The tale of Tristan and Iseult has been causing scandal for almost 900 years, since the mid 12th century when a legend that had been in circulation for some time along Europe transmitted vocally by minstrels and bards, was written in French. A legend about two youngsters that became lovers through a potion and died that same day. If this finale was a condemnation of adulterous loves, it also glorified them by making a love so great that it would be remembered forever through a literary monument. The nature of the potion and the non-exemplary behavior of the protagonists received condemnations and harsh criticism, but also enthusiastic praises, allusions, imitations, and rewritings by the most relevant poets, novelists, chroniclers, or composers of those times. The most relevant scenes of the history where represented in objects, ceramics, tapestries, frescoes, miniatures, oil paintings, and drawings. Dozens of versions have been made in all time periods and all languages of history, always the same and always different: philosophical, symbolic, tragic or cryptic; and still nowadays it continues being an object of research by the most rigorous philologists. A tale of a love that has left no one indifferent and has become a myth, because Tristan and Iseult is not a tale linked to the adventures of the knights of the Round Table, which harmonized both love and cavalry, but Tristan is new model of of hero in the stemming medieval literature: the ingenious hero, he who instead of the sword and the spear, uses a thousand tricks and a thousand disguises to meet the queen Iseult.
Regardless of the possible influence from other cultures that the original story could have, Tristan and Iseult is a French polite story, written and incorporated in the most fertile and exceptional period of the European medieval literature. Its structure in chapters, as well as its social environment, its profane ethic of love and the conflict between individual liberty and the institutions, corresponds to a coherent literary aesthetic of a particular time, and is aimed at a particular public. But the extraordinary art of these first writers, from which we know nothing, has managed to keep the attraction of the story until our days because it is basically a story of love and death, timeless, universal, and by no means exemplary. And also, because in the tale there is an exquisite combination of adventure and reflexion, joy and sorrow, violence, realism, disguises, erotism and sweet tenderness.
Who could have foreseen the resurrection of the cult to King Arthur and his knights in the prosaic mercantile middle class of Kensington in the Victorian era? Who could have imagined that the Widowed Queen would listen with rapture the plaintive voice of the official poet of the court singing the deeds of Lancelot and his love with Geneva? As J.H. Plumb would write (in his book The Death Of The Past), the longing of Victorian England for recovering the medieval and mythical world of courteous and knightly Camelot was a historical phenomenon extremely surprising. Medieval castles, tournaments, armor, emblems and knightly manners became fashionable again in notorious contrast to the dominant bourgeois tendency and rapid and overwhelming modernity of the nineteenth-century England, the most prosperous nation due to its industrial and commercial progress. What a strange longing of a fantastic and medieval past, which with an impressive success fostered the most famous writers and artists! Walter Scott with is novels. L.A. Tennyson with his melancholic Idylls of the King, the PreRaphaelian painters, and the Neogothic architecture in fashion, all evoked the splendor of the ancient Camelot, and the elegant courtiers simulating "chivalrous gentlemen" of a new knightly empire. Le Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory was still and emotive and popular reading. In his tomb, prince Albert lied covered by a medieval armor equivalent to the Black Prince.
Remembering that ghostly evocation, so British and full of modernity, of the fabulous knightly universe, in nostalgia and twilight homage, can invite, I believe, to some reflections about the strange fascinations of the literary tradition.