Authors: Rosemary Sutcliff
When Tristan of Cornwall kills the Irish champion, the Irish King swears revenge.
On a quest to find a wife for the King of Cornwall, Tristan is blown off course and fetched up in Ireland. Concealing his identity, he slays the terrible fire-drake which has laid the land waste and in return wins the hand of Princess Iseult as a wife for his king – only to fall in love with the princess himself.
Rosemary Sutcliff’s compelling version of this great and romantic tragedy, while remaining faithful to the Celtic version, is also completely her own.
To most people, the story of Tristan is only one chapter in a book about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. But in fact it is a story in its own right, as old as the oldest stories of King Arthur, and like them, far older than any of the written versions we have today. And it only became joined on to the King Arthur stories quite late in medieval times.
The first written version that we know of dates from about 1150. Approximately ten years later, it was rewritten by a man called Thomas, and some fifty years later still, a great German poet, Gottfried von Strassburg, took Thomas’s story and retold it in his own way. Since then, it has been told and told again down the centuries. Not much more than a hundred years ago Wagner made it into one of the great operas of the world.
In its far-back beginnings,
is a Celtic legend, a tale woven by harpers round the peat fire in the timber halls of Irish or Welsh or Cornish chieftains, long before the time of chivalrous knights and fair ladies and turreted castles in which it is generally set. The medieval troubadours took it and enriched it, and dressed it in beautiful medieval clothes, but if you look, you can still see the Celtic story, fiercer and darker, and (despite the changes) more real, underneath. In this retelling I have tried to get back to the Celtic original as much as possible, and in doing this I have made one big change in the story.
In all the versions that we know, Tristan and Iseult fall in love because they accidentally drink together a love potion which was meant for Iseult and her husband King Marc on their wedding night. Now the story of Tristan and Iseult is basically the same as two other great Celtic love stories, Diarmid and Grania, and Deirdre and the Sons of Usna, and in neither of them is there any suggestion of a love potion. I am sure in my own mind that the medieval storytellers added it to make an excuse for Tristan and Iseult for being in love with each other when Iseult was married to somebody else. And for me, this turns something that was real and living and part of themselves into something artificial, the result of drinking a sort of magic drug.
So I have left out the love potion.
Because everybody else who has retold the tale in the past eight hundred years has kept it in, it is only fair to tell you this. I can only tell the story in the way which feels right to me in my own heart of hearts.
THERE WAS ONCE
a King of Cornwall, whose name was Marc, which in the ancient Cornish tongue means a horse – for which reason there was a story told of him that he had horse’s ears. This was not true. He was a man like other men, and a warrior more than most.
When he was young, and new to the golden weight of the crown upon his forehead, there was war between Cornwall and Ireland, for the Irish had long harried the Cornish coast in their ships from across the Western Sea. Tidings of this war came to another
king, Rivalin by name, in the land of Lothian. It was high summer, and it seemed to Rivalin that it was time his fighting men were blooding their spears again. So he called them together, and with his fine fierce company took ship and sailed round Britain, which in those days was for the most part ruled over by King Arthur Pendragon, until he came to Cornwall.
Marc was joyful at Rivalin’s offer of help, and they turned together against the enemy from over the sea. The story does not tell how the war went, but it must have gone well for Cornwall, for when at last it was over, Marc gave his beautiful sister to the King of Lothian in thanks for the spears that he had brought into the fight.
Then Rivalin was glad, for he and the Cornish Princess had loved each other from the first moment that they met; and he carried her joyfully back with him to his own land.
For a year they were happy together, and then a son was born to them. But on the day that the baby came into the world, his mother the Queen went out of it. And the bells of all the churches of Lothian that had rung for her wedding, tolled for her burial.
For Rivalin it was as though the sun went from the sky and the world turned cold and grey about him; and for a long while he could not even bear to look at his son. He called him Tristan, which means sorrow. ‘Sorrow on my heart,’ said he, ‘that ever I went to Cornwall.’ And he gave him to the Queen’s old nurse, who had come with her from her own country, and to the women of the Court, to care for. And then he turned himself back to ruling his kingdom.
Seven years went by, and Rivalin took his son from
the care of the women, and put him in the care of a young man called Gorvenal to train as a king’s son should be trained. And Gorvenal, who loved him from the first as though he were a much younger brother, taught him to ride a horse and handle a hawk and a hound, a sword and a spear, to run and wrestle and leap. And from various masters the boy learned other and stranger skills, which a hero must possess.
He learned the Feat with the Apples and the Feat with the Blades, the Feat with the Rope and the Feat with the Dart, the Feat with the Wheel and the Feat with the Shield-held-Flat. He learned the Cat Feat and the Hero’s Salmon Leap, the Feat of Swiftness and the Over-Breath Feat and the Hero Cry, and many more.
And from no one at all, but from deep within himself, he learned to play the harp so that it was as though he played not upon the strings of fine white bronze, but upon the very heartstrings of his hearers. And by the time he was twelve years old, there was not a bird in all Lothian but he could imitate its song so perfectly that any bird he called would answer him.
One winter’s night when Tristan was sixteen years old, he and Gorvenal were sitting beside the glowing peats in Gorvenal’s hearth-hall, the boy fingering his harp idly as though he thought aloud on it, the man with leather and waxed thread and blue-green heron’s feathers beside him fashioning a new hood for his favourite falcon, for he held that every man should be his own falconer, and not merely fly the birds that other men cared for.
Tristan laid down his harp after a while, and sat staring into the fire, his chin in his hands and his dark
straight hair falling forward about his face.
‘What do you see in the fire?’ said Gorvenal.
‘I was seeing far countries,’ said Tristan.
And Gorvenal knew that the time had come to say the thing that had been in his mind to say for a while past: ‘Tristan, I too have been thinking of far countries. Here in Lothian you have learned all that we can teach you. There is no one who can outrun or outleap you, no better swordsman, none who can wake the harpstrings as you can. Yet for a prince to be foremost among his father’s subjects might be a somewhat easy glory, after all.’
Tristan looked up quickly from the fire, and frowned, tossing back his dark hair. ‘I do not care for easy glory.’
‘That I know, for I know you. Well then, go tomorrow to your father the King, and ask him for a ship and his leave to go travelling, that you may see other lands and learn their customs.’
So next day Tristan went to his father. ‘Sir, now that I am sixteen and a man grown, it is time I was learning something of the world beyond the borders of Lothian. I would see strange places and learn the customs of other lands, and try my honour against men who are not your subjects.’
The King was glad when he heard this, and promised Tristan the ship that he asked for, so that he might sail as soon as the winter storms were over. ‘And where will you go first?’ said he. ‘You are free to go where you will, but I am a lonely man and you are all the son I have, and I should be glad to know in what land to think of you.’
Tristan did not answer for the time that it might take a man to draw breath slowly; and then he said, ‘It has long been in my heart to visit my mother’s country. My old nurse who came with her used to tell me long stories when I was small of the land and the people, and the seas that beat upon its shores straight from the world’s end. With your leave, I will go first to Cornwall.’
‘Cornwall brought me much of joy and much of sorrow,’ said his father. ‘Maybe it will do the same for you. It is a land not like other lands.’
And Tristan said, ‘If so, I will count the sorrow as fair payment for the joy, my father.’
So a ship was made ready and provisioned for the voyage; and when the sailing weather came after the winter storms, Tristan, with Gorvenal and a handful of young companions eager for adventure, set out on the long coastwise voyage. They landed on the southern coast of Cornwall, and bought horses, for they had gold in plenty with them, and rode northward for the royal stronghold of Tintagel.
‘When we come to Tintagel,’ Tristan told his companions, ‘do not let any of us be telling who we are, for if I am to make a name for myself in the world beyond Lothian, I would do it
, and not because the King of Lothian is my father, and assuredly not because I am sister’s-son to the king of this country.’ And they saw his meaning, for they were all young and proud and hot-blooded themselves, and so they agreed; while Gorvenal, who was older, saw there was good sense in the idea, and agreed also.
So they rode northward and northward, up river
valleys and over bleak moors, until at last, on the evening of the third day, they smelled the sea, and came out from old dark oak forest and saw ahead of them a great turf and timber fortress standing high on a headland, with many long thatched halls and byres and barns huddled among sheltered orchards on the landward side of it, all hazed over with the smoke of evening cooking fires; and beyond it only the empty shining of the sea, with the great waves rolling in from the world’s end, shot through with the gold of the sunset.