The Other Early Arthurian Cycle: the Tale of Tristan and Isolt
The medieval Arthurian legend, as found in the Romances, is not solely (or even chiefly) about Arthur, a fact too many Arthurian enthusiasts forget. Those who believe in and argue for a historical Arthur are legion, whilst Myrddin and others are often neglected, lacking their own band of cheerful supporters to argue about the smallest detail in their legends. This brief study aims to slightly redress the balance. There are two key insular story-cycles that inform the international Arthurian legend – that about Arthur himself, with which the majority of this website is concerned, and that about the love-triangle between King Mark, Tristan and Isolt. This latter is one of the great medieval tales, inspiring Wagner, and it is the focus for the present investigation.
Though it is found in a number of medieval versions, hardly any of which are actually complete, a brief summary of the key elements might run as follows (the following is, of course, a composite of these various versions). The tale in general tells of the adventures of a prince named Tristan, the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall. As might be expected, Tristan eventually finds his way to his uncle's court at Tintagel, where he is praised for his manliness – he, like Arthur, was a great warrior. Tristan, by way of various adventures (including the killing of a dragon), then ends up being responsible for transporting the fair Isolt from Ireland to Cornwall to marry his uncle, accompanied by a potion that Isolt's mother had prepared to ensure her daughter and Mark would not have a loveless marriage. As is the way with love potions, it ends up being mistakenly drunken by those it was not intended for – Tristan and Isolt, who become instantly besotted with each other.
The tale then becomes one of deception through a variety of episodes. Thus Isolt substitutes her maid for herself on her wedding night, though Mark knows nothing of this and is simply grateful to his nephew for bringing his wonderful new wife to him. Similarly, in the summer Mark's court moves to Lancien, supposedly in south Cornwall. The two continue their illicit relations, using the king's chamber when he is out hunting, until one day Mark discovers them and exiles Tristan from his court. Not discouraged, the obsessed pair contrive new ways to meet, Tristan throwing twigs into the stream that runs beneath Isolt's window to tell her to hasten to an apple orchard to meet him. Unfortunately for them, an evil dwarf discovers them via magic and informs Mark. Mark spies on them from the branches of a tree, trying to find proof of their guilt, though he leaves convinced of their innocence when he is unknowingly revealed to Tristan and Isolt by the light of the moon, allowing them to make a play of the meeting.
Although this falsified innocence of their meetings allows Tristan's reinstatement to court, Mark's conviction does not last. Tristan is given a favoured retainer's sleeping position, next to the king's bed, whilst the dwarf, angry at his mistreatment after his supposed lies about the orchard, sets a trap so that Tristan is caught visiting Isolt whilst Mark is away from his bed by flour on the floor. Tristan and Isolt are sentenced to be burnt, though Tristan escapes by jumping from a chapel – known as 'Tristan's Leap' – over a cliff to safety. Isolt is then sentenced to be ravished by lepers, a fate she is rescued from by her lover, who takes her into hiding in the forest of Morrois.
After further adventures, Isolt and Mark are reconciled at the ford of Mal Pas as the potion-inspired obsession begins to wane (though her and Tristan's love remains), and Tristan is once more banished, though he actually goes again into hiding. Meanwhile, Isolt is required by unfriendly lords to prove her innocence of adultery by a public Trial by Ordeal – she agrees on the condition that King Arthur is present and it should take place at Blancheland, Mark's high hunting ground. On the appointed day she proves her innocence through trickery with the help of Tristan, with whom she then consents to continue cuckolding Mark with! This lasts but a short while, this time, and Tristan eventually accedes to her pleas to go far away for the safety of them both. He ends his life in Brittany, married to another Isolt. On his death-bed he asks for the original Isolt to come to him and provide a cure for his wounds, which she does – unfortunately the second Isolt succumbs to jealousy and tells him that the other is not coming, causing Tristan's death. When his lover finally reaches him, she lies down in his arms and dies too.
The Tristan of the Welsh
This, then, is the legend we are concerned with – how much, if anything, is this tale prefigured in insular Celtic sources? Where do its origins lie? Our evidence for an insular Tristan tradition is highly fragmentary but there clearly was some kind of tale circulating before the Romances were written. Thus there are allusions to Tristan in the Welsh Triads, Trioedd Ynys Prydein (TYP). Although these only survive in 13th- and 14th-century manuscripts, their origins lie in the 11th or 12th centuries and they are largely independent of continental developments (Bromwich, 1978). In these Drystan (the Welsh form of Tristan) is named as one of the Tri Galofydd, 'Enemy Subduers, lords of hostility' (TYP 19), and one of the Tri Thaleithiog Cad, warriors who wore a ?coronet in battle as a mark of distinction (TYP 21), indicating that he held an accepted place in early heroic tradition.
This is true also of March (the Welsh form of Mark), who is named in TYP 14 as one of the Tri Llynghesawg, 'Seafarers'. He also appears in the mid-late 9th-century Black Book Englynion Y Beddau as a folkloric hero whose burial place is commemorated by tradition. This latter reference is particularly interesting as he is collocated with Arthur himself in this text. Although minimal, the Arthurian associations of at least March/Mark may thus go back to a very early stage. Furthermore, in this context it is worth noting that that all three heroes linked with Drystan in TYP 21 are Arthurian heroes or members of Arthur's court in Culhwch ac Olwen. Indeed, in Culhwch (line 191) Drystan is himself listed as a member of Arthur's court (surnamed Hayarn, Iron-Fist), as is, separately, Isolt (Esyllt) herself, though this may be an addition to the court-list (Bromwich, 1991a: 211; Bromwich and Evans, 1992: 110).
What is most interesting in all of this is that Drystan, March and Esyllt are never named together in any of the above, which raises the question of whether we can actually demonstrate the existence of the Tristan tale itself – rather than the participants – in Welsh materials that pre-date the Anglo-Norman versions of the story. There are two or three sources that may be relevant here. The first is the description of Drystan as one of the Tri Gwrddfeichiad, 'Mighty (or Powerful) Swineheards' (TYP 26), where he is associated with both March and Esyllt. This alludes to a curious tale of the protection of March's pigs, which Arthur is trying to steal. Unfortunately Bromwich suggests that this is an untraditional episode and an ironic fabrication, perhaps actually inspired by the Anglo-Norman tales (Bromwich, 1991a: 219-20).
Aside from this we only have a poem (or fragments of two poems). This is found in the 13th-century Black Book of Carmarthen and names D(i)ristan and March (without patronymics) in a highly dramatic context:
The above, with its linking of the names Drystan and March, a hostile dwarf and a 'casting out', has been seen (probably rightly) as reflecting some of the episodes found in continental and Anglo-Norman versions of the Tristan legend. This impression is strengthened by the fact that earlier in the poem we find an earlier allusion that runs 'we two were companions in the place where the water carries the leaves', which is suggestive of the 'twigs/chips in the stream' incident, which did indeed involve a hostile dwarf (Bromwich, 1991a: 218). If such associations are legitimate then it is crucial to know how old this poem actually is. Bromwich dates them certainly to pre-1100, which would seem to put them securely out of the reach on continental influence (Bromwich, 1991a: 214). Indeed, given that the verbal noun ending -iµ is retained in the poem, proved by internal rhyme, this can be tentatively extended back even further: as Koch has noted, -iµ seems to have become shortened to -i in the second half of the 9th century or the first half of the 10th century, implying that the composition of this poem pre-dates this development (Koch, 1996: 276; Koch, 1997: cxxviii).
The notion of the Anglo-Norman and continental versions of the Tristan legend having at least part of their origins in a Welsh story thus rests largely on the above poem. Other than this we can only demonstrate with certainty the existence of the characters in Wales, not the love-story that binds them together. Indeed, aside from TYP 26, this situation is maintained through the 12th century and into the 14th century, with March and Drystan's names being used as heroic standards of comparison. Only from the mid-14th century do we find explicit references in Welsh poetry to the love-story itself, in the works of Gruffudd ap Maredudd and Dafydd ap Gwilym – indeed, the love potion first appears in the 15th century, when Dafydd ab Edmwnd refers to 'the drink of Trystan'.
A 15th century version of TYP (though one which has archaic features indicating an earlier written exemplar) may also be relevant in this context. Here we find Drystan not simply as the hero he is in earlier Triads but also now as a lover. He is one of the Three Lovers, Three Stubborn Men and Three Peers of Arthur's Court (TYP 71, 72, 73). Later in the same manuscript Esyllt Fyngwen (Esyllt Fair-hair), Drystan's mistress, is named as one of the Three Faithless Wives (TYP 80) with the same epithet as she has in the 11th-century Culhwch ac Olwen. Finally, Trystan ap Tallwch is named in the mid-15th-century triadic Pedwar Marchog ar Hugain Llys Arthur (the Twenty-four Knights of Arthur's Court), where he is grouped as one of the 'Three Enchanter Knights of Arthur's Court' with the Arthurian Menw ap Teirgwaedd and Eddilig Cor, 'the Dwarf'. These all probably point to an increasing interest in the figure of Drystan and Esyllt in light of the continental romances, as Bromwich has noted, though with this being combined with the insular treatment of Drystan (1991a: 215-16).
In fact, the only really plausible independent Welsh reference, beyond the Black Book poem, is found in the Ystorya Trystan, 'The Tale of Trystan', which is a mixed prose and verse (englynion) text found in manuscripts of the 16th to 18th centuries (although the verse passages are certainly older than this). The key characters in this are, of course, Trystan, Esyllt and March, though Arthur, Cai and Gwalchmai play a part. In this tale Trystan and Esyllt are in exile in Ceod Celyddon whilst Arthur goes with his warband to seek 'denial or compensation' on behalf of March ap Meirchiawn. Trystan's magical abilities (compare Pedwar Marchog ar Hugain Llys Arthur) prevent Arthur et al from directly confronting him and instead Arthur makes peace between Trystan and March, ruling that one of them should have Esyllt whilst the leaves were on the trees and the other when they are leafless. Esyllt then states:
There is little to indicate direct influence on the Ystorya by the French Tristan romances – there are, in fact, sharp differences in treatment and nature – and rather it has its greatest affinity with the Triads, the Black Book of Carmarthen poem and some lines of the medieval poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (who may actually refer to Arthur's solution to the dispute in the Ystorya), with there being suggestions that some portions of the tale (such as the ymddiddan between Gwalchmai and Trystan) are not only perhaps much older than the present manuscripts but were originally separate (see Bromwich, 1991a: 216-19; Bromwich, 1978: 332, 383-4; Rowland, 1990: 252-4).
To sum up, there is clear evidence that, as characters, Drystan, March and Esyllt were known to Welsh tradition, and from an early period. However, the ties that bind them together are surprisingly rarely found in the early material, with only the fragmentary poem being free of any suspicion of contamination from the Anglo-Norman and continental Romance versions. If the poem is taken as proof of an early Welsh knowledge of the love-story, then the Ystorya Trystan and TYP 26 references can be seen as derivative of this, rather than continental or Anglo-Norman tales. Nonetheless, whilst there might thus seem to be a reasonable case for the love-story having been known to Welsh tradition, it has to be said that it does not seem to have been a particularly central part of it. The interest in the tale of Tristan, Isolt and Mark in Wales from the 14th century onwards would seem to owe less to a native fascination with this and more to the external stimulus of the French Romances.
The Tristan of the Cornish
Given the relative weakness of the evidence for a pre-Romance tradition of the Tristan love-story in Wales, the question must naturally be asked what evidence there is for a 'Celtic' background to the Anglo-Norman and continental Romances. Certainly there must be some Celtic background to these, if only because of 'twigs/chips in the stream' incident appears to be present in the Black Book poem/poems and the fact that the names Tristan, Isolt and Mark all stem from an insular context – thus both the French forms Tristan and Brengain (Isolt's maid) must have come, in fact, from a written Old Welsh source (Bromwich, 1978: 329; Bromwich, 1991b: 280). The question is, was all else invention, or is there any further evidence to suggest an insular background to the Tristan legend?
A major landmark in our understanding of this is Oliver Padel's 'The Cornish Background of the Tristan Stories' (1981). Padel has convincingly demonstrated that the Continental poets – and Béroul especially, writing in the last third of the 12th century – derived their knowledge of the tale of Drystan/Tristan et al from Cornish folkloric sources. In fact, in Béroul's version there is a detailed and still identifiable Cornish localisation of almost all the major events, including the ford of le Mal Pas (which is south of Truro), and the hunting-ground of la Blanche Lande, near Mal Pas and west of Truro. Similarly Mark's court at Lancďen is now generally accepted as being that Lantyan near Fowey and the forest of Morrois in which Tristan and Isolt hide is the woodland attached to the manor of Moresk, outside Truro (which Béroul rightly identifies as being a night's ride from Lancďen). Indeed, Béroul demonstrates his detailed local knowledge of Cornwall when the hermit in the story 'goes off to the Mount, for the fineries that are there', clearly referencing the fact that two markets were found in the 12th century opposite St Michael's Mount. Most interesting of all, his comments such as 'it is still at St Samson's; those who have seen it say so' and 'Cornishmen still call that rock Tristan's Leap' imply a solid familiarity with Cornwall, and that the Tristan tale was part of Cornish onomastic/topographic folk-legend (see Padel, 1981: 58-65).
Clearly the best explanation of this is that many of the events of the Tristan legend, as found in Béroul, were actually derived directly from Cornish stories current in the 12th century (before the Tristan legend was widely popular on the continent) and thus that the legend itself may be, in fact, Cornish in origin. Further support for this contention comes from an unexpected angle – a Cornish charter. An Anglo-Saxon charter-boundary dated 967 AD names a hryt eselt, 'Isolt's Ford' in Cornish, with the stream crossed by this emerging at Porthallow on the Lizard peninsula (south of Blanche Lande). Given the extreme rarity of the name Eselt/Esyllt, Padel convincingly sees this as representing a piece of onomastic folklore like that recorded for Arthur and apparently lying behind 'Tristan's Leap' – in this case it is best seen as representing an alternative localisation of the events that Béroul placed at le Mal Pas (Padel, 1981: 65-8). As such it would appear that not only was Béroul's account derived apparently from 12th-century Cornish folk-tale, but that the tale of Tristan and Isolt was being told, at least with regards to the events at the ford, in Cornwall by the mid-10th century.
These Cornish connections, so obvious in Béroul, are not confined to this text. All the medieval poets – Thomas, Marie de France, Eilhart, and Gottfried – place Mark's court in Cornwall, as Bromwich too has now recognized (1991: 220). Further, they show Cornish local knowledge beyond that mentioned by Béroul. Thus Eilhart mentions Blanchelande and accurately identifies it as a hunting-ground, which is what names such as Chacewater indicate it actually was. Clearly, for the medieval Romancers, the Tristan legend was a legend set in Cornwall, this unanimity being arguably highly significant and these conclusions remaining relevant whether one believes in some continental 'ur-Tristan' narrative or not. The evidence of Béroul and hryt eselt would suggest that this was not simply an idle or meaningless localisation but rather it represented the region from which these Anglo-Norman and continental authors ultimately derived their knowledge of this legend, which was current there from at least the 10th century.
The Origins of the Tristan Legend
So, where did the Tristan legend and its characters ultimately come from? We have two branches of evidence. One suggests that the Tristan and Isolt love-story, though not particularly popular in Wales, was known there (in at least one episode) by the middle of the 10th century, if the evidence of our Black Book poem(s) can be trusted. The other suggests that all the widely known Anglo-Norman and continental Romance treatments of Tristan had their origins in Cornwall and most probably in a tale which was tied to the Cornish landscape and derived from Cornish folk-lore. This Cornish version too would seem to have been in existence by the mid-10th century. Which version has priority?
It must be admitted that it is impossible to make a decisive judgement on this question. Nonetheless, given the detailed localisation found in Béroul's version, the continental unanimity on the location of the legend's action, and the fact that the 10th-century boundary-description looks to reference local (and presumably reasonably ancient and well-known, for it to be used in such a description) onomastic Cornish folklore, a suggestion of an ultimate Cornish origin must have priority – especially in light of the apparent relative unpopularity of the love-story in Wales until the 14th century. There is simply no convincing reason to recommend treating the Tristan legend as either pan-Brittonic or Welsh in origin, given all this. Rather than indicating a Welsh origin, the Black Book poem(s) might, instead, be seen as evidence of the popularity and fame of a specifically Cornish legend from an early date, which allowed knowledge of it to spread to even Wales by the mid-10th century.
The above scenario would seem, at present, to be the best explanation for the evidence that we have. Even if there is still a little doubt as regards how the Welsh references emerged, it can in any case be said that Cornwall was the place from which the story of Tristan and Isolt's love came into the repertoire of Continental romance and thus that Padel is correct in concluding that the 'Tristan stories, then, are Cornwall's most significant, and best-known, gift to the literary world' (1981: 80). Certainly such a Cornish origin fits the evidence a lot more satisfactorily than the Pictish and Irish genesis invoked by previous generations (Bromwich, 1953; Newstead, 1959). The foundations of this latter theory are unsound and rest largely on the following arguments.
First, that the names of both Drystan (Tristan) and his father in Welsh tradition, Tallwch, are probably of Pictish origin. Certainly Drosten/Drostan, the Pictish name cognate with the Welsh Drystan, is a common name in Pictland. It appears, for example, on a 9th-century inscription at St Vigeans, Angus and in the Pictish regnal lists (which also include the shorter form Drust or Drest). However, the name is clearly derived from Celtic *Drustagnos. As such Welsh Drystan is a perfectly good Brittonic name and, in fact, the earliest occurrence of this name is on a 6th-century inscribed stone from Cornwall (see further below; Bromwich, 1978: 329; Padel, 1981: 54-5; Bromwich, 1991a: 210; Koch, 1996: 275).
With regards to the name of Drystan's father (first found in the Triads), the Welsh Drystan vab Tallwch is often compared with the Talorcan filius Drostan and Drest (Drust) filius Talorgen in the Pictish king-list, with the result that Tallwch and Talorc(-) have often been equated. The former has often been assumed to derive from the latter, thus 'proving' the Pictish origins of Drystan. However, there are two difficulties here: (a) nothing like Tallwch/Talorc appears in the Romances (indeed, the name of his father is notably variable) and we thus cannot be at all certain that the patronymic was attached to Drystan in the earliest Welsh/Cornish material (it could be an invention, in light of its etymology, tal, 'brow' + hwch, 'swine, sow', reflecting its first appearance in TYP 26) (b) Talorc and Tallwch cannot be said to be cognates – they are, in reality, entirely different names. At best a partial loan translation is involved (Koch, 1996: 275). As Caerwyn Williams notes, 'any idea that the name Tallwch represents the Pictish Talorc or its diminutive Talorcan would seem to be unfounded, especially in view of the forms Talorg, Talorgg, Talorggan, etc' (quoted in Bromwich, 1978: 564).
Second, it is frequently argued that the basic content of the Tristan/Isolt/Mark love-triangle derives from Irish storytelling, the closest parallel being in the Fenian story of Diarmaid and Gráinne. This tells how the young heroine Gráinne is destined to be the wife of Fionn mac Cumhaill but, rather than marry him, she instead elopes with Diarmaid, a member of his warband (and occasionally his nephew). The couple live in the wilderness in fear of Fionn who succeeds in killing Dairmaid through treachery. Against seeing this as the origin of the Tristan story we have to recognize the following: (a) the outstanding points of detail between the two stories are first apparent in the mid-17th-century version of the 'Pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne' (b) as both Padel and Bromwich note, the Diarmaid story seems to have been considerably influenced by the Continental Tristan tradition in many points of detail and thus the relationship between this and the Tristan stories is likely to be the reverse of that generally assumed (see Padel, 1994: 56-7; Bromwich, 1991a: 222-3). As such, comparison between the story of Diarmaid and Gráinne and the Tristan legend can tell us nothing certain of the origins of the tale and of its characters.
A second suggested Irish analogue involves an Irish monster-slaying episode in the Middle Irish Tochmarc Emire, 'The Wooing of Emer'. This is a mainly 10th-century tale but the striking similarities between this and one preliminary part of Tristan's story in Eilhart, Gottfried, Tristrams saga, and Sir Tristrem (the dragon-slayer episode) may be as late as the 12th century – as such French influence cannot be excluded as a possibility. Additionally it must be remembered that this sequence has no echoes in the Welsh Tristan material (it is also absent from Béroul's poem, which would seem to have the closest affinities with Cornish folkloric material) and 'at the very most, the episode represents only one part of the preliminaries to the main Tristan story, and thus again does not represent proof of an Irish, or a Pictish, origin for the main story' (Padel, 1981: 56).
In light of all this there is no cogent reason to believe that the tale of Tristan and Isolt was of Pictish or Irish origins, particularly given the very strong Cornish links of the Continental material and the probable presence of the tale in local Cornish topographic folklore in the 10th century. The case is simply not convincing. Indeed, as was noted above, it cannot be forgotten that the earliest occurrence of the name Tristan is in fact Cornish, dating from probably the 6th century. This is found on a memorial stone near Castle Dore, Cornwall, which reads (assuming that the ligatured AV of the inscription should expanded to ANV) DRVSTA[N]VS HIC IACIT CVNOMORI FILIUS, 'here lies Drystan (Old Cornish *Drostan/*Drestan) son of Cynfawr (OC *Kenvör)'.
The exact significance of this is to be debated. Certainly, when historical enthusiasts have cared to consider Tristan, this has been treated as evidence for a historical origin to the Tristan tale, or at least for Tristan himself (for example, Ashe, 1997). The stone itself is found at a site around a mile and a half to the south of Castle Dore in Cornwall, this site being itself a mile and a half to the south of a farm named Lantyan (Lancďen), King Mark's palace in Béroul. Purely from a geographical perspective one can see why a connection between the stone and the Tristan legend has been attractive. The presence of an early form of the name Tristan close by Lantyan is, nevertheless, not the only reason that this stone has been seen as significant – the second name on the stone, CVNOMORI, is often claimed to 'be' Mark himself. This is done on the basis of the fact that Wrmonoc, in the 9th-century Breton Life of St Paul Aurelian, has St Paul encountering one King Marcus ruling somewhere in Britain (Cornwall or Glamorgan), quem alio nomine Quonomorium vocant, 'whom by another name they call Quonomorius' (Welsh tradition does indeed, it should be observed, give the name Cynfawr/*Kenvör to a member of the Brittonic royal family of Dumnonia: Padel, 1981: note 60). So, what are we to make of all this?
Now, the later name is a common one in Wales, Britanny and Cornwall and so we must be cautious – a coincidence is not impossible, and is even likely according to Bromwich (1991a: 221 and 1978: 445-6; note that Tristan is Marks's nephew, not son, in Béroul). Nonetheless, there could be some link between the stone, Lantyan and Wrmonoc's remarks. There is, however, 'no reason why the relationship between it and the stories should not be reverse of that assumed by those who wish to read historical fact into the stories' (Padel, 1981: 78). Padel suggests that the presence of the stone may have been itself responsible for Béroul's, or his source's, localization of Mark's palace at Lantyan. Similarly, Padel suggests that Wrmonoc's comment, written in a monastery with close links to Cornwall, might have been due to a knowledge of the stone and a desire on his part to connect the Tristan of legend with the DRVSTA[N]VS of the stone.
All told Padel sees this as the most likely explanation, with the legend of Tristan and Isolt being purely folkloric in origins. He does, however, leave open the possibility that 'the Cornish stories had grown up around an historical figure, the man commemorated on the stone', with the proviso that 'they would still not be historical events, of course' – Béroul was writing more than half a millennium after the stone was set up and is not a historical source, whilst popular claims that Castle Dore was any historical Mark's palace of Lancďen must be rejected given that a re-examination of the archaeology of this place shows that there was no significant re-occupation in the 5th to 7th centuries (Padel, 1981: 78-9 and note 66; Padel, 1991: 241-3). With regards to all this, it may be worth noting that the ultimate etymological meaning of Old Cornish Eselt, Welsh Esyllt, 'she-who-is-worth-looking-at', is very appropriate for the character of Isolt. As such it may be suggested that 'Eselt/Esyllt as a beautiful woman of storytelling might go back to a time when the name was understood, in the 5th century or earlier' (Padel, 1981: 66). If so, then Isolt's origins as a romantic character of folklore would pre-date the DRVSTA[N]VS of the stone, something which might well be seen as weighing in favour of Padel's theory that the story of Tristan and Isolt was ancient folk-tale, unrelated to any historical figures (DRVSTA[N]VS could, indeed, have been named after the character, rather than vice-versa, if any explanation of this name is felt necessary).
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