The legend of Tristan and Isolde is the tragic tale of two lovers fated to share a forbidden but undying love. Scholars of mythology believe that the legend originated in Brittany, in western France. In time it was associated with the Arthurian legends* and became part of the mythology of medieval Europe, told and retold in various versions and in many languages.
The Legend. Tristan (sometimes called Tristram), the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, was a symbol of all the virtues of chivalry, including bravery and honor. Some accounts also claim that he was a brilliant harp player. According to the most detailed versions of this legend, the king of Ireland sent a champion named Morholt to demand tribute from Cornwall, and Tristan fought Morholt in single combat. Tristan killed Morholt, leaving a broken piece of his sword in the fatal wound. The piece remained in Morholt's body when it was carried back to Ireland. Morholt had wounded Tristan as well, and when the wound did not heal, the young knight went to Ireland, in disguise, to seek help from an Irish princess named Isolde (or Iseult) who was skilled in healing.
After Isolde healed Tristan, he lingered at the Irish court for a while. On his return to Cornwall, he praised Isolde so highly that King Mark resolved to marry her. Loyal and obedient to his uncle and king, Tristan agreed to return to Ireland and seek Isolde's hand for Mark.
medieval relating to the Middle Ages in Europe, a period from about A.D. 500 to 1500
chivalry rules and customs of medieval knighthood
tribute payment made by a smaller or weaker party to a more powerful one, often under the threat of force
Back in Ireland, Tristan found that the country was being terrorized by a fearsome dragon. Tristan succeeded in killing the beast. While Isolde was nursing him back to health after the fight,
*See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
she discovered his broken sword and realized that he was the warrior who had killed Morholt, her uncle. At first she wanted to avenge her uncle's death. However, Tristan had endeared himself to the Irish people by killing the dragon, so Isolde forgave him and agreed to marry King Mark. She set off with Tristan for Cornwall.
Many versions of the legend say that Tristan and Isolde had already begun to care for one another. Their sense of honor might have prevented them from letting their feelings show, but fate now took a hand. Isolde's mother had prepared a magical drink for Isolde to share with Mark—a potion that would make them love each other forever. During the voyage to Cornwall, Isolde and Tristan drank the potion, not knowing what it was, and fell deeply in love.
Although Isolde went through with the marriage to Mark, she could not stop loving Tristan, and he was fated to love her in return. They tried to keep their passion a secret, but eventually it became known. Some accounts of the story contain episodes of intrigue and suspense in which King Mark or various knights try to trap the lovers and obtain proof of their guilt. In the end, Tristan fled from Cornwall in despair.
By the 1200s, the legend of Tristan had been interwoven with the Arthurian legends. Tristan had become a noble knight and appeared in some of the stories about Arthur, Lancelot, and the knights of the Round Table. By this time, storytellers had also begun to portray King Mark as cruel or cowardly, perhaps to create a stronger contrast between Mark and Tristan, though in earlier versions of the legend, Mark was an honorable man.
Tristan finally settled in Brittany, where he married another Isolde, known as Isolde of the White Hands. His love for Isolde of Cornwall had never died, though. In time Tristan was wounded in battle, and his wife could not cure him. He sent for Isolde of Cornwall, hoping that she could once again heal him. He requested that the ship coming back from Cornwall should have white sails if it carried Isolde and black ones if it did not.
Tristan lay on his sickbed and waited. Finally the ship appeared on the horizon, bearing white sails. Too sick to sit up, Tristan asked about the color of the sails. Jealous of his passion for the first Isolde, his wife lied and said that they were black. Tristan fell into despair, believing that Isolde had refused to help him, and died. When Isolde arrived and learned of his death, she too died of grief. The two were buried in Cornwall. From Isolde's grave a rose tree grew, and from Tristan's came a vine that wrapped itself around the tree. Every time the vine was cut, it grew again—a sign that the two lovers could not be parted in death.
Other entries related to Tristan and Isolde are listed at the end of this article.
The Legacy. The legend of Tristan and Isolde, with its emphasis on a love that cannot be denied even when it leads to tragedy, has continued to appeal to artists since medieval times. It inspired three English poets of the 1800s: Matthew Arnold (Tristram and Iseult), Algernon Swinburne (Tristram of Lyonesse), and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (part of the Arthurian poem Idylls of the King). American poet E. A. Robinson based his Tristram on the legend. One of the most influential works to draw on the story was the opera Tristan und Isolde, by German composer Richard Wagner.