Probably the most famous legend to feature a love potion, the story of Tristan and Isolde (or Iseult, as her name is rendered in some versions of the myth) is one of the most celebrated Celtic legends along with the stories of King Arthur. Indeed, Tristan and Isolde are sometimes associated with the Arthurian legend, with both myths having their roots in medieval Britain and/or Ireland.
Let’s take a closer look at the story of these two lovers – but before we offer an analysis of the story’s meaning and origins, here’s a quick reminder of the plot of the myth.
Tristan and Isolde myth: plot summary
Tristan is a prince whose mother is the sister of the King, Mark. Both of his parents died when he was young, and he was raised by Gorvenal to be a gifted swordsman and musician (Tristan became an accomplished harp-player). Isolde, meanwhile, is a princess, the King of Ireland’s daughter. She is beautiful and fair-haired and admired far and wide.
Cornwall is bound by fealty to Ireland, which demands that Cornwall send 300 youths and 300 maidens to Ireland as tribute (compare the tributes demanded by King Minos for the Minotaur in the Theseus myth). However, if a Cornish champion could beat the Irish giant Morholt (the King’s brother-in-law) in single combat, the King of Ireland agreed that the tribute would not need to be paid.
Tristan defeats Morholt, but is badly wounded with a poisoned spear. He is left on a ship to die. But the ship finds its way to the shores of Ireland, where Tristan is taken into the royal palace. The sorceress queen cures him with an incantation, and Tristan falls in love with Isolde, to whom he reveals his true identity. When she learns that he has killed Morholt, her uncle, she declares her hatred for him, and Tristan returns to Cornwall.
Mark wants to marry Isolde, so he sends Tristan as his ambassador, to bring Isolde back to Cornwall so they can be wed. In Ireland, the wedding agreed, the sorceress queen bids Isolde farewell, but gives a love potion to the maid-servant named Brangien, with instructions to give it to the married couple on their wedding night.
On the voyage to Cornwall, Tristan and Isolde need a drink and both drink the love potion, not realising that it isn’t wine. They promptly fall in love. After the wedding of Mark and Isolde, Brangien – realising that the error with the love potion is all her fault – takes the place of Isolde in King Mark’s bed on the wedding night, to trick the King into thinking she is Isolde. Meanwhile, the real Isolde is in Tristan’s arms.
Mark doesn’t realise the deception for a while, although the rumours are all around the court. Eventually, his most loyal barons tell him that Isolde is unfaithful. Although Mark banishes Tristan from the palace, Tristan and Isolde continue to meet in secret. When they are discovered together, they are sentenced to death by burning. However, the lovers escape, and go on the run together.
They go and live as a poor couple in the woods, until one day, King Mark discovers them, walking in on them while they’re both fast asleep. But when he sees the sword between them and realises the lengths they have gone to in order to guard their love, he feels sorry for them, and replaces the ring on Isolde’s finger as a sign that he forgives her. He also places his sword between them, in place of Tristan’s, as a token or gift for his former knight.
When the two lovers wake, they are so moved by the King’s mercy and kindness that they return to court. Mark welcomes Isolde back, but he tells Tristan he cannot remain at court. He is exiled from Cornwall and goes to live in Brittany, where he marries another woman named Isolde, oddly enough: Isolde of the White Hands, as she is known.
Tristan remains loyal to Isolde and cannot make love to his new wife (Isolde of the White Hands). He is wounded in battle (as before, with a poisoned lance), but this time there is no cure. As he lies dying, he asks one of his companions, Kaherdin, to go and tell Isolde (as in King Mark’s wife, Tristan’s first love) that he is dying and he wants to see her one last time.
Tristan tells Kaherdin to hoist a white sail to his ship if he is successful in locating Isolde, but a black sail if he fails. (Compare this plot detail with the ancient Greek legend of Theseus, too.) Unfortunately, Tristan’s wife hears of this plan.
Kaherdin finds Isolde and she agrees to come and see her true lover. However, Isolde of the White Hands, Tristan’s wife, lies and tells her husband that she has seen Kaherdin’s ship bearing a black sail. Heartbroken, Tristan dies. Isolde arrives with Kaherdin and learns she has missed Tristan, who has already departed this life. She dies of a broken heart shortly afterwards, her lips locked with Tristan’s in one last kiss.
Tristan and Isolde myth: analysis
The legend of Tristan and Isolde combines several common themes found in chivalric romance: the brave hero (Tristan fights the giant and kills him, and is later wounded in battle), the doomed lovers, and the theme of forbidden love or adultery (compare Lancelot and Guinevere’s passionate affair in the legends of King Arthur). Tristan and Isolde can hardly be blamed for their act of disloyalty to their King, since they are drugged into falling for each other. They nevertheless do their best to mitigate the harm their adultery does to King Mark. He, in turn, behaves nobly and mercifully towards them when he discovers them after they have absconded together.
One of the key elements of the story of Tristan and Isolde is the love potion, which – in the full version of the story – makes Isolde fall in love with the very man she had sworn hatred for, because Tristan had previously killed her uncle.
The love potion is more than just a handy plot device: as A. T. Hatto notes in his introduction to his translation of the myth, Tristan with the ‘Tristran’ of Thomas: With the Surviving Fragments of the Tristran of Thomas (Classics), the love potion symbolises something that threatens to overwhelm the senses and even the will of the best-intentioned people, and ‘infects’ every part of them. We talk of being ‘consumed’ by love, so that we cannot think about anything else, and the love potion is a magical device which symbolises this quality. Love overpowers us all, and often overrides rational thought (we fall in love with the most inappropriate people).
Indeed, as Hatto also observes, the words ‘potion’ and ‘poison’ are etymologically related, and in one sense, the love potion which Tristan and Isolde drink does indeed, poison everything, because it ultimately leads to their downfalls.
Poison plays an important role in the story, too, with Tristan twice being wounded by a poisoned spear: once by the giant Morholt, and then later in battle, this time mortally. It is worth noting that the first of these poisoned wounds brings him to Isolde, by chance; the second brings her back to him, but too late.
Indeed, although many fairy tales and myths use the patterning of three, in the story of Tristan and Isolde, the magic number is two: two wounds inflicted on Tristan, two meetings with Isolde, two women named Isolde. This doubling effect usually reveals two very different encounters: the first wound of Tristan’s is healed and brings him close to Isolde, but the second kills him when Isolde is unable to reach him in time; the first meeting with Isolde ends in enmity while the second in love; the first Isolde is true to Tristan even though it means deceiving her husband, while the second Isolde deceives her husband, Tristan, because he is unable to give his love to her.
When was the Tristan and Isolde story first written down? There are ancient Celtic versions dating back over a thousand years, but the first ‘literary’ version was written in around 1150, probably in Anglo-Norman. We say ‘probably’ because this early written version has not survived, but it was clearly the source for several versions of the myth dating from later in the twelfth century, written in French.
In the early thirteenth century, the German writer Gottfried von Strassburg wrote Tristan, which would later form the basis of Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde. At some point, writers elevated Tristan to one of the Knights of the Round Table, and his story became part of the Arthurian cycle. In English, Sir Thomas Malory tells the tale of Tristan in his fifteenth-century prose epic, Le Morte d’Arthur.
Image: by Raekoda via Wikimedia Commons.