Tristan was a great knight in the kingdom of Cornwall, and Isolde was an Irish princess. Tristan was sent to Ireland to compete in a tournament in order to win the hand of this princess for his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. Tristan readily defeats all comers and wins Isolde’s hand for King Mark.
While they travel together from Ireland to Cornwall on a ship they grow closer and fall in love! In some versions of this tale a love potion that Isolde’s mother had intended for her daughter and Mark gets accidentally consumed by the lovers. In other versions they had already met when Isolde had healed Tristan after a battle and had been in love for some time. If it is a potion that makes them fall in love, it can either be a temporary potion, or one that lasts permanently.
No matter how they fell in love, what matters is that they were in love. In some versions of the legend Isolde even has one of her ladies maid pretend to be her on her wedding night (in the dark, and so Mark will believe he deflowered his Queen, who is no longer a virgin thanks to Tristan). She herself spends her wedding night in bed with Tristan.
This complex and dual life for Isolde goes on for some time. In some tellings they get away with their secrets for years. But as is common Tristan and Isolde are eventually found out, and Mark needs to take his revenge. In some tellings he tried to have Isolde burned at the stake for high treason. If this is the case she rarely ever actually burnt, but instead was saved.
Tristan is forced into exile, where he finds himself another woman. She is also named Isolde, but is referred to as “Isolde of the White Hands” to differentiate her from the Queen Isolde. When Tristan is injured gravely there is only one person who can heal him, and Queen Isolde is sent for. While awaiting the ship Isolde of the White Hands lied to Tristan as to which color flag the ship was flying (as this was the signal as to whether or not Queen Isolde was on board to heal him). So Tristan died before Isolde could reach him to heal him, and all because the other Isolde lied out of jealousy!
Many versions of the legend state that Tristan and Queen Isolde were buried next to one another. Two trees grew atop the graves, and the trees branches grew to be intertwined, as a symbol of the love they shared. This detail is especially utilized when both Tristan and Isolde are executed by Mark for their treason. But there are versions where they die later, and at separate times, and are still buried together! I personally adore this extra romantic sentiment to end their tale!
This tale of star crossed love between Queen and Knight is of course echoed in the Lancelot and Guinevere tale. Tristan and Isolde’s tale is believed to predate Lancelot and Guinevere’s. This story does fit firmly in the Arthurian canon, as Arthur was High King of all the Britains, but he did have lesser kings running his territories. King Mark is one such lesser king.
Isolde is another queen that can be seen as being a Faerie Queen. She has special healing abilities, and is from a foreign land. Plus Ireland is always seen as being close to the fae folk, and even possibly a border to the land of Faery! Magical marriages of Faerie Queens and mortal Kings is an occurrence time and again in Celtic lore. Within the Arthurian canon it is also common for said Faerie Queens to fall in love with brave knights outside of their marriages!
I hope that this post has helped you learn more about Tristan and Isolde, and helped to get you excited for Valentine’s Day!
Note on Spelling: I chose to use the more common spellings of the lovers names. Alternately they can be called Tristram and Iseult.
Note on Image: The image at the top of this post is the poster from the 2006 film. I found the image on Amazon.com.
Below are a list of books and movies that incorporate the legends of Tristan and Isolde.
- Celtic Mythology: The Nature and Influence of Celtic Myth- From Druidism to Arthurian Legend by Ward Rutherford
- King of the Celts: Arthurian Legends and Celtic Traditions by Jean Markale
- Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
- The Age of Chivalry by Thomas Bulfinch
- The Romance of Tristan and Iseult Retold by J. Bedier and Translated by Hilarie Belloc
- Tristan and Isolde (2006)