Marie has often heard recited the lay called “Chevrefoil,” which concerns Tristram and Queen Iseult and their pure love, which caused them distress and eventually brought about their deaths. King Mark, knowing that his nephew Tristram loves the queen, angrily dismisses him from court. So, Tristram goes back to his home region of South Wales, but because he can’t satisfy his desires for the queen, he’s terribly depressed.
At 118 lines, “Chevrefoil” is the shortest of the Lais. Stories of Tristram and Iseult were told all over Europe, and Marie would have expected her audience to be familiar with them. Tristram, or Tristan as he’s known in other versions, was charged with bringing Iseult from Ireland to marry his uncle, King Mark. On the way, the two drank a love potion that caused them to fall desperately in love. They concealed this at first, but their affair eventually led to Tristram’s banishment from Mark’s court. Marie likely drew on other Tristram poems as a source for this story.
Finally, Tristram leaves Wales for Cornwall, where Iseult lives. He travels secretly through the forest, only emerging at night to lodge with peasants and poor people. His hosts tell him the latest news about the king. Recently, the king has summoned his barons to Tintagel for a big festival at Pentecost; the queen will be there. Tristram knows the queen’s procession will pass by him on its way, so on the appointed day, he excitedly hides in the woods. While he waits, he whittles his name into a hazel branch. He and the queen have used this signal before, and he knows she’ll recognize it. Tristram and the queen resemble honeysuckle that winds itself around a hazel branch. If left attached, both the honeysuckle and the hazel can survive; if separated, both will die.
Marie emphasizes the characters’ lovesickness—their emotional longing for each other and their inability to fulfill those longings, chiefly because of Iseult’s marriage and Tristram’s banishment from court. Lovesickness, and the fact that their rendezvous will inevitably be brief, makes Tristram’s anticipation even more poignant. Poor people seldom show up in Marie’s lays, but in this case, Tristram’s association with them highlights his outcast status. “Chevrefoil” means honeysuckle, and the hazel and honeysuckle obviously symbolize the lovers and their longed-for intimacy.
As Iseult rides along, she spots the hazel branch and commands her retinue to stop. She ventures into the woods and finds Tristram, and they enjoy a long talk together. The queen tells Tristram how to be reconciled to King Mark, who hadn’t really wanted to banish him. Then, with many tears, they part ways. Tristram returns to Wales to wait for his uncle’s summons. A skilled harpist, Tristram also composes a lay about the joy of seeing his beloved—the English call it Gotelef and the French Chevrefoil.
This is just a snapshot from the larger tradition of Tristram and Iseult chivalric romance; not much happens. Yet the longing and the fleeting, secretive reunion in the forest capture some of that tradition’s most characteristic emotions. It ends with sadness, yet also the hope that Tristram might be able to see his beloved once again. It also shows that, as plenty of other lays have made clear, adulterous affairs weren’t frowned on where true love was concerned—or, at least, stories provided a safe outlet for such relationships.