Home  »  The Cambridge History of English and American Literature  »  § 16. Tristram and Iseult

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XII. The Arthurian Legend

§ 16. Tristram and Iseult

There remains one other famous legend to be noticed, which has attached itself to the Arthurian group, and which in its origin and character is the most distinctively Celtic of them all. The story of Tristram and Iseult is the most purely poetical, and probably the oldest, of the subsidiary Arthurian tales. Abvoe all its scene, its character and its motif mark it out as the one undoubted and unchallenged property of“the Celtic fringe.”Ireland and Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, all claim a share in it. Tristram appears, under the name ofDrystan son of Tallwch, as a purely mythical hero in a very old Welsh triad, which represents him as the nephew, and swineherd, of Mark—March ab Meirchion—protecting his master’s swine against Arthur’s attempt to get at them. Mark, in the earliest poetical versions of the tale, is king of Cornwall. Iseult, the primal heroine, is a daughter of Ireland, while the other Iseult, she of the White Hands, is a princess of Brittany. The entire story breathes the very atmosphere, and reflects the dim, mysterious half-lights, of the western islands beaten by the grey, inhospitable sea—the sea, which, in the finest rendering of the legend in English poetry, keeps up a haunting choral accompaniment to Iseult’s anguish-stricken cries at Tintagel, when

  • all their past came wailing in the wind,
  • And all their future thundered in the sea.
  • Coloured by scarcely any trace of Christian sentiment, and only faintly touched, as compared with the story of Lancelot, by the artificial conventions of chivalry, the legend of Tristram bears every mark of remote pagan, and Celtic, origin. Neither in classical, nor in Teutonic, saga is there anything really comparable with the elemental and overmastering passion which makes the story of Tristram and Iseult, in tragic interest and pathos, second to none of the great love-tales of the world.

    The Tristram legend was preserved, in all probability, in many detached lays before it came to be embodied in any extant poem. The earliest known poetical versions of the story are those of the Anglo-Normans, Béroul (c. 1150) and Thomas (c. 1170), of which we posses only fragments, and which were the foundations, respectively, of the German poems of Eilhart von Oberge and of Gottfried von Strassburg. A lost Tristan poem is also ascribed to Chrétien de Troyes, and is supposed by some to have been used by the writer, or writers, of the long prose Tristan, upon which Malory largely drew. As it passed throught the hands of these writers, the Tristram story, like the rest, was subjected to the inevitable process of chivalric decoration; but it has managed to preserve better than the others its bold primitive characteristics. Its original existence in the form of scattered popular lays is, to some extent, attested by one of the poems of Marie of France—Le Chérefeuille (The Honeysuckle)—recording a pretty stratagem of Tristan during his exile from King Mark’s court, whereby he succeeded in obtaining a stolen interview with Iseult. Nor was it the Tristram legend alone that was thus preserved in popular lays from a period anterior to that of the great romantic efflorescence of Arthurian story. Many isolated poems dealing with characters and incidents subsequently drawn into the Arthurian medley must have been based upon traditions popularised by the rude art of some obscure minstrels, or story-tellers,“Breton”or other. One of the best known examples of such poems is Marie of France’s lay of Lanval, a Celtic fairy-tale quite unconnected, originally, with the Arthurian court. Even more ambitious works, such as the Chevalier au Lion, or Yvain, and the Erec, of Chrétien, were almost certainly founded upon poems, or popular tales, of which the primitive versions have been irretrievably lost. For the Welsh prose romances of The Lady of the Fountain and of Geraint—the heroes of which, Owein and Geraint, correspond respectively to Chrétien’s Yvain and Erec—while resembling the French poems in their main incidents, cannot be satisfactorily accounted for except on the supposition that the stories embodied in them originally existed in a much older and simple form than that in which they are presented by Chrétien.