arthurian literature

Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur Book 8 – Tristram

I already did a thing about Book 7 a while ago, so we’re skipping it.

The problem with the Tristram story is that we are basically shoe-horning an entire other book into the literal middle of this one. Up to this point, the stories have been reasonably cohesive. The first seven books covered Arthur’s origins and the establishment of the kingdom, and some adventures of other prominent characters that happened during more or less that same period of time

Tristram comes out of left field, and despite dogged effort to integrate him into the main story, it never works. No matter how many of them he beats in fights, Tristram’s interactions with the Round Table never seem organic, and I honestly think that at one point Malory forgot where he was in the story and started repeating himself.

Dramatis Personae:

  • Tristram, a wet blanket of epic proportions
  • Elizabeth (d), Tristram’s mother, sister of Mark, the king of Cornwall
  • Meliodas, Tristram’s father
  • ????? Tristram’s stepmother
  • Gouvernail, Tristram’s tutor
  • Agwisance, King of Ireland
  • ????? Queen of Ireland
  • Sir Marhaus, brother of the Queen of Ireland, a knight of the Round Table (we last saw him back in Book 4)
  • Sir Dinas, Mark’s seneschal
  • La Beale Isoud, daughter of Agwisance
  • Sir Palomides the Saracen, friend of the K&Q of Ireland, loves Isoud
  • Hebes le Renoumes, a squire sent by the French princess to Tristram with letters
  • Sir Segwarides, one of Mark’s earls, whose wife is coveted by both Mark and Tristram
  • Sir Bleoberis, one of Lancelot’s infinite cousins
  • Sir Blamor, brother of Bleoberis
  • Dame Bragwaine, Isoud’s servant
  • Sir Lamorak de Gales
  • Sir Andred, a cousin of Tristram who hates him
  • Howel, King of Brittany
  • Isoud la Blanche Mains, Howel’s daughter
  • Kehydius, Howel’s son

Book 8 Recap

  1. Tristram is born. His mother dies birthing him, while his father is being held prisoner by an evil woman.
  2. Merlin rescues Meliodas, who remarries and has some children with the new queen. She’s so keen to kill Tristram that she poisons one of her own children and nearly poisons Meliodas, who is on the point of executing her when Tristram pleads for her life.
  3. Tristram goes to France, learns music and hunting, goes back to Cornwall and reaches manhood.
  4. One of the Irish kings demand tribute from King Mark, and sends Marhaus to collect. No one in Cornwall is brave enough to fight him until Tristram volunteers, although he hasn’t even been knighted.
  5. A French princess falls in love with Tristram, sends him letters and a puppy, and dies of unrequited love. King Mark knights Tristram.
  6. Tristram prepares to battle Marhaus, who waits on an island for a worthy challenger.
  7. Tristram fights Marhaus and leaves a sliver of sword stuck in his skull. Marhaus flees to his ship.
  8. Marhaus returns to Ireland and dies of his wound. Tristram has also been wounded, and Marhaus used poison on his spear. The antidote can only be found in Ireland, so Tristram is shipped off to Agwisance’s court, where he calls himself Tramtrist.
  9. Palomides and Tramtrist side-eye each other over Isoud. Agwisance declares a tournament for the hand of his cousin. Isoud is afraid Palomides will win it, and asks Tramtrist to fight. Hebes arrives, recognizes “Tramtrist,” but promises to keep his secret.
  10. Tramtrist joins the tournament and trounces Palomides. He demands that Palomides leave Isoud alone and wear no armor for a year and a day. Much is made of Tramtrist by his hosts.
  11. The queen figures out that it was Tramtrist who killed her brother, and tries to kill him. (In the bath, no less.) The king is sad, but he will let Tramtrist go unharmed in exchange for his true identity.
  12. Tristram and Isoud exchange rings and have a sorrowful parting.
  13. Tristram goes home for a bit, then goes back to his uncle Mark’s place, where they both fall in love with a lady. Mark ambushes Tristram on his way to an assignation with her, and wounds him without being recognized.
  14. Segwarides discovers his wife’s infidelity and rides off after Tristram, who defeats him. Mark conceives a lasting hatred of Tristram.
  15. Bleoberis arrives and asks a boon of Mark: the fairest lady in his court. Because Mark is scared of Round Table knights, he agrees. Bleoberis picks Segwarides’ wife and rides off with her. Segwarides goes after them and is wounded. Tristram goes out later and meets a knight of the Round Table, who tells him about two other knights who are riding around looking for trouble in the area.
  16. Tristram encounters the visitors, Sagamore and Dodinas. They trash talk Cornwall for a bit. Tristram defeats them both.
  17. Tristram catches up with Bleoberis. They fight, and agree that the lady can go with whoever she prefers.
  18. She goes with Bleoberis, who delivers her back to her wounded husband unharmed. Tristram is chastened by the whole incident.
  19. Mark decides that the best way to hurt his nephew is by taking Isoud for himself, and sends Tristram to fetch her. Along the way, he ends up in Camelot long enough to defeat two more of the Round Table.
  20. Agwisance, meanwhile, has been summoned to Camelot on a charge of treason and must fight Blamor. Tristram offers to help a random lady get a stolen shield back from the knight who took it; she was supposed to give it to Lancelot.
  21. Tristram recovers the shield for the lady and hears about Agwisance’s dilemma. Tristram offers to take the duel with Blamor for him if Agwisance can swear that he wasn’t in the wrong, and Tristram will ask for a favor later.
  22. Tristram and Blamor fight.
  23. Defeated, Blamor refuses to yield. Tristram doesn’t want to kill him and asks the judges to intervene. Agwisance is cleared, everyone makes up, and Lancelot’s family are fondly disposed toward Tristram. Agwisance and Tristram depart for Ireland and a warm welcome (even from the queen).
  24. Tristram reveals that he has come to ask for Isoud’s hand for his uncle Mark. The queen gives Bragwaine a love potion for Isoud and Mark, but Isoud and Tristram accidentally drink it on the way across the sea. They reach a castle and are taken prisoner by its lord, Breunor.
  25. Tristram has to fight Breunor, and the loser will be beheaded. Isoud must compete against the lady of the castle in beauty, and the loser will be beheaded. WTAF says Tristram. Isoud wins, and Tristram cuts off the other lady’s head.
  26. Tristram fights Breunor and cuts off his head. Breunor’s son Sir Galahaut arrives with a friend and an army.
  27. Galahaut etc. fight with Tristram, who prudently surrenders to Galahaut, who isn’t actually all that upset about the deaths of his terrible parents and is happy to spare Tristram if he’ll go report himself to Lancelot (as a sort of parole, I assume), which he doesn’t actually do until I think book 10.
  28. Meanwhile, Lancelot rescues Gawaine from some guy.
  29. Isoud marries Mark. Two of the court decide to get rid of Bragwaine and tie her to a tree in the forest. She is rescued by Palomides, who returns her to Isoud but requires a boon.
  30. Palomides goes to Mark and demands that as his boon, Isoud should go with him. Mark figures Tristram will rescue her, and agrees. Tristram is away hunting, and it falls to a random knight to attempt the rescue. While they are fighting, Isoud runs away and takes refuge in a nearby castle. The knight there fights Palomides and is defeated, but Isoud is safe inside the castle.
  31. Tristram gives chase and finds both of the knights Palomides wounded, and then the castle where Palomides is camped outside. They fight until Isoud asks them to stop. She tells Palomides to go to Camelot and report to Arthur on how true a lover Tristram is.
  32. Tristram returns Isoud to Mark, where the two enjoy themselves more or less under her husband’s nose until someone tells on them. Tristram retreats to the forest for a while and fights off some pursuers. Mark’s advisers tell him that it would be dangerous for Tristram to flee to Arthur’s court, and Mark should allow him to come back. Everyone pretends to be friendly again.
  33. An impromptu tournament breaks out at which Lamorak distinguishes himself. Mark demands that Tristram fight him. Tristram demurs–Lamorak is tired, and he is fresh–but eventually relents and knocks him down but won’t keep fighting after that. Lamorak hates him.
  34. Lamorak intercepts a magical plot of Morgan’s to expose Gwen and Lancelot, a drinking horn that will spill itself if an untrue lady was to drink from it. Lamorak sends it to Mark. Not just Isoud but almost every other woman at court is judged poorly by it, but Mark’s barons point out that it doesn’t make much sense to trust Morgan of all people? so nothing happens until Sir Andred catches the two in flagrante. A naked and tied up Tristram nevertheless grabs a sword, fights his way to freedom, and jumps into the sea.
  35. Tristram’s friends save him, but Isoud has been locked up by King Mark. Bragwaine finds Tristram and tells him to go to King Howel in Brittany for help.
  36. Howel is getting the worst of a war and sends Tristram to help out. He makes a good impression and eventually marries the new Isoud. They are actually in bed when Tristram repents; they never consummate the marriage, but Lancelot is very disappointed in him when he hears about the wedding.
  37. La Beale Isoud complains to Gwen, who assures her that Tristram will come back to her. Meanwhile! Lamorak has been ship-wrecked on an island ruled by the giant Nabon.
  38. Tristram, his wife, and her brother go out sailing and are cast up on the same island. Segwarides is there, too, and willing to be friends now (with a line that directly translates to “bros before hos”). They meet up with Lamorak, who grudgingly admits that maybe Tristram isn’t terrible.
  39. Lamorak fights Nabon and is defeated, and Tristram fights him and kills him and his son both. They leave Segwarides as ruler of the island.
  40. Lamorak heads for home and runs into Lancelot, who is traveling incognito as usual and off on a quest he can’t delay.
  41. Lamorak has some random fights and finally returns to Arthur’s court.

So we end Part 1 of this famous love story with both lovers married to other people. Isoud is Mark’s prisoner, and we’re not even sure where Tristram is, but he doesn’t seem to be trying to get back to her. We end on this side character for no obvious reason.

It’s a weird story no matter how you slice it. There is a reduplicated plot in which Tristram is twice wounded and twice crosses the sea to be healed by a woman named Isoud, in Ireland and Brittany respectively. He fights for both of the women’s fathers, and falls in love with both Isouds. The bits with Lamorak have been tenaciously spliced on, but don’t actually mean anything or go anywhere. It’s a fine illustration of the difference between a plot, and things just happening in a sequence.

Book 9 continues with Tristram. It breaks up the interminable tale by interleaving it with another, more interesting, story and adding a hefty dose of Lancelot, but even he has a tough time lifting this inherently drippy morass into the realm of entertainment.

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