But, aside from a poorly received 2006 film, recent media has largely ignored the story of Tristan and Isolde. Since it is a legend that the reader may be unfamiliar with, we shall begin with a re-telling of the story, followed by historical analysis. It should be noted that this tale, like all of the legends in Arthuriana, has many variations.
So, Mark challenges Anguish to a duel of champions. If the Irish champion wins, Cornwall will pay up. But if the Cornish champion wins, Ireland must withdraw their demands. Anguish agrees to the challenge and sends sends his brother-in-law, Morholt, to do battle with Mark’s champion; his nephew, Tristan.
The two great warriors fight with everything they've got. In the end, Tristan is the victor, killing Morholt. King Mark and Cornwall have won the day and Anguish of Ireland must honor his agreement.
However, our hero, Tristan, has sustained an injury that will be fatal if it doesn’t heal. Because Ireland is renowned the best healers in the land, Tristan assumes a false identity to travel into enemy territory for treatment.
When he arrives in Ireland, as fate would have it, Tristan is taken in and nursed by the daughter of King Anguish, the beautiful Isolde.
Not realizing his true identity as the man who slew her kinsman, Isolde strikes up a friendship while caring for the wounded knight. During his convalescence Tristan returns Isolde’s kindness by teaching her to play the harp.
The marriage of young maidens to much older men was common during this time. But, that did not make the situation any more palatable for women in Isolde’s position.
In an attempt to remedy her fear and the revulsion she might feel on her wedding night, Isolde asks a witch to brew a love potion for herself and her future husband.
The witch obliges and mixes an elixir possessed by a very powerful magic. Isolde is told that in order for the spell to be complete, the mixture must be drunk by the intended lovers together
It is now time for Isolde’s voyage to meet her new lord and king. Mark will allow no one but his trusted nephew, the greatest champion in the land, to escort his young bride.
And so, Tristan and Isolde together board the vessel that will transport them over the sea to Cornwall.
So, Isolde mixed the elixir into a chalice of wine, and then casually approached Tristan. Pretending to be impressed by the taste of good wine, she urges Tristan to have a sip as she struck up a casual conversation.
Together, the two shared the wine as they talked. By the time the chalice was empty, Tristan and Isolde were thunderstruck by passionate desire for one another.
When they arrived in Cornwall, Branwen was introduced as Isolde and taken in marriage to King Mark.
After a time, he meets a beautiful woman who also bears the name Isolde. She is known as Isolde of the White Hands. Because her beauty reminds him of his own Isolde, Tristan marries this woman. He is happy for a time, but never forgets his true love over the sea.
One day while riding through the Breton forest, Tristan comes across a fair maiden being encircled by six brutes about to do her harm.
Tristan charges to her rescue and singlehandedly defeats the men six to one. However, he is mortally wounded, and the maiden manages to help him onto his horse, who knows the way home.
However, Isolde of the White Hands has heard whispers of this other Isolde and her liaisons with Tristan. Not willing to risk losing her husband to his long lost love, Isolde, the latter, lies to Tristan, saying that black sales bedeck Kahedin’s ship.
Isolde’s heart is crushed to have arrived too late. She collapses in tears over the lifeless body of the love of her life. Isolde, too, dies of her grief. And thus ends a tragic tale of two young lovers who were wrenched apart by family obligations, and reunited only when it was too late.
Historical Background of the Tale
A pair of young lovers who were never supposed to be together, dying young while one waits for the other, falsely thinking all is lost, and the female character collapsing over the body of her dead love.
We cannot know if Shakespeare had Tristan and Isolde in mind when he wrote his masterpiece. But, we can be sure that he would have been well aware of this story.
The romance of Tristan and Isolde is speculated to pre-date Shakespeare by approximately one thousand years, and may be based on an historical person. In fact, there is more evidence for an historical Tristan than there is for a real Arthur.
There exists in Cornwall a megalith known as “the Tristan Stone.” The stone is thought to date from the 6th century A.D. Inscribed upon it are the words (in translation) “Here lies Drustan, son of Cynvawr.”
This stone is placed close to Castle Dore, which is thought to have been occupied by local chieftains between the 5th and 7th centuries. Cynvawr was in all strongly considered to be one of these chieftains. Furthermore, monk called Wrmonoc recorded in the 9th century that Cynvawr was the same person as King Mark.
Whatever its true origins are, it seems likely that legends of Tristan began independently of those about Arthur.
Perhaps the Irish tales mentioned above were grafted onto legends of a true Cornish prince. Eventually, this tale was merged with Arthurian legend, and Tristan became a knight of the round table.
By the high middle ages, Tristan and Isolde’s love story had become extremely popular. The story first circulated among the Celtic lands mentioned above, as well as in Celtic Brittany.
From there it traveled outward among the Anglo-Normans and over to audiences in France and Germany.
As Arthurian legend evolved over the centuries, tales of Tristan as a knight of the round table continued to be told, as well as his and Isolde’s own independent love story.
Their last medieval mention is in Thomas Malory's famous fifteenth-century masterpiece, “Le Morte d'Arthur.” Afterwards, the story falls off the radar, apart from two minor exceptions, until the 19th century.
Scottish poet Sir Walter Scot reignited interest in our two lovers in a poem about them which was included in his “Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border,” published in 1802.
Subsequent writers and poets who found inspiration from Tristan and Isolde include Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, John Updike, and Diana Paxson.
Perhaps the most famous is Richard Wagner, who featured them in his famous German language opera of the same name.