The Medieval Review 11.09.25

Machta, Insaf. Poétique de la ruse dans les récits tristaniens franais du XIIe siècle. Essais sur le moyen ge. Paris: Honoré Champion diteur, 2010. Pp. 380. 80 EUR. ISBN 978-2-7453-2048-3. . .

Reviewed by:

Courtney Joseph Wells
Wartburg College

As its title suggests, this book examines the thematic importance of ruse in Old French Tristan texts of the twelfth century. Although ruse as it is found in comic texts such as the fabliaux and the Roman de Renart has received considerable critical attention, its importance has not been as well represented in the study of Tristan texts. Insaf Machta explains that this is due, in part, to the privileged position that the themes of love and desire (and their incompatibility with social and moral order) hold in the Tristan stories (10). In this meticulously written and well-organized book, Machta dedicates nearly four hundred pages to the explanation and analysis of "the poetics of ruse" in the tales of Tristan. Shifting the focus of her analysis from the centrality of love to the pervasion of deception and trickery in these texts, she argues convincingly that ruse, far from having only a comic effect, serves in Tristan texts as a means of communication and recognition for Yseut and Tristan; as a structuring principle for the text; as the genesis of new episodes and adventures; and as a vehicle for ideological debate and intertextuality.

This book began as Machta's doctoral thesis at the Université de la Manouba in Tunis, written under the direction of Samir Marzouki. Marzouki fittingly writes a short, thoughtful preface to the present volume, summarizing in his own words the impact of his former student's work. Marzouki's preface also contains some fascinating personal reflections on being a scholar and a teacher of French "far from the center of the French-speaking world" (8) that I think will be of interest to French and Francophone scholars of all fields.

In her introduction, Machta defines ruse in mythic, psychological, anthropological, and literary terms, all the while pointing out the difficulties of defining a term which is, by nature, protean. Ruse is synonymous, Machta explains, with adaptation and the ability to take into account and master the concrete circumstances of any given situation (15).

While highlighting the originality of her work in her introduction, Machta signals her debt to the articles of Nancy Freeman Regalado in "Tristan and Renart: Two Tricksters" and Merritt R. Blakeslee in "Tristan the Trickster in the Old French Tristan Poems," where ruse is central to the discussion of Tristan texts. However, whereas these two articles both study Tristan as a trickster figure, neither examines the ruses employed by Yseut, the three felons, the dwarf Frocin, King Mark, or any and all of the other characters of the Tristan tales. It is this pervasion of deception and trickery that Machta labels the "poetics of ruse" in these texts. None of the characters--not even Yseut aux Blanches Mains--can keep their hands clean of it. Moreover, one finishes reading Machta's book with the impression that no action or movement is possible in these texts without some recourse to trickery.

Part One (21-146) of Machta's study is dedicated to cataloguing the different types of ruse employed by the characters of these texts. Machta classes these ruses under four headings: the ability to master one's surroundings; to avoid (or create) traps and interpret signs and signals; to exploit language and its ambiguities; and to create disguises. Each of these categories of ruse is well-represented in the Tristan corpus, and Machta's detailed analysis of how each of these stratagems functions in the text sets the stage for broader reflections on individual characters and authors. For instance, if Yseut's ruse of choice tends to be "discursive strategies," Tristan demonstrates a marked preference for disguises. Ruse is always a means to action in Béroul, while it tends to reveal the psychological and ethical motivations of characters in Thomas (91).

In Part Two (147-271), Machta explains how ruse functions within the overall structure of these texts. Those readers who have not recently read (or reread) the articles of Roland Barthes, Claude Bremond, and A. Julien Greimas in L'Analyse structurale du récit may wish to do so before reading this part, as Machta takes for granted the reader's familiarity with much of their content and their vocabulary. In her narratological approach to the Tristan corpus, Machta, with the help of Bremond's "La Logique des possibles narratifs," argues that Tristan texts are made up of sequences, which are themselves composed of three functions: a primary function, which corresponds to those moments in the text when the lovers are separated and conceive of a plan (or ruse) to be reunited; a core function, which corresponds to the accomplishment of that plan; and a final function, which closes the process with the lovers reunited. Machta clearly and convincingly demonstrates that the repetition of these sequences accounts for the episodic and repetitious nature of Tristan texts. Tristan and Yseut are constantly being separated from one another and are forever having recourse to ruse to be reunited. By comparing the narrative pattern found in the legend of Tristan with the three functions outlined by Bremond, Machta clearly demonstrates the centrality of ruse in these texts, both structurally and thematically.

Machta's application of this pattern to key moments in the Tristan corpus, however, is not always convincing. Her treatment of the episode of the eau hardie, for example, leaves one wondering how the admission of Yseut aux Blanches Mains to her brother Kaherdin that her marriage remains unconsummated constitutes a ruse. I am equally unsure that Tristan's marriage to Yseut aux Blanches Mains and his construction of the salle aux images should be considered ruses. These moments in Thomas's text do not fit well into the narrative pattern laid out by Machta and seem to stretch the definition of ruse too far.

The final pages (241-271) of Part Two are dedicated to ruses of the narrator. Beginning with Tristan's leap from the cliff-side chapel, Machta explains that the narrators of the Tristan texts often place the hero into a situation from which there is no escape and then elicit the help of forces as varied as divine intervention and blind luck to ensure the story continues. Perhaps some of Machta's most interesting conclusions about ruse can be found in her treatment of rewritings of the Tristan story. Arguing that new tales in the Middle Ages frequently use the "trick" of passing themselves off as correcting some preexisting and aberrant textual tradition or as originating from a supposed authoritative source, Machta places ruse at the heart of medieval textuality. In addition to generating new adventures within the text by facilitating the lovers' escape from certain death, ruse provides later medieval authors with the means to create new adventures for their favorite heroes. As Machta succinctly puts it in her conclusion, "Faire passer le nouveau pour de l'ancien nous semble ainsi l'une des grandes ruses du récit médiéval" (363).

Finally, in Part Three (275-357), Machta studies how competing ideologies both within and without the text can be understood through the optic of ruse. Pointing out that the lovers and their enemies alike employ ruse in these texts, Machta observes that ruse "oscillates between courteisie and felonie" (276). However, because all of the stratagems and tricks employed by the pair of lovers and their allies are qualified as cortois and those of their enemies as felon, ruse remains far from morally ambiguous in Tristan texts. Instead, it becomes a means for perceiving the clash between individual desire and social order. Through a detailed study of how Tristan and Yseut come to accept the art of compromise after the overpowering effects of the love potion wear off, Machta questions whether Tristan should rightly be considered an "anti-courtly" tale. Using Rüdiger Schnell's article "L'Amour courtois en tant que discours courtois sur l'amour" to define courtly love as a discourse on love, rather than a rigid code to be adhered to, Machta argues that the Tristan legend offers one "argument," among many others, on the nature of love. She compares Fénice's ruse in Cligès of Chrétien de Troyes with that of Yseut and argues that Fénice's disapproval of Tristan and Yseut represents a "counter- argument" inscribed in a much larger discourse on courtly love, instead of a proof that Tristan is an anti-courtly text. Machta concludes her study by examining divine intervention's role in ensuring the success of the stratagems and deceptions of the two lovers of Cornwall.

This book includes a succinct conclusion, which neatly recaps hundreds of pages of analysis. There are two indexes at the end of the volume, one of medieval authors and the other of modern, that are very helpful for finding Machta's treatment of specific authors in the Tristan corpus. These indexes, in addition to a detailed table of contents and clear chapter headings included in the text, make it easy for those scholars who are interested only in certain episodes, texts, or authors to find Machta's treatment of them without having to hunt.

Machta's choice of texts and editions goes without any substantial explanation. From the title we are to infer that she has chosen to study the romances of Béroul and Thomas d'Angleterre, the shorter anonymous Folies Tristan of Berne and Oxford, and Marie de France's Lai du Chèvrefeuille because these are all twelfth- century texts. When quoting from these texts, Machta uses the editions and translations found in the Bibliothèque de la Pléïade volume overseen by Christiane Marchello-Nizia. She frequently confronts the Pléïade edition's translations with those made by Philippe Walter in his edition of these works, and occasionally proposes translations of her own. Machta does not discuss the textual variants or methods of edition of either of these volumes.

La Poétique de la ruse should be well-greeted by students and specialists of Tristan alike for its thorough and stimulating analysis of the importance of ruse in Tristan texts. If Machta does occasionally stretch the definition of ruse in order to analyze interesting passages of the Tristan legend that would not otherwise fit in a study on ruse, the reader is most often inclined to indulge these digressions, owing to the finesse and intelligence of her analysis. Although I would like to have seen the comic effects of ruse in Tristan further analyzed, Machta quite successfully demonstrates that ruse does not only serve comic ends, but tragic ones, as well. By doing so, Machta has paved the way for further studies on the importance of ruse in medieval texts.