Tristan and Isolde – Myth, Magic and Murder 

illustration shows Tristan and Isolde – Myth, Magic and Murder 

Tristan and Isolde by Edmund Leighton, 1902

The great love story Tristan and Isolde was written in the 12th century with lashings of love, sex, adultery, magic potions, betrayal and murder.

Retold and embellished through the Middle Ages, Tristan and Isolde inspired Shakespeare, the Arthurian legends, Richard Wagner’s opera and every romance writer who ever lived, whether they realise it or not.

If Tristan and Isolde has a message, it is this: You don’t feel yourself falling in love, like it’s a journey, a process. On the contrary, it hits you like a sudden ague, a fever, the realisation that your life will never be the same again. 

With its imbroglio of twists and turns, setbacks and triumphs, the chivalric romance is also a warning to young men: when you fall in love, keep it to yourself.

The tale begins in tragedy. Tristan’s mother dies in childbirth, his father shortly after in battle. The young orphan is taken to the home of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, where he grows into a fine knight and horseman. He becomes his uncle’s favourite and a confidante.

Tristan and Isolde – Myth, Magic and Murder 

Love at first sight.

When King Mark’s lands in Ireland are seized in an uprising, he trusts Tristan at eighteen to lead his troops in battle. The young prince vanquishes the renegades and storms the castle now occupied by the Irish King.

The victorious Tristan is magnanimous in victory and draws up a treaty with Morholt, the infamous brother of the Irish Queen. That night at the feast to seal the peace, Tristan sees Isolde, the King’s daughter, for the first time. She is sixteen, a fair-skinned princess with fiery red hair and green eyes that sparkle like the sea.

His heart beats faster and a thought plays through Tristan’s mind: A beautiful woman is like a painting and remains beautiful no matter how old she is

Isolde reminds him of the mother he has never known except for the miniature portrait framed in gold that he carries with him always. Isolde has the same inner power, a look of defiance and wisdom.

They catch each other’s eyes across the dining table. They dance at a grand ball. They walk together in the castle grounds and share that emotion lovers feel and can’t be explained. It is a love so deep and true, Brangaene, Isolde’s maid, makes a vow to do everything in her power to help the young lovers.

Isolde gives Tristan a ruby ring when he sails back to Cornwall with his men. The ring sparkles in the afternoon sunshine and Tristan’s heart bursts with joy as he watches the waves spread out in chevrons behind his ship.

Tristan is so in love with Isolde, he can’t stop talking about her. He tells King Mark that she is the perfect princess. ‘Not only is she a great beauty, she is open, generous, witty … she is more divine as any a goddess.’ Mark is so gripped by Tristan’s elegiac descriptions of Isolde, he announces sight unseen that she is the girl he wants to marry. 

Tristan bites his tongue. He knows he has made a terrible mistake but is loyal to the King and doesn’t disclose his true feelings. With a heavy heart, he returns to Ireland to ask for Isolde’s hand on behalf of King Mark. Her father weighs the advantages of the alliance between the warring kingdoms and swiftly agrees.

Tristan and Isolde Magic

Tristan and Isolde set sail in a storm. They are unable to speak and find it hard to even look at each other knowing that they are to be parted.

Brangaene, the maid, is an apothecary and wise. She remembers her vow and secretly gives Tristan and Isolde a love potion that frees them from any sense of responsibility. They fall into each other’s arms and, that night, as the sea grows calm, Tristan and Isolde share the same bed.

Isolde marries King Mark in a great ceremony with knights attending from all over the west of England. She hurries in tears to the bed chamber. She is aware that the King will discover that she is not a virgin and she will be betraying Tristan when she makes love with Mark.

Brangaene steps into the breach once again. That night, she dresses in white veils and covertly consummates the marriage herself.

King Mark adores his young wife but, after the exuberance of the wedding night, she is cold and distant. He is tormented by dreams. He notices that Tristan and Isolde are only happy when they are in each other’s company. Finally, it dawns on him that Isolde is in love with Tristan.

The same love triangle drives the plot of King Arthur’s discovery of Guinevere’s adultery with Sir Lancelot but, for Tristan and Isolde, with tragic consequences. Although he loves Tristan and Isolde, Mark is compelled to punish them: Tristan by hanging, Isolde by exile to a leper colony.

Before Tristan is led to the gallows, there is a service for him in the chapel. His gaolers loosely bind his wrists and he frees himself as everyone kneels to pray. Tristan climbs through a high window on to the roof. From there, he leaps on to a horse and rides swiftly through the night to the leper colony.

When she sees Tristan, Isolde runs into his arms. They move deep into the forest of Morrois, where they live happily until their hiding place is discovered by the King’s spies.

Isolde of the White Hands

Mark regrets the harsh punishment he had given to Tristan and Isolde and makes peace with them on the condition that Tristan goes into exile and Isolde returns to the palace.

They agree to the compromise. Tristan travels to Brittany where, by strange coincidence, he meets another Isolde – Isolde of the White Hands, daughter of Hoel, the sister of Sir Kahedin. Tristan tries to put his Isolde out of his mind and courts Isolde of the White Hands.

They marry and, on the wedding night, as Tristan removes his shirt, he pulls off the ruby ring his first love had given him, a sign of their fidelity. He immediately regrets the marriage and never sleeps with his young wife.

Tristan remains in exile and joins Kahedin in his exploits. While trying one day to rescue a young maiden from rival knights, Tristan is wounded by a poisoned lance. He sees in a vision that the only person who can save him is his beloved Isolde.

Before Kahedin leaves on his quest to find Isolde, Tristan tells him to sail back with white sails on his ship if he is bringing his one true love, and black sails if he is not. When Isolde learns that Tristan is mortally wounded, she defies King Mark and sets sail with with Kahedin.

The sun slips into the sea as the ship bearing Isolde appears on the horizon. Isolde of the White Hands takes her revenge and tells Tristan the white sails are black. He dies of grief in the gathering darkness believing his first love has betrayed him. Isolde swoons over his corpse and dies of a broken heart – a death scene borrowed by Shakespeare for Romeo and Juliet.

They are buried beside each other. Two trees grow from the graves, a hazel and honeysuckle, the branches tangling as one. King Mark has the branches cut away three times. Each time, they grow back and intertwine again, never to be parted.

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