Tristan and Isolde

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Tristan and Isolde




TRIS-tuhn and i-SOHL-duh

Alternate Names

Tristram and Iseult

Appears In

Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, the Prose Tristan


Son of Blancheflor (Tristan) and daughter of Queen Isolde of Ireland (Isolde)

Character Overview

The legend of Tristan and Isolde is the tragic tale of two lovers fated to share a forbidden but undying love. Scholars of mythology believe that the legend originated in Brittany, in western France. In time it was associated with the Arthurian legends and became part of the mythology of medieval Europe, told and retold in various versions and many languages.

Tristan (also called Tristram), the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, was a brave and honorable young man. Some accounts also claim that he was a brilliant harp player. According to the most detailed versions of this legend, the king of Ireland sent a champion named Morholt to demand tribute, or payment, from Cornwall, and Tristan fought Morholt in single combat. Tristan killed Morholt, leaving a broken piece of his sword in the fatal wound. The piece remained in Morholt's body when it was carried back to Ireland. Morholt had wounded Tristan as well, and when the wound did not heal, the young knight went to Ireland, in disguise, to seek help from an Irish princess named Isolde (or Iseult) who was skilled in healing.

After Isolde healed Tristan, he lingered at the Irish court for a while. On his return to Cornwall he praised Isolde so highly that King Mark resolved to marry her. Loyal and obedient to his uncle and king, Tristan agreed to return to Ireland and seek Isolde's hand for Mark.

Back in Ireland, Tristan found that the country was being terrorized by a fearsome dragon. Tristan succeeded in killing the beast. While Isolde was nursing him back to health after the fight, she discovered his broken sword and realized that he was the warrior who had killed Morholt, her uncle. At first she wanted to avenge her uncle's death. However, Tristan had endeared himself to the Irish people by killing the dragon, so Isolde forgave him and agreed to marry King Mark. She set off with Tristan for Cornwall.

Many versions of the legend say that Tristan and Isolde had already begun to care for one another. Their sense of honor might have prevented them from letting their feelings show, but fate now took a hand. Isolde's mother had prepared a magical drink for Isolde to share with Mark—a potion that would make them love each other forever. During the voyage to Cornwall, Isolde and Tristan drank the potion, not knowing what it was, and fell deeply in love.

Although Isolde went through with the marriage to Mark, she could not stop loving Tristan, who was fated to love her in return. They tried to keep their passion a secret, but eventually it became known. Some accounts of the story contain episodes of intrigue and suspense in which King Mark or various knights try to trap the lovers and obtain proof of their guilt. In the end, Tristan fled from Cornwall in despair.

By the 1200s, the legend of Tristan had been interwoven with the Arthurian legends. Tristan had become a noble knight and appeared in some of the stories about Arthur, Lancelot , and the Knights of the Round Table. By this time, storytellers had also begun to portray King Mark as cruel or cowardly, perhaps to create a stronger contrast between Mark and Tristan, though in earlier versions of the legend Mark was an honorable man.

Tristan finally settled in Brittany, where he married another Isolde, known as Isolde of the White Hands. His love for Isolde of Cornwall had never died, though. In time Tristan was wounded in battle, and his wife could not cure him. He sent for Isolde of Cornwall, hoping that she could once again heal him. He requested that the ship coming back from Cornwall should have white sails if it carried Isolde and black ones if it did not.

Tristan lay on his sickbed and waited. Finally the ship appeared on the horizon, bearing white sails. Too sick to sit up, Tristan asked about the color of the sails. Jealous of his passion for the first Isolde, his wife lied and said that they were black. Tristan fell into despair, believing that Isolde had refused to help him, and died. When Isolde arrived and learned of his death, she too died of grief. The two were buried in Cornwall. From Isolde's grave a rose tree grew, and from Tristan's came a vine that wrapped itself around the tree. Every time the vine was cut, it grew again—a sign that the two lovers could not be parted, even in death.

Tristan and Isolde in Context

The myth of Tristan and Isolde reflects a fundamental fascination with the idea of doomed love throughout European culture. The first versions of the tale appear to have originated in northern France, but it quickly traveled across the region, with new additions and variations to the same core story. Versions of the tale—usually featuring character names similar to the original tale, but adjusted for local languages—have appeared in Britain, Scandinavia, Italy, Spain, Germany, and even as far east as Poland and Croatia. The tale became commonly known among even the peasant classes, and is remarkable for its similarity across the various cultures of Europe.

Key Themes and Symbols

The central theme in the story of Tristan and Isolde is forbidden but irresistible love. The two characters are drawn together just as strongly as they are forced apart. Just as Isolde begins caring for Tristan, she discovers he is the killer of her uncle. Though Tristan begins to fall in love with Isolde, he knows she is promised to Mark. The love potion binds them together even as outside forces attempt to separate them.

Tristan and Isolde in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The legend of Tristan and Isolde, with its emphasis on a love that cannot be denied even when it leads to tragedy, has continued to appeal to artists since medieval times. It inspired three English poems of the 1800s: Matthew Arnold's Tristram andlseult, Algernon Swinburne's Tristram of Lyonesse, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson's “The Last Tournament,” one of the Idylls in the Arthurian poem Idylls of the King. American poet E. A. Robinson based his Tristram on the legend. One of the most influential works to draw on the story was the opera Tristan und Isolde, by German composer Richard Wagner. The story has also appeared in many film adaptations, with filmmakers such as Jean Cocteau and Francois Truffaut working on different versions over the years. The most recent was the 2006 film Tristan & Isolde, starring James Franco and Sophia Myles as the doomed lovers.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The tale of Tristan and Isolde is one of the best-known examples of the theme of doomed love. The story of Romeo and Juliet, popularized by William Shakespeare, is another. Can you think of a modern tale that centers on this same theme? It can be in a book, a film, or a television show. How does your modern example differ from the myth of Tristan and Isolde? Do these differences reflect cultural differences between modern audiences and medieval European audiences? How? What parts of the tale remain timeless?

SEE ALSO Arthurian Legends; Celtic Mythology