Hero Born in Sorrow: the Birth, Love and Death of Tristan

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A fragment of Tristrant, by Eilhart von Oberg. Parchment manuscript written in East Alemannian with Middle German-Lower German Elements in the early 13th century

In an expedition to the court of Mark, king of Cornwall and England, Riwalin, king in the land of the Parmenians, had become acquainted and subsequently passionately in love with Mark’s beautiful sister, Blancheflure. Later, as he was assisting Mark in a campaign, Riwalin became mortally wounded and was carried to Tintajole. Blancheflure, disguised as a beggar maid, hastened to his sickbed and saved Mark’s life through her devoted love. The lovers then fled together to his native land and Blancheflure was proclaimed as his consort. However, Morgan attacked Riwalin’s country and, the king entrusted the pregnant Blancheflure to his faithful retainer Rual. Rual placed the queen for safekeeping in the castle of Kaneel. Here she gave birth to a son and died as her husband fell in the battle against Morgan.

In order to protect the king’s son from Morgan’s pursuits, Rual spread the rumor that the infant had been born dead. The boy was named Tristan because he had been conceived and born in sorrow. Under the care of Rual and his wife, Tristan grew up strong in body and mind until his fourteenth year, when he was kidnapped by Norwegian merchants, who then put him ashore in Cornwall because they feared the wrath of the gods. Here the boy was found by the soldiers of King Mark, who was so pleased with the brave and handsome youth that he made him his master of the chase.

Meanwhile, the faithful Rual set forth to look for his abducted foster son. Disguising himself as a beggar, Rual found Tristan in found at last in Cornwall. Rual revealed the story of Tristan’s birth to the king who was delighted to see in him the son of his beloved sister and raised him to the rank of knight. To avenge his father, Tristan proceeded with Rual to Parmenia, vanquished Morgan the usurper, and gave the country to Rual as the liege while he himself returned to his uncle Mark. 

In the service of Mark, Tristan killed Morald, the bridegroom of Isolde. Being severly wounded, Tristan was saved by Isolde herself. Tristan then asked her hand in marriage on behalf of his uncle Mark. When he fulfilled the condition of killing a dragon, Isolde reluctantly accompanied Tristan to Cornwall. On the journey they unwittingly drank a disastrous love potion which bound them together in frenzied passion. 

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“Sir Tristram and La Belle Yseult Drinking the Love Potion”,
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882)

On Isolde’s wedding night with Mark, Isolde had her faithful maid Brangäne represent her and sacrifices her virginity to the king. Next followed the banishment of Tristan, Tristan’s attempts to regain his beloved, although he had meanwhile married another Isolde (“Isolde the White Hand,” of Brittany) who resembled his beloved “Isolde the Fair.” At last Tristan was again severely wounded. Only this time his beloved Isolde arrived too late to save him. 

A plainer version of the Tristan saga is found in the fairy tale “The True Bride,” quoted by Riklin from Rittershaus. In this story, the childless royal pair were much less affectionate. The king threatened to kill his wife unless she bears a child by the time of his return from his sea voyage. Seeing that sea voyages are long and the king was, apparently, rather stupid. The queen was secretly brought to him during his journey, by his zealous maid-servant, as the fairest of three promenading ladies, and the king took her into his tent without recognizing her. After sleeping with the king, the queen returned home without having been discovered. She then gave birth to a daughter, Isol, and died.

When she was older, Isol found a most beautiful little boy in a box by the seaside. The name of the boy was Tristram. Isol raised him and became engaged to him. The subsequent story, which contains the motif of the true bride, is noteworthy for present purposes only in so far as here again occurs the drink of oblivion, and two Isoldes. The king’s second wife gave a potion to Tristram which caused him to completely forget his Isol, leading him to marry Isota. However, he ultimately discovered the deception and became united with his Isol.

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Overall view of the so-called Tristante carpet, wall hanging, circa 1300, wool. Kloster Wienhausen at Celle, Germany.
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Ancient Halloween Stories of Love and Lost

The evil powers that came out at Samhain lived the rest of the time in the cave of Cruachan in Connaught. This cave was called the “hell-gate of Ireland,” and was unlocked on November Eve to let out spirits and copper-colored birds which killed the farm animals. They also stole babies, leaving in their place changelings, goblins who were already old while still in the cradle, possessing superhuman cunning and skill in music. One way of getting rid of these demon children was to ill-treat them so badly that their people would come for them bringing the right children back. Another alternative was to boil egg-shells in the sight of the changeling, who would declare his demon nature by saying that in his centuries of life he had never seen such a thing before.

Brides were also stolen.

“You shall go with me, newly married bride,

And gaze upon a merrier multitude;

White-armed Nuala and Aengus of the birds,

And Feacra of the hurtling foam, and him

Who is the ruler of the western host,

Finvarra, and the Land of Heart’s Desire,

Where beauty has no ebb, decay no flood,

But joy is wisdom, time an endless song.”

“Land of Heart’s Desire” – W. B. Yeats (1865 – 1939)

Ailill and his queen Medb lived in the first century BC. As they were celebrating their Samhain feast in the palace, they offered a reward to the man who should tie a bundle of twigs about the feet of a criminal who had been hanged by the gates. It was dangerous to go near dead bodies on November Eve, but a bold young man named Nera dared to do it and tied the twigs successfully. As he turned to go he saw

“the whole of the palace as if on fire before

him, and the heads of the people of it lying on

the ground, and then he thought he saw an

army going into the hill of Cruachan, and he

followed after the army.”

“Cuchulain of Muirthemne”, Augusta, Lady Gregory (1852 – 1932)

Nera was married to a fairy woman, who betrayed her kindred by sending Nera to warn King Ailill of the intended attack upon his palace the next November Eve. Nera went to see Ailill bringing summer fruits with him to prove that he had been in the fairy sid. His purpose was to warn the king so that he could defend his people. However, the next November Eve, when the gates were opened Ailill entered and discovered the crown, took it away and plundered the treasury. Nera never returned again to the homes of men.

Nera was not the only one who married a fairy woman. In her previous life, queen Medb, the wife of Ailill himself, was Princess Etain of the race of the Tuatha and wife of Midir. She only remembered little of the land from which she came, and was never quite happy in her new existence.

“But sometimes–sometimes–tell me; have you heard,

By dusk or moonset have you ever heard

Sweet voices, delicate music? Never seen

The passage of the lordly beautiful ones

Men call the Shee?”

“Immortal Hour”, – William Sharp (1855 – 1905)

swan-10410__340Another story of about the same time was that of Angus, the son of a Tuatha god. He dreamed of a beautiful maiden. He wasted away with love for her, and searched the country for a girl who should look like her. At last, he saw in a meadow among a hundred and fifty maidens, each with a chain of silver about her neck, one who looked like the beauty of his dream. She wore a golden chain around her neck. She was Princess Caer, the daughter of King Ethal Anbual. King Ethal’s palace was stormed by Ailill, and he was forced to give up his daughter. On Samhain, Caer changed from a maiden to a swan, and back again the next year.

When the time came Angus went to the loch, and he saw hundreds of white birds there. Angus stood at the edge of the loch and he called to the girl, “Come and speak with me, O Caer!”

“Who is calling me?” Caer replied.

 “Angus calls you,” he said, “and if you do come, I swear by my word I will not hinder you from going into the loch again.”

She came to him. Angus changed to a swan and they flew away to King Dagda’s palace, where every one who heard their sweet singing was charmed into a sleep of three days and three nights.

In Derbyshire, England, torches of straw were carried about the stacks on All Souls’ Eve, not to drive away evil spirits, as in Scotland, but to light souls through Purgatory. Sometimes, one may briefly see the image of their lost loved ones.

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“‘Why do you wait at your door, woman,

Alone in the night?’

‘I am waiting for one who will come, stranger,

To show him a light.

He will see me afar on the road,

And be glad at the sight.’

“‘Have you no fear in your heart, woman,

To stand there alone?

There is comfort for you and kindly content

Beside the hearthstone.’

But she answered, ‘No rest can I have

Till I welcome my own.’

“‘Is it far he must travel to-night,

This man of your heart?’

‘Strange lands that I know not, and pitiless seas

Have kept us apart,

And he travels this night to his home

Without guide, without chart.’

“‘And has he companions to cheer him?’

‘Aye, many,’ she said.

‘The candles are lighted, the hearthstones are swept,

The fires glow red.

We shall welcome them out of the night–

Our home-coming dead.'”

“Hallowe’en”, Winifred M. Letts (1882–1972)