Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg and Thomas of Britain.

Tristan and Isolde Sharing the Potion 
by John William Waterhouse (1916).
Tristan, or Tristan and Isolde (Tristan und Isolde) as it's also known, is an unfinished poem by Gottfried von Strassburg (or Straßburg to give it its German spelling) based on the Tristan story and is completed using the fragments of an Old French poem Tristan by Thomas of Britain. These two authors are rather shadowy figures: we know Gottfried von Strassburg is German and he died around 1210. Thomas of Britain however, may not have been from Britain but in fact Brittany in north west France (this is uncertain as far as I know). According to von Strassburg Thomas' Tristan can be dated to about 1160, and it was his Tristan that was the main source of information for von Strassburg's Tristan, which von Strassburg writes in the Prologue is "the authentic version".

There are, as von Strassburg says, a number of Tristan versions (one I've recently read is Béroul's The Romance of Tristan, 12th Century). Tristan (also known as Tristam) is a Cornish knight who has an illicit affair with Isolde, an Irish princess, a story which is said to have influenced the Arthurian legend of Lancelot and Guinevere. von Strassburg's story begins, after the prologue, with Tristan's parents Rivalin, the king of the mythical country Parmenie (Lyonesse), and Blancheflor. Rivalin travelled to Cornwall and there met Blancheflor (or Blanschefleur), the sister of Mark who will one day be King of Cornwall. When she comes pregnant they elope to Parmenie but Rivalin is killed in battle. Having given birth to her son, Blancheflor dies, and so the son is called Tristan. As von Strassburg explains,
Now 'triste' stands for sorrow, and because of all these happenings the child was named 'Tristan' and christened 'Tristan at once. 
His name came from 'triste'. The name was well suited to him and in every way appropriate.
He is adopted by Rual and Floraete (Rual is Riwalin's marshal) and raised and educated to be a perfectly accomplished courtier, however as an adolescent he is kidnapped by Norwegian pirates and abandoned in Cornwall where Mark is now king. There he is welcomed, and, so impressed with his hunting skills, Mark names him Chief Huntsman and eventually he becomes a courtier. Then, one day, Rual finds Tristan once more and, his identity now revealed to Mark, he is knighted.

From here we learn of Morold, an Irish warrior and brother of Gurmun, the King of Ireland. Gurmun forces Mark to pay tribute to Ireland, and Morold is sent to collect it. When Tristan tells Mark they must challenge this Mark agrees, and so Tristan fights and kills Morold, but in the process he is poisoned: the only one who knows the antidote is Queen Isolde. And so Tristan must go to Ireland, and he disguises himself as a musician named Tantris. The Queen, Isolde the Wise, agrees that she will heal him if he tutors her daughter, Isolde the Fair. It is agreed and from Tristan Isolde the Fair learns much. The two spend some six months or so together, but eventually, for fear they will realise he is the killer of Morold, he returns to Cornwall. However Mark's courtiers are jealous of him, and in a plot to have him killed they suggest he returns to Ireland in an attempt to woo Isolde the Fair for Mark's wife. Once back in Ireland, Gurmun proclaims that whoever slays the dragon wreaking havoc in Ireland may win the hand of his daughter. Of course Tristan is successful, though the path is still not clear (an Irish steward steals the head of the dragon and claims the victory), however eventually the marriage between Isolde and Mark is arranged, and Isolde is taken to Cornwall by Tristan, accompanied by her maid Brangaene.

It as at this point the tragedy begins. Isolde the Wise has given Brangaene a love potion to be given to Isolde the Fair on her wedding night, ensuring that she does indeed fall in love with Mark. However Isolde drinks it on the way to Cornwall with Tristan: the question is at point did the two fall in love? It is not necessarily because of the love potion the two fell for each other, von Strassburg suggests the intimacy between the two was already growing.

The rest of Tristan is spent telling of how the two concealed their doomed affair, and the inevitable - being found out. It is a tragic tale: the potion sealed their doom, without it, had they have already been in love they may have resisted temptation, but because of a mistake, and even more than that, even Tristan's unlucky birth, they were condemned to their fate. These two are indeed star-cross'd lovers. It is a very compelling story and I loved von Strassburg and Thomas of Britain's retelling, but I do think on the whole I preferred Béroul's: that's not to say, however, that this is not an excellent read. 


  1. The tale sounds wonderful, and I admire this painting by Waterhouse which perfectly captures the moment.

    1. It is wonderful, and yes, I do love Waterhouse - he's an absolute master :)

  2. this sounds delightful; probably hard to find...? i might mention "Castle Dor" by daphne du maurier AND arthur quiller-couch: another version of the tristan legend...

    1. I don't think it will be hard to find - it's published by Penguin.

      Just checked Amazon UK - here's my edition :)

      You did mention Castle Dor - still not got a hold of it but I've remembered to look out for it :)


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