Note: chapter divisions are based on the Penguin classics edition.
We can subdivide the plot into four structural sequences, each filled with many episodes.
Part One (Chaps. 1-7) the prehistory. The birth and education of Tristan
Part Two (Chaps. 8 - 16) Tristan in Ireland, falling in love
Part Three (Chaps. 17 - 28) Tristan and Isolde in Cornwall
Part Four (Chaps. 29 - 40) Isolde of the White Hands, the death of the lovers
Chapter 1. Rivalin attacks Morgan. They conclude a one year truce. Rivalin travels to Cornwall for pleasure and fame. He wants to polish his manners, learn the ways of chivalry. At a springtime festival, he meets and falls in love with Blancheflor. Most of this chapter exquisitely describes the experience of attraction, confusion, and lovesickness. Pages 51-54 merit close attention. Rivalin is severely wounded in battle. Blancheflor's nurse gains admittance for Blancheflor to Rivalin's side. She restores him to life through her kisses and lovemaking. She conceives a child. Word comes that Morgan has gathered forces against Rivalin's country. Rivalin and Blancheflor elope. They marry. Rivalin is slain in battle. Blancheflor dies of a broken heart after giving birth to Tristan. Already in Chapter 1 we have clear indications that being in love is very closely allied with pain and death. The episode with Rivalin in Blancheflor is parallel with Tristan and Isolde and could be seen as a foreshadowing of events to come; however, be on the lookout for important differences between the pairs of lovers.
Chapter 2. Rual and Floraete adopt Tristan. He is sent to be schooled in the ways of books, music, horsemanship, athletics and hunting. In short, he becomes a civilized, artistic, manly youth of 14 years.
Chapter 3. Tristan is abducted by Norwegian pirates. He is abandoned in Cornwall.
Chapter 4. Tristan demonstrates his skill at hunting and dressing game. He impresses King Mark who takes him into his kingdom. He is made chief-huntsman.
Chapter 5. Tristan demonstrates his musical skill. Mark is again very impressed and wishes to learn the courtly arts from him. He is brought in as a courtier.
Chapter 6. Rual arrives in Cornwall after searching high and low for Tristan. Rual reveals Tristan's true identity to Tristan and Mark.
Chapter 7. Tristan is knighted. Gottfried goes off on a curious literary digression.
Chapter 8. Tristan begs Mark for release so he can go back with Rual to Parmenie to fight Morgan. He kills Morgan (gets his revenge). Tristan decides to return to Cornwall, and cedes his claim on lands to Rual, keeping only his title.
Chapter 9. Morold. Morold is an Irish warrior and the brother of Queen Isolde. He comes from Ireland to Cornwall to demand tribute, namely to take away young boys to serve in Ireland. Tristan persuades King Mark that they should challenge Morold, which he does. Tristan bravely faces Morold in combat and kills him. (page 135), but not before Morold wounds Tristan with a sword dipped in poison, which was concocted by Queen Isolde who is the only one with the remedy. A piece of Tristan’s sword is left in Morold’s skull. This piece is pulled out and saved by the Queen when the body returns to Ireland.
Chapter 10. Tristan resolves to go to Ireland. He brings his harp alone. Why? He will woo them with his musical talent. He adopts a disguise: the poorest clothes they can find. He assumes a new identity: Tantris, the court musician who worked for a merchant. While at sea, their ship was overtaken by pirates and he was abandoned, sent to drift alone. He floats into Dublin bay and is picked up. His music is so impressive that a priest who had tutored Isolde notices and recommend him to the court.
Tristan first meets Isolde on page 145. The Queen makes a deal: you tutor my daughter and I’ll restore your health. So we have more irony: the queen is healing her brother’s killer. Pages 146 and 147 are worth reading closely, as this shows Tristan tutoring Isolde in the fine arts and the art of good manners. He is refining her. She is becoming more of an individual, improving herself, becoming all that she was meant to be. Tristan help her to realize her potential: all this before they ever fall in love. This goes on for six months. On page 148 we see the results of this instruction: Isolde has become so beautiful and talented that she casts a spell on all who listen to her. Tristan by this point deceives again; he needs to get out of Ireland before somebody recognizes him as Morold’s killer, so he pretends to have a wife and begs that he be allowed to return to Cornwall. His wish is granted.
Chapter 11. The Wooing Expedition. When Tristan returns to Cornwall he raves to Mark about the beautiful Isolde (page 150), perhaps a sign that he is falling in love, although to this point he is blind to his feelings. Meanwhile the barons in Cornwall are envious of Tristan: jealous of his status, his fame, and the favoritism that Mark pays to him. They advise Mark to marry. Why? Essentially to deprive Tristan of an opportunity at succeeding Mark as king. They even recommend Tristan to go on a mission back to Ireland to win the hand of Isolde for Mark. Tristan does his duty gladly, but insists that the barons come with him! So off they sail for Ireland. Tristan devises a new scheme. He dons a cloak, pretends he is a shipwrecked merchant from Normandy. He bribes the Irish Marshall into protecting him.
Chapter 12. The Dragon. In this episode, a dragon has been creating havoc in Ireland. Here’s a monster no unlike the Sphinx in Thebes. It is terrorizing the kingdom and he needs to be gotten rid of. The King Gurmun swears that he will hand over his daughter in marriage to the brave one who slays the dragon. Here we have a nice conflict setup between a foolish Irish steward and Tristan. Tristan manages to slay the dragon. He cuts out the dragon’s tongue and hides it in his coat. The tongue leaves him a stupor and he collapses in a pond. The steward meanwhile comes across the dragon and cuts off its head and returns to Dublin intent on winning the hand of Isolde. Isolde on page 163 wants nothing to do with this, and is willing to take her own life in resistance. The Queen then sees in a dream vision that someone else killed the dragon. She and Isolde go searching for the real killer. They discover Tristan in the pool, and resuscitate him. They see the tongue and realize he is the true dragon slayer. Then on page 166 Isolde recognizes him. It is Tantris! Tristan lies to them, telling them that he killed the dragon merely so the Irish would protect him more willingly. On page 167, the Queen swears an oath to protect him no matter what. This will become significant shortly. Then the Irish court assembles to hear the case of the dragon. There is a dispute over who really killed the dragon, and in three days time, judicial combat will determine the matter.
Chapter 13. The Splinter. So we have a lull in the action. At this crucial point, we find Tristan taking a bath. On page 173, we have an important scene where Isolde is gazing at him. And her heart tells her that this is no ordinary man. He is noble, has a noble heart. He is special. On page 174, her eyes turns to his equipment. She sees his sword. She sees the missing piece. She matches it to the fragment from Morold’s skull. She lifts the sword in hatred and levels it at Tristan. Tristan tries to talk her out of it, saying you’ll lose your honor forever if you do this deed. Then the Queen steps in and stays her. Why? She has made an oath to protect him, and it would not be honorable to go back on her word. Isolde, on page 176, can’t bring herself to do the deed anyway. Why? Is she falling in love?
Tristan promises to make things right if they will only let him live. The Queen and Isolde, after deliberation, make their peace with him. And finally, on page 180, Tristan levels with them and tells the truth. King Gurmun is informed of the matter and renounces the feud.
Chapter 14. Now that this matter is settled, we can get back to the action. We have a scene that in some respects is parallel to Chapter 1, with the entrance of Rivalin and Blancheflor. Here, we have Tristan walking into the gallery, then Isolde. Both are described in exquisite detail. These two are worthy. They are special. They have noble hearts. They are ready to fall in love. The chapter concludes with the steward’s fraud being exposed. And Tristan wins the dispute.
Chapter 15. The Love Potion. Tristan states his intentions: he wasn't to take Isolde back to Cornwall so she can marry the King. Gurmun accepts. And they set sail for Cornwall. We need to closely read pages 192 to 197, because this is the critical love potion business. The queen has prepared a love potion, to be drunk on the wedding night. She has entrusted it to Brangane. As the voyage proceeds, Tristan does his best to console Isolde. We can see them becoming closer, more intimate. But she is still conflicted, bitter, angry at him for killing her uncle and taking her away from home. She has no idea what the future holds for her. They make a rest stop on the coast, and while everyone else is ashore, Tristan and Isolde drink the potion, thinking it is wine. Page 195. The effect is immediate. When Brangane sees what has happened, she flings the vial into the sea. “You have drunk your death!” she screams. Why? What is going to be tragic about this? They are destined now to be hopelessly in love, but they will never be free to express that love. Tristan is already struggling between honor and love. And by the end of the chapter, it is love that is winning them over.
Now what is the purpose of the love potion? You might realize that it provides an alibi for Tristan and Isolde. IT gives them license to cheat on King Mark. The potion made them do it. I think it also has clear symbolic value.
Chapter 16. We’re off to sea again. And the two are thinking a lot. Their thoughts are converging. On page 199, they get closer and closer, and on page 200 they kiss. On page 201, they let Brangane know of their love for one another. Brangane agrees to let them enjoy themselves. ON page 202 the narrator goes off on a tangent, discussing how the enemy of love is surveillance. During this voyage they have the luxury of isolation, privacy, and in that, they can experience the ecstasy of love, free from prying eyes. But there is a problem here. The voyage has to end. They have to set foot on land. Isolde must be handed over to Mark. And there’s another problem. Isolde is no longer a virgin.
Chapter 17. Enter Brangane to the rescue. On page 206, Tristan makes a very important point about love and death. Brangane explains the business of the love potion, and Tristan says, if this is what death means. I accept it. If this even means everlasting death. I accept that too. What a powerful statement of love!
To be in Love in the sense of Amour, is to put yourself at odds with the social order. It means pain and death. When the young couple accidentally drinks the potion, they have no idea what happened to them. Are we sea sick or is this what we call love (she puns on the French word la mer l'amour). They are at this moment experiencing the joy and the pain of being alive. This is what love is about: the emotional effect in full force. Here it comes. Brangane is appalled and says to Tristan you have drunk your death. Tristan says I don't know what you mean, if by death you mean the pain of my love for her, that is my life, if by death you mean the punishment of society, I accept that, if by death you mean eternal damnation in hell, I accept that. The individual experience of love invalidates the whole system that has been erected to contain and regulate love.
Much of the remainder of the story of Tristan and Isolde is about the tension between the social order imposed on the individual and the individual effort to live life freely in love. They do not go together.
So Isolde is handed over to Mark. But what to do on the wedding night? Substitute Brangane for Isolde. This happens on p. 207. It is important to note here something that might strike us as very very odd. How could Mark not notice it wasn’t Isolde? (He’s insensitive. He doesn’t have the cultivated, worthy, civilized, sensitive nature that it would take. To him, his love for Isolde is more at the erotic/ lusty level.). It is impersonal. He can’t tell the difference!
Then in a brutal scene, Isolde commands some men to slay Brangane so she will be unable to betray them. Brangane’s life is spared, because she has proved faithful. After this, all is made well.
Chapter 18. Gandin. Gandin the rote player hoodwinks Mark into handing over Isolde. Tristan comes to the rescue and double-crosses Gandin, thus saving Isolde.
Chapter 19. Marjodoc. Marjodoc is the steward-in-chief. He is a friend of Tristan’s, but he has turned jealous and suspicious. He discovers something going on between Tristan and Isolde, and is torn as to whether to tell the king. He tells him that there are “rumors” of something going on. Suspicions are aroused. What Gottfried previously told us about love’s enemy, suspicion, is about to kick into high gear. The conflict between suspicion/surveillance and love is important in the text, and it forces love into deception and secrecy.
Chapter 20. Plot and counterplot. Mark plays cat and mouse with Isolde, who successfully dodges his trap, with a little help from Brangane.
Chapter 21. We are introduced to Melot. A dwarf, Melot is a friend of the King. He conspires with Marjodoc to catch Tristan and Isolde in a trap.
Chapter 22. Melot runs to Mark and says he’s discovered the adulterous lovers. They are going to spy on them in the woods. It’s a close call, but the lovers evade detection.
Chapter 23. The Ordeal. Suspicions will not cease. Melot devises a new plan to catch the lovers. He spreads flour around the bed. Tristan successfully leaps into the bed so as not to leave footprints, but he accidentally bleeds on the sheets. Mark is racked with doubt. He decides to make Isolde swear a public oath that she has been faithful. Before a council she must swear then grasp a red hot iron rod. If she does not burn she is telling the truth. She and Tristan again outwit them. Tristan disguises himself as a beggar, and when carrying Isolde from ship to shore he “accidentally” falls on top of her, which gives Isolde the cover she needs to technically tell the truth. One thinks of the Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky scandal here. Remember how Clinton parsed his words carefully and was able to survive impeachment? In this analogy, Ken Starr would be like the jealous barons.
Chapter 24. This is an interesting little episode involving a magic dog Pettircrieu that Tristan wins on behalf of his lady while visiting Wales. The dog has a magic bell that soothes the soul when rung. But when Isolde receives the gift, she removes the bell, realizing that she can’t pretend to be happy when her lover is still out there suffering apart from her. She doesn’t want to be happy without Tristan by her side.
Chapter 25. Finally, Mark has had enough with the suspicion. ON pages 258 and 259 he banishes them.
Chapter 26. The Cave of Lovers. A very important chapter! First of all, it is important to note that this cave is out there in nature, in the wild woods, away from civilization, courts, society, and suspicious, jealous eyes. They are free out here. They have secrecy and privacy. Here love can flourish. Second, they are nourished by love and love only. All they need is love to keep them alive. They feed off their love. When two people are truly in love, they can survive, Gottfried says. Then on page 264 we get into an amazing allegory. Each facet of the cave of lovers has a symbolic meaning.
Let’s examine the allegory in detail:
grotto description / symbolism
roundness / Love’s simplicity. (no corners)
Broad / Power: Love is strong
High ceiling / Aspiration: Love aims high, nothing is too high for it
Finely keyed vault, jewel-encrusted crown / Crown of virtues. Love aspires to these marvelous spiritual perfections
White walls / Love’s integrity is pure
Green, firm marble floor / Love’s constancy: always fresh and green as the grass, always smooth and gleaming like glass
The crystalline bed in the center of the grotto / Love’s transparency and translucency
The door latch / The latch has no lock and key. why? Any device used to unlock it bespeaks treachery, deceit, force. You must be admitted willing from within.
Bronze door / Strong, can’t be forced, resists violence against it
The bar of cedar / The discretion and understanding of love
The bar of ivory / Purity and honesty of love
Spindle of tin from the outside / The firm intent of love
Gold latch / Success in love (loving with true intent will lead to success) “My Aim is True”
Overhead windows / Kindness, Humility, Breeding
The radiant light / Honor lights up the cave of earthly bliss
Secluded location / Love is hard to find. It is a wild solitude
In short, they have found their bliss. They are free to love without suspicion. They spend their time in happiness and ecstasy. It is paradise on earth, a new Garden of Eden if you will.
Chapter 27. This is also one of the most important chapters in the book. It is where the lovers are discovered by King Mark. The clamor of hunting horns is heard in the distance. Tristan hatches a new plan, in case they are detected. See page 270. Tristan places his naked sword between himself and Isolde. They lie on the bed apart.
Mark peeks through the window. Pay close attention to his reaction on page 272. He is pleased and pained to see them. He is inspired with desire for Isolde. Love overcomes doubt. He wants her back.
The placing of the sword between them has grave consequences for Tristan and Isolde. It is directly responsible for the end of their earthly bliss and it is totally symbolic. The sword is really a metonym for what swords are closely associated with: honor, chivalry, duty, loyalty to one’s king. Tristan literally puts his honor between he and his love. Love is split in two. He has violated the basic principle that brings lovers together: unity. Honor and love don’t mix well. He will pay for this mistake. They will never again be as happy as they are right now.
Chapter 28. They head back to Cornwall. Page 274 tells us they never again were free and open. Mark enjoys Isolde’s company on a lustful level, even though he is well aware she doesn’t really love him. He is willfully blind. The suspicions and doubts and rumors swirl once again, just as they had before. To make a long story short, Mark finally discovers them embracing. He sees the proof with his own two eyes. It is undeniable. Tristan sees him leaving the scene and knows. He has to run away. Isolde asks him to promise that he’ll never let another woman come between them. She gives him a ring. (Remember the ring in “Simple Twist of Fate”?) Her parting speech to him is touching and worthy of close examination. Page 280. “Parting is such sweet sorrow...”
Chapter 29. Isolde of the White Hands. Tristan sails for Normandy. Soon thereafter he sojourns to Germany and fights some battles. We see Isolde suffering dearly. She is poisoned by love and loss, caught between death and life. She tries to live on without him. Tristan returns to Parmenie to find out that Rual and Floreate have passed away. He then sojourns to the land of Arundel, where he links up with Duke Jovelin, his son Kaedin and daughter Isolde of the White Hands. Kaedin and Tristan become close friends. They go off to war. Tristan, as usual earns great honor and praise for his deeds.
Tristan comes into contact with Isolde White Hands on page 290. She is noble, intelligent, and beautiful. And Tristan is smitten with her. Her beauty reminds him of his true love, and she even has the same name! On page 291 he gets hung up, obsessed with the name, and he commits a violation of the code of love: he confuses the name with the person. His passion is re-awoken. He is attracted to the new Isolde. Isolde is attracted to him too. Tristan on page 292 and 293 reproaches himself for this desire. He knows it is wrong to love another. He masters it and seems now intent on remaining faithful to Isolde the fair. But Isolde of the White Hands is inflamed with desire, and she interprets Tristan’s tender courtesies and signs of love. He sings to her. She swoons. By page 294, she is physically coming on to him and he weakens again. The question is raised on 294, does Tristan want her? What do you think?
Tristan feels pity for Isolde of the White Hands. He sympathizes with her, I think. He is in a bind, well described on page 295.
On page 296 he devises an interesting theory, namely that he’ll be able to alleviate his suffering if he divvies up his love between the two women. Maybe he’ll be able to channel it and control it better. What do you think? Feasible idea or is he rationalizing here? He reminds himself that Isolde the Fair at least has Mark to keep her company. What about me, he says? Don’t I deserve some company too?
Chapter 30. And so Gottfried’s Tristan breaks off. We finish the story with Thomas of Britain’s version of events. Tristan’s deliberations and anxieties continue in great detail. He’s going through a lot of mental contortions in here, such as claiming that marrying Isolde of the White Hands would be the best way to forget the old Isolde, and it would be the most honorable way to live a life of pleasure (think lust) instead of being devoted to love.
On page 306 he marries Isolde of the White Hands. The ring is pulled off his finger. He ponders. He can’t consummate this marriage. Love for Isolde the Fair is too strong. He struggles mightily, but finally tells Isolde White Hands that he has an injury and is unable to exert himself in bed. Maybe another time....
Chapter 31. Tristan goes off on another military exploit that we don’t need to worry too much about at this point. Back in Cornwall, Isolde has heard nothing of Tristan for awhile until a haughty suitor by the name of Cariado informs her that Tristan has married another. For delivering this bad news, she treats him savagely and says you’ll never have a chance with me.
Chapter 32. The Hall of Statues. In this curious chapter Tristan has builders construct a hall with statues of Isolde and Brangane. He has built idols to his love, and even kisses them, talks to them. Odd. At the end of this chapter on pages 316 - 318, we have a wonderful analysis by Thomas on the question: which of the four lovers is suffering the most?
Chapter 33. The Bold Water. One day Isolde White Hands is riding horseback and splashes in some muddy water which sprays her thigh. She jokes to her brother that the water is fresher than her husband.
Chapter 34. Kaedin confronts Tristan over this issue and he divulges what has really been going on. He leads Kaedin to the hall of statues. Caedin thinks they’re real and asks for Brangane’s hand. He demands that they go to the real place to check these girls out. They do encounter the queen and Brangane, and Queen Isolde talks Brangane into sleeping with Caedin.
Chapter 35. Cariado and his friends chase after Tristan and Caedin’s pages, thinking they are Tristan and Caedin. They run away like cowards, which spurs Brangane to anger. She and Isolde have a knock-down-drag-out cat fight. Brangane feels like she has been deceived and mislead into sleeping with an unworthy knight. Brangane speaks to King Mark who gives her the power to oversee her every move. It’s quite a confusing chapter, but it’s clear that by the end, everyone is pretty miserable.
Chapter 36. Tristan adopts another disguise. He pretends to be a leper begging for alms. Brangane spies him. Tristan sulks away to an old palace where he pines and suffers. Isolde pleads with Brangane to go console him, which she ultimately does. Tristan and Isolde have one more tryst, before he leaves again.
Chapter 37. Yet another return to Cornwall to visit Isolde. In this scene Kaedin kills their foe Cariado in a joust. Tristan and Kaedin flee the country.
Chapter 38. The Poisoned Spear. Tristan goes off on another adventure to assist Dwarf Tristram whose lady has been abducted. Tristan is wounded in the loins with a poisoned lance. He knows the only cure is Isolde the fair.
Chapter 39. Tristan asks for Kaedin to send a message to Isolde to come and save his life. He takes their ring, the secret token of their love. On page 344 Tristan has an important speech citing all his sufferings and his belief that Isolde should and will come to his aid. He tells Kaedin to take two sails with him on the ship, a black one and a white one. If Isolde refuses to come, hoist the black sail. If she’s on the way to rescue him, hoist the white one. Meanwhile, guess who has been eavesdropping on the conversation? Isolde of the White Hands. She is filled with jealous rage. Now she knows why Tristan won’t have sex with her. She will have her revenge. Isolde of course gets the message and readily decides to come save Tristan.
Chapter 40. Tristan is in bed dying. The ship makes sail for Arundel. A five day storm sets in and they are stranded at sea. When the storm abates, the wind dies and they can’t move. They can see land, but they can’t reach it. It looks like nature has prevented the lovers from reuniting. Kaedin hoists the white sail. It will be a sign that help is on the way. Tristan asks his wife Isolde of the White Hands what color the sail is. “Black” she lies. And at this, on page 352, Tristan loses his will to live. Just then the wind returns. The ship lands. Isolde rushes to the scene. Tristan has died. And so she loses her will to live, and kissing his corpse, dies too (page 353).
So ends the tragic love of Tristan and Isolde. They had true love. Their love was a union of body and soul. But they found no peace.