Great Irish Romances: Tristan and Isolde

The tale of Tristan and Isolde was one of the most influential romances in the medieval period. It predated and influenced the Arthurian romance of Lancelot and Guinevere.

Originally, the Tristan legend had nothing to do with King Arthur, but shortly after the Vulgate Cycle (or Lancelot-Grail cycle) in c. 1235, the Prose Tristan, the hero had joined the fellowship of the Round Table.

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 and Beroul. Their sources could be trace 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 Beroul. The Prose Tristan became the official medieval tale of Tristan and Isolde that would provide the materials for Sir Thomas Malory, the English author, who wrote the Le Morte d'Arthur (c. 1469).

I have decided to retell the early tradition in full, since it was closer to the original tale. The Prose Tristan (found in Alternative Accounts) would be briefly told at the end of the early tradition.


The Real Tristan

The real Tristan may have been the Pictish prince, named Drust, a son of Talorc. Drust was believed to have lived in north of the River Forth, Strathclyde and the Highlands, Scotland, in c. 780. Here, the story of Morholt, originated, with Drust saving a princess from pirates.

By the time story had reached south into Wales, Drust had evolved to Drystan, the son of Tallwch. The love triangle between King March, Essyllt (March's wife) and Drystan (the king's nephew) had been introduced along with the hero killing a dragon. The king's name - March, may have means "ass' ears", which explained why the latter legend says that he had the ears of horse or ass. This tale of March resembled that of King Midas, who also tried to prevent people from learning of his deformity.

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 Mabinogion.

Drystan may have derived from Drust, but the Welsh Drystan was clearly a fictional and romantic figure, compared with that of the historical Drust.

From Wales, the story may have found its way to Cornwall before arriving in Brittany. The legend of Tristan must have further developed in Brittany, before it was brought before the French and English audience, as we have it now.


Early Traditions

In the early tradition, I relied on two main sources for the romance of Tristan, both tales were written by French poets of the twelfth century: Beroul and Thomas (the later was actually Anglo-Norman).

There was an earlier and perhaps the original work of Tristan, which both authors may have relied on, since many of the plots were similar, and yet there was enough difference between these two versions. However the original Tristan story is now lost.

Beroul's romance was considered to be the uncourtly version, because it was less refined, and some of the scenes and the behaviours of the characters were brutal at times. Beroul may be closer to the original source, since he may have relied on oral tradition.

On the other hand, Thomas wrote courtly version of the romance. Thomas was much more interested in the inner thoughts of the characters. Though the theme and plot were still the same as those of Beroul, his style and some of the scenes were different from that of Beroul.

Neither romance had survived completely. Both were fragmented, however Thomas' version survived in several different manuscripts. Beroul's text can be only found in one manuscript. Beroul's work was missing the beginning (eg. birth and childhood of Tristan up to the time a knight taken Isolde from Mark by playing the harp) and the ending (Tristan exiled to Brittany to the lovers' death). While a great deal of the middle parts was missing in Thomas' romance.

Chretien de Troyes may have also written his own version of the Tristan legend, which was probably titled "Mark and Iseut la Blonde". If this is the case, then his work is now lost. However, Chretien often allured to the scenes from his other romances, particularly in two of his early works called Erec and Enide and Clieges. It is clear Chretien knew of and understood the original work.

Most scholars used Eilhart von Oberge, a German writer who wrote "Tristrant und Isalde" (c. 1170), to supplement the lost Beroul's fragmented romance. However, Eilhart's poem is now lost, but there were redaction of his work in the 13th century.

While another German writer Gottfried von Strassburg wrote "Tristan und Isold" (c. 1210), and had based his poem on Thomas' romance. Other works based on Thomas' romance, included the Scandinavian "Tristams Saga og Isonde" (13th century), and the English "Sir Tristrem" (c. 14th century).

The reason why I have mainly used Thomas' version is because Beroul's version was missing the beginning and ending. However, I will often compare the two works where the scenes were different to one another.


Childhood of Tristan


Birth of Tristan

Rivalen, the lord of Armenye (or of Parmenie, according to Gottfried von Strassburg). According the Prose Tristan, Tristan's father was named Felix. In the archetype version, Beroul's version and that of the Prose Tristan, Tristan's father was the King of Leonois or Lyoness. Armenye was definitely located in Brittany, but Leonois had been variously located in Brittany or even in Lothian Scotland.

Rivalen held fief with Morgan, the duke of Brittany, though Rivalen won independence for Armenye.

One day, Rivalen went to Cornwall, where he became the guest of King Mark in Tintagel. Rivalen fell in love with Blancheflor (Blanchefleur), the beautiful sister of King Mark.

When Rivalen fought in a war beside Mark, he was seriously wounded. Blancheflor secretly visit Rivalen, in his chamber. The wounded knight made love to Blancheflor, who conceived a child that night.

Rivalen had to return to Armenye when he heard that Morgan had invaded his home during his absence. Blancheflor went with him, since she was bearing his child.

Rivalen had fallen in battle against Morgan. Blancheflor was inconsolable with grief over his death, and spent three days in labour, before giving birth to a son. Blancheflor wanted to leave the infant in her brother's care. Blancheflor left the infant, her ring, which Mark would be able to identify when Tristan visit him later. She named the child Tristan, because giving birth to him had only brought grief to her and delivering him would kill her. Blancheflor died shortly after giving birth to infant.

According to some writers, including Beroul, only Blancheflor died, while Rivalen survived the war against Morgan. Rivalen placed Tristan in Governal's care. Governal was a tutor and loyal companion of Tristan.



Roald de Foytenant, Rivalen's loyal marshal, brought up Tristan as his own, to hide the child from Morgan, Duke of Brittany. Roald gave Tristan the education suitable for a lord. Tristan's tutor was named Governal.

Tristan was well-educated, learning art and music. Tristan knew how to speak seven different languages. Tristan was also trained in all the skills required of a nobleman. He was taught how to ride, fence, to hunt and venery. Tristan was also educated on how to rule, learning intrigue, laws, and customs of the government.

When Tristan was fourteen Governal took the youth to the dock. While playing chess on a ship, the Norwegian merchants saw the youth, and decided to kidnap him and sell him as slave to the Irish.

However, they thought that the God was angry with them for abducting the youth, when a violent storm broke out. They decided to leave Tristan on unknown shore. From there Tristan found his way to Tintagel.

(According to Beroul's version, the poem says that Tristan left with Governal searching for adventure. Tristan arrived at King Mark's court, secretly hiding his identity from his uncle, preferring to serve the king as a knight-errant. King Mark admired Tristan's skills that the youth became a favourite of Mark.)

King Mark was so impressed with Tristan's skill in hunting that he had placed the youth in charge of his huntsmen and his armoury, unaware that Tristan was his nephew.

Roald had to search for his foster-son for four years, before he found Tristan's whereabouts. Roald immediately left his home for Cornwall.

Roald came to Mark's court, informing the king that Tristan was the king's nephew; that Tristan was the son of Rivalen and Blancheflor, Mark's sister. Roald revealed the ring that belonged to Mark's sister.

Mark received his nephew with joy. Mark made Tristan a knight, providing the young man with armour and destrier (French term for the knight's war-horse). On his shield was the image of wild boar, which is the normal emblem of Cornwall. Tristan also received twenty squires and a hundred knights to serve the young hero.

With these knights, Tristan returned to Brittany to reclaim his father's land. Tristan avenged his father's death, by killing Morgan in battle.

Instead of becoming duke of Brittany, Tristan conferred the title and land to his foster father, Roald de Foytenant. Tristan preferred to live with his uncle, so he returned to Cornwall.

Within a short time, Tristan had become the champion of Cornwall.



Shortly after his return Cornwall, a powerful duke from Ireland, named Morholt (named Marhaus in later legend), demanded tributes from King Mark. Morholt was a brother-in-law of King Goram of Ireland. Goram had married Isolde the Elder, sister of Morholt. Morholt was a giant and a very powerful knight.

Tristan realising that no knights in Cornwall would want to face Morholt, decided to challenge the Irish warrior in single combat. Three days later, the two knights met on an island of St Samson.

Tristan destroyed his own boat, so that only the winner in the duel could leave the island alive. After a fierce battle, Morholt received a mortal wound, while Tristan's wound was less serious.

However, Morholt, who was dying, inform his opponent that he (Tristan) would die of his wound too, since Morholt had smeared his weapon with poison. Only his sister, Queen Isolde of Ireland, could heal Tristan.

Morholt died, Tristan left the island on the boat. Tristan told Morholt's men, to take their leader back to Ireland, sending a message to Gorom that the only tribute the king he would receive from Cornwall was Morholt's body. The Irish knights left Cornwall with Morholt's body.

Queen Isolde the Elder and Morholt's niece, Isolde the Fair, mourned for Morholt's death. Queen Isolde found in Morholt's wound, a small piece of Tristan's sword fragment was lodged in Morholt's head. Morholt' niece and the Queen's daughter was also named Isolde, normally called Isolde the Fair, kept the splinter with her.

So to not confuse the reader, I will call the queen's daughter, either Isolde the Fair, Isolde de Blonde or Princess Isolde. While I will always call the princess' mother, either Queen Isolde or Isolde the Elder.


Wooing of Isolde


Tantris the Dragonslayer

Tristan soon realised that what Morholt had told him was the truth. Tristan found that no physicians in Cornwall could heal his wound. The wound gave off pungent odour, which many people could not bear to be in Tristan's presence.

Tristan decided to take the risk of going to Ireland and trying to get Queen Isolde to heal her brother's enemy. Tristan decided to disguise himself as a musician, and changed his name to Tantris.

Tantris played the harp, so beautifully, that Isolde the Fair wanted to learn how to play. Since Tantris was wounded, the queen healed the hero. The Queen removed the poison with herbs, unknowingly healing her brother's killer. (In the other version, it was the Queen's daughter who healed Tristan.)

After forty days, Tantris had fully recovered from his wound. During that time, Tanstris spent many days with Goram's daughter, teaching her the art of playing a harp. Then, Tantris decided it was time for him to leave.

Mark rejoiced that his nephew had fully recovered from his wound.

According to Beroul's poem, three noblemen in King Mark's court were jealous of the king's admiration and love for his nephew. These noblemen were named Ganelon, Godwin and Denoalan. Tristan became the king's closest companion. They had also envied Tristan's prowess in his duel against Morholt and in his wars against the neighbours of Cornwall, yet each of them dared not challenge him in mortal combat. Throughout the poem, Beroul often called these three noblemen as villains.

Beroul show great dislike for the three noblemen and as well as the hunchback dwarf, who served as Mark's adviser. For a writer, he showed great prejudice against those who opposed Tristan and Isolde.

As Mark's closest relative, Tristan was heir to the throne. These noblemen did not want Tristan as the king's heir or as their future king. They planned to rid of Tristan.

The noblemen advised the king that he should marry and sire an heir, but Mark was quite happy to name Tristan as heir. King Mark astutely knew of the noblemen's enmity towards his nephew, so he was determined to avoid marriage.

One day, Mark saw a bird with a single strand of beautiful, golden hair in its beak. Mark told his advisers that he would only marry a woman, whose hair match those of the bird had in its beak. This caused angry protests from the noblemen.

Tristan told his uncle of Princess Isolde's great beauty, but since Cornwall and Ireland were enemies, it was not likely that Mark could ever become Isolde's suitor.

The advisers saw a way to rid of Tristan. They suggested to Mark that the king's nephew should win Isolde's hand for his uncle. Tristan agreed to go. The noblemen hoped that Morholt's family would penetrate Tristan's disguise and kill him.

Once again, Tristan journeyed to Ireland. Fortunately, Tristan found a way to win king's daughter.

When Tristan had left Ireland, a dragon had beset Ireland. King Goram had promised to reward any hero, his daughter's hand in marriage, if the suitor could kill the dragon. Armed for battle, Tristan sought out the dragon's lair.

Tristan killed the dragon and cut off the dragon's tongue as proof of the kill. Tristan had placed the tongue under his shirt. When the hero went to drink from water by the river, the venom from the dragon's tongue overcame Tristan, and he passed out.

Goram's seneschal had found the dead dragon. With no dragonslayer in sight, the seneschal assumed that the knight had died killing the dragon. The seneschal, who lusted after Princess Isolde, decided to cut off the dragon's head, so he could claimed that he had killed the dragon.

The seneschal's claim of slaying the dragon surprised everyone, since they all knew of his reputation as a coward. Isolde did not believe that the seneschal had killed the dragon, and was distressed that she would have to marry him; she brought her protests to her mother. Queen Isolde agreed with her daughter. So they decided to find the real dragonslayer.

The two women found the dragon's headless body, but no dead knight. When they reached the river, they found Tristan's unconscious body; clearly this knight had fought the dragon. They also recognised Tristan, as Tantris the Harper.

The Queen and her daughter secretly brought the hero back to the palace, where the mother healed Tristan. When Tristan regained conscious, he told them how he had killed the dragon, and the poisoned from the severed tongue had rendered him unconscious.

Queen Isolde brought Tristan's claim to her husband Goram. The seneschal tried to refute Tristan's claim, since he have the dragon's head. They challenged one another to single combat. Goram set the next day for the duel.

Since Goram's wife had favoured Tantris' claim (Tristan), Queen Isolde was answerable to Tristan's appearance in the duel the next day. Meaning that if Tristan does not turn up for the appointed duel, then Queen Isolde's life was forfeited, along with that of Tantris'.


Recognition in the Bath

That night, as Tristan was bathing, Princess Isolde went to clean Tristan's sword, when she noticed a notch on the sword blade. When she compared it to the splinter found in her uncle's head, Isolde had realised that she had found the man who had killed her uncle (Morholt).

Isolde was about to kill Tristan in his bath, with the hero's own sword. Tristan told her that if she kill him, Isolde would have to marry the seneschal whom she despised. Even worse, her mother would lose her life, if Tristan did not appear in the duel. Isolde had no choice but to spare uncle's killer.

Isolde told her mother about Tristan's true identity. The Queen reluctantly agreed with her daughter that they must help Tristan, since the Queen's life was at stake. Tristan told them that he tried to win Isolde's hand for his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. If Isolde were to have any children, they would be rulers of both Ireland and Cornwall. This seemed to be an attractive offer to Isolde's parents.

The next day, Tristan proved that he was the true dragonslayer, by revealing the tongue of the dragon. The seneschal may have the entire head, but the dragon's missing tongue proved that the seneschal had not killed the dragon. The seneschal fled, since his life had been forfeit.

Queen Isolde revealed Tristan's true identity to her husband. The king agreed to forgive and pardon her brother's killer, if the younger Isolde was to wed King Mark.


Trysts and Ordeals


Love Potion

Before Tristan and Isolde the Fair left Ireland, Queen Isolde had prepared a love potion for her daughter and King Mark. The Queen gave the philtre to Brangwain, her daughter's companion and maidservant, to administer the potion to her daughter and the king (Mark), because she suspected that her daughter would not be happy being wife to the Cornish king, a much older man.

As Tristan sailed back to Ireland with Isolde, they became thirsty. Tristan found the bottle of wine containing the love potion. Together they shared the wine, and fell instantly in love with one another. They made love on the ship before arriving in Cornwall.

Brangwain discovered what had happened to her lady and inform the lovers. The lovers realised what had happen, but could not control their passions for one another. Though Tristan knew that Isolde must still marry his uncle, Isolde had already lost her maidenhood to him.

At Tintagel, King Mark welcomed his bride, and fell instantly love with the beautiful Isolde. When they were wedded, they retired to the bedchamber. In the bridal bed, Isolde switched places with Brangwain. To cover Isolde's loss of virginity Brangwain would sleep with Isolde's husband in the dark. Therefore Mark would take Brangwain's maidenhood, but think that it was Isolde's.

Once again, Isolde spent the night in her lover's arms. Before daylight, Isolde would leave Tristan and secretly return to her husband's bed.

According to Thomas, in the morning, Brangwain gave the rest of the wine containing the love potion to Mark, so that the king would be madly in love with Isolde.



Though, Isolde got away with committing adultery with Tristan and deception of Brangwain taking her place, she realised that her loyal companion may betray her one-day. So Isolde ordered two serfs or squires to take Brangwain out into the forest and kill her.

Brangwain knew what her mistress had plan for her, so when the serfs brought her to the woods outside of Tintagel, she did not resist. The serfs taking pity on the girl just tied her to a tree before returning to the queen.

When the two serfs told Isolde that they had killed her companion, Isolde was overcome with grief and remorse. Seeing the Queen's real feeling for Brangwain, the serfs then told Isolde that they had lied to her and that they had not harmed Brangwain.

They brought Brangwain back to the queen. Isolde was happily reunited and reconciled with Brangwain.


The Rote and the Harp

One day, while Tristan was absence from court, an Irish knight named Gandin, came to King Mark's court, who played the rote so beautifully, that Mark would give him anything if he would play some more. After the performance, Gandin asked for Isolde. Since the king had promised before all those at court, Mark had no choice but to hand over his wife to Gandin.

Gandin rode away with Isolde, heading towards a ship. Gandin and Isolde encountered a harpist. It was Tristan, who played with great skill that he had enchanted the knight. The knight asked Tristan to come Ireland with him.

When they came upon the ship, the tide was high, causing difficulties for getting Isolde to the ship. Tristan offered Gandin to take the young queen to the ship, upon his horse.

As soon Isolde mounted Tristan's horse, the lovers rode away. Gandin angrily asked why he was committing such treachery of stealing Isolde from him. Tristan told Gandin he had tricked the king with rote, while he had deceived Gandin with the music from his harp.

When Tristan brought Isolde back to his uncle's court, Tristan rebuked his uncle for giving foolish boon to stranger.


Tricks and Traps

As time went by, some people began to suspect the relationship between the king's wife and his nephew.

In Thomas' poem, a nobleman, named Mariadoc, was King Mark's steward. At first, Mariadoc was a friend of Tristan, but when he discovered Tristan making love to his queen, Mariadoc was outraged that the lovers would commit adultery and treason against their king. Mariadoc became the bitter enemy of Tristan and Isolde. Mariadoc decided to bring this before his king's attention.

The king could not believe Mariadoc accusation. The baron or barons suggested that the king should ask a question, and gauge her answer.

The baron or barons suggested that Mark should ask his wife, who should look after her when the king goes to a long hunting trip. Isolde had replied that Tristan should be the one, not realising that her husband was testing her.

Isolde was delighted that she would be alone her with lover during her husband's absence. Isolde excitedly told the news to Brangwain. Brangwain was astute enough to detect that the king was trying to entrap Isolde. Brangwain advised that Isolde should reconsider her decision (answer), and tell the king that she does not really like Tristan.

At first, Mark was relieved when Isolde told him this. However, when the king suggesting sending him away, Isolde told him, he should not do so on her account. Mark's suspicious returned.

Mariadoc told the Mark to ask a dwarf named Melot, to spy on the king's wife and nephew.

In Beroul's version, there were three noblemen who hated Tristan. They advised the king to employ the dwarf named Frocin, to expose Mark's wife and nephew. Frocin was a magician. Frocin promised to help and bring proof of the lovers' treachery.

Tristan and Isolde were secretly planning a meeting by the river. Frocin found out about their plan, and told the king to hide in the tree.

In both versions, Frocin or Melot found out the lovers' rendezvous, under a tree by the brook. King Mark went there himself, hiding up a tree.

That night, Tristan and Isolde secretly went to the tree. Tristan saw the reflection of his uncle, while Isolde saw the shadow of her husband hidden up in the tree. They realised someone had informed the king of their love affair. They were now aware that Mark was suspicious of their relationship.

Instead of kissing and making passionate love under the tree, they talk about the noblemen using their influences with the king against them. While the king eavesdropped on his wife and nephew, they invented lies, like if his uncle no longer trusts him that he should leave his service, and find another kingdom where his skills were of use.

After hearing their distressed but feigned conversation, King Mark regretted having doubts of his wife's and nephew's loyalty. Though he now believed that they were innocent, his advisors continued to fuel his suspicions and doubts.


Flour on the Floor

In this episode, Thomas and Beroul told the same event with different reasons and outcomes.

Again, the three noblemen told the king of their suspicion that his wife and nephew were having affair and lying about their relationship. According to the law back then, Tristan and Isolde were committing treason. The three noblemen insisted that the dwarf set a trap for the lovers.

According to Beroul, the dwarf Frocin told the king to sent Tristan to King Arthur in Carlisle with a message. The king and the dwarf would sleep in the same room with his wife and nephew, before Tristan leaves in the morning for Carlisle.

Thomas' poem says that the dwarf (Melot) would set a trap for the lover, when they went to bed at night.

As they turn in for the night, Mark would sleep in the bed with his wife, while Tristan slept in another bed. The dwarf would sleep on the floor. In the cover of darkness, the dwarf would put flour on the floor between the two beds. Tristan puzzled over what the dwarf was doing.

The king would leave the room with the dwarf, pretending to go on errand, leaving Isolde alone with Tristan. When Tristan looked at the floor, he could see the flour sprinkled between the two beds.

Tristan leaped across the room to the bed that his uncle and Isolde were sharing, and made love to the queen. According to Beroul, that morning, Tristan had gone hunting and received a wound from wild boar, but in Thomas' version, the surgeon had bled Tristan along with Isolde and his uncle (which was common practice in the Middle Ages).

In either case, Tristan's wound had reopened when they were making love. When Tristan heard noises of his uncle's return, the hero leaped back to his own bed, pretending to be sleeping.

Mark and the dwarf found no footprints on the floor between the two beds, but they found trial of blood on the floor. Mark also found blood on Tristan's bed, and on the sheet of his own bed.

According to Thomas, Mark knew that Isolde was lying when she told him that her wound had reopened. Mark was saddened by Isolde's lies. However, Mark did not arrest them.

It was different in Beroul's version. When he found the blood on the floor and the sheet of his bed, Mark had accused them of cheating on him and charged them of treason. Tristan and Isolde were immediately arrested.


Ambiguous Oath

What happened next in Thomas' poem was that the bishop of Cornwall informed Isolde of her husband's suspicion over her relationship with the king's nephew. Isolde told her husband that she agreed to undergo a test to prove her innocent, by ordeal of the hot iron.

Isolde had it set out to take place witnesses at Carlion. To save herself, she sent a secret message to Tristan to disguise himself as a peasant.

At Carlion, Isolde had to take a ferry across the river. Since the bank was muddy, she recognised Tristan (disguised as a peasant), called him. She ordered the peasant to carrying her on his back to the dry shore. Isolde climbed on his back, lifting her dress to prevent her dress getting wet.

Isolde whispered her instruction to Tristan. As they reached dry land, Tristan pretended to stumble and fall. Isolde landed on top of Tristan, so that her legs were straddle around Tristan.

Tristan (as the peasant) immediately left after this, staying with Duke Gilan in Wales, while Isolde stayed in Carlion.

The next day, Isolde sworn before Mark and other nobles that she had never had any man between her legs, with the exception of her husband and the peasant (Tristan), whom she fell on top, at the riverbank. Then Isolde bravely took the hot iron on her arm, and seemingly without pain. Though her oath was rather ambiguous, she did not lie, so God protected her from the burning iron.

In Beroul's romance, Isolde did not take swear the oath until she return to her husband, after her exile with Tristan in the Forest of Morrois.

The three noblemen insisted Isolde was guilty. To prove her innocence to Mark and everyone in court, Isolde would vindicate herself before everyone. Since Isolde was living away from home (Ireland), she had no one to protect her name. So she decided to swear the oath before King Arthur and his knights from the Round Table. They would be her protectors if she swore the oath before them and God.

Among the knights who attended Isolde's vindication at Gue Aventurous were Gawain, Evain (Yvain) and Gerflet (Girflet). They were outraged that the King Mark believed the three noblemen of Isolde committing adultery.

Here, the same thing happened with some slightly different detail to Thomas' version. Isolde was not required to undergo the ordeal of the hot iron, but to make her vow in the presence of Arthur and his knights. Tristan was disguised as frail leper instead of the peasant in Thomas' version. Also Tristan carried Isolde on his back, through a bog, not the muddy riverbank.

She swore the same oath that she had no other man between her legs with the exception of her husband and the leper who had carried her through a bog.

Of the two poems, Beroul's episode was much more entertaining.


Forest of Morrois

The following scenes were differently written by the two authors. First, I will tell Thomas' version before I tell Beroul's.

According to Thomas and Gottfried von Stassburg, Mark tiring of bearing his doubts and suspicions of the relationship between his wife and nephew, despite Isolde having undergone the ordeal by fire, the king ordered the lovers to leave his court. Mark could not execute them, so he banished the lovers to the forest. Both Tristan and Isolde left the court, hand in hand, secretly rejoicing that they would be able to live together.

Tristan and Isolde found shelter in the cave at the forest of Morrois, where Tristan hunted for their food.

In Beroul's version, Tristan and Isolde had been arrested since the Flour on the Floor incidence. Mark decided to have his wife and nephew burn at the stakes. Tristan failed to persuade his uncle of Isolde's innocence.

As the guards lead them to the stakes, Tristan asked them to at least allow to pray in the church before he was to die. In the chapel, the only mean of escape was through the window. However, the chapel was situated on top of a high cliff. Tristan fearlessly jumped down below, landing on the sand without injury. Tristan believed that God was on his side, otherwise he would have jumped to his death.

When Mark heard that Tristan had escape, instead of burning his wife at the stake, he decided to give Isolde to a group of lepers who were likely to rape her.

Governal was afraid that King Mark might also arrest him as an accomplice, decided to leave secretly. Governal wore Tristan's armour and sword, before riding out. By fortunate event, Governal met Tristan on the beach.

After Tristan put on his armour on and mounting his horse, Tristan decided to rescue Isolde from the stake.

Instead Tristan found Isolde surrounded by lepers. The hero charged into them and plucked Isolde from lust-crazed lepers and rode away into the forest.

Beroul's poem shows that Tristan and Isolde was living in hardship at Morrois compared that to Thomas' work. They feared that Mark and his retinues would discover their hiding place.

But the Cornish nobles feared to enter the forest after Governal killed one of the nobles whom had betrayed Tristan and Isolde.

Tristan had a dog called Husdant (Hodain) was suffering from withdrawal, since Tristan's escape, leaving his faithful hound behind. King Mark taking pity on the hound, decided to release it. Husdant followed tracks from the city to the Tristan's hiding place in the forest.

Though Tristan was happy to be reunited with his hound, the hero decided to kill the hound or else risk captured by his uncle's men. It was a hound's instinct to bark when it located the prey. Isolde did not want her lover to kill his hound, so Tristan decided to teach Husdant to hunt games without barking. It took a whole month for the Husdant to silently track his prey.

Also, the lovers met the friar hermit named Ogrin, who rebuked the lovers for living their lives of mortal sin: adultery. Tristan and Isolde explained their reasons why they can't control their love and passions for one another - namely the love potion. Ogrin recognised that Tristan and Isolde could not be blamed for betraying their king.

In both versions, Mark discovered where they were staying in the woods. That day, Tristan and Isolde were very tired, and fell to sleep with the sword between them. Fortunately, Tristan and Isolde were still wearing their clothes when they fell asleep.

When one of Mark's huntsmen found the cave with the lovers in it, he informed the king on his finding. The King hoped to kill the lovers as they slept.

However, the King was filled with regrets when he found them. Mark thought they were innocent, since they slept with their clothes on and with a bare sword between them. Mark suffered from remorse for suspecting them of carrying illicit affair.

Because the sun was shining on Isolde's face, Mark placed his glove lightly over her face, so that it shaded her face. Then Mark returned to his court, informing of his intention of reconciling with Isolde.

In Beroul's version, the king was going to kill the lovers in their sleep. But when he saw that they were not naked and a sword was lying between them, he thought that he might have mistaken about their relationship.

Mark exchanged his sword with that of Tristan's. The king also covered Isolde's face with his glove and exchanged the ring he had given her with that the one that she had given him.

The reactions of Tristan and Isolde in the two poems were completely different, when the lovers realised that the king had discovered where they were hiding.

In Thomas' tale, the lovers were filled with shame and guilt for betraying their king. Mark could have easily killed them as they slept. The lovers decided that Isolde was to return to her husband.

Beroul says that the lovers feared that the reason the king had left them so that he could find his men to capture them. The two fled from forest and out of Cornwall and stayed in Wales.

They lived in hardship in Wales for three years. By this time, the effect of the love potion had finally worn off. Tristan and Isolde realised that they have been living in sins and hardship.

Here, was one of the fundamental differences between Thomas' and Beroul's romances. Beroul had the limitation to the potion's potency; after three years the love potion no longer affected them. With Thomas, the effect of the love potion had never abated.

They returned to the Friar Ogrin in Cornwall (in the Beroul's tale), telling the hermit that they were longer under the influence of the love potion. They decided the right thing to do was to reconcile Isolde with her husband. Ogrin sent a messenger to King Mark.

King Mark was still in love with his wife, told his court of his decision, to reconcile and take back Isolde. The three noblemen persuaded the king that he should not take back his nephew Tristan.

When Mark and Isolde were reconciled, Tristan would be exiled. Tristan challenged any man who believed that Isolde was guilty of committing treason and of sinfully loving Tristan. Tristan was the greatest knight in Cornwall; none of the three noblemen (Ganelon, Godwin and Denoalan) had the courage to face Tristan in the battlefield.

Tristan parted from Isolde, leaving his faithful hound in Isolde's care while Isolde gave him her ring.

Mark became angry with the three noblemen when they told the king Isolde had not yet been vindicated. Isolde told her husband that since she had no relatives in Cornwall, therefore she had no protector. Isolde told her husband that she must find a protector elsewhere. Since in the kingdom of Logres, King Arthur had the finest knights in the world, she would make her request to the Knights of the Round Table to be her champions. She would vindicate herself in their presences. (See the Ambiguous Oath).

The following events were only found in Beroul's poem.

After her vindication and reconciliation with her husband, Tristan secretly met Isolde. The three noblemen found out about their rendezvous from a spy; they decided to expose the lovers. Godwin was sent to spy on the lovers behind the curtains of Isolde's bedroom window.

The next night as Tristan went to meet with Isolde, he saw Godwin ahead, so he decided to ambush the unsuspecting noblemen. However Godwin took a different direction. Fortunately, he saw Denoalan and decided to take his revenge on the other. As Denoalan passed Tristan, the hero immediately attacked and beheaded the villain before he could cry out. Tristan decided to take some of Denoalan's hair and show it to Isolde.

Godwin arrived at Isolde's bedroom before Tristan and waited behind the curtains. When Tristan arrived, Isolde got up to greet her lover when she saw the shadow of Godwin's head at her window. Isolde was struck with fear that someone was spying on her.

Tristan was unaware of the spy, when he revealed Denoalan's hair to Isolde. Isolde fearfully asked Tristan to demonstrate his skill with the bow. Tristan suspecting something was wrong, obeyed her instructions, and notched one of his arrows to the string. By this time, Tristan noticed Godwin's shadow at the bedroom window. Tristan turned and the released the arrow at Godwin. The arrow pierced Godwin's eye and entered his brains.

With the death of two noblemen that night, Isolde told Tristan to flee immediately.


Tristian in Brittany


Marriage of Tristan

Banished from his uncle's court, Tristan left Cornwall and went to many kingdoms, serving and fighting for one king or another in many wars. Finally Tristan returned to Brittany.

In Beroul's poem the Duke of Brittany was Hoel, while in Thomas romance it was Roald de Foytenant, Tristan's foster father. Whichever poems you may read, the Duke was the father of a son named Kaherdin and a daughter named Isolde of the White Hands.

(Hoel had also appeared in the Arthurian legend, as either Arthur's uncle or cousin. This Hoel was the cousin or nephew of Arthur, whose niece, Helena or Elaine, was raped and killed by the giant, during the Roman War.)

Tristan helped the Duke of Brittany in several wars, where he became a close friend of Kaherdin. Tristan sang a song of Isolde the Fair, whom he missed and longed for. When Kaherdin overheard Tristan's singing a sad song of loneliness and longing for the Fair Isolde, he thought that his new friend was singing about his sister, who was also called Isolde. Kaherdin told his father, and both would like to see Isolde of the White Hands marry off to the valiant hero.

When they asked Tristan if he wish to marry the Duke's daughter, Tristan understood of their confusion over the two Isoldes. Since he believed that he would never see Isolde the Fair again, whom he thought had forgotten him and was now enjoying herself in Mark's bed, he agreed to the marriage. Beside, Tristan thought that the Breton Isolde was also quite beautiful, if not as beautiful as Isolde the Fair.

The marriage was one that Tristan would soon regret, because he couldn't stop thinking about the Irish Isolde. Though Isolde of the White Hands was now his wife, he could not consummate their marriage, claiming that his old wound still affected him. The Breton Isolde accepted Tristan's claims without suspecting the real causes.

One day, while the hero was in the forest, Tristan fought and defeated a giant named Moldagog, who had been ravaging the country. In return for sparing Moldagog's life, the giant now served the hero. Whenever Tristan wanted to be alone with his thought, he would secretly go to Moldagog's cave. His longing for Isolde of Ireland was such that he had Moldagog construct an image of Isolde the Fair. The statue was so life-like that Tristan would spend many hours either staring at it or pretending he was holding the real Isolde in his arms. Tristan had one statue that look like Brangwain, who was holding the love potion in one hand. His fetish reminded me the tale of the Roman tale of Pygmalion and Galatea.

One day while Kaherdin was riding out in the forest with his sister, some water had splashed on to Isolde's thighs, as they crossed a ford. Isolde jokingly said that the water was bolder than her husband. Kaherdin was incredulous that Tristan had not consummated their marriage.

Kaherdin went and confronted Tristan about the hero relationship with his sister. Tristan confessed to his brother-in-law that he was really in love with Isolde of Ireland, who was the wife of King Mark, his uncle. To prove that Isolde the Fair was more beautiful than Kaherdin's sister, Tristan showed his friend the statues of Isolde and Brangwain in Moldagog's cave. It was only when Kaherdin saw the statue of Isolde the Fair that he could not believe anyone could be lovelier. Kaherdin even thought that Brangwain was more beautiful than his sister.

Note that Beroul told the same scene about Kaherdin finding about Tristan's secret from his sister at the ford, but left out all scenes about the giant and the images in the love grotto. The only way that Tristan could convince Kaherdin of the beauty of Isolde the Fair was to take his companion to Cornwall, to secretly meet the woman that Tristan loved.


Return to Cornwall

In the Thomas' poem, a knight named Cairado was in love with Isolde the Fair; he wanted to become her new lover. Isolde dismissed his pursuit for her love. Cairado informed her if Tristan was in love with her, why he would marry the daughter of the Duke of Brittany. This news upset Isolde but still she refused to love Cairado.

Tristan and Kaherdin arrived in Cornwall, where he managed to set up a secret meeting with Mark's wife. They left their horses with their two squires. At first, Isolde was angry with Tristan for marrying another woman, until they reconciled.

Kaherdin was quite captivated by the beauty of Isolde and her companion, Brangwain. Kaherdin wanted to become Brangwain's lover. While Tristan made love to Isolde, Kaherdin fell to sleep before he could make love to Brangwain. Brangwain had a magic pillow that would make anyone to fall instantly in a slumber. The same thing happened in the next two nights, where Brangwain tricked the poor Kaherdin. Finally Isolde taking pity on Kaherdin told her companion that she should accept Kaherdin's love, which Brangwain readily agreed.

Meanwhile Cairado found the squires of Tristan and Kaherdin, who he mistakenly thought was Tristan and Kaherdin. The squires immediately fled from Cairado. Cairado thought Tristan and Kaherdin were cowards.

When Tristan and Kaherdin left Isolde and happily returned to Brittany. Cairado confronted Isolde, and told her that Tristan and Kaherdin were cowards.

This news upset Brangwain. Brangwain berated Isolde for letting her sleep with a coward (Kaherdin), as well as blaming her mistress that she had sacrifice her virginity to King Mark that no one would accept in marriage.

When Tristan and Kaherdin visited them again in Cornwall, the hero was also subjected to abuse from Brangwain. Tristan and Isolde managed to appease and reconcile with Brangwain when Kaherdin faced and challenged Cairado. Kaherdin ran a lance through Cairado when they jousted.

Again, Tristan secretly made love to Isolde, before he returned to his wife in Brittany.


Death of Tristan and Isolde

How Tristan received the mortal wound was different in the two poems. In Thomas' romance, Tristan helped a dwarf who was also named Tristan, whom I shall call – Dwarf Tristan.

The Dwarf Tristan appealed to the hero for aid, because Estolt the Proud of Castle Fer had abducted his beautiful mistress. While the two Tristans went to Castle Fer to rescue the dwarf's mistress, they were attacked by Estolt and his six brothers. The Dwarf Tristan was killed in the fighting. Estolt and his brothers were all killed. Again, Tristan was wounded with a poisoned lance.

According to Beroul, Tristan was helping Kaherdin to win the love of married lady. It was her husband who killed Kaherdin and wounded Tristan with the poisoned lance. Tristan managed to avenge his friend before Tristan returned to his wife in Brittany.

In either case, Tristan knew that only Isolde the Fair could heal him. Tristan sent a messenger with a ring that Isolde had given to him or else his friend Kaherdin (if he was not dead) went to fetch Isolde. If he returns with Isolde he should sail back with white sails hoisted, otherwise the ship should return with black sails. This reminded me of the story of Theseus and his father King Aegeus, who arrange the same signals.

When Isolde recognised the ring or Kaherdin and heard the news of Tristan dying, Isolde set out immediately to save her lover.

Tristan health had deteriorated further. The only thing that allowed him to cling to life was the thought of Isolde saving him. Tristan's wife, Isolde of the White Hands was the first to spot the ship with the white sails. The Breton Isolde had become increasingly jealous of her namesake. Out of spites, Isolde told her husband the ship coming in had black sails.

Tristan thought that Isolde the Fair had finally failed him. The hero just gave up wanting to live. Tristan turned his face to the wall and died.

Isolde the Fair arrived to find the people already mourning for Tristan's death. Grief-stricken, Isolde rushed to find that her lover was already dead. Isolde lay down beside Tristan, with her lips against his, and died with her arms around him.

King Mark had his wife's and nephew's bodies returned to Cornwall, where they were buried. In a single night, two grew trees grew miraculously from both graves, with the branches intertwined. The two trees became the symbol of their love.

Out of jealous rage, Mark hacked and burned down the trees. But the trees grew again the following day. Mark tried to destroy the trees again, only to have the trees grow back the next day.

So end the romance of Tristan and Isolde.

Read about other Great Irish Romances at our Grá XOXO headquarters page.


Originally published at

Image: Tristan and Isolde as depicted by Herbert Draper (1863–1920)

Views: 1254

Tags: Brittany, Celtic, Cornwall, Folklore, History of Ireland, Literature, Love, Medieval, Mythology, Romance, More…Valentine's Day, Women

Comment by Nichole Cardillo on February 12, 2017 at 10:17am

Thank you for filling in a lot of gaps from previous versions I had heard.  Wonderful article!


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