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Celtic Guide, Vol.3:2 (2014)
Introduction: Arthurian legend is filled with epic tales of tragic romance. The ménage à trois of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot is the story most focused on in contemporary film and literature. Merlin and Vivienne have had their fair share of air time, albeit often as a subplot to the Arthur and Guinevere saga. But, aside from a poorly received 2006 film, recent media has largely ignored the story of Tristan and Isolde. Since it is a legend that the reader may be unfamiliar with, we shall begin with a re-telling of the story, followed by historical analysis. It should be noted that this tale, like all of the legends in Arthuriana, has many variations.
In the days of the old Celtic kingdoms, King Anguish of Ireland has attempted to subjugate Cornwall by demanding the country pay tribute or risk invasion. Mark, King of Cornwall, who possesses as much Celtic pride as any Irishman, cannot accept this. Mark challenges Aguish to a duel of champions. If the Irish champion wins, Cornwall is off the hook. But if the Cornish champion wins, Ireland must withdraw their demands. Anguish sends his brother-in-law, Morholt, to do battle with Mark’s champion; his nephew, Tristan.
When the dust of the duel has settled, Tristan is the victor, killing Morholt. However, our hero has sustained an injury that will be fatal if it doesn’t heal. Ireland is renowned as having the best healers in the land, so Tristan assumes a false identity to travel into enemy territory for treatment. As fate would have it, Tristan is nursed by the daughter of King Anguish, the beautiful Isolde. Not realizing his true identity as the man who slew her kinsman, the two young people strike up a friendship. During his convalescence Tristan returns Isolde’s kindness by teaching her to play the harp.