The story of Tristan and Isolde comes from Celtic legend. We are not exactly sure what part of Celtic Britain it comes from. Possibilities range from Scotland to Wales to Cornwall. These regions (including Ireland and the Isle of Man) retained a relative degree of independence in the face of various invasions during the course of British history: ranging from the Romans, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, to the Norman conquest of 1066. Celtic culture remained lively and proved to be influential on peoples who came into contact with it. Later, in the 12th century, romancers picked up the archetypal story of Tristan and enhanced it. The Tristan legend was wildly popular by the mid 12th century, as many Tristan romances were in circulation. We will discuss three of the most important ones.
The great French romancer Chrétien de Troyes wrote an early version of the Tristan myth, but it has been lost. We also have fragments of versions by two Anglo-Norman poets: Thomas and Beroul. Thomas's Tristan was probably the oldest, circa 1157 - 1160.
The German poet Gottfried von Strassburg based his 1215 version of the story on Thomas's Tristan. Gottfried never completed his version of the poem, so the Penguin classics edition finishes the tale with extant fragments from Thomas’s version (chapters 30 to 40). Because Gottfried preferred Thomas as his source text, we can assume he would have stuck fairly closely to the plot as Thomas arranges it, although you will detect clear stylistic variations between the two writers, even in translation.
Many critics regard Gottfried's version as the greatest of all Tristan stories. Why? First, Gottfried is a master of style and arrangement, and the text is artfully written. Second, Gottfried seems to have an innate understanding of what this story with all its twists and turns, is about at a deep thematic level. It is, when you come down to it, about love, the psychology of love, the experience of falling in love, of what it is like to be in love, of all the tensions problems and conflicts that can erupt when two people rapturously fall for one another. It is about the conflict between love and honor, love and duty, love and family, love and loyalty. Literature, remember, specializes in emotional effects, and this work sinks deeply into the murky and thrilling emotions of love and desire, some of our most powerful.