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Another painting entitled ‘Tristan and Isoldeand created by Herbert James Draper (1863-1920)half mind the idea of receiving the treatment ofa queen, so she would assume Isolde’s place inthe marriage bed.Their plan went off without a hitch, andthe threesome managed to fool King Mark forsome time. But, like any deception, the loverswere discovered in their trickery. Being a manof great pride, Mark could not let this treacherygo unpunished. He challenged his nephew toa duel. This time, Tristan is not victorious. Itmay be that he could not bring himself to raisea hand against his beloved uncle, who had beenlike a father to him. Likewise, Mark’s great lovefor his nephew trumped his wounded pride.But treason cannot go unpunished. So, Tristanis sentenced to banishment, rather than death.Tristan must depart Cornwall forthwith, and hetravels to the nearest Celtic kingdom, Brittany,across the sea.Tristan begins a new life in a new land,but remains faithful to Isolde for some time.Traveling through Brittany, Tristan performs– 36 –many heroic feats. After a time, he meets abeautiful woman who also bears the nameIsolde. She is known as Isolde of the WhiteHands. Because her beauty reminds him of hisown Isolde, Tristan marries this woman. He ishappy for a time, but never forgets his true loveover the sea.One day while riding through the Bretonforest, Tristan comes across a fair maiden beingencircled by six brutes about to do her harm.Tristan charges to her rescue and singlehandedlydefeats the men six to one. However, he ismortally wounded, and the maiden manages tohelp him onto his horse, who knows the wayhome.Upon reaching the castle, Tristan tells hisfriend, Sir Kahedin, who is his wife’s brother,that he can be cured only by Isolde, the former,if he can get a message to her. Kahedin, loyalas any knight can be, vows to retrieve Isoldefrom Cornwall. Impatient to receive the newsas soon as possible, Tristan asks Kahedin to use

white sails upon his return if King Mark agreesto release Isolde for this voyage, and black sailsif he does not. Kahedin agrees and sets sailimmediately.Despite everything that had occurred betweenthem, King Mark’s affection for Tristan is sogreat that he allows his wife to journey to the aidof her former lover to once again nurse him backto health. Thus, Sir Kahedin returns to Brittanywith white sails raised. However, Isolde of theWhite Hands has heard whispers of this otherIsolde and her liaisons with Tristan. Not willingto risk losing her husband to his long lost love,Isolde, the latter, lies to Tristan, saying thatblack sails bedeck Kahedin’s ship.Hearing this terrible news, Tristan’sdesperation was overwhelming. Believing thathe will never see his love again, the only onewho can cure him, he has no will to live. Ourbrave hero dies of a broken heart just beforeIsolde the former is able to reach him. Isolde’sheart is crushed to have arrived too late. Shecollapses in tears over the lifeless body of thelove of her life. Isolde, too, dies of her grief.And thus ends a tragic tale of two young loverswho were wrenched apart by family obligations,and reunited only when it was too late.‘Tristan and Isolde’ by Rogelio de Egusquiza, 1915Historical BackgroundAlthough the story of Tristan andIsolde is not often considered as inspiration forWilliam Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,”we can see some obvious similarities. A pair ofyoung lovers who were never supposed to betogether, dying young while one waits for theother, falsely thinking all is lost, and the femalecharacter collapsing over the body of her deadlove. We cannot know if Shakespeare hadTristan and Isolde in mind when he wrote hismasterpiece. But, we can be sure that he wouldhave been well aware of this story.The romance of Tristan and Isolde is speculatedto pre-date Shakespeare by approximately onethousand years, and may be based on an historicalperson. In fact, there is more evidence for anhistorical Tristan than there is for a real Arthur.There exists in Cornwall a megalith known as“the Tristan Stone.” The stone is thought to datefrom the 6th century A.D. Inscribed upon it arethe words (in translation) “Here lies Drustan,son of Cynvawr.” This stone is placed closeto Castle Dore, which is thought to have beenoccupied by local chieftains between the 5th and7th centuries. Cynvawr is strongly consideredto be one of these chieftains. Furthermore, amonk named Wrmonoc recorded in the 9thcentury that Cynvawr was the same person asKing Mark.Another early source are the Welsh Triadswhich discuss “Drystan, son of Tallwch.”There was a Pictish king known as “Drust, sonof Tallorcan” who is known to have lived inthe late 8th century, giving another plausiblehistorical origin to the figure of Tristan. Triad 71mentions “Drystan, son of Tallwch, for Essylt,the wife of his uncle March.” Though the detailsof this early version of the story differ from theversion described above, the names are clearlyvariations of eachother.Like the other Arthurian legends, Tristan andIsolde’s story is probably an amalgam of manyinfluences. Very similar plots are found in themedieval Irish tales, “Diarmaid and Grainne”and “The Wooing of Emer.” It is said that despitemany differences in the various versions of thisstory, the fact that Isolde is always depicted asan Irish princess may point to an Irish origin, orat least a strong Irish influence.Whatever its true origins are, it seems likelythat legends of Tristan began independently– 37 –

of those about Arthur. Perhaps the Irish talesmentioned above were grafted onto legendsof a true Cornish prince. Eventually, this talewas merged with Arthurian legend, and Tristanbecame a knight of the round table.By the high middle ages, Tristan and Isolde’slove story had become extremely popular.The story first circulated among the Celticlands mentioned above, as well as in CelticBrittany. From there it traveled outward amongthe Anglo-Normans and over to audiences inFrance and Germany. As Arthurian legendevolved over the centuries, tales of Tristan as aknight of the round table continued to be told, aswell as his and Isolde’s own independent lovestory. Their last medieval mention is in ThomasMalory’s famous fifteenth-century masterpiece,“Le Morte d’Arthur.” Afterwards, the story fallsoff the radar, apart from two minor exceptions,until the 19th century.Scottish poet Sir Walter Scot reignited interestin our two lovers in a poem about them whichwas included in his “Minstrelsy of the ScottishBorder,” published in 1802. Subsequent writersand poets who found inspiration from Tristanand Isolde include Alfred, Lord Tennyson,Thomas Hardy, John Updike, and Diana Paxson.Perhaps the most famous is Richard Wagner,who featured them in his German languageopera of the same name.Most recently, Tristan and Isolde appearedas the main characters in a 2006 film producedby Ridley Scott. Starring James Franco andSophia Myles, the film sadly received poorreviews by both critics and movie-goers. It maybe high time to bring this romance into the 21stcentury. Perhaps, if he isn’t busy filming anothermedieval epic, Peter Jackson would be up forthe challenge. It doesn’t hurt to ask!Bibliography:Lupack, Alan (2007). Oxford Guide to ArthurianLegend. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Snyder, Christopher (2000). The World of KingArthur. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd.The Camelot Project by University of Rochester:– 38 –

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