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Grimacing at love

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It doesn’t cry, it doesn’t bleat
No longer does it stamp its feet
My love is ordinary, grey, and tired
It’s shut up shop, its agents fired
Our words are flat, our habits pall
No longer does it work at all.
You’re miserable, quite lost and broken
Your judgement harsh, your friendship token
Yet nothing’s changed: the world’s grown older
The embers do not die but smoulder
You mull at time and tide and affection
You beat out mothballs, utter perfection
And in these ordinary times I love you
Still – it can’t be helped
Your desertion unfelt,
Not mad, not bad, not dull, not wicked,
And still I love this knotted man, this dickhead.

Written by tomtomrant

28 September 2016 at 10:49 pm

Posted in poetry

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“The Course of Love” by Alain de Botton

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the-course-of-love

Well I finished this a few weeks ago. It’s not a novel at all but an easy-to-read run-through (as in, with a sword) of the magic and misgivings of modern relationships, revealing, after the honeymoon phase, the unrealistic and rather trite insecurities of the myth of romantic love. I highly recommend it as a quick, easy and mightily demoralising read. You’re really only ready for a relationship when you have given up on perfection and being fully understood, when you know you’re crazy, that a relationship itself is inherently frustrating, that loving trumps being loved, that sex won’t really go with love, that no one is properly compatible and you’re ready to teach and to learn constantly. It is actually an excellent modern addendum to Robert A. Johnson’s mythic “We” – see my earlier post.

Written by tomtomrant

1 September 2016 at 9:01 pm

Ancient Greek Pederasty: Love, Lust, Power & Pedagogy

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pederastic_sceneI wasn’t going to post this essay from my BA as it does not directly concern the arts or myth like most posts on this blog, but I reread it recently I think it is interesting for the interpretation of culture (which is related to arts and myth). I hope it is of interest to some. 😉

The ancient Greek discourse of pederasty challenges many of our modern conceptions of societal normalcy. An erotic relationship between a 12-17 year old boy and a mature man would be considered illegal not just in Australia but in most modern cultures today. As to whether this relationship was romantic, the primary sources are equivocal. It all depends on what one means by romance and what exactly would be convincing evidence of such. David Halperin and Michel Foucault have argued that the ancient Greek pederastic relationship had more to do with power than love, but I shall argue that this is by no means clear, or even particularly meaningful in itself.

That the social custom of ancient Greek pederasty existed is not at issue. We have Greek pottery painted with images depicting a young man (the eromenos or ‘beloved’)[1] being effectively courted by an older man (the erastes or ‘lover’),[2] in rare instances even going so far as to portray sex between them, in the form of intercrural intercourse.[3] We have the Symposium of Plato, exploring the nobility of ‘boy-love’. The works of the lyric poets, though fragmentary, clearly record the pederastic eroticism of ancient Greek writers. The institution seems to have arisen in the sixth century B.C.E., and was a much-lauded social custom for over a thousand years, disappearing only with the triumph of Christianity in the 5th century C.E.[4]

A difficulty with interpreting a social custom such as Greek pederasty is that a custom is not an event or a thing, but a collection of values, beliefs and experiences. These are, of course, not found expressed directly in archaeological evidence but have to be inferred from often disparate and fragmented discourse. Furthermore, a particular piece of evidence apparently concerning a social convention may only provide the opinion of an ancient individual or minority; it may not reflect the broader social conventions of the majority. We need to be highly cautious and skeptical when applying a meaning or explanation to human cultural institutions. Culture involves a large element of complex human experience that often defies explanation on the basis of logical thought or strictly practical necessity. For example, the practical purpose of clothing, and the available technologies for its construction, does not always or adequately explain a particular fashion or style. The reason why humans choose to do things of a cultural nature is not explained entirely by any one economic, social, political, personal, practical, or aesthetic reason, but by a combination of all of these, and even then, the custom, particularly if it is outside our modern experience, may still remain mysterious.

Ancient Greek pederasty was perhaps not totally like this photo downloaded from the internet...

Ancient Greek pederasty was perhaps not totally like this photo downloaded from the internet…

In order to investigate whether or not Greek pederasty entailed a romantic element, we need also to define what we mean by romantic. Immediately, we have a demonstration of the difficulties of interpreting human culture – it is not entirely clear what modern people mean by the social conventions surrounding romantic love. We can propose that romantic love involves the idea of a magical, individual, caring, consensual relationship between, usually, a man and a woman, necessarily involving some intimacy and sexuality, often leading to marriage. Yet this ‘definition’ itself sounds dubious for a number of reasons. For starters, these ideas are not often expressed so clearly – most of us ‘just know’ what we mean by romantic love. Furthermore, these conventions are clearly in flux especially with the relatively recent separation of marriage from strict religious principles and the rise in recognition of women’s rights; the paradigm is no longer that of the husband breadwinner, and his obedient housewife. Add to this the variation between different individual tastes and experiences of love and an account of romantic love becomes even more difficult to define.

Historically, we might also question what the ancient Greeks meant by love, aside from the issue of pederasty. C. S. Lewis and Morton Hunt, among others, have argued that romantic love, as we mean it today, is an ‘invention’ of Middle Ages Europe.[5] This idea initially sounds farfetched, but we are forgetting that romantic love is quite a specific concept, carefully ‘itemised’ in the poetry of the medieval troubadours, for instance. Psychologist James R. Averill argues that before the European middle ages “love was conceived largely in terms of sexual desire (eros), brotherly love (philia), tenderness (storge), or, in its purest form, an altruistic, God-like love (agape).”[6] Indeed, we do not find conclusive proof of the unique, individual, mutual, anti-instrumental and uneconomic conception of love in any ancient source – not in the Bible, in Classical literature, in the Upanishads or hunter-gatherer myths, for example.

For the sake of the argument, I will nonetheless examine Greek pederasty from the point of view of modern romantic love, since this is usually what we mean by the term. Leaving aside the experiential quality of the relationship, we might first observe that the actual quantitative parameters of the relationship are distinctly different. The eromenos is always a 12-17 year old boy, who is on the cusp of puberty, “before the killjoy hairs begin to sprout” (Strato, Puerilities XXI).[7] The erastes, as far as we can tell, was always a mature man, often represented with a beard in pottery art.[8] Already, this does not coincide with our modern ideas of romantic love. Of course, a romantic homosexual relationship with partners of radically different ages is possible, but there is no ‘expiry date’ on the relationship like there is with pederasty. This is one of the characteristics that makes pederasty distinct from ancient Greek conceptions of homosexuality. (The ancient Greeks seemed to define adult homosexuals only as those who were the receptive partner in intercourse and who continued the custom beyond their youthful 17 years.)[9]

P0217In addition to age conventions, pederasty was distinct in that it was supposed to provide the eromenos with an older male mentor from which he could learn wisdom.[10] In this sense, ancient Greek pederasty resembles modern ideas of brotherly love or paternal mentorship. This idea is somehow familial, like a father-son bond, yet the erastes’ admiration of the eromenos’ physical beauty does not seem to fit the familial paradigm. Furthermore, Alcibiades, in Plato’s Symposium, exclaims, after a disappointingly chaste night with Socrates, “‘I had in no more particular sense slept a night with Socrates than if I had been with my father or my elder brother!’” (Plato, Symposium 219c). This suggests that the usual pederastic interactions did not resemble ancient familial relationships.

In terms of the distinct fundamental quality of love felt by those involved in a pederastic relationship, we must draw upon the literature, particularly the poetry, to investigate how this love was expressed. To begin with, there appears to be no extant poetry written in the eromenos’ voice – it is only the erastes speaking.[11] This itself may suggest something of the lopsided nature of the relationship. The mature man principally admires the eromenos for his physical qualities: his “girlish glance” (Anacreon, PMG 359), his “honey-coloured” skin (Strabo, Puerilities V), his “delicious bottom” (Rhianus, Puerilities XXXVIII). It seems that the eromenos was occasionally unwilling, flirtatious or downright manipulative towards his admirers, but also proud of his attractiveness and occasionally very willing: “‘That feels so good!’ you cry, ‘Do that again!’” (Asclepiades of Adramyttium, Puerilities XXXVI) – at least, according to the erastes-poet.

The erastes is also somewhat possessive and jealous of his boy – criticizing him for choosing bad or even just other lovers (Theognis, Erotic Elegies 2.1305-16), or “slutting around” (Theognis, Erotic Elegies 2.1271). This may be an element of shared wisdom – the eromenos learns to distinguish an honourable from a dishonourable man. Yet this seems to be a self-serving form of wisdom, if, for instance, the erastes is warding the eromenos away from other men simply to retain his own possessive bond. Plato’s Symposium is the principle repository of the higher nobility of pederastic love. Here it is conceived as a lofty, intellectual, heavenly type of love, in contradistinction to the earthly, physical, common type practiced in heterosexual relations (Plato, Symposium 180c-182a). However, one must question who exactly Plato is representing in this text as it seems to embody a variety of sometimes contradictory views on love, perhaps influenced by its setting at an aristocratic drinking party.[12]

From this, we gain the impression that a pederastic relationship was passionate, physical, probably quite superficial, but also rather one-sided. On the whole, this does not sound like romantic love, but a combination of paternal mentorship with fiery lust. (Perhaps one was ‘payment’ for the other.) The age disparity between partners has led David Halperin and Michel Foucault to propose that the relationship had probably more to do with power than love: an older mature man not exactly ‘taking advantage’, but enjoying his superiority over a younger male.[13] This theory holds some credence when one considers that it was the passive, receptive partner in intercourse that was considered disreputable in adult homosexuality.[14] We might also liken the relationship between man and boy with the relationship between man and wife, as girls were married from around 15 years in ancient Greece,[15] suggesting that the submissive role was assigned to all non-mature people, regardless of sex.

6821810_origPersonally, I find this theory highlights an important element of the relationship but does not explain what it was ‘all about’. It is clear that pederasty was quite distinct from modern ideas of homosexuality, pedophilia, marriage, mentorship, male camaraderie and romantic love. Ancient historians offer their own explanations of pederasty, claiming that the legendary lawgivers Lycurgus, in Sparta, and Solon, in Athens introduced it as a form of population control along with the seclusion of women, late marriages and nude athletics.[16] This suggests that the unique custom of exercising nude in the gymnasia was developed in order to encourage eroticism and pederasty.[17] However, while population control may be an ancient justification for the practice, revealing something about the expressed beliefs and ‘explanations’ of the time, the prospect that an ancient Greek adult male’s practical concern for population numbers was at all motivating him to notice the beauty of a 16-year-old boy’s “honeyed voice” (Synthinus, Puerilities XXII) or “accommodating orifice” (Synthinus, Puerilities XXII) does not sound credible. Almost as strange is the idea that he was salivating over boys in order to ‘express his power’.

When it comes to an alien tradition from an ancient time such as pederasty, the closest we can come to understanding this custom is by a kind of combined analogy. We have seen how the custom involved a homosocial interaction between an older and a younger man involving something approximating paternal wisdom and aesthetic admiration. Population control or power play can possibly explain aspects of this, but we must be wary. These practical and intellectual theories of justification either operate in an intellectual vacuum, divorced from the experienced reality of the ancient Greeks, or function as illustrations of a kind of subconscious experience of these customs. The former sheds next to no light on the social custom itself (only upon ancient or modern interpretations of it), while the latter explores the nature of human sexuality and social behaviour in general, as exemplified through ancient Greek customs rather than as an explanation of them. One might similarly interpret modern romantic love as a power play or as, say, an offshoot of the evolutionary drive to reproduce. This would not be incorrect as such but the experience of such love is hardly captured in such a view. Whatever its fundamentals, ancient Greek pederasty was certainly unique as a social custom.

Works Cited

Primary Sources
Anacreon PMG 359 trans. P. Bing and R. Cohen (London: Routledge, 1993).
Plato Symposium trans. H. N. Fowler (1925), accessed 17 Sept 2013 at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0174%3Atext%3DSym.%3Asection%3D172a
Theognis Erotic Elegies 2 trans. P. Bing and R. Cohen (London: Routledge, 1993).
Various Puerilities from The Greek Anthology 12 trans. Daryl Hine (Princeton, 2009)

Secondary Sources
Averill, J. R. and E. P. Nunley. 1992. Voyages of the Heart: Living an Emotionally Creative Life. New York: The Free Press.
Bing, P. and R. Cohen, trans. 1993. Games of Venus: an anthology of Greek and Roman erotic verse from Sappho to Ovid. London: Routledge.
Campbell, J. Creative Mythology. 2001. Reprint. London: Souvenir Press, 1968.
Chong-Gossard, Dr. K. O. 2013. “Queering the Past: Pederasty in Ancient Greece.” Lecture. Parkville: Melbourne University, 3rd Sept.
Karras, R. M. 2000. “Active/Passive, Acts/Passions: Greek and Roman Sexualities.” The American Historical Review 105: 1250-65.
Lear, A. and E. Cantarella. 2008. Images of Ancient Greek Pederasty. Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge.
Morris, I. and B. B. Powell. 2010. The Greeks: History, Culture and Society. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Percy III, W. A. 1996. Pederasty and Pedagogy in Archaic Greece. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Scanlon, T. F. 2005. “The Dispersion of Pederasty and the Athletic Revolution in Sixth-Century BC Greece.” Journal of Homosexuality 49: 63-85.


[1] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[2] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[3] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[4] Percy 1996, 192.

[5] Averill and Nunley 1992, 21.

[6] Averill and Nunley 1992, 21; Campbell 2001, 175-86.

[7] Note: all references from the Puerilities (Greek Anthology 12) are listed under ‘Various’ in the Primary Works Cited due to the many ancient authors in the anthology.

[8] Lear and Cantarella 2008, 192.

[9] Percy 1996, 172, 173, 186, 188; Karras 2000, 1256.

[10] Morris and Powell 2010, 36-7.

[11] Bing and Cohen 1993, 93.

[12] Lear and Cantarella 2008, 10.

[13] Chong-Gossard 2013.

[14] Morris and Powell 2010, 36.

[15] Morris and Powell 2010, 28.

[16] Percy 1996, 71; Lear and Cantarella 2008, 8.

[17] Percy 1996, 84, 98; Scanlon 2005, 66, 72.

Written by tomtomrant

6 March 2014 at 5:24 pm

Love: medieval and modern in ‘Tristan and Isolde’

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Yet another essay from my BA. I highly recommend getting and reading a copy of Gottfried’s Tristan. It is available in Hatto’s great English translation in the Penguin classics series. It is very easy to read, especially for a work written in the 13th century!

ImageI am well aware that there have been many who have told the tale of Tristan; yet there have not been many who have read his tale aright. – Gottfried, Tristan (43)[1]

Emerging into literary history from the obscure oral culture of medieval Europe, the story of ‘Tristan and Isolde’[2] exists in a variety of retellings, some complete, many in fragments, in diverse languages, infused with particular understandings of medieval love: courtly, romantic, divine and human. In this essay, I will examine the versions of the ‘Tristan and Isolde’ story by Béroul, Gottfried, and Malory. Examining the broad stylistic traits of each, I shall focus upon the differing conceptions of love in each text and briefly expand on their impact through to modern day as these ideas have significance both within and outside a medievalist context.

The three texts I will be examining are all, in one way or another, incomplete.[3] The full story can be surmised by comparison with more complete versions, or by piecing together fragments by different authors. The central situation around which the romance revolves concerns a love triangle. The valiant young knight Tristan woos and wins the beautiful young princess Isolde of Ireland on behalf of his uncle King Mark of Cornwall. On the return voyage, Tristan and Isolde accidentally drink a magic love potion. Back in Cornwall, Isolde is married to King Mark but Tristan and Isolde are so passionately in love that they cannot resist continuing their illicit lovemaking behind Mark’s back. The majority of the tale concerns Mark’s increasing and decreasing suspicions and the lovers’ more or less successful attempts at subterfuge as they carry on their lovemaking. Eventually their relationship is discovered; the lovers are exiled, separated, and die tragically.[4]

In essence, the ‘Tristan’ narrative inevitably brings the idea of love into conflict with medieval concepts of marriage, feudal statesmanship, and honour. Consequently, the author of a ‘Tristan’ romance must navigate carefully the areas of love, lust, marriage, and sex. It is worth bearing in mind that the medieval punishments for adultery were draconian, often involving death, mutilation, scouraging, or, as in Béroul, burning.[5] Women were married young primarily for social, political or economic reasons, often to much older men.[6] All of this was ratified by a moralistic clergy, so much more powerful than they are today, who preached the existence of a literal fiery Hell for all sinners in the afterlife.[7] The manner in which Béroul, Gottfried, and Malory deal with the essential adultery and scandal of the Tristan legend is best exemplified by their respective literary styles.

Béroul’s retelling is the earliest of the three; it is dated to the late twelfth century[8] and is written in an early French.[9] Béroul conveys his narrative in the style of early French fabliaux.[10] The tale is told in a casual voice – he frequently addresses the ‘seigneurs (lords)’ directly, as if addressing a live audience.[11] This suggests a closeness to oral storytelling. He does not dwell on psychological motivation or subtleties of individual feelings. His tale is concerned not so much with love, but with vengeance, as it is revenge which motivates his swiftly-moving plot.[12] Béroul’s Tristran is also more malicious and comic.[13] King Marc is jealous and vengeful in this tale, even attempting to burn the lovers at the stake.

Hence we find that love in Béroul is primarily a sensationalist plot device, not to be taken too seriously. He does not engage in eloquent love poetry; the lovers are principally celebrated for their deviousness and temerity. “Listen to the cunning woman!” declares Béroul, clearly impressed, “She [Iseut] was the perfect deceiver” (519-520).[14] Our heroes are scandalous adulterers – frequently caught “lying completely naked” (594) – who play cat and mouse with the treacherous cuckold king and his evil henchmen – “never have you seen such evil men!” (582). This means that the lovers essentially operate on the same depraved level as the king and his henchmen,[15] except of course the narrator always sides with the lovers; exactly why is sometimes difficult to fathom.[16] Consequently, Béroul’s Tristran is “neither heroic as a knight nor tragic as a lover.”[17] The poem is an occasion for ‘naughty’ entertainment, rather in the spirit of primitive trickster myths, delighting in the absurd violation of cultural taboos.

Gottfried’s retelling is written in Middle High German and is dated to the early 13th century.[18] Gottfried bases his narrative on what he calls “the authentic version” (43) by Thomas of Britain.[19] Thomas was writing in French but his name suggests he was from England;[20] it is possible that Gottfried’s version contains traces of French, English and Germanic understandings of the tale. Thomas is distinctive for his psychological depth[21] – one fragment opens with a 235-line internal monologue in which Tristran agonises over whether he should abandon his true love and marry Yseut of the White Hands (1-235).[22] The passage is strikingly modern; but for the rhyming verse, it could almost be a passage from a nineteenth-century novel.

Gottfried retains much of this psychological focus but combines it with a complex symbolic and lyrical acuity.[23] The characterisation is much more complex and multi-dimensional than Béroul. King Mark is no longer a jealous, vengeful villain, but a conflicted, indecisive “waverer” (274), torn between his sense of honour, and his love for both lovers – his wife and his nephew.[24] This is achieved through the intricacy of motivation. For example, in Gottfried, Mark does not force Tristan to woo Isolde of his own accord. Instead, Mark is coerced into accepting marriage by his jealous barons, and, startlingly, even Tristan encourages the marriage to spare Mark trouble at court (154). In this way Tristan is seen to actively instigate both his courageous successes and his ignominious defeats throughout the tale. This instils a sense of fateful inevitability.

For love, in Gottfried, is an immense semi-mystic force, driving the lovers to their bliss and, inevitably, to their deaths. From the beginning, Gottfried speaks of love in oxymorons as “bitter-sweet”, and “dear sorrow” (42).[25] Love’s joy is always accompanied by an intense suffering. “He that never had sorrow of love,” Gottfried proclaims, “never had joy of it either!” (42). He also emphasises the individual nature of this love and its mutuality:[26] “The two lovers perceived that they had one heart, one mind, and but a single will between them” (200). Gottfried expresses this in reflexive oppositions: “Her anguish was his pain: his pain her anguish” (195); “A man, a woman; a woman, a man: / Tristan, Isolde; Isolde, Tristan” (43). Gottfried also purposely plays upon poetic properties of language, using symbolism and metaphor. Consider, for example, his frequent use of the metaphor of the bird trapped in quicklime:

When she [Isolde] recognised the lime that bewitching Love had spread and saw that she was deep in it, she endeavoured to reach dry ground, she strove to be out and away. But the lime kept clinging to her and drew her back and down. The lovely woman fought back with might and main, but stuck fast at every step. She was succumbing against her will. She made desperate attempts on many sides, she twisted and turned with hands and feet and immersed them ever deeper in the blind sweetness of Love, and of the man. Her limed senses failed to discover any path, bridge, or track that would advance them half a step, half a foot, without Love being there too. Whatever Isolde thought, whatever came uppermost in her mind, there was nothing there, of one sort or another, but Love, and Tristan. (196)

The source of this complex symbolic conception of love is something of a mystery. Joseph Campbell has suggested the symbology seems to derive from a fusion of Classical, Celtic, Germanic, and mystic (Orphic/Gnostic) backgrounds.[27] For example, the Germanic sense of internalised fate (the Anglo-Saxon wyrd), the progression of initiatory stages through sex and death as exemplified in the Roman mystery religions, the Celtic names and background to the narrative, and the mystic equating of myriad symbolic forms are all significant for Gottfried’s retelling.[28]

Many ‘Tristan’ authors, including Béroul, use the love potion as an excuse for the lovers’ scandalous behaviour. It was “‘because of the potion we drank at sea’” explains Iseut in Béroul (2207).[29] Such excuses are unacceptable for Gottfried. Instead, he ensures that Tristan and Isolde are in love well before they drink the potion. The potion still has a profound effect, but that effect seems to consist of properly recognising their love for each other, rather than causing that love:[30] “Now that their shyness was over they gloried and revelled in their intimacy, and this was wise and sensible” (204). Furthermore, Tristan is continually performing courageous deeds which not only spare Isolde much grief, but suggest, along with their shared passion for poetry and music, that Tristan is her rightful ‘other half’. It is he who shares an intimate personal connection with Isolde rather than King Mark, who has never met her. Gottfried’s picture of Mark as encapsulating bureaucratic honour without love is driven home when Mark unknowingly sleeps with Isolde’s cousin Brangane on his wedding night – and does not notice. “To him one woman was as another,” Gottfried wryly remarks (208).

Malory’s ‘Tristram’ in Le Morte Darthur is much later than Béroul and Gottfried, heralding from the fifteenth century. It is purportedly based on earlier French and English sources but Malory’s method of adaptation is apparently very selective.[31] It is important to acknowledge that Malory is incorporating the Tristan tale into a larger work which endeavours, at least theoretically, to form a coherent whole. The sheer amount of material seems to have necessitated a kind of homogenisation, a flattening of detail. King Mark is again a straightforward villain. The story is fragmented and interspersed with less relevant sub-plots, even divergent narratives. Several key events, such as the substitution of Brangane in Mark’s bed, are entirely missing, yet, incoherently, many of their consequences are not, such as the Brangane murder attempt. Malory provides generic, often identical, justifications for such fitfully resurrected events, drawing upon the jealousies of random, often unnamed minor characters or King Mark’s endless evil streak. Malory also seems to ‘rationalise’ the more fantastic incidents, for example, turning Tristan’s fight with the dragon into yet another knightly duel. All of this may be explained as part of Malory’s efforts to form a legendary English ‘history’ rather than a fabulous adventure or a mystic romance. His more worldly focus on masculine military action may reflect the contemporary Wars of the Roses.

In comparison to Béroul, Malory does not wink at the love scandal; he almost edits it out. Love, for Malory, seems to fit the courtly ideal; the lady is, primarily, the noble, vaguely platonic inspiration for chivalrous deeds, namely duels and tournaments. Malory has no time for internal monologues or reflective asides on the psychology of love, as per Thomas and Gottfried, but he barely even provides a straightforward description of it either. He speaks of love in brief, one sentence, stereotyped phrases: “The joy that La Belle Isode made of Sir Tristram there might no tongue tell, for of all men earthly she loved him best” (VIII, 23).[32] Tristram loves Isode because she is “the fairest lady and maiden of the world” (VIII, 9). The scandal is diluted by firmly establishing their love from the start and barely even mentioning the love potion.[33] The most explicit Malory gets is to suggest that the lovers were, at one point, caught “naked abed” (VIII, 34), but nothing more is said of this. As Edwards remarks, “[Malory] has deleted a very great deal of the eroticism of his sources.”[34] Unfortunately, Malory’s attempts to make erotic scenes platonic (or, as Benson suggests, even just comradely)[35] often make a nonsense of the story he is narrating. The love aspect is not merely reduced quantitatively in summary, the quality of that love is also downgraded. For instance, Tristram and Isode have other admirers before and after their meeting, suggesting that there is nothing particularly special about their love aside from its unexplained longevity. Malory repeatedly sends Tristram out on irrelevant quests, returning to Isode, one feels, in a perfunctory manner, as if Malory is clumsily attempting to merely maintain the continuity of the standard ‘Tristan’ story even as he fails to make it very meaningful.

On the face of it, Malory does not offer a very detailed picture of love at all – not even courtly love, which in Malory is arguably more of an excuse for being sexually reticent. He hardly expresses the detailed poetic sentiments of the 12th century troubadours.[36] Whereas Béroul seems to equate romantic passion with scandalous lust,[37] the conception of love in Gottfried is something else entirely. Joseph Campbell argues that Gottfried seems to exemplify a startlingly early exploration of our modern idea of romantic love: a love that is individual, mutual, passionate, and above economic and political concerns.[38] There is something astoundingly refreshing about Gottfried’s discourses on surveillance and trust: “A virtuous woman does not need to be guarded; she will guard herself, as they say. But if a man nevertheless sets a watch on her, believe me, she will hate him” (276). The opposite of this view is exemplified by the bartering of women as a means to form homosocial bonds, exemplified throughout Malory – at least in his reticent tone if not in his focus on masculine action throughout his narrative. In this respect, Malory’s clumsy picture of medieval love resembles the ideas of misguided, indiscriminate King Mark in Gottfried’s poem. As a comparison, Malory, in his famous passage asserting that love then was not as it is nowadays (XVIII, 25),[39] suggests that love was more constant and stable in the past and less either ‘lecherous’ or cold and brittle. Gottfried expresses similar sentiments against inconstancy but also deplores prudery and love as a political commodity:

Nowadays no one finds such steadfast affection, so ill do we prepare the soil… Shorn of all honour and dignity she [love] sneaks begging from house to house, shamefully lugging a patchwork sack in which she keeps what she can grab or steal and, denying it to her own mouth, hawks it in the streets… Love, mistress of all hearts, the noble, the incomparable, is for sale in the open market… False lovers and love-cheats as we are, how vainly our days slip by, seeing that we so seldom bring our suffering to a joyful consummation! How we dissipate our lives without either profit or pleasure!… Lovers who hide their feelings, having once revealed them, who set a watch on their modesty and so turn strangers in love, are robbers of themselves… This pair of lovers did not play the prude: they were free and familiar with looks and speech. (203-204)

Our contemporary familiarity with Gottfried-style romantic love can obscure its unique quality. The argument, put forward by C.S. Lewis and Morton Hunt for instance, that romantic love was ‘invented’ in the middle ages tends to be met with opposition.[40] However, this is because the concept of romantic love is not being properly discriminated. Nowhere in ancient literature – in the Bible, in Classical literature, in the Upanishads or Native American myths – do we conclusively find proof of this unique, individual, mutual, uneconomic sense of love. Psychologist James R. Averill argues that before the European middle ages “love was conceived largely in terms of sexual desire (eros), brotherly love (philia), tenderness (storge), or, in its purest form, an altruistic, God-like love (agape).”[41] Romantic love was a new socio-cultural construction, a “fusion of sensual and spiritual.”[42]

It is significant that Robert A. Johnson, a Jungian analyst, has used the ‘Tristan’ story to explore the psychology of Western romantic love, particularly in its dysfunctional aspects.[43] Johnson sees the story as a paradigmatic tale, a myth, a guidebook to romantic love’s modus operandi. In Johnson’s interpretation, the lovers are projecting a meaningful “god image” (their respective anima/animus archetypes) upon each other.[44] The essential tragedy is that the lovers are “in love, yet we wonder if it with each other.”[45] They are “in love with love.”[46] Tristan fails to moderate his passion to acknowledge the real human being. This real person is represented in the story by the deceptively simple and dull Iseut of the White Hands, whom Tristan marries but shuns in favour of his idealised, compulsive passion for Queen Iseut, who remains unattainable.[47] The essential tragedy, according to Johnson, is that Tristan fails to connect his passion with reality. This is the lesson which the tale encapsulates for modern lovers. Ironically, one could say, along with Gottfried, that Tristan is in love with death: as Brangane exclaims in reference to the love potion: “‘Ah, Tristan and Isolde, this draught will be your death!’” (195). (Wagner, in his 19th century ‘Tristan’ opera, seems aware of this when he has the lovers drink the love potion thinking it is poison rather than wine – their unrecognised love is so powerful that they want to die together, and instead have their passion awakened.)[48]

To conclude, we can see in the medieval ‘Tristan’ romances an emergence of the idea of romantic love from the generic, oral-inspired entertainments represented by Béroul, (where love, lust and scandal is part of the sensationalist milieu), through the courtly love superficially recollected in Malory, to the unique romantic variety brilliantly rendered in Gottfried. This brief survey also suggests something of the variety of styles in the romance oeuvre. Béroul reveals the comic, Gottfried the tragic, while Malory seems to encapsulate a medievalism already stereotyped, homogenised and sanitised as a sort of national ‘history’. Not only have we inherited these stories as cultural capital but they anticipate the modern myth of romantic love, which, as Gottfried reveals, both exhilarates and ensnares, such that reality can disappoint.[49] Johnson shows us that to resolve the ‘Tristan’ story and discover a way out of its tragic conclusion, we must discover another, fourth kind of love.[50] This is a human love with its acknowledgement of both reality and passion – an interpretation of reality as meaningful, poetic, even symbolic. As encapsulated in the ‘Tristan’ story, this problem of human versus romantic love is fundamentally a problem of hermeneutics, as expressed through medieval and medievalist literature.

Bibliography

Averill, James R. and Elma P. Nunley. Voyages of the Heart: Living an Emotionally Creative Life. New York: The Free Press, 1992.

Benson, C. David. “The Ending of the Morte Darthur.” In A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards, 221-240. 1996. Reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

Béroul. The Romance of Tristran. Edited & translated by Norris J. Lacy. New York & London: Garland, 1989.

Campbell, Joseph. Creative Mythology. 1968. Reprint, London: Souvenir Press, 2001.

Chinca, Mark. Gottfried von Strassburg Tristan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Cooper, Helen. “The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones.” In A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards, 183-202. 1996. Reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

Edwards, Elizabeth. “The Place of Women in the Morte Darthur.” In A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards, 37-54. 1996. Reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

Ferrante, Joan M. The Conflict of Love and Honor: The Medieval Tristan Legend in France, Germany and Italy. The Hague & Paris: Mouton, 1973.

Gottfried. Tristan. Translated by A. T. Hatto. 1960. Reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Gregory, Stewart. Introduction to Tristran, by Thomas of Britain, ix-xxii. New York & London: Garland, 1991.

Hatto, A. T. Introduction to Tristan, by Gottfried, 7-36. 1960; reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Johnson, Robert A. We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love. New York: HarperCollins, 1983.

Lacy, Norris J. Introduction to The Romance of Tristran, by Béroul, ix-xix. New York & London: Garland, 1989.

Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript. Edited by Helen Cooper. 1998. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

McCarthy, Terence. “Malory and His Sources.” In A Companion to Malory, edited by Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards, 75-96. 1996. Reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

McCarthy, Terence. Reading the Morte Darthur. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1988.

Rocher, Daniel. “Between Epic and Lyric Poetry: The Originality of Gottfried’s Tristan.” In A Companion to Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, edited by Will Hasty, 205-222. New York: Camden House, 2003.

Thomas of Britain. Tristran. Translated by Stewart Gregory. New York & London: Garland, 1991.

Thomas, Neil. Tristan in the Underworld: A Study of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan together with the Tristran of Thomas. Lewiston, Queenston & Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.


[1] Sadly, I was unable to locate a critical edition with line numbers for Gottfried. Consequently, I have referenced the page numbers from the highly acclaimed modern English translation by A. T. Hatto in the following edition: Gottfried, Tristan, trans. A. T. Hatto (1960; reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 2004).

[2] Character names will be as they appear in the relevant text under discussion. When the discussion is general, as here, or collective, I will use the spellings as in Gottfried. Similarly, I use inverted commas to designate the title of the ‘Tristan’ story, but italics to designate the title of a particular text.

[3] As we shall see, Malory’s retelling, though complete in itself, only tells the story briefly, in the fashion of a cursory plot summary.

[4] Note that it is not clear that the story in Béroul ends this way, but it may have done so.

[5] Neil Thomas, Tristan in the Underworld: A Study of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan together with the Tristran of Thomas (Lewiston, Queenston & Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991), 76.

[6] Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology (1968; reprint, London: Souvenir Press, 2001), 53.

[7] A. T. Hatto, introduction to Tristan, by Gottfried (1960; reprint, London: Penguin Classics, 2004), 7; Campbell, Creative Mythology, 53.

[8] Norris J. Lacy, introduction to The Romance of Tristran, by Béroul (New York & London: Garland, 1989), ix.

[9] Lacy, introduction to Tristran, ix.

[10] Ibid., xiii.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Joan M. Ferrante, The Conflict of Love and Honor: The Medieval Tristan Legend in France, Germany and Italy (The Hague & Paris: Mouton, 1973), 51.

[13] Lacy, introduction to Tristran, xiv.

[14] Line numbers and quotations are from Béroul, The Romance of Tristran, ed. & trans., Norris J. Lacy (New York & London: Garland, 1989).

[15] Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 62.

[16] Lacy, introduction to Tristran, xv.

[17] Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 18.

[18] Mark Chinca, Gottfried von Strassburg Tristan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 9.

[19] Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 87.

[20] Stewart Gregory, introduction to Tristran, by Thomas of Britain (New York & London: Garland, 1991), xi.

[21] Thomas, Tristan in the Underworld, 84.

[22] Line numbers are from Thomas of Britain, Tristran, trans. Stewart Gregory (New York & London: Garland, 1991).

[23] Daniel Rocher, “Between Epic and Lyric Poetry: The Originality of Gottfried’s Tristan” in A Companion to Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, ed. Will Hasty (New York: Camden House, 2003), 209.

[24] Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 47.

[25] Ibid., 96.

[26] Ibid., 41.

[27] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 84-171.

[28] Ibid., 121, 152.

[29] Lacy, introduction to Tristran, xv; Ferrante, Conflict of Love and Honor, 40.

[30] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 232: Campbell makes the point that this would probably not be considered ‘repressed’ love though, as per Wagner’s more modern interpretation in his ‘Tristan’ opera.

[31] Terence McCarthy, “Malory and His Sources”, in A Companion to Malory, eds. Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards (1996; reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 77-78; Helen Cooper, “The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones”, in A Companion to Malory, eds. Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards (1996; reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 186-187.

[32] Quotations are from Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript, ed. Helen Cooper (1998; reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). The references are in the form of book and chapter numbers (based on Caxton) throughout Cooper’s text.

[33] Terence McCarthy, Reading the Morte Darthur (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1988), 54.

[34] Elizabeth Edwards, “The Place of Women in the Morte Darthur,” in A Companion to Malory, eds. Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards (1996; reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 51; McCarthy, “Malory and His Sources”, 77.

[35] C. David Benson, “The Ending of the Morte Darthur,” in A Companion to Malory, eds. Elizabeth Archibald & A. S. G. Edwards (1996; reprint, Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 228; Edwards, “Women in Morte Darthur,” 51.

[36] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 176-184.

[37] After the love potion abates, Iseut confesses to the hermit that Tristran is “entirely free of any carnal desire for me” (2329) suggesting that this wasn’t the case while the love potion was in operation.

[38] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 178.

[39] Edwards, “Women in Morte Darthur,” 51.

[40] James R. Averill and Elma P. Nunley, Voyages of the Heart: Living an Emotionally Creative Life (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 21.

[41] Averill and Nunley, Voyages of the Heart, 21. Campbell, Creative Mythology, elaborates further on this: 175-186.

[42] Hatto, introduction to Tristan, 17.

[43] Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York: HarperCollins, 1983).

[44] Johnson, We, 62-63.

[45] Ibid., 51.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid., 135-137.

[48] Campbell, Creative Mythology, 79.

[49] Cf. the modern divorce rate.

[50] This is found in the work of Gottfried’s contemporary Wolfram von Eschenbach, who makes this ‘human love’ a theme of his mystic Parzival, concerning the knight who rode forth to ultimately heal the wound of the Grail King, caused, in Wolfram’s work, by the tragic collision of honour and love (Campbell, Creative Mythology, 405-570).

Written by tomtomrant

19 January 2014 at 12:03 pm