Mae Clair’s Mythical Monday: Heartbreak and Valor

Heartbreaker ButtonToday is the last day you can enter for a chance to win giveaways in the Heartbreaker Blog Hop. To enter, follow this link and comment on THAT post. But wait!

Before you scamper off to do more blog hopping, I invite you to check out my Mythical Monday post. It’s something I do each Monday. This week, keeping with the heartbreaker theme, I’m looking at legends of valor.

Let’s face it. There was a lot of heartbreak taking place in heroic ballads of yore. The romantic in me has always been attracted to long ago heroes like Robin Hood, King Arthur, Tristan and Taliesin to name a few. I think I’ve always felt saddest for Arthur, probably why I’ve never been a huge Lancelot fan. I wanted Arthur and Guinevere to be together, the kingdom of Camelot to shine brightly, and for Arthur’s dream of ‘might does not make right’ to live on through the chivalrous deeds of the Knights of the Roundtable. Today, I want to focus on a lesser known legend. One that’s rife with heartbreak and valor—Tristan and Iseult.

You can find several different renditions of this tale, but the core element is the same—the doomed romance between Marc of Cornwall’s heir and Iseult of Ireland. Here is the version I am most familiar with:

bigstock-Knight-against-medieval-castle-28863290Tristan is King Marc’s nephew during a time when Cornwall and Ireland are at war. Every ten years, Ireland demands Cornish tribute, or a combatant of princely blood must face their champion, Morholt, who has never been defeated.

Marc sends Tristan, his greatest knight and heir to the throne. Tristan defeats Morholt, a giant of a man, but is grievously wounded during the battle. As Morholt lies dying he tells Tristan he used a poisoned sword to inflict the wound, and only the Queen of Ireland, a skilled healer can save him from death. Tristan disguises himself as a musician and seeks out the Irish queen. While in her care, he glimpses her daughter, Iseult the Fair, and is overcome by her beauty. When he returns to Cornwall he tells his uncle about her.

Marc has been under increasing pressure to marry from the nobles of his court. Knowing a marriage to Iseult will bring peace between Cornwall and Ireland, he sends Tristan back to win her hand for him.

Iseult has no love for him or Marc but, like the Cornish king, sees how marriage would benefit their realms. Knowing it will not be easy for her daughter to lie with an enemy, the Queen of Ireland prepares a love potion for Iseult and Marc to drink on their wedding night. Unfortunately, Tristan and Iseult mistakenly drink it during the voyage and fall instantly, madly in love.

bigstock-Young-medieval-couple-strong--12117653Iseult marries King Marc when they reach Cornwall but her heart has already been claimed by Tristan. The young lovers try to keep their passion a secret, meeting when they can.

Eventually, they flee together and live in the woods, hunted by Marc’s men. After three years on the run, Iseult returns to Marc and Tristan is banished from the kingdom.

Tristan begins to serve many kings and kingdoms, eventually marrying a woman known as Iseult of the White Hands (I’m going to refer to her as Isolde to keep things less confusing). Despite the marriage, Tristan’s heart still belongs to Iseult. Isolde realizes she is a pale substitute for the woman he truly loves, and her heart grows hard with bitterness and jealousy.

One day while battling to save a friend, Tristan is struck with a poisoned lance. Nothing is able to save him, but he knows Iseult has inherited her mother’s healing magic. He sends a ring to her with a message asking her to come to him. He will be on the beach, waiting to see her ship. If she still loves him and wishes to be with him, she should fly a white sail. If she wants nothing to do with him ever again, she should hoist a black sail and continue past.

Iseult rushes to help him, setting sail immediately, but Tristan’s health continues to deteriorate. He drags himself to the shore on the day he expects her ship to arrive, propping himself to rest against a rock. It’s there Isolde finds him. Close to death, Tristan sinks to the sand, too weak to keep himself upright. He can’t see the ocean, and thus asks Isolde to look for the ship.

His wife has learned of his message to Iseult. She spies the ship approaching, flying a blinding white sail but, when Tristan asks, she tells him it is black. Heartbroken, he surrenders to grief and dies.

When Iseult arrives and finds her dead lover on shore, she lies down beside him, kisses him and dies in his arms.

I originally read this story in high school and still have my battered paperback copy. The romantic in me has always been saddened by stories that don’t have HEA’s like those of Tristan and Iseult, Arthur and Guinevere. At least Robin Hood and Maid Marian had a happily-ever-after.

Do you have a favorite legend of valor or heroic tale? If you could rewrite the ending would you give the principal players a different ending to bring happiness?

16 thoughts on “Mae Clair’s Mythical Monday: Heartbreak and Valor

    • Another tragic love story that always rips my heart out. I don’t usually read anything that I know doesn’t have an HEA. I remember first learning of Tristan and Iseult in high school and having no idea when I started the book how it would end. I was so into anything ‘knight-oriented’ at the time I probably would have read it anyway. That ending always gets me!


  1. I have the film Tristan & Isolde starring Sophia Myles and James Franco on DVD. I love it. That version is very different to the above. I’d like to read your version.


    • I believe there are two main versions of the legend. The one above is close to the original, but there is also a ‘prose’ version that was done to tie the legend into the tales of King Arthur and change some of the main features….Tristan and Iseult were already in love before drinking the potion and Marc was made out to be a weak and horrible king. I think that might be the version the movie was based on, although I never did get to see it. The book I have is called “TRISTAN” by Hannah Closs. I checked Amazon and there is a used paperback copy available for .01. I love how old used books are still available!


  2. Okay, so I guess I’m one those few who never got into Robin Hood, and Knights of the Round Table, or really any tales or love stories about them. I don’t why, I guess like this tale of Tristian & Iseult’s– so many of the characters in them seem destined for death or devastation. Powerless in many cases to change what was coming their way. While I read myths and enjoyed them, I guess honestly I always felt burdened by these stories where destiny prevented folks from getting to their HEA.

    I do love ‘story’ though, and there’s no doubt, Mae -the one you’ve shared today, which I’ve never heard before– is a great story! Thanks so much for telling us about it. Love reading your posts!


    • Hi, Venice! I’ve been a ‘knight’ follower since way back but, you’re right, many of the heroic legends ended badly. It’s weird that I still enjoyed so many of them given my penchant for HEAs. I’m glad you enjoyed my look at Tristan and Iseult. The legend is so much more heartbreaking than the prose version that came later because, in the original version, Tristan and Iseult both loved King Marc as much as each other and neither wanted to hurt him. Tragic, tragic, tragic!


  3. OMG! I never thought I’d find anyone who knew of Tristan and Iseult, let alone had read the story and loved knights and anything to do with that era like I do. I have many versions of the tale of Tristan and Iseult, even started writing one of my own in which Branwyn, Iseult’s maid, mixes the love potion in the hopes of making Tristan fall in love with her; instead, Tristan and Iseult drink it and the rest of the main story you know. I told it from Branwyn’s POV in first person. Will have to find that and dust it off when I finish my current WIP.

    How about Deirdre and Naoisi? Another very tragic love story, and one that deserves a re-write.The name Deirdre actually means, “she who sorrows” because of this story.


    • Hi, Lynne. Wow, cool–you have a Tristan and Iseul WIP out there? It sounds VERY interesting with the twist from Branwyn. Yes, I loved that tragic story since first stumbling upon it in high school, many, many moons ago. My original copy is battered and yellowed but I won’t part with it. Tristan stole my heart from day one.

      Deirdre and Naoisi are new to me, but now you’ve got me curious. I’m going to have to look it up. Stories that combine chivalry and romance are some of my favorite. Glad to know I’m not alone in that! 🙂


      • I’ll have to find the Tristan and Iseult one–it’s pre-home computers or at least pre-home computers being common. At the time I wrote it, I think I had a Vic20. 😛 So all I have to do is find the box with all my writing in it and sort through all the papers. But it’s definitely something I want to do one day.


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