Tristan and Isolde

From New World Encyclopedia

Tristan and Iseult as depicted by Herbert Draper (1863–1920).

The legend of Tristan and Iseult is an influential romance and tragedy, retold in numerous sources with as many variations. The tragic story of the adulterous love between the Cornish knight Tristan (Tristram) and the Irish princess Iseult (Isolde, Yseut, etc.), the narrative predates and most likely influenced the Arthurian romance of Lancelot and Guinevere, and has had a substantial impact on Western art and literature since it first appeared in the twelfth century. While the details of the story differ from one author to another, the overall plot structure remains much the same. The cosmic theme of conflict between good and evil, betrayal and loyalty, self-interest and selflessness, both externally and internally, as the best and the worst within heroes and struggles for dominance, is never far from the reader's mind. In different forms, as drama, opera, poetry, and prose, the tale has had an enduring attraction and has long since taken its place as a classic within the European literary heritage.


There are two main traditions of the Tristan legend. The early tradition comprised the romances of two French poets from the second half of the twelfth century, Thomas of Britain and Béroul. Their sources could be traced back to the original, archetypal Celtic romance. Later traditions come from the Prose Tristan (c. 1240), which was markedly different from the earlier tales written by Thomas and Béroul. The Prose Tristan became the common medieval tale of Tristan and Iseult that would provide the background for the writings of Sir Thomas Malory, the English author, who wrote Le Morte d'Arthur (c. 1469).

The story and character of Tristan vary from poet to poet. Even the spelling of his name varies a great deal, though "Tristan" is the most popular spelling. In Béroul's Tristan and Iseult, the knight is as brave and fit as any other warrior, but he relies on trickery and does not live according to contemporary ideals of chivalry.

In Béroul's tale, Tristan goes to Ireland to bring back the fair Iseult for his uncle King Mark to marry. Along the way, they accidentally ingest a love potion that causes the pair to be madly in love for three years. Although Iseult marries Mark, she and Tristan are forced by the potion to seek one another out for adultery. Although the typical noble Arthurian character would be shamed from such an act, the love potion that controls them frees Tristan and Iseult from responsibility. Thus, Béroul presents them as victims. The king's advisers repeatedly try to have the pair tried for adultery, but again and again the couple use trickery to preserve their façade of innocence. Eventually, the love potion wears off, and the two lovers are free to make their own choice as to whether they cease their adulterous lifestyle or continue. Béroul's ending is morally ambiguous, which differs greatly from his contemporaries such as Chrétien de Troyes, and adds a bit of mystique to the legend of Tristan.

As with the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere love triangle, Tristan, King Mark, and Iseult all hold love for each other. Tristan honors, respects, and loves King Mark as his mentor and adopted father; Iseult is grateful that Mark is kind to her, which he is certainly not obliged to be; and Mark loves Tristan as his son, and Iseult as a wife. But after they go to sleep every night, they would have horrible dreams about the future. Tristan's uncle eventually learns of the affair and seeks to entrap his nephew and his bride. Also present is the endangerment of a fragile kingdom, the cessation of war between Ireland and Cornwall. Mark gets what seems proof of their guilt and resolves to punish them: Tristan by hanging and Iseult by trial by ordeal and then putting her up in a lazar house (a leper colony). Tristan escapes on his way to the stake by a miraculous leap from a chapel and rescues Iseult. The lovers escape into the forest of Morrois and take shelter there until they are discovered one day by Mark. However, they make peace with Mark after Tristan's agreement to return Iseult to Mark and leave the country. Tristan then travels on to Brittany, where he marries (for her name and her beauty) Iseult of the White Hands, daughter of Hoel of Brittany and sister of Sir Kahedin.

In works like the Prose Tristan, the Post-Vulgate Cycle, and Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Tristan is wounded by a poisoned weapon, after battling with Iseult of Ireland's uncle, Morholt (sometimes named Estult li Orgillusi). He mortally wounds Morholt, leaving a piece of his sword in the Irishman's skull, but Morholt stabs him with a poisoned spear and escapes. Tristan sends for Iseult of Ireland, who alone can heal him. Iseult of Brittany watches the window for white sails signaling that Iseult of Ireland is arriving to save Tristan's life with her herblore. She sees the white sails, but out of jealousy, tells Tristan that the sails are black, which was to be the signal that Iseult of Ireland would not come. Tristan dies, and Iseult of Ireland, arriving too late to save him, yields up her own life. In some sources it states that two trees (hazel and honeysuckle) grow out of their graves and intertwine their branches so that they can not be parted by any means. It was said that King Mark tried to have the branches cut 3 separate times, and each time, the branches grew back and intertwined, so therefore, he gave up and let them grow. In other versions of the story, Iseult of Ireland sets his body to sea in a boat and disappears, never to be heard from again.

A few later stories record that the lovers had a number of children. In some stories, they produced a son and a daughter they named after themselves; these children survived their parents and had adventures of their own. In the romance, Ysaie the Sad, the eponymous hero is the son of Tristan and Iseult; he becomes involved with the fay-king Oberon and marries a girl named Martha, who bears him a son named Mark.

Origins of the legend

Early references to Tristan and Mark in Welsh

There are many theories present about the origins of Tristanian legend, but historians disagree about the most accurate one. There is the famous Tristan stone, with its inscription about Drust, but not all historians agree that the Drust referred to is the archetype of Tristan. There are references to March ap Meichion and Trystan in the Welsh Triads, some of the gnomic poetry, Mabinogion stories and in the late eleventh century, Life of St. Illtud.

Drystan's name appears as one of Arthur's advisers at the end of The Dream of Rhonabwy, an early thirteenth century tale in the Welsh prose collection known as the Mabinogion, and Iseult is listed along with other great men and women of Arthur's court in another, much earlier Mabinogion tale, Culhwch and Olwen.[1]


Possible Irish antecedents to the Tristan legend have received much scholarly attention. An ill-fated triantán an grá or love triangle features into a number of Irish works, most notably in the text called Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne or The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne. In the story, the aging Fionn mac Cumhaill takes the young princess, Gráinne, to be his wife. At the betrothal ceremony, however, she falls in love with Diarmuid, one of Fionn's most trusted warriors. Gráinne gives a sleeping potion to all present but him, eventually convincing him to elope with her. The fugitive lovers are then pursued all over Ireland by the Fianna. Another Irish analogue is Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin, preserved in the fourteenth century Yellow Book of Lecan. In this tale, Cano is an exiled Scottish king who accepts the hospitality of King Marcan of Ui Maile. His young wife, Credd, drugs all present, and then convinces Cano to be her lover. They try to keep a tryst while at Marcan's court, but are frustrated by courtiers. Eventually Credd kills herself and Cano dies of grief. In the Ulster Cycle there is the text Clann Uisnigh or Deirdre of the Sorrows in which Naoise mac Usnech falls for Deirdre, who was imprisoned by King Conchobar mac Nessa due to a prophecy that Ulster would plunge into civil war due to men fighting for her beauty. Conchobar had pledged to marry Deirde himself in time to avert war, and takes his revenge on Clan Usnech. The death of Naoise and his kin leads many Ulstermen to defect to Connacht, including Conchobar's stepfather and trusted ally, Fergus mac Róich, eventually precipitating the Táin Bó Cúailnge.

Some scholars have suggested that the eleventh century Persian story, Vis u Ramin, may have influenced the Tristan legend.[2]

Some scholars believe that Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe, as well as the story of Ariadne at Naxos might have also contributed to the development of the Tristan legend. The sequence in which Tristan and Iseult die and become interwoven trees also parallels Ovid's love story of Baucis and Philemon in which two lovers are transformed in death into two different trees sprouting from the same trunk.

Association with King Arthur

In its early stages, the tale was probably unrelated to contemporary Arthurian literature, but the earliest surviving versions already incorporate references to Arthur and his court. The connection between Tristan and Iseult and the Arthurian legend was expanded over time, and sometime shortly after the completion of the Vulgate Cycle (or Lancelot-Grail Cycle) in the first quarter of the thirteenth century, two authors created the vast Prose Tristan, which fully establishes Tristan as a Knight of the Round Table who even participates in the Quest for the Holy Grail.

Early medieval Tristan literature

Courtly branch

The earliest representation of what scholars name the "courtly" version of the Tristan legend is in the work of Thomas of Britain, dating from 1173. Only ten fragments of his Tristan poem, representing six manuscripts, have ever been located: The manuscripts in Turin and Strassburg are now lost, leaving two in Oxford, one in Cambridge and one in Carlisle. In his text, Thomas names another trouvère who also sang of Tristan, though no manuscripts of this earlier version have been discovered. There is also a fascinating passage telling how Iseult wrote a short lai out of grief that sheds light on the development of an unrelated legend concerning the death of a prominent troubadour, as well as the composition of lais by noblewomen of the twelfth century.

The next essential text for knowledge of the courtly branch of the Tristan legend is the abridged translation of Thomas made by Brother Robert at the request of King Haakon Haakonson of Norway in 1227. King Haakon had wanted to promote Angevin-Norman culture at his court, and so commissioned the translation of several French Arthurian works. The Nordic version presents a complete, direct narrative of the events in Thomas' Tristan, with the telling omission of his numerous interpretive diversions. It is the only complete representative of the courtly branch in its formative period. Preceding the work of Brother Robert chronologically is the Tristan and Isolt of Gottfried von Strassburg, written circa 1211-1215. The poem was Gottfried's only known work, and was left incomplete due to his death with the retelling reaching half-way through the main plot. The poem was later completed by authors such as Heinrich von Freiberg and Ulrich von Türheim, but with the "common" branch of the legend as the ideal source.

Common branch

The earliest representation of the "common branch" is Béroul's Le Roman de Tristan, the first part of which is generally dated between 1150 and 1170, and the latter part between 1181 and 1190. The branch is so named due to its representation of an earlier non-chivalric, non-courtly, tradition of story-telling, making more reflective of the Dark Ages than of the refined High Middle Ages. In this respect, they are similar to Layamon's Brut and the Perlesvaus. As with Thomas' works, knowledge of Béroul's is limited. There were a few substantial fragments of his works discovered in the nineteenth century, and the rest was reconstructed from later versions. The more substantial illustration of the common branch is the German version by Eilhart von Oberge. Eilhart's version was popular, but pales in comparison with the later Gottfried.

A common source

The French medievalist Joseph Bédier thought all the Tristan legends could be traced to a single original poem, adapted by Thomas of Brittany into French from an original Cornish or Breton source. He dubbed this hypothetical original the "Ur-Tristan," and wrote his still-popular Romance of Tristan and Iseult as an attempt to reconstruct what this might have been like. In all likelihood, Common Branch versions reflect an earlier form of the story; accordingly, Bédier relied heavily on Eilhart, Béroul and Gottfried von Strassburg, and incorporated material from other versions to make a cohesive whole. Some scholars still consider Bédier's argument convincing.

Later medieval versions


Contemporary with Béroul and Thomas, the famous Marie de France presents a Tristan episode in one of her lais: "Chevrefoil." It concerns another of Tristan's clandestine returns to Cornwall in which the banished hero signals his presence to Iseult by means of an inscription on a branch of a hazelnut tree placed on the road she will travel. The title refers to the symbiosis of the honeysuckle and hazelnut tree which die when separated, as do Tristan and Iseult: "Ni moi sans vous, ni vous sans moi." ("Neither me without you, nor you without me.") This episode is reminiscent of one in the courtly branch when Tristan uses wood shavings put in a stream as signals to meet in the garden of Mark's palace.

There are also two twelfth century Folie Tristan, Anglo-Norman poems identified as the Oxford and the Bern versions, which relate Tristan's return to Marc's court under the guise of a madman. Besides their own importance as episodic additions to the Tristan story and masterpieces of narrative structure, these relatively short poems significantly contributed to restoring the missing parts of Béroul's and Thomas' incomplete texts.

The great trouvère Chrétien de Troyes claims to have written a Tristan story, though no part of it has ever been found. He mentions this in the introduction to Cligès, a romance that many see as a kind of anti-Tristan with a happy ending. Some scholars speculate his Tristan was ill-received, prompting Chretien to write Cligès—a story with no Celtic antecedent—to make amends.[3]

After Béroul and Thomas, the most important development in French Tristaniana is a complex grouping of texts known broadly as the Prose Tristan. Extremely popular in the thirteenth and fourteenth Century, the narratives of these lengthy versions vary in detail from manuscript to manuscript. Modern editions run twelve volumes for the long version, which includes Tristan's participation in the Quest for the Holy Grail, or five volumes for a shorter version without the Grail Quest. The Roman de Tristan en prose is a great work of art with fits of lyrical beauty. It also had a great influence on later medieval literature, and inspired parts of the Post-Vulgate Cycle, the Roman de Palamedes, and Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.


The earliest, complete source of the Tristan material in English was Sir Tristrem, a romance of some 3344 lines written c. 1300. It is preserved in the famous Auchinleck manuscript at the National Library of Scotland. The narrative largely follows the courtly tradition. As is true with many medieval English adaptations of French Arthuriana, the poem's artistic achievement can only be described as average, though some critics have tried to rehabilitate it, claiming it is a parody. Its first editor, Sir Walter Scott, provided a sixty line ending to the story, which has been printed with the romance in every subsequent edition.

The only other medieval handling of the Tristan legend in English is Sir Thomas Malory's The Book of Sir Tristram de Lyones, a shortened "translation" of the French Prose Tristan in Le Morte d'Arthur. Since the Winchester manuscript surfaced in 1934, there has been much scholarly debate whether the Tristan narrative, like all the episodes in Le Morte d'Arthur, were originally intended to be an independent piece or part of a larger work.


The popularity of Brother Robert's version spawned a unique parody, Saga Af Tristram ok Ísodd as well as the poem, Tristrams kvæði. In the collection of Old Norse prose-translations of Marie de France's lais—called Strengleikar (Stringed Instruments)—two lais with Arthurian content have been preserved, one of the them being the "Chevrefoil," translated as "Geitarlauf."

By the nineteenth century, scholars had found Tristan legends spread across the Nordic world, from Denmark to the Faroe Islands. These stories, however, diverged greatly from their medieval precursors. In one Danish ballad, for instance, Tristan and Iseult are made brother and sister. Other unlikely innovations occur in two popular Danish chapbooks of the late eighteenth century Tristans saga ok Inionu and En tragoedisk Historie om den ædle og tappre Tistrand, in which Iseult is made the princess of India. The popularity of these chapbooks inspired Icelandic novelists Gunnar Leifsson and Niels Johnson to write novels inspired by the Tristan legend.[4]


A 130 line fragment of a Dutch version of Thomas of Britain's Tristan exists. It is in a manuscript in Vienna at the National Library.


A short Tristan narrative, perhaps related to the Béroul text, exists in six Welsh manuscripts dating from the late-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century.


In the first third of the fourteenth century the famous Arcipreste de Hita wrote a version of the Tristan story. Carta enviada por Hiseo la Brunda a Tristán; Respuesta de Tristán was a unique fifteenth century romance written in the form of imaginary letters between the two lovers. Then there was a famous Spanish reworking of the French Prose Tristan, Libro del muy esforzado caballero Don Tristán de Leonís y de sus grandes hechos en armas first published in Valladolid in 1501, then republished in Seville in 1511, 1520, 1525, 1528, 1533 and 1534; additionally a second part, Tristan el Joven, was created which dealt with Tristan's son, Tristan of Leonis.[5]

Czech and German

A thirteenth century verse romance exists in Czech, based on the German Tristan poems by Gottfried von Strassburg, Heinrich von Freiberg, and Eilhart von Oberg. It is the only known verse representative of the Tristan story in a Slavic language.[6]


The Tristan legend proved very popular in Italy; there were many cantari, or oral poems performed in the public square, either about him, or frequently referencing him:

  • Cantari di Tristano
  • Due Tristani
  • Quando Tristano e Lancielotto combattiero al petrone di Merlino
  • Ultime impresse e morte Tristano
  • Vendetta che fe messer Lanzelloto de la Morte di Mister Tristano

There are also four differing versions of the Prose Tristan in medieval Italy, most named after their place of composition or library in which they are currently to be found:

  • Tavola Ritonda
  • Tristano Panciaticchiano
  • Tristano Riccardiano
  • Tristano Veneto


The Belarusian (or ancient Litvan) prose Povest Trychane represents the furthest eastern advance of the legend, and, composed in the 1560s, is considered by some critics to be the last "medieval" Tristan or Arthurian text period.

Its lineage goes back to the Tristano Veneto. Venice, at that time, controlled large parts of the Serbo-Croatian language area, engendering a more active literary and cultural life there than in most of the Balkans during this period. The manuscript of the Povest states that it was translated from a (lost) Serbian intermediary. Scholars assume that the legend must have journeyed from Venice, through its Balkan colonies, finally reaching a last outpost in this Slavic dialect.

Modern literature

In the nineteenth century, Richard Wagner composed the opera Tristan und Isolde, now considered one of the most influential pieces of music from the century. In his work, Tristan is portrayed as a doomed romantic figure. In English, the Tristan story suffered the same fate as the Matter of Britain generally. After being mostly ignored for about three centuries, there was a renaissance of original Arthurian literature, mostly narrative verse, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Tristan material in this revival included Alfred Tennyson's The Last Tournament, Matthew Arnold's Tristram and Iseult, and Algernon Charles Swinburne's epic poem Tristram of Lyonesse. After World War II, most Tristan texts were in the form of prose novels or short stories. Novelist Thomas Berger retold the story of Tristan and Isolde in his interpretation of Arthurian legend, Arthur Rex.

The Cornish writer, Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch ("Q") started Castle Dor, a retelling of the Tristan and Iseult myth in modern circumstances with an innkeeper in the role of King Mark, his wife as Iseult and a Breton onion-seller as Tristan, the plot set in "Troy," his name for his hometown of Fowey. The book was left unfinished at Quiller-Couch's death and was completed many years later, in 1962, by Daphne du Maurier.


The story has also been adapted into film many times.[7] The earliest is probably the 1909 French film, Tristan et Yseult, an early, silent version of the story.[8] This was followed by another French film of the same name two years later, which offered a unique addition to the story. Here, it is Tristan's jealous slave Rosen who tricks the lovers into drinking the love potion, then denounces them to Mark. Mark has pity on the two lovers, but they commit double suicide anyway. A third silent French version appeared in 1920, and follows the legend fairly closely.

One of the most celebrated and controversial Tristan films was 1943's L'Éternel Retour (The Eternal Return), directed by Jean Delannoy (screenplay by Jean Cocteau). It is a contemporary retelling of the story with a man named Patrice in the Tristan role fetching a wife for his friend Marke. However, an evil dwarf tricks them into drinking a love potion, and the familiar plot ensues. The film was made in France during the Vichy regime, and elements in the movie reflect Nazi ideology, with the beautiful, blond hero and heroine and the ugly, Semitic dwarf. Not only are the dwarfs visually different, they are given a larger role than in most interpretations of the legend; their conniving rains havoc on the lovers, much like the Jews of Nazi stereotypes.

The 1970 Spanish film, Tristana, is only tangentially related to the Tristan story. The Tristan role is assumed by the female character Tristana, who is forced to care for her aging uncle, Don Lope, though she wishes to marry Horacio. This was followed by the avant-garde French film, Tristan et Iseult in 1972, and the Irish Lovespell, featuring Nicholas Clay as Tristan and Kate Mulgrew as Iseult; coincidentally, Clay went on to play Lancelot in John Boorman's epic Excalibur. The popular German film, Fire and Sword, premiered in 1981; it was very accurate to the story, though it cut the Iseult of Brittany subplot.

Legendary French director François Truffaut adapted the subject to modern times for his 1981 film La Femme d'à côté (The Woman Next Door), while 1988's In the Shadow of the Raven transported the characters to medieval Iceland. Here, Trausti and Isolde are warriors from rival tribes who come into conflict when Trausti kills the leader of Isolde's tribe, but a local bishop makes peace and arranges their marriage. Bollywood legend Subhash Ghai transfers the story to modern India and the United States in his 1997 musical Pardes. The Indian American Pardes (Amrish Puri) raises his orphaned nephew Arjun Shahrukh Khan. Eventually, Pardes sends Arjun back to India to lure the beautiful Ganga (Mahima Chaudhary) as a bride for his selfish, shallow son Rajiv (Apoorva Agnihotri). Arjun falls for Ganga, and struggles to remain loyal to his cousin and beloved uncle. The film features the Bollywood hit "I Love My India." The 2002 French animated film, Tristan et Iseut is a bowdlerized version of the traditional tale aimed at a family audience.

Tristan was adapted to film again in 2006's Tristan & Isolde, produced by Tony Scott and Ridley Scott, written by Dean Georgaris, directed by Kevin Reynolds, and starring James Franco and Sophia Myles.


  1. Gantz, 134-176.
  2. S. Gregory.
  3. Lacy (1991), p. 96.
  4. Lacy (1991), p. 463-65.
  5. Lacy (1991), p. 73.
  6. Lacy (1991), 106-08.
  7. IMBD, Tristan and Isolde. Retrieved December 18, 2007.
  8. Kevin J. Harty, Camelot Project at the University of Rochester. Retrieved December 18, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Curtis, Renée L. (ed.). Le Roman de Tristan en prose. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1963-1985.
  • Gantz, Jeffrey, Trans. "How Culhwch won Olwen." In The Mabinogion, 134-176. New York: Penguin, 1976. ISBN 0-14-044322-3.
  • Gregory, Stewart, trans. Thomas of Britain: Tristran. New York: Garland Publishers, 1991. ISBN 0-8240-4034-1.
  • Harty, Kevin J. Arthurian Film. Retrieved December 18, 2007.
  • Hill, Joyce. The Tristan Legend: Texts from Northern and Eastern Europe in Modern English Translation. Leeds England: Leeds Medieval Studies, 1973.
  • IMBD. Tristan and Isolde. Retrieved December 18, 2007.
  • Kalamazoo, Alan Lupak (ed.). Lancelot of the Laik and Sir Tristrem. Kalamazoo, MI: Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1994.
  • Kipel, Z. The Byelorussian Tristan. New York: Garland Publishing, 1988. ISBN 0-8240-7598-6.
  • Lacy, Norris J. (ed.). "Carta enviada por Hiseo la Brunda Tristan; Repuesta de Tristan." In The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, 73. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991. ISBN 9780824043773.
  • Lacy, Norris J. (ed.). "Cliges." In The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991. ISBN 9780824043773.
  • Lacy, Norris J. (ed.). "Czech Arthurian Literature." In The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991. ISBN 9780824043773.
  • Lacy, Norris J. (ed.). "Early French Tristan Poems." In Arthurian Archives. Cambridge, England and Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 1998. ISBN 9780859915359.
  • Lacy, Norris J. (ed.). "Gottfried von Strassburg." In The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1991. ISBN 9780824043773.
  • Lacy, Norris J. (ed.). "Tristan." In The New Arthurian Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991. ISBN 9780824043773.
  • Ménard, Philippe (ed.). Le Roman de Tristan en Prose. Geneva: Droz, 1987-1997. ISBN 9782252019030.
  • Schach, P. The Saga of Tristram and Isond. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973. ISBN 9780803208322.

External links

All links retrieved May 2, 2023.


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