Tristram and Isoud

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Thomas Malory (d. 1471) author

Chrétien de Troyes (fl. 1160—1185) French poet

Thomas of Erceldoune

Richard Wagner (1813—1883) German composer


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(Tristan and Isolde); the long story of Tristram de Lyones is the fifth of Vinaver's eight Works of Malory. The love of Tristram and Isoud is much older than the corresponding Arthurian story of the love of Launcelot and Guinevere, and it was incorporated into the Arthurian legends only at a late stage. It is thought likely that there was a Tristan romance (since lost) by Chrétien de Troyes in the 1170s, and it is possible that there was an early Provençal Tristan. There are three versions surviving from the 12th cent. The first English version is Sir Tristrem, a northern 3,344‐line romance in 11‐line stanzas dating from c.1300 (unpersuasively attributed to Thomas of Erceldoune). In Malory, Tristram is the child of Meliodas, king of Lyonesse, and Elizabeth, the sister of King Mark of Cornwall, who dies soon after his sorrowful birth. The sad child is brought up at the court of King Mark whose attitude to the boy varies in different versions from great affection to jealousy. Tristram defeats and kills Sir Marhalt (Marhaus), the brother of Isoud, queen of Ireland. Tristram is sent to Ireland to be cured of his wounds by Isoud the queen, and he falls in love with her daughter Isoud; when the queen discovers that this knight (whom she too holds in special esteem) is the slayer of her brother, Tristram returns to Cornwall. Later King Mark sends Tristram as ambassador in seeking for him the hand of the younger Isoud. The princess and her maid Brangwayn return by ship to Cornwall; Brangwayn has been given a love‐potion by Queen Isoud to be given on their wedding‐night to Isoud and King Mark, which will bind them in unending love. By mistake the love‐potion is drunk by Tristram and Isoud who are bound thereafter in endless passion, though Isoud has to marry Mark. The rest of the story is concerned with the fated love of Tristram and Isoud and the subterfuges which the lovers have to adopt. Tristram leaves Mark's court and, while fighting for Howel of Brittany, falls in love with and marries a third Isoud (Isolde of the White Hands). But, on the invitation of Isoud of Ireland, he returns to Cornwall where he is killed by Mark while playing his harp before Isoud. In some versions his death is not mentioned at all; in the most celebrated (adopted by Wagner) Tristram sends for Isoud while he lies dying in Brittany. If she is on the ship when it returns, a white flag is to be flown; if not, a black one. The flag is white, but Isoud of the White Hands tells Tristram it is black, whereupon he dies. When Isoud comes to his bedside, she dies too. The story is the classic of medieval romance and of medieval love poetry.

Subjects: Literature.

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