The Prose Tristan is an adaptation of the Tristan and Iseult story into a long prose romance, and the first to tie the subject entirely into the arc of the Arthurian legend. It was also the first major Arthurian prose cycle commenced after the widely popular Lancelot-Grail (Vulgate Cycle), which influenced especially the later portions of the Prose Tristan.
According to the prologue, the first part of the book (i.e. everything before the Grail material) is attributed to the otherwise unknown Luce de Gat, and were probably begun between 1230 and 1235. The work was expanded and reworked sometime after 1240. In the epilogue, a second author names himself as "Helie de Boron," asserting that he is the nephew of the first author of the Arthurian Grail cycles, poet Robert de Boron. Helie de Boron claims, like the so-called authors of the Roman de la Rose, to have picked up the story where Luce left off. Neither the biographies of the two authors, nor the claim that they had been translating the work from a Latin original are taken seriously by scholars.
The first part of the work stays closer to the traditional story as told by verse writers like Béroul and Thomas of Britain, but many episodes are reworked or altered entirely. Tristan's parents are given new names and backstories, and the overall tone has been called "more realistic" than the verse material though there are moments where characters sing. Tristan's guardian Governal takes him to France, where he grows up at the court of King Pharamond. He later arrives at the court of his uncle Mark, King of Cornwall, and defends his country against the Irish warrior Morholt. Wounded in the fight, he travels to Ireland where he is healed by Iseult, a renowned doctor and Morholt's niece, but he must flee when the Irish discover he has killed their champion. He later returns, in disguise, to seek Iseult as a bride for his uncle. When they accidentally drink the love potion prepared for Iseult and Mark, they engage in a tragic affair that ends with Tristan being banished to the court of Hoel of Brittany. He eventually marries Hoel's daughter, also named Iseult.
Especially after this point, however, the traditional narrative is continually interrupted for side adventures by the various characters and episodes serving to "Arthurianize" the story. Notably, Tristan's rivalry with the Saracen knight Palamedes is given substantial attention. Additionally, in the long version, Tristan leaves Brittany and returns to his first love, and never sees his wife again, though her brother Kahedin remains his close companion. Tristan is compared frequently to his friend Lancelot in both arms and love, and at times even unknowingly engages him in battles. He becomes a Knight of the Round Table (taking Morholt's old seat) and embarks on the Quest for the Holy Grail before abandoning the idea to stay with Iseult at Lancelot's castle.
The Grail Quest has been a source of controversy regarding the Tristan en prose. Instead of writing new material, the author chose to insert (or interpolate) the entire Queste del Saint Graal from the Vulgate Cycle into the Tristan story. The result of this copying undermines the sanctity of the Vulgate Quest itself. Manuscripts which do not include the Grail material preserve the earlier version of the lovers' deaths, while the longer versions have Mark kill Tristan while he plays the harp for Iseult, only to see her die immediately afterwards.
Before any modern editions of the Prose Tristan were attempted, scholars were dependent on an extended summary and analysis of all the manuscripts by Eilert Löseth in 1890 (republished in 1974). Of the modern editions, the long version is made up of two editions: one edited by Renée L. Curtis and the other by Philippe Ménard. Curtis' edition of a simple manuscript (Carpentras 404) covers Tristan's ancestry and the traditional legend up to Tristan's madness. However, the massive amount of manuscripts in existence dissuaded other scholars from attempting what Curtis had done until Ménard hit upon the idea of using multiple teams of scholars to tackle the infamous Vienna 2542 manuscript. His edition follows from Curtis', includes Tristan's participation in the Quest for the Holy Grail and ends with Tristan and Iseult's death and the first signs of Arthur's fall. Richard Trachsler is currently preparing an edition of the "continuation" of the Prose Tristan. The shorter version, which contains no Grail Quest, is published by Joël Blanchard in five volumes.
Though part of the larger prose cycles, which dominated all things Arthurian after the early 13th century, the originality of the Tristan en prose is found in the author's use of lyrical poems to express characters' hopes, despair or anger. Various books and articles have studied the lyrical content of the Prose Tristan whether expressed as riddles in verse, letters in verse, songs of mockery or love songs. In this way, the Prose Tristan functions like a musical. Characters placed in extreme situations actually "break into song." All of this is appropriate considering Tristan's traditional link to poetry.
The Prose Tristan had a huge effect on subsequent medieval literature and treatments of the Arthurian legend. Characters like Palamedes, Dinadan, and Lamorak, all of whom first appear in the Tristan, achieved popularity in later works. The pagan knight Palamedes even lent his name to the Romance of Palamedes, a later work that expands on episodes from the Tristan. This material is also preserved in the Compilation of Rustichello da Pisa and numerous later redactions in several languages. The Prose Tristan also influenced the Post-Vulgate Cycle, the next major prose treatment of the Arthurian mythos, and served as the source for the Tristan section of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.
- Renée Curtis, The Romance of Tristan, p. xvii.
- Baumgartner, Emmanuèle (1958). “Luce de Gast et Hélie de Boron, le chevalier et l’écriture”. In Romania 106 (1985): 326-340; Curtis, Renée L. (1958). “The Problems of the Authorship of the Prose Tristan”. In Romania LXXIX (1958): 314-38.
- Renée Curtis, The Romance of Tristan, pp. xxii–xxv.
- Controversially, Tristan does not fall in love with Iseult "love at first sight." Instead, he falls in love with her because the pagan knight Palamedes falls in love with her first.
- Busby, Keith (1991). "Prose Tristan." In Norris J. Lacy (Ed.), The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, pp. 374–375. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
- The interpolation of the Vulgate Queste begins in Volume 6 of Ménard's edition. On the Medieval technique of manuscript interpolation, see Emmanuèle Baumgartner, "La préparation à la Queste del Saint Graal dans le Tristan en prose" in Norris Lacy, ed. Conjunctures (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994), pp. 1-14, Fanni Bogdanow, "L'Invention du texte, intertextualité et le problème de la transmission et de la classification de manuscrits" Romania 111 (190): 121-40 and Janina P. Traxler, "The Use and Abuse of the Grail Quest" Tristania 15 (1994): 23-31. Gaston Paris, in 1897, also noted the interpolation of a verse romance of Brunor in Prose Tristan.
- Curtis, Renée L., ed. Le Roman de Tristan en prose, vols. 1-3 (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1963-1985)
- Ménard, Philippe exec. ed. Le Roman de Tristan en Prose, vols. 1-9 (Geneva: Droz, 1987-1997).
- Lods, Jeannee (1955). "Les parties lyriques du Tristan en prose" in Bulletin Bibliographique de la Société International Arthurienne 7: 73-78.
- Fotitch, T. and Steiner, R. (1974). Les Lais du Roman de Tristan en Prose. Munich.
- Curtis, Renée L. (Ed.) (1963–1985). Le Roman de Tristan en prose, vols. 1-3. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.
- Curtis, Renée L. (translator) (1994). The Romance of Tristan. Oxford. ISBN 0-19-282792-8.
- Lacy, Norris J. (Ed.) (1991). The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland. ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
- Ménard, Philippe (Ed.) (1987–1997). Le Roman de Tristan en Prose, vols. 1-9. Geneva: Droz.