Wagner’s operas don’t exactly burst with action. For all the battles and dragons and curses, they often boil down to a lot of standing around and singing. Tristan and Isolde is the pinnacle of this tendency, as frustrated love is sublimated into long-form meditations on Schopenhaurian dichotomies placed musically atop the tension of unresolving harmonies. Lots of content, but little action. So it is surprising to find in the source material, Gottfried von Strassburg’s medieval epic Tristan, not high-minded philosophy, but an unexpected blend of King Arthur and Terry Gilliam.
The arc of the epic’s narrative is comfortably familiar, echoing elements of other well-known stories. Tristan is an orphan taken under the care of a king, who turns out to be his uncle. He kills an Irish oppressor then disguises himself to kill a dragon, is cured by his victim’s betrothed, Isolde, and falls for her. And then brings her back as a bride for the king. Medieval politics. On the way, they accidentally take a love potion, which sends them into a Guinevere and Lancelot-esque forbidden love, causing a series of picaresque adventures trying to evade the king’s detection. Eventually they are discovered and Tristan exiled. More episodic adventures follow before he is wounded, again. And again only Isolde can heal him. Unfortunately a jealous woman lies, telling him Isolde has not come, and he dies. Arriving too late, Isolde then dies in grief. The story is one part Homeric scope (though without the gods), part Arthurian romance gone bad, and another the sort of courtly saga that is so popular in fantasy.
Despite its well-trod territory, the narrative remains compelling a few hundred years later because of the constant oddities thrown in along the way. During Tristan’s post-exile wanderings, he detours into an adventure with a dwarf, also named Tristan. And there are no fewer than three Isoldes: heroine Isolde, her mother Queen Isolde, and an evil White Isolde who causes Tristan’s death. It quickly spirals into amusing confusion when half the characters share the same name. Add to that the precipitating love potion and the more ridiculous of the lovers’ evasions. Bending under this absurdity, the 800-year old epic takes on the strangely modern absurdist feel of Time Bandits or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Illuminating the links between modern culture and our foundations, Tristan lends an exciting immediacy to Western literary heritage.
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