What is Love? (Tristan and Isolde)

The Tristan and Isolde story as told by Joseph Campbell in my own words, from Little Book of Thou, chapter six: Social Order and Individuality

Tristan was the messenger of a king and was sent to Isolde, who was due to marry the king in one of these arranged marriages. The king and Isolde had never met. Well, Isolde’s mother had prepared a potion for Isolde and the king to drink, a magic potion that would make them fall in love. But Tristan and Isolde, mistaking the potion for wine, drank it together. They fell in love. Isolde’s nurse realized right away what happened and said to Tristan, “You have drunk your death.”

And Tristan said, “If by my death, you mean this agony of love that is my life. If you mean by my death, the punishment we are to suffer if discovered [which would have been a sentence of death], I accept that. But if by my death, you mean eternal punishment in the fires of hell, I accept that too.”

What do you think of that story?

An interesting hint in that story is that Isolde’s mother prepared a potion to make the king and Isolde share a love. That sounds like people were aware that arranged marriages, at least sometimes, resulted in partnerships where this special kind of love wasn’t present and that this special degree of love was hoped for in arranged marriages. Here was a mother making a potion so that her daughter would have a life with this love in it. But she drank it with Tristan and the two of them had the special love which was illicit, in these times. Tristan and Isolde really would have been killed, for this, if they existed in real life. But here we have Tristan’s declaration of this love being more important than society’s rule, society’s punishment for disobeying this rule, and even the punishment of enduring the pain of spending eternity in a literal hell, which people commonly believed in back in those days.

This view eventually prevailed, but change is scary to people. Change is hard. So it may have taken many real life Tristan and Isolde’s insisting on this new way to effect a change in the law of the state and of the church.

Did you notice Tristan called love a pain? Love is also referred to as an affliction. You’re probably familiar with Cupid, who we refer to playfully around Valentine’s Day. What did Cupid do? He shot arrows into people, right? Ouch! Love has also been called “the wound that only the one who delivered the wound can heal.” Joseph Campbell says, “Love itself is a pain, you might say, the pain of being truly alive.”

What he means by that, I think, isn’t that love is a bad thing, at all. Love is a wonderful thing, just that when finding someone or something to love, you are taking on an element of risk. Someone or something loved might be one day lost, which will cause pain, but that’s the nature of life. Life is a cycle of having experiences and having those experiences pass, wanting them back sometimes and feeling sad, feeling pain, but then realizing that those experiences, all your experiences, never truly do pass away. You carry them as memories and they will reside in you always. You may try to take one out and find it still causes you sadness or pain. Then one day you get out that same memory and it brings you that same joy again. That is love.


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