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Tristan and Isolde

This 2006 film is fully medieval, for it is based on a story that was told in the early Middle Ages, and then written in the Late Middle Ages. There are several different versions of the story, so the producers of this film judged correctly that they were not obliged to follow any one version in every detail. It is a good movie in general, though not a great movie.

One of the elements in some of the stories that the producers left out of the film was the love potion. I think that they should have included this. The hero of the story, Tristan, was an innocent victim. The love potion made him fall in love with Isolde; it was like a drug; his will was impaired. Without the potion, Tristan is just an adulterer. With the potion, he is a tragic figure, much like Oedipus, who did evil without intending to. Also, the effects of the potion lasted for three years. Psychologists today tell us that the emotional state of being ‘in love’ lasts for three years. After three years, if couples do not have something other than emotion to keep them together, then they will split up. In some way, it seems that the medieval story-tellers knew what post-modern psychologists have only recently discovered. Another element from some of the stories, but not all, was that Tristan and Isolde "made love hundreds of times" before she wed King Marc, yet Isolde lost her virginity on her wedding night with Marc. This is an example of medieval courtly love, which does not normally (though of course sometimes it actually did) include sexual intercourse. According to these version of the story, Tristan and Isolde were in love, but they did not have sex. This might have been incomprehensible to a post-modern audience; on the other hand, it might have provided an opportunity for the post-modern audience to learn something. Unfortunately, the film-makers chose to follow versions of the story in which Tristan and Isolde have sex.

Perhaps the best part of the movie, and the story, was the depiction of King Marc. He is portrayed as a descent fellow, and a loving husband. The adulterous affair that Tristan has with Marc’s wife is something bad. The emotion ‘love’ does not justify everything, so even though Tristan and Isolde were truly in love, yet their adultery was not justified. Ironically, the belief that the emotion ‘love’ does justify anything, and adultery is better than marriage, began in the Middle Ages. The Albighensian heretics held this belief, and it was spread by the troubadours after the Roman Catholic Church had killed the Albighensians. Some versions of the tale of Tristan and Isolde, especially some of the later ones, were much influenced by this heretical belief. The early forms of the story advocated traditional Christian morality, according to which adultery is evil, rather than the heretical morality, according to which adultery is good.