TRISTAN, a courtly epic written by the Middle High German poet Gottfried von Stras burg about 1210. Like most courtly German epics it is a free rendering of a French source, in this case that of the trouvire Thomas of Brittany, the master of the avewtiure, as Gott fried calls him. It tells the story of a pair of unfortunate lovers, Tristan and Isolt, who are constrained by a love potion to love one an other against their will. 'Tristan> belongs to the Bretonic cycle of sagas and reflects the struggles between the Bretons of Cornwall and the Viking kingdom of Ireland. The earliest version is that of the Norman minstrel Berol, which was translated into German by Eilhart von Oberge about 1170. Gottfried knew this version but considered that of Thomas to be more accurate. This version of Thomas ap pears also in the form of a Norwegian prose saga about 1226 and of an English poem, 'Sir Tristrem,> about 1300.
As Gottfried tells the story, Tristan was the child of Riwalin of Parmenie and Blanche fluer, sister of King Mark of Cornwall. His parents died early, his mother in giving him birth, and he was brought up by a faithful vassal named Rual, who taught him many languages and trained him in all knightly arts. When the lad was 15 he was abducted by Nor wegian traders and landed on the coast of Cornwall, where he was taken to his uncle's court, although neither was aware of the re lationship. Here he soon became a favorite and was made a knight. Later he fatally wounded the giant Morolt, who had been sent by the king of Ireland to collect tribute long overdue. A splinter of Tristan's sword re mained in Morolt's skull. Tristan himself was wounded, and, as his wound would not yield to treatment, he set out disguised as a minstrel to the court of Queen Isolt of Ireland, who was famous for her healing arts, but whose brother Morolt he had slain. Here he was healed by the queen and spent sometime in structing her daughter Isolt in the art of music. On his return he praised the beauty of the fair princess so highly that King Mark was persuaded to make her his bride. Tristan is sent as the messenger, succeeds in ridding the land of a fell dragon, and receives as his reward the hand of the king's daughter, which, however, be claims for his uncle and not for himself. Meanwhile he is recognized as the slayer of Morolt by the missing splinter in his sword, but paints the advantages of a union with King Mark in such glowing colors that he succeeds in reconciling the relatives of the dead giant. On the voyage to Cornwall, Isolt and Tristan, through a mistake of the maid Brangaene, drink of a love potion prepared by Queen Isolt for her daughter and King Mark. For a time the two young people strug
gle bravely against the overpowering passion which steals over them, but finally abandon themselves to the enjoyment of their love. In stead of confessing their secret to King Mark, they conceal it, and after Isolt becomes the king's bride, continue their clandestine meet ings. Again and again they are suspected and are finally caught, but Isolt succeeds in clear ing herself by a trick at the trial which is held to decide the question of her guilt. Again detected in a meeting, Tristan is banished and goes to Arundel, where he marries a second Isolt, Isolt of the white hands"; but because of his love for the first Isolt he lives with the latter in chastity. Here Gottfried's poem breaks off. It was continued and finished by two other poets, Ulrich von Tiirheirn, a Swabian, and Heinrich von Freiberg, a Saxon, who relate how Tristan, once again wounded, sends for his love Isolt. She hastens to his side, but his wife Isolt, prompted by jealousy, declares that the vessel carries a black sail instead of the white one agreed on if Isolt were coming. Tristan succumbs to the shock and Isolt on land ing throws herself on the body of her dead lover and dies of a broken heart.
The poem is justly famous among mediaeval epics for its wonderful psychological analysis, its masterly portrayal of the struggles of the two lovers against their ill-fated love and the beauty and limpidity of the verse. It is very long, nearly 20,000 lines, but it does not weary us, as do many courtly epics, with lengthy de scriptions of armor and dress. The best edi tions are those of Bechstein (two vols., 3d ed., 1890), W. Golther (Stuttgart 1889) and K. Marold (Leipzig 1906). It has been trans lated into modern German by H. Kurz (1844), by Karl Simrock (1855) ; but finest of all is a free rendering by W. Hertz (5th ed., 1911). An English prose translation has been made by Jessie L. Weston (1899). Matthew Arnold modernized it under the title of (Tris tram and Iseult) and Swinburne unblished in 1882 his 'Tristram of Lyonesse,> the best mod ern epic version of the old saga. Many Ger man modernizations exist, among the most important of which are the epic by Karl Im mermann (1840) and Richard Wagner's beau tiful music drama (Tristan and Isolde) (1850). Consult Golther, W., and Isolde in Dichtungen des Mittelalters and der Neuen Zeit) (Leipzig 1907).