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Tristan and Isolde

Quick Facts

Him: Tristan, a Cornish knight and nephew to King Marke

Her: Isolde, an Irish princess

Setting: Pre-Arthurian Britain


Background

After conquering an Irish knight, Tristan brings Isolde back to be queen alongside his uncle in Cornwall, King Marke. Along the way, Tristan and Isolde drink a love potion and find themselves driven toward each other despite all that would stand between them – not least of all Isolde’s marriage to King Marke.


Story

Though two different stories have arisen with respect to Tristan and Isolde – including later accounts that have him as part of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table – both agree the young man from Cornwall headed northwest across the Irish Sea to battle Morholt, claiming land and a wife, Isolde, for his uncle, King Marke.

On the return voyage from the Emerald Isle, a magic elixir is consumed by both, though there are conflicting accounts of how this happens. In some versions, drinking the potion is accidental – it is said, for example, to be intended for Isolde and Marke – and in others it is believed to be a part of a conspiracy (Isolde gives it to Tristan intentionally, without him knowing it). Regardless of the plan, the two end up with a burning desire for each other and Marke is on the outside looking in.

Much like the tale of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and Lancelot, the major issue of the plot involves the love triangle caused by this spell. All three have mutual adoration for each other, yet the adulterous relationship threatens the safety of the fledgling Irish-Cornish Empire. Despite being accused of infidelity, the charges are not made to stick – until finally Marke decides he has the evidence he needs and resolves to execute Tristan and Isolde, him with a noose around his neck and her in the fire. A valiant escape on the way to the hangman’s perch allows Tristan to rescue Isolde, where they spirit away into the forest of Morrois. Once discovered by Marke, Tristan returns his lover to her husband and leaves for Brittany, where he takes a wife of the same name in one version. At the end of the story, the Prose Tristan has the angry king stabbing his nephew with a poisoned lance while Tristan plays the harp for Isolde. Other versions find the hero wounded while rescuing a young maiden from six knights and hoping his long-lost love can heal him, only to die of grief when he is told by his jealous wife that Isolde isn’t coming. When she does arrive, she is overcome with sorrow and passes away herself, allowing the two to be joined in death as they could not in life.


Reputation

For readers – and moviegoers, in the case of the 2006 film by the same name – the story has elements that are very familiar from other stories. In some circles, both the Arthurian legend and Shakespeare’s play Romeo & Juliet are said to have originated from the much older tale of Tristan and Isolde.

Upon first glance, it is easy to see how elements of this famous couple influence those of others. If not for the Victorian fascination with the Bard or the wider of reach Camelot, it might be the best-known love story of all. Of course, when you consider the similarities with the Persian tale of Vis and Ramin, theorized to have traveled back from the Holy Land with crusaders in the 11th century, you could say that’s already true.



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