le-roman-de-tristan-et-iseutPhilology is a matter of conjectures: given the best available evidence, reasonable assumptions, what is and isn’t possible, the philologist strives to correct as best and as little as possible the text in front of her to help keep alive the tradition.

Figuring out the right word in a corrupted manuscript may require one to go to extraordinary lengths, and marshal knowledge from other disciplines. But finding the missing parts of a story? Completing a story that has come to us in tatters and multiple versions, sometimes mutually incompatible? That’s when you need to step up from the medieval philologist’s seat and become a medieval writer: the self-effacing, yet strongly opinionated, tradition-dependent inventor.

Joseph Bédier, French philologist extraordinaire stepped into this role in the early twentieth century to put together a Tristan et Iseut, which has become de facto for many of us the Tristan et Iseut, simply because it brought together in a simple package the short length of Béroul, the emotional impact of Thomas, the completeness of Gottfried von Straßburg, and none of the never-ending entrelacement of the Roman de Tristan. Thomas’s Tristan is the one for me which is the most moving, but it is heavily amputated—what’s left of it is tantalizing. Béroul is sprightly, less courtly and closer to the tone of what we know of Welsh Arthurian stories.

Bédier accomplishes the rare feat of being not just a crib for a compact and complete life of Tristan, but also of being believable as a pre-Modern text. Bédier’s command of historical French allows him to craft a language that is devoid of modernism, yet stays shy of archaism or pseudo-archaism (a national sport of the 19th century writers). For all practical purposes, it allows him to sound medieval without anachronism, without the difficulty that actual medieval prose poses to the modern reader: formulaic diction, obscure lexicon, monotony of emotion.

Comparable to Bédier’s work on French, I would cite J.R.R. Tolkien’s posthumous effort The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, which repurposes the poetic style and diction of the Elder Edda in English to tell the whole story of the hero Sigurd (Siegfried), his encounter with the gods, the Niblungs, and the continuation of this story through the life of Gudrún with Attila the Hun. Here also we have a tattered textual tradition that was re-created using a limited, historically specific palette, in the hope of filing its gaps for posterity.

Bédier, Joseph. Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut. Genève: Droz. ISBN 9782600015486.