Here is perhaps one of the most well-known epic Celtic sagas of the Medieval period, which, according to
and influenced the "Arthurian romance of Lancelot and Guinevere." That article gives the twelfth-century as its origin, or at least it was made popular then.
(Please note: this confused me because I knew that King Arthur was already legendary by the fifth-or-sixth-centuries. However, apparently the above
mentioned romance was not added until the thirteenth-century.) In any case, you get the idea—this is a classic brave and loyal knight in shining armor whose
love affair was the death of him. And her. There are other versions of this story. This one is the Joseph Bédier retelling (1900), translated by Hilaire Belloc.
It begins with the friendship of King Mark of Cornwall and Rivalen, King of Lyonesse, who comes to Mark's aid when he is under attack. Rivalen then marries his true love, Blanchefleur, Mark's sister. Soon after, he has to hasten back to Lyonesse because Duke Morgan is attacking. But he does not fare well in this battle, and just before Blanchefleur gives birth to Tristan, she hears that Rivalen is dead. She dies right after Tristan is born.
Rohalt steals Tristan away with his own sons for his safety, and Squire Gorvenal teaches him arts and warfare. He grows up strong, brave, and loyal. By accident, he meets King Mark's huntsmen, then is taken to Mark's castle where he dazzles everyone with his gifts of music and battle. Though he thinks Rohalt is his father, he now learns that King Mark is his uncle and Rivalen was his father.
It happens that a giant knight, the Morholt is sent to Cornwall from Ireland to demand a certain debt payment from King Mark. Tristan volunteers to fight him, and though he succeeds in killing the Morholt, he himself is mortally wounded. He requests to be put out to sea to die in his boat, but his boat makes its way to Whitehaven, where lives Iseult of the Golden Hair who is a healer. She is also the Morholt's niece, and hates Tristan, but does not know it is he. When he is well enough, he escapes back home to Cornwall.
But soon after, a group of evil and envious barons begin to feel threatened by King Mark's love of Tristan. He intends to not marry, but to leave the kingdom to his nephew. So they threaten to wage war against him unless he seeks a wife. On the day when he is to give the barons his answer, two swallows drop a golden hair in his presence. He decides that if he can find the woman whose hair it is, he will marry. He doesn't think it will happen, though. However, Tristan does, because he knows the hair is from Iseult, and though he realizes she despises him, still he goes to seek her. Meanwhile, he slays a pesky dragon that gives him first dibs for Iseult. Reluctantly she acquiesces.
Before Iseult leaves, her mother brews a love potion, and entrusts it to Brangien, making sure she understands that Iseult and the king are to drink of it so they will remain fervently in love until death. Unfortunately Brangien screws up and in a moment of desperate thirst along the voyage back to Cornwall, gives it to Tristan and Iseult. Then begins their life of misery, passion, and suspected betrayal.
This version and translation is extremely readable and easy to understand without the complicated language some of these epic tales sometimes contain. If you are into the knights in shining armor romances, do give it a read.
John Duncan: Tristan and Isolde, 1912
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