Last Fall, I began my quest to discover any folk stories where King Arthur did battle with a dragon. This week I’ve come pretty close.
The tale of Sir Tristan and his forbidden love for his uncle’s wife, Isolde, is one of the greatest Medieval romances. Its origin was separate from, possibly pre-dating King Arthur. The basic story of Drystan (Tristan) and Essyllt (Isolde) is part of the Mabinogion, the Welsh national myth, which was written down in the 1300s but is undoubtedly much older. As years passed and tales were told, the legend migrated over the English Channel into Brittany. It was adapted by French troubadours and connected loosely with the enormously popular King Arthur story cycle. So in the later versions of Arthurian lore, Sir Tristan sometimes appears as a knight of the Round Table, or representing Cornwall as an ally of King Arthur.
Tristan was the son of Rivalen, King of Lyonesse, and Blancheflor, sister to King Mark of Cornwall. Orphaned and raised in obscurity, Tristan found his way back to Cornwall and served as King Mark’s champion. (It’s a long story. You can read it here.)
And Tristan had his work cut out for him. King Mark received a challenge from Duke Morholt, the brother-in-law of Ireland’s King Goram. Morholt, a monstrous giant, demanded tribute from King Mark. What he got was a duel with Sir Tristan.
The two knights met on St. Samson Island. Upon his arrival, Tristan sank his own boat, saying that only one of them would sail away from this battle. The fight was fierce, the warriors mighty, and each took wounds from the other. At length, Morholt fell. As he lay dying, he taunted Tristan that he too was doomed, for Morholt used a poisoned blade. No one could cure him except Morholt’s sister, Queen Isolde of Ireland.
Sir Tristan took the boat back to Cornwall, but then allowed Sir Morholt’s retainers to return his body to Ireland. Queen Isolde and her daughter, Isolde the Fair, were grief-stricken. As time passed, Tristan realized that Morholt’s words were true. His wounds became infected and gave off a foul odor that drove most people from his presence. No physician nor magician of Cornwall could heal him.
Tristan knew he would die if he couldn’t get Queen Isolde to cure him. She wasn’t likely to do that if she knew he was the man who had killed her brother. So Sir Tristan disguised himself as a bard named Tantris. “Tantris” was received in the court of Ireland and played his harp so beautifully that Isolde the Fair wanted him to tutor her. He couldn’t do that if he died, so Queen Isolde plied her craft and restored him to health.
“Tantris” still needed time to recover. For forty days, he rested and taught Isolde the Fair how to play the harp. Afterward he returned to Cornwall, and Queen Isolde never knew she had cured her brother’s killer.
Thus the romance of Tristan and Isolde the Fair began with deception. The legend continues in my next post.