Unspeakable Horror, Ineffable Bliss: Riddles and Marvels in the Prose Tristan
Huot, Sylvia, Medium Aevum
The opening section of the Prose Tristan, like the Estoire del Saint Graal in the Lancelot-Grail cycle, establishes the prehistory of the Tristan legend, focusing on the Christianization and interrelations of kingdoms that will be important in the story to come: Cornwall, Leonois, and, to a lesser extent, Ireland. (1) Though relatively short--the `prehistory' occupies less than half of the first of twelve volumes in the modern edition of the Prose Tristan--this opening narrative sequence is of. considerable complexity. The adventures recounted here involve two distinct but intertwined storylines: one tracing the shifting pattern of alliances and rivalries among the various men who successively marry the Babylonian Princess Celinde, and one tracing the spread of Christianity through the efforts of St Augustine of Canterbury. This double focus on sexual passion and rivalry on the one hand, and the revelation of sacred mysteries on the other, prepares for the later development of the narrative that will trace the intense and frequently disastrous rivalries of the many knights in love with Iseut, and the quest for the Grail. (2)
The question, or problem, of desire arises at the very beginning of the story in the distinctive choices made by two of Joseph of Arimathea's twelve nephews. Asked by the boys' father to find them suitable wives, Joseph questions his nephews and learns that although ten of them are happy to accept the marriages arranged for them by their uncle, two have other wishes. Helain le Gros prefers to consecrate his virginity to God and to devote himself to serving the Grail; Sador insists on selecting his own wife, choosing Celinde, daughter of the King of Babylon, who washes ashore as the sole survivor of a shipwreck. Joseph grants both requests, but whereas he is pleased and gratified to give his blessing to the keeper of the Grail, he views the prospect of a marriage grounded in personal desire with considerable trepidation. As he tells Sador: `Or t'en coviegne bien ... puis que ce veus faire a ta volente, je m'en soferrai. Mes je dout que tu en la fin ne t'en repentes' (PT I, 41). Joseph's fears are soon realized, as Sador's brother Naburzadan rapes Celinde and is murdered in turn by Sador. The latter's flight with Celinde in the aftermath of this murder sets in motion a series of adventures that will culminate in Sador's death at the hands of his own son, Apollo li Aventureus, who in turn marries Celinde, unaware that she is his mother, The two individualized life choices made by Sador and Helain le Gros respectively open the space for the competing ethical systems that will dominate both the prehistory and the main narrative to follow. Though countless knights figure in the Prose Tristan, this founding dichotomy is most dramatically illustrated in the interlaced stories of its three central heroes, the first two as famous for their adulterous passion as the third is for his militant virginity: Tristan, Lancelot, and Galahad. (3)
This opening segment tracing the interlaced tales of desire for Celinde and desire for God is marked by frequent enigmas, in the form of riddles, dreams, and visions. These enigmas present a coded representation of both the ineffable and the unspeakable--of divine mysteries and of sinful abomination--and converge upon the question of personal identity and of the individual's exemplary relationship to both sin and salvation. One might say that these riddling texts and images are a means by which the central characters of the narrative confront the fundamental question, `Who am I?' And this question is answered, often in multiple ways, with reference to both personal and universal history and in terms of both divine grace and abject sin. The riddle of identity is one that must be answered both synchronically and diachronically, defining the individual--in this context, the aristocratic male individual--as …
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Publication information: Article title: Unspeakable Horror, Ineffable Bliss: Riddles and Marvels in the Prose Tristan. Contributors: Huot, Sylvia - Author. Journal title: Medium Aevum. Volume: 71. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2002. Page number: 47+. © 1999 Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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