Thursday, December 20, 2012

Grimm Legends: Tristan & Iseult

Well, I'm not going to manage a full reread of Malory and Knowles and the Belloc translation of Bedier's Romance of Tristan and Iseult, because nobody can be concise. You think we're wordy? Try reading medieval manuscripts for purposes of essaying. Or don't. I highly recommend don't, unless you're as much of a glutton for punishment as I am. If you want, though, you can see the links to the sections I pulled from Gutenberg up above, and feel free to play picky detail-oriented word games with the source material! THAT said, we can hit some of the highlights of the myth as it bears a passing resemblance to the Renard-Juliette-Nick arc they've so neatly set up for us. There are some very interesting aspects to this, not least in the versions that include Arthur - though the original Romance predates cramming all the legendary figures of the Isles together into one overarching story.

The Bedier makes no mention of it, but all Arthurianized versions of Tristan (or Tristram, as he's more frequently known there), note that his stepmother tried to poison him. Given the circumstances Renard was born to, I would not be in the least surprised if there was some of that in his background in a literal as well as a figurative sense. We do, after all, see Catherine poisoning him in order to fulfill his orders, and while she's set up as a bio-mother rather than a stepmother, she's not exactly better at mothering than the traditional wicked stepmother, as I've gone over other places. (Which: thank you, writers, for not setting us up to state that bio-families are superior to chosen or adoptive ones. Though I would be grateful if any of the main characters had healthy, alive parents turning up. Kelly and her Gollum-face don't count.) It's implied that this is typical of hexenbiests; that they are, in fact, the prototypical Evil Stepmother regardless of biological relationship. Then, of course, we have a long passage or three in which Tristan/tram, having grown up in spite of all this, proceeds to kill Iseult's aunt. I mean uncle.

Yeah, somehow I'm getting the impression they've broken Iseult's roles into multiple characters, here.

Anyway. So he kills Marhaus/Morholt/whatever the hell you want the guy's name to be as long as it starts with an M! Because that's what you do in epic tales, is kill people who aren't on the same side as you.

(Oh. Huh. Well, that's part of why Renard's immediate reaction to Marie was "kill it with fire," I bet. I wonder if they're ever going to invert this trope directly, with Royals and Nick, rather than less directly with Nick and Monroe. It's hard to call someone your enemy when you don't know you're supposed to be such, after all.)

And then Iseult swears vengeance, yadda yadda, we can see where this is now Iseult-as-Adalind rather than Iseult-as-Juliette, yes? But somehow or another Tristan ends up poisoned and the only one who can heal him is Iseult! BECAUSE NARRATIVE SAYS SO, DAMMIT. She never saw his face, just knows the notch out of his sword or his shield or, you know, one of those various other identifying markers that aren't easily forged at all. (Granted, it's generally unthinkable in these epics for someone to do that - if they want to disguise themselves/their heritage they go with a blank shield. It's a point of honor not to lie about who you are, something that's a constant topic within Grimm-verse: how do you self-identify, and how much of the truth do you tell about your titles and status? To whom? Which is a whole 'nother post.) So she heals him, and later discovers that he's the one who killed her uncle, and swears to kill him in turn. But wait! Tristan came in search of the Lady of the Golden Hair, and he wears a strand of her hair still embroidered into his coat of arms, and this... changes her mind. Look, I don't always manage to make sense of the courtly love tropes. I'm skipping over the infinity of Tristan does this, that, and the other and defeats this, that, and the other knight sections of the Malory, because they're pretty much there to pad the damn thing and talk about what a badass he was. (The 'he' is deliberately left ambiguous.) Also it's far, far less readable than the Bedier. So he's been sent on this quest by King Mark, his uncle, for the lady of the golden hair so that he may bring her back to be the king's wife; and in Bedier this is very clearly distinct from all the Arthurian trappings Malory imposed. Yes, Arthur and his knights make an appearance, but it's not for pages and PAGES of the story. Insert standard English major swearing at Malory here; if I were wearing my medievalist hat it would be different.

Also apparently Mark's barons really have it in for Tristan, presumably because he's the heir apparent until such time as Iseult has a kid, and they'd really much rather stop being ruled by a king. Or fight among themselves until someone claims the kingship, because obviously this is SO much better than hereditary monarchy. (I lie. Neither of these is a particularly glorious choice of government, but one at least has the benefit of not sending a country into war every generation or so.) At any rate, Tristan wins the lady Iseult's hand and makes off with her from Ireland back to Cornwall so that she can go marry Mark. This doesn't have any explicit parallels to Grimm, except that Renard very, very much wants Nick and Juliette to stay a couple, because a Grimm with a stable romantic relationship (never mind that Nick's been doing his damnedest to destabilize it since before the potion ever happened) is a more controllable Grimm. And he wants Juliette and Nick to settle down and, you know, I hadn't thought of that? But possibly and get married and have lots of little baby proto-Grimms that he can mold even better. We know our Prince plays the long game, after all.

Of course, Tristan and Iseult can in no way be allowed to just have a nice simple life whereby he's the heir and she's the queen and It's All Good, Dude. No no, Iseult's mother (again with the conflation between Adalind and Catherine, here, and I do not need to do a post on Adalind as Juliette's dark mirror as Renard is Nick's, right? ...right?) has a brilliant idea! Arranged marriages can suck, as everyone knows, but she will make it not suck. With magic love potions. Because there is no way this can possibly go wrong! Brangien, the maid, then proceeds to let the container of the love potion out of her sight long enough for, depending on your version, a child to bring it to them or them to stumble into drinking it themselves; in both the Bedier and the Malory they don't know what it is they're drinking until it's too late. Gee, this doesn't sound familiar AT ALL. Worse, and more speculative, the love potion Tristan and Iseult drink binds them together until they both die; essentially neither can truly live without being near the other, and if one dies so does the other. Though they may have flip-flopped this for purposes of Renard bringing Juliette back from the edge of death, it's equally possible that a similar tie has been created. I suppose we could also suggest Monroe as being Brangien in some ways, the secondary character who has a clue what's going on and that it's Very Bad, and wants to be a friend to the poor pair who just fell into magically induced love while also owing allegiance to King Mark. Hi Monroe. You've been genderswapped, enjoy.

This brings us almost up to date with the point in the mytharc Grimm left us hanging! The next step is the part where they realize what's happened (truer for Renard than for Juliette, whereas in the source material magic is a matter of no special note) and then proceed to sneak around having trysts after she marries Mark. Now, the text of the Romance argues later on, and I think you can make an argument either way, that Iseult and Tristan never actually had sex. That said, I think I would also argue that in a monarchy that requires heirs penetrative sex that's intended to lead to procreation is the most... problematic kind, as far as adultery goes. So, y'know. Difficult to say without digging into the Old French for nuances that the translation has lost whether or not they did anything, but they were damn well drawn together like our own doomed couple. Brangien spends her time smoothing the way for these meetings, her and a couple other people, while Mark's barons keep bringing him more and more proof that he's being cuckolded and he doesn't want to hear it. This is where Grimm starts to veer off, mostly, I think, because Nick's not really a ruler of anything. (I'll be very curious to see if he sets up as/someone else tries to set him up as/he somehow stumbles INTO being a ruler, but at the moment he's pretty much a knight in terms of the power he's aware of/willing to wield.) But we've had a fair chunk of Renard and Juliette sneaking around, denying their feelings, trying to come up with plausible excuses (and less plausible ones) to see each other, culminating rather differently from the legend with Renard actually taking steps to see someone about getting RID of the stupid love spell. Clearly, Renard has read his Bedier. Maybe that's one of the books in his condo. There's also far more malicious intent from Mark's barons trying to tell him that he's being cuckolded, as opposed to Monroe who's just fucking inept. Insert standard rant here.

That brings us up to date with currently aired episodes, but there is, of course, a metric fuckton more to the original Tristan and Iseult legend. For those of you want the cliffnotes version: they sneak around until finally the king is confronted with irrefutable proof and throws Iseult to a leper colony, Tristan saves her and they go off into the wilderness together for a long time, during which they supposedly STILL don't have sex. They do, however, ignore such useful things as eating; the Bedier makes much of how physically wasted they've become due to doing nothing but spending time together. Say it with me, folks: love potions never end well. At some point in here, the king is sent off to spy on them by his barons yet a-fucking-gain, and he sees them asleep with Tristan's unsheathed sword between them. This is, for those of you not up on all your courtly love metaphors, code for "we didn't do it and you can't prove anything this here sword is for protecting the lady's chastity." And Iseult is wearing Mark's ring! Awww. He swaps out Tristan's sword for his own, ditto Iseult's ring, and leaves his gloves behind as the creepiest sign of forgiveness ever. As you would expect, they wake up and freak right the hell out until they realize, oh, he meant that a different way than ceiling king is watching you mastur- ahem. Sleep. I mean sleep.

Ahem. As a result of this, Tristan decides that no, he loves his king too much to do this to him (the OT3 writes itself, I know, I know) and would rather give Iseult up and go wandering to give his sword to some other kingly dude than stay there and suffer and be tempted. Aww! The aww doesn't last long, since he promptly finds his way to a court with some other chick named Iseult. Just so we can differentiate between the two, I'll start using the epithets. This one is Iseult of the White Hands; the other is Iseult the Fair. And you thought epithets in fanfiction were bad. He proceeds to marry Iseult of the White Hands because he is never seeing that other Iseult again, no, of course not, never mind that he's constantly thinking of her and suddenly realizes that he's betrayed both Iseults by marrying the one he doesn't truly love and WOE IS HIM. Tristan, you're a fucking moron. But you're also bespelled, so I won't belabor the point too much. Iseult the Fair, meanwhile, grieves and is sad but she's a woman and gets no agency in these stories, so she doesn't do anything kickass like tell her husband to fuck off and run out the door after Tristan. Or look for a cure. Or anything that might be useful. Instead, when Tristan sends her a dog with a fairy bell that lifts the spirits of those who hear it (which he won off another king just to give to her), she tosses the bell into the sea so she can be miserable too! We have now entered the hand-wringing facepalming portion of this narrative in which I want to shake sense into everyone. Iseult the Fair is also tested by King Mark, after the barons demand proof that she did not sex with that man. She proves this by sticking her hands into a bed of coals, taking a bar of heated iron, and walking nine steps before tossing it away with no injury. This sounds suspiciously similar to the sort of tests they gave to witches, as you might expect.

Then Tristan decides to, for reasons I still do not understand, go dress up like a fool and taunt his Iseult. Because that's tradition in these stories. She recognizes him at some length, and they have three days (yeah, rule of three has been around that long) together before he leaves again. AND THEN he gets injured by a poisoned weapon again, and the cynical among us might think that he'd gone into battle against enemies known to poison their weapons until he found one that required Iseult the Fair to come and heal him. I don't know who those cynical people could be. I'm just saying. He sends for Iseult of the White Hands' brother, who's now his bosom buddy on account of fighting side by side always has that effect, didn't you know? At least in these stories it does if you're a named character. Sending everyone else away is too suspicious for his lady-wife, who stands and listens and realizes the depth of the fuckery that is occurring. And is certainly not, at a guess, an Adalind cognate. They would never. (They so would.) The narrative sets out a system of sail colors by which Tristan will know whether or not Kaherdin has brought his lady-love, at which point anyone who knows their Homer knows this is doomed to fail. Miserably. And it does! Iseult of the White Hands lies to him and says that Iseult the Fair isn't coming, by giving him the black sails as a sign, and Tristan dies of grief. Because apparently being in the same general vicinity qualifies as "in life and death" joined at the hip. Iseult the Fair comes in, shoves her namesake out of the way, and promptly dies of grief over Tristan's body. Yay! Wait, no, the other thing.

There's a lot of directions, between different interpretations and deliberately twists on the original legend, that the Grimm writers can take this. But I would almost expect a wilderness-wandering sequence for Renard, given all they've done to set him up with parallels to the sort of person who runs off and gets crazy in the wilderness for awhile. Or we may find that he's been there, done that, got the t-shirt when we find out what happened to his family. I do hope they give Juliette a fuck of a lot more agency than Iseult ever got, though frankly signs are pointing to no right now. And as mentioned in the blood magic essay and the love potions essay, it is very, very rare to the point of unheard-of for two people so linked to ever be quit of each other entirely.

I just really hope they make the stupid love triangle go away.

1 comment:

  1. But I like Renard\Juliette together!(((