User:Stoa/Tristan and Iseult

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The Tristanian legend of Tristan and Iseult of Ireland is retold in numerous sources with as many variations. The romantic narrative predated and most likely influenced the Arthurian romance of Lancelot and Guinevere. While the details of the story differ from one author to another, there are similarities in the main plot that are consistently seen.


The hero of the tale may have been based on a Scottish prince named Drust, the son of Talorc, who it is believed lived in Scotland c. 780. According to to some sources, Drust saved a princess from pirates and thus, the legend was born.

Originally the tale was completely unrelated to the Arthurian literature of that time, but shortly after the Vulgate Cycle (or Lancelot-Grail cycle) in c. 1235, the hero became a Cornish knight who had joined the fellowship of the Round Table, beginning with the Prose Tristan. Drystan's name also appeared as one of Arthur's advisers at the end of the Dream of Rhonabwy, an early 13th century tale in the Welsh prose collection known as the Mabinogion.

The story evolved as it was passed down the generations, but fell out of popularity during the Renaissance and was almost lost forever. However, it was rediscovered in the 19th century and quickly came to be held in wide regard as the ultimate tale of love, tragedy and destiny.


There are two main traditions of the Tristan legend. The early tradition comprised of the romances from two French poets from the second half of the twelfth century – Thomas of Britain and Béroul. Their sources could be traced back to the original, archetype Celtic romance. Later traditions come from the Prose Tristan (c. 1240), which was markedly different from the earlier tales written by Thomas and Béroul. The Prose Tristan became the official medieval tale of Tristan and Isolde that would provide the background for the writings of Sir Thomas Malory, the English author, who wrote Le Morte d'Arthur (c. 1469). {{spoilers}} Tristan, after having slain a dragon that is devastating the country, migrates to Ireland from Cornwall to ask the hand of the princess Iseult of Ireland, daughter of King Anguish of Ireland, for his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. He succeeds in betrothing the couple and is chosen to escort the princess to Cornwall. On the homeward journey, Tristan and Isolde drink a love potion that was prepared by the queen for her daughter and King Mark. Tristam and Iseult then go on to carry a liason which lasts for many years.

As with the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere love triangle, Tristan, King Mark, and Isolde all hold love for each other. Tristan honors, respects, and loves King Mark as his mentor and adopted father; Isolde is grateful that Mark is kind to her, which he is certainly not obliged to be; and Mark loves Tristan as his son, and Isolde as a wife.

Tristan's uncle eventually learns of the affair and seeks to entrap the his nephew and his bride. Also present is the endangerment of a fragile kingdom, the cessation of war between Ireland and England.

Mark eventually gets what seems proof of their guilt and resolves to punish them: Tristan by hanging and Iseult by trial by ordeal and then putting her up in a lazar house. Tristan escapes on his way to the stake by a miraculous leap from a chapel rescues Isolde from the leprosy house. The lovers escape into the forest of Morrois and take shelter there until they are discovered by Mark one day. They, however, make peace with Mark after Tristan's agreement to return Iseult to Mark and leave the country.

Tristan then travels on to Brittany, were he marries (for her name and her beauty), Isolde of the White Hands, daughter of Hoel of Brittany and sister of Sir Kahedin. In works like the Prose Tristan, the Post-Vulgate Cycle, and Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Tristan is wounded by a poisoned weapon, after battling with Isolde of Ireland's uncle Morholt (sometimes named Estult li Orgillusi. He mortally wounds Morholt, leaving a piece of his sword in the Irishman's skull, but Morholt stabs him with a poisoned spear and escapes. Tristan sends for the other Isolde, who alone can heal him. Isolde of Brittany watches the window for white sails signaling that the original Isolde is arriving to save Tristan's life with her herblore. She sees the white sails, but out of jealousy, tells Tristan that the sails are black, which was to be the signal that Isolde would not come. Tristan dies, and Isolde, arriving too late to save him, yields up her own life. In some sources it states that two trees grow out of their graves and intertwine their branches so that they can not be parted by any means. In others, it states that Isolde sets his body to sea in a boat then disappears and is never heard from again.

A few later stories record that the lovers had a number of children. In some stories they produced a son and a daughter they named after themselves; these children survived their parents and had adventures of their own. In the romance Ysaie the Sad, the eponymous hero is the son of Tristan and Iseult; he becomes involved with the fay-king Oberon and marries a girl named Martha, who bears him a son named Mark. {{endspoiler}}

Modern Adaptations[edit]

The tale was brought to life in the form of a spectacular opera, Tristan und Isolde, by Richard Wagner, which is considered one of the most masterful and intricate operas ever created.

The story has also been adapted into film many times. The most recent American film version was produced by Tony Scott and Ridley Scott, written by Dean Georgaris, directed by Kevin Reynolds, and stars James Franco and Sophia Myles (see Tristan & Isolde (film)).

Kneehigh Theatre toured the UK in 2005 with a production under the name Tristan & Yseult. In collaboration with the National Theatre they are touring internationally in 2006.

"The Maiden and the Minstrel Knight," a song from the power metal band Blind Guardian's album A Night at the Opera, is based on the story.

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