Tristan and Isolde

a Celtic legend
as recorded in the medieval epics of
Gottfried von Strassburg and Thomas of Britain
and retold by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2003-2013

Before now many have told the love story of Tristan and Isolde, but none have done so more faithfully than Thomas, and it is primarily his authentic version that I, Gottfried, follow in presenting to all noble hearts the following tale of love, sacred yet forbidden, healing yet destructive, fulfilling yet frustrating, tyrannical yet benevolent. All with noble hearts will understand. May this tale enhance their minds, enrich their lives, and fortify their love.

In Parmenie, a domain in Brittany, there lived a noble lord named Rivalin. Wishing to gain the experience and learning that can only be obtained by foreign travel, Rivalin set sail for the mighty castle Tintagel in Cornwall, where he wished to join the court of King Mark, whose chivalry, polish, and courtly grace were known well beyond his double realm of Cornwall and England.

Rivalin participated in a great jousting festival held by King Mark, where he proved himself both a paragon of courtly charm and a champion of knightly skills. Hence he was well received by King Mark's royal court, and very cordially welcomed by King Mark's beautiful sister Princess Blancheflor.

During Rivalin's stay at Tintagel an enemy invaded Cornwall. Noble Rivalin joined his host in defending his realm. He fought bravely, but while repelling the invaders he was severely wounded. King Mark's men carried him, half dead, back to Tintagel. The beautiful Princess Blancheflor, hearing that the strange knight lay nearly dead, disguised herself has a medicine woman and thus gained entry to his quarters. Seeing her beloved lying there more dead than alive caused her to swoon, and she fell down beside him, her cheek against his. Slowly regaining consciousness, she took him into her arms and kissed him repeatedly. Her kisses revived him, and as God willed it, they consummated their love, and she conceived a child.

Thus it came to pass that Rivalin recovered completely from his battle wound, although he never would recover from the sweet wound of Blanchefor's love, and that was as it should be.

Not long afterward Rivalin learned that an old enemy was threatening his own realm, Parmenie.

"I must sail home," he said to Blancheflor," and explained the necessity of his sudden departure. Knowing that his absence would put the beautiful princess in grave danger, because of her strict guardian and brother King Mark, Rivalin arranged for her to sneak away in the dead of night and join his retinue. They arrived safely in Parmenie, where they were received by Rivalin's faithful marshal Rual.

Rivalin's and Blancheflor's first act upon arriving home was to have their union sealed according to Christian rite. Soon afterward he had to leave his new bride to defend his realm. A fierce battle ensued, and on both sides many brave knights were killed. Tragically, good and noble Rivalin was among the dead. The terrible message was carried to fair Blancheflor, and upon hearing the grievous news, she fell to the ground, twisting and turning with grief and with the pangs of childbirth. On that tragic day Blancheflor bore a healthy little son, but she herself did not recover.

Faithful Rual and his good wife adopted the orphaned boy as one of their own, thus hiding him from his deceased father's enemies. Because of the events surrounding his birth they named him Tristan from the word "triste," which stands for sorrow.

Tristan was taught all the arts of chivalry: foreign languages, music, horsemanship, athletics, tournament skills, and courtly pastimes. He proved himself an able learner, soon surpassing even his tutors in these arts and skills, and many more.

One day -- Tristan was now fourteen years old -- a merchant ship from Norway pulled ashore not far from the castle where Tristan lived with Rual and his family. Curious about the traders' offerings, Tristan and his two brothers (as he supposed Rual's sons to be) approached the ship. Tristan's attention immediately turned to a chess board and a set of beautifully carved pieces.

"Do you play chess?" he asked the merchants in perfect Norwegian.

One of them accepted his challenge, and they sat down to play.

Fascinated by his grace, skill, and good looks, the Norwegians hatched a plot to kidnap him. Keeping him engaged with the chess game, they weighed anchor and set sail. But by God's will a fierce storm arose, and the Norwegians feared that they would all perish. Sensing that their wicked act had brought about the tempest, they avowed that they would immediately release their captive if the storm would only abate. The wind and waves immediately slackened, and in keeping with their promise, they set the boy free on the nearest shore, which, as fate would have it, was on the coast of Cornwall.

Tristan, sole alone, wandered through the wilderness until he came to a forest trail. This led to a wider path, which in turn brought him to a country road. On this road he met two pilgrims.

"Dear child," they asked, "who are you, and what has brought you to this wild place?"

Tristan cautiously told them a pretty tale. "I was born in this land," he said in perfect Cornish. "I came out hunting with some of my countrymen early today, but somehow I have become separated from them."

The pious pilgrims took him under their care and continued their journey.

Not long afterward they heard the sound of horns, horses, and hounds, and Tristan said, "That will be my hunting companions. Thank you for your company. I must leave you now and rejoin my party." And with that he walked in the direction of the sounds.

The huntsmen had just killed a stag and were about to dress it out when Tristan approached them.

"No!" he shouted with authority. "You are doing it all wrong." And then with confidence and style he showed them how a stag should be dressed out, with all the ceremony befitting a royal hunting party.

Accompanied by their newly found companion and tutor, the huntsmen returned to Tintagel, for they did indeed belong to King Mark's court.

Impressed with the stranger's grace and skill, King Mark immediately appointed the boy (who unbeknownst to him was his own nephew, and the rightful heir to his throne) as his chief huntsman.

Hunting, of course, was not Tristan's only skill. He soon had opportunity to demonstrate the other courtly arts that he had learned, especially the art of music. His abilities on the harp, the lyre, and the fiddle -- indeed on all stringed instruments -- were unmatched by any minstrel in the kingdom.

"A fourteen-year-old boy has mastered all the arts there are!" said his astounded admirers."

King Mark soon made him his principal companion, confidant, and courtier.

Let us now return to Parmenie and poor Rual. Upon discovering that his foster son had been abducted, he immediately set sail in pursuit of the Norwegian merchants. He followed them for four long years, finally discovering where they had cast their prisoner ashore. He made his way to Cornwall, and in spite of his ragged and unkempt appearance was recognized by Tristan, now a person of power and influence. Rual revealed everything that he knew of Tristan's background both to his foster son and to King Mark.

Elated to learn that the boy whom he had grown to respect and admire was his own nephew, King Mark announced to his court that Tristan was the heir to his kingdom and vowed that to protect Tristan's inheritance and succession to the throne he, King Mark, would never marry. Soon afterward, Tristan, in a regal ceremony, was invested with full knighthood.

Our story now takes us to Ireland, then ruled by King Gurmun and Queen Isolde. King Gurmun, through Queen Isolde's brother Morold, was in those years successfully extracting a tribute from Cornwall and England. Morold, a giant, collected the tribute, which grew more oppressive every year, but because of his great strength and skill, no one in King Mark's court dared challenge him.

Tristan determined to bring this oppression to an end and challenged Morold to a duel. "With right on my side I cannot fail!" he declared.

A small island off the coast of Cornwall, in good view of the mainland, was chosen for the battleground. Some say that this duel was a battle between two champions. In truth, it was a battle of eight. Morold had the strength of four men, but fighting on Tristan's side were God, Right, and a Willing Heart.

Each warrior betook himself to the island in a small boat, Morold first, followed by Tristan. Immediately upon landing, Tristan set his own boat adrift.

"Why have you set your boat adrift?" asked the giant.

"Only one of us shall return from this island," answered Tristan. "And your boat will be quite large enough for me."

The battle ensued with fury, and Morold was the first to draw blood, striking Tristan in the thigh with his sword.

"What now?" he gloated. "I have proven your cause unjust. You are wounded by a poisoned sword, and my sister, Queen Isolde, is the only person alive who might cure you. If you will accept your liability for tribute, I will take you to her; otherwise you are doomed."

Tristan answered by charging his horse against Morold's steed, bowling it over and upsetting the rider. Morold tried to remount, but Tristan caught him with one foot in the stirrup and the other on the ground. With one mighty blow Tristan cut off one of the giant's arms, and with a second blow he split his opponent's head, leaving a splinter from his sword embedded in the dying man's skull.

"What now? he shouted. "You seem to be rather seriously wounded yourself! You are in a bad way! You too could use your sister's doctoring!"

With that he cut off the giant's head, and then triumphantly returned to the mainland, applauded by cheering onlookers.

Morold had spoken the truth, and as time passed, Tristan's wound grew ever more serious. Knowing that without Queen Isolde's help he would soon perish, he called for a few trustworthy men, and they set sail for Ireland. They dropped anchor offshore from Dublin, and Tristan had himself put in a small boat with a little food and water and his harp.

Near death, but still able to play exquisitely on the harp, Tristan lay in the bottom of the boat playing. Soon some Dubliners heard the sweet music coming from the drifting boat and went to investigate. The wounded man claimed to be a court minstrel who had been kidnapped and injured by pirates, then set adrift to perish at sea. The dying stranger, whose charm and musical ability impressed everyone, was taken to the queen, whose healing skill was unequalled near and far.

"You poor minstrel," she said, "you have a poisoned wound."

"Is that true?" replied Tristan. "I place myself in God's hands. May he reward anyone who might help me."

"I can help you, good minstrel," replied the queen. "What is your name?"

"Tantris," he replied.

"My countrymen, the ones who rescued you, claim that you play the harp most beautifully. Is that so?"

The minstrel responded by playing a few strains, which so impressed the queen that she said, "I will cure you if you will become my daughter's tutor."

Tristan promised to do so. The queen began her cure forthwith, and the minstrel was soon able to begin tutoring the princess, whose name was also Isolde, and whose beauty knew no equal. Isolde the Fair proved to be an eager and gifted pupil, playing the harp exquisitely under Tristan's tutelage and singing most beautifully with his accompaniment. Indeed, her singing was so magical that it could well be compared to that of the sirens.

By now Tristan had fully recovered, and he wished to return to his home in Cornwall. Knowing that Queen Isolde would not readily give him leave to go, Tristan told her that he had left a beloved wife at home, to whom he owed his first loyalty. The good queen, not wanting to violate the vows of holy wedlock and the bonds of marital love, wished Tristan farewell and gave him his leave.

Tristan arrived safely in Cornwall, where he was joyously welcomed by King Mark, but jealously received by the king's barons, who found it unseemly that their king was foregoing marriage in order to protect a nephew's inheritance. They sought at every turn to discredit Tristan, and to make Mark renounce his vow to never marry.

Now some say that at this juncture a swallow brought a single hair of Princess Isolde's from Ireland to Cornwall, and that this hair was so imbued with the princess's beauty that King Mark fell in love with it at once, then insisted on marrying its former owner. But this tale is pure fantasy, and whoever tells the story thusly is talking nonsense! The truth of the matter is that Tristan, in reporting how he had tricked the Irish queen into healing him, gave all deserved praise to the beauty and courtly charm of Princess Isolde. In this manner did King Mark decide that if he were to marry at all, Princess Isolde of Ireland, and she alone, would be his bride. Not only would she be a beautiful and royal bride, but their marriage would bring him a powerful ally in the Kingdom of Ireland. But how could he, the mortal enemy of her mother and father, hope to woo her?

Tristan volunteered to be his uncle's spokesman and once again set sail for Ireland. He knew that Ireland was being plagued by a fierce dragon, and that the king had offered the hand of his daughter to whomsoever could kill the grisly serpent. Armed with faith and hope, plus a spear and a sword, he sought out the dragon and attacked it bravely. A fierce battle ensued. The serpent defended itself with smoke and fire, then counterattacked with teeth and claws, but in the end Tristan was victorious.

The dragon lay dead before him. With great effort he pried open its great jaws, cut out its tongue, put it into his shirt as a trophy, then walked away. Exhausted from the fight and poisoned by the tongue inside his shirt, Tristan nearly lost consciousness. He kept himself alive by dragging himself into a cool pond, where he lay with only his head above water.

Meanwhile, the king's chief steward, who had long made unseemly advances toward Princess Isolde, but whom she had always refused, came upon the dead dragon. Seizing the opportunity, he brought back friends to witness that he had killed the dragon, thus claiming the right to marry the princess. They cut off the dragon's head and carried it to the castle as proof of his deed.

Princess Isolde was beside herself in anguish when she learned who was claiming the right to marry her, and she shared her grief with her mother, the queen.

Now Queen Isolde was well versed in the arts of magic, and a vision came to her in a dream, a vision that showed her a handsome stranger pursuing the dragon, killing it, then falling exhausted and ill to the ground.

Mother and daughter together ran to the spot where the dragon had been killed, hoping against hope to find the hero who had actually defeated the serpent. Their hopes were realized when they discovered Tristan, again more dead than alive, lying in the pool of water. Seeking to revive him, they discovered and removed the poisonous dragon's tongue, then Princess Isolde recognized him.

"This is Tantris the minstrel!" she cried.

"Are you Tantris?" asked the queen.

"Yes, I am," answered Tristan, already somewhat recovered.

"And what brings you back to Ireland?" asked the queen.

"I have come in the company of a group of merchants," he claimed. "But we were ill received by your countrymen. I knew that a dragon was laying waste to your land, so I sought to kill it in order to gain her majesty's favor and protection, thus enabling us to trade at peace with your people."

The queen accepted this story and replied, "Tantris, you have done us a great service, and you have my word of honor that no harm shall befall you in Ireland. And furthermore, I will use my medical abilities to bring you back to health."

And so it came to pass that Tristan became Queen Isolde's patient for a second time. The princess aided her mother in nursing the sick man, and she found herself repeatedly looking at him, scanning his body, his hands, and his face. What she saw pleased her very well -- very well, indeed.

One day he was in his bath when Isolde quietly stole in. She looked at him, then at his clothing and weapons which lay nearby, then at him again, then at his sword. There was a nick in his sword. She studied it carefully.

"Heaven help me!" she said to herself. "I recognize that nick. I have seen the missing piece. It is the piece that was taken from my Uncle Morold's skull!"

She immediately picked up the sword and held it threateningly over the defenseless Tristan. "Who are you?" she shouted. "How did this sword come into your possession? This is the sword that the Cornish knight Tristan used to kill my Uncle Morold!"

"I am Tantris the minstrel," said he.

"Tan-tris, Tris-tan, Tan-tris, Tris-tan," she said speaking the syllables forward and backward. "Tantris and Tristan are one and the same, and they both shall die with this sword!"

She raised the sword ready to strike, but just then her mother the queen entered the room. "Are you out of your senses?" she asked.

Without relaxing her grip on the sword, Isolde the Fair quickly explained her suspicions to her mother.

The mother replied, "Be he Tantris the minstrel or Tristan the knight, I have given him my oath of protection, and that oath must be honored!"

Tristan took advantage of this reprieve and said, "Listen, dear ladies. I admit that I have caused you severe grief in the past, but it was only under great duress. I can and will make amends to you. I know that Princess Isolde is being claimed by an unworthy man whom she loathes. I promise to you both that I will put an end to his unwarranted claim, and at the same time arrange for the princess to marry a noble and powerful king."

Mother and daughter accepted his offer, and Tristan finished his bath in peace.

The first part of Tristan's offer was easily fulfilled. At a public ceremony the steward presented the dragon's head to the king and insisted that he be given the princess, as promised.

Tristan made his appearance. "Did the dragon have a tongue when you killed it?" he asked.

"But of course. What sort of dragon would have no tongue?"

"A dead dragon. One whose tongue had already been cut out by the person who actually killed it."

So saying, Tristan pried open the dragon's jaws and revealed to all that the tongue was missing. He then produced the tongue, which fitted perfectly into the open space.

"You killed a dead dragon," continued Tristan, gloating. "It was already dead, for I myself killed it, and I have the tongue as proof."

The steward had no response, and retreated from the hall, pursued by the mocking jeers of all those assembled there.

The second part of Tristan's promise -- to arrange a marriage between Princess Isolde and a worthy king -- was also quickly fulfilled, for King Mark had already entered into such an agreement before Tristan had set forth on his wooing expedition.

Arrangements were quickly made for Princess Isolde to sail to Cornwall to become King Mark's bride.

To assure the couple's marital happiness, Queen Isolde prepared a love potion that she secretly gave to Brangaene, the younger Isolde's female companion and confidante.

"Guard this bottle with your life," she said, "and see to it that Princess Isolde and King Mark drink this potion together. It will make them love one another, and only one another, forever."

The passage to Cornwall was not a smooth one. Not only was there personal conflict between Tristan and Isolde, but there was stormy weather as well. The passengers and crew members were so beset with seasickness that Tristan ordered that the ship be brought to land at the earliest opportunity so they could walk about on firm ground and regain their well-being. Everyone went ashore except for Isolde, who chose to remain in her cabin, and Tristan, who stayed behind to console her.

They talked for a while about this and about that, and then Tristan asked if she did not have something to drink. They found a small bottle that they thought to be wine, then drank from it together.

That moment Brangaene returned. Recognizing the fateful bottle, she grabbed it from their hands and flung it into the raging sea. "Woe is me!" she cried. "My honor is finished! This drink will be your death!"

In an instant the enmity between Tristan and Isolde was gone. Isolde's hatred vanished, and Tristan's suspicions disappeared. They now knew only love and felt only desire for one another. They feasted on each other's eyes. Each one resigned body and soul to the other. This was the beginning of a love that would never die.

The weather turned fair, and once again the ship set sail for Tintagel. All the while Tristan and Isolde reveled in their intimacy, as was good and proper. However, their joy was not without concern. Isolde was King Mark's promised bride, and she was no longer a virgin. What could be done?

There is no need to make a long story of it. In short, Brangaene was asked to be a substitute bride for the wedding night, and she knew not how to refuse. Yes, King Mark married Princess Isolde with great pomp and ceremony, but under cover of darkness and disguise, it was fair Brangaene whom he took to bed that first night. Isolde was of gold. Brangaene was of brass. King Mark was satisfied with brass.

Time went by. Tristan enjoyed, as before, King Mark's complete trust and confidence. He also enjoyed King Mark's new queen.

There are many stories about trysts and escapes. The king's marshals and councilors, who always had been envious of young Tristan, suspected much, but could prove nothing. Not only were Tristan and Isolde clever, but they were lucky as well. It sometimes seemed that heaven itself had blessed their union, forbidden by some, but promoted and protected by fate. Mark, incited by his councilors, set one trap after another, but somehow Tristan and Isolde always escaped.

With time, however, Mark's suspicion grew so intense that Isolde came to realize that only dramatic proof would establish her innocence. Comfortable with the self-assurance that she was in the right, she agreed to undergo the ordeal of the red-hot iron. Yes, God would protect her and allow her to carry a red-hot iron without injury.

While the clerical arrangements were being made, Isolde secretly communicated her plan to Tristan.

Isolde and her party traveled by ship to the appointed site of the ordeal. They landed, but the water was too deep to allow Isolde to go ashore without getting wet. A pilgrim stood on the bank looking on. (Actually it was Tristan, in disguise, following Isolde's instructions.) Isolde had the pilgrim summoned to carry her ashore. He did as commanded, and she whispered into his ear to stumble and drop her as he climbed onto the bank. He did so, and the two of them fell together, lying next to one another on the ground. Her servants began to belabor the poor man with sticks, but she begged them to forgive him, as he was an innocent old holy man.

All was ready for the ordeal. The iron had been duly blessed and heated red hot. A priest received Isolde's oath: "I do solemnly swear, by all that is holy, and before these witnesses, that I have never lain with a man except for my husband King Mark and this holy pilgrim, as you all have just seen."

This oath being the sacred truth, God protected Isolde, and she carried the red-hot iron without injury. No one could now doubt her innocence, and Tristan and Isolde safely returned to their secret meetings.

Nonetheless, suspicions were quickly reborn and rumors rekindled. King Mark, in order to protect his honor, now saw no other option but to banish his nephew and his wife from his kingdom.

Gathering together a few necessities, Tristan and Isolde retreated into the woods where they found refuge in a cave, a cave that had been cut into a mountain as a place of refuge and love-making in heathen times. This cave became their temple of love. Its altar was a bed made of crystal. Tristan and Isolde lived together in this cave for many days, sustaining themselves, some say from hunting, but others say from love alone.

One day their solitude was interrupted by the sound of a hunting party: horses, hounds, and horns. Suspecting that the huntsmen might discover them, Tristan drew his sword, then placed it naked between himself and Isolde as they lay there on their crystal bed.

King Mark himself was in the hunting party, and just as Tristan had suspected, one of the huntsmen discovered the cave and peeped in through an opening. Observing the two lying on their bed, separated by a naked sword, the huntsman ran to King Mark and reported what he had seen.

Mark came and saw for himself his wife and his nephew separated by a sword, and he assumed that this could only be a sign of their fidelity and loyalty toward him: her fidelity as a wife and his loyalty as an honorable knight. So thinking, he brought them back to his court, restoring each to his or her former position.

But once again suspicions were reborn and rumors rekindled, and King Mark's jealous watch over his wife became ever more secure. With time the two lovers, frustrated with their increasingly unsuccessful attempts to be alone with each other, decided to separate. Tristan would seek his fortune in another land.

With fond memories and tender kisses they sorrowfully wished one another happiness for the future, each one knowing that it could not be so.

Isolde gave Tristan a ring, a sign of her undying love, and Tristan departed in deep sorrow, boarding the first ship for Normandy. For some time he sought distraction on the battlefield, seeking out wars and conflicts in foreign lands. Finally he settled on an island called Arundel between England and Brittany, where he offered his services to a knight named Kaedin, who had a beautiful unmarried sister. She was called Isolde of the White Hands.

Living in Kaedin's castle, Tristan frequently came into contact with Isolde of the White Hands, and with time he found himself becoming more and more attracted to her. He himself did not know why. Was it her beauty? Or was it her name? Was it the person? Or was it a phantom memory of times past that could never be relived? Was it the essence of love itself? He did not know.

Gottfried's account breaks off at this point, but the story, as told by Thomas of Britain and others, continues:

Tristan's feelings had no center. His frustration and confusion found no satisfaction. He could not surrender to his desires, for he did not know what he wanted. Finally he did what others expected him to do. He married Isolde of the White Hands. On their wedding night he did not sleep close to her, although it was obvious that she desired him.

"I have an old wound," he explained, "and tonight it is giving me much pain. I fear that any extra exertion will spread its poison throughout my whole body."

She accepted his explanation, and they fell asleep, together in one bed, but still apart.

Some time later Isolde of the White Hands was riding a horse in the company of her brother when they came to a pool of water.

"Just ride through it," shouted Kaedin.

And so she did, but when the water grew so deep that it splashed against her thighs, she let out a cry and a strange burst of laughter.

Later her brother asked her the meaning of this strange laugh.

She replied, "I laughed out loud because that bold water came higher on my thighs than my husband has ever done."

This confession troubled Kaedin greatly, and he confronted his friend Tristan for an explanation.

No longer willing to run away from the truth, Tristan told Kaedin everything: about the love potion, his love affair with Isolde the Fair, and his unsuccessful attempt to start life anew without her.

The conclusion of this tale is told in many ways, but I, Thomas, will tell you what I consider to be the true and authentic version.

While in the service of Kaedin Tristan was wounded by a poisoned spear. With great difficulty he made it back home. Knowing that only Isolde the Fair had the ability to cure him, he sent Kaedin to England, where Isolde now resided, hoping to convince her to return with him.

"Outfit your ship with a black sail and a white sail," instructed Tristan. "If she will return with you, then use the white sail, otherwise hoist the black sail. In this manner I will be able to know my fate before your ship lands."

Accepting these instructions and taking with him the ring that Isolde the Fair had given Tristan on his departure, Kaedin set sail for London.

Unbeknown to Tristan and Kaedin, Isolde of the White Hands had overheard their conversation, so she knew the purpose of her brother's mission and the code by which he was to report his success or failure.

Kaedin's mission was a success. As soon as she saw the ring, Isolde the Fair knew it had come from her beloved Tristan, and she joined Kaedin for the return trip. As instructed, Kaedin hoisted the white sail.

Tristan, lying on his sickbed, asked his wife if she could see a ship approaching.

"Yes, indeed," she replied, "there is one just a little way off."

"What color is its sail?" asked Tristan.

"It is a black one," she lied. "Solid black."

"God save you, Isolde!" was his only reply. "Dearest Isolde, dearest Isolde, dearest Isolde."

Then, on the fourth repetition of "dearest Isolde" he closed his eyes and died.

A short time later the ship landed, and Isolde the Fair came running to the spot where Tristan lay dead. She took him into her arms and lay next to him, with her cheek against his. "You have given up your life because of me," she cried, "and now, as a true lover, I shall die for you."

These were her last words.

The lovers' bodies were buried side by side. From his grave grew a vine and from her grave grew a rosebush. As they reached toward heaven the vine's and the rosebush's branches intertwined with one another, showing that in the end love conquers all.

Revised January 13, 2013.