The story of Sir Tristram occupies a huge portion of Malory’s Morte Darthur, and in that story, Tristram’s ill-fated love for La Beale Isoud is central. But Tristram is not only a lover; he is also a most accomplished knight, and Malory makes a point of his skills in fighting, hunting, and harping. This page gathers various visual and textual references to the story of Tristram, to give a sense of the ways he has been depicted across the centuries.
One gauge of the popularity of the Tristram story is its appearance on decorative objects in the Middle Ages. The image above to the left is an ivory casket made in Germany around 1180 – 1200, showing scenes of the story of Tristram and Isolde. It is now in the British Museum, and you can see more images of the scenes depicted here. To the right is the lid of a painted wood casket dating to 1350 – 1370, showing the lovers. It is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and you can see more images here. The V & A also has a late 14th-century Tristan Hanging, and a late 14th-century Tristan Quilt.
Tristram may be Celtic in origin. His Welsh name, Drystan ab Tallwch, appears in Culhwch ac Olwen and in the Welsh triads: in the latter he is one of the Three Enemy-Subduers of the Island of Britain (Triad 19), Three Battle-Diademed Men… (Triad 21), and Three Powerful Swineherds… (Triad 36; this last triad mentions “March” and “Essylt”).
Tristram is closely associated with Cornwall, and may well have been an independent figure gradually absorbed into the Arthurian tradition. To the left is the Tristan Stone, an obelisk that now stands near the road to Fowey in Cornwall. A weathered Latin inscription reads “Drustans hic iacet Cunomori filius” [Drustans son of Cunomorus lies here]. The stone may offer support for the early association of Tristram with Cornwall; the Iron Age hillfort called Castle Dore has been traditionally associated with the story of Tristram and Yseult.
Despite his apparently Celtic origins, Tristram comes into prominence through Norman, French, and German versions of his story. These include the Anglo-Norman Thomas, whose version (c. 1170) became the basis for Gottfried von Strassburg’s German poem (c. 1210), and for the metrical Middle English Sir Tristrem (late 13th century; this is one of the romances in the Auchinleck manuscript). Malory, however, worked from the French prose Tristan, a work which survives in two versions, dating to the second and third quarters of the 13th century (this is not part of the Vulgate cycle of Arthurian romance, but rather, was written after and influenced by it). The image above is from an early 14th-century manuscript of the Roman de Tristan, and shows Tristram (marked with a T above his head) fighting under the watchful eye of a group of courtly ladies. You can flip through the whole digitized manuscript here.
Tristram is renowned as a hunter: he is the inventor, Malory tells us, of many of the terms of hunting used by gentlemen.
There are many medieval and early modern works devoted to hunting. To the right is the title-page of Juliana Berners’ Boke of Hawkynge and Huntynge and Fysshynge, printed by Wynkyn de Worde, c. 1515. This copy is now at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, and you can leaf through the whole thing here.
Gaston Phebus (Gaston III, comte de Foix), between 1387 and 1389, wrote a book about hunting called the Livre de la chasse. It survives in over 40 manuscripts, some of them lavishly illustrated. The Bibliothèque nationale de France has digitized many of its copies, including: BNF français 616; BNF français 617; BNF français 1291; BNF français 12398; and an early printed copy.
The picture above is one of thirteen stained glass panels based on the Tristram story, designed in 1862 for Harden Grange by William Morris & Co. The tomb panel (designed by Edward Burne-Jones), features a pair of hunting dogs. Click here to read an article from 1985, by Paul Lawson, about the panels.
Tristram’s abilities as a hunter may explain the interest, in many of the versions of his story, in his faithful dog (of course, Arthur has his Cafal, too). This quotation, for example, is taken from Beroul’s late-12th-century romance Tristan :
Anyone who would now like to hear a story that shows the benefits of training an animal should listen to me well. You will hear about Tristan’s good hunting dog. No king or count ever had one like it. He was fast and alert; he was beautiful and he ran well, and his name was Husdent…. [Husdent follows Tristan, who has escaped into the forest in order to be with Isolde; Tristan trains the dog not to bark] Before the month was out, the dog was so well trained that he followed trails without a sound. Whether on snow, on grass, or on ice, he never abandoned his prey, however fleet or agile it might be. Now the dog was a great help to them, and he served them well. If he caught a deer or buck in the woods, he would hide it carefully, covering it with branches. And if he caught it in the open, as he often did, he would throw grass over it. He would then return to his master and lead him to the place where he had killed the deer. Indeed dogs are very useful animals!
The faithful hound also features in a rather surprising way in the Middle English Sir Tristrem (visit the TEAMS site to read the whole thing), which survives in only one, 14th-century manuscript. In this version of the story, Hodain the dog drinks the fateful love potion along with Tristrem and Ysonde:
An hounde ther was biside
That was ycleped Hodain;
The coupe he licked that tide
Tho doun it sett Bringwain.
Thai loved al in lide
And therof were thai fain.
Togider thai gun abide
In joie and ek in pain
In ivel time, to sain,
The drink was ywrought.
Tristrem in schip lay
With Ysonde ich night;
Play miri he may
With that worthli wight
In boure night and day.
Al blithe was the knight,
He might with hir play.
That wist Brengwain the bright
Thai loved with al her might
And Hodain dede also.
The tiles to the right are from Chertsey Abbey, part of a 13th-century series telling the story of Tristram and Isoud. The top tile shows Tristram playing his harp, while the bottom shows Tristram and Isoud on the boat.
In Gottfried von Strassburg’s version of the story, it is Tristram’s skill with the harp that first attracts the attention of Isoude:
And so they sent for his harp, and the young Princess, too, was summoned. Lovely Isolde, Love’s true signet, with which in days to come his heart was sealed and locked from all the world save her alone, Isolde also repaired there and attended closely to Tristan as he sat and played his harp. And indeed, now that he had hopes that his misfortunes were over, he was playing better than he had ever played before, for he played to them not as a lifeless man, he went to work with animation, like one in the best of spirits. He regaled them so well with his singing and playing that in that brief space he won the favour of them all, with the result that his fortunes prospered.
Tristram’s fame as a harper is reflected in in Edmund Blair Leighton’s 1902 painting The End of the Song, below. Notice how King Mark gazes at Tristram and Isoud with suspicion.
Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artists, like medieval ones, were mesmerized by the story of Tristram and Iseult. Below are some more examples. Visit the Tate Gallery in London’s page for La Belle Iseult to read more about William Morris’s painting, and while the painting Tristan and Isolde with the Potion is not at the Tate, they do have a useful overview page about Waterhouse.
The stanzas of verse are taken from Matthew Arnold’s Tristram and Iseult , 1852. Tristram lies dying, and in his fever recalls the moment when he and Iseult were on the boat, bound for Cornwall. You can read the whole poem at the Camelot Project.
Ah, sweet angels, let him dream!
Keep his eyelids! let him seem
Not this fever-wasted wight
Thinn’d and paled before his time,
But the brilliant youthful knight
In the glory of his prime,
Sitting in the gilded barge,
At thy side, thou lovely charge,
Bending gaily o’er thy hand,
Iseult of Ireland!
And she too, that princess fair,
If her bloom be now less rare,
Let her have her youth again –
Let her be as she was then!
Let her have her proud dark eyes,
And her petulant quick replies –
Let her sweep her dazzling hand
With its gesture of command,
And shake back her raven hair
With the old imperious air!
As of old, so let her be,
That first Iseult, princess bright,
Chatting with her youthful knight
As he steers her o’er the sea,
Quitting at her father’s will
The green isle where she was bred,
And her bower in Ireland,
For the surge-beat Cornish strand;
Where the prince whom she must wed
Dwells on loud Tyntagel’s hill
High above the sounding sea.
And that potion rare her mother
Gave her, that her future lord,
Gave her, that King Marc and she,
Might drink it on their marriage-day,
And for ever love each other –
Let her, as she sits on board,
Ah, sweet saints, unwittingly!
See it shine, and take it up,
And to Tristram laughing say:
“Sir Tristram, of thy courtesy,
Pledge me in my golden cup!”
Let them drink it – let their hands
Tremble, and their cheeks be flame,
As they feel the fatal bands
Of a love they dare not name,
With a wild delicious pain,
Twine about their hearts again!
Let the early summer be
Once more round them, and the sea
Blue, and o’er its mirror kind
Let the breath of the May-wind,
Wandering through their drooping sails,
Die on the green fields of Wales!
Let a dream like this restore
What his eye must see no more!
Richard Wagner composed his opera Tristan und Isolde between 1857 and 1859. Click here for a gallery of historic postcards associated with the opera. In 2016, The Guardian ran a story explaining Why Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is the ultimate opera.