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The legend of Tristan and Iseult...

28 February 2017

Every Celtic nation – and even beyond, including Germany and Persia, as well as Norse saga – appears to have a version of the Tristan and Iseult story in one form or another weaving through their mythology. Apart from anything else, this leads to a variety of spelling options for the protagonists’ names:

Tristram, Tristrem, Tristran, Trostan, Trystan

Isolde, Iseult, Yseult, Isoud, Isolt, Esyllt

Although not historical figures, in Cornwall, you will find places that take their names from the legend. There is a stone (from the 6th century) that bears Tristan’s name – Drustan (Drustan was apparently a real life figure, son of Cunomorus, a 6th century ruler) – near Fowey and the seat of King Mark. For this reason many believe that Cornwall may actually provide the origin of the legend.

But the stories appear in Scotland and Ireland and here in Wales too, and are taken up by Anglo-Norman storytellers, eventually becoming tied-in to the Arthurian legend, with obvious similarities to the love triangle of Lancelot, Guinevere and Arthur.

In Welsh folklore, in the ‘Welsh Triads’ (Trioedd Ynys Prydein), the ‘Red Book of Hergest’, the ‘Mabinogion’, the characters of Trystan, March and Esyllt all feature. Initially they are only mentioned separately, but from the latter half of the 14th century the love story itself emerges. The debate continues as to whether these inclusions originate from the Cornish tales.

Irish stories exist, like Deirdre (Deirdre of the Sorrows) and Naoise, a part of the ‘Ulster Cycle’ stories. Deidre’s beauty and the conflict it will bring, is foretold before she is born and the King of Ulster decides he will marry her when she grows up. She foresees that she will love Naoise, with his ‘hair like a raven’s, cheeks like blood and body like snow’. They meet and fall in love, escaping the King by fleeing to Scotland. The tale ends with Naiose being killed, Deidre ending up with the King for a time before killing herself. Sound familiar? The tale of Diarmuid and Gráinne is another version of the same ‘Tristan and Iseult’ storyline.

There are differences in the storylines in these tales, not only in the names, but in many of the details too. So for example, the length of time the potion has an effect differs from a limited time, to being forever until death. Also in the way the potion is taken. Was it deliberately given by Iseult to Tristan (instead of Mark), or accidently? Was the character/personality of Mark – heroic or bitter? All are slight variations but each follows the same general plot structure – lending weight to the thought of one original Celtic source.