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Tristan and Isolde a Legendary Love Story

Updated on December 9, 2014
The old old story
The old old story | Source

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

There are medieval stories which place Tristan in the court of Arthur, and in the film King Arthur he is played, quietly, by the excellent Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen.

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

Medieval Misogyny

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 Opera

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

Tristan and Isolde (Widescreen Edition)
Tristan and Isolde (Widescreen Edition)
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

Want to leave some words of love for Tristan and Isolde? - Or words with any message you wish

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    • mariacarbonara profile image


      7 years ago

      Wow what a complex and fascinating love story.

    • Nightmareartist profile image

      Melissa A Benson 

      8 years ago from Connecticut

      Wow. I didn't know anything about the Tristan and Isolde movie. And I agree, James Franco isn't my favorite actor.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      this love story is very exciting story..and its old one.and tristan and isolde movie is sos o nice

    • Steph Tietjen profile image

      Stephanie Tietjen 

      8 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

      Thanks for this beautiful story--tragic love, my favorite kind.

    • SusannaDuffy profile imageAUTHOR

      Susanna Duffy 

      8 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      @Wednesday-Elf: I know the song - it's a lot older than your Civil War, it's a lot older than 1492. It's a lovely song

    • Wednesday-Elf profile image


      8 years ago from Savannah, Georgia

      What a beautiful -- though tragic -- love story. Have you ever heard the American folk music song by 'The New Christy Minstrals' called "Jimmy Grove and Barbara Ellen"? A 'forever' love story. By the lyrics, it is most likely talking about Jimmy dying in our Civil War, but because of the lyrics '...Barbara died of a broken heart... and Jimmy Grove was buried nigh her.. and from her grave grew a red, red rose... and from his grave a fragrant briar... where they twined and twined in a true love knot....', it makes me wonder if the song was actually based on the love of Tristan and Isolde. You can listen to the song on YouTube and see what you think. :)

      I am recommending this love story for the Valentine's Day LOTD.

    • profile image


      8 years ago


    • Duglaiglas profile image

      Mr Douglas L Hill 

      9 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

      Such a great story... would have never thought to share it here. Good show!!

    • profile image

      phoenix arizona f 

      9 years ago

      Cool lens.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I love romantic stories and the story is presented in an amazing refreshed manner.

    • LouisaDembul profile image


      9 years ago

      This is such a powerful, tragic story! You have presented it very well.

    • writercb1 profile image


      9 years ago from United States

      Great lens! Love legendary, mystical, romantic stories like this...

    • jmsp206 profile image

      Julia M S Pearce 

      9 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      Now this is a love story!Love story and tradedy rolled into one!Great lens ans subject.

    • profile image

      lasertek lm 

      9 years ago

      I like this lens a lot. Although I'm no fan of these type of story, I was hooked and wanting to read more.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      A favorite book from teen-age years- wonderful romance!

    • BrandonJames926 profile image


      9 years ago

      Sometimes I think to myself "this lensmaster should write books." I just did exactly that. Presentation I find just as important as content. Your lens was presented in a manner that allows you to sink into & read. Well done!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      this is a great love story! here is my love story :)

    • SusannaDuffy profile imageAUTHOR

      Susanna Duffy 

      10 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      @anonymous: She died too

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      and so what happened to Iseult after Tristan died in front of her?

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      beautiful!!!! :)

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Wonderful story.


    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Wonderful. You have done an excellent job with your Legendary Love lenses, and others!

    • Stazjia profile image

      Carol Fisher 

      11 years ago from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK

      I've never quite managed the opera - I find Wagner a bit too heavy for my taste even though I love operas by other composers.


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