Wiki characterises this as ‘a children’s novel’, which feels odd to me. It’s somewhat simplistic and it’s a novella, but it’s not really terribly child-friendly? Like, I wouldn’t call The Stranger a kid’s book because the prose is stripped back. This Tristan and Iseult isn’t so obviously child-inappropriate as that, but neither can I see the youth clamouring for it. I suppose it feels possibly YA or New Adult in that the protagonists are youngish for much of the action? It’s not precisely clear how old they are by the story’s end/their deaths (Arthuriana spoilers). But sometimes we say a thing is ‘for children’ when what we mean is simply that it’s not long or deeply complex (which is, obviously, a bit crap as a generic description).
This was a light, pleasant read, but it’s a bit overshadowed by the skill and beauty of TH White’s psychological approach and prose. It does behove writers and critics to ask themselves what a contribution aims to do differently, to expand on, to rethink in a subfield that includes Once and Future King, because you’re never not going to have that signal reworking in mind. White does cut the Tristan arc to keep Lancelot and Guinevere’s story-line neat (as-is, Malory crams in two confusing, conflicting major Iseults, and Sutcliff follows suit), to make it work as a piece of psychological realism/a moral question. Thus Sutcliff is giving something to modern Arthuriana reworking here by even attempting this tale. Yet I sort of wish she’d thrown herself into the project more? I’ve not yet read anything else by her, I just felt a sense of limitation here. Nothing in this reworking really took me.
That may be related to how uninterested this novel is in charm as an affect. You don’t get a sense of it from the characters or their doomed love, from the world or moments in the text, or in the relationship it’s trying to stage with its readers. This, along with the story’s unalleviated central concerns–doomed, unhappy love and sad, crunching betrayals that ruin male-male relationships and lives, also makes it hard to think of this as a children’s book. Tristan and Iseult is a blue-gray sort of story, cold and sparsely populated, shot through and sometimes illuminated by the strange copper-blood-purple red of Iseult’s often-referenced hair. It picks up a little on the feeling of some patches of Malory, and slightly anticipates Ishiguro’s Buried Giant. There’s some magic here, but of a constrained variety. The dwarf’s star-gazing could be a kind of Hild-like careful processing. There’s a dragon, but it might be any really threatening mundane animal–its effects are near-identical to those of a series of human conflicts over Iseult of the White Hands/territory.
There were quite good elements. That hair, and a time Tristan feels deeply disgusted with Iseult and himself for living a lie and betraying King Marc, and Marc himself, who does honestly love them both. But that itself was frustrating, because (and a friend joked this impulse was very MZB, and fair cop) you did just want them to work out some amenable arrangement, het or queer, nephew/uncle or no, and halt the slow, pointless death-waltz of the oncoming plot.
I often get irked when people even joke that complicated relationships should be resolved, melted down, into the crucible of a threesome, because it seems a stupid way to think about relationship issues and plots, intent on liquidating productive or necessary tensions via artificial means. A threesome could and should have all the tensions of its constituent relationships. But there are some tensions that call for resolutions between characters on grounds of greater and more life-altering intimacy than heteronormative plot structures are prepared to allow. There are also ‘marriage plot’ problems that strike you as more of the moment of their writing than trans-temporal, describing the period they depict and speaking to the present reader. With more embedded social and psychological writing, Sutcliffe might have sold me on the painful irresolubility of the characters’ situation by walking me through it. As is, I’m just ‘why not both?’ing. Or rather, the problem is that Iseult doesn’t love Marc–that’s the central imbalance here. But then I know very little about their relationship, from her perspective. I don’t know the dimensions of their marriage, and what possibilities it affords.
I like and respect that Iseult of Cornwall née Ireland’s an intelligent but difficult woman, who makes Iseult of the White Hands roll her eyes with good reason at the concussion (‘I loved him mooooost’ ‘well idk about that bitch, but he loved YOU more, so sure, be First Wife’). Sutcliff’s decision to eschew the ‘doomed to love one another by fate/an accident with a magical cup’ impetus feels like a good one, but it cuts down on another wonder-element of the text and really, how different was her treatment for having made this change? She wants an irresistible, quick-setting, not deeply motivated pull between these characters (who have reason to be drawn to one another, she just doesn’t end up illustrating this process all that much) and she gets it, cup or no. Sometimes the Olde Timey Celtic dialogue feels odd and lumpy, which is all the odder because there’s little dialogue in the book. I don’t know how self-consistent this dialogue feels, and I wonder what sources she’s drawing from here. The first half works better for me than the second, which meanders a bit. This is somewhat consistent with the source material, but then she’s shaping this telling, so I do hold her a bit accountable.
A solid, middle of the road sort of book, but I’m not sure there’s a reader who’ll LOVE it. At least it doesn’t feel as awful, forced and unnecessary as all the on-trend ‘my publisher made me do it’ fairy tale retellings glutting the market.