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Tristan and Iseult


music of this legend, composed by Wilhelm Richard Wagner (May 22, 1813 – February 13, 1883)

         lost in love


There are two main traditions of the Tristan legend. The early tradition comprised the romances of two French poets from the second half of the twelfth century, Thomas of Britain and Béroul. Their sources could be traced back to the original, archetypal Celtic romance. Later traditions come from the Prose Tristan (c. 1240), which was markedly different from the earlier tales written by Thomas and Béroul. The Prose Tristan became the official medieval tale of Tristan and Iseult that would provide the background for the writings of Sir Thomas Malory, the English author, who wrote Le Morte d'Arthur (c. 1469).

The story and character of Tristan vary from poet to poet. Even the spelling of his name varies a great deal, though "Tristan" is the most popular spelling. In Béroul's Tristan and Iseult, the knight is as brave and fit as any other warrior, but he relies on trickery and does not live according to contemporary ideals of chivalry.

In Béroul's tale, Tristan goes to Ireland to bring back the fair Iseult for his uncle King Mark to marry. Along the way, they accidentally ingest a love potion that causes the pair to be madly in love for three years. Although Iseult marries Mark, she and Tristan are forced by the potion to seek one another out for adultery. Although the typical noble Arthurian character would be shamed from such an act, the love potion that controls them frees Tristan and Iseult from responsibility. Thus Béroul presents them as victims. The king's advisors repeatedly try to have the pair tried for adultery, but again and again the couple use trickery to preserve their façade of innocence. Eventually the love potion wears off, and the two lovers are free to make their own choice as to whether they cease their adulterous lifestyle or continue. Béroul's ending is morally ambiguous, which differs greatly from his contemporaries such as Chrétien de Troyes and adds a bit of mystique to the legend of Tristan.

Tristan migrates to Ireland from Cornwall to ask the hand of the princess Iseult of Ireland, daughter of King Anguish of Ireland, for his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. After slaying a dragon that is devastating the country, he succeeds in betrothing the couple and is chosen to escort the princess to Cornwall. On the homeward journey, Tristan and Iseult drink a love potion that was prepared by the queen for her daughter and King Mark. Tristan and Iseult then go on to carry on a liaison which lasts for many years.

As with the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere love triangle, Tristan, King Mark, and Iseult all hold love for each other. Tristan honors, respects, and loves King Mark as his mentor and adopted father; Iseult is grateful that Mark is kind to her, which he is certainly not obliged to be; and Mark loves Tristan as his son, and Iseult as a wife. But after they went to sleep every night, they would have horrible dreams about the future.

Tristan's uncle eventually learns of the affair and seeks to entrap his nephew and his bride. Also present is the endangerment of a fragile kingdom, the cessation of war between Ireland and Cornwall. Mark gets what seems proof of their guilt and resolves to punish them: Tristan by hanging and Iseult by trial by ordeal and then putting her up in a lazar house (a leper colony). Tristan escapes on his way to the stake by a miraculous leap from a chapel and rescues Iseult. The lovers escape into the forest of Morrois and take shelter there until they are discovered by Mark one day. However, they make peace with Mark after Tristan's agreement to return Iseult to Mark and leave the country. Tristan then travels on to Brittany, where he marries (for her name and her beauty) Iseult of the White Hands, daughter of Hoel of Brittany and sister of Sir Kahedin.

In works like the Prose Tristan, the Post-Vulgate Cycle, and Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Tristan is wounded by a poisoned weapon, after battling with Iseult of Ireland's uncle Morholt (sometimes named Estult li Orgillusi). He mortally wounds Morholt, leaving a piece of his sword in the Irishman's skull, but Morholt stabs him with a poisoned spear and escapes. Tristan sends for Iseult of Ireland, who alone can heal him. Iseult of Brittany watches the window for white sails signaling that Iseult of Ireland is arriving to save Tristan's life with her herblore. She sees the white sails, but out of jealousy, tells Tristan that the sails are black, which was to be the signal that Iseult of Ireland would not come. Tristan dies, and Iseult of Ireland, arriving too late to save him, yields up her own life. In some sources it states that two trees (hazel and honeysuckle) grow out of their graves and intertwine their branches so that they can not be parted by any means. It was said that King Mark tried to have the branches cut 3 separate times, and each time, the branches grew back and intertwined, so therefore he gave up and let them grow. In other versions of the story, Iseult of Ireland sets his body to sea in a boat and disappears, never to be heard from again.

A few later stories record that the lovers had a number of children. In some stories they produced a son and a daughter they named after themselves; these children survived their parents and had adventures of their own. In the romance Ysaie the Sad, the eponymous hero is the son of Tristan and Iseult; he becomes involved with the fay-king Oberon and marries a girl named Martha, who bears him a son named Mark.

Origins of the legend

Early references to Tristan and Mark in Welsh

There are many theories present about the origins of Tristanian legend, but historians disagree about the most accurate one. There is the famous Tristan stone, with its inscription about Drust, but not all historians agree that the Drust referred to is the archetype of Tristan. There are references to March ap Meichion and Trystan in the Welsh Triads, some of the gnomic poetry, Mabinogion stories and in the late 11th century Life of St. Illtud.

Drystan's name appears as one of Arthur's advisers at the end of The Dream of Rhonabwy, an early 13th century tale in the Welsh prose collection known as the Mabinogion, and Iseult is listed along with other great men and women of Arthur's court in another, much earlier Mabinogion tale, Culhwch and Olwen.

Irish analogues

Possible Irish antecedents to the Tristan legend have received much scholarly attention. An ill-fated triantán an grá or love triangle features into a number of Irish works, most notably in the text called Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne or The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne. In the story, the aging Fionn mac Cumhaill takes the young princess, Gráinne, to be his wife. At the betrothal ceremony, however, she falls in love with Diarmuid, one of Fionn's most trusted warriors. Gráinne gives a sleeping potion to all present but him, eventually convincing him to elope with her. The fugitive lovers are then pursued all over Ireland by the Fianna.

Another Irish analogue is Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin, preserved in the 14th century Yellow Book of Lecan. In this tale, Cano is an exiled Scottish king who accepts the hospitality of King Marcan of Ui Maile. His young wife, Credd, drugs all present, and then convinces Cano to be her lover. They try to keep a tryst while at Marcan's court, but are frustrated by courtiers. Eventually Credd kills herself and Cano dies of grief.

In the Ulster Cycle there is the text Clann Uisnigh or Deirdre of the Sorrows in which Naoise mac Usnech falls for Deirdre, who was imprisoned by King Conchobar mac Nessa due to a prophecy that Ulster would plunge into civil war due to men fighting for her beauty. Conchobar had pledged to marry Deirde himself in time to avert war, and takes his revenge on Clan Usnech. The death of Naoise and his kin leads many Ulstermen to defect to Connacht, including Conchobar's stepfather and trusted ally Fergus mac Róich, eventually precipitating the Táin Bó Cúailnge.

Persian analogues

Some scholars have suggested that the 11th century Persian story Vis u Ramin may have influenced the Tristan legend.

Classical antecedents

Some scholars believe that Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe, as well as the story of Ariande at Naxos might have also contributed to the development of the Tristan legend. The sequence in which Tristan and Iseult die and become interwoven trees also parallels Ovid's love story of Baucis and Philemon in which two lovers are transformed in death into two different trees sprouting from the same trunk.

Association with King Arthur

In its early stages, the tale was probably unrelated to contemporary Arthurian literature, but the earliest surviving versions already incorporate references to Arthur and his court. The connection between Tristan and Iseult and the Arthurian legend was expanded over time, and sometime shortly after the completion of the Vulgate Cycle (or Lancelot-Grail Cycle) in the first quarter of the 13th century, two authors created the vast Prose Tristan, which fully establishes Tristan as a Knight of the Round Table who even participates in the Quest for the Holy Grail.