Once upon a time, when King Arthur reigned in Camelot, there lived a Cornish knight, Sir Tristan, who fell hopelessly in love with his Uncle King Mark’s bride-to-be the Irish Princess Isolde. The beautiful princess too loved her handsome knight who had valiantly slain a dragon and saved her people. Because they had unknowingly ingested a strong love potion, they had a passionate love that could not be denied…

By Mahlia Lone

The popular Celtic legend of Tristan and Isolde was retold by generations of wandering minstrels who sang of the tragic lovers harkening to the 6th century. Celtic mythology scholars believe that the legend originated in Brittany, western France, which had been settled by Britons. The oral legend, known as the “vulgar” version, a representative of story-telling belonging to the Dark Ages, gave the lovers more choice in carrying out their affair.  In the refined High Middle Ages, the 12th century oAnwards the legend stressed the lovers’ honour in keeping with the chivalric and courtly Anglo-Norman literature.

The Story

King Mark of Cornwall ruled in the early 6th century with his seat at Castle Dor, near Fowey. He was the son of King Felix who died after an Irish raid on his castle at Tintagel. According to Arthurian legend, King Mark was violent, treacherous and cowardly by nature. His nephew Sir Tristan, on the other hand, stood for all the virtues of chivalry and was noble, brave and honourable. He also had a poetic soul and was a talented harp player.

King Anguish of Ireland, one of King Arthur’s earlier enemies, was defeated by Arthur in battle and the Irish ruler was forced to accept his supremacy. However, in his later battle with King Mark of Cornwall, King Anguish emerged victorious. When King Mark refused to pay King Anguish seven years back pay for his vassalage, the Irish ruler sent his champion knight Sir Morholt to forcibly extract the payment of tribute.

Sir Tristan and Sir Morholt fought in single combat in a fight to the death. Tristan killed Morholt and a broken piece of his sword remained in the latter’s fatal wound for all to see in the body when it was taken back to Ireland. Tristan too was wounded in the desperate fight. When his wound did not heal, he journeyed to Ireland in disguise so he could be healed by the Irish Princess Isolde, famed for her skill in healing. Isolde was the daughter of King Anguish and Queen Iseult the Elder.

Upon arrival, Tristan discovered that Ireland was being terrorized by a fearsome dragon. A brave and skilled knight, Sir Tristan succeeded in killing the ferocious fire-breathing dragon. In gratitude, Princess Isolde nursed him back to health after the fight. But when she found his broken sword, putting two and two together, she realized that he was the warrior who had killed Morholt, her uncle.

At first she wanted to avenge her uncle’s death, but seeing how grateful her people were to Tristan for killing the dragon that was terrorizing them and destroying their property, Isolde forgave him. Enjoying her company, Tristan lingered on at the Irish court. During his convalescence Tristan played his harp for  Isolde and gave her lessons in the instrument as a pretext to spend more time with her.

On his return to Cornwall, all he could talk about was the Irish princess. Hearing his nephew’s high praises, King Mark decided to marry Isolde himself. Loyal and obedient as a knight is duty bound to his king, Tristan had no choice but to agree to return to Ireland and seek Isolde’s hand in marriage for his uncle the king. Back in Ireland, the matrimonial proposal was accepted as an offering of alliance and Isolde was sent to Cornwall under Tristan’s care.

Tristan and Isolde had already developed feelings for each other but their well-established sense of honour prevented them from expressing themselves freely. To ensure her daughter’s marital happiness, Queen Iseult gave the princess a drink to share with her future husband Mark. It was a magic eternal love potion. During the sea voyage from Ireland to  Cornwall, Isolde and Tristan inadvertently drank the potion, not knowing what it was, and fell deeply in love.

Upon arriving in Cornwall, the royal marriage took place. But the young couple couldn’t help but still love each other. Their passionate love affair continued in secret. Since the noble Arthurian principles didn’t condone adultery, according to the story, the love potion freed Tristan and Iseult from responsibility. Mirroring the dynamics of the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle, Mark-Iseult-Tristan also all loved each other. Tristan honoured, respected, and loved King Mark as his king, mentor and father figure; Isolde owed her husband loyalty, devotion and gratitude (for his kindness to her); and Mark loved his nephew as well as his wife and felt that they were the closest to him.

A series of intrigues, plots and suspense followed. The King’s advisers warned him that Tristan and Isolde were not as innocent as they seemed. But Mark didn’t want to jeopardise the fragile truce between Ireland and Cornwall and endanger his fragile kingdom till he was sure. So King Mark, his advisers and his knights made various attempts to trap the lovers and obtain proof of their guilt.

Every night, each of the three main characters had nightmares about the future. When King Mark finally got his proof positive of the affair, he resolved to punish them as cuckolding a king was grounds for treason. Tristan was sentenced to death by hanging, while  Isolde was to be burnt at the stake. Taking pity on his young and beautiful wife, the king reduced her sentence to being sent to live in a leper colony where she could heal patients.

The dashing blade, Sir Tristan made a daring and exciting escape on his way to the gallows. He made a giant leap from the top of a chapel steeple and rescued Isolde. The lovers managed to escape into the forest of Morrois and took shelter there until they were discovered by Mark’s troops. Left with no choice, Tristan gave up Isolde, and went into exile. The King forgave Isolde.

A depressed and despairing, Tristan left Cornwall by ship for Brittany, sailing across the English Channel. There he met and married  Iseult of the White Hands because she reminded him of his Isolde. His wife was the daughter of King Hoel of Brittany, a late 5th- and early 6th-century member of the ruling dynasty of Cornouaille in northwest Brittany, and a relative and loyal ally of Arthur, who had helped him conquer Gaul (northern France). Her brother was Kahedin, also mentioned in Arthurian legend. Kahedin was also to have a love affair with Brangaine, the handmaiden of Isolde of Ireland.

Tristan did not consummate his marriage to Iseult despite her beauty as he couldn’t bear the thought of betraying his one true love.

Pining, he recklessly endangered his life riding to the aid of Kahedin his brother in arms, fell into ambush and was wounded by a poisoned lance.

There were alternating versions of how Tristan got wounded. In the Prose Tristan and works derived from it, Tristan was mortally wounded by Mark who treacherously stuck him with a poisoned lance while the latter was playing a harp for Isolde before he left for Brittany.   According to Thomas’s poetic version,  Tristan was wounded by a poisoned lance while attempting to rescue a young woman from six knights.

No one could heal Tristan’s festering wound. Much weakened and pale with loss of blood, Tristan sent Kahedin to Cornwall for Isolde as a last resort in hopes that she would be able to cure him. If she agreed to come and was on board, Kahedin would unfurl white sails on his ship, and if she did not agree the sails would be black.

In music

German composer Richard Wagner’s phenomenal opera Tristan und Isolde (1859) by German composer Richard Wagner is considered “a treatise on life rather than a musical experience” and was vastly influential, groundbreaking and revelatory. In 1924, Thomas Hardy collaborated with the British composer Rutland Boughton to adapt Hardy’s play into the opera The Queen of Cornwall (1924).

Upon Kahedin’s voyage back, Iseult, seeing the white sails, got jealous and lied to Tristan, telling him falsely that the sails were black.

Hopeless, Tristan died in misery before Isolde could reach him. Grief stricken, Isolde, swooning over her lover’s corpse, died soon after of a broken heart. Wrenched apart in life, the lovers were reunited in death.

Tristan and Isolde

in Literature

In the second half of the twelfth century, two French speaking Norman poets penned courtly lyrical romances of the popular legend of oral tradition. Thomas of Britain wrote his poem Tristan the earlier part between 11

and 1170 and latter part between 1181 and 1190 in Old French, while the Norman poet wrote his poem also called Tristan, in the Norman French dialect in 1173.

In 1227,  Tristan by Thomas  was translated by Brother Robert at the request of King Haakon Haakonson of Norway who wanted to promote the dominant Angevin-Norman (French)  culture at his court. The Nordic King commissioned the cleric to produce translations of several French Arthurian works into Old Norse, which became very popular.

Another contemporary of Béroul and Thomas, the famous French poetess Marie de France, who lived at the Medieval Norman court of Henry II, wrote a Tristan episode called Chevrefoil in one of her lais (lyrical, narrative poetry) that told the story of Tristan’s clandestine return to Cornwall in which he signaled his presence to his lady love through an inscription on a hazelnut tree branch placed on the road she would travel. The intertwined honeysuckle and hazelnut tree dies when separated, as did the two lovers. Marie’s lais were so widely read that they influenced the subsequent development of the whole romance and heroic literature genre.

Two 12th century poems in the Folies Tristan in Old French related Tristan’s return to Marc’s court disguised as a madman.  But the most important development in French Tristaniana was the Prose Tristan of the 13th and 14th century, shortly after the completion of the Vulgate Cycle (Lancelot-Grail Cycle) in the first quarter of the 13th century.

The twelve volumes long Prose Tristan included the episode of Tristan’s participation in the Quest for the Holy Grail. This had a great influence on later medieval literature, and tied the legend of Tristan and Isolde securely into Arthurian legend.

An abridged translation of the French Prose Tristan in English was Sir Thomas Malory’s The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones, in Le Morte d’Arthur  (circa 1469), which became a basis for all subsequent retellings of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table stories.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a renaissance or revival of Arthurian literature, mostly written in narrative verse occurred, which included the following: Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem The Last Tournament from Idylls of the King. The poem, set in Camelot, presented an the account of a tournament with the characters of King Arthur, his fool Dragonet and Sir Tristan. Matthew Arnold’s narrative poem Tristram and Iseult was based on romantic and tragic themes. Algernon Charles Swinburne’s long epic poem Tristram of Lyonesse retold the story in a grand style. Thomas Hardy’s one-act play The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall at Tintagel in Lyonnesse was published posthumously in 1923. Even all the way in America, poet Edward Arlington Robinson based his Pulitzer Prize winning poem Tristram on the legend.

French writer and scholar and historian of medieval France, Joseph Bédier in his edition  The Romance of Tristan and Iseult (1900) used several medieval sources to weave seamlessly a retelling of the story eloquently and with dignity. The story of the tragic lovers was also referenced in avant garde Irish writer James Joyce’s literary novel Finnegans Wake (1935).

Reunion In Death Tristan And Isolde (1881) By August Spiess
Reunion In Death Tristan And Isolde (1881) By August Spiess

Best-selling novelist Daphne du Maurier, who is from Fowey in Cornwall, finished Cornish writer Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch’s Castle Dor (1962), set in modern times but based on the original story. Prolific British author Rosalind Miles wrote a trilogy about Tristan and Isolde: The Maid of the White Hands, The Queen of the Western Isle, and The Lady of the Sea. Bengali author Sunil Gangopadhyay also based his novel Sonali Dukkho on the story.

There are many other retellings of the story written by authors in recent times.

In film

Not one, but three French silent films from the early 20th century were based on the story. A controversial Tristan film L’Éternel Retour or The Eternal Return (1943), directed by Jean Delannoy and screenplay written by Jean Cocteau, made in France during the Vichy regime, reflected Nazi ideology. Renowned French director François Truffaut adapted it to modern times in his film La Femme d’à côté or The Woman Next Door (1981). In the Shadow of the Raven (1988) was set in Viking Age Iceland. There is even an animated film version  the Tristan et Iseult (2002).

Bollywood director Subhash Ghai set the story in modern India and the United States in his musical big budget movie Pardes (1997), starring Shahrukh Khan, Mahima Chaudhary and Amrish Puri, which had the hit song I Love My India.

The most recent Tristan film was Tony Scott and Ridley Scott’s Tristan & Isolde (2006) starring James Franco and Sophia Myles.

Tristan & Isolde (c. 1845) By Rogello Egusquiza

The Tristan Stone

A Cornish granite menhir (long stone) called the The Tristan Stone still stands tall at 2.7 m and proud near the site of Castle Dor, in Fowey, Cornwall. The stone has a mid-6th century two line inscription “Here lies Drustanus, the son of Cunomorus.” A now missing third line was transcribed by the 16th century antiquarian John Leland as reading “with the lady Ousilla.” The menhir marks the story of their eternal love for times to come.

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