Essays

Text and Topography: The Agency of Yseut and the Queen in Nature

Béroul’s The Romance of Tristran and Marie de France’s Chevrefueil both use the natural world to explore the complex relationship and power dynamics between the respective two lovers. However, their approach in text and topography is very different, heavily influenced by their respective genre and structure. Romance is a more “primitive” fabliau, expansive and external, while Chevrefueil is a more “courtly” Breton lai, focused and internal. The scope of the topography matches the scope of the text: thus, the natural world for Romance is likewise large, with multiple characters and actions that are explicit and literal, while the natural world in Chevrefueil is small, with only Tristan and the queen and actions that are implicit and symbolic. Nature can primarily be seen as a male space, created and sustained by the male characters, but this does not mean the power dynamic is tipped towards Tristran or Tristan. The text and topography in both stories are nuanced in their exploration of the two lover’s relationship, and there is a subtle undercurrent of female agency that reveals the relationship to be more symbiotic and reciprocal than initially evident. Romance and Chevrefueil are a sort of human geography: text, topography, and the two lovers are mapped, and their mutuality and equality elucidated. For convenience’s sake throughout this essay, Tristran and Yseut will be used to describe the two lovers in Béroul’s Romance while Tristan and the queen will be used for Marie’s Chevrefueil.

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