Tristan and Isolde

   Gertrude Schoepperle defined two twelfth-century variations of the Tristan material, one version conveyed by Beroul and Eilhart, the other, formulated by Thomas, and continued in the Tristrams Saga and Gottfried. In the more primitive Beroul version, the potion's power gradually decreases, allowing the lovers to separate and eventually allowing Tristan to marry and consummate his marriage to Iseult of the White Hands. In the second "courtly" version descended from the Thomas, the force of the potion lasts forever and Tristan never consummates his marriage with Iseult of the White Hands, so that marrying her creates the focus of the tragedy: as the frustrated and jealous, Iseult of the White Hands will tell the lie that causes Tristan's despair and death. In the Tristan stories in general, there seem to exist two other variations that were woven together to differing degrees to produce the final two plot lines. In the first, Ireland exacts tribute from Mark's kingdom, which is enforced by the queen's brother, a gigantic warrior named the Morholt. Tristan kills the Morholt, thus setting up the first of the wound and healing plot threads. In the second, we have a bride quest. King Mark does not want to marry. He prefers to have Tristan as his heir, but his jealous lords insist that he marry. In some versions, Mark sees a golden hair brought by a swallow and says, defiantly, that he will do as his lords request but only if he can marry the woman to whom the hair belongs. Tristan recognizes the hair as Iseult's. In Gottfried and the Saga, and therefore presumably in Thomas's version, Mark's barons desire Iseult as the bride for their lord for political and dynastic reasons, and with the possible hopes that Tristan will either fetch her or die in the effort because of the clan requirement for blood debt for the Morholt's killing, either way eliminating him.

   Theories on the origin of the Tristan romance get rather speculative as you move backwards from the oldest surviving manuscripts of the twelfth century. Rachel Bromwich's edition of The Welsh Triads (University of Wales Press, 1961) contains seven or eight relevant references to Tristan, March and Essylt: # 14, 19, 21, 26, 71, 73 and 80, possibly 72. Six of them (Triads 14,19, 21, 26, 71 and 80) clearly refer to the version of the Tristan romance known to Welsh Bards as Tristan, son of Tallwch, nephew of March son of Meirciawn. According to many Arthurians, Tristan is the same as Drustanus and was originally a Pict. This would reflect a northern version of the legend. This idea has been contested directly by Oliver Padel. In the "The Cornish Background of the Tristan Stories" by Olive Padel, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 1, Summer 1981, Padel argues that the version attributed to Beroul was known in Cornwall two centuries before the continental and other versions that survive. The earliest surviving occurrence of the name Iseult is on a Anglo-Saxon charter of 967Ce which refers to "hryt Eselt" or Eselt's ford, which is believed to be in western Cornwall. This may be evidence for the popularity of a version of the Tristan story in Cornwall by the tenth century which Beroul's is based upon. Padel also addresses briefly the Irish/Pict/Welsh origin theory that was most clearly laid out by Bromwich, Loomis, and others and his view of its flaws. According to G. S. Loomis, the Tristan and Iseult story is taken from the Diarmuid and Grannia story, which is purely Irish in origin. But as is always the case in Arthurian studies, Bromwich points out in "The Arthur of the Welsh" 1991 that the Diarmid and Grainne tale may have been influenced by the Tristan and Isolde stories rather then the other way around, given that the Irish texts may be much later than Loomis thought. Gertrude Schoepperle's book tries to make the case for Celtic origin for many of the central motifs of the story such as aitheda or tales of elopment and the splashing water episode in Diarmaid and Grainne. The Persuit of Diarmaid and Grainne by Nessa Ni Sheagdha, Irish Text Society, 1967, includes a good summary of the manuscript histories and the Tristan parallels in the introduction.

The Versions


   The Beroul version does not have the potion! The lovers are left to their own morality without a magical excuse. The lovers come to their senses and realize that they need an excuse for having acted as they did. They repent, and in retrospect their love is lust, a sin, something that blurred and interfered with their societal roles and responsibilities. If you take away the potion entirely, you have Lancelot and Guinevere, and thus the Beroul is far more psychologically complicated than either of the other main versions.

   Eilhart von Oberge's Tristant" translated with an introduction by J.W. Thomas, University of Nebraska Press, 1978

Tristan of Thomas (Tristan et Iseut of Thomas d'Angleterre).

   In Thomas' version, there is the potion but there is no repentence. The potion creates a means to explore the nature of passionate love, without having to deal with the problem of the immorality associated with the romance of Guinevere and Launcelot. The love is all-consuming, forcing the two characters into a secret passion. To glance at the recently discovered bit of Thomas's Tristan, the Carlisle fragment (on which both the Norse Tristram saga and Gottfried seem to be based), provides us with the aftermath of the drinking of the potion which we can also compare with Gottfried and with the Tristram Saga. The Carlisle fragment also seems to include drinking of a philtre or wine after the deflowering of Brengvein, but the section has only half of each line! The other half was cut away in a bookbinding process. All one can say is that if Thomas comments on the relationship between this wine and the philtre, he does it in a few lost syllables. Tristan ends in tragedy with the death of Tristan and Iseult. The Thomas version ends with a brief description and lines about lovers but might have included the story about the graves and entwining of vines for the Tristrams Saga which generally follows Thomas pretty closely, ends: Then they were buried, and it is said that Isodd, Tristram's wife, had Tristram and Isond buried on either side of the church so they would never again be near each other. But it happened that an oak or linden grew up on each of their graves, so high that the limbs kissed together above the church roof, And from this one may see how great their love was. And so ends this saga.

Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan

   Some of the power of the Thomas and the later Gottfried version comes from the linking of possible two separate legends; the Morholt sequence, in which Tristan kills the Irish champion and then must be healed by his niece Iseult, and the  alternate bride quest, in which Tristan seeks a bride for Mark and slays a dragon, wounded in such a way that only Iseut can heal him. The storylines are linked when Tristan is in the bath and Iseult, examining his sword, realizes it is the sword that killed her uncle, thus uniting the two separate episodes.

   Gottfried expends effort to describe and explain the desire of the lovers and the ecstatic rightness of their physical union. He goes on to add in the damaged bride scene, not evident in the Carlisle, that Brangane explains to the lovers the nature of the potion and takes responsibility for helping them to deceive Mark. Gottfried expands on Brangane's and Mark's emotions as they enjoy the wedding night. Gottfried's emphasis on the idea that Mark could not tell the difference between Brangaene and Isold seems to use wine to produce an alcoholic fog, for when Brangane leaves Mark's bed, Isolde comes in. As a preliminary to their first amorous scene, she and Mark drink wine that Gottfried reminds us: "Many assert that it was the same draught through which Tristan and Isolde were plunged into their love-passion. No, none of that philtre remained. Brangane had thrown it into the sea." This serves to create a difference and a comparison between the feelings between Mark and Tristan towards Iseult. In the Tristrams Saga, the wine seems to be the original love philtre and Mark is clearly motivated to love Iseult by the potion.

Old Norse Tristrams saga

   Tristrams saga was valued for the love story, despite the fact that so much of the Thomas puns and psychology of love was omitted from the translation into Old Norse. The love story is the core of a suspenseful and exciting plot. The saga condenses where Gottfried expands Thomas. In the scenes of awakening love, the discovery of the joys of love, and the self-recriminations, we find that Brangane is not to blame. Tristram and Isond were tricked by this drink, which they drank, because the servant-boy made a mistake; and from this there came to them a sorrowful life, torment and long anguish, along with physical desire and constant longing. Because of this potion, Tristram cared only for Isond and her care was all for him, with such an exceeding love, that no remedy could separate them. The saga deals with the problem of Isond's virginity, translating Thomas faithfully but with a few flourishes. This is where the Norse enjoyment of suspense is cultivated with efforts and circumstances to delay the crucial wedding night. The sage omits the Thomas comments that Bringvet may have enjoyed herself, but includes the possibility missing in the Carlisle fragment and denied by Gottfried that Bringvet gave some of the potion to Mark.  Brother Robert (the Norwegian 'Saga of Tristan and Isolde') paraphrased: "When King Mark woke up, he asked for wine, and Brangane cleverly served him from the wine that the queen had prepared in Ireland. But this time Isolde did not drink." Thus the coming tragedies of the love triangles are sealed.

Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

   In some new productions of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the magic aspect of the potion is almost eliminated from the story. For example, the potion is not taken by the pair until after their affair on the ship, or that Brangaene accidentally or intentionally spills it and gives what she thinks is a placebo to the pair. All of this is done as part of the new modern politically correct re-staging, for the cast doesn't change Wagner's words or invent new music. The changes are justified, incorrectly by my ideas, in that some claim that Wagner's libretto can be taken as implying that the potion was not really magic, just herbs and alcoholic, and an excuse for the pair to do what they were already strongly inclined to do.

Two Tristans

   Two Tristans were known to Welsh tradition and may have become conflated. A Northern and a Southern version of the story may have mutated over time and provided the separate wound and healing scenes of the beginning love plot, the Morhalt battle and the Bride Quest / Dragon slaying:

1) the Tristan (Drustanus) son of Cunomorus/Cynfawr mentioned on the Fowey Stone (the Tristan son of March of Triad 73). Cunomorus/Cynfawr was said to be called Mark by the monk Wrmonoc in his 9th century Life of St. Paul Aurelian and this identification appears to have been taken as gospel by the romancers. Mark, from the Latin Marcus, would become March ("Horse") in Welsh and Margh in Cornish. Some scholars have proposed that Wrmonoc's Mark was actually March, son of King Meirchiawn of Glamorgan. Cunomorus/ Cynfawr may have also been confused with the northern ruler, Cynfarch father of Urien. The similarity of the names Cynfarch and Cynfawr may explain the placenames Trusty's Hill and Mote of Mark, two hill-forts in what was part of Urien son of Cynfarch's kingdom of Rheged.

2) the 8th century Pictish chieftain Drust son of Talorcan (the Welsh Trystan ab Tallwch). The real problem with the name Drustanus as found on the Fowey Stone is that is appears to be Pictish. This is a problem because while we can assume northern Wales or Strathclyde might have had Pictish raids and/or strongholds, Cornwall and Dumnonia were subjected to Irish raids, and it is for this reason that some believe that the Drustanus on the Fowey Stone actually represents an Irish name.

Who Was Iseult (Esyllt)?

   Who was Iseult the Fair, the "Irish" princess who becomes Mark's wife and Tristan's lover, and what caused her to be linked to Mark and Tristan? Besides the Fowey Stone in Cornwall there is a 9th century carved stone, known as the Drosten Stone or St. Vigeans No. 1, at St. Vigeans, Tayside, Scotland. On the bottom edge of this stone, there is an inscription in Irish letters. This inscription reads:

ett for

   "Drosten in that place, and Uoret and Forcus." Drosten could easily have been associated with the Drustanus of the Fowey Stone. In addition, Forcus, given the m-f mutation in Welsh, could have been perceived as Morcus or, rather, Marcus and therefore Mark. However, the interesting name of the three is Uoret. The Welsh would have put a G in front of this name, making for something like Gworet or Gwored, which in turn, may well have been identified with Gwriad. In c. 800CE, a Gwriad married Esyllt, daughter of Cynan son of Rhodri of Gwynedd. Iseult's "Ireland" was actually Gwynedd, which during the early Dark Ages was raided and settled by the Irish.

Tristan and Isolde Films