Edward Tyrrell Leith.

On the legend of Tristan: its orgin in myth and its development in romance online

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(i")!! IThe JfciuMul of ariiil;!)!:




Read before the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society,
April 9th 1868.






\-" l\jl^ Vlc^


Amon(; tlie themes of ineiliicval Romance few possess such striking
elements of poetical interest as the Legend of Tristan. I fear, however,
that it is not so widely known as it deserves to he, and I may therefor.^
he pardoned for hrietly giving those main outlines of the story which are
common to most of the versions that we have.

Tristan of Lyonesse, the hero, is royally descended. The mvsterious
gloom, which shrouds the very threshold of his life, appears prophetic
of the tragedy ahout to he unfolded. His mother, on learning that his
father has fallen in hattle, dies in giving him birth- Kept in ignorance
of his parentage, the orphan Prince is secretly brought np by Rual, a
trusty follower, and educated by him in all knightly accomplishments.
When grown to man's estate, Tristan presents himself at the court of
his childless uncle King Mark of (.'ornwall, who, on hearing his history,
adopts him as a son. To save his country from paying a shameful
tribute of men and money to the neighbouring Irish, Tristan slays
jVIorold, their champion, in single combat. The youthful victor, how-
ever, at tlie same time receives a dangerous wound from the poisoned
weapon of his foe, which no native art can cure. He, therefore, absents
himself from his uncle's court, and lands disguised in Ireland, where he
is fortunately cured by Isolde, surnamed the Fair, daughter of the Irish
King. Tristan eventually returns to Cornwall, and paints the charms
of the Princess in such glowing colours, that Mark resolves to make hei
his Queen. Tristan undertakes to woo heron behalf of his uncle, and
journeys to Ireland for that purpose. On his arrival at the Irish conn,
he learns that the King has promised his daughter's hand to the man who
should rid the land of a terrible dragon. Tristan succeeds in killing the
monster, and claims the prize in his uncle's name, llie King gives his
consent, and Tristan sets sail with Isolde the Fair for Cornwall. On the
voyage they both unwittingly drink of a Magic Potion, entrusted to the
care of Brangaene a waiting-woman, and destined for King Mark.
This Potion possesses the property of making those who partake of it


deeply enamoured of each other ; and it is upon this effect on Tristan
and Isolde that the whole story turns. Isolde becomes the wife of
Mark, but continues devoted to Sir Tristan. Mark discovers the
attachment, and persecutes the lovers, who practice various deceptions
in order to effect a meeting, and even succeed in making their escape
together. Isolde the Fair afterwards returns to her husband, wliile
Tristan, driven to despair, weds another Isolde, named "of the White
Hand." Our hero vainly endeavours to forget his first love in deeds of
reckless daring. On again receiving a grievous hurt in battle, he sends
for her who alone can work his cure. His messenger is instructed to
hoist, on his return, white sails should his errand prove successful, and
black sails if the reverse. Isolde of the White Hand, jealous of her
rival, tells Tristan that she descries a black sail on the horizon, though
in reality the sail is a white one. Bereft of hope he dies, and Isolde
the Fair, finding on her arrival that her aid has come too late,
dies also, of grief, by his side. King ISIark, when he hears of the
Magic Potion and its unhappy effects, causes the lovers to be buried in
one tomb, on which he plants a rose and a vine. These afterwards
grow up so closely entwined one with another that none can ever
sej)arate them.

This legend, which struck the key-note of Romance, was, from its
very nature, likely to captivate the imagination of medifcval writers. Sir
Tristan's knightly prowess and Isolde's queenly beauty were the repre-
sentative types of the heroes and heroines of chivalry. Their ill-starred
loves formed the favourite theme of the poet, while their constancy
iinder every misfortune became proverbial throughout Europe. The
thoroughly human interest which attaches to the legend alone makes
it an attractive study to the modern reader ; yet its history is no less
instructive and curious, as I shall attempt to show in the i)resent jiaper.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of cultivated minds at the present
day is the intense interest with Avhich they follow every attempt to
clear the early history of man from the mists which have hitherto
shrouded it from modern gaze. All l)ranehes of knowledge are being
pressed into the service of the scientific explorer, but few ecpial Com-
parative Mythology in importance. The history of the Tristan Legend
is, I venture to say, an interesting contrib\ition to that science. The
germ of the tale is to be found in one of a class of myths widely
(liR'nscd over the old world, and (o it a gradual aeerction of nivlhs.


belonging to other classes, appears to have taken place. These various
materials were subsequently moulded by Ronuuicc into the legend we
have l)ef()re us. In view of these fiicts, I pro|)o.seto de;d with its early
invtliie origin, its development in niediteval Romance, and its reappear-
ance in modern Drama.

German writers, such as Vo.i Groote,* Mone.f and Kurtz^ have
•attem|)ted to elncid:ite the origin of the leg.Mid by com]>;iring it with
various ancient myths. The singular reseniblinces, wiiich were thus
brought to light, led them to trace it to a common source in the deifica-

tion of the pow ers of natnre. _ The earliest objects of mythological -

worship were Un([Uestionably pt-rgonifipntiffiis^ q\' tlio p1i!r.nnm(^nn nlwprv- ,

able in the physical universe. ' Nature's mysterious powers, beforcyv
which man found himself so helpless, would l)e worshipped as good or •
as evil divinities, whose aid was to b^ supplicated or whose anger was
to bo averted, according as they were likely to assist or thwart his ^
undertakiiigs. There gradually arose by the side of these another class
of deities. Mortals, who during life had been distinguished for their •
pliysical or their mental ({ualities, were raised after death by the »
popular imagination into heroes. In course of time these latter, from -
being looked upon as the guardians of the national fortunes, were con- ,
founded withthcjcarlier gods, and became in their turn objects ofj jjviiu

worship; The wondrous legends associated with their names in popular/
tradition thus grew up into the myths of a national Pan theon. I n these
myths we find the relations of human life employed to symbolize the
operations of nature as sh wn forth in the seasons and the movements
of the heavenly bodies. Such fables were embodied by the priesthood
into Religious jNIysteries, ^ which it was not improbably sought to
preserve esoteric truths from" the gaze of the vulgar under the veil of
allegory. Most prominent among these truths would be the close
relation between the material and spiritual worlds, the struggle between
good and evil, and the existence of a future state.

* Von Groote. Tristan, von Meister Gotjrit von Strassburg, mit dcr Fortset-
zung des Meisters Ulrich von Thurheim : Berlin, G. Reimer, 1821.

t MoxE. Einleituwj in C. von Groote s Ausjabe von Tristan und Isolde. Also
Uebcr die Sage von Tristan, etc. Heidelberg, 1822.

X Kurtz. Tristan iind Isjlde, Gedicht von Gottfried von Strassbiirg: Stuttgart,
Becher, 18 17.


In the Mysteries the departure of Summer, the gloomy reigii of
Winter, and the approacli of Spring were celebrated almost universally
Tinder the allegory of a beautiful youth, the Sun-god, violently slain, and
mourned by his true love Nature until he is at length restored to life.
The Egyptians symbolized this by the murder of Osiris at the hand of
his brother Typhon, who flung the corpse of his ^^ctim, enclosed in a
chest, into the river Nile. After a sorrowful search, his consort Isi3
found it, and succeeded in bringing her lord to life again. Osiris be-
comes the King of Amenthe, the realm of the dead, where Isis under the
name of Nephthys shares his throne for half the year. Hindu !Mytho-
logy describes the death and resurrection of the god Kama in a similar
manner. The Phoenicians yearly commemorated the untimely end ol
Thammuz on the banks of the stream, whose waters were said to have
been stained purpfe with his blood. Hence arose, also, the Grecian
fable of the fixir Adonis, whose loss A])hrodite so passionately mourned,
that Persephone^ Queen of Hades-, restored him to her for a portion of
the year. In Phrygia we meet with Cybele's wild grief for Atys her
shepherd lover, her wanderings in search of him and his return once
more to life. The people of Cius in Bythinia held sacred the memory
of Ilylas, carried beneath the stream by nym|jhs enamoured of hi*
beauty. Festivals, also, were held in Greece in honoirr of Dionysus-
Zagreus the Wine-god, who, having been cruelly torn in pieces by the
Titans, came to life again, and sought his mother Semele in the
Underworld. Similar tales were told of the tragic dcatlis of LinuS;.,
Ilyacinthus, Narcissus and Heracles, of the Tliracian Corybas, of thc^
Cabiric Esmun, of Melicertcs at (yorinth, jNlitras in Persia, and of the
Scandina\'ian Baldur and Sigurd. The allegory was, also, sometimes
presented xmdcr a different form, as in the rape of Kore by Phito.
or in the touching tales of Orpheus and Eui'ydice, of Admetus and

Besides this talc of the suflfering god, there is also another, which i.s
often found interwoven Avith it, and which belongs to the same family
of solar myth. I refer to that of the god or licro triumphant in
combat with giatgts and dragons. Thus, ])robably also, as some sug-
gest, were connnemorated tliC sanguinary struggles cauSed l)v dynastic
changes, foreign invasions, and the inlrodnction of new religions. Wc
see, however, underlying such tales, the deeper truth of the great conflict
betuecn good aiul evil, in which the former iij ultimatolv the victor, lu


l^igypl war was wagoil by Sob tbe scrj)ont and liis giants against Ophioii
the Good Principle ; in India by Vrita against Indra ; in Persia by
Ahrinian against Orniuzd ; in Greece by the Titans against the Gods ;
and in Scandinavia by Fenrir against Odin and the iEsir. Of a similar
character is the terrible vengeance wrought by Uie Huns on the Bnr-
gnndians, with which the " Nibehingcnlicd" so tragically ends. The
same idea is expressed in the tale of the valiant hero rescuing a
beauteous maiden from the power of a malignant monster, and receiving
her hand as his reward. I will merely point, for examide, to the legends
told of the Egyptian Perses or the serpent Typhon, of Perseus and
Andromeda, of Apollo and the Python, and of Theseus and Ariadne,
in which we may notice the singular parallels that even many of the
names suggest. *

\J[n the TristJirrtegntd ^(TTecognise traces of the same old fable
of the Sji^gaiL-^Khese yearly death the great goddess Earth or Nature
mourns. At the same time it is allowed, that the hero himself may well
have been, nay probably was, an historical character, whose memory
continued to live in the traditions of his country. Tristan, like Perseus
and other ancient heroes, by slaying a monster, wins a Princess as his
prize. His love for the two Isoldes resembles the double union dV
Adonis to Aphrodite and Persephone, and of Osiris to Isis and Nephth-\
on Earth and in Hades. It is also worthy of notice, that as Osiris
said to have abolished the custom of eating human flesh, so too
the victory of Theseus over the Minotaur, and of Tristan over Morold
put an end to a tribute of human beings, — stories supposed to signify
the abolition of human sacrifice from the national worship. The
incident of the Black Sail is told in the Theseus legend in connection
with the fate of the ag ed /Egeu s. A woman's bitter jealousy of
her rival is the indirect cause of the deaths both of Tristan and
Siegfried. The sad search of Isis for Osiris, of Nepte for her daughter
Isis, of Dcmeter for Persephone, and the mourning of Nanna for Baldnr
find parallels in the wanderings of Rual after his fosterchild Tristan,

* Kurtz (p. Ix.) points ont, that the dragon Vlidan, which appears in
the lejreud of " Wigalois," bears a name curiously resembling Pj-thon and


and the lovinjj journey of Isolde the Fair to save the life of her
dying lord. INIiich of the original Sun-myth is doubtless no longer
to be found in Romance, more especially that portion which relates to
the hero's return to life. The possibility, however, of Tristan's life
being saved by the magical skill of the first Isolde may be said to recall,
in some degree, the promised resurrection of Osiris if his scattered
limbs be reunited, and that of Baldur the Beautiful should all things
weep for him. ' /

The story of Tristan's birth and childliood belongs to the widely-
spread myth of the Royal Foundling, who is secretly nurtured, and
afterwards happily reinstated in his rights. The sad circumstances
under which he first sees the light arc more or less similar to those
related of Osiris and his two sons Horns and Harpocrates, of Ilagen in
the Siegfried legend, and others, such as the Teutonic Wolfdiedrich, the
French Ogier le Danois and the British Launcelot. The hero's ignorance
of his parentage is reproduced in the tales of Cyrus, Siegfried, Otnit,
Reiuhold, and the twin founders of Rome ; while Rual acts the same
fatherly part by Tristan that Mithradates, Faustulus, Merau and
others do by their infant charges.

The last class of myths, which I intend to mention in connection with

the Tristan Legend, is that to which the Magic Potion belongs. Magic

Potions in Myth appear of different kinds. Some confer the gifts of /

immortality, of beauty, or of knowledge ; others stimulate the passion of /

love, producft madness or oblivion, enervate the j)hysical powers, or

heal deadly hurts. The earliest, and perhaps the best known, are the

^ various drinksof_thit-g N THE LKOKNL) OF TKISTAN. 11

\Vp now nrrivc at the pi-riod when the losoiid nindr its aiipoarnnco in
VliL' Rjinaiitic literature ot' the Middle Ajres. Here the inoderu reader
is fairly astonished by the fanciful and incongruous suhjects that are
presented to him. The stirring life of Chivalry, in its chequered
lights and shades of love and hate, appears inextricably interwoven with
the woriJers drawn from fairylaiuI^j^cTiiUcni^iJA.,^^
Adventures the moscirnprobable follow one another in rapid succession
without apparent connection, and exhibit, in many cases, a singular
ignorance of the commonest facts in history and geography. For the y

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Online LibraryEdward Tyrrell LeithOn the legend of Tristan: its orgin in myth and its development in romance → online text (page 1 of 4)