Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die..."
Tristan is much like Lancelot in that he stands for everything that is noble. He is chivalrous and kind. He is loyal and brave. You would want him on your side if you were going into battle. He would protect his fellow knights and countryman until the last drop of blood fell from his body.
His tale is also one of the oldest romantic stories ever told. But it traveled a great distance before becoming the story we now know...
I need to whisk you back to the Highlands of Scotland and to the home of the Picts, where a tale emerged of a young noble prince called Drust, who saved a beautiful princess from some terrible pirates.
The story then traveled to Wales where it became fictionalized (?)- Drust became Drystan and this Drystan became the nephew of a powerful King March. King March married the said princess, but the princess was in love with Drystan and he with her. The ultimate love triangle.
The story then weaved its way to the south of Britain and settled in Cornwall. Drystan became Tristan and Marsh became Mark. The tale traveled on to Brittany, before settling in France, where the finishing touches were put on to it. The tale has being mesmerizing English and French audiences ever since.
Bards once traveled from place to place weaving their magic with words, but there was no point in write such things down -- not many people could read after all, and listening to stories was the Dark Age equivalent to watching the television. The original Celtic tale of Drust and the pirates has long since been lost.
The story of Tristan and Iseult, that we now know, is the creation of one of those glorious French poets of the 12th Century. Béroul was the first to write down the tale of Tristan, but his version was hardly courtly and not at all fitting with the Arthurian theme to which the story is now associated with.
Thomas of Britain took up the story and he wrote the courtly version that became the forefather of the story we know today. Unfortunately, there are only fragments of the original manuscripts now left in existence.
The German poets then took up the challenge. Prose Tristan introduced the Arthurian legend to the tale and by 1469, Le Morte d'Arthur written by Sir Thomas Malory, an English author, cemented the tale firmly in the minds of the people.
The Tale of Tristan and Iseult.
Tristan is a Cornish knight and the nephew to the great King Mark. The tale is set during a trouble period of Cornish history. Mark was having to defend his kingdom against those troublesome barbarians from Eire, who kept on invading. He had offered them tributes to stay away. The Irish took the money, but they still kept coming and the war continued.
During one such nasty raid, Tristan fights Morholt, a vicious Irish warrior, and kills him, but not before Morholt leaves Tristan with a deep wound that will not heal, no matter what his kinsmen try.
There was a whispered rumor that there was a very skilled healer in Ireland that could possibly heal Tristan's wounds. Leaving his homeland in disguise, Tristan braves the rough Irish Sea and seeks out this woman who has the power to heal him. He knows only that her name is Iseult.
He finds Iseult. He is expecting to see an old hag, but Iseult is young and beautiful, and she is, without a doubt, the most compassionate person he has ever met. She heals him and sends him back to Cornwall. He praised her skills and her beauty to Mark, who is so taken with what he hears that he orders Tristan to return to Ireland and bring Iseult back to Cornwall so that he can marry her himself.
Tristan, ever loyal to his uncle the king, does as he is bid. But something strange happens on the way home. He and Iseult are drugged by a powerful love potion and they fall instantly in love with each other.
Although Iseult loves Tristan, she has no choice but to marry Mark. However, the love potion is so strong that she can not keep away from Tristan and the the two of them become lovers.
King Mark finds out about his wife and his nephew. They have committed treason and there can be only one outcome. Death. Tristan escapes on the way to the gallows and he rescues Iseult from being burnt at the stake.
Don't you think?
Tristan and Iseult hide out in the forest of Morrois -- in later texts it is said that Lancelot helped to conceal the lovers for a time -- but Tristan is noble and he can not live with what he has done.
Despite everything that has happened, Mark loves his wife and he loves Tristan - as if he were his own son.
Tristan returns Iseult to her husband and he banishes himself to Brittany where he meets Iseult of the White Hand, daughter of Hoel. He marries her, despite still being in love with Iseult, the Queen of Cornwall.
The years go by and out heroes age...
Tristan is injured while trying to rescues a young woman from six villainous knights. The wound is fatal unless he is treated by the Queen of Cornwall. He sends for Iseult. He asks that if she comes, then the ship must sail back with six white flags. If she refuses to come, then the ship must sail with black flags instead of white. The ship comes and Tristan, who is too weak to rise from his bed, asks his wife what colour the sails are. In a fit of jealous rage, she tells him they are black. Tristan dies thinking his first love has forgotten all about him. Iseult arrives to save her former lover, but she is too late - he is already dead. She dies of grief that same day.
The dead lovers are taken back to Cornwall and buried. From their graves spouted a hazel tree and a honeysuckle, and as they grew they intertwined around each other. Mark had the branches cut back three times, but each time they would regrow and wrapped themselves around each other. And Mark released that their love was indeed a very great thing. After that he left the trees alone.
And so ends the tale.
It is the greatest and saddest of love stories.
The Tristan stone.
The Tristan stone is a long, 2.7 m, tall granite pillar near Fowey in Cornwall. It dates around AD 600 and is inspired with these words: