Tristan and Iseult
In Tristan’s time Ireland was a threat to England and Scotland, demanding tribute in wealth or people to keep the peace. One day Tristan won a great battle, killing the renowned Irish warrior Morold. The young hero was badly wounded, and it was foretold that he would find healing in the country of his enemy. So Tristan set sail for Ireland alone, riding waves of fever and sickness. In Ireland a woman brought Tristan back to health, and her name was Iseult, although she too has been known by other names. In the beginning neither knew the other’s true identity, for Tristan’s healer was the daughter of the Irish king; her mother’s brother was the man Tristan had slain. When the two knew each other for who they really were hatred gradually dissolved into liking, perhaps love.
Once recovered from his hurts Tristan returned to court and told King Mark of his adventures. When it came time for the king to seek a wife he remembered Tristan’s tales of the beautiful Iseult, and saw that marriage to such a woman could create a bond between nations which could keep his shores safe. So he sent Tristan to the Irish court to offer Iseult marriage to a king. The offer was accepted, and Tristan and Iseult and her servingwoman travelled together from Ireland to England. Unfortunately, during the journey, Tristan and Iseult discovered a love potion destined for the newly wed couple, and in innocence drank from the bottle. Thus their love was cemented – some say for evermore, some say for a few years only.
Iseult married her king, and for years a triangle of love ensued, with Tristan and Iseult stealing moments wherever and whenever they could to be together. Yet Iseult loved her husband also, though with a love lesser than that she felt for Tristan, and Tristan honoured and respected his kinsman and king.
King Mark discovered the lovers’ secret; he fought Tristan and exiled his nephew, retaining his wife. Tristan in his travels met another woman with Iseult’s name who claimed love for him, yet he knew in his heart his love would always be for the Irish woman who had healed him and stolen his heart. In Brittany Tristan was wounded in a fight, and knew he would die without healing. He sent for his Iseult, asking that should she be a passenger on the returning boat it would fly a white sail; should she not be present the sail would be black. In the darkness of misplaced love the Iseult at Tristan’s bedside told him the sail of the returning boat was black, at which point the spirit left him and he died. When his Irish Iseult arrived - having travelled on a boat with with a white sail - and saw her lover dead, she laid herself down to die beside him and never woke again.
This is one telling of many, and you may hear other versions of this story of courtly and romantic love. They may be written in English or French or German, or languages of other nations touched by Tristan and Iseult’s story. This is an old tale, whose content, characters, locations and plot can vary. Tristan’s story was told before tales of King Arthur, yet such a hero was a natural addition to the Knights of the Round Table, whose lives followed paths of chivalry, mystery and love.
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