Tristan and Iseult is one of the earliest, yet most influential, romances of the Western Canon. While it became popular in the twelfth century, it’s origin pre-dates that as the story in various forms had circulated for centuries by word of mouth before it was first written. Written versions were set down in the twelfth century by Thomas the Britain, which was later updated and ‘filled in’ by Gottfried von Strassburg in the early thirteenth century, and by Béroul. In the mid-thirteenth century, a modified version referred to as the Prose Tristan formed the basis of the medieval version of Tristan and Iseult that was to feed into Sir Thomas Mallory‘s Le Morte d’Arthur (which contains thousands of words about the adventures of “Sir Tristram”). There are scores of versions and possible antecedents for this legend across a number of European cultures. Tracing the origins of the story is extremely interesting itself, and Wikipedia actually has a pretty decent summary of such here. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the story has been retold in various fashions by the likes of Matthew Arnold, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Alfred Tennyson and Thomas Hardy. Despite this wealth of literary tellings of the legend, Richard Wagner‘s opera Tristan und Isolde, considered one of the greatest and most influential pieces of music in the Western Canon, may very well be its greatest source of fame.
The Limited Editions Club (LEC) edition reviewed here uses the version prepared in 1900 by the French philosopher, historian and medievalist Joseph Bedier (1864-1938). According to Wikipedia, Bedier..:
…thought all the Tristan legends could be traced to a single original poem, adapted by Thomas of Brittany into French from an original Cornish or Breton source. He dubbed this hypothetical original the “Ur-Tristan”, and wrote his still-popular Romance of Tristan and Iseult as an attempt to reconstruct what this might have been like. In all likelihood, Common Branch versions reflect an earlier form of the story; accordingly, Bédier relied heavily on Eilhart, Béroul and Gottfried von Strassburg, and incorporated material from other versions to make a cohesive whole. Some scholars still consider Bédier’s argument convincing.
The Monthly Letter (ML) of the LEC calls Bedier’s work “fine and sensitive.” Of the translation by the accomplished novelist, poet and historian Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), the ML says it is “charming and faithful — faithful alike to the text, the tone, and the spirit of the original French.” Four chapters (V, XIII, XVI, XVII) were translated by American journalist and critic Paul Rosenfeld (1890-1946). I do not have any information on why this was done, but the work reads consistently. I did not notice from one chapter to the next the switch of translators. The introduction is by Irish-born poet Padraic Colum (1881-1972) who played a central role in the Irish Literary Revival.
The twelve illustrations, done using the gouache medium, were done by Russian born artist Serge Ivanoff and were printed in five colors. Though Mr. Ivanoff was mostly famous for his portrait work, the paintings he provides here are perfectly apropos to the story and setting. In the ML, Ivanoff tells us that the illustrations were done “with the idea of evoking the felling of the great tapestries of the tenth and eleventh centuries.” The ML, in expressing the belief that he succeeded “admirably and beautifully,” says:
His brush has imparted a texture–without trying to be funny, one could call it a texture texture — to the painting, which gives it the air of having been woven, and for realism he has added some worn spots, such as you might well find in a piece of fabric a thousand years old. There is more than one scene in each painting, just as there is in ancient tapestries, whose constructors did not want to waste any space or any material, and displayed astonishing ingenuity in packaging. There is a disregard (actually only an apparent disregard) for perspective — a trick of which the ancient tapissiers were masters. And the paintings have slightly irregular edges, just as though they had been hanging on castle walls for ages, and tended to sag a bit.
Adrian Wilson, who designed this book, had come to the attention of the LEC through a book he printed titled ‘Printing for Theater‘. The LEC production staff thought that the programs it contained, which were done by Wilson, “danced and sang” and were “things of beauty“. Mr. Wilson had a studio-printery in San Francisco, from which he took on the task of designing Tristan and Iseult. He choose to use 16 point Bembo text. The ML tells us that Bembo is one of the oldest types, having been cut in 1495 by Francisco Griffo, for the great fifteenth century printer Aldus Manutius. For the initials and decorative running heads Mr. Wilson choose Centaur, which was created by Bruce Rogers as an adaptation of a roman face designed by Nicolas Jenson of Venice in 1470. The text is printed in red and black, and is accented throughout with the theme of crown and shield (on the cover, running heads, chapter openings, the versos of the illustrations and, most beautifully, on the title page where it is done in red, black and gold). The paper chosen is Curtis Oxbow laid paper, which “has a fine mellow tone appropriate to a fine mellow legend.” The book was printed by Bert Clarke and Dave Way of The Thistle Press. The cover design, as described in the ML, is a chessboard of crowns, shields, and the letters composing the names of the two pawns in destiny’s game; the design is executed in gold upon the mod-made Italian paper covering both boards. The title is also stamped in gold leaf down the spine, which is a genuine hand-boarded red morocco leather.
In short, another winner from the LEC. An important text of a legend that is hugely influential in the Western Canon, illustrated by a well known 20th century artist, with a translation and introduction by accomplished writers…all wonderfully packaged and still available in the secondary market for $50-80 in near fine or better condition. This is a proverbial no-brainer!
About the Edition
- Designed by Adrian Wilson
- Illustrated with 12 paintings by Serge Ivanoff
- Illustrations printed, in five colors, by Kellogg & Bulkeley
- Translation by Hilaire Belloc and Paul Rosenfeld
- Introduction by Padraic Colum
- 16 point Bembo text; with initials and decorative running heads are in Centaur
- Text printed in two colors, red and black
- Text composed and printed by Clarke and Way at The Thistle Press
- Oxbow laid paper specially made for this edition by The Curtis Paper Company
- Binding, by Russell-Rutter Company, consists of a red morocco leather spine stamped in gold, and cover sides of mold-made Italian paper bearing a pattern designed by Adrian Wilson and executed in gold
- 7 3/4″ x 10″, 216 pages
- Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Serge Ivanoff
Pictures of the Edition
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