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Literature / Tristan and Iseult

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Tristan and Isolde by John Duncan (1912)

"Why wouldn't a noble spirit suffer one evil for a thousand goods, one hardship for many joys? Those who have never experienced pain for love's sake have also never experienced love's joys. Joy and pain have always been inseparable in love. It takes both to win honor and praise, without them all is lost."
Gottfried von Strassburg, Prologue from Tristan and Isolde

Tristan and Iseult (their names have variations, like Tristram and Isolde) is a medieval Chivalric Romance of two Star-Crossed Lovers: Tristan, a Cornish knight and minstrel; and Isolde, an Irish princess. Tristan was tasked to escort Isolde to marry his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. Along the journey, however, they both drink a Love Potion, which starts an illicit romance, with very tragic results.

The story has been retold by many different authors, but versions based on the 13th century Prose Tristan merge it with Arthurian Legend. The version as told by Gottfried von Strassburg became the basis of an opera by Richard Wagner.


Tristan and Iseult provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Villainy: King Mark is hit hard with this in later adaptations of the story to the point he kills Tristan himself. This characterization was meant to contrast him with King Arthur.
  • After-Action Healing Drama: Tristan is bedridden from Morholt's poisoned spear, and nobody in the court can figure out an antidote.
  • Arranged Marriage: A political marriage is arranged for a young Irish princess Iseult and an old Cornish king Mark.
  • Badass Boast: When Tristan goes to face Morholt on an island, he lets his boat float off and says "one of us only will go hence alive, one boat will serve".
  • Bed Trick: Brangaine switches places with Isolde in King Mark's bed to hide the fact that her mistress is no longer a virgin.
  • Chaste Separating Sword: Iseult is married to King Mark, but she's run away with her Star Crossed Lover Tristan into the Forest of Morrois. They are suspected — rightfully — of an affair, and they have been having sex. But when they're about to go to sleep and there's a chance they may be found during the night, Tristan Invokes this: He lays his sword between them so they appear chaste.
    King Mark: For all the time they have lived together in this wood, these two lovers, yet is the sword here between them, and throughout Christendom men know that sign. Therefore I will not slay, for that would be treason and wrong.
  • Courtly Love: The story has the characteristics of the genre, such as Tristan doing valorous deeds to win the affections of Iseult, an adulterous affair with Iseult when she is married to Mark, love being a central theme...
  • Death by Despair: Iseult doesn't live long past Tristan's death.
  • Didn't Think This Through: One version has Mark and Tristan agree to let King Arthur judge their case (Mark knowing that Tristan only ran off with Iseult because he accidentally drank a Love Potion meant for her) and abide by his decision. Arthur's solution is to let each man have her part of the year, one when the trees have green leaves (i.e. spring and summer) and the other in fall and winter. Mark goes first and chooses the latter... only for Iseult to scream with joy because pines have green leaves all year, meaning she'll stay with Tristan all year. Bound by the terms of the judgement, Mark lets them go.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Gottfried von Strassburg's retelling of the story states outright that Tristan and Iseult the Fair will die in the end.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: In the early versions, the title characters were treated sympathetically (somewhat justified since they accidentally drank a Love Potion), but so was the cuckolded King Mark. Later writers, apparently displeased with this moral ambiguity, turned Mark into a Dirty Coward who rapes and murders his own niece, so now it's okay that Iseult is sleeping with his nephew.note  Modern retellings sometimes go back to the nicer King Mark.
  • Guile Hero: Tristan, though he's very good with a sword. Isolde as well, for engineering one massive deception involving swearing under oath and holy relics.
  • Hero-Worshipper: Fairly standard version given to Tristan by his squire Curvenal.
  • Kick the Dog: Tristan manages to convince a neighboring king to part with a prized "fey dog" whose fur changed color and wore a magic bell. The net effect is to act as a Care-Bear Stare that can cheer up anyone, which was for the king his sole comfort. So Tristan gives it to Iseult to help console her during his absences. The little dog comforts her... and she kills it, because she prefers to be in anguish over his absence than have a moment's comfort.
    • Note that in some versions it's just the chime of the bell that will bring one happiness—Iseult throws the bell into the sea for the above-mentioned reason but keeps the dog as a reminder of her beloved.
    • Mark also gets a rather literal one: after Tristan and Iseult have run off together, he tries to hang Tristan's dog.
  • The Lancer: Dinadan often acts as this for Tristan.
  • Loophole Abuse: One version has King Arthur decide Iseult will be with Tristan when the trees bear leaves and with Mark when they don't (i.e. winter). Iseult then joyfully remembers the existence of evergreens.
  • Love Before First Sight: Played with. King Mark insists on marrying the girl who left a single blonde hair on the edge of his window except that the only reason he's thinking about marriage at all is that the barons want him to be, so he decides to choose someone impossible. But his nephew Tristan guesses that the girl must be the blonde Iseult, and he brings her to the king.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Tristan goes mad when he thinks Iseult is cheating on him with his friend Kahedrin.
  • Love Hurts: Love and the pains that come with it is a central theme this story.
  • Love Potion: One is prepared for Iseult to make her Arranged Marriage to Mark work out. Tristan and Iseult end up drinking that potion, leading to total disaster.
  • Love Triangle: Fairly standard—Tristan, Iseult, his uncle.
    • Although, include secondary characters in amorous pursuit of one or the other eponymous characters such as Iseult White Hands, Palomides, Bellise, a Steward, Karhedins, and you have yourself a Love Dodecahedron.
  • Mal Mariée: Young and beautiful Irish princess Iseult is engaged to an old Cornish king Mark. Love Potion is prepared for Iseult and Mark to make their Arranged Marriage work. Tristan, King Mark's young nephew, drinks it with Iseult by mistake. They fall madly in love and sleep together, and they continue to commit adultery after Iseult and Mark's wedding.
  • Matchmaker Crush: Hearing of Iseult's revulsion for King Mark of Cornwall, Tristan acquires a love potion with the best intentions he intends to use on her to make her fall in love with Mark. But she deftly ensures Tristan drinks it so he falls in love with her.
  • Meaningful Name: Tristan's name is explained in-story as derived from the French "triste", meaning "sad" or "sorrowful". In reality, it's derived from the Pictish name "Drystan" (Latinized "Drustanus"), meaning "tumult", but Tristan's name is meaningful either way.
  • Moses in the Bulrushes: Tristan, poisoned during his duel against Morholt, is sent on a craft without oars or sail in hopes of happening onto someone who can cure him; said person happens to be Iseult, who turns out to be Morholt's niece.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: In some versions of the story, like Ulrich von Türheim's completion of Gottfried von Strassburg's version, King Mark learns that Tristan and Iseult's love for one another came from drinking the love potion. He realises that he went after Tristan through no fault of his own and comes to regret his actions.
  • Oh, Crap!: Brangane, Iseult's lady-in-waiting, has this reaction when she sees Tristan and Iseult drinking the love potion, and both of them think they are drinking wine.
  • One-Steve Limit: There are three women named Iseult: Iseult, queen of Ireland; Iseult the Fair, the daughter of the queen; and Iseult of the White Hands, sister of Kahedrin.
  • Poisoned Weapons: In some versions, Tristan is poisoned by the Irish knight Morholt's spear (but wins the duel), and sent on a craft without oars or sail as a last-ditch effort. He lands in Ireland, where Morholt's niece Isolde cures him, not knowing he was Morholt's killer.
  • Portmanteau: Iseult's brother Alcardo renames himself Lantris after the two greatest knights in the world, Tristan and Lancelot.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: Tristan and Isolde are guilty of horrible crimes by Medieval standards—sleeping with the king's wife is a blatant case of treason. Yet it is the barons of king Mark, who correctly suspects the adultery, whom the narrator refers to as "traitors"—all because they are loyal to their king and try to catch the protagonists for a crime they did and continue to do. Also, then the "traitors" demand that Isolde go through an ordeal to prove her innocence she avoids lying by a clever technicality (Exact Words) and God himself covers for her by miraculously letting her hold red-hot iron without hurting her hands.
  • Sexless Marriage: Tristan's marriage to Iseult of the White Hands amounts to this essentially, not helped by him being preoccupied with Iseult the Fair the entire time. Iseult of the White Hands is not happy about his unwillingness to consummate their marriage. Later, she was riding her horse when it accidentally stepped into a puddle, splashing water into her robes and up to her groin. She then remarks how even that water is bolder than Tristan is because it touched her there while Tristan did not.
  • Standard Hero Reward: The King of Ireland offers his daughter, Iseult, in marriage to whoever saves his kingdom from a dragon. Tristan slays the dragon, but unusually, he does so not to win the princess for himself but for his uncle King Mark. Only after winning her hand and bringing her back to his uncle does Tristan fall for Iseult, and she for him, and tragedy ensues.
  • Sue Donym: When Tristan first introduces himself to Queen Iseult and Iseult the Fair, he uses the name "Tantris". They do not take it well when they find out who he really is.
  • Together in Death: In many versions, a hazel tree springs from Tristan's grave and a honeysuckle twines around it from Iseult's grave. Aww. (In some versions, it's a briar and a rose—a trope of its own which echoes down through folksongs to the present day.)
  • Tragic Mistake: Tristan and Iseult drink the love potion, thinking it is wine. It gets worse from there.
  • Treacherous Advisor: The three nobles who are jealous of Tristan.
  • With Friends Like These...: While Tristan has a lot of friends, he is also prone to spectacular fallings out with them, usually when they develop crushes on Iseult (Even Lancelot does this at one point). The only friend he seems to be able to stay friends with is Gorvenal.
  • You Killed My Father: When Iseult the Fair figures out that "Tantris" is actually Tristan, the same man who killed her uncle Morholt, she tries to get her revenge on him by killing him in his bath.

Alternative Title(s): Tristan And Isolde, Tristram And Isolde

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