References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iseult, http://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/tristan.html,
Trigger warning: references to rape
Well, it’s probably still Tuesday somewhere. This is over two weeks late – sorry! – but as I’ve been sick for about a month straight, anything I get done at this point is getting counted as win.
When it comes to famous tales of tragic love, June’s Lady of Legend is up there with the big guns. ‘Tristram and Isolde’ are two names bound together in the same way as ‘Lancelot and Guinevere’, and in fact predate them, being originally separate from the Arthurian cycle. There are two distinct versions of their legend: the early romances and the Prose Tristran. I shall begin with the Prose.
Women in Arthurian legend have a certain tendency to come in threes. The ancient Welsh myths reference three different Guineveres; in Le Morte d’Arthur, Igraine has three daughters; and in the story of Tristram(/Tristran) and Isolde (alternative spellings include Iseult, Iseo, Yseult, Isode, Isoude, Izolda, Esyllt and Isotta) there are three royal women bearing the same name. The heroine is Isolde the Fair, who was named for her mother, Queen Isolde of Ireland. The third Isolde is Isolde’s rival in love, a woman she never met. For their stories to make sense, you need a little background on the man who spectacularly screwed up all of their lives; and for him to make sense, you need some background on his mother.
Tristram (also known as Tristran) was the son of King Meliodas of Liones and Elizabeth of Cornwall, the sister of King Mark. According to Le Morte d’Arthur, Elizabeth was pregnant with Tristram when a sorceress kidnapped her husband and imprisoned him. Elizabeth went to get him back. She never reached Meliodas; she went into labour in the forest and died there. Tristram’s name means ‘sorrowful birth’. He was found by his father’s barons, who would have killed him for the power if not for Elizabeth’s companion, a lady-in-waiting so persuasive she got a majority vote for Tristram’s continued survival. The same lady-in-waiting brought the queen’s body home to her husband, who was released from his prison by Merlin (too late to be of any use; that’s Merlin for you.)
It was not a good start.
When Tristram was seven, his new stepmother tried to win a crown for her own children by poisoning him, and it was only through Tristram’s pleading for her life that she was kept from the pyre. After that, bizarrely, it was Tristram who had to leave home. He went to France for his education, which was very thorough and knightly. And fortuitous, because his uncle Mark was in a spot of financial and political bother. Cornwall traditionally owned truage to Ireland, but had not paid up in seven years. King Anguish of Ireland, upon being told he was never going to get his money, decided to settle the question with a duel of champions and sent his brother-in-law Sir Marhaus to Cornwall. This being Isolde’s uncle. Do you see how this gets very messy very quickly?
Marhaus arrived outside Tintagel Castle and Mark regretted all his life choices, as nobody at his court was willing to fight a celebrated knight from the court of Arthur himself. Tristram, full of youthful fervour, asked his uncle to make him a knight in order to take on the duel. While he was busy getting ready for his big Knightly Moment, he received word from King Faramon of France’s daughter, who fell in love with him during his time abroad. Tristram was not interested, and the poor girl died of sorrow.
And Marhaus didn’t even want to fight Tristram, he thought he was too young and tried to send him home. The battle that eventually ensued was brutal. Marhaus received such terrible head injuries that he ceded the field, returned to Ireland and died there with a piece of Tristram’s sword embedded in his skull. His sister kept that fragment after Marhaus’ death, and ached for revenge. Her daughter did not have an uncle any more, so that Tristram’s could escape his debt.
Tristram did not escape the duel without injury. Marhaus’ spear was poisoned and in consequence, Tristram’s wounds would not heal. A ‘wise lady’ advised that Tristram seek help in the land of the venom’s origin. Having no better ideas, that was what he did. Which is how he ended up outside the castle of King Anguish, Queen Isolde and their very beautiful, reknown surgeon of a daughter. Surgeon being Malory’s word, by the way.
Tristram’s skilful harping caught the attention of the court. He called himself ‘Tramtrist’, because that’s just what he’s like as a person. Pretending he was injured fighting on behalf of a lady, he finangled his way into Anguish’s circle of knights and into the care of Princess Isolde, who cleaned his wound properly. In return he taught her to play the harp. There was flirting of the courtly, deceptive variety. Isolde, however, already had a serious suitor at court: Sir Palamides the Saracen. Like Marhaus, Palamides was a knight of King Arthur’s court, and he was head over heels for Isolde, sending her gifts every day, even planning to convert to Christianity for her sake.
For all that, Isolde was not interested in him. With Tristram more or less recovered from his injuries, she urged him to compete in an upcoming joust. Palamides was an excellent jouster, but Tristram was the Hero of the Story and therefore not only defeated his rival, he forced him to give up the trappings of war for a whole year and give up on his courtship of the princess. Which one would assume was her intention.
She was certainly delighted by his victory. Together, she and the queen prepared a bath for him. Unfortunately, Tristram left his sword in his chambers; the same sword he used to kill Marhaus, with a tell-tale piece missing. Queen Isolde put two and two together, and came up with rage. She picked up that sword and marched off to run Tristram through with it.