The Romance of Tristan & Iseult retold by Joseph Bédier

The Romance of Tristan & Iseult

Retold by Joseph Bédier

Published 1994 (first published 1170)

Chivalric/Celtic romance


Supposedly, this is the love story that started the Westernized version of "star-crossed lovers," and later influenced stories of Lancelot & Guinevere and Romeo & Juliet. It it believed to have been written in the 12th century. 

**Be forewarned: spoilers ahead**

Such stories begin this way: a courageous knight (in this case, Tristan) conquered foes and dragons, saved whole kingdoms, and hoped to win the princess. Except, in this story, princess Iseult was elusive because first Tristan killed one of her evil relatives and then because she had already been promised to King Mark, Tristan's uncle. What luck!

On her voyage to meet her soon-to-be husband, King Mark, and to make things easier, the princess had a special magical potion to drink on her wedding night to aid her love toward her new husband; however, she and Tristan mistakenly drank it while they were together, before they reached land, and so sealed their fate. Nonetheless, the marriage ceremony took place, and Iseult played the switch-a-roo trick with her servant on her wedding night so she could be with Tristan. 

Tristan & Isolde ~ Egusquiza

Tristan's and Isuelt's love was so magnetic that they could not be parted for very long. Once their relationship was exposed, King Mark's ignoble barons sought revenge on Tristan (as they had been extremely jealous of King Mark's love for Tristan and for Tristan's past courageous feats of honor). Eventually, King Mark recognized their forbidden love happening right under his nose, and he condemned the lovers to death. 

But they escaped and lived a wild life hidden in the forest until several things happened: they met a hermit who tried unsuccessfully to convince them to give up their adultery, and second, King Mark found them asleep together and, yet, left them in peace. They then considered making things right, repenting of their sin, returning Isuelt to her legal husband, and Tristan leaving the country for good. They even invoked King Arthur for his protection, which he obliged. 

Tristan & Isolde ~ Balbusso

All looked to be going as planned until Tristan could not leave well enough alone, which put him into more danger, and instead he had to escape with his life. 

The magical potion supposedly lost its power after this time, as Tristin took up existence in another country and joylessly married another. Even still, he concocted a foolhardy plan to see Isuelt once more by disguising himself, just to see if she still loved him. (I think she did.)

Back to his new life in another country, he was injured in a fight. He knew Isuelt was the only one to heal him and sent a messenger to Isuelt who agreed to return to him. But in jealousy, Tristan's wife lied to him about Isuelt, causing him to give up his life. Isuelt was too late. And neither could she live without him. 

King Mark had his nephew Tristan and his wife Isuelt buried in separate coffins some space apart from the other, and yet a tree grew up from Tristan's grave and took root in Isuelt's. Neither could anyone ever cut it down. 
For men see this and that outward thing, but God alone the heart, and in the heart alone is Crime and the sole final judge is God. Therefore did He lay down he law that a man accused might uphold his cause by battle, and God himself fights for the innocent in such a combat. 
I had no idea what to expect of this story, since I did not know the plot; it was all a surprise to me. I found it thoroughly entertaining and enchanting, adventurous - never a dull moment - and tragically memorable. While adultery was a heavy topic, Bédier wrote tastefully where intimacy was often implied; either that, or it went completely over my head - that's how subtle it was. 

The Romance of Tristan and Iseult leaves readers with many questions: Was it truly love if Tristan and Isuelt needed a magical potion? Is love an emotion that causes people to lose their sense of right and wrong? Does love cause people to give up everything good and noble in their lives for that forbidden relationship? Is it worth it? When the potion wore off, was their love true, the same, different? Was the tree that grew at their grave the final answer that their love was true? Everyone may answer differently.

Reunion in Death ~ Spiess

The good singers of old time...told this tale for lovers and none other, and by my pen, they beg you for your prayers. They greet those who are cast down and those in heart, those troubled and those filled with desire, those who are overjoyed and those disconsolate, all lovers. May all herein find strength against inconstancy, against unfairness and despite and loss and pain and all the bitterness of loving. 


  1. I have heard this pair's name before, many times, but never knew any details about their story. The imagery of the tree is interesting...it brings to mind the old song, "Barbara Allen", which in some verses has the unhappy pair buried side by side. A rose grows from one's grave, a briar from the other, and they intertwien as they rise..

    1. Same here. I knew it was Medieval, but I knew nothing about the story. Yep, I bet the song takes its idea from Tristen & Iseult. (Sometimes her name is spelled Isolde in other versions.) It made me think of Where the Red Fern Grows, though by far a different story of a pair.

    2. Awww! Little Ann and...Old Dan? Big Dan? I can't read that book without going all gooey. There's something about boys and dogs -- maybe something about girls and dogs, too, I don't know. :)

  2. I read this version of Tristan & Iseult several years ago.

    I says something about people that all these centuries later we are still writing fiction and pondering the ins and outs of love.

    1. Yep, love is certainly a multifaceted idea, emotion, or whatever you think it is...

  3. I've heard a lot about this story, I even saw the film, but have never delved into reading their actual story. Fascinating that this has had such an impact on our stories but we don't really study it in school, etc.

    1. I understand that the film changed the plot a bit...causing Tristan and Iseult to fall in love without a magical potion. Isn't it interesting that this was the idea to recreate -- the elusive love story??

  4. Aw, I wish I had time to read this. It sounds excellent. Right now, I'm slowly making my way through A Distant Mirror. Quite fascinating. I love Tuchmann's writing!

    1. Yay, my comment went through! I wrote a big long comment on your last post and for some reason it wouldn't publish. Hopefully it fixed itself now.

    2. Augh, sorry, Cleo. I checked my spam, but I didn't see anything. Sometimes, if I write a long comment on a post, I copy it, if I remember, and then hit publish...it's happened to me a lot!!! And I learned, in some cases, especially on WP blogs, that my comments go to WP spam. :( Anyway, I'm sorry about that. I am slowly going through A Distant Mirror. I think I am starting ch. 4. I'm enjoying her writing as well. BTW, I think you would really enjoy Tristan and Iseult. So someday when you can get to it...

  5. I read this in my twenties. I enjoyed it, although I thought that the love potion was a convenient excuse for their adultery. Also, they caused others to sin, the King and the maid servant who had to pose as Iseult. Not my idea of romance, but very interesting and a bit of time travel to another time.

    1. I agree...a very strange scenario. If I could write the story over, there are plenty of things I would change. I hate the potion, but wouldn't it have been interesting if, with the potion, they reserved themselves the whole time -- which is what I thought they were doing. Like I said, the writing is very subtle. And I think some editions may have been more graphic???

      But anyway, Iseult's maid was not too happy about the switch, though she felt like it was her penance for messing up the potion with Tristan and Iseult. That was her line of thinking...sacrificing herself. And then I thought it was a relief how they resigned to make things right with King Mark when they returned to him, and repented.

      And they should have left well enough alone, but...

      It was an engaging story, but there was a lot to learn about adultery and deception.