Tristan is another character who I suspect triggers a vague name recognition in most people, but that’s all; maybe they remember that his story is a tragic romance, maybe not.
So, here’s a thing: there are loads of versions of this story, which is a very old one. Malory’s is, unfortunately, not a good version. That said, you want tragedy and a whole lot of tournaments? BUCKLE UP BUTTERCUPS. It’s a long ride, so a two-parter. Let’s meet Tristan, Wet Hen of the Round Table.
Once upon a time in Liones, there lived King Meliodas and Queen Elizabeth, and they were expecting a baby. Unfortunately, some woman out there was violently jealous of the king and arranged to kidnap him while he was out hunting. Elizabeth went out to search for him, went into labor, and died, but her son lived. Before she died, Elizabeth named the baby Tristan, meaning sorrow.
Meliodas was eventually freed by Merlin, showing up late as usual.
After seven years, Meliodas remarried. His second wife, the daughter of a king of Brittany, was the prototypical Evil Stepmother. She already had children and wanted them promoted in Tristan’s place, so she tried twice to poison him, murdering one of her own kids in the first attempt. The second time, Meliodas found out and was going to have her burned alive, but Tristan interceded. Meliodas reluctantly agreed to spare her, but he sent Tristan away to France for seven years or so with a fellow named Gouvernail.
In that time Tristan got a thorough education, and particularly excelled at playing the harp. He eventually came home, and everything went well for a bit; the queen in particular was forever grateful to him.
Tristan’s uncle was King Mark of Cornwall (his late mother’s brother). Cornwall had fallen under Irish sway, Mark was behind on his payments, and the Irish were getting testy. Mark told them they could send their best fighter to come and take it, and they sent Sir Marhaus.
(Marhaus is another forgotten name. Not only was he one of the Round Table, but he was brother of the queen of Ireland–one of the queens, anyway, there seem to have been a few.)
Mark wasn’t expecting to have his bluff called. He sent out for someone to take on Sir Marhaus, but all of the knights of Cornwall who didn’t have a death wish found somewhere else to be. Word got to Meliodas’ court, where Tristan said, “Fine, if you lot are scared, I’ll do it, even though I’m like seventeen and not even a knight yet.”
He went to Cornwall (with Gouvernail), got knighted by his uncle, and went to fight Marhaus. As first battles go, it was properly epic and took place on an island. Marhaus retreated to his ship, mortally wounded, went back to Ireland, and died there. Tristan had been wounded as well, however, and the wound had been poisoned, Marhaus being a right bastard for a Round Table knight.
Tragic Romance #1
While all of this was going on, the daughter of a king of France, who had fallen in love with Tristan during his stay there, sent him woeful letters and a puppy, but he didn’t love her back, and the princess died of sadness. As one does.
Tragic Romance #2
Eventually a wise woman came to look at Tristan and said that the wound could only be healed if he went to the place from which the venom came. So Tristan packed his harp, took ship for Ireland, changed his name, and was welcomed by the king and queen, though they were still in mourning for her brother. Tristan was so welcome, in fact, that the princess Isolde took charge of his care, being a famous healer and also a fan of harp music.
Isolde was being courted by another of the Round Table, a pagan by the name of Sir Palamides. A cordial dislike sprang up between the two knights pretty much instantly.
At this time, the king of Ireland (his name was Anguish) decided to have a tournament. The prize was to be the hand of his cousin. Isolde wanted Tristan to fight in the tournament, because she was afraid Palamides would win it and marry this other lady.
“This is kind of messed up, but all right,” Tristan said. “Just don’t tell anybody it’s me.”
The first day of the tournament passed with Palamides the winner; Tristan didn’t fight. The messenger from the French lady who loved Tristan arrived, and Tristan made the lad promise not to reveal his identity. Isolde had already seen the messenger’s reaction upon finding Tristan, however, and began to suspect that he was more important than his fake name suggested. On the second day, Tristan took the field all in white and trounced Palamides. He spared Pal’s life on the following conditions: no Isolde for you, and no fighting for a year and a day. Tristan returned to the king’s court and his now competition-free love interest, victorious.
For reasons not made clear, one day while Tristan was having a bath, the queen was snooping around in his room. She noted that his sword was missing a bit that looked an awful lot like the chunk of metal they found in her late brother, Marhaus. She grabbed the sword and went looking for Tristan, who was saved by his squire from being stabbed to death in the bathtub.
Okay, so it’s not all tragedy.
She went to the king while Tristan got dressed. King Anguish was commendably restrained and gave Tristan safe passage from his kingdom as long as he explained who he was and whether he had in fact killed Marhaus. Tristan told the whole story, and Anguish had to admit that he hadn’t actually behaved wrongly at any point, but a man couldn’t have his brother-in-law’s killer in the house with his stab-happy wife; you see how it is, right?
Of course he did. Tristan went to Isolde and told her everything. They exchanged rings, and Isolde promised to wait seven years before she married anyone else, unless he approved. A sorrowful parting was made.
Tragic Romance #3 + Tragic Family Relationships
Tristan went home for a while, and then fetched up at Uncle Mark’s court in Cornwall again. There, Tristan’s eye began to wander. Sir Segwarides was a local earl whose wife was apparently quite attractive, since both Tristan and Mark fancied her. The lady sent a messenger to Tristan arranging an assignation, but Mark happened to find out about their rendezvous. Mark and two of his knights ambushed Tristan, but Tristan fought them off and went on without realizing who it had been. He didn’t take any notice of a wound he had received. Segwarides couldn’t help but notice the blood everywhere the next day, however, and the lady confessed. Segwarides went after Tristan, who defeated him, and so the whole business was papered over except that Mark nursed a new resentment of his nephew.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, another knight–a nephew of Lancelot’s named Bleoberis–arrived and asked a boon of King Mark: the fairest lady at his court. Of course he picked Segwarides’ wife (presumably out of spite), and she went dolefully away with Bleoberis. Segwarides followed. Another of the ladies rebuked Tristan for not joining in, to which he pointed out shamelessly that she did have an actual husband for that kind of thing.
Alas, Segwarides got beaten, so Tristan went out after all. On the way he encountered two other knights of the Round Table, Sagramore le Desirous and Dodinas le Savage. They made fun of Cornish knights generally, so of course Tristan had to fight them and beat them. He rode on and finally spotted his quarry. Like the other two, Bleoberis wasn’t afraid of any Cornish so-called knight. The two exchanged lineages.
Tristan: Hm. Nobody wants to fight anybody related to Lancelot, ever.
Bleoberis: Smart. We’ll let the lady decide where she wants to go, how’s that?
Nameless Lady: You suck at this rescuing business; I’ll take my chances with the one who kidnapped me.
Bleoberis: Now is the time for me to reveal that this whole thing was all in fun, and I’ll return you to your grievously wounded husband now. Mind you, Tris, if you had stepped up here a bit, you could have had her. Tsk.
A chagrined Tristan returned to court, where his Evil Uncle Mark had new trouble brewing.
Tragic Romance #2 (Again) and Tragic Family Relationships (Again)
Mark by this time had gotten obsessed with destroying his nephew, and decided to send him to Ireland to fetch Isolde for himself. Tristan, dutiful nephew and professional doormat, set off but was conveniently shipwrecked near Camelot and fought a couple of knights randomly.
(No theory for Camelot’s location that I’ve ever heard would make it possible to end up there on your way from Cornwall to Ireland, but whatever.)
You may as well get used to this, because this story has a hundred characters and side plots, like this one, in which King Anguish was summoned to Arthur’s court to answer a charge of having improperly killed someone. So even if Tristan hadn’t been shipwrecked, he would have had to wait for Anguish to get home from this trip.
The accuser was another of Lancelot’s relatives, Sir Blamore (Bleoberis’ brother); trial by combat being the norm, Anguish stood in need of a champion. Tristan was busy rescuing a kidnapped child when this story began, but as soon as he was back in the neighborhood he agreed to take the battle as long as Anguish swore that he was not actually in the wrong, in exchange for a “thing reasonable that I will ask of you”.
Tristan defeated Blamore, but Blamore preferred death to yielding because the whole family is Like That. Tristan appealed to the judges rather than kill him. Everyone agreed that Blamore had nothing to be ashamed of, and all parties to the trial were reconciled. Anguish and Tristan sailed to Ireland, where Isolde was very happy to see him, right up until the moment when Tristan said he was there to ask for Isolde’s hand… for his uncle Mark.
The queen (who should probably have gone on my list of witches) gave Isolde’s lady in waiting a love potion for the bride and groom, which I suppose is one way to deal with arranged marriages. Alas, on the way back to Cornwall, Isolde and Tristan drank the potion unwittingly. Also alas, as soon as they landed, they were taken prisoner by the lord of the aptly named Weeping Castle.
The lord of this castle had a very odd custom; whenever a knight and lady stopped by, the knight had to fight the lord, one Breunor. If Breunor won, the knight would be killed. If anyone ever defeated Breunor, however, he would be killed. Also, there would be a beauty contest between his wife and the visiting lady, and the loser would–I bet you can guess!–be killed.
In the morning they had the beauty contest. The castle denizens all agreed that Isolde was prettier, and so a reluctant Tristan cut off the lady of the castle’s head. Then of course he fought Breunor, and of course he won and Bruenor died.
Someone told their son Sir Galahad (not that Galahad, he hasn’t been born yet; a different one), who was away, about his parents being dead. He came back to fight Tristan. While they were fighting, another king showed up with an actual army. At that point Tristan cannily surrendered to Galahad, who as his captor had to defend him against the newly arrived king. Galahad wasn’t particularly upset about his evil parents being dead anyway, and gave Tristan parole, but he couldn’t stick around because he had to go find Lancelot.
Lancelot: Could you please stop name-dropping me? This is the seventh time, and it isn’t even supposed to be my story.
Author: It gets a lot worse, believe me. In fact, I’m gonna break the narrative here to tell about how you rescued Gawaine that one time and Tristan still hasn’t gotten to meet you even though he’s really keen to do so.
Tragic Wedding, Tragic Reunion
Tristan and Isolde went on to Cornwall, and the wedding to Evil King Mark took place with the usual rejoicing–at least for a while, until some of the court conceived a plot against Isolde’s handmaiden, Bragwaine, and had her kidnapped. Who should come along to rescue her but Palamides? Having done so, he went to King Mark and demanded that Isolde go away with him (so much for that agreement). Mark figured he could count on Tristan to get his wife back without risking his own self, and said, “Sure thing.”
Tristan was away at the time, and so the job fell to a bit character. While this poor sod was getting beaten up by Palamides, Isolde ran away and was rescued by another bit character, who took her to his castle. Bit character #2 went out to fight Palamides, lost, and was going to hand over Isolde, but she locked the castle up tight, leaving her erstwhile suitor/kidnapper to hang around outside the gates.
Tristan eventually got caught up with events and found them, and fought Palamides to the point of victory. Tragically, Isolde intervened then rather than have Palamides die a pagan, ensuring another hundred-some pages of this story. He would have to stay away from her, though, and go tell Gwenevir that she and Lancelot had competition now in the All-Islands Best Illicit Lovers contest.
Seriously, this is a thing that happened. It’s even sillier considering that, according to my hasty research, the Tristan story is actually older than the Lancelot stuff. And if we’re going to compare tragedy ratings, on the one hand Tristan and Isolde do actually die, which is important. On the other hand, their story involves way less collateral damage than L/G, who rack up an amazing body count by the end of the book. You make the call, reader.
But anyway. Back to Evil King Mark they went, and all was well until one day someone tattled on the two, and Mark was feeling brave enough to try to kill Tristan himself. It didn’t go well. Tristan left the castle and fought off thirty pursuing troops. Mark’s barons suggested that Mark was putting himself in a bad spot here, since Tristan was likely to defect to King Arthur, and Mark ought to invite Tristan back and just put up with the situation. Which he did, and everything was fine for a while, albeit weird.
The hero of the early going was Sir Lamorak, one of the late Sir Pellinor’s kids and therefore party to the feud with Orkney (you may recall that Pellinor killed Gawaine’s father Lot, and Gawaine later killed Pellinor). This ends up being a significant plot much later in this story. Mark, working hard to cement his place at the top of the evil pecking order, ordered Tristan to go fight Lamorak. Tristan was reluctant to do so; he was fresh, and Lamorak was tired, but he went ahead and unhorsed his opponent, then refused to continue, even though Lamorak was game. Lamorak was kind of pissed at Tristan for making him look bad, and put a plan in motion to expose him and Isolde via a magic drinking horn. It didn’t work, but Tristan knew who was behind it and was angry.
Tragic In Flagrante
As tends to happen in these stories, eventually the lovers got caught in bed, which was apparently too much to be overlooked. Tristan was taken captive and removed to a chapel to be executed, while Isolde was imprisoned elswhere. He fought his way free and jumped out the window into the rocky sea. Some of his loyal men helped him out, and they all went and rescued Isolde. They took refuge in a manor in the forest for a while until one of Mark’s men found them. Mark came in force and snatched Isolde back, but she got a message to Tristan via Bragwaine. Go to Brittany, she said, and King Howel; his daughter (also and confusingly named Isolde–we’ll call her Isolde 2, because her sobriquet “of the white hands” is a lot to type every time) could help him.
Tragic Romance #3
I’m not sure if Sir Thomas remembered this, but Howel was Tristan’s step-grandfather, so Isolde 2 was kind of a relative. Anyway, Tristan went to Brittany and impressed the king by helping out in a battle, and Isolde 2 was smitten. What with one thing and another, Tristan married her — much to the horror of everyone who knew him, especially Isolde 1 — although he later swore that the match was never consummated.
This was a side adventure. Tristan and Segwarides and Tristan and Lamorak were all reconciled and by means of a tournament deposed an evil knight who ruled an island. Segwarides ended up ruling the place after the other two both refused to do so.
At this point I feel the writer lost control of the narrative, and that poor Caxton must have been wondering how much longer this story was going to be. In sum:
- Lamorak had some adventures on his own.
- We got the story of La Cote Mal Taile, which has very little to do with anything else here, but does feature Lancelot in full-on mother hen mode.
- Isolde 1 begged Tristan to visit her; he got driven ashore in Wales, had an adventure, and ended up fighting Lamorak (again). They both tried to surrender to each other and swore friendship.
- Palamides showed up again, following the Questing Beast (which quest he took over after Pellinor was killed, although after this mention it is never brought up again).
- Lamorak had another side adventure in which he fought a random assortment of characters, including Arthur.
At that point things steadied up and focused on Tristan again. He fell in (anonymously) with Kay, Tor, and a couple of others who set to trash-talking Cornwall, as appeared to be standard practice. Tristan duly thrashed them all. He saved King Arthur from an evil sorceress, then made his way back to Cornwall where Isolde waited.
Tragic Romance ^2
King Mark had given up trying to do anything about the two for a while, and Tristan and Isolde 1 were reunited. Unfortunately Kehydius–brother of Isolde 2, and who accompanied Tristan on his travels–was immediately smitten with Isolde 1 and wrote some songs for her. She wrote back to him. Tristan found the letters and was about to kill Kehydius, when the latter jumped out the window and almost landed on King Mark, who happened to be playing chess outside that day.
After this glancing encounter with farce, a sad Tristan went away (again!) and had some more random fights, was briefly tended to by a nice lady who actually worked for Palamides, and then went out into the wilderness to live naked and mad with sorrow. There he was found by some shepherds who made him their fool. A rumor went around that Tristan was dead. Isolde determined to kill herself, but Mark locked her in a tower. Right around the same time, Mark heard about the naked madman roaming his lands, and had him brought to the castle. Apparently Tristan was much changed, for not even Isolde recognized him.
HOWEVER, do you remember the puppy? You forgot about the puppy, and I don’t blame you. The dog sent by the French lady who loved him before anyone else did recognized Tristan, and thanks to the dog’s behavior Isolde cottoned to his identity as well. She would have had him leave at once, but before anything could be decided, Mark found them. Mark’s barons, who were presumably sick to death of all of them, advised their king that Tristan be banished.
Yeah, that’s gonna work, guys.
So Tristan left Cornwall for the nth time, taking another knight named Dinadin along for company. They had the usual random road jousts and anonymously helped out Lancelot by throwing in with some of his relatives to interfere in an ambush Morgan had set for him.
The tournaments up to this point were sidelights, but this one is a major set piece, because Tristan was famous enough that people were keen to see him fight–and, as tended to be the case with any hot newcomer, they wanted him to fight Lancelot, an encounter which the author has been teasing for forty pages, in case you were wondering what the actual romantic tension is about in this story.
This tournament was held at the Castle of Maidens, between Carados of Scotland, the King of North Wales aka Northgalis, and Arthur. On his way there, Tristan was met by a damsel, and then by Gawaine, who recognized the lady for one of Morgan’s henchdamsels. Thus Tristan was warned of an ambush. He also ran into Bragwaine, who had some letters from Isolde 1 (Isolde 2 has fallen out of the story at this point).
There were a number of pre-game bouts the day before the tournament started. One of those was a rematch between Tristan and Palamides. Palamides won, leaving Tristan steaming. Then Lancelot made his entrance. Having heard from everyone including most of his junior relatives about this Cornish knight by now, and being the only character in this entire book who is allowed a sense of humor, Lancelot had the Cornish arms painted on his shield. He jousted with Palamides, beat him handily, and went off to rest up for the main event. At that point the King of Northgalis, determined to win this thing, sprang a trap on him. Outnumbered twelve to one and only half-armored, Lancelot killed a bunch of them and escaped, but he missed the first day of the tournament as a result.
Tristan, meanwhile, had his own shield painted black. I’m not sure how the teams got chosen for these events in actuality, but it appears that Tristan was on Carados’ side that first day, while Lancelot’s family (minus Lancelot) and Gawaine’s were on the North Wales side. Carados’ team won, with Tristan getting the overall best for the day.
On the second day the teams shifted. Arthur took the lead on one side; he had Palamides, Carados, Lancelot’s family, and Gawaine’s family. With Palamides now on Arthur’s team, Tristan switched sides and fought for Northgalis, beating up most of Lancelot’s kindred in the process. Both Tristan and Lancelot got moments of mutual admiration, but they didn’t fight each other that day. Northgalis’ team won Day 2, thanks to Tristan’s prowess, and Tristan himself slipped away before anyone could shower him with adulation.
That night Tristan found Palamides out in the forest, apparently out of his mind. He didn’t recognize Tristan, but lamented his countless defeats and setbacks at the other man’s hands. Tristan gave him shelter for the night, and in the morning Palamides returned to his fellows for the third day of the tournament, none the wiser.
Arthur took the field himself on day 3 and fought Tristan, and then Palamides showed up, only to be decisively defeated. Tristan and Arthur went back to fighting, but the melee pushed them apart. After hanging back for a bit, Lancelot stepped into the fray on behalf of his beleaguered relatives, and wounded Tristan. Tristan retired from the field with his friend Dinadin, only to find Palamides in pursuit. Tristan beat Palamides again, and then he and Dinadin took shelter with some old knight who lived nearby.
Palamides went off half-mad, fell in a river, lost his horse, and ended up at the same castle Tristan was at. Awkward!
Meanwhile, Lancelot had wreaked his usual havoc for the remainder of the afternoon, but being a beacon of good sportsmanship and kind of pissed off at himself for having hurt Tristan, refused to consider himself the day 3 winner. At Arthur’s behest, he and ten of the other knights swore to find the
Mysterious Beautiful Stranger Tristan — who was in dire straits! Word had reached his host that three of his sons had been killed in the tournament, a reminder that this was a very dangerous sport. They had all been killed by Tristan, of course, and so Tris, Dinadin, and Palamides were thrown in prison, where Tristan fell ill. (A situation which Malory, a prisoner himself, wrote about with great feeling.)
Interlude for Evil
In case the audience forgot that Mark was a jerk, he treated several visiting Round Table knights (of the party searching for Tristan) very badly. Isolde, at least, was delighted to hear of her lover’s recent success.
Upon learning that Tristan was likely to die of his illness, their captor repented of his rough treatment, let them all go, and committed himself to restoring Tristan’s health. Once he had recovered, the three went their separate ways.
Tristan continued to have terrible luck, however, and ended up in one of Morgan’s castles. She would let him go, she said, if he would tell her his name, and bear the shield she gave him in an upcoming tournament at the Castle of the Hard Rock (the shield bore a device intended to clue Arthur in regarding the Gwen/Lancelot affair). Tristan agreed, although perplexed by the request.
This one was Scotland and Ireland vs King Arthur’s knights. Tristan was in the thick of things with his shield, which puzzled Arthur and made Gwen nervous. Arthur sent a knight to ask where he’d gotten it, and of course Tris told the truth, but refused to reveal his own name. Arthur fought him personally and was wounded.
Looking for a place to stay for the night, Tristan ended up rescuing Palamides, who was busy fighting nine other knights who worked for a wicked lord. The irony was not lost on Tristan, but they agreed to fight each other some more in a fortnight, when they would both be in better health.
So Tristan journeyed about for a while and had the usual random encounters, and then went to meet Palamides.
A Long-Awaited Battle
The place of the meeting was none other than the tomb Merlin had made for Balin and Balan back in Book II (!), and uttered a prophecy there about how the two best knights in the world would fight there. And now here we have had an elaborate many-chaptered setup for what one assumes will be a decisive fight between Tristan and his rival.
PSYCH! Palamides wasn’t there.
Tristan assumed that the other knight hanging around was Palamides keeping his promise, and goodness knows what Lancelot was thinking or why he was hanging out there, but they went at it without positively identifying each other.
FOUR HOURS of fighting later:
Lancelot: So, what’s your name anyway?
Tristan: Not telling.
Lancelot. Rude. You can have MY name. It’s Lancelot.
Tristan: Oh, shit.
So while this did not actually bring any part of the plot to a conclusion, slash shippers of the medieval world were no doubt delighted by the
slow burn payoff ensuing kisses (really). Off they went to Camelot, where Tristan could finally be introduced at court and join the Round Table, taking Marhaus’ vacated seat.
I have to stop here for now, because we are well over four thousand words, and this story just goes on.