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.

The most immediate difference between the two texts is their length: Tristran’sfragmented manuscript is 4485 lines, while the complete Chevrefueil is only 118 lines (Lacy 236, 298). This difference in length does contribute to the vastly different approaches the respective authors take. Béroul can be more explicit and encompassing simply because he has allowed his narrative to be longer, while Marie must be more implicit and ephemeral. Although Norris J. Lacy uses unrhymed English in her translation of Chevrefueil, it should nonetheless be kept in mind that the original French lai was in rhymed octosyllabic lines (294). These rhyming couplets would have given the text a sense of aphoristic harmony, possibly reflecting Tristan and the queen’s internal relationship. On the other hand, The Romance of Tristran in the original French was in octosyllabic verse (Lacy 13). Lacy has transformed Tristran into prose, which captures the much more externally descriptive approach by Béroul.

Marie immediately inserts herself into the poem, “I am both pleased and eager / to tell you the truth about a lai” (296). In comparison, Béroul only identifies himself twice, in the third person, to little significance (Lacy 237). The role of the narrator in the two texts matches the aim of the author. Marie seeks an empathic and emotional approach, and as thus, establishes a personal narrator. Crucially, there is an element of community here, “Many people have recited it to me” (296). This way, Marie’s audience becomes part of this greater storytelling tradition. Béroul on the other hand, uses an external and objective approach to cement his narratorial authority. Indeed, when Béroul does reference himself, it is to emphasize the superiority of his narrative: “They do not know the true story, and Béroul remembers it better than they” (250).  Interestingly, though Marie acknowledges the narrative nature of her lai, she also seeks to establish her story’s legitimacy. She does so by emphasizing the “truth” of the lai at the beginning and end of the text. Furthermore, in an almost self-referential manner, Marie gives credibility to her text from other texts: “I have also found it in written form” (6). The goal of Marie and Béroul are hence the same, to establish their version of the tale as the most authoritative and true version of Tristan and Isolde. The narratorial approach each author takes is respective of their general approach: Marie is personal and focused; Béroul is objective and expansive.

Although Marie’s lai is primarily focused on a single tryst between Tristan and the queen in the forest, she does reference the larger legend. In the prologue to Chevrefueil, Marie reveals the eventual end of the legend: “eventually made them die on the very same day” (10). There is a distinctly deterministic element to the lai. This sense of inevitability further makes the lovers’ reunion all the more romantic and tragic. By briefly alluding to events such as the death and characters such as Brangain, Marie can hence extrapolate the scene in Chevrefueil to the greater Tristan and Isolde context. Marie effectively implies that her scene captures the essence of Tristan and Isolde, that is it “the truth.”

There is a similar deterministic death scene in Romance, in regards to the hunchback dwarf Frocin. “He knew the future, and when a baby was born he could foretell its entire life. The malicious dwarf Frocin had taken great pains to deceive the king, who one day would kill him” (Béroul 241). Frocin’s fate foreshadows the lovers in both stories. Interestingly, the dwarf also uses the natural realm, in the form of a hawthorn tree, to escape Mark’s jurisdiction, but is eventually executed for it: “There is a hawthorn there, with a hollowed-out trench underneath the roots. If I put my head in there, you can overhear me from outside, and what I say will be about the secret that only I share with the king” (Béroul 250).

While Marie uses exposition, Béroul favors repetition. Interestingly, The Romance of Tristran begins in media res, although perhaps only because the beginning of the manuscript is lost. Béroul crafts a cyclical narrative in The Romance of Tristran, with Mark becoming suspicious of Tristran and Yseut, punishing them, pardoning them, and becoming suspicious once again. There is a similar inevitability and determinism in Tristran. Tristran and Yseut cannot help but be drawn to each other because of the potion, and hence are not truly free in regards to their love for each other. Determinism comes from cause-and-effect. For Tristan and the queen, the first cause is their internal love, it was “their wondrous love, / which caused them great pain / and eventually made them die on the very same day” (Marie 8-10). For Tristran and Yseut, it is the external potion, and only the potion. As Tristran says to Ogrin, “If she loves me, it is because of the potion. I cannot leave her, nor can she leave me, I tell you truly” (Béroul 251). a

The actual story in Chevrefueil begins with Mark, “King Mark, who was angry / at his nephew Tristan / because of the young man’s love for the queen” (Marie 11-14). Marie hence privileges Mark’s position as the center, with all other characters deriving their identity from him: Tristan is “his nephew,” the un-named Isolde is “the queen.” The lack of a name for the queen is troubling; even Brangain, the queen’s servant, is given a name. While it may be tempting to see the queen as completely dependent on male characters, this is not necessarily true. After all, “queen” is a position of authority. Furthermore, as Béroul’s Tristran notes, Yseut’s identity as a queen is separate from Mark: “I will take the king’s daughter back to Ireland; and she will be queen in her own country” (262).

Identity and power relationships is hence integrally related to the physical land and landscape. This is particularly true for Tristan: Tristan’s domain is South Wales, his “own land,” (Béroul 15). This is in clear comparison to Cornwall being Mark’s land, where he has the authority to expel people, where “the king, because of an accusation made / against Tristan, banished him from his land” (13-14). It is important that Béroul emphasizes that the impetus for Tristan’s return is his love for the queen, “as a result he left his land / and went directly to Cornwall” (26-27).  Marie draws the reader’s sympathy and empathy to Tristan here through the second person, “You should be not surprised at that” (296).

Land is similarly tied to identity and authority for Béroul. Following Tristran’s final expulsion from Mark’s court and scheduled execution by immolation, Tristran escapes through a church. In that literal leap of faith, Tristran uses Christianity to supersede Mark’s authority. In doing so, he reclaims the geography for himself: “In Cornwall the stone is still called ‘Tristran’s Leap’” (247).

Tristan makes his new domain in the forests, away from King Mark’s court and authority.  “So as not to be seen, / he stayed in the forest all alone” (Béroul 29-30). This is most obvious in the scene where Tristan carves his name into the hazel branch: the forest is effectively a symbol of Tristan’s identity and love for the queen. Nature is likewise Tristran’s refuge, “in the forest of Morrois, and that night they slept on a hill. Now Tristran was as safe as he would have been in a fortified castle” (250). This comparison to “a fortified castle” is particularly telling: Béroul effectively implies that Tristran’s nature is equal to Mark’s court.

The importance of the physical location to the characteristics of the people are emphasized in both texts. In the forest, Tristan gets help from the lower class, emphasized through the alliterative “peasants and poor people,” further reiterates the distance between him and Mark. The contrast here is particularly of the helpful poor and rural against the antagonistic powerful and urban, “the barons in Tintagel [where] the king wanted to hold court” (Béroul 39-40). Béroul also uses class to show the difference between Tristran and Mark. Where Tristan associates with the peasants in Chevrefueil, Mark associates with Ivain and the lepers in Romance. The lepers’ domain can be seen as a reflection and parody of Mark’s—indeed, Ivain uses the word “court” (Marie 249). In comparison to the lush nature that Tristran embodies, Ivain offers a perverted artificiality where human beings are commoditized: “[Yseut] will be our common property. No woman ever had a worse fate” (Marie 249).  Yseut is rescued by Tristran and Governal, who then retire from the artificial sphere, where they hold no power, to the natural sphere, which Tristran is a master of: “Thus they lived deep in the forest; they remained in the wilderness for a long time” (250).

On the surface, nature in both texts would appear to be a male space then. In Chevrefueil, male power is sequential, hence explaining Mark’s insignificance to the story. Like the separate segments in a revolving door, “the king set out, Tristan entered the forest” (47-48). In Romance, male power is concurrent, as the forest is technically still part of Mark’s rule. The scope of nature in the two texts are hence very different. While Chevrefueil is singularly focused on Tristan and the queen in nature, Tristran and Yseut’s nature is explored in relation to many other characters and spheres: the hermit Ogrin, the dog, Governal, and even Mark. The demonstration of nature as Tristan and Tristran’s domain is likewise polar: Tristan does so symbolically, writing his name on a stick, while Tristran does so literally, hunting intruders and the animals in the forest.

However, deeper examination into the motivation of the male characters reveal a secret female power. Marie explicitly tells the audience of the symbolism of the stick: “It symbolized what was in a message / that he had sent to her” (61-61). The impetus for all of Tristan’s actions thus far, from leaving his domain in Wales to making a new domain in nature is for the queen. Indeed, Marie emphasizes Tristan’s un-ending patience for the queen through the diacope of the elongated present participle, “he had been there for a long time, waiting and waiting” (63-64). Without the queen, Tristan is simply inert.

Furthermore, there remains some enigma and ambiguity to the stick, with Marie never elaborating clarifying on what Tristan does when “preparing the stick” (57). There are three possible interpretations available here as to what precisely Tristan did to the stick. First, it is possible that Tristan merely writes his name. As explored previously, while it may be tempting to see this as a wholly male act, the motivation is female. Second, perhaps Tristan wrote a message, “So it is with the two of us, my love: you cannot live without me, nor I without you” (Marie 77-78). Here, Tristan and the queen are more explicitly equals. Lastly, it is possible that Marie deliberately forsakes her narratorial omniscience, and that the contents of the stick is something else entirely, known only to Tristan and the queen. This final interpretation places the reader further away, though simultaneously placing Tristan and the queen closer together. In the end, it does not truly matter which interpretation is strongest or even correct, as they are all means to the same end. The branch represents that ineffable relationship between Tristan and the queen as manifest in nature: on the surface, it is a male domain, but there exists a crucial female catalyst and component. Marie furthers the extended metaphor of the hazel branch through a natural simile, likening the two lovers to nature: “The two of them were like / the honeysuckle / that clings to the hazel” (68-70). Above all else, it is their symbiotic and mutual relationship that is emphasized, “they can survive together; should anyone try to separate them, / the hazel quickly dies, and the honeysuckle with it” (Marie 74-75).

Béroul goes to more explicit lengths to portray nature as a male space, primarily through violence, and uses more literal methods to show Yseut’s significance. Indeed, Governal can be seen as the manifestation of Tristran’s male violence, striking Frocin and killing Morholt to keep Yseut safe in the forest. Tristran’s Unfailing Bow represents his mastery of nature, “it killed everything that came in contact with it” (Béroul 254). The forest here is much more expansive, with multiple characters. Ogrin functions as a boundary or a bridge, reflected geographically in his domain of “the hermitage at the edge of the forest” (Béroul 259). Ogrin is hence able to see that Tristran and Yseut’s relationship is in the male sphere, “You brought her from her native land and gave her to him in marriage” (Béroul 260). Like Marie though, Béroul emphasizes that ultimately, the two lovers have an equal relationship: “Each of them suffered equally, but because they were together, neither was aware of pain” (253).

When the potion wears off, Tristran and Yseut’s stay in nature effectively ends. The two both begin to regret the court life they could have lived. But it is Yseut, now free of the potion’s influence, who begins to become dominant, taking the initiative: “Now the queen threw herself at the feet of the hermit and urgently implored him to reconcile them with the king” (Béroul 259). Yseut desires to return to Mark’s court, and Tristran seeks to help her despite any personal cost.  Yseut is able to command Tristran, telling him to remain in nature if anything should go wrong: “once the king has taken me back, to go stay at the home of Orri the forester” (Béroul 264). The positions have firmly been reversed now. Yseut seeks re-entry into Mark’s sphere, but also wishes to continue employing Tristran for her own safety. Indeed, in the last section of Romance, even Arthur and his Camelot court are drawn into defending Yseut.

The queen likewise exerts some authority when she commands the male knights. While it can be argued that the impetus for this action stems from Tristan’s branch, and is hence ultimately male-derived, this would be a misunderstanding of the branch’s purpose. The branch represents both Tristan and the queen’s mutual dependence. Indeed, if anything, the queen seems to show more activity than Tristan in their reunion: “Then she departed, leaving her lover behind, / but at the very moment / they both began to weep” (Marie 102-103). Here, Tristan is referred to as the queen’s possessive for the first time, “her lover.” It must nonetheless be remembered that the ends here is ultimately equal for both parties: “they both began to weep.”

However, Marie does not touch upon Tristan and the queen’s death that is alluded to in the introduction. Instead, Marie ends with Tristan’s composition of the lai. Thus, in a metafictive stroke, the lai itself is the most important legacy. Their subsequent experiences of “great pain / [that] eventually made them die” pales in significance to the mutual love and understanding as experienced in the forest. Crucially, it is the queen who initiates the lai: “At the queen’s suggestion, / Tristan, who was a skilled harpist, / composed a new lai” (Marie 107-109). In this sense, Marie and the queen can be seen a superposition of the same character: both seek to capture, and are integral to, the text and topography. Hence, the lai is male and by Tristran, but the narrator is female and by the queen. The text and topography can both be seen as male expressions, but the ultimate ends is female, seeking to capture “the joy he had experienced / at seeing his beloved” (Marie 112-113). Given the short length of Chevrefueil, this layering of meaning is necessary. Chevrefueil ends full circle, with the narrator naming the lai and asserting its truth once again. Marie draws from Béroul here, using repetition to emphasize the unbounding significance of Tristan and Isolde’s true love and relationship.

Chevrefueil and The Romance of Tristran both delve into the complex relationship and power dynamics between the two lovers. Chevrefueil, the internal and emotional courtly lai, uses nature as a symbol first and a domain second, implicitly exploring the bond between Tristan and the queen. The opposite is true for the primitive Romance,which primarily uses external and explicit actions to convey Tristran and Yseut’s reciprocity, with the emotional and symbolic as a secondary function. Both texts are ultimately celebrations of mutuality, and to a lesser extent, equality. If the natural realm is primarily a male space, then the female agency of Yseut and the queen are the deep roots: part of the natural environment, and necessary to feed and nourish the tree.



Works Cited

Béroul. “The Romance of Tristran.” The Romance of Arthur. Ed. Norris J. Lacy and James J. Wilhem. New York: Routledge, 2013. 236-281. Print

Marie de France. “Chevrefueil.” The Romance of Arthur. Ed. Norris J. Lacy and James J. Wilhelm. New York: Routledge, 2013. 296-298. Print.

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