Thoughts on Rereading a Tale of High Passion

Ah, my heart! my heart! It is weary without her.
I would that I were as the winds which play about her!
For here I waste and I sicken, and nought is fair
To mine eyes: nor night with stars in her clouded hair,
Nor all the whitening ways of the stormy seas,
Nor the leafy twilight trembling under the trees:
But mine hands crave for her touch, mine eyes for her sight,
My mouth for her mouth, mine eyes for her foot-falls light,
And my soul would drink of her soul through every sense,
Thirsting for her, as earth, in the heat intense,
For the soft song and the gentle dropping of rain.
But I sit here as a smouldering fire of pain,
Lonely, here! And the wind in the forest grieves,
And I hear my sorrow sobbing among the leaves.

Frederic Manning, “Tristram”

That’s the quote prefacing the current chapter of Yseult that I’m editing, and I think in many ways it sums up why I have a penchant for love stories that end tragically. I mean, when it comes down to it, there’s nothing like the longing of star-crossed lovers, the intensity, the exponential emotional arithmetics. Of course, no one actually wants to live like that long term, which is why stories such as Tristan and Isolde or Romeo and Juliet have to end tragically. If the lovers somehow managed to trick fate and come up with a happy ending despite all odds, then they would have to deal with such mundane things as taking out the garbage, or less mundane conflicts like seven year itches or how to deal with all the forces they tricked in the first place. Either way, it would be a distraction from high passion. Constant high passion can only exist in an artificial situation that prevents the onset of habit, whether that habit turns into comfortable companionship or boredom. That is one of the themes of Yseult, one of the reasons I wrote the novel in the first place, to examine high passion and why it fascinates me so much (and not only me).

But despite my weakness for tragic love stories, in writing Yseult I wanted to make the cost of high passion one of my themes, wanted to provide an alternative. One of the subplots concerns a love that grows slowly and cautiously, without the drama of a love story that will be told over and over again for more than a thousand years.

I submit: quiet love is the kind of love most of us strive for, even while we are fascinated by crash-and-burn stories a la Tristan and Isolde, yearning for such overwhelming passion.

I don’t know if I got the balance right in Yseult, but at least I have had several readers who understood what I was trying to achieve with the secondary love story. The contrast is integral to my retelling of the ancient tale, older than Lancelot and Guinevere, Romeo and Juliet. It’s the reason I couldn’t change the outcome and give the story a happy ending, like First Knight did for Lancelot and Guinevere. As fascinating as we find high passion, it is at odds with comfort, and it demands a very high price in nerves and pain. I admit, part of me was a little tempted to give Yseult and Drystan a happy ending, but only a little bit. I was half in love with Drystan myself. In a lot of ways he’s closer to me than Yseult — I even gave him my birthday. But for me, a happy ending would have been a cop out. And the fact that it would have been a betrayal of the many versions of the tale that came before me is only part of it. I’m sure I don’t understand all of my motives in telling the story the way I did, and those I do understand are definitely contradictory, but perhaps they come down to this: addictive love is exhilarating, but long term, it’s exhausting and nerve-wracking and it can’t last. High passion might be able to mutate into something more comfortable, but that is not the story that has been told over and over again for centuries.

I’m not as far in re-reading and doing additional editing on Yseult as I wanted to be, but I’m also still waiting for the first suggestions from the cover artist. Maybe we’re both being waylaid by Christmas — which is not necessarily such a bad thing, after all. Christmas is fun, especially when it involves children and grandchildren. Which have little to do with grand passion but a lot to do with living an exceedingly content life.

I wish all who read this a very happy holiday season, largely devoid of high passion — except, of course, for the most pleasant kind.

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