arthurian literature

The Forgotten Round Table: Sir Tristan Part 2

In which we finally find out why Palamides missed that date with Tristan (see Part 1).

Eventually.

But First, More Evil

Mark heard about all of his nephew’s victories and honors, got even more angry, and killed the messenger. Then he went and had an embarrassing encounter with Lamorak (who is back in the story), got mocked by Dinadin, had some more embarrassing encounters, and ended up fleeing for his life. Palamides saved him in a sort of absent-minded way, after which he hooked up with Dinadin, and Mark went on to do more wicked things and kill a bunch more people. Tristan was very upset… but didn’t actually do anything about it.

Lancelot went to the king and asked special if he could be the one to bring in Mark, which was just a little bit of overkill given that Mark was obviously a wimp, but okay. Mark being evil but not stupid, he surrendered without a fight, was taken to Arthur, and begged for mercy. The phrasing in this part is weird, but it appears that Arthur brokered a peace between Mark and Tristan.

WILL THIS STORY EVER END?

Meanwhile, Dinadin hung out with PalamidesĀ  for a while, and then they both ran into Lamorak again, making me think that a map of this story would make a great Family Circus with all the dotted lines. Palamides and Lamorak fought and then swore to be best friends. Dinadin was missing Tristan, and left the two of them to join him at Arthur’s court.

Tournament #6

This one wasn’t a real tournament, just a bit of jousting. Most of the big names sat it out and let Gawaine and his family show off, until Lamorak made a surprise appearance and kicked all of their asses. Tristan was delighted to see him, and Gawaine and family were delighted by an excuse to reignite the feud. They planned revenge.

Even More Evil, and Also Subplots

Arthur made Mark swear on a Bible that he would be nice to Tristan in the future and let him come home and see his “friends,” which of course meant Isolde. Of course Mark was lying, and everyone except Arthur assumed that they were never going to see Tristan again.

Long, long, long aside here to catch up with events in Lamorak’s family–his little brother being knighted, his affair with Gawaine’s mom (!), her death at the hands of one of her sons–and also Lancelot being increasingly exasperated by everyone, and then Dinadin encountered Palamides again and mentioned that Tristan was back in Cornwall with Isolde. Hooray!

Many happy letters were sent back and forth between Camelot and Tintagel, along with a few warning Tristan to watch his back around his uncle. Mark intercepted some of the letters and sent Arthur a note back, to the effect that he should keep an eye on his own wife and not worry about Mark’s. Arthur was reminded of that odd incident with Morgan and the shield, but sensibly (although incorrectly) decided that neither Morgan nor Mark were credible.

(Apparently evil people get Adultery Detection as part of their character package, since they all seem to know what’s going on there. Why they kept resorting to these indirect stratagems instead of just taking Arthur aside and telling him, I don’t quite understand. But anyway.)

Lancelot was considerably more worried about all of this than Arthur was, and unburdened himself to Dinadin. Dinadin being a helpful soul, he wrote a nasty song about Mark and made sure to teach it to every musician he knew.

Back in Cornwall, Mark was attacked by a neighboring lord and forced to resort to Tristan for help. After winning a proper battle, Tristan fought the enemy lord one on one and killed him. During the celebrations later, a harper arrived and played Dinadin’s song for everyone. Mark was, of course, very angry.

Enter (belatedly) Mark’s never-before-mentioned brother Baudwin, who was quite fond of Tristan and had a little princedom and family of his own. Mark invited them all over and straight-up murdered Baudwin at dinner. His wife took their son Alisandr and fled. Mark sent a henchman after them, who in the best fashion let them go, then went back and assured Mark that he had drowned the boy, and…

…oh hell, we’ve wandered into another subplot. And also into some kind of time warp, as Alisandr grew up and swore vengeance for his slain father while no one else noticed ten years passing. We’re gonna summarize here and skip Tournament #7, Alisandr being captured by Morgan le Fay, being rescued, falling in love, and having a kid of his own who eventually (finally and via further time-warping) avenged both his father Alisandr and Tristan, since Malory (spoilers!) lets drop that Mark killed both of them in the end.

At that point, someone realized that they had fallen down a very deep rabbit hole indeed and hauled the narrative back in by the collar. Back to the present day and….

Tournament #8

This was a big one, lasting a week. Every day got a chapter of exhaustive detail, which we will skip over because Tristan wasn’t even there. Palamides got a romantic subplot of his own, except the girl was his cousin, so that didn’t go anywhere.

Much of the tournament page count was spent on Lamorak, spotlighting his family’s feud with the Orkney faction. He did very well, but refused to go back to Arthur’s court as long as Gawaine and his brothers were around. At the end of the tournament Dinadin came in for some teasing as Lancelot put on a literal dress to beat him.

Tournament #9

From one to the next without a break. This one Tristan was at least in, although he appeared incognito, because Mark was hoping that someone would kill him in the melee. Alas, Tristan was only wounded. Mark took the opportunity to throw him in prison. Then, because there was no evil Mark would not stoop to, he forged some letters from the Pope (!) hoping to get Tristan to go off and die somewhere far away, but Tristan figured out the ploy.

Lamorak’s brother Percival came along and rescued Tristan from prison, visited Mark and told him off, and then headed home to Wales about his own business. Isolde escaped her husband (again?) and met up with Tristan (again!) and Lancelot gave them a nice castle to live in, and instead of that being the happy ending there was….

Tournament #10 and 11

Oh, FFS.

Amid all of the jousting and affray, Palamides showed up again. The blood feud roared into high gear as Gawaine and three of his brothers murdered Lamorak. (Gareth was not involved, because he was just That Nice, but Mordred was; in this story, Mordred is identified as their full brother.)

Tristan and Dinadin met up again. Tristan got embroiled in the feud — you may remember that he was friends with Lamorak, but if not it’s okay, because that was like six tournaments ago — and fought with various of the Orkney faction, who determined to kill him as well.

Gawaine and crew do not come off well in this story, but neither does the author; the tale has devolved into an incoherent mess. There is no actual plot and too many shifting loyalties to keep track of. When you are thoroughly lost with all of that, there’s one more tournament to get through.

Tournament #12 (The Last One!)

This is actually one of the better parts of the story, and we are getting close to the end finally. It’s a very elaborate setup, which boils down to Team Arthur vs Everybody Else — the King of Ireland (identified here as Marhaus’ father Marhalt, and presumably therefore Isolde’s grand-dad), the King of Surluse, the King of Listinoise, the King of Northumberland, and one of the dozen or so guys who called themselves King of Wales, just for a few.

Tristan was conflicted about which side to take. He, Dinadin, Gareth, and Palamides (who was kind of friends with Tristan at this point — it’s complicated) all put on green and formed their own company, and decided that since Arthur had all of the best knights, they would win the most glory if they took the other side.

The first matches were Team Green vs Orkney (minus Gareth) as Tristan and his friends systemically beat the crap out of Gareth’s murdery family. At last Arthur declared that enough was enough; he, Lancelot, and two of the latter’s relatives squared off against the four green-clad knights and knocked all of them down. In the following melee there was a great deal of people being knocked off horses and taking other people’s, Tristan changed his outfit for a red one, and Team Green + Red did marvelously all day.

Tragedy struck however, for Isolde (who was attending this thing quite openly), was rash enough to laugh with delight, and Palamides happened to see her and fell violently in love with her all over again, and did even better in the fighting for her sake. The pagan knight was widely admired right up until the afternoon, when he killed Lancelot’s horse. This gave the audience the rare sight of Lancelot losing his temper, but Palamides was sufficiently apologetic to have his life spared. Everyone went back to the scrum, and at the end of the day Palamides was acclaimed the winner. Dinadin spent the evening making fun of Tristan in order to provoke him to do better the next day.

On the morning of the second day, Tristan, Gareth, Palamides, and Isolde all went out for a ride in the forest in their green clothes. Arthur happened to see them and wanted a closer look at the beautiful Isolde, and he took Lancelot along. (Lancelot, in full facepalm mode for this whole story, did suggest thatĀ maybe they should be polite and avoid startling the heavily armed party with the lady? but Arthur brushed aside the warning.) They went riding off, Isolde was duly admired, and Palamides demanded this random guy stop bothering her. A fight erupted without anyone exchanging names, as happened all the time apparently. After it was over, Tristan guessed who the visitors had been, and was annoyed with Palamides for starting shit (with Arthur no less).

Anyway, the second day of the tournament began with this unhappy encounter. Palamides pretended to be tired from the first day and went off from the rest of Team Green, but only so he could beat up on the Orkney faction some more on his own and get all of the acclaim. Tristan was saddened by this evidence of ill will from his friend, and exerted himself to win the crowd’s approval for himself. Again in the afternoon he changed his gear, this time for black. Palamides saw this and exchanged his own harness for that of a wounded knight, thus disguising himself, and went against Tristan. Lancelot intervened and offered to fight the (disguised!) Tristan on behalf of the (disguised!) clearly tired Palamides (even allowing for poetic exaggeration, these affairs do sound brutally exhausting). Palamides was delighted to accept.

And so we had another Lancelot/Tristan fight with one of the participants not knowing who the other one was. Gareth and Dinadin, worried that their friend was no match for a fresh Lancelot, came to Tristan’s rescue, much to his annoyance. After a bit of a general scrum, Dinadin had the bright idea of saying Tristan’s name where everyone could hear it. Cue a chagrined Lancelot, and Tristan winning the day.

Tragic Interlude

The day’s fighting ended, and everyone returned to their camps. Palamides came up with some elaborate excuse for his behavior. Isolde was furious, but Tristan believed him and forgave all. Arthur and Lancelot stopped by for a visit and little bit of narrative knife-twisting as everyone kept innocently asking Palamides what the hell he was thinking, changing sides in the middle of the fight. Palamides spent the whole night stewing in anger.

It feels like this should be leading up to something big, doesn’t it?

*sigh*

Tournament #12 Continued

On the third day, Team Green became Team Red. An exciting day of fighting ensued. There’s no mention of the Orkney clan; presumably they were all recuperating from their collective ass-kicking on the first two days, with the result that after a short time, Arthur’s outnumbered party was getting the worst of it. Tristan decided to change sides. Palamides refused to join them. Tristan and the other two turned the tide back in Arthur’s favor, Tristan and Lancelot split the honors, and Palamides was left woeful and swearing to kill Tristan.

Again.

A couple of lighter interludes followed, including a visit to Gwen (who had been sick and missed the tournament), where everyone talked about how nice and beautiful Isolde was. Palamides shared tales of woe with a fellow sufferer and had a side adventure in which after yet another anonymous fight (they really loved that trope) he encountered his brother, Safere.

He was also arrested for having killed a knight during the tournament, and was being taken to be executed for it, but they went past Tristan’s castle on the way, so Tristan found out. Tristan was going to rescue his old frenemy, but Lancelot rescued him first (do you get the feeling that the author wanted a different main character? ’cause I can’t shake that), and took him back to Tristan’s place, and everyone was happy for a whole week, except for Palamides, who seemed to be wasting away.

Tragic Anticlimax

Palamides went out into woods and sang sad songs about his love for Isolde, and Tristan went out hunting and overheard him, and got angry. They decided to fight fifteen days hence.

AGAIN.

SOME MORE.

Tristan reminded Palamides of the last time they agreed to fight and Palamides never showed up. Palamides said that he was in prison at the time, finally explaining that whole thing.

And then, three days before the new fight, Tristan went out hunting again and accidentally got shot and wounded in the leg

and

nothing

happened.

THEY MISSED THEIR FIGHT AGAIN.

Palamides wandered off looking for other adventures. Once his leg was healed, Tristan went looking for him, and achieved such heights of glory in so doing that Lancelot’s relatives complained about him stealing all of the attention, and maybe they should kill him?

Lancelot: Don’t you dare, or I will kill you myself. I can’t believe I’m related to you people.

And that’s it. After over one hundred pages of story, Malory leaves off the ending. We wander away (just like Palamides), follow Lancelot into the festival of trauma that is the Grail quest, and never find out anything else about Tristan other than that, apparently, at some point, Evil Uncle Mark finally killed him.

Criticism

There are stories in this book that strike the modern reader as weird; they rely on mythology that has fallen out of currency, or character motivations that seem alien to us, or dramatic mechanisms that we just aren’t into these days, like convenient bouts of amnesiac insanity. Tristan’s story, however, is just flat-out terribly told. It is also the longest, barring the Grail story (which is also terrible but in different ways).

First off, Tristan is one of the most useless main characters I have ever encountered. He is early on given a couple of interests — music, hunting, patriotism — but those fall by the wayside and play no role in events later on. He’s wishy-washy, lets everyone walk all over him, falls in and out of friendship and enmity at the drop of a hat, and never has any goals other than hanging around Isolde.

The story meanders for long stretches. Tristan has countless fights, some with more reason than others, and long-standing rivalries with Mark and Palamides, but there’s so much back and forth from everyone involved, and so little payoff along the way, that the narrative is fundamentally static. By the end he and Palamides have fought on a half dozen occasions and avoided fighting on a half dozen other occasions, and there doesn’t seem to be a point to any of the encounters. He and Isolde have been in and out of Tintagel so many times that Mark should have installed a revolving door.

Plot threads get introduced and dropped all the time. Isolde 2? Bye. Blood feud spillover? Bye. Questing Beast? Bye. Hell, by the end of the story, its been 50 pages since anyone mentioned Evil Uncle Mark, who has meanwhile gotten away with rather a lot of murders. The author takes every opportunity to shoehorn in characters who do have plots, and I think the idea was that their company should polish up Tristan, but they just point out how incoherent his story is by comparison. Taken as a whole, this tale illustrates well the difference between “plot” and “things happening one after another”.

There are, however, a few elements that I find interesting. One of those is the blood feud, which I’ve mentioned before. Much of this story takes place in a relatively formal world of tournaments and ritualized fighting, and though these were clearly dangerous in their own right, we’re a long way from the battlefields of the early book. In this context, the raw personal violence of the feud comes across as an echo from a time closer to the origin point of the stories. There’s also the fact that according to this particular story, the Orkney clan gets away with straight-up murdering Lamorak — who didn’t do anything except embarrass them at a tournament — which is startling even if they were Arthur’s nephews.

If the Round Table was meant to be a civilizing influence and example to the people of the realm, it can’t be called a success. This, too, is largely forgotten.

Another thing I am intrigued by is what comes across as intentional regional boosterism. Tristan is from Cornwall. People in the early part of the story make fun of him and Cornish knights generally. When Tristan gets pulled into the feud, it’s on the Welsh side of the affair (and specifically southern Wales). These south-westerly characters are positioned valorously if not always victoriously against the murderous northerners and too-cool-for-school Continental contingent. The Welsh Lamorak having an affair with Morgause feels particularly pointed, and Gawaine and his brothers–in this story strongly affiliated with the north, which isn’t the case in all of them–come in for some terrible authorial treatment. “Your mother” jokes do go back pretty far into human history. Is this another distant echo of actual conflicts? A storyteller peeved that their homeland wasn’t represented on the Round Table?

Finally, there’s my ever-present longing to make sense of the overall timeline, which is even more impossible than usual in this story. Tristan is a baby knight when his adventures start, while at that same time, Lancelot has nephews that are about the same age as him, if not older. So either Lancelot is on the younger end of his generation (which would explain the saintly amount of patience the rest of the family show him), or he’s at least twice Tristan’s age (which would make Tristan another adopted duckling, like Gareth). In either case, Arthur is another generation back from Lancelot, so how old are he and Gwen then?! ‘Cause Arthur goes out jousting and stuff all the time in this story, which is really not recommended for those pushing sixty.

I know, I know, there’s no point to asking, but I can’t put down the questions entirely. I’ve probably spent as much time thinking about the timeline in the distant backstory as I have about any of the actual plot elements in my own books that draw on this stuff.

My deepest gratitude toward anyone who actually read this whole thing, and I hope you found it amusing. Let me know if there are any other stories you would like to see get this treatment.

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