Too often the legends and tales that once lit up the entire world at night when the only other lights came from lanterns and fire are pushed aside or forgotten. Tales of heroes and villains, of adventures and love become hazy and their value seeps away from humanity. But if you still yourself for a moment, dear Reader, I shall recount to you such a story, and perhaps you shall find joy in it even as I have. Dear Reader, I give you the legend of Sir Tristram of Lyonesse and Iseult the Fair.

Long ago in Britain, while Arthur was yet king and the fame of his Knights of the Round Table was known the known world over, a royal couple gave birth to a son. In Lyonesse, in Cornwall, the son was born, and the king and queen were delighted unto their very souls, for they had no children.

But alas, war came unto their lands out of the country of Ireland, and the good king fell slain by the hand of a treacherous knight of his own court, Sir Marhault. The queen was put to flight with her infant son, with only her loyal servant Raul to look after them.

While the blood of the good king yet pooled upon the hall of his castle, the traitor knight Sir Marhault sent many men-at-arms to slay the queen and her infant son, who fled into a dark forest with loyal Raul. As the queen fled, the men-at-arms hid in ambush. But the stout Raul sensed treachery upon the forest path, and drew the sword of his dead king, and defended the queen and her child even as the lion protects his own cubs. The soldiers fell like so many flowers beneath the arm of Raul, but not before one of them had grievously wounded the queen in the side with a lance.

The queen for many days fought valiantly for her life, but the fever soon took hold of her body, and she drew near to death. So with her last breaths, the queen entrusted her only son Tristram—for he was born in sorrow—unto the protection of God and Our Lady, and bade loyal Raul look after him. She died with a smile upon her lips as she gazed at her child.

From that moment, Raul and later his wife took Tristram and raised him as their own son. Under the tutelage and care of his foster-family, Tristram came to learn all the virtues of a prince. He learned of arms and armor; he learned to read and to play upon the harp and lyre; and when he was nigh a man, Raul took him unto diverse lands, so that he might learn their tongues and gain wisdom besides. But ever Raul and his wife hid the true lineage of Tristram from him until he should become a man.

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Tristram upon the harp.

Alas, the day came when Tristram reached manhood. He was tall in strong, both in body and arms, and he was learned in all matters befitting a prince. And Raul saw this and was glad, though he knew that the time had come to tell Tristram of his true likeliness. When Tristram had heard the history of his parents of his true nature, he thanked God and his foster-parents right joyously for their love and teaching. But with an eager heart he begged their leave, that he might seek to right the wrongs against him and his country committed when he was but a babe and also so that he might achieve the most holy order of knighthood from no less than the hands of King Arthur. So amidst their tears and smiles, Raul and his wife bade Tristram depart with their blessings. Yet a parting gift Raul gave unto Tristram also: the sword of the king his true father.

Some years passed, and Tristram wandered Britain and many lands besides, righting all manner of wrongs. But ever his heart dwelt upon Cornwall his native land and towards the Kingdom of Ireland which had wronged him. So he made to seek Cornwall while he was yet young, and when he reached that land, he found Mark, younger brother of the dead king and uncle unto Tristram, to be king. Mark made great clamor and celebration upon meeting his long-lost nephew, and perceiving the virtue and might of Tristram, quickly made him his highest councilor. He made to bestow the order of knighthood upon Tristram, but with all princely courtesy, Tristram refused the offer on account of his oath to be knighted by none other than King Arthur.

Mark gave no look of hurt upon hearing of the oath of Tristram, and forgave him loudly before all his court. Yet inside his heart, mark knew that he was himself a usurper while Tristram yet lived, and was sorely vexed. For Mark hungered after power mightily, and sought to rid himself of Tristram. Before Mark could make any such design, a courtier from the Kingdom of Ireland came unto Mark, and demanded of him a tribute of a score of youths and maidens, the finest in the land, to be slaves unto the King Gurman of Ireland. Without any defiance, Mark surrendered.

At this, Tristram was exceedingly wroth, almost that he might not speak.

“My lord uncle,” he asked “Why give you this bold knight of Ireland our finest youths? Why do you not send yonder courtier back unto Ireland and King Gurman with naught but your defiance?”

“Fair nephew,” replied Mark “We may not offer such defiance unto Gurman, for he defeated this land when you were but a swaddling babe and spared it with only the demand of yonder knight, Sir Marhault of Ireland, the strongest living knight in any Christian land. Except Cornwall raise a champion to slay yonder proud knight, a feat unachievable by mortal men, no other way exists.”

At this Tristram turned deathly white and made not a sound for such a time that the court wondered if Tristram had not been left bereft of his with by some devil. Alas, Tristram stirred and strode to Sir Marhault.

In a great voice Tristram called out:“I will fight against you, fiend of Ireland!” And he struck Sir Marhault against the face with his gauntlet before all the court, that there might be no refusal to fight without incurring mortal shame.

The day of the duel came, and Sir Marhault and Tristram met upon a small rocky island and sea by way of small ships. Truly Sir Marhualt was one of the deadliest knights then living, but a gentle nor a courteous knight he was not.

“Take thy raft and flee from hence boy, or thou shalt die by my hand even as thy father did!” said Sir Marhault. Tristram said nothing, but pushed his boat into the sea, for only one man might depart that spit of land alive.

From dawn to midday they fought, each giving and receiving such wounds that should have made lesser men grovel upon the earth. Alas, the sun reached its zenith, and the combatants rested.

As Tristram drew breath, Marhault began to laugh darkly. “Cornish fool!” cried Marhault “Upon my blade is a poison which has no cure but in Ireland; Thou art already a dead man!”

Tristram felt a rage at this treachery, greater than any he had ever yet known. He charged Sir Marhault so that the sparks fell like fallen stars about them as their blades met. Tristram could not be overcome, and he smote Sir Marhault from crown to collar, chipping his sword as he loosed the stroke. Thusly wounded, Marhault perished, and the chip was found by his sister Queen Isaud of Ireland when she recovered his body. Tristram was victorious, but Marhault had spoken truly, for Tristram fell ill to the poison and could not be healed.

So in the guise of a humble minstrel, Tramtris, Tristram came unto Ireland to seek Queen Isaud, wife of Gurman and a healer famous for many leagues. When he was come to Ireland, Tristram played upon the harp so sweetly that when he came to the court of Gurman, all wept for the beauty of his music and for his affliction supposedly gotten of highwaymen upon the road.

As Tristram wandered the Earth.

Queen Isaud and King Gurman had one child, the maiden Iseult the Fair. Iseult gazed upon Tramtris the minstrel and loved him more with each note played upon the harp, and begged her mother the queen to heal him. Day by day, Isaud tended unto Tramtris until he was whole. As he healed he taught Iseult the Fair to play at chess and upon the harp, and they fell deeply in love.

But their love could not last for when Tristram was healed, a great dragon of black and green came into Ireland and laid waste town, forest, and field alike. King Gurman declared that whosoever should slay the dragon should have his daughter Iseult the Fair to wife. Knights the world over came to answer the challenge, even from the lands of the Saracens to the East and from the court of King Arthur, for the fairness of Iseult was renowned. So upon hearing the decree, Tristram made to answer the challenge, for always he had held knightly deeds and above desires of the heart and now he might hope to achieve both at one stroke.

For many days, many proud knights hunted the foul dragon, but to no avail. The bold knights that set forth into the wilds of Ireland in quest of the dragon came back wounded nigh unto death or indeed not at all. Through moor and mountain, glade and fen, Tristram sought the dragon until alas he came unto a stony sea-shore with many caves and cliffs. Tristram came upon a dark and terrible cave where the dragon made its hearth, and made to rest himself and his horse, that he might better fight at dawn. Yet as Tristram slept upon the stony shore, a cowardly knight the steward of Gurman watched him from afar and plotted against him.

While the moon yet shone, Tristram roused himself and readied him for battle. With a great mustering of courage, Tristram rode into the cave, where he espied the dragon feasting upon the bodies of a noble knight and his steed. With a mighty shout, Tristram set his lance in rest and rode forth to meet the dragon with its terrible breath and sharp white claws and teeth.

Deep Tristram plunged his lance into the throat of the dragon, but in a plume of flame the shaft was burnt and his steed slain. Fierce Tristram only raised his shield and blade before him, and struck at the flank of the beast. For many hours they fought, dragon and man, and each was wounded sorely. But Tristram was cunning, and hid behind the great stones of the cavern to escape the terrible flames of the dragon, and thusly escaped death while the point of his lance worked by the grace of God into the vitals of the dragon.

When Tristram wot that he might stand no longer, the dragon groveled upon the Earth in mortal agony. With all strength left to him, Tristram through the eye and slew it. But in its death throes, the dragon let forth such a deadly blast that the shield fell in ashes at the feet of Tristram and he was poisoned nigh unto death. As he groveled in pain and weariness, Tristram cut the tongue of the dragon from its maw, and placing it in his wallet, fell upon the ground like a dead man.

When he heard the dragon give its deathcry, the cowardly Steward entered the cave. Seeing Tristram and the dragon dead upon the ground, he cut the head of the dragon from its body, as proof that he and not the bold Tristram had slain the beast. With evil glee in his heart, the Steward took the head and road to King Gurman, eager to claim Iseult the Fair for his own.

Iseult the Fair grieved when she heard that she must be the bride of the Steward, for she loved truly Tramtris the minstrel and him alone. But her mother Isaud was wise, and consoled her.

“Weep not my daughter, for I am certain that such a cowardly knight slayed not the dragon,” she said “We will demand proof of him, and a week of time besides, before you are married, that the true champion may come forth.”

Iseult took comfort in this, but at the end of seven days, no champion appeared. Before all the court, the craven Steward boasted of his victory and demanded the hand of Isuelt the Fair of King Gurman.

“Have ye proof of the valiant deed, good knight?” asked Queen Isaud. With a terrible smile, the Steward called to his squire, and the severed head of the dragon was placed in the midst of the hall for all to see, a right loathsome sight. The tears fell from the fair visage of Isuelt, and she wot that she would rather die than marry such a knight. But lo! A weak voice called from the gread doors of the hall, and all turned to look. Grey as the tomb stood Tristram, covered in dust and wounds, and many that saw wondered if it was not a spirit before them.

In a low voice Tristram bade King Gurman look inside the maw of the dragon. Between the terrible teeth, the tongue was amiss, and a murmur rose. Tristram pulled forth the dragon tongue from his wallet and the sword of his father, dark with the blood of the beast.

“It was I that killed the dragon,” said Tristram softly. At once Iseult laughed for joy, and the cowardly Steward was banished from Ireland. Yet once again, Tristram was come unto those halls wounded and poisoned, and fell down in a swoon. Instantly Iseult commended him unto a chamber where her mother the skilled healer tended unto him. And when Tristram awoke and found himself alone with Iseult, they were betrothed.

Tristram of Lyonesse and Iseult the Fair.

Tristram grew stronger and the love between he and Iseult grew. As he slumbered one night, Iseult entered his chamber to look upon him. As she gazed on with love, she espied his sword, still stained with blood. Gently she grasped the sword and bade her servant Brangwaine bring materials to clean it.

As Iseult cleaned the sword, she saw a notch upon the blade. Her heart froze at this, for she knew that a chip had been taken from the death-wound of her uncle Sir Marhault long ago. Quietly she stole away to the chamber of her mother, who kept the chip in a chest. Waking her mother, Iseult placed the chip and blade together, and they were made whole.

Iseult was grieved, for she now knew that the blade belonged not to the minstrel Tramtris but to the dreadful Tristram of Lyonesse, enemy of her mother. In a fury, Queen Isaud seized the blade from her daughter and made to slay Tristram as he rested. Iseult pled with her mother, and Tristram was spared. But at dawn, Tristram was banished from Ireland and driven from his love Iseult the Fair.

The banishment pained the lovers greater than any hurt that Tristram had ever yet endured. As he drew near to Cornwall, word of his arrival came to King Mark. Mark sought peace with Gurman of Ireland. So a marriage between Mark of Cornwall and Iseult the Fair was arranged, against her will.

Tristram went mad with grief and rage, and for many years wandered the world righting wrongs that he might ease his pain. When at last he came to the court of King Arthur in the guise of a wandering minstrel, he was much celebrated and welcomed. His oath was fulfilled, and he was made knight at the hands of King Arthur, and given lands and a noble wife, another Iseult called that of the White Hands.

For a tie the pains of Sir Tristram were eased, but never truly healed. Faithfully in word and deed he served his lord King Arthur and wife Iseult of the White Hands, but ever his heart lingered upon Iseult the Fair and hers upon him.

The separation of the lovers became a pain that none might ease or bear, and through the servants Brangwaine and Kurwenal, Tristram and Iseult the Fair made many trysts and found some measure of happiness. But King Mark and Iseult of the White Hands grew suspicious and jealous of Sir Tristram, and he was banished from his own land of Cornwall.

So Tristram sought death, and performed all manner of heroic deeds as he sought release from this Earth. But never could he be overcome, and his fame spread round the known world until only his fellow-knights Sirs Lancelot, Galahad, Gawaine, Percivale, and King Arthur himself could hope to match or surpass him.

It came to pass that King Arthur was drawn into war with the Emperor Lucius of Rome. Sir Tristram accompanied King Arthur to battle in the far lands of Italy, and together they performed such deeds of valor as the world has never seen before or since. They smote their foes upon the left and upon the right, and the army of an hundred thousand men of the Emperor was put to flight. As they fled, Sir Kahadin, brother unto Iseult of the White Hands, was captured by a fierce Tuscan of great stature. Sir Tristram came to deliver him and soon smote the Tuscan through the body. But with his dying breath, the Tuscan stabbed Sir Tristram through the side with a dagger smeared with a deadly poison of the Orient, and Tristram fell grievously wounded.

Accompanied by his servant Kurwenal and Iseult of the White Hands, Sir Tristram was borne to the sea and his ship in a litter. No cure could be found, and at last Tristram drew loyal Kurwenal close.

“Seek thou Iseult the Fair, for she alone has the skill of her mother to heal me. If she will come, bid her raise sails of white, and if she will not, sails of black,” whispered Tristram. All this was heard by Iseult of the White Hands.

Kurwenal set out with all speed to Cornwall and Queen Iseult the Fair. When she had heard the plea of Tristram, Iseult the Fair set forth in her fastest ship with sails of white.

Before the cliffs of Dover, the two ships drew near each other. But jealousy consumed the heart of Iseult of the White Hands, and she spoke in a voice of false sorrow to Sir Tristram.

“My lord, the ship of Iseult the Fair draws near, and the sails be black…”

Tristram closed his eyes and softly said, “May God keep you and guard you, Iseult the Fair.” And within a few moments he surrendered his soul unto Heaven and lay dead. When Iseult the Fair boarded the ship, she saw the pale corpse of Sir Tristram, her heart burst asunder and she perished upon the deck.

When she witnessed the deep love between the two, Iseult of the White Hands wept for sorrow and repented of her sin. She buried them in tomb, for ever they had but one heart. On either side of the grave two great trees were planted, one bearing pure white blossoms and the other blood-red, and they met above the tomb and grew as one, for rare is it that the world has seen two lovers as fateful as Sir Tristram of Lyonesse and Iseult the Fair.

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White blossoms above the tomb.

Note: I have retold this story to the best of my memory and according to my own preferences. I intend no copyright infringement or any other violation, and to the best of my knowledge, this story is written in my own words. This is based upon the following sources, and has been adapted and retold by myself.

    • Green, Roger Lancelyn. King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. Second. New York: Penguin Books, 1953. 145-164. Print.
      • Drawings by Lotte Reiniger as found in the aforementioned work. All other photos are of my own work.
    • Mallory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte D’Arthur. Paperback. New York: The Modern Library, 1999. 149-171, 278-348,378. Print.
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