Tristan in other medieval works

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Although Gottfried von Straßburg's Tristan is one of the most complete medieval versions of the story of Tristan, it is by no means the only or the earliest one. But that is not at all surprising – many of the other medieval heroes also have rich, old histories. What is perhaps most interesting are the changes between the details and the role of Tristan in the different versions.

Le Morte d‘Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory

Le Morte D´Arthur was written by Sir Thomas Malory, and was probably written between 1450 und 1470, while Sir Thomas was in prison. It was first published in 1485. As would be expected, Le Morte D‘Arthur concentrates on the story of Arthur, but large parts of the book focus on his knights, such as Launcelot, Gawain, Galahad, Ywain, Percival, and, of course, Tristan. But these heroes are important and famous in their own right, and although Arthur is also mentioned in their stories, we get the impression from Arthur’s story, that these knights are featured in order to make Arthur seem more important. The knights in Le Morte D’Arthur behave more like vassals than knights – although they are powerful and respected, they almost always obey Arthur, although they normally have more freedom in their own stories. For instance, it says at the beginning of Book VIII, Chapter 1 in Le Morte D‘Arthur that Arthur has many kings who obey him and rule many lands for him – such as England, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, Ireland und France. That humbles the whole story of Tristan – he is a powerful knight, but only in one part of Arthur’s empire.

Changes in the Story of Tristan

Many of the major events in the story of Tristan according to Gottfried von Straßburg are similar in Malory’s version – for example, when Tristan and Isolde drink the love potion. But overall, so much is changed, that the character of Tristan becomes almost unrecognizable. According to Malory there is no dragon that Tristan needs to defeat. Also, Isolde‘s mother, although she gave Brangane the love potion, is not as important as in Gottfried‘s version. But what is perhaps most important, is that in Malory‘s version, there are a lot of stories about Tristan, that are not in Gottfried’s version at all, and there are also other women that he wants to be with. And although that is the version of the world of a knight that Malory wants to show us, it makes the traditional story of Tristan much less meaningful. It is much more difficult to take the love between Tristan and Isolde seriously, when Tristan has already been with a lot of other women. In Gottfried’s version, Tristan is much more worthy of love – he does not wander around looking for women, and he does not fight other knights for no reason. In Gottfried‘s version he is much more loveable, he is much wiser, and he is much more loyal, but in Malory’s version, although he has very knightly qualities, comparatively, he behaves like an irresponsible teenager.

Thomas of Britain

Thomas‘ version of the Tristan story was written between 1155 and 1160, and unfortunately, most of it is lost. But we still have approximately 3,300 lines of verse. On the whole, Thomas‘ Version is almost the same as Gottfried‘s, because Gottfried’s version is based off of Thomas'. And luckily there are still the parts at the end of the story in Thomas’ version, that Gottfried could not finish off. Although large parts of his version are lost, Gottfried’s version is mostly true to Thomas’ version, and therefore, in a way, we have the whole story.