Tristan and Isolde - a tragic story of forbidden love.
The medieval romance of Tristan and Isolde.
The tragic love story of Tristan (variously Tristram, Drustanus) and Isolde (variously Iseult, Yseult, Iseut, Yseut) has come down to us in many variations through the ages from its original medieval legend.
It pre-dates the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere and many believe that some elements were taken from the story of Tristan and Isolde for use in the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere by Sir Thomas Malory when he wrote the romance 'Le Morte d'Arthur' in the 1400's.
There are two major versions of Tristan and Isolde and on many points the two accounts diverge. Because this makes for an 'according to Beroul/according to Thomas' situation, I have tried to steer a middle path and simplify the story down to its main components.
Despite such editing, this story of an inadvertent and forbidden love still has the power to thrill and move the reader and it is easy to see how it has endured for well over a thousand years.
Placing the love story in time.
Whilst it is difficult to give an exact date to the events and characters in the story, it is known that one of the major characters, King Mark (Cornish: Margh), was in fact a king of Cornwall, or Kernow as it is still known in Cornish, during the early 6th century.
It seems entirely possible that the story was handed down by the oral bardic tradition of story-telling, or by written records, now lost, before being made into the courtly romances by French poets, Beroul and Thomas, who were possibly working from now-missing manuscripts in the 12th century.
A further tantalising fact as to the truth beneath this enduring legend is the strange remains of a 6th century standing stone just outside Fowey on the south coast of Cornwall carved with the Latin memorial inscription 'Drustanus Hic Lacit Cunomori Filius', meaning 'Drustanus lies here, son of Cunomorus'.
Historians believe that Drustanus is the latinised name for Tristan and there is some ancient evidence that Cunomorus, which means Hound of the Sea, is another name for King Mark. (See photographs below).
If there is any truth in this it would make Tristan the son of King Mark rather than his nephew as in the stories. It would also make another version of the legend that states that Tristan was treacherously stabbed and killed by King Mark even more poignant.
Perhaps the seven foot stone memorial was erected to ease a guilty conscience and in his remorse Mark alluded to Tristan as his 'son' as he had named him his heir. Sadly, we will never know for sure.
Love by misadventure.
Tristan first comes to live at the court of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, after the death of his mother, Blancheflor, the king's sister, in Brittany. At first he conceals his identity preferring to act simply as a huntsman for the king but Tristan's true identity is revealed when his foster father, Roald, comes to the court and produces Blancheflor's ring to prove the boy's identity.
King Mark is overjoyed at the news and heaps many honours on Tristan, who now becomes one of the king's knights. In time he is elevated to being the king's champion, the knight who challenges the king's enemies to single combat on the king's behalf.
It is as king's champion that he comes to challenge Morholt (Marhaus), a powerful Irish duke and brother-in-law of Goram, the King of Ireland. Morholt demands that tribute (usually gold) be paid to Goram by King Mark. Paying tribute was a well known tactic in ancient times for buying off attacks on one's kingdom.
This of course was an insufferable insult to Mark and Tristan offers to fight Morholt on Mark's behalf. Morholt however is reputed to be a giant and when he accepts Tristan's challenge he is also devious enough to smear his sword with poison.
The two meet for combat on the island of St Samson, which is now just called Samson, one of the Isles of Scilly, off the westernmost tip of Cornwall. Once he lands Tristan burns his boat, presumably in a brazen display of confidence designed to unnerve his opponent, the implication being that he would take Morholt's boat after he had taken Morholt's life.
Although Tristan does kill Morholt after an epic duel, he too is left badly injured with a poisoned wound and is told that the only person skilful enough to heal him is Isolde the Elder, the mother of the Isolde of this story and more importantly, Morholt's sister and the wife of Goram, King of Ireland; a lady who is hardly likely to want to help heal her brother's killer.
Tristan dons a disguise.
To get round this vastly inconvenient fact Tristan disguises himself as a minstrel and calling himself Tantris, goes to the Irish court and is healed by Isolde the Elder.
In some versions it is her daughter, also called Isolde, but known at 'The Fair' for obvious reasons, who heals Tristan in his guise as Tantris. During his convalescence he spends a lot of time with Isolde the Fair and teaches her to play the harp.
Once healed Tristan returns to Cornwall and resumes his position as King Mark's champion. The king becomes very proud of Tristan and makes him his heir which does not go down at all well with the King's noblemen, who are jealous of the King's regard for Tristan.
However, because they are afraid of Tristan's prowess in combat, they dare not challenge him so they try another angle and encourage the king to marry and thus produce what they consider to be a more appropriate heir. King Mark is astute enough to be aware of their dislike for Tristan and steadfastly refuses to contemplate marriage ... until he sees a golden hair held in the beak of a bird.
Then, contrarily, he announces that he will only marry the woman this golden tress belongs to and that is when Tristan, fatefully, tells his uncle of the glorious beauty of Isolde the Fair, daughter of the King of Ireland. King Mark decides that such a woman must be his, though on the face of it such a marriage would seem to be an impossibility as Cornwall and Ireland were still sworn enemies.
Perhaps the truth is more prosaic and that in trying for such an alliance King Mark was simply trying to cement some sort of tentative truce between the two kingdoms, another common tactic of the day.
Tristan is sent to the Irish court.
The noblemen prevail upon King Mark to send Tristan as ambassador to the Irish king, ostensibly to get him to agree to the marriage but hoping that the Irish will simply kill Tristan out of hand. However they have greatly underestimated Tristan's powers of persuasion and the match is agreed.
So Tristan sets out to bring Isolde back to King Mark when Fate steps in. Isolde's mother, wisely thinking Isolde is unlikely to fall in love with a king who is much older than herself, uses her skills with herbs to concoct a potion for Isolde to drink on her wedding night.
It is a love potion and having drunk it Isolde will fall in love with King Mark and thus her marriage should stand some chance of being successful. The queen gives it to Brangwain, Isolde's maid servant, to give to Isolde at the appropriate time.
The love potion is drunk.
However, as Tristan is escorting Isolde back to Cornwall by sea both he and Isolde, being thirsty, inadvertently drink the wine in which the love potion is mixed and fall irrevocably in love. Unable to contain their passion for one another, they consummate their love heedless of the fact that there will be the apparently insurmountable problem of her missing virginity on her wedding night.
This may appear shocking during a time of the troubadours stories of courtly love when the object of one's desire was usually desperately unattainable but the accidental drinking of a love potion at once takes away all blame for their behaviour. Thus Tristan can still be regarded as an honourable knight who loves his king and Isolde as a virtuous woman. They are simply tragic through no fault of their own.
With regard to her missing maidenhood, Isolde seems to have been a resourceful girl and on the wedding night, in King Mark's bed, under the cover of darkness, she swaps places with Brangwain, her maid. So Brangwain sacrifices her own virginity on behalf of her mistress and King Mark, finding Isolde in his bed in the morning, has no reason to believe that he has not consummated his marriage to her.
But as time passes the strain of hiding such an overwhelming and adulterous love tells on Tristan and Isolde. Many times they are close to being caught and eventually the noblemen of the court suspect the couple enough to beg the king to ask Isolde a question that they know will condemn her.
It is a question taken under oath and it is designed to trap both her and Tristan. If she answers with a lie she will endanger her immortal soul (a terrifying prospect in those days) and if she tells the truth King Mark will demand their blood.
An ambiguous answer.
Once more Isolde shows her cleverness and suspecting what she may be asked by the king she sends word to Tristan to disguise himself as a leper and be waiting on the riverbank when she lands from the ferry to meet with King Mark.
As the ferry draws close to the bank she calls to this apparent 'leper' and lifting her skirt to stop it getting wet she commands the leper to carry her piggyback from the ferry to the bank. The fortuitous leper, Tristan, then rapidly disappears from view as Isolde goes on her way to meet with the king.
So it is then, under oath, that Isolde can truly swear that she has had no man between her legs other than King Mark and some anonymous leper who helped her onto the riverbank.
One can almost imagine her laugh as she remembers at the last minute to include this apparently inconsequential event. It is a cunningly ambiguous but truthful answer and King Mark believes her, proving that even that long ago men still grievously underestimated women.
King Mark - victim or villain?
King Mark has been described in various ways by the chroniclers. In such a lusty age he has been variously despised or pitied for being a gullible cuckold or applauded or vilified for being a vengeful and ruthless man. A late legend even has him as a murderous villain handy with a knife.
It seems possible that in the violence of the early Dark Ages when these events are reputed to have happened he may well have been a complex character displaying all of these traits but all of the stories do seem to agree on one point, he seems to have given Tristan and Isolde the benefit of the doubt many times.
Finally, however, their luck runs out and they are caught, in flagrante. No doubt feeling utterly betrayed by the woman he loves and the man whom he has honoured above all others, King Mark orders Tristan to be hung and Isolde to be burned at the stake. Echoes of this are found in the later tales of King Arthur with Lancelot and Guinevere being threatened with the same fate.
As in that story Tristan also escapes from captivity but returns to rescue Isolde, who, according to at least one account, has had her fate commuted from burning to being given over, imaginatively, to the tender mercies of sex-starved lepers instead. Fortunately for her Tristan rescues her in the nick of time.
Treachery or Forgiveness?
Amongst the many endings to this tale is the story that King Mark finds the lovers and stabs Tristan as he is playing his harp for Isolde in the forest where they live in hiding. Could this crime of passion be the true ending that prompted the erecting of the memorial stone at Fowey near the Cornish Coast, a point intriguingly close to Castle Dore, the reputed site of King Mark's palace?
The banishment of Tristan.
The more familiar ending is that King Mark relents and forgives the couple on the understanding that Tristan returns to his native homeland of Brittany forever and never sees Isolde again and Isolde resumes her position as queen and consort.
This the couple agree to do and, after a sad parting, Tristan goes to live in Brittany where he later marries yet another Isolde, known as White Hands. It isn't long however before his wife realises where Tristan's love still really lies and this knowledge, with the jealousy it engenders, is to have fatal repercussions.
The deaths of Tristan and Isolde.
As with the story of King Mark's mercy for the lovers, the story of the deaths of Tristan and Isolde also vary. The most romantic one is that Tristan is mortally wounded in some minor battle and he sends for Isolde the Fair knowing only she can heal him. He asks that if she is coming to help him she gives a sign of it early on by having the ship he is sending for her rigged with white sails. But if she intends not to come to his aid she must return the ship to him rigged with black sails.
Tristan's wife, Isolde of the White Hands, learns of this sign and such is her jealousy that when she sees Isolde's ship returning with white sails she tells the much-weakened Tristan that she can see black sails instead. Not realising that this is a lie Tristan loses the will to live and dies.
Isolde the Fair is so distressed that she has arrived too late to save Tristan that, broken-hearted, she too dies.
Although we can never know the reality behind this ancient love story it would seem plausible that there is indeed some seed of truth from which all legends spring. They may be embellished and expanded over time but one thing is always sure, love triangles and overwhelmingly passionate love between men and women will always exist ...
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