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Literature / Tristan and Iseult

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Tristan and Iseult: the Older Than Print tale of two Star-Crossed Lovers, namely Tristan/Tristram, a Cornish knight, and Iseult/Isolde, an Irish princess. Although she is married to his uncle Mark, a series of mishaps generally involving a Love Potion cause them to fall hopelessly in love. Emphasis on hopelessly. Various shenaningans ensue until their eventual, inevitable and very tragic deaths.

There may have been a historical basis to the legend, but it was largely the invention of medieval romancers, who also decided that Tristan should be a Knight of the Round Table, as this was the proper place for talented knights who had affairs with their queens (cf. Lancelot and Guenevere). There are numerous versions of the legend, almost none of which end happily. It has spawned poems, plays, opera and even a recent film.


This legend provides examples of:

  • One Steve Limit: There is another Iseult. She marries Tristan and often brings about his death
  • 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.
  • All Women Are Lustful: At least that's what Gottfried von Strasbourg believed. In his 13th-century retelling of the "Tristan and Iseult" legend, he even expresses his belief that women are inclined to do anything that they are forbidden from doing, tying into Isolde's adultery with Tristan.
  • 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 in an island, he lets his boat float off and says "one of us only will go hence alive, one boat will serve".
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  • Courtly Love: Everyone knows Courtly Love just means rampant adultery!
  • Death by Despair: Iseult after 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, 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.
  • Garnishing the Story: Random dragon-slaying usually occurs.
  • 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 hapinesss — 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.a
  • 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 Makes You Crazy: Tristan goes mad when he thinks Iseult is cheating on him with his friend Kahedrin.
  • Love Potion: One is prepared for Iseult in order to make her Arranged Marriage to Mark work out. So of course Tristan drinks it by mistake, falling in love with Iseult.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • 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.
  • Spell My Name with an "S": Iseult's name has been spelled in too many ways to count. The most popular are probably "Isolde" and "Isolda".
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: The eponymous couple.
  • 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.)
  • 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.

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


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