Love letters: were Tristan and Iseult Persian?

Books Was the story of Tristan and Iseult, famous in the West as a tale of doomed passion, actually borrowed from a Persian love poem? Kanishk Tharoor wanders the strange forest where stories travel across cultures.

The Marriage of Tristan and Iseult, a 19th-century stained glass design by Edward Coley Burne-Jones.
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Was the story of Tristan and Iseult, famous in the West as a tale of doomed passion, actually borrowed from a Persian love poem? Kanishk Tharoor wanders the strange forest where stories travel across cultures. Vis and Ramin Fakhraddin Gorgani (translated from the Persian by Dick Davis) Penguin Classics Dh62 We are very familiar today with the transmission and appropriation of stories around the globe. From the films of Akira Kurosawa (like Ran, which recasts Shakespeare's King Lear in feudal Japan) to Opera Jawa (an Indonesian musical version of the Indian epic the Ramayana), recent decades have witnessed the accelerating migration of narrative across cultural borders. But in this globalised age, it is far too easy to forget the links and exchanges that have bound the world since antiquity. This older movement of stories is far more difficult to track.

In the deep past, trails of parchment and ink plunge into strange forests or disappear altogether, abandoning the lonely scholar in a wilderness of unknowing. How does one, for example, understand the gluttonous Cyclops, whose swollen eye appeared famously in Homer's Odyssey, in the adventures of Sindbad in the Arabian Nights, and in disparate places across the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Central Asia? Did the story of the Cyclops spread from Homeric myth to the world at large? Or did Odysseus's Cyclops stalk the imaginations of Mediterranean Greeks at the same time as a similar beast lurked in the shadows and nightmares beyond the campfires of the Central Asian steppes?

Such uncertainties make all the more intriguing the fresh translation of Vis and Ramin, a love poem originally composed in the 11th century by the Persian poet Fakhraddin Gorgani. While very much rooted in the world of its composition, Vis and Ramin bears striking similarities to Tristan and Iseult, the chivalric tale of doomed romance thought to have been first written by the French poet Beroul in the 12th century. Tristan and Iseult remains influential in western culture, having inspired many re-imaginings, an opera by Wagner and a handful of films, most recently an unfortunate and utterly abject Hollywood flop produced by Ridley Scott.

Since the turn of the 19th century, some European scholars have mooted a possible direct connection between Beroul's tale and Vis and Ramin, arguing that they bear too many resemblances to be merely coincidental. Speculation persists despite the lack of evidence of textual transmission. Dick Davis, the translator and editor of the new edition of Vis and Ramin, suggests a novel etymological connection, arguing that the name "Iseult" could have been a natural growth of the name "Vis" after a journey through the Persian, Arabic and French pronunciations.

Both Vis and Ramin and Tristan and Iseult are poems of courtly love under duress. They feature love triangles involving a curmudgeonly monarch (Mobad in the former, Mark in the latter), his young and beautiful wife (Vis and Iseult), and her strapping lover (Ramin and Tristan) who happens to be the monarch's brother or close relative. The poems evoke parallel worlds of princely activity, where nobles spend their days in utopian decadence, scouring the hills and woods on the hunt, gorging on a universe of flesh in daily banquets, and drinking gurgling rivers of wine, all under the benign gaze of fawning doe-eyed ladies. This idyll is disrupted by illicit romance. The hero falls for the heroine; the feudal principle of loyalty to one's liege is trumped by transcendent love. Readers may be surprised by the suggestion that this familiar European milieu of opulence and passion could be traced to Iran, a country more associated today with austere religiosity than sensual luxury.

The two tales also emerged in and engaged with similar historical contexts. Gorgani wrote his poem three centuries after the conquest of Iran by Muslim forces. The intervening period witnessed the conversion of most of the Persian-speaking world to Islam and the interweaving of Arab and Persian literary and poetic traditions. Yet Gorgani made a very conscious turn to the past, with the repeated invocation of pre-Muslim Zoroastrian deities and demons, of fire temples, and of other aspects of pagan worship and tradition. Alongside Ferdousi's Shahnameh (the famous Persian "Book of Kings" written around the turn of the 11th century), Vis and Ramin projected a growing sense of Iranian identity in the Muslim era.

In Britain, Tristan and Iseult also facilitated a turn to the mythic past at the behest of a groping idea of nationhood. The poem takes place in Cornwall in southwest England and Brittany in northwest France, realms of pagan fantasy and adventure. It occupies the same legendary landscape as the tales of King Arthur and Merlin. After the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the Anglo-French rulers of their newly conquered land appealed to the myth and magic of such tales, which rooted a distinctive sense of identity in the indigenous, pre-conquest past.

While still a celebrated and fairly well-known tale, Vis and Ramin occupies a peculiar position in the Persian canon. Gorgani's lovers are small figures in a pantheon of giants. From Turkey to India, it is couples of poetic renown like Shirin and Khusrau or Laila and Majnun who embody the joy and anguish of love. Davis, an accomplished and well-respected scholar of Persian poetry, argues that what sets Vis and Ramin apart from its more illustrious rivals is its lack of spiritual timbre, its paucity of religious metaphors. The most well-known versions of the tales of Shirin and Khusrau and Laila and Majnun reach mystical heights, where the love between woman and man becomes allegorical for the love of God. This is unimaginable for Vis and Ramin, whose love is mired in the luxuries, jealousies and carnal longings of the mortal world, ensconced in unimaginable wealth, buffeted by the most extreme emotions. Theirs is a poem encumbered by human excess.

Davis's fluent translation plunges the reader into the tenor and texture of the world of the poem. By reproducing its rhyming couplets - the hallmark of much Persian poetry - he retains the driving rhythm of the original. One can almost hear the drumbeat behind this description of a battle: Some men were lions seeking out their prey, And some wild asses as they ran away, Some were like mountain sheep that tried to flee,

And some like cheetahs in their savagery Even in English, the language remains lush, especially in Gorgani's descriptions of beauty and the experience of love. Woman long for men "whose curls were like black grapes, and whose complexion / Was grape juice that's fermented to perfection." Vis's beauty encompasses the world: Like some pale Western king, her face was white; Her braids were guards, dressed blackly as the night,

And, like a royal African's, her hair Glowed from her cheeks bright torches, burning there These sorts of analogies come and thick and fast, and at times may try the patience of modern readers. Little in our era of psychological austerity prepares us for Gorgani's ornamental, "jewelled" style, which Davis faithfully reproduces. Ramin weeps so much that his tears turn the earth into mud. Vis claws at her face and breasts in frenzies of longing, mingling blood with the water of her tears. Gorgani thrusts us into a world of musky emotions and secret smells, a world as saturated with poetry as his poem is saturated with the world.

This worldliness distances Vis and Ramin from Tristan and Iseult. Though versions of the latter can reach lofty heights of emotion and tragedy, it is still far more clipped, balancing the passions of courtly romance with an intrinsic Christian moderation. The tragic demise of Tristan and Iseult (versions vary in the manner of their death, but they always die) suggests a kind of conservative truth - that feudal loyalty cannot be tested, that the world cannot accommodate true love.

The opposite occurs in Vis and Ramin. After they suffer greatly, Gorgani puts an end to the misery of the lovers by killing off King Mobad in a freak hunting accident. The couple takes power and lives happily ever after. Not only has love won the day, but the overflowing language of the poem sustains - rather than rebukes - the aspirations of the lovers. Whatever the real connections between the two texts, Vis and Ramin's logic of joy may well have been incommunicable. One can imagine a version of the Iranian tale wending its way to a dark and drafty English monastery, where the cassocked monk - overwhelmed by the emotions, the desolation of longing, the euphoria of love - shook his head and thought to himself: Only in Iran.

Kanishk Tharoor, a regular contributor to The Review, is associate editor at openDemocracy.