The legend of Tristan and Isolde is beloved the world over. The composer, Richard Wagner, even made a version of it into his opera, Tristan und Isolde. A recent film version starred Sophia Myles, James Franco, and Rufus Sewell. It is said that the original legend, a poem from which all others were derived, was lost to history. No matter the version, this tragic tale of mad love, betrayal, and sacrifice has endured for centuries precisely because of its universal themes and twisting plot.
Artemis Rising Excerpt—Chapter 13
In Artemis Rising, the Tristan and Isolde legend is retold by the character, Conde Fernando Estrela. It is excerpted here:
In the country of England, in the county of Cornwall, the Queen of Lyonesse gave birth to a son on her deathbed. She had only the time to name the child before she died, saying “I shall name you Tristan, for in sorrow was I taken from you and in sorrow do I go to my death.”
The King of Lyonesse had been killed by tyrants, so the heir to the throne became an orphan. The king’s marshal, the faithful Lord Roholt, was appointed to look after the child in secret, and as Tristan grew into a young man, he was taught the arts of knighthood. Soon Tristan traveled to jousting tournaments throughout the kingdom, and Lord Roholt at last deemed him ready to pay allegiance to King Mark of Cornwall at Castle Tintagel.
When King Mark beheld Tristan, he thought at once that he was looking into his beloved sister’s eyes. Then he remembered that this young man was his nephew. Over time, the bond between Tristan and King Mark grew, and the king became like a father to him.
Tristan asked Lord Roholt to oversee Lyonesse in his stead so that he might stay in Cornwall and serve Mark, for the king was in need of a warrior. The murderous Morholt of Ireland, Cornwall’s greatest enemy, demanded a trial by combat with the king, but Mark refused, requesting that Tristan take his place in the duel, as he was the greatest swordsman in all the kingdom. Tristan accepted the challenge.
Morholt and Tristan dueled for three hard days, wounding each other to the point of death. At sunset on the last day, Tristan staggered to the court with two swords, saying, ‘I have slain Morholt, and a chink of steel from my sword still lies in his head. Cornwall is freed from Morholt’s threat.’ At these words, Tristan collapsed into the arms of the king, having been poisoned by Morholt’s venom-tipped sword.
Tristan’s grave wounds would not heal. The king’s physicians knew of only two people who had the curative to save Tristan’s life: the sorceress Queen of Ireland and her daughter, Isolde the Fair, famed healers both. Yet in Ireland, Isolde and her mother the queen mourned for Morholt, who was their kin, and anger grew in their hearts for the man who killed him, though they knew him not.
Realizing that death awaited Tristan in Cornwall, King Mark sent him to Ireland with misgivings. Arriving on Irish shores disguised in peasant clothes, Tristan was brought to the queen’s castle and into the skilled hands of Isolde the Fair.
As he lay sleeping, she worked her potions on his wounds, and when at last he awoke and gazed upon Isolde’s pale beauty and fair Irish hair, he kept secret his identity. To avoid their suspicions, he sneaked away when he was able and sailed back to Cornwall.
When Tristan returned to Tintagel, the barons were hounding the king to marry and produce an heir. King Mark told him that though he would wish it above all, Tristan could not be made his heir to the throne of Cornwall.
A plan formulated in his mind. He had heard rumors in Ireland that whoever slew the dragon terrorizing the land would receive the hand of Isolde the Fair in marriage. Tristan knew that if he killed the dragon, the Queen of Ireland would approve the match between her daughter and King Mark, as it would bring peace between the two countries.
He offered to return to Ireland to request the hand of Isolde in the king’s stead. The king agreed and Tristan went off to seek the dragon’s lair. For months, he searched, and at last he came upon the dragon hiding under the mountains. Tristan fought with valor against the great beast for hours. When his strength was spent from breathing the poisonous fumes of the dragon’s breath, Tristan threw his sword into the heart of the beast, piercing it to the death.
Tristan fell and lay transfixed from the poison. The queen’s men found him unconscious and brought him back to Isolde for healing. As before, Isolde used her curatives to heal Tristan’s body, and he began to improve. She believed it to be fate that he was brought again into her life. Touched by his kindness and moved by her need to protect and heal the man, Isolde became attached to him.
One day, she came before Tristan awakened and noticed his sword had fallen. Reaching to return it to its place among his things, she discovered that a chink was missing from the forged steel, which was the same shape as the piece found in Morholt’s skull during the burial rites.
She realized at once that this man had killed her kinsman, and picking up Tristan’s sword, she raised it to his neck to strike him dead for his betrayal. When the blade touched his skin, Tristan awoke.
“You lied to me!” Isolde cried.
“I had no choice, my lady. I had to fight. The honor I pledged to my king demanded it. Morholt would have done the same for your mother, the queen.”
Though Isolde knew it to be true, anger stirred her heart. “You kept your identity from me like a coward.”
“Forgive me, Isolde. I wanted to protect you from pain. Killing comes with a terrible price. Avenging your kinsman with my death would not bring him back to life.”
Then Tristan reached out to her, and revealed the love for her that had been growing in his heart. Bewitched by his words and by her own love for him, Isolde remembered that Tristan was to be her husband now that he had slain the dragon. She stayed her hand and lowered the sword.
Arethusa could not tear her gaze away from the conde. She saw Tristan and Isolde in his eyes, their bodies moving first in anger, now in love. She pictured herself there, too, in Isolde’s place. But for her the betrayal had been a stone in a boy’s fist as he stood in an orphanage courtyard ready to strike. She wanted to throw it back at him, like Isolde with the sword. But then the festa dance flashed before her eyes, and she felt Tristão’s arms around her, saw the deep regret for what he had done. Arethusa looked at Tristão, and the sadness in his eyes told her that he was lingering somewhere in those memories too.
The conde’s coughing broke through Arethusa’s reverie. He cleared his throat and began to read again.
During Tristan’s days of recovery, Isolde spent every waking moment with him and their love grew deeper. Though it tore him in two, the time soon came for Tristan to perform his duty as King Mark’s emissary. He loved Isolde, but he had no right to her, and honor bade him fulfill his promise to his king.
Tristan at last came before the queen and proposed an alliance of marriage between King Mark and Isolde, to bring peace to the two kingdoms. The queen approved the match, but Isolde’s heart filled with rage as she fled the throne room.
When Tristan reached her, she struck his face. “You deceived me. I thought you loved me, but you came only to give me away to your king. I should never have trusted you.”
“I didn’t mean to betray you. I love you, Isolde, more than my own soul, but I cannot have you. I’ve sworn an oath to King Mark.”
“Would that you had sworn your oath to me.”
“You cannot know how I wish that . . . but it is done. I promised to bring you back to my king, and I must.”
“I have loved you against my will. And now I wish I had never met you,” she said, storming away.
“As the weeks of preparation went by, the queen perceived her daughter’s unhappiness, but assumed it was because she would soon wed a man she had never met. Thus, the queen brewed a love potion for Isolde to drink on her wedding night, declaring, “For those who drink this wine-potion, their desire will never waver. Their love will never wane.” The queen gave the potion to Isolde’s maid, Brangaine, bidding her to hide it until the wedding night, when she would pour the wine into their goblets.
“Brangaine joined Isolde and Tristan on the ship to Cornwall and hid the potion in a secret compartment. One dreary night, as Tristan paced the deck in his loneliness and frustration, he found Isolde weeping alone.
“My lady,’ he said, “why do you cry? Is it because you will soon marry a man you do not know, or are you homesick for Ireland?’ Isolde said nothing as she wiped the tears from her cheeks. She was in love with Tristan, but she knew it would do no good to talk of it.
“Isolde?” he urged.
“It is nothing,” she said at last. “I wish for some wine to take the chill from the night wind.”
“My lady, I will seek out a drink for you,” Tristan said, and he went below in search of wine for his lady. He searched long and finally uncovered a bottle of strong brew smelling of herbs and lavender. Bringing the wine to Isolde, they spent the night drinking of its sweetness. They didn’t know it was the brew meant for Isolde’s wedding night. The potion held them in its spell through the long night, bewitching them with an irreversible love.
When Brangaine came to fetch her lady at dawn, she saw the empty bottle of the queen’s love potion. Horrified, the maid took her mistress below.
As Tristan awoke the next morning, his passions overwhelmed him. In agony, he burned with an insatiable madness until he could no longer keep away. He went to Isolde at once to tell her the truth of his desire.
Her eyes gleamed and her limbs trembled. “You come to me thus afflicted? Do not say these things! I should have let you die for killing my uncle. Your wounds were mortal. I could have ended your suffering and mine. But now I love you against my reason, against my conscience. I am your slave, tormented and cast adrift on a sea of—“
“Love? Passion? Desire? I know those emotions—I know you, my lady—though you would wish me far from you.”
“No. I cannot wish that. I love you—love you to the point of madness.”
He reached for her and they lay together, afloat on a calm sea beneath stars that seemed to shine only for them. Tristan knew they were now joined in a love that would carry them to either death or love. He invited them both, for without Isolde the Fair by his side, he would not have the strength to live.
On the night of her wedding, Isolde could not bear to consummate her marriage with the king. She met with Tristan in secret and asked Brangaine to take her place next to King Mark, who was drunk with love and merriment. And so it went for many days, Brangaine taking her mistress’s place in a darkened room and Isolde meeting Tristan in the orchard beyond the castle walls.
But soon they were found out by jealous courtiers intent on discrediting Tristan to the king. The lovers decided they could no longer go on, and Tristan had to leave her or death would come to them both.
Before they parted ways, they pledged their love anew. Tristan said, “I cannot let you go, my queen, without promising you my love and my life. If ever you need me, seek me out and I will come to you.”
With tears streaming down her cheeks, Isolde pressed a ring into Tristan’s hand. “Keep this ring as a token of my undying love, and if you would seek me, send this ring ahead so I will know you are coming.”
They whispered their goodbyes, and Tristan boarded a ship bound for France where he offered his service to the king of Brittany. In his loneliness for Isolde, he soon became friends with the king’s son, Kaherdin, and they went off to fight the enemies of the kingdom together.
Through their many battles they grew as close as brothers, and one day Kaherdin introduced Tristan to his sister. Tristan was startled when he first heard her name, Isolde of the White Hands. The memory of his own Isolde the Fair was brought full fresh to his mind. Yet he grew to know and love the French beauty, admiring her intelligence and grace. And when the king asked him to take his daughter to wife, Tristan accepted, feeling that he had finally put his love for Isolde the Fair behind him.
They were married, but on the night of their wedding, he came across Isolde the Fair’s ring in one of his old trunks, and he was overcome with guilt at his betrayal. His love for the lady he had left behind stabbed him through the heart. He could not go through with the consummation, but neither could he tell his new bride of his doomed love to a married woman. He lied, telling Isolde of the White Hands that he had made a vow to God many years before not to consummate any marriage for one year.
Isolde of the White Hands acquiesced to his vow, but she soon became despondent, and her isolation shown through her eyes. Sensing his sister’s sadness, Kaherdin confronted Tristan about it. At last, Tristan revealed his love for Isolde the Fair.
“You must depart for Tintagel and seek the queen,” Kaherdin advised. “If you find that your love for each other is undimmed by time, then you must let my sister go. But if you find that Isolde the Fair’s love has cooled, then reconcile your feelings for her and return to my sister, loving her as she should be loved.”
Tristan agreed, and though he found Queen Isolde embittered by the news that he had forsaken her and married another, their passions besieged them and their love burned bright once more. But they could not escape the fear of discovery, and so after three days, Tristan bade her goodbye again, saying, “I must go. There is one path for us now, the road of sorrow and regret. When I come to the end of my path, I will call to you for one final farewell.”
“I will not fail,” Isolde said.
When Tristan returned to Brittany, he grieved for Isolde, and found neither solace in the arms of his wife nor in the company of his friends. He began to fade, his desire to live lessening day by day. Even the hunt and battle held no joy for him, and thus, one day his enemy’s spear poisoned him to the heart. Knowing his end was near, he gave Kaherdin the ring and asked him to fetch Isolde.
“My friend, I will do what you bid, and if Queen Isolde agrees to come, I will wave a white flag from the masthead. If she does not, I will raise a black flag. Have faith, Tristan, that your Isolde will come for you.”
As the days slipped away, Tristan became too weak to watch at the window for Isolde. He asked his wife to watch for him, but her bitterness grew against the woman who had stolen her husband’s love. When she caught sight of the white flag raised high on the approaching ship, revenge filled her heart, and as she rose to leave him, she cried, “The ship comes, my lord, but the flag that waves is black!”
At his wife’s words, Tristan lay back, wracked with pain and despair. And as Queen Isolde disembarked from the ship and made her way to his chamber, Tristan gave up his life. When she found him there, prostrate and staring into the beyond with wide eyes, she wept in her torment and died of grief beside him.
When King Mark of Cornwall heard the news of their deaths, he came to understand their long-suffering love. He took their bodies back to Cornwall and buried them together in a hidden grove of trees. Years later, a vine grew from Tristan’s grave and a rose from Isolde’s grave. The vine and rose grew toward each other, their stems intertwining, until at last, in death, Tristan and Isolde were one.