Tristan and Isolde a Legendary Love Story
A Story that's passed the Test of Time
Get ready for a love story, an old, old, love story that's lasted for thousands of generations.
All the ingredients for a satisfactory narrative are present; the lightning bolt of desire, the inevitable tragedy, ritual sacrifice, the denial of satisfaction and the purity of renunciation. Essentially, we are told, this is a story with profound religious meaning.
Be that as it may, the story of Tristan and Isolde has lasted so long because it's a ripping good yarn!
A Love Potion for a Nervous Bride
The Plot of Tristan and Isolde
Isolde, daughter of a King of Ireland, is betrothed to King Mark of Cornwall. She is depressed about her coming nuptial expectations with the elderly Mark, but Isolde's mother has the solution. She gives a bottle of love potion to the girl's serving woman, Brangraine, with strict instructions to keep it safe until they reached Cornwall. It is then to be given to Isolde on her wedding night.
Meanwhile, a young man is arriving in Ireland. He is Tristan, nephew of Mark, sent to escort Isolde back to Cornwall.
So Isolde and her escort sail away from Ireland on an overcast sultry day. The passengers are uncomfortable, complaining of heat and sweating, so Isolde dispatches a servant below for drinks.
But the first bottle he puts his hand upon, as fate would have it, is the flask of love potion!
Heedless of the contents, Isolde politely offers some to her escort, and as she and Tristan each take a sip, they fall at once and forever in love.
The Plot thickens
Isolde marries King Mark
The power of passion is sometimes insurmountable, and, as any good storyteller knows, illicit passion is most powerful of all. The two lovers spent the remainder of the brief journey in each other's arms, limbs entwined, swearing eternal love.
All too soon they arrive in Cornwall and King Mark is instantly in love with the beautiful Isolde.
When the marriage ceremony has taken place they retire to the bedchamber where a deception in the dark keeps secret the loss of the bride's promised virginity. Brangraine and Isolde switched places in the bridal bed.
Once again, Isolde spends the night in her lover's arms, secretly returning to her husband's bed at daylight. And that was how Isolde of Ireland did marry Mark of Cornwall.
Tristan is sent into Exile
Iseult of Brittany
When Mark finally learns of the affair, he forgives Isolde, but exiles his nephew.
Tristan flees to the court of Arthur where he engages in various battles and knightly adventures, making a name for himself at the court in Camelot.
Later, on a quest, he journeys through Brittany where he meets Iseult of Brittany (also known as Iseult of the White Hands). He is vaguely attracted to her because of the similarity of her name to his true love.
He marries her in name only, on command of his King, but then ignores her.
Will Isolde sail to aid Tristan?
In curious circumstances Tristan becomes ill, and sends for Isolde in hopes that she will be able to cure him. If she agrees to come, the returning ship's sails would be white, but if she refuses to come, the sails would be black. He suffers in his bedchamber, hovering on the brink of life and death, praying that he can look once more into the eyes of his true love.
Iseult keeps watch at the window overlooking the harbour, her heart, no doubt, broken and crushed by the indifference her young husband has shown her. Even here, on his deathbed, he does not turn to her but calls for another woman.
A ship appears on the horizon, a fine fat ship, her white sails full of welcome wind, carrying Isolde, the Queen of Cornwall. At the tall window, Iseult of the White Hands turns to the pallid Tristan.
"The sails are black, dear husband." she says, in a sudden torrent of jealousy and resentment. (Can you blame her?)
Tristan turns his head to the wall and dies.
Isolde, reaching him too late, collapses, broken-hearted, and dies soon after.
The Lovers' Graves
The two are buried side by side where from Tristan's grave grows a vine, and from Isolde's a rose.
As a symbol of their eternal love, the two plants intertwine, reaching upwards together into the sunlight.
The Arthurian Legend
The tale of Tristan and Isolde was one of the most influential romances in the medieval period, predating and influencing the Arthurian romance of Lancelot and Guinevere.
Originally, the Tristan legend had nothing to do with King Arthur, but shortly after the Lancelot-Grail cycle (Vulgate c. 1235), we find Tristan has joined the fellowship of the Round Table.
There are two main traditions of the Tristan legend. The early tradition comprised of the romances from two French poets from the second half of the twelfth century - Thomas and Beroul. Their sources can be traced back to the original, archetypal Celtic romance.
Later traditions come from the Prose Tristan which was markedly different from the earlier tales written by Thomas and Beroul. The Prose Tristan became the official medieval tale of Tristan and Isolde which would provide the materials for Sir Thomas Malory, who wrote the Le Morte d'Arthur in the 15th century.
Tristan in the film King Arthur
It's an extraordinary portrayal, marvelously underplayed, with Mikkelsen as a mysterious Samartian who is more closely bonded with his falcon than with the other knights.
Mikkelsen didn't enjoy great reviews for his role but, for me, he was one of the highlights
An exploration of the Christian construction of gender in which the flesh is feminised, the feminine is aestheticised, and aesthetics are condemned in theological terms.
A clear explanation of the continuity between early Christian antifeminism and the idealisation of woman that emerged in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Frightening reading with that 'Aha!' effect, when suddenly things fall into place.
The Invention of Western Romantic Love
Medieval Germanic poetry, including Gottfried von Strassburg's version of Tristan, the Nibelunglied and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, was rediscovered during the mid-19th century.
Von Strassburg's retelling of the "courtly" branch of the legend, had a huge influence on later German literature.
According to his autobiography, Mein Leben, Richard Wagner decided to dramatise the Tristan legend after his friend, Karl Ritter, attempted to do so, writing that:
"He had, in fact, made a point of giving prominence to the lighter phases of the romance, whereas it was its all-pervading tragedy that impressed me so deeply that I felt convinced it should stand out in bold relief, regardless of minor details."
Tristan und Isolde opened in June 1865 under the baton of Hans von Bulow.
Tristan and Isolde, the Movie - Ridley Scott's German/British/American film, 2006
A story of love, duty, loyalty, pained betrayal and ultimate heartbreak..
Tristan and Isolde Movie Trailer
Mark of Cornwall became Lord Marke played by Rufus Sewell, Tristan of Aerygone was played by James Franco and Isolde by Sophia Myles. Bronagh Gallagher played the serving woman, Bragnae. The performances from the veteran actors, Sewell and Gallagher, are absolutely riveting and every character in this film is a tribute to the excellent casting.
I personally found James Franco a trifle too pretty to play a love interest but, despite his sweet face, he plays a formidable warrior and shines in the action scenes. And Sophia Myles bursts on the screen as a major talent!
The scenery is breathtaking and the cinematography, particularly in the night scenes is astounding. A lovely, lyrical film.
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© 2008 Susanna Duffy