The Romance of Tristan and Iseult As Retold By Joseph Bedier

by Joseph Bedier

Other authorsHilaire Belloc (Translator), Paul Rosenfeld (Contributor)
Hardcover, 1945



Call number




Vintage (1945), Paperback, 151 pages


The first English language translation of Bedier's classic work in nearly seventy years, this volume is the only edition that provides ancillary materials to help the reader understand the history of the legend and Bedier's method in creating his classic retelling.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Ganeshaka
This collaboration by Bedier, Belloc, and Rosenfield on retelling, translating, and completing the romance of Tristan and Iseult is a bit of a page turner. I expected to have to make an effort in exploring this medieval classic, but the prose was clear and swift. The story is compelling with its twists and turns, and as fresh as falling in love. It's essentially an exploration of the myriad permutations that a passionate infatuation can have on the loyalties of friends, the conspiracies of frenemies, and one's own peace of mind. Today, there's a name for this kind of whirlwind disorienting experience. It's called "middle school".… (more)
LibraryThing member gbill
What a fantastic thing Joseph Bédier did here, reconstructing this story in 1900 from ancient French poems and other sources. The tale is of the brave young knight Tristan, and the fair lady with the ‘hair of gold’ Iseult, and it’s complete with honor and romance, battles with dragons, magic philters, court intrigues, and daring escapes. Tristan is bearing Iseult across the sea to wed his King, when the two inadvertently drink a love potion that binds them forever, and leads them into adultery. Bédier’s language is enchanting, and adds to his storytelling. What a beautiful image Tristan conjures of a crystal chamber, between the clouds and heaven, filled with roses and the morning, where he would like to take Iseult. How well he describes everyone seeing the “Love terrible, that rode them”, as they simply can’t be apart. There are moments that are far from PG, such as Iseult’s loyal maid pretending to be her and slipping into the King’s bed to sacrifice her ‘purity’ to him, in order to conceal Iseult having lost hers to Tristan, as well as Iseult being turned over to a mob of lepers who want to “have her in common”, but in general the story is told with great restraint, despite a plot containing such passion and violence. If you’re looking for a classic medieval tale, this one’s for you.… (more)
LibraryThing member VeritysVeranda
Ah Love: can't live with it, can't live without it
LibraryThing member knotbox
The story of Tristan and Iseult was known to me because it was a bedtime story of mine. It's a tale which belongs both to the French and the British as part of their confusing entwined history due to the huge amount of ships which crossed the channel in both directions. I grew up believing it went a little differently than Monsieur Bédier here relates it, but I am satisfied and confused in new ways now that I've read the original translation.

Historical opinions on religion, filial piety, woman's roles, disease and racism aside, this story perplexes me because of the narrators deep sympathy for the characters. Perhaps I do not know about French stories, and perhaps this, like Le Morte d'Arthur, is merely the fashion, but I cannot reconcile the story that has survived until today with the sensibilities of those days.

Tristan is a blessed son of kings, and after a childhood spent in hiding, he returns to the lands of his uncle, King Mark, and becomes the Lancelot to his Arthur. Tristan cannot be defeated, in music, in combat, he is champion and is cherished and loved by all but four barons whose jealously or chivalry bring them to unfold some wicked plots against him.

Mark is a bachelor and when pressed to sire an heir, he mocks his counsel by taking a golden hair a sparrow has brought across the Irish Sea and requesting its owner to become his wife. Tristan, loyal to Mark to a fault, declares he shall find the maiden, and returns to Ireland - he'd been wounded by an Irishman and nursed back to health, unknowingly, by the woman who was his foe's sister. This is the woman he has a mind to find, as her fair hair was possibly the same gold as the hair the sparrows brought.

Iseult's mother brews a potion once Tristan is to take her back to Cornwall, and charges Branigen, Iseult's hand maiden, to make sure that Mark and Iseult drink it on their wedding night, so as to fall into a life long love. When a heatwave on the ship overtakes them, the potion is found, Tristian and Iseult quench their thirst with it, drinking their love, and their death. This is a sentiment often repeated in the tale, 'they drank their death', and certainly places the entire romance in a tragic light. For a while, they love on the sly. There is even a mention of Branigen, in her loyalty, taking Iseult's place in the wedding bed.

I will admit that in a story so entwined with God's implied will, that I have difficulty reconciling half completed ideas of what is moral and what is christian, with these myths embedded in the story and the tragedy itself. Religion isn't quite mythology for me, and I don't believe many atheists even view religion the same way they view some pagan belief they were never raised in. It's hard to reconcile something which represents an ancestral state with the present day.

It might surprise you that my favorite characters were those without a story: the narrator, who may not be a character aside from that part of Joseph Bédier which was projected into the story with his own opinions on events; Branigen and King Mark, who perhaps, unknowingly, have their own love story; if not with each other, I'd like to know about the family that Branigen left behind in Ireland; my favorite of all, Iseult of the White Hands, the fair princess of France whom Tristan marries after a long seperation from Iseult the Fair. Her trechery, as it may be called, is lightly forgiven by Joseph Bédier, and she herself atones for it, but I find it completed her character. She was a combination of Juliet and Lady Macbeth. She carried a dagger and used it on herself. She drank the poison she intended to give someone else. If I were directing the movie, I would make her the narrator, and leave Joseph Bédier to one side.

Tristan and Iseult is a poor story, critically, and it isn't complete for me. I don't sympathise with the lovers as much as I should, and I can't understand how their reprieves, said to be granted by God, are Christian. I think it says more about the narrator and the author being God, which is something my contemporary readers may find a common problem. Today we would call 'God's will' contrivance, laziness on some part to make the plot the action and the characters passive.

Using the phrase, 'God's will' isn't the problem, or even bringing God into the mix isn't so bad, but I really have difficulty seeing the Christian worth in all the things that God supposedly did in their favor. Was there a lesson that God was trying to teach them? Was God trying to offer them respite before their certain deaths? Apparently readers agreed with the Christian themes back then and for many ? years after. How about you? If you're familiar with the story, from the Wagnerian opera or James Franco's movie, or if you've also read the book, let me know, I'm open for any interpretation.

Gutenberg Edition.
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LibraryThing member ReadingFever
Before Romeo and Juliet, and Lancelot and Guenevere, there were Tristan and Iseult.Tristan and Iseult's story is one of honor, betrayal, jealousy, forbidden love, potions, Kings, Queens, etc... It has everything needed to create a lasting and memorable tale. The wording in this story is so well done! It just screams: "tragedy!"There are a lot of questions regarding this tale. Did Tristan and Iseult really live? Is their story true? Who knows? I don't.I do know, however, that this tale along with its many versions has captured my heart. This is possibly my favorite story. I downloaded the audio book (for free!) last year and have been completely taken away with it ever since! I have recently listened to it again, and let me assure you: this is a great love story.The movie was pretty good...but never mind that! You need to hear the audio book; or at least read the book. I'm partial to the audio book because I love the narrator's accent, and feel that it added to the story, making it more real… (more)
LibraryThing member JessLJones
THE love story of all love stories.
LibraryThing member mamashepp
Listened to this on Librivox and it was beautifully narrated but very confusing because there were so many characters. This is one action packed story. It's supposed to be this great romance but Tristan and Iseult didn't fall in love, they had a spell cast on them so is that a romance?
LibraryThing member mamashepp
Listened to this on Librivox and it was beautifully narrated but very confusing because there were so many characters. This is one action packed story. It's supposed to be this great romance but Tristan and Iseult didn't fall in love, they had a spell cast on them so is that a romance?
LibraryThing member trilliams
I'm biased, but I enjoyed it. Damn you, James Franco.


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