By JD Smith
One of the beautiful things about legends is that they are inherently shrouded in mystery, stories passed down through generations, twisted and changed and retold. They are history and at the same time they are fire-side stories, propaganda and bending of truth to favour the side of the storyteller.
To adapt a legend going back hundreds or thousands of years is to change history once more and bring a new angle to an old tale. We storytellers do it without thinking because we are born to explore characters, places and what might have been. We tread the path of the unknown, weaving our findings in and around knowledge recorded in poems, songs and books which have been passed on and retold through the ages.
Tristan and Iseult is one such legend, made popular in French poetry during the 12th century. It may or may not have been a true story. It is the romance and tragedy of Cornish knight, Tristan, and Irish princess, Iseult, retold many times and influencing many stories to follow. It predates Arthurian legend and is considered to have been the basis for the love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot as well as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The legend first appealed to me when I read Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian trilogy, where he weaves into the story all the hallmarks of what makes Arthurian legend what it is, including Tristan and Iseult and their love for one another, but in a way that is truly believable, even the magic of Merlin. His masterly skill showed me there were ways yet to retell old stories in new ways, and a few years later I took up the challenge.
I went back to the heart of what makes Tristan and Iseult the people they are and stripped away the myth. What did we really know about these two people? What is the essence of their story? Tristan was nephew to King Mark of Kernow (Cornwall) and Iseult was the daughter to the Irish king Donnchadh’s. We know Lord Morholt seized control of southern Ireland, and we know he was defeated. And we know Tristan and Iseult loved one another, but that it was a forbidden love.
From there I wove a tale I believed in, a tale of simple love that echoes across the centuries. The characters would never speak the word but they would feel it and show it and know what it is to find a person they want to spent their life with but unable to because life doesn’t always happen that way. Love is not always easy and it is not always kind. Sometimes it is a sickness and we believe the other person to be the cure when really, only time and distance can starve the fever. The question for me was would love fade to nothing?
I wove into this simple story other elements I found on my research travels; mentions of Iseult of the White Hands, Tristan’s mother, his cousin, the war against the Saxons, struggles against the Irish, and the mention at the very end of hazel and honeysuckle that features in some sources, but again, it is a hint of other tales and my own take on them.
For me, the tale of these two lovers was poetic and yet I am no poet. I took instead the immediacy of first person present tense for a legend over a thousand years old, bringing it rapidly into the here and now. Above all I am a cynic and I couldn’t write a story with an obvious love conquers all ending, although in some ways it does. My exploration of Tristan and his Iseult was not one of researching historical facts and discovering the truth of events and actions, but finding the true nature of love and loyalty and how it makes us the people we are.