Tristan's name comes from that of an actual person, Drust, king of the Picts of Scotland about A.D. 780, and some of his adventures belong to this king's saga. The Celts of Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany changed the hero's name to Drystan or Trystan and made him the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall. At first the stories of Tristan and Arthur had no connection, but the Welsh brought them together and most of the French romances made Tristan a knight of the Round Table.
The story of Tristan and Iseult, marked from the beginning as a theme for tragedy, was told most beautifully by the romancers of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Among the twelfth-century French poets who wrote of Tristan was the Anglo-Norman Thomas of Britain, whose romance was the source of one of the most beautiful of Tristan stories--Gottfried von Strassburg's unfinished poem, written in German about 1210. Malory's tale of the lovers was taken from a later prose version, which had lost much of the beauty and freshness of the earlier poems.
Although love is the central theme, Tristan's adventures bulk large as well. As a young orphan he came to his uncle's castle at Tintagel on the Cornish coast and was recognized as heir by the unmarried king. At this time Cornwall was forced to send to Ireland a yearly tribute of noble youths unless a Cornish champion could overcome the Irish king's brother-in-law, Morolt, who came to collect the tribute. Tristan defeated him, leaving a piece of his sword in Morolt's skull. Morolt was borne to his sister, Iseult, the Irish queen, who was the most skillful healer in the world, but she could not save him. Her daughter, Iseult the Fair, kept the fragment of the sword and vowed vengeance upon the slaver. But Morolt's poisoned sword had wounded Tristan, and he knew that only the Irish queen could heal him. So, disguised as a minstrel, he sailed to Ireland. There the queen healed him, asking only that he teach her daughter Iseult the arts of music.
When Tristan returned to Cornwall, the Cornish lords were urging Mark to marry. The king refused for a long time, but finally agreed to ask the hand of the Princess Iseult, of whose beauty and wisdom Tristan had told him. The jealous knights urged Tristan to undertake the embassy to Ireland, hoping that he would be