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When Malory wrote his text, the Le Morte Darthur, he used a vast assortment of texts; however, despite all that he had access to, from the French, English, and German tradition, he chose to use “Tristan and Isolde” for his middle third. In its earliest forms, the story of Sir. Tristan is not Arthurian. It is only later that the Arthurian legend attaches.
The basic plot of the Tristan story is that a Welsh or Cornish hero, characterized usually as a nephew of King Mark, who rules Cornwall. Tristan’s mother either goes mad or she dies on his birth. Hence, why his name is French for ‘trist’ or sad (likely a later addition, earlier name is likely Celtic in origin). In the story, Tristan is a great swine-herder who manages to protect his herd from Arthur and his knights who have gone out and raided swine farms.
Tristin arrives at the court of his uncle, a nod to the Fair Unknown motif, and impresses everyone with his harping and hunting skills. The kingdom of Cornwall, however, owes tribute to Ireland and is behind on the rent. The only way to settle is to representatives of each territory to fight it out in single combat; for King Mark, Tristan is ultimately selected when he steps forward to ultimately slay his foe but is wounded. In order to be healed he must go to the land which produced the weapon which had hurt him. Once there, he is healed by the sister (or sometimes niece) of the man he killed. This is the princess Isolde (some versions of the story say that this is where the two fall in love while others write of a purely practical mission of healing). Isolde discovers that the man she heals is the same man who killed her brother because Tristan’s sword’s missing a chunk and she has saved that chunk when she attended her dead brother. She notices that it fits perfectly into Tristan’s sword. Obviously, this produces some difficulty in their relation, but ultimately acknowledges that he was fighting a fair fight and has since redeemed himself via a host of other knightly undertakings (like dragon slaying). He is allowed to depart for home. But when he arrives, Mark announces that he, Mark, is in need of a bride; Isolde is put forward as his bride, obviously causing some consternation with Tristan who is in love with Isolde: some versions of the story say that Mark is the one who comes up with the idea but in others, and this is most of them, Tristan is not in love with her yet, so there is no conflict with Isolde marrying Mark. It is Tristan who is entrusted to escort Isolde to Cornwall. During this journey home, Tristan and Isolde drink a love potion which was originally intended for Mark and Isolde on their wedding night. Because Tristan and Isolde have drunk the potion they are now hopelessly in love, despite Isolde and Tristan bound by duty to perform their duties. Problem: Isolde is no longer a virgin—Isolde and Tristin were swept away in passion after drinking this potion. The problem is solved when a friend of Isolde offers to take Isolde’s place in the wedding bed (this is successful via a darkened room).
From here on out, the story is consistent in that for years Tristan and Isolde communicate secretly with a friend acting as a go-between. Ultimately, Tristin travels to Brittany and marries a different Isolde, the Isolde of the White Hand, but never consecrates his marriage, all in an effort to forget Isolde. This doesn’t work, however.
Studious readers will know that this story of a great knight being in love with a married queen sounds familiar to that of Sir. Lancelot. In fact, it is believed that many of Sir. Lancelot’s narratives were originally inspired by Tristan’s narratives. Interestingly enough, later stories of Tristan are actually based off of stories of Sir. Lancelot, thus making the two set of stories an odd kind of feedback loop. Historically speaking, the oral stories of the Tristan story may have been circulating around the same time that the earliest Arthurian tales circulated, both in Britain and Brittany.
It was easy to make Tristan part of the Arthurian tradition as he merely had to join the Roundtable as a knight. To distinguish him from Sir. Lancelot, one merely needed to point out his ethnic identity, who is the best knight of a usually sorry lot of Cornwall knights.
After the Tristan story is written down, it devolves into two distinct incarnations in the High and Late middle ages: in the 12th century, the story grabs the imagination of writers, where one is called the Courtly; this one is concerned with courtly love and spends a great deal of time musing over the emotional and psychological states of characters. The other strand of the Tristan legend is called the ‘Common’ or ‘Primitive’ strand, that which is concerned with action and adventure.
From the common tradition, a story is commonly presented sympathetically, despite their sinner status. The usual outline of the story is that Tristan and Isolde express their love for one another, Mark grows suspicious, the lovers assuage his suspicions with this cycle repeating. Isolde is sometimes burned and Tristan is exiled, though they reconcile themselves to King Mark with the aid of a friend. In this tradition, it is not out of the ordinary to see one of the couple living with others or nearby to the other who was restored to Mark’s good graces (sometimes Tristan is living in a forest, sometimes Isolde lives with nuns). Toward the end of Bewul’s story, Mark attempts to force Isolde to swear on unholy relics but is outwitted by Tristan who arranges a meeting of important figures (including King Arthur).
The courtly tradition emerges at around the same time. Author Thomas (last name withheld since I would just end up massacring it) writes a poem which focuses on societal acceptance. Thomas employs a classical dilemma in his works: ‘To Wish and To be able’ which is a manifestation of what they wish they could do an what they are able to do. In Thomas’s text, Tristin marries Isolde of the White Hand due to his desire to be assimilated into upper-class society. Thomas’s text serves as the inspiration for German writers like Gotfriend Von Strisberg’s own Arthurian adaptations and the Norse writer Brother Robert’s tale ‘The Saga of Tristan and Isolde.’ In the 13th century, a courtly verse poem, the Sir Tristum, will emerge.
It is not until the middle of the 13th century, with the composition of the French Prose Tristan, that Sir. Tristan is finally coopted into Arthurian legend. Of all of the Tristan versions, this one is the most popular which crosses well over Europe and provides its own adaptations throughout the lands.
The Tristan story had a great impact in Germany where ultimately Wagner would use it as a basis for his music. He was deeply inspired by its romantic expressions of suffering. It would be this piece that secures it in the German imagination. But the story also inspired English writers like Matthew Arnold and Alfred Tennyson and William Morris. In the 20th century several movies were made from this material.