her uncle! So she takes this heavy sword and goes in to kill Tristan in the bathtub.

He looks up and says, “Hold on. You knock me out and that seneschal dope gets you.”

Iseult has to admit that this is a good point. In the meantime, the sword is getting kind of heavy, so that is the end of that.

Once Tristan has once again been healed, he is brought to court with the big question: Who gets Iseult? The first claim is made by this chap the seneschal, who comes in with the dragon’s head, which looks very conclusive.

Tristan, however, has only to say, “Open its mouth and let’s see what’s missing there.” No tongue. And where is the missing part? “It’s here!” says Tristan, holding out the tongue, and so he got Iseult.

This stupid little boy, he still wants to bring her back to uncle Mark. So her mother, the one who prepared the poison that brought this whole thing about, prepares a love potion for Iseult to deliver to Mark so that the two will have a love marriage.

Now, this is a great problem theologically and in every other way. In any case, the queen puts the potion and her daughter into the keeping of young Iseult’s faithful nursemaid, Brangaene.

Well, Brangaene doesn’t pay very close attention. On the way back, Tristan and Iseult, both about fifteen years old, each take a sip of the love draught, thinking it is wine. Suddenly the couple becomes aware of the love that has been gradually growing in their hearts.

When Brangaene learns what happened, she is appalled. This is a wonderful moment: she goes to Tristan and says, “You have drunk your death!”

And Tristan answers, “I don’t know what you mean. If by death you mean this pain of love, that is my life.”

This is the essential idea of Amor, experiencing the pain. The essence of life is pain, all life is suffering. In Japan in almost the same period Lady Murasaki writes The Tale of Genji, and you have this love play of the cloud gallants and the flower maidens— they’re experiencing in a very sensitive way the Buddha’s wisdom, that all life is suffering, and the suffering of love is the suffering of life and where your pain is, there is your life.

Tristan continues, “If by this love, this agony of love, you mean my death, that is my life. If by my death you mean the punishment that will be ours when discovered in adultery, I accept that.” This is pushing right through the pair of opposites of life and death, and this is where love is: the pain pushed through. And then he finishes, “And if by death you mean eternal death in Hell, eternally I accept that too.”

Now, that’s a big, big statement, and this is the spirit of Amor in the Middle Ages. You can’t call it just an aristocratic game, and it wasn’t just a love affair. It was a mission transcendent of all the values of this world and a pitch into eternity.

Source: Campbell, J., Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine