The Legend of Tristan and Isolde and Novella Tristan by Thomas Mann


Each epoch gave diverse interpretations of the legend about Tristan and Isolde. Every writer, including Thomas Mann, noticed in this sad story of a young knight and his beloved an excuse for presenting personal ethical positions. The writers depicted unique characters changing their motives, their moral principles, and their nature. Still, in the mind of every writer, the original legend laid a sound foundation for the new versions of the story about Tristan and Isolde. This essay aims to find out which commonalities, as well as differences, have a legend about Tristan and Isolde and the novella Tristan written by Thomas Mann. We argue that both works emphasize the crystallization of the central image of a person through love for a woman whose sincerity is a symptom of conflict with public morality.

Keywords: Tristan and Isolde, Thomas Mann, legend, novella

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The Legend of Tristan and Isolde and Novella Tristan by Thomas Mann

Initially, it might seem that the legend about Tristan and Isolde and the novella Tristan are completely different. However, when studying and carefully comparing these literary works, one can find a direct connection between them. In the image of Tristan, militancy and invincibility usually prevail, but the character has been evolving. In fact, the images of Tristan and Isolde have been transforming in European prose. Tristan embodies a logical evolution of male image – a man who turns from the warrior of the sword into the warrior of the word. The connection of such characteristics describes inevitable suffering and alienation. The common both for the medieval knightly legend and for Thomas Manns novella is the crystallization of the central male image through love for a woman whose sincerity is a symptom of conflict with public morality.

The Storylines of the Legend of Tristan and Isolde and Novella Tristan by Thomas Mann

The legend of Tristan and Isolde refers to the eternal stories of romance and tragedy. Despite the fact that the legend emerged in the Middle Ages, it continues to inspire the audience to interpret the Celtic myth. The fact that the legend of Tristan and Isolde models human relationships makes it universal. However, these relationships, despite their seeming simplicity, are deep and complex. In the original Celtic saga of the tenth century, Tristan is the nephew of King Mark, the lover of his wife Isolde, and the hero bewitched with a love potion (Grimbert, 2012). In fact, the legend of the bewitched love of Tristan and Isolde has repeatedly been the basis of various artistic works. The images of Celtic lovers also inspired Richard Wagner to create a musical drama Tristan and Isolde, the excerpts from which the heroine of Thomas Manns novella Gabriele Kloterjahn performs on the piano.

The image of Tristan is vividly revealed in the work Tristan written by the master of the High Medieval Period Gottfried Strasbourg. Nevertheless, the story gained growing popularity in a stylized retelling of the French writer Joseph Bedier (Grimbert, 2012). The novel focuses on the events when a drink that was accidentally drunk generates an intense passion in the souls of Tristan and Isolde (Grimbert, 2012). Heroes understand that their love is illegal. They despair of ever being together. Their destiny is an eternal return to each other which leads to death (Grimbert, 2012). On the graves of the main protagonists grow a vine and a rose bush, which always blossom embracing with each other. In the novel by Gottfried of Strasbourg, Tristan and Isolde, in spite of the great love, have no other choice but to part (Grimbert, 2012). Tristan is forced to wander around the European lands in search of peace, but the author does not tell the story of his search. He highlights their deep longing for being together. The strange paradox of story about Tristan and Isolde is that they also rebel against conjugal fidelity not to manifest their freedom but to prove fidelity to fatal passion.

The novella Tristan by Thomas Mann takes place in a quiet sanatorium for the patients with lung problems. Einfired is hidden in the Swiss Alps. The plot centers on Gabriel who is under the care of Dr. Leander. She is the wife of the industrialist Anton Kloterjahn. The woman falls in love with a strange and eccentric poet Detlev Spinell. Despite the total ban on playing music, which could harm Gabrieles weakened health, Spinell, left alone with her, asks her to play the piano. She plays Wagners Tristan and Isolde which makes the young woman feel worse. In view of the relapse, Dr. Leander insists that Herr Kloterjahn visits Gabriele in a sanatorium. On the eve of his arrival, Spinell writes a contemptuous letter to Kloterjahn, in which he confesses his love to Gabriele and condemns Kloterjahn (Mann, 1999). The novella concludes with the death of Gabriele and the complete alienation of Spinell. Tristan depicts confrontation, clash, and rejection of two different worlds and two unlike logics. The clash of the worlds is expressed in the conflict of Spinell, who presents a particle of the spiritual world striving for beauty, and Kloterjahn, who is the representative of the world the essence of which is the pursuit of happiness and joy of life.

The Main Themes, Echoing in Two Stories

Tristan ridicules the doom of marriages between femme fragile (“fragile women” as opposed to “femme fatale”) and rich industrialists. It is a typical storyline of European novels in the late nineteenth century. Moreover, it corresponds to the medieval traditions of arranged marriages when both partners focused on the possible benefits of their partnership. In addition, the stronger Spinell provokes Gabriele to follow the subtle nature, thereby alienating a young woman from the world that made her sick, the stronger the relationship between the original legend and the novella is.

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Gabriele appears in the novella Tristan in the image of Isolde. It is remarkable that both female characters are typical femme fragile of noble origin who has a good education and perfect manners. These traits and personalities are the catalysts for social drama. Due to their human qualities, Isolde and Gabriele become the objects of passionate adoration. The men who love them can do everything for the sake of love, including treason. The conflict between Mark and Tristan in the legend of Tristan and Isolde is a prototype of the conflict between Spinell and Kloterjahn in the work of Thomas Mann. Their relationship reflects not only a conflict of knights but also a conflict of dignity and possession, They embody the opposition between tradition and genuine human nature.

Thomas Mann focuses on the natural human right to free love. Nevertheless, this right contrasts in both works. The traditional dogmatic form of love differs according to the current moral code and the moral canons of the church. Despite the definite signs of the caricature in the image of Spinell, he has the power to oppose public morality for the sake of love. Certainly, he is not a caricature of Tristan but a knight of the Manns epoch. Thus, he should only be perceived exclusively in the terms of the moral standards of that society.

The Main Differences between the Legend of Tristan and Isolde and the Novella Tristan

In the legend of Tristan and Isolde, the protagonist stands before the reader in the guise of a noble knight, who receives the right to love beautiful Isolde. Thomas Mann decides to move away from that noble image. He portrays Spinell as a weak figure. His strength is not concentrated in the body but in his writings. Spinell has only the power of a pen, but even this force of persuasion cannot separate him from the crowd. The evolution of the character is an image of the social changes that took place in German society and questioned the credibility of love and marriage. In the novella, Mann expresses his critical attitude towards contemporary tendencies in perceiving art and routine. It makes him an antagonist of his own character. Manns Tristan loses the core and acquires the features of morbidity and imperfections which could be also seen in the vivid depiction of his decaying teeth (Mann, 1999). Thus, Thomas Mann makes an attempt to escape from the image of Tristan – the ideal warrior, the object of sexual love, and the symbol of sexuality.

When analyzing the main female character, one can note the difference between Isolde and Gabriele. Gabriele has the name of the archangel. Thomas Mann, initially, pronounces her sentence and condemns her to death. Thus, Gabriele becomes a metaphor for the constant interaction of Eros and Thanatos in the real life, embodying her feminine essence of love. Isolde does not bear such a significant metaphorical meaning. By simply being, she gives happiness for Tristan. Nevertheless, the presence of the female images in both works fulfills the function of a trigger for demonstrating the outcome of the main characters. Despite the fact that both stories end with the tragedy, Thomas Mann embodies his idea of character’s estrangement from the society in the form of Spinells disease, both physical and social. He does not give the lovers a chance to be together because the society cannot accept their unhealthy passion for aesthetic. In the legend, after death, the heroes can be together and prove the genuine nature of their love.

Comparison of Male Characters of Both Literature Works

The plot of the legend focuses on the moral and social conflicts. On the one hand, Tristan recognizes the correctness of the prevailing morality, thereby he experiences suffering from the realization of own guilt. He accepts the phenomenon of their love with Isolde as a misfortune, the cause of which was the elixir (Grimbert, 2012). On the other hand, the narrative points the positive nature of the sudden outburst of feeling. Moreover, those who help the main characters are portrayed sympathetically. Thus, the legend glorifies love, which is stronger than death. The story proves that real feelings should not correspond to the hierarchy established by the feudal society or to the law enforced by the Church.

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Contrary to Tristan, Spinell is not a noble knight. Being a creative person, he likes death from the aesthetic point of view and raises the opposition between life and death. Having convinced Gabriele to perform the work of Richard Wagner, Spinell conducts his own experiment. They experience the ecstasy of love through the music. They foster the comprehension of beauty and dislike of life. Unfortunately, Gabrieles illness aggravates after she plays on the piano. All the mental forces that were addressed for the execution of pure aesthetic experience exacerbate Gabrieles conditions (Mann, 1999). Even though the writer Detlev Spinell remains true to the aesthetic principle, he destroys the life of the whole family, and he, in turn, does not feel any sorrow or pity. This is the main distinguishing feature of Spinell from Tristan. Through the image of the creative personality of the artist, Mann wanted to prove that aesthetic should be in harmony with ethic and that the artists should be inseparable from life.

The Image of Poisonous Love in the Legend of Tristan and Isolde and the Novella Tristan

In the legend of Tristan and Isolde, love arises between the protagonists as a consequence of a magical drink, which by mistake turned out to be in glasses. Isolde should have become a wife for a man she had not even seen. In order not to condemn the girl to eternal suffering, during the first wedding night with King Mark, the newlyweds had to drink a special potion that was supposed to make the marriage happy (Grimbert, 2012). However, Isolde accidentally drank that love essence with Tristan during a sea voyage to the shores of the holdings of Mark. They had to travel in the blistering heat. To quench the thirst of Isolde and Tristan, a servant gave the potion which should have been served on the first wedding night. The potion made them love each other. Consequently, love became a poison for two heroes because they could not be together but had no possibility to resist the poisonous magical love.

Thomas Mann does not add magic to his novella but uses Wagners music as a destructive love drink. The passion which sounds in music shakes Gabriele. The music exacerbates the disease and soon leads to death (Mann, 1999). The writer reveals the depth of the artists inner world, the greatness and insecurity of a genuine feeling when Spinell faces a brutal reality. The image of the aggressive force which is hostile to beauty also extends to the sphere of feelings which Thomas Mann experienced in his real life. Despite the fact that Mann shows the special power of the art world, he also stresses that art should not separate from the real world. He vividly depicts how Spinell feels when he learns that life wins and that he is defeated. Music as a love drink destroys Gabriele. Therefore, Manns ‘Tristan’ should also accept the power which is stronger than his pursuit of beauty in death.


Despite the difference in time and narrative, the legend of Tristan and Isolde and the novella Tristan by Thomas Mann have much in common. The main characters are not afraid of provoking a conflict with public morality, thereby cultivating the image of a righteous sufferer. The main conflict of the stories is based on the human desire to experience pure love and passion without being constrained by social morality, family commitments, and deep-rooted traditions. Even though love between the characters is triggered by external forces, the feeling is authentic because it forces a man to reject society. We could also notice that the stories focus on the imperfections of the institution of marriage both in medieval times and in the late nineteenth century.

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