Ladies of Legend: Isolde

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,,,

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.

She failed to kill him, and so took her revelations to Anguish, who could not have wanted to deal with it less. He did not take Tristram’s actions personally, but could hardly let the killer of his brother-in-law stay at court. Unashamed, Tristram pledged his service to Anguish’s daughter and asked for a final audience with her, which he got. Princess Isolde was more concerned with Tristram’s continued survival than the lie he had told or the death of her uncle; he told Isolde his life story and swore loyalty to her. In turn, she swore not to marry within the next seven years except with his consent. They exchanged rings.

Then he returned to King Mark’s court in Cornwall and hooked up with a married lady. Such loyal, so pining.

This fling was where he first clashed with his uncle, who fancied the same lady. Suffice to say, they both behaved very badly. King Mark decided to get his own back by marrying Isolde and sent Tristram to fetch her, intending his nephew to die en route. Instead, Tristram washed up near Camelot and defended King Anguish in a very dodgy trial-by-combat legal situation. As his reward, Tristram asked for Isolde’s hand…on Mark’s behalf.

In what universe did that seem like a good life choice, Tristram? Honestly?

Anguish, a low-key Tristram/Isolde shipper, was disappointed but agreed. Isolde was not consulted. Her mother made the best of the situation (probably grateful that Isolde wasn’t marrying Tristram) by giving her daughter’s gentlewoman, Dame Bragwaine, a love potion to ensure Isolde’s marital success. And complete loss of consent. SURPRISE, Tristram and Isolde accidentally drank the potion. If they weren’t in love before, and let’s face it, Tristram did not appear to be, now they had no choice in the matter.

On the way to Cornwall, they stopped at the castle of Pluere, where they were taken captive by its resident homicidal nobleman. Lord Breunor had a rule that whoever passed through with a lady was obliged to take part in a bizarre beauty contest. If their lady was less beautiful than his wife, she would lose her head. If the knight lost a fight with Breunor, the lady would die anyway. Upon seeing Isolde, Breunor planned out loud – IN FRONT OF HIS WIFE – to kill Tristram and have Isolde for his own. Tristram expressed his feelings on the subject by cutting off the poor woman’s head, like any of this was her fault.

He also killed Breunor, which is something, I suppose. Tristram and Isolde returned to sea. When they reach Cornwall, she married Mark. And if you thought all of this was already soap opera worthy, just wait for the next bit.

Isolde’s new ladies-in-waiting were so jealous of Bragwaine’s place at court that they tied her to a tree in the forest for THREE DAYS STRAIGHT, until Sir Palamides appeared from nowhere and took her to a nunnery to recover from the ordeal. Which was a truly noble thing to do! Less noble was offering Bragwaine’s safe return to a sad and frightened Isolde in exchange for an unspecified favour, and upon being promised said favour, cashing it as Isolde coming away with him against her will. King Mark allowed this on the assumption that Tristram would save her. Then he found out Tristram was away on a hunting trip. “That by mine own assent my lady and my queen shall be devoured,” Mark bemoaned, too late to do anyone any good whatsoever.

One of Tristram’s friends, Sir Lambegus, went after Isolde instead. While Palamides was beating him into the ground, Isolde made a run for it. Her first, somewhat hysterical, plan was to drown herself in the nearest well, but a knight called Sir Adtherp saw her and invited her back to his castle. His chivalry extended to then going to fight Palamides, which was a bad idea because Palamides demolished him and demanded to know where Isolde was hiding. She was, however, prepared for him, locking down the castle to wait out his one-man siege.

Tristram did eventually come to rescue her, pouncing on Palamides outside the gates, and it was only Isolde’s mercy that left Palamides with his life. She forbade him from returning to Cornwall while she was there, and even used him as a messenger to send a letter to Queen Guinevere. “There be within this land but four lovers,” she wrote, “that is, Sir Launcelot du Lake and Queen Guenever, and Tristram de Liones and Queen Isoud.”

This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Nobody could understand what it was like to live inside an epic romantic tragedy like Guinevere could.

Isolde returned to Tintagel with Tristram, and the two of them became lovers. All was well for a time, until Tristram’s cousin Andred found evidence of their adultery and told Mark. The king tried to kill Tristram, who responded by hitting him in the neck repeatedly until he collapsed, then riding off into the woods and killing one of Mark’s knights there. He sent the dead man’s brother, mortally wounded, to bring the first man’s decapitated head to Mark. Isolde saw that knight die in front of her. The man she loved was a ruthless creature, but it’s not as if the other men around her were kinder.

It was only the cold logic of Tristram’s value as a knight, and the knowledge Arthur would snap him up if Mark let him go, that led to reconciliation after all of that. Not that it was much of a reconciliation. Mark invited his wife and nephew on a hunting trip, and wheeled out Tristram to joust against Sir Lamorak. Tristram won without enthusiasm and Lamorak left in a huff. Encountering one of Morgan le Fay’s minions on his way, a knight bearing an enchanted horn, Lamorak maliciously offered directions to King Mark’s pavilion, thereby transferring the problem from its intended target – Guinevere – to Isolde. The horn could not be drunk from by a woman unfaithful to her husband. Only four women of Mark’s court didn’t spill it. Isolde was not one of the four.

Mark wanted to burn the lot of them, because apparently it’s all right for him to take a married woman as his lover but grounds for mass murder when ladies do the same. Mark’s barons averted the slaughter by pointing out the horn came from Morgan le Fay, of all the untrustworthy people, and the knights of the court swore against the sorceress.

The close call certainly didn’t put an end to Tristram and Isolde’s clandestine meetings; Andred eventually caught them naked in bed together, and Tristram was sentenced to death. He reminded everyone that Cornwall would still be paying tribute to Ireland without him. He then killed ten knights while stark naked and jumped into the sea. Never let it be said that Tristram doesn’t bring the drama!

Tristram’s friends at court sought him out and found him safe among the coastal rocks. He asked immediately after Isolde and learned Andred’s supporters had placed her in a leper-house. Tristram stormed off to get her, installing her in a forest manor and they experienced a fragile domesticity for a short, sweet time before Mark found out where they were. He dragged Isolde back to court. Tristram was injured in a separate fight, and unable to rescue his lover. Isolde got word to Tristram through a cousin of Bragwaine’s, advising he retreat to Brittany, where Isolde of the White Hands, daughter of King Howel, might be able to heal his injuries.

She was going to regret giving that advice, in case you hadn’t already guessed.

Howel was under attack from an earl named Grip who had already wounded Howel’s son Kehydius. The king was in the market for a champion, and along came Tristram to save the day. Howel offered him the kingdom in gratitude, but Tristram considered the rescue a suitable thank you to Isolde of the White Hands for healing him. Which would have been fine. Except then he married her. In true Tristram fashion, he got cold feet about it on the wedding night and so refused to consummate the marriage, ensuring maximum unhappiness for everyone involved.

Word of the marriage filtered through to Lancelot, who was vocal about his deep disappointment in Tristram. Who was finally ashamed of something. Lancelot has that effect on people. Isolde, for her part, wrote miserable letters to Guinevere about her lover’s inconstancy and Guinevere wrote back that maybe Tristram was enchanted, and anyway, he’d definitely come crawling back in the end.

Tristram took his new wife and brother-in-law on an ill-advised holiday to the Isle of Servage. The lord of the island, a giant Sir Nabon le Noire, had a particular thing for killing knights of the Round Table. Bad news for Lamorak, who happened upon the island as well. Tristram had not forgotten the horn incident, but the two of them chose to get past it, possibly the first mature decision Tristram ever made. Together they overcame Nabon and parted ways. Later, Tristram wrote to Lancelot, excusing his inconstancy and asking if Lancelot would speak for him if he saw Isolde first. Lancelot was a tad busy at the time shepherding a young knight through his very first quest, but as it happened, Isolde took matters into her own hands and invited Tristram – wife, brother-in-law and all – to Cornwall.

Tristram duly set off. He got sidetracked on the way by a lot of fighting in Wales, and Nimue enlisted him to help rescue King Arthur himself from an obsessive sorceress, but eventually Tristram arrived in Cornwall and was smuggled into Mark’s castle, where he and Isolde took up their affair like they’d never left off. Her rival vanishes from the narrative.

Kehydius, unaware of all the history, fell for Isolde at first sight, writing letters and ballads to woo her. Isolde tried to gentle him out of the crush. When Tristram found the letters, he had the goddamn nerve to call Isolde a ‘traitress’ and Kehydius, unfortunately present, was so shocked he accidentally stepped backward out of a window. Which sort of caught Mark’s attention. Tristram sulked his way out of Tintagel, and Isolde took to her bed in a lethargy of despair.

Tristram got as far as the castle where he fought Palamides that time over Isolde’s hand. He broke down crying outside the walls. Fortunately he’d been tracked the whole way by a benevolent messenger girl, who explained his situation to the lady of the castle, and together they tried to feed the wailing knight. He stayed with the lady for around three months, sadly playing the harp, before giving up on even pretending to cope and going wild in the forest instead.

Kehydius survived his fall, by the way. Isolde sent him away from Cornwall and he ended up meeting Palamides, with whom he bonded over their mutual fixations on the queen. Sir Andred, meanwhile, convinced his girlfriend to pretend she saw Tristram die, which would make Andred the heir to Tristram’s kingdom. Mark cried crocodile tears and Isolde nearly killed herself, jamming a sword through a plum tree in the garden and preparing to impale herself on it. “For,” she declared, “he was my first love and he shall be the last.” Mark intercepted his wife before she could go through with it and put her on suicide watch in a tower.

Tristram returned to his role of Cornish Hero by killing a thuggish local giant. Mark, not recognising him after so long running feral in the forest, brought Tristram back to Tintagel for healing, and no one there recognised him either – except Isolde’s little dog, who was a gift from Tristram and greeted him so excitedly Isolde knew it was her lover. Afraid Mark would work it out too and have Tristram killed for real this time, she sent him away to Arthur’s court.

She was just a little too late. Andred put the pieces together and Mark summoned his barons, hoping to compel a death sentence out of them. Tristram was still a popular man in Cornwall, however, and merely received ten years of banishment, which was quite bad enough to the lovers. Typical to their holding pattern, Tristram got himself in as much trouble as possible, eventually landing in prison, while Isolde sent him letters with the long-suffering Bragwaine as go-between and listened intently to all rumour concerning Tristram’s doings. Tristram’s captor was honourable enough to release him when Tristram fell ill, but it was a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, because Tristram ran straight into the clutches of Morgan le Fay. She convinced him to carry a shield to his next tournament, it being emblazoned with the imagery of a knight standing above a king and queen, intended to sow discord in Arthur’s court.

By this point, Palamides and Tristram had formed an epic relationship of their own – Tristram prevented Palamides from committing suicide, then they got locked up in prison together, it reached the point where it was even odds whether they’d rescue each other or demand a fight to the death any time they met. When he eventually arrived at Arthur’s court, Arthur and Guinevere welcomed Tristram and he took Marhaus’s seat at the Round Table. I wonder how Queen Isolde of Ireland felt about that. Murderous, I expect.

All his nephew’s fame and fortune did not go over well with King Mark. He disguised himself and went to finish the matter once and for all. On the way he heard a lot of praise of Tristram and a lot of bad things about himself, with Palamides declaring King Mark did not deserve such a wonderful queen as Isolde. This did not make Mark any less inclined towards killing Tristram.

Not being physically present did not make Isolde any less capable of foiling him. Her ladies at Guinevere’s court revealed Mark’s identity, and his treachery. Lancelot wanted to fight him on the principle of the thing. Arthur, at his most kingly, established a chilly peace, insisting that Mark take Tristram back to Cornwall with him. Lancelot was strongly against the idea, but Tristram so badly wanted to go home and see Isolde again, he was willing to take Mark’s insincere assurances of friendship at face value (they had a fraction more weight after Lancelot was done threatening him).

Tristram reassured his friends with letters, and the same messenger girl who delivered those went to Isolde afterward. The Cornish queen was eager for news of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere, who she considered friends. Mark, though, felt much more secure once back in his own kingdom. He had the NERVE to send a letter to Guinevere, trying to shame her for infidelity; furious, she showed the letter to Lancelot, whose friend Dinadan retaliated by having a very insulting (and very popular) song written about Mark.

Soon Mark had bigger problems. Problems the size of an invading army, actually. Tristram was the saviour of Tintagel once more with a sudden assault, and after that took over strategy, since Mark would appear to be very bad at it. Admittedly, Tristram’s strategy was pretty much just ride or die, but it worked for him. Not long after Tristram freed Tintagel, a different army landed on the coast and Mark’s much more likable younger brother Boudwin claimed an impressive victory of his own by setting the enemy’s ships on fire. It was all too much for Mark. He would seem to be allergic to other people’s success. He sent for his brother and Boudwin’s wife Anglides, pretending friendship, then stabbed Boudwin through the heart. It was only through Isolde’s quick action that Anglides and her young son Alisander got away alive.

But Mark still had Tristram around the place, which wouldn’t do, so he seized upon someone else’s rivalry to do the deed and still keep his hands clean. There was a plot to kill Lancelot at a tournament in Cornwall. Learning of it, Mark pretended that Tristram was Lancelot. Unfortunately for Mark, Tristram survived the plot, though he was injured. Mark fed him a sleeping potion and dumped him in prison to die.

It was a miscalculation. Isolde sent a loyal knight to find Tristram and when he couldn’t pick up a trail, Sir Sadok roused an impressive array of supporters into a full-blown rebellion. Sir Percival, one of the Round Table’s big up-and-comers, eventually found Tristram and set him free in no time at all. Tristram being freed put an end to the rebellion, but Mark threw him straight back in prison.

Isolde had had enough.

She enlisted Sadok and her ally Dinas to take Mark captive and arranged for a ship; Tristram was set free again and the lovers took off for England, where they crashed a tournament and were adopted by Lancelot. He offered them his castle of Joyous Gard as a new home. He also told Guinevere about their arrival, and she told Arthur, and Arthur threw a massive celebratory joust. For the first time since that ill-fated retreat in the forest manor, Tristram and Isolde could be together in peace. Tristram exasperated his friends with his lectures on the power of love and Isolde, still tickled over that song about her ex-husband, made a point of befriending Dinadan.

Tristram remained a famed jouster. During one of his periods of friendship with Palomides, and after joining forces with Sir Gareth (he who married Lyonesse), they entered a tournament together with Dinadan, choosing to oppose Arthur’s team for more of a challenge. Isolde came with them to watch the tournament. She remained a skilled healer, examining Gareth after a mishap on the field. The whole team performed well – though Palamides apparently had ‘love triangle’ written all over him to the point Lancelot took him aside and told him to keep his passion to himself.

Palamides sucked at that. When he noticed a man staring at Isolde, he knocked him off his horse, only to discover it was King Arthur (he got knocked off his horse in return by Lancelot). After this incident Palamides’ ill will towards Tristram was reawakened and he disguised himself to fight Tristram. Isolde, having been watching so closely, recognised who was fighting her lover and confronted him furiously afterward, calling him ‘a felon and a traitor’. Tristram was willing to accept Palamides’ excuse that he did not recognise Tristram on the field; Isolde did NOT. Devastated by her disapproval, he cried all night and parted company with them all the next day. He had to admit to himself that Isolde did not love him, that he had ruined everything through his own actions. “Therefore,” he concluded, “I have lost the love of her and of Sir Tristram forever.”

In case you’re wondering why Guinevere was not at the tournament, she was laid up with a malady in a castle by the sea, and was eager to have news from visiting knights. When they gushed about Isolde’s beauty, humour and kindness, Guinevere wished she could have met her in person. She also expressed her firm disapprobation of Palamides’ conduct, remarking that the envious never do well.

Well, he certainly did not do well. Palamides was captured by the men of a lord he had killed during a tournament. Facing imminent execution, he sent his love and regrets to Tristram and Isolde, honour to Arthur and a farewell to his friends. This being the weirdest relationship ever, Tristram resolved to rescue Palamides, but that proved unnecessary as Lancelot happened to pass the would-be execution and fought all twelve of Palamides’ guards to set him free. The two of them ran into Tristram going the other way. Palamides made a very nice apologetic speech and Tristram invited them home. Isolde was delighted to see Lancelot, embracing him like family, and put up with Palamides.

He despaired, literally lovesick, and sang out his sorrow by a well. Tristram, overhearing him, would have killed him had he been armed. Palamides stated he expected to die as Kehydius apparently had, for love of Isolde. She did not love him, and never would, and Palamides believed he could die by no better knight’s hands than Tristram’s. They agreed to fight a duel in fifteen days time, but Tristram was injured and could not make it, so once he healed he fought a lot of other people to make himself feel better. His homeland sent their pride, his admirers sent gifts, and he came home to Isolde every time, safe and sound. It seemed her love triangle had resolved itself exactly as she hoped.

Guinevere was not so fortunate. Due to a horrible combination of prophecy, rape and miscommunication, Lancelot went missing for two years. And who did Guinevere turn to in this terrible time? HER BEST FRIEND ISOLDE, THAT’S WHO. She wrote a letter telling her everything, and Isolde rejoiced when Lancelot finally returned. She wanted to go to court and see him, but her presence usually encouraged knights to challenge Tristram, so she told him to go without her. When he showed reluctance, she put her foot down on the subject. “What shall queens and ladies say of me?” she demanded, and Tristram duly went. With four knights, because Isolde put her foot down on that too. She’s a queen, you know, and Tristram better not forget it.

On the way, Tristram met Palamides, who wanted to get their long-postponed duel over with, only this time Tristram was unarmed so they just yelled at each other for a bit before acknowledging one another’s courage. Another knight loaned Tristram the equipment he needed. The ensuing fight was a long and hard one, with Tristram at last victorious. After that they agreed, yet again, to be friends, and cemented it by going off to get Palamides baptised. Tristram and the knight who owned the armour (Sir Galleron, whom Palamides had been fighting before Tristram came along) became Palamides’ godfathers. They joined the celebrations in Camelot. Afterward, Tristram returned to Joyous Gard and Palamides chased the Questing Beast. It was the last time they would be together.

For three years, Isolde lived at Joyous Gard. One day, as Tristram sat harping for her – as he did during their first fumbling courtship – King Mark entered their home unseen and stabbed Tristram through. Tristram managed to take Mark with him before he died; Isolde fell in a faint upon her lover’s corpse, and never woke. In an alternate version, she begged Tristram to take her with him as he died, and he crushed her to death in his arms.

And that, believe it or not, is the optimistic version.

In the early romances, it was Queen Isolde of Ireland who was the healer, not her daughter. Tristram called himself Tantris, and it was at Isolde the Fair’s specific request that he entered the court, to teach her the harp. Forty days later, he had recovered his strength, and he departed without incident. Once back in the unfriendly court of Cornwall, he told his uncle of Isolde’s beauty, and Mark sent him to arrange a marriage. The timing was fortunate for Cornwall – Ireland was under attack by a dragon. In this story, Isolde’s father is King Goram, and he promised the princess to any hero who could slay the beast.

Needless to say, Tristram managed the feat and took the dragon’s tongue as proof. Unaware of its potent venom, he hid it under his shirt, and the contact with his skin was enough to knock him out. The dragon’s corpse was discovered by the opportunistic royal seneschal, who cut off its head and claimed Isolde. Suspecting deceit, she took her concerns to her mother and the two women went to find the real hero. They recognised the unconscious Tristram on sight as Tantris the Harper and the queen healed him once again. Queen Isolde then told her husband of Tristram’s claim. The king decided to settle things with a duel – and as Queen Isolde had supported Tristram, her life would be forfeit if he did not show up to fight.

In this version, it was Princess Isolde who noticed the notch in Tristram’s sword. She would have run him through in the bath if her mother’s life had not been on the line (plus her only other marriage option was to a man she despised). The two Isoldes reluctantly allowed Tristram to live. He explained his purpose in coming and pointed out that if Isolde married Mark, her children would rule over both Ireland and Cornwall. The seneschal ran away, and Isolde went with Tristram.

The queen hoped to ensure the stability of her daughter’s marriage with the love potion, but Tristram mistook the bottle for ordinary wine and drank it together with Isolde. The two of them had no particular bond before; now, they could not keep their hands off each other. This was a problem for two reasons: firstly, Isolde still had to marry Mark, and secondly, she was no longer the virgin he expected to get. Bragwaine took Isolde’s place on the wedding night, so that Mark would have a maiden to deflower, and apparently it was dark enough that he couldn’t tell the difference. Talk about taking one for the team. Bragwaine also gave the rest of the love potion to Mark, to ensure he would be passionately in love with Isolde.

This was not a good idea.

Despite Bragwaine’s support, Isolde did not trust her. This young woman had much harder edges than the one from Le Morte d’Arthur. She ordered Bragwaine be taken out into the forest and killed, and it was only the mercy of her servants that gave Isolde the time to reconsider. When she repented her ruthlessness, Bragwaine was returned safely to her, though I doubt Bragwaine ever felt safe with her mistress again.

There were those in Mark’s court who suspected that Tristram and Isolde were sleeping together and trap after trap were set for them. The lovers were crafty. One time Mark tried to catch them in the act by hiding in a tree beside the stream where they met, but Tristram glimpsed his reflection in the water and instead of hooking up, he and Isolde had a very serious conversation about Tristram’s career options, should his uncle not appreciate his presence at court any more. That was enough to allay Mark’s suspicion for a while, but eventually the lovers slipped up. Tristram left blood on Isolde’s sheets from a re-opened wound.

With actual evidence, Mark forced Isolde to endure an ordeal to prove her innocence. She was to take a hot iron against her skin, and if she told the truth, God would theoretically protect her. The ritual was to be held at Carlion, which gave Isolde enough time to come up with a plan. She had Tristram disguise himself as a peasant, who carried her from her boat to the shore, ostensibly to prevent her dress getting wet. On Isolde’s instruction, he stumbled. She landed on top of him. This way she could truthfully claim that no two men had been between her legs apart from King Mark and that (unnamed) peasant. In one account, she called on King Arthur and his knights to witness her oath and protect her. Gawain, Yvain and Girflet were present at the time, and took Isolde’s side. So it would seem did God, because Isolde passed the test.

Mark was unconvinced. According to one story, he banished the lovers; in another, he tried to have them burned at the stake, and when Tristram got away, handed Isolde over to a group of lepers in the hope that they would rape her. Tristram rescued her, and they fled together into the forest. Exhausted, the lovers fell asleep fully clothed, with a sword between them. Mark happened upon them and took this position as evidence of their innocence, so decided to try and reconcile with Isolde. After trying to have her raped. There is a significant divergence in different versions at this point – in one Isolde returns to Mark despite still loving Tristram, while in another the love potion’s effects wear off after three years, leaving the lovers bewildered and ashamed. Either way, Isolde returned to Tintagel.

As in Malory’s account, Tristram went to Brittany and married Isolde of the White Hands, though he did not love her. Defeating the giant Moldagog in battle, Tristram compelled him to make a startlingly life-like statue of Isolde the Fair so that he could come to Moldagog’s cave and feel he was in his lover’s presence. He also had a statue of Brangwaine, holding the love potion, which is a bit creepy. When his brother-in-law confronted him over his sham marriage, Tristram showed him the statues as Exhibit A and the two of them went to Cornwall in secret. Kehydius fell for Brangwaine. At first, she used a magical pillow to make him fall asleep every time he came to her, but on Isolde’s recommendation, Brangwaine eventually decided to have sex with him. Isolde and Tristram were obviously banging like a screen door in a hurricane, though Isolde was certainly not happy about Tristram’s marriage – especially as she’d had a knight called Cairado hanging around hoping to take Tristram’s place in her bed, and she’d point blank refused him.

The two sets of lovers did at last have to separate. While they were apart, Tristram was wounded in battle with a poisoned lance and he knew only Isolde the Fair could help him. The crew of the ship sent to fetch her were told to fly white sails if Isolde was aboard, black if she was not. They arrived with white sails flying but by then Tristram was too weak to leave his bed and out of jealousy, his wife told him the sails were black. Tristram died of despair. La Beale Isolde died of a broken heart. The lovers were buried side by side and a tree grew from each of their graves, the branches inseparably entwined. Though a furiously jealous Mark tried to hack them down, the trees grew back, unstoppable.

This version holds echoes of other myths – the significance of the sails is also present in the Greek myth of Theseus and Aegeus, while the grave trees are present in the Irish tragedy of Deidre and Naoise. Isolde is a fiercer woman, and a sadder one. Though I admire the early Isolde’s determination and cunning, it’s the Isolde from Le Morte d’Arthur I love best. She gets to grow up: from the girl who fell in love with a liar to the queen who walked out of her kingdom because she wasn’t going to let anyone hurt her any more. Her lover and her husband both abandoned her, she was kidnapped and humiliated, and what did she do? She made new friends. With their help, she made a new life.

No, she did not get a happy ending – but she was happy. And maybe that’s enough.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!


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