“My heart is locked in this fight with fate.”
Black and Blue-Guy Sebastian:
Two men, one woman. I’ve been in that triangle five or six times. (Not threesome!) Were there extenuating circumstances? Usually. Do I recommend it? No. Were there any dramas and deaths as a result of it? Apart from me feeling torn, no. There are in the following legend though. It is set in harsh times, and there are dramas from start to finish.
The story of Tristan and Isolde is from the Dark Ages of world history, and involves two of the Celtic countries my ancestors were from, Cornwall and Ireland, so it is special to me. One theory is that another origin might be Scotland too, and that it is based on a real-life Pictish King.
The story also involves Brittany, and over the centuries since, has been adopted by many countries of the world, from the French, other Europeans and British in medieval times, to Wagner in Germany in the 19 th Century, and afterward in film and song. Each culture put their own slant on it, and it’s been covered in many types of media, such as poems, ballet (modern and neo classical, ) opera, cartoons and the written word.
Of course, though, Iron Age pure Celtic society did not write down their legends. They were taught to the people by honoured members called bards, people who were apprenticed from childhood to have great memories for poetry, stories and songs. They would verbally entertain the assembly in each great hall after dinner and they often travelled from King’s hall to chieftain’s house, around the countryside. In later centuries, elders of households told the stories around the fire of an evening. One characteristic of the Celts, is that they were, and are, very good with words.
Two Princes excerpt by Spin Doctors:
One, two, princes kneel before you
That's what I said, now
Princes, Princes who adore you
Just go ahead, now
One has diamonds in his pockets
That's some bread, now
This one, said he wants to buy you rockets
Ain't in his head, now
This one, got a princely racket
That's what I said, now
Got some big seal upon his jacket
Ain't in his head, now
You marry him, your father will condone you
How 'bout that, now
You marry me, your father will disown you
He'll eat his hat, now”
So fill your cup of beer or mead and gather around for the story of Tristan, Isolde the Fair, King Mark and another Isolde, of the White Hands; but being my blog, there is a twist, of course!
To start with, there were two men and one woman. Mark and Tristan loved one another platonically, while Isolde the Fair and Tristan were besottedly unplatonic.
Celtic heart drawn by Acerules.
In the legend, there were terrible wars among the Celtic kingdoms. (That’s historically true, and we do tend to be a race that loves a good stoush).
An alliance was attempted between Ireland and Cornwall via an arranged marriage between Isolde The Fair, Princess of Ireland and King Mark of Cornwall, an older man. His dearly beloved nephew , foster son and heir,Tristan, was sent to Ireland by sea to fetch her, and on the way back , they fell in love. Some versions have it that the culprit was a love potion that was meant for King Mark and Isolde, but was accidentally taken by both Tristan and Isolde when she shared her drink with him. Their passion was truly unquenchable regardless of the cause. (I can testify that you don’t need a love potion to experience illicit and unignorable, sitting in a freezing car together in the middle of Winter burning up, illogical passion.)
The point is, they knew each other and were madly in love before her wedding day to another man. I have not experienced that, (well not much), but many many participants in arranged marriages down the ages have, both royalty and commoners, right up to the present day in parts of the world.
They could not or would not control themselves, and conducted an illicit affair after Mark and Isolde were married. That reminds me of Twentieth Century Prince Charles and Camilla, cheating on Princess Diana, although Isolde was said to be beautiful, and Camilla - well beauty is in the eye of the beholder. After all, C and C had been involved before her wedding, and the British Royal wedding, and it’s said it was a love match. The marriage to Diana, was allegedly less so, and more an approved dynastic strategy by the Royal Family. Maybe they should have studied Tristan and Isolde first.
Tristan went through much anguish at losing her to another man, although he had insisted on the union to stop “100 years of war”.
“I hope he doesn't make the same mistakes
I hope he gives more than he takes
My heart is locked in this fight with fate
I can't accept that it's too late, oh
Somebody's gonna love you
Love you like I never could
My love was not enough
And it leaves me black and blue.”
Excerpt from Black and Blue by Guy Sebastian , seen at the top of this post.
Medieval trouvères and troubadores, concocted many poems and songs inserting details of the affair, with picturesque plants, codes, signals , trysting places etc.
Naturally, the lovers got caught, in one version lying down asleep with a naked sword between them. I hope he wasn’t naked, it could have been a safety issue if he rolled over, ouch!
Mark was a very nice guy, who loved Tristan very much, then there was, I suppose, that Bro code: lets not let a mere chick come between us, so instead of killing Tristan for high treason, he exiled the young man to Brittany. Isolde stayed in Cornwall.
A series of clips from the 2006 Tristan and Isolde movie:
Later, we get more people involved in the mess, oh dear!
Original heart drawing by Acerules.
Tristan married “in name only”, another Princess Isolde Of the White Hands, daughter of the ruler of Brittany, (himself a nephew of King Arthur of Camelot fame, and supposed to have helped Arthur to have conquered France). Tristan became friends with Isolde of the White Hands, and her brother, the heir. He fought for the king in battles. His love and yearning for Isolde the Fair didn’t abate, though.
“I tried to replace you,
I tried to cure my thirst
but that didn’t erase you.
It only made it worse”.
Excerpt from Black and blue-Guy Sebastian (from the top of this page. )
“In name only” seems to imply that the marriage wasn’t consummated. So now there was a fourth party getting hurt. Her brother would have been confused too, at his friend’s behaviour in dishonouring his sister.
About the Cornish and Brittany, historically it is feasible that Tristan really did go there from Cornwall in the mid dark ages. Celtic people from the British Isles, were called Britons in this period.
“The earliest evidence for the Britons and their language in historical sources dates to the Iron Age..................During and after the Roman era, the Britons lived throughout Britain...................With the beginning of Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic Scots in the 5th century, the culture and language of the Britons fragmented and much of their territory was taken over by the Anglo-Saxons and Scots Gaels. The extent to which this cultural and linguistic change was accompanied by wholesale changes in the population is still a matter of discussion. During this period some Britons migrated to mainland Europe and established significant settlements in Brittany (now part of France) as well as Britonia in modern Galicia, Spain.”
“The "Armorican" peninsula (ed note, Brittany) came to be settled with Britons from Britain during the poorly documented period of the 5th-7th centuries. Even in distant Byzantium Procopius heard tales of migrations to the Frankish mainland from the island, largely legendary for him, of Brittia. These settlers, whether refugees or not, made the presence felt of their coherent groups in the naming of the westernmost, Atlantic-facing provinces of Armorica, Cornouaille ("Cornwall”) and Domnonea ("Devon")................................
The linguistic origins of Breton are clear: it is a Brythonic language descended from the Celtic British language, like Welsh and Cornish one of the Insular Celtic languages brought by these migrating Britons.” - Wikipedia
So, there are a few versions of how Tristan died. Soldiers in those days tended not to live until old age, it was a violent time. Two of the earliest accounts say that he was poisoned, and more dramatically, that a woman was being attacked by six soldiers, and he fought all of them, being seriously wounded. Both are feasible, and he might even have got blood poisoning from his wounds. Regardless, he called for Isolde the Fair to be brought from Cornwall, ostensibly because of her legendary healing skills with herbs. Yeah, right, that was the only reason? Of course not.
Now, Isolde of the White Hands was understandably very jealous at this. Her hubby was asking for another woman that he loved, on his sickbed (something I also went through, and I can tell you it’s extremely distressing, and complicates the wife’s grief after the death.)
Tristan got a message through, that when the boat from Cornwall arrived, it should display a white flag if his beloved healer was on it, and a black flag if she were not.
Guess what his wife did. Yes, she arranged that no matter what, the sail should display black. Tristan “turned his face to the wall” and died, bereft of his true love. Except that he wasn’t. Isolde the Fair walked in shortly after, there was a whole Romeo and Juliette mad grief scene, and she died of a broken heart on his body. In one painting, she has ripped off most of her clothes and is bare breasted. Not that far fetched, in many ancient cultures, tearing of one’s clothing in extreme grief was not unusual.
One version says that Isolde of the White Hannds was stricken with guilt when she saw the tragedy. Again, shades of Romeo and Juliette. What do you think?
Again different versions treat their afterlife differently. One says that the two lovers never were separated again in the afterlife and lived as spirits in bliss. Another series of tales described the two graves next to each other, covered in briar roses, that twined in together, and despite orders of the King, could not physically be cut.
Ok, where’s the promised twist, you ask. Well, the occurrence that inspired me to write this post, was me reading a number of recent online forum testimonies from young Indian people , of their arranged marriages turning disastrous. One reason that appeared again and again, was one partner having an affair from the start of the marriage , with their ex girlfriend or boyfriend. This caused emotional chaos, poverty, dishonour of the spouse, divorce and trying to get back the dowry in some cases. Is this happening in the dark ages in Iron Age Britain? No, it’s in 21st Century India and it’s diaspora. I used to be very open minded about arranged marriages , considering how high the divorce rate is in the West. Now I am not so sure. I wonder what other countries and cultures this is a problem in, today?
Here is a 1998 Indian Bollywood movie that treats the story much more visually modestly than the 2006 Western Tristan and Isolde movie, shown above, but the main romantic theme is similar. There are some differences, a major theme is cultural clash between traditional rural India and modern America. The bridegroom from America that the girl must marry, is the son, not the wealthy father, and her loved one is from her own Indian town, (a moral and musical fellow.) I won’t tell you how this one ends, though there is some violence during it, hence the panicked running you see the young lady doing. She grew on me, very pretty. The movie is called Pardes, and is available in outlets online with English subtitles - a trailer:
A theme in the Pardes movie is the clash of cultures and values between the old country and the new. The joyful hit song “ I love my India”, sung by the female star:
Indian people should be advised this movie link contains spoilers:
A big Thankyou to my fellow blogger shown here, that pointed me towards Pardes when I Googled:
Where Tristan was exiled, married, and where he and Isolde the Fair died, in Brittany: