Tristan and Isolde

The legend of Tristan and Isolde is one of the best-known Medieval European romantic tales. Its origin has not been clearly defined but the most plausible theory states that the story originated from Brittany in Western France.

French poets Thomas and Beroul wrote the earliest known version of the legend in 1185. It is thought they used sources from the Celtic mythology, dating back to around 500 to 1500 CE. German poet Gottfried von Strassburg in c.1210 wrote the most popular version of the story. This tragic tale of love has had a significant impact on Medieval European literature and art. It is thought to have widely influenced the story of Sir Lancelot and Guinevere and Shakespeare's work of Romeo and Juliet.

Initially, the legend existed purely as a love story but later in c. 1235 Tristan started to be closely associated with the Knights of the Round Table and the tale became part of the Arthurian legends. In the 15th century Sir Thomas Malory included the legend in his Morte d'Arthur. It was also transmitted to other European countries with occasional changes in the plot. For example, in an 18th century Danish book Tristan and Isolde are siblings. The details of the legend differ slightly in individual versions but the basic story remains the same.

Tristan, also known as Tristram, Tristrem or Tristran, was the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall. Tristan, which means "sorrow," was sent to Ireland to fetch the King's bride-to-be, Isolde (also Isolt, Iseult or Yseult in different versions). On their way back, they incidentally shared a magic potion, designed to enhance the marriage of the future queen and King Mark. As a result, Tristan and Isolde fell deeply in love. Isolde married King Mark but her affection for Tristan eventually became known. In order to protect his lover's honor and dignity, Tristan escaped to France.

Years later, Tristan was married to another Isolde - Isolde of the White Hands, but he never stopped loving Isolde of Cornwall. After being wounded in a battle, he sent for her in hope that she could heal him. Tristan's jealous wife lied to him, telling him that Isolde had refused to come and Tristan died of despair. Upon her arrival, Isolde of Cornwall found out about the death of her beloved and died of grief. They were finally together when they were buried in Cornwall.

In 1859, Richard Wagner composed what is considered to be his masterpiece, the opera Tristan und Isolde, which was based on Strassburg's romance. The opera, which consists of three acts, premiered on 10 June 1865 in Munich. Scholars have identified the profound influence of Arthur Schopenhauer's philosophy in its libretto. In its content it parallels the structure of Schopenhauer's two volumes of The World as Will and Representation (1819). This parallel is most evident in Acts 2 and 3, where the philosopher's notions of Phenomenon (appearance) and Noumenon (reality) are represented in the secret love affair of Tristan and Isolde. Wagner's opera is a milestone in Western music. Tristan's part, for instance, deviates from the traditional tonal harmony and offers a number of innovations and a range of harmony and polyphony.

The legend has served as an inspiration for many film producers. The earliest, a French silent movie, called Tristan et Yseult, dates back to 1909. There have been numerous adaptations over the years, ranging from another French version during the Vichy regime, portraying Nazi ideology, to a Bollywood production, setting the story in modern day India. Tony and Ridley Scott's Tristan and Isolde, filmed in 1996, stars James Franco as Tristan and Sophia Myles as Isolde.

Despite the fact that there is no scientific proof of the actual existence of the two main characters in the legend, a site near Cornwall in South West England has long been known as Tristan's grave. There is a stone monument that archaeologists believe was built around 550 CE and a faded inscription that suggests that Tristan was buried there. Excavations have revealed that the time frame matches roughly. However, the evidence is inconclusive, adding to the mystery of the classic legend of Tristan and Isolde.

Tristan and Isolde: Selected full-text books and articles

Modern Myths and Wagnerian Deconstructions: Hermeneutic Approches to Wagner's Music-Dramas By Mary A. Cicora Greenwood Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "'The Potion, I Brewed It Myself!' Love, Death, and Deconstruction in Tristan und Isolde"
Wagner's Operas and Desire By James M. McGlathery Peter Lang, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Tristan and Isolde"
Romanticism (1830-1890) By Gerald Abraham Oxford University Press, 1990
Librarian’s tip: "Tristan und Isolde" begins on p. 291
Richard Wagner, His Life and His Dramas: A Biographical Study of the Man and an Explanation of His Work By W. J. Henderson G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1923 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: "Tristan Und Isolde: Action in Three Acts" begins on p. 293
FREE! The Music Dramas of Richard Wagner and His Festival Theatre in Bayreuth By Albert Lavignac; Esther Singleton Dodd, Mead and Company, 1898
Librarian’s tip: "Tristan und Isolde" begins on p. 113 and p. 284
King Arthur in Music By Richard Barber D.S. Brewer, 2002
Librarian’s tip: "Wagner: Tristan Und Isolde and Parsifal" begins on p. 23
FREE! Studies in the Wagnerian Drama By Henry Edward Krehbiel Harper and Brothers, 1891
Librarian’s tip: Chap. II "Tristan Und Isolde"
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