The romantic tale of Tristan and Isolde dates to the 11th century and exists in many versions. The basic situation is that aged King Mark sends his nephew, Sir Tristan, to fetch the king’s bride, Princess Isolde. And on the ship back to Mark’s kingdom, the two young people fall in love and become lovers.
But that’s not really what happens, according to the centuries of this story’s retelling. The key to the Tristan and Isolde love story is the love potion that Isolde’s servant gives them. It is the reason they become deaf to honor and to duty. The love potion makes them betray others, and also makes their love so strong that no arguments of common sense can penetrate it. The story continues with Isolde marrying King Mark yet trysting secretly with Tristan. Of course the lovers get caught. It doesn’t end happily.
The story we know best today is that of the opera version by Richard Wagner, “Tristan und Isolde,” based on a 19th century German retelling. At the beginning, Isolde vengefully wants to poison Tristan for having killed her betrothed. She demands that he drink a potion that she also drinks. And both of them believe it will kill them. Instead, her servant has substituted a love potion. It unleashes their mad passion, a passion so consuming that they cannot contemplate a life without it. To them, love is life, and love is death. Love is both night and day, all of light and all of darkness. It’s amazing. Wagner knew what he was doing when he created the mystical, moving music that tells this intensely romantic story. It can’t be called a tragedy when the lovers achieve an apotheosis that is so intense.
Of course I went home on a high from seeing this opera (inexpensively at a convenient simulcast to a movie theater in hi-def), and my significant other said the equivalent of “Bah, humbug!” He thinks that a romance in which the love happens because of a love potion is no romance at all. But I disagree with him. I think he is being too literal. When the tale of Tristan and Isolde was a big deal, 900 years ago and thereafter, the concept of individual free will didn’t really exist. People were born into a hierarchy, and they knew they had duties to perform. And beyond that, whatever inchoate urgings they had were kept to themselves. Maybe never even examined. It’s not that people were lacking in a desire to love, or in an ability to love. They just didn’t have a way to think about love, a path, if you will, for their thoughts and feelings.
So what’s really happening in Tristan und Isolde is that the love potion is made the symbol of emotions for which the characters don’t know how to take responsibility. Today, careless people mess up their love lives and irresponsibly shrug and say “It just happened.” But almost a millennium ago, people said, in confusion and amazement, “It was a potion,” or “It was witchcraft.” They had no other way to explain why they were impelled to turn their backs on honor and duty in the name of love.
Honor and duty, especially family duty or duty to an overlord, have ruled society for far longer than free will has. Today, most of us live our lives believing we have free will, often in spite of evidence that we are trapped in many ways. One of the reasons that romances retain eternal relevance to the human condition is that they encapsulate some of the most irrational, inconvenient, impractical, and downright suicidal yearnings of which men and woman are capable. It’s crazy for Tristan and Isolde to be in love and to act on their love. But they simply cannot resist the ineffable pull to one another. Tristan’s last words are of his endless yearning for his beloved. Even in death, there is peace for them because they will be together, inseparably in love.
I don’t care if it was a love potion that started it. This is love.