Over winter break I started the second draft of Shards of Memory, my YA fantasy Tristan & Iseult retelling. For research purposes, I went back and reread Joseph Bediér’s reconstruction of the legend, since I hadn’t read it since my introductory medieval history class two years ago. So now, I’m going to spotlight the legend here for you today.
Basically, the legend involves Tristan, an orphaned knight, bringing (after a series of adventures) Iseult, an Irish princess, back to Britain to marry his uncle, Mark. On the boat back to Britain, Tristan and Iseult accidentally drink a love potion together that was meant for Iseult and Mark on their wedding night. From that moment onward, the two have to fight their feelings for each other, and are forced to keep their relationship a secret.
The legend seems to have had its origins in Celtic literature, though the original poem has been lost. In the middle ages we see it in two branches, the courtly branch that was told by troubadours in courts during the High Middle Ages, and the common branch, which reflected an earlier version of non-chivalric storytelling. Initially there probably wasn’t a link to Arthurian legend, but over time we see Tristan appearing in the legends.
Tristan and Iseult have appeared in the modern era. Richard Wagner composed the 19th century opera Tristan und Isolde. Several film adaptations have been made, the most recent of which I reviewed here.
With love triangles, love potions, secret affairs, and a good illustration of medieval chivalry, this legend really is worth checking out.