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Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

b) Medieval women in the modern world

2) Arthurian transformations: Tristan and Iseult

Charles John Tolkien-Gillett

Texte intégral

1Across poetics, opera, and theatre over the past two centuries, legends of Tristan and Iseult have inspired artistically diverse transformations of character and narrative. Matthew Arnold’s 1852 poem Tristram and Iseult, Richard Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde, and Emma Rice’s adaptation of Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy’s twenty-first-century play Tristan & Yseult each exhibit a cultural process of transformation through which medieval Arthuriana has been re-mediated. Examining the Arthurian traditions which inspired Arnold’s and Wagner’s innovations and how the creative team behind Tristan & Yseult in turn forge a new tale using Arnold’s and Wagner’s interventions into the legend’s reception, this paper addresses the interplay of modern and medieval reception and, specifically, the vitalisation of Iseult of Brittany’s role in the legend’s post-medieval narrative structures. This “other” Iseult, in contrast to Iseult of Ireland, appears largely in the periphery of pre-modern retellings—yet, this paper identifies a trend following Arnold’s first Modern-English retelling of Tristram and Iseult which sees Iseult of Brittany inspire experimental narrative frameworks and new implications on understandings of character and emotion in the legend. By first engaging critically with medieval and modern character theory, this paper moves to consider the ways by which Iseult of Brittany has provided creative opportunities for renewed cultural occupation with the legend of Tristan and Iseult.

2Starting with Arnold’s poem which adapts the French tradition primarily from the 1841 collection Les poèms gallois et les romans de la Table- Round and the c. 1350 Tristan en Prose, the extent to which Arnold’s Iseult of Brittany is given agency as a character is depicted as limited due to her ultimate narrative function as the promulgator of her late husband’s heroic legacy—preserving his adventures for their children and, consequently, modern audiences. Then the paper considers how Wagner’s view of operatic dramatisation as inherently transformative impacted his reading of Gottfried von Straßburg’s Tristan and realisation of what the legend could be on stage. This presentation of Wagner’s creative process is focused through his critique of his contemporary Karl Ritter who in adapting Arthurian romances for the stage has, Wagner attests, “confined himself to the adventurous incidents of the romance, while I had been immediately struck by its innate tragedy and was determined to cut away all the inessentials from this central theme” (Groos 2011, p. 39). The paper thus highlights how this motivation is epitomised by the construction of the Tristan chord and the dissonant harmonic environments which complement the narrative shift from, in Groos’ words, “episodic breadth to tragic depth” and how the unconventional but highly successful work holds sway on audiences’ investment in the emotional and musical development of his retelling, embedding in the fabric of Tristan and Iseult’s modern reception an audible touchstone for tragic love.

3The twenty-first-century play Tristan & Yseult showcases a vivid self-awareness of its Arthurian past, present, and future by actively responding to the transformations crafted by the prior intermediaries discussed above: the narrative focus on Iseult of Brittany and the legend’s new and persistent musical identity. The play is narrated by an unidentified character wearing white gloves who is invisible to the legend’s major characters—namely, Tristan, Yseult, and King Mark—who is revealed by the play’s conclusion to be the “other” Iseult named Whitehands. Picking up on the deficiency of Arnold’s characterisation, this stark narrative decision fosters an often obfuscated perspective on Tristan’s relationship with Iseult of Brittany and what it means to be unloved in contrast to conventional chivalric commentaries on forbidden love. This shift in outlook allows audiences to participate in a new story of tragic love whether they come to performances with a knowledge of the legend’s history or not. The play also makes use of Wagner’s Tristan chord throughout—which audiences, if they did not immediately recognise audibly, would be informed of by the vinyl cover of Tristan und Isolde paraded on stage—employing passages of the chord’s development across the opera to parallel the play’s own narrative pace. However, in this retelling from Whitehands’s experience, the chord never resolves. Additionally, with the reimagined Whitehands dressed in New Look-inspired Mid-Century attire, the production also conjures Dorothy Parker’s 1931 Algonquin Round Table poem “Iseult of Brittany,” bringing the twentieth-century into the re-presentation.

4Writer Carl Grose comments that director “Emma [Rice] was adamant that is wasn’t going to be ‘medieval’” (Rice 2017, p. 2). While this sentiment stems from an aspiration to present an invigorated piece of contemporary entertainment embodied by the production’s lively lighting and sound design as well as an anxiety that “medieval” evokes an immediate disconnect from the present, these three transformations of the legend of Tristan and Iseult attest precisely to how we have not been content to hold the emotions inherent in the legend’s medieval and modern incarnations at arm’s length—and how, through processes of transformation, the legend continues to captivate and inspire audiences and artists today.


5Arnold, Tristam
Groos 2011
Rice 2017
Tristan en Prose
Villemarqué 1841
Musical works
Wagner, Tristan

Table des illustrations

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King’s College London

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