Gottfried von Strassburg

Tristan: Part IX - Iseult’s Ordeal

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2020 All Rights Reserved

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Last Modified 6th January 2020


Melot the dwarf conspires

WHEN the steward found that his plan

Had come to naught, he then began

To seek another way, and thought

Of a dwarf there, amongst the court,

Melot le Petit, of Aquitaine,

Who read the stars, so men did claim.

Naught of this fellow will I relay,

Apart from what my source doth say;

And all that the true tale doth teach,

Is he was skilled, sharp, quick of speech.

He was of the king’s complement

With access to the queen’s apartment.

Marjodoc now conspired with him,

And told Melot that, once within

The queen’s chamber, he should spy

On Tristan and Iseult, whereby,

If Melot could find hard evidence,

Of their love, and their grave offence,

He would earn reward, and honour

From their lord, King Mark, forever.

Melot spent many an hour so,

Weaving his web there, to and fro,

Setting his traps, so as to snare

The words and glances offered there.

He did so morning, noon, and night,

And soon upon their love did light,

For they behaved so tenderly,

Towards each other, he could see

The evidence, all which did prove

That both of them were deep in love,

And told Mark he had discovered

That they were indeed true lovers.

The three of them then took stock,

Melot, King Mark, and Marjodoc,

And, by agreement, forged a plan,

The gist of it was that Lord Tristan

Should hence be barred from the court,

So that the truth might now be sought

More readily; this was begun,

And as they planned it, so twas done.

Tristan is barred from court

THE king, for the sake of his honour,

Barred his nephew from wherever

The ladies gathered, since the court

Was full of vile rumours, in short,

Which must be countered promptly,

That might cause both he and she,

Iseult and the king, much distress.

Tristan obeyed the king’s request,

And thus he avoided every place

Where the ladies might see his face,

About the palace or their chambers.

This much surprised the courtiers,

Who missed him from their company;

Ill words they uttered frequently;

His ears were full, as was his mind,

Of things both painful and unkind.

Now he and Iseult spent their days

In grief, and suffered in dual ways;

They were afflicted by double pain;

Pain at the king’s doubts and, again,

Pain that they had no time together.

Heart and vigour both were ever

On the wane, from hour to hour,

They both paled, their faces dour,

He for the girl, she for the man,

Tristan for Iseult, Iseult Tristan.

Both were in pain, and in distress.

No wonder to me, I must confess,

That their pain was felt in common,

While they suffered distress as one,

For both were of one heart and mind;

All of good and ill, they did find,

All their life now, all their death,

Was measured by a single breath;

What troubled one or the other,

Troubled both of them together;

When aught brought the one relief

The other knew it, tis my belief.

For good and ill they were as one.

And then, when all is said and done,

Naught in their faces could deny

The love that dwelt in either’s eye.

Mark could see at once the sign

Of this separation by design,

How the parting gave them pain,

All of their suffering and strain,

And that they longed to be together

Whene’er they could, and wherever.

So he gave them opportunity,

Bidding his huntsmen be ready,

With the hounds, to hunt the forest.

And then informed all of the rest,

That he would hunt for twenty days,

And all those skilled in rural ways,

Or who desired to hunt at leisure,

Should attend upon his pleasure.

Then he took leave of the queen,

Told her in his absence to glean

As much pleasure as she could.

Then he told the dwarf he should

Spread his nets and snares about,

And seek to catch the lovers out,

And promised him a fine reward.

Mark, himself, o’er the greensward,

Led forth the hunt in his honour;

His hunting friend Tristan however,

Remained behind, said he was ill;

Yet he would go a-hunting still,

In his own manner, even though

Iseult and he were buried so

In their own sorrow, yet seeking

Some chance means of meeting,

So that they might be together.

Yet no plan had come to either.

Brangwen gives her counsel

NOW Brangwen went to see Tristan,

For she was aware that the man

Was heavy-hearted as her lady;

And thus she shared his misery.

‘Ah, noble lady,’ he said, ‘tell me,

For all these ills what cure have I?

How shall poor Iseult now, and I

Evade our ruin? I see no way

That we might live another day.’

‘What counsel can I give to you?’

Said their friend, both good and true.

‘Ill was the day that we were born.

God have mercy, for thus is torn

All joy and honour from us three,

And never now shall we win free.

Alas Iseult! Alas Tristan!

That ever I saw you, dear man,

And proved the source of all your pain!

I see no way that we might gain

A means by which you two might meet;

Or naught that would not court defeat.

I know, as surely as I will die,

That you will take great harm hereby,

If you are made to suffer here,

This endless separation; I fear,

Naught better can I now advise

Than that you labour in this wise,

While you are parted from us two.

When the chance is offered you,

Cut a branch from an olive tree,

Split it lengthwise, and by and by

Mark every sliver with an ‘I’,

On one side, on the other a ‘T’

For your first-names; now hark to me,

Go to the orchard where the stream

Running there, the trees between,

Flows down to the ladies’ quarters.

Throw a sliver into its waters,

And let it float on past the door

Where Iseult and I evermore

Bewail each day our misery.

When the splinter we thus see

We shall know that you are there,

Beside the stream, waiting there;

Keep watch for my lady and me,

In the shade of that olive tree;

Your lady will come to meet you,

And I too will come to greet you,

If such is a possibility,

And if you yourself agree.

Whatever of this brief life yet

Remains to me, do not forget

I devote my life to both of you,

And my counsel is good and true.

If with a thousand hours or more

Of mine, I could your joy ensure

For but one, then I would sell

The rest of all my days as well,

Rather than let you suffer grief.’

‘Thank you fair one, that’s my belief.

You are so honourable and true,’

Said Tristan, ‘that none more than you

Ere showed at heart such loyalty,

And honour; so it seems to me.

If fortune e’er on me should smile,

You’d see that, in but a brief while,

I would bring you joy and honour.

Though my present state is dire,

If I knew how I might employ

My days so as to bring you joy,

I too would consume my days

The sooner, to earn your praise!’

And then, he clasped her tightly,

‘Most loyal and blessed, lady!’

Kissing her eyes, and her face,

Many a time, in close embrace,

‘Fair one,’ said he, ‘thus seek to do

As a friend does, both good and true,

Let me, and that poor weeper there,

Be held in your most loving care;

May blessed Iseult, and this knight,

Be in your thoughts; see us aright.’

‘I shall do so, most willingly.

Yet I must leave, sir, and swiftly,

Do now all that I’ve asked you to;

And let not sorrow overcome you.’

‘May the Lord protect your honour,

And your lovely self, forever!’

Brangwen bowed her head in tears,

Leaving him to his doubts and fears.

The trysts in Mark’s absence

How King Mark and Melot lay a snare

‘How King Mark and Melot lay a snare’
The Story of Tristan and Iseult, Vol II - Jessie L Weston and Caroline Watts (p43, 1907)
Internet Archive Book Images

SAD Tristan cut those olive-slivers,

And then cast one upon the waters,

As Brangwen, his fair counsellor,

Had told him, and Iseult went forth,

Beside the stream, her love to see

Neath the shade of the olive tree,

Eight times in all, day after day,

For none did see, or go their way.

But then one night it came about,

When Tristan was but setting out

Upon his way, Melot, that evil

Instrument, spawned by the Devil,

By some mischance, saw the knight

And, slyly keeping him in sight,

Watched as Tristan approached the tree,

To linger there, suspiciously,

Till a lady soon neared the place,

Whom Tristan took in his embrace.

Melot knew not who she might be.

Melot seeks to entrap Tristan

NEXT day, Melot went forth to see

Tristan, with every ill-intention,

And sought to gain his attention

By feigning to act as messenger,

Despatched from lover to lover,

His evil heart filled with guile:

‘My lord, indeed an anxious while

I have endured in coming here.

You are beset, it would appear,

By watchers and by prying eyes.

Risking all, despite such spies,

And out of pity for the queen,

Fair Iseult, who indeed has been

Greatly concerned for you, she

Finding none other but poor me

To employ, I’ve come to you,

And with much difficulty too,

To bear you her heartfelt greeting,

For she seeks an urgent meeting,

I know not where, you will know

It is where last night you did go,

At the very same time and place,

Where you oft meet face to face,

Perchance to warn you; she may.

You will believe me when I say

No more than your unhappiness

Brings me here, and her sadness

For it; and now my Lord Tristan

I must be gone, yet tis my plan

To tell her whate’er you conceive,

If, my lord, you’ll grant me leave.

Yet if they heard of this at court,

A harsh payment would be sought,

For tis said indeed, and believed,

Whate’er was done and conceived

Between you two, is down to me.

Before God, I do swear, sincerely,

I know not how this thing began.’

‘Do you dream, friend?’ said Tristan,

‘What sad nonsense have you brought?

What folly do they believe at court?

What have I, and my lady, done?

A curse upon you now; begone!

For you may be assured of this,

No matter what the rumour is,

Nor what’s thought of the matter,

If twere not my sense of honour

Protects you, you’d not reappear

To tell them of your dreaming here!’

The assignation by the stream

NOW, to King Mark, Melot did race,

Who was hunting the forest chase,

And told his lord how all did seem,

And of the tryst beside the stream.

‘Sire, ride there, with me, this night,

Truth will be there, and in plain sight;

For, of this, I can now assure you,

Howe’er they manage it, those two,

This very night, they will be there,

And you may view the whole affair.’

With Melot now, the king returned.

To witness all the pain he’d earned.

They entered the orchard, that eve,

Yet no hiding-place could achieve;

But, beside the stream, there stood

The olive-tree, and there they could

Conceal themselves; wide its spread,

Not tall, though branching overhead.

Into the olive-tree they did climb,

And sat there, silent, for a time.

As night drew on, Tristan set out,

Assuming none were thereabout,

And once arrived in the garden,

He took a sliver, marked for them,

And set it floating on the water,

So that he might tell his lover,

The sad Iseult, he was waiting;

Then he made a hasty crossing

Of the stream, to the olive tree,

Which stood, in darkness, quietly,

Yet cast its shade into the night,

For the moon was full and bright;

And there he stood, in its shadow,

Musing sadly on his sorrow.

And then he chanced to see below,

On the grass, the double shadow

Of Mark and Melot, in the tree.

Now in the moonlight he could see

Their shapes, he was full of fear,

Knowing he was in danger here.

‘Dear Lord,’ he thought, ‘now preserve

Myself and Iseult whom I serve!

If she should fail to see the snare

Those two shadows witness there,

She will come straight to the tree,

And then, Dear Lord, where will we be?

God, of your goodness, watch and care

For us two, and protect her there.

Guide her steps, warn her somehow,

Of the trap that would catch us now,

Lest she should utter, or do, aught,

That might engender evil thought.

Lord, have mercy on her and me,

And this night, grant us your pity!

Our honour, our lives, I commend

To you, on whom we both depend!’

Now the queen, and their dear friend,

The noble, and discreet, Brangwen,

Went to where the stream did flow

Through the garden of their sorrow,

To where they would wait together,

When there was no sign of danger,

For some new signal from Tristan.

They would walk there hand in hand,

Lamenting thus, and sorrowing,

And oft of love’s sadness speaking.

And soon Brangwen saw a sliver,

Bobbing gently, on the water,

And called out to her mistress.

Iseult seized it, and did address

It, finding a ‘T’ carved and an ‘I’,

‘Tristan’, ‘Iseult’, she read thereby.

Swiftly grasping her mantle, she

Covered her head, most carefully,

And then stole softly o’er the grass;

Among the flowers she did pass,

To the olive tree, by the stream;

Yet when she saw him he did seem

Rooted in place, not as before;

For once he’d seen her, and was sure,

He would ever come to meet her,

When they had sight of each other.

Now fair Iseult wondered greatly,

And her heart was troubled deeply.

She bowed her head, and on she went,

Puzzling as to what all this meant,

Towards the lone tree, full of fear,

And, as she silently drew near,

Saw three men’s shadows on the ground,

Though only one was to be found.

From this, and Tristan’s attitude,

The nature of the trap she knew:

‘Ah’, she thought, ‘assassins then!

Who sent them here, these evil men?

Who sets an ambush for us two?

Surely the king is present too,

Hidden somewhere about the place.

We are betrayed; beware disgrace!

Help us, escape now, honourably,

Dear Lord; save Tristan, and save me!’

And then she thought: ‘Is he aware,

My Tristan, of these men, this snare,

Or not? And yet it seemed he did

Certainly know that men lay hid,

As his odd behaviour had shown.

Tristan’s and Iseult’s words hold hidden meaning

SHE kept afar, and, in courtly tone,

Said: ‘Lord Tristan, I am aggrieved,

That you thus hope to be received

At such an hour, in such a place,

Where none can even see your face;

Counting thus on my indulgence,

Or worse still, on my innocence.

Respect, for your uncle and for me,

Might seek a better way, indeed,

The path of loyalty and honour,

Rather than demand a favour,

With such a show of secrecy?

Now tell me why you sought for me?

I stand here now, yet full of fear,

Tis Brangwen made me so appear,

To learn of what is troubling you;

For it was she who pressed me to,

After she spoke with you today,

Twas foolish of me to give way.

She is listening to this, nearby,

And howe’er quiet it is, yet I,

Would rather lose a finger now,

From my right hand, I do avow,

Such is my fear of evil talk,

Than any learn that here I walk

And meet with you, and speak with you;

For wicked tales to such are due.

The things they say of you and me,

Claiming that they know that we

Are lovers and our hearts entwined

In some unlawful way! I find

The court is ever filled with lies.

But God himself to that is wise,

He knows my feelings towards you.

And I’ll speak one word further, too:

God be my witness, when I say,

Let not my sins be washed away

If my loyalty prove any less certain

Than the feelings I might mention

That I still hold in respect of you.

For I have loved no man, tis true,

But he who took my maidenhead;

And to me all others are as dead.

I swear tis wrong, my Lord Tristan

That King Mark, so honest a man,

Should harbour such wild suspicions

Concerning you, and your intentions,

The more so since he knows how I

Feel towards you, as you know why.

God knows, all those who malign me,

Are foolish, for such cannot see

What is truly here, in my heart.

I have shown you, with some art,

My esteem, granted you praise,

Oh, in a hundred thousand ways,

Worked on you my hidden plan,

Out of my love for the one man

Whom I must love, and I did so

Without deceit, as God doth know.

Whether it be squire or knight,

Tis to my credit, and tis right,

That I should honour all men here

Close to King Mark, or held dear.

And yet folk hold that against me.

No hate do I bear you, certainly,

Because of the court’s evil tales;

But now, my lord, tell me what ails

You thus, for I wish to depart,

I cannot linger, speak your part.’

‘Noble lady,’ came Tristan’s answer,

‘I doubt not that you would ever

Speak thus, and prove honourable

Toward me, if twere possible,

But deceitful folk do such prevent,

By questioning your fair intent,

And mine, and rob us of favour

With your gracious royal master,

And yet through no fault of our own,

As by God in Heaven is known.

Think now, blessed and noble queen,

On how blameless I have been,

Towards you, and towards him,

And of the grace I find in him;

And let not your thoughts be blind,

But hold that clearly in your mind,

And ask him, of his courtesy,

To hide the doubt and enmity

He innocently bears me; seek

That he, at least for one more week,

May show me his forbearance,

And that you both may advance

Your grace to me in this matter,

As though I were yet in favour,

While I prepare to leave this land.

Otherwise, you must understand,

We shall all lose honour thereby,

My lord the king, and you, and I;

For if you behave towards me

As you have done, some enemy

Will say: “There’s truth in that affair!

For see he’s gone, and who knows where?

He flees the court, my Lord Tristan,

Whom the king perchance doth ban.”’

‘My Lord Tristan,’ Iseult replied,

‘Better that I lay down and died,

Than ask my lord to do a thing

Concerning you or your leaving.

You know he has proved unkind

Towards me, time out of mind,

On your account, and if he knew

That I was here alone with you

This night, then his displeasure

Would be such that I would never

Know respect or kindness again.

And whether he will show me them

Once more, I know not, and yet I

Can but wonder how and why

My lord came by his suspicion,

And if one made it their mission

To rouse it; I have never known

You to beguile me, I must own,

Nor, indeed, have I ever been

Dishonest towards you, I ween.

And I know not what has brought

On us such ill repute, unsought,

So that our state is vile and ill,

And may the Lord recall it still,

And so amend that state ere long,

And so set right whate’er is wrong.

And now, sir, grant me leave to go,

I must depart; do you also.

All your trouble and affliction,

God knows, I feel, tis no fiction.

I might claim you gave me cause

To hate you, yet of that no more,

I will but say that I regret

That tis through me you suffer yet;

I must forgive your every offence.

On the day you leave our presence,

May God, preserve you, my lord,

And the Queen of Heaven afford

You her protection! As to this

Request you made of me, I wish

I could help you; if I but thought

I might assist in what you sought,

I would then act and counsel you,

In any way, such that I might do;

If only I did not fear it would

Be easily misunderstood.

Yet no matter what comes of it,

Or what trouble I gain from it,

I will defend you most sincerely

From any charge of disloyalty,

Towards me or my lord the king.

Whatever benefit it may bring,

I’ll aid your cause, as best I can.’

‘Thank you, my lady, said Tristan,

‘And tell me of the king’s reply

To what you seek; if tis that I

Must go, perchance, and nevermore

See you again, seek a foreign shore,

Then Heaven bless you noble queen!

For, God knows, ne’er has there been

So fine and so true a lady,

Borne nobly on o’er land or sea.

To God I commend you: body

Soul, life, and honour, my lady!’

Mark regrets his suspicions

AT these words, they did both depart,

The queen with sadness in her heart,

Sighing in pain, and sorrowing,

Murmuring her love and longing,

As Tristan went his tearful way.

Mark too, who in the tree did lay,

Was saddened at having doubted

His wife and nephew, and shouted

Curses, aloud, once they had gone,

From the olive bough he sat upon;

And in his heart too he condemned

Those who had led him to this end.

The wretched Melot he roundly

Castigated, and this not only

For his deceit, but, upon his life,

The fellow had slandered his wife!

Thus they, on descending the tree,

Returned to the chase, dejectedly,

But for differing reasons, because

Melot grieved, as he rode his horse,

Over the reason for his rejection,

A wrongful charge of deception,

While Mark regretted the suspicion

That had led to his foolish action,

And caused his wife such trouble,

And his nephew, and then double

Annoyance to himself, and led

To rumour, and shameful words said

Both in the country and at court.

The next day Mark swiftly sought

His return, while the hunt remained,

And once at court, having regained

His composure, he saw the queen:

‘Madame,’ he said, ‘how have you been?

How spent your time with me away?’

‘In needless sorrow, indeed, each day,

And yet to ease it, I would aspire

To tune the harp, and play the lyre.’

‘Needless sorrow?’ was Mark’s reply,

‘What sorrow did you feel, and why?’

Iseult smiled, and then did answer,

‘Howe’er it occurred, it did occur,

And doth recur now, and every day,

For tis my nature, and woman’s way,

To grieve and sorrow for no reason;

Thus we cleanse our hearts and brighten

Our eyes; and tis from naught, often,

That this great sadness has arisen,

And to naught it doth swift return.’

She went on, in this pleasant turn.

Now Mark was intent on listening,

Trying hard to grasp her meaning.

‘Tell me, my lady, have you heard aught,

Or is there anything said at court,

Regarding how Tristan doth seem?

For when I rode away the theme

Was that he suffered, in great pain.’

‘Sire, tis the truth, that very same,’

The queen replied, though she did mean

The pains of love in him were seen,

That love caused all his suffering.

‘What know you of this?’ asked the king.

‘I only know what I surmise,

And by use of Brangwen’s eyes,

For she said, some little while ago,

Some illness had taken him so.

She saw him too, but yesterday,

And he requests that I would say

A word to you, for, in God’s name,

He begs you not to sanction blame;

Judge not so harshly, is his plea,

And temper your severity,

For the remainder of this week,

Since his departure he doth seek,

And he requests that with honour,

He might go abroad, to suffer.’

And she gave the rest of his plea,

As he’d asked of her previously,

Beside the stream, which Mark had heard

And their conversation, word for word.

‘Cursed forever be that vile creature,’

Cried the king, ‘who raised a measure

Of doubt within, for I feel remorse

That ever suspicion took its course,

For I have learned of his innocence,

But a while ago, from men of sense.

And now dear queen, let you decide

The matter, by that I will abide,

What pleases you, it shall be done.

Take myself, and this foster son,

And do you make peace between us.’

‘And I shall not! Tis injurious;

For should I settle this today,

You, tomorrow, are like to say

That you doubt him still, as before.’

‘No, no, my lady, nevermore

Will I such opinions harbour,

Things most harmful to his honour,

Nor shall I trouble you, my queen,

If his friend you’d choose to seem,

For he indeed is my friend now.’

And then he sealed it with a vow.

Then he summoned Lord Tristan,

And in friendship clasped his hand,

And all suspicion was laid aside,

Doubts quelled, Tristan pacified.

Iseult was placed in Tristan’s care,

With all due ceremony, and there

Protected, counselled every way,

She and her household, each day,

Were ordered as he commanded.

Tristan and Iseult had been handed

Their old life and, in full measure,

Found their joy and took their pleasure,

Such that, though all had gone amiss,

They once more lived a life of bliss,

Howe’er briefly it might endure

Ere Mark felt displeasure once more.

Tristan warns Iseult against the steward and the dwarf

I say this now, out loud, that no

Nettle can ever sting one so

Fiercely as a vicious neighbour,

Nor is there aught brings such danger

As doth a devious housemate.

Him I call false; one who doth prate

Of friendship, yet is a foe at heart.

Such friendship proves a thing apart,

For he has honey on his tongue,

But foul venom if you are stung!

With poisonous envy he doth swell,

And poisons his friend’s life as well,

With whate’er he doth see or hear,

For naught is safe from such, I fear.

Yet if someone should lay a snare

Quite openly for his foe, tis fair.

In doing so, yet not covertly,

He doth scant harm to his enemy.

But if false friendship he doth dare,

Well then, I say, one must beware. 

Take Marjodoc and Melot now.

With Tristan they did smile and bow,

They were full often at his side,

With a friendship their hearts belied,

Offering to keep him company,

Though, inwardly, his enemy,

Plying but cunning and deceit.

Yet Tristan, whene’er they did meet,

Was wary, and warned Iseult too.

‘Queen of my heart, now must you

Be careful what you do or say!

We are at risk, in every way.

Two poisonous vipers, in doves’ guise

Beguile us, yet with watchful eyes;

Be aware of that pair, dear queen!

For when one’s housemates are seen

With a dove’s face, yet viper’s tail,

Then cross oneself, ere the sky hail,

And say a prayer gainst sudden death!

So, Fair Iseult, my life, my breath,

Guard against Marjodoc the cur;

Watch lest Melot the snake doth stir!’

Twas what they were and no mistake;

The one a cur, the other a snake,

Ever seeking to trap the lovers,

A cur and snake bound together,

Whate’er they did, where’er they went.

Morning and night twas their intent

To ply Mark with lies and slander,

Till the king would start to waver

And allow his love to weaken;

Till the lovers roused his suspicion,

And he sought, with some new test,

To expose their mutual interest.

King Mark and Melot set another trap

ONE day, by his false counsellors led,

Mark had himself, and Iseult, bled,

And Tristan too; the latter pair

Suspecting naught, all unaware

Of the trap being set for them.

So, in the royal chamber then,

All the king’s closest company,

Lay there, relaxing pleasurably.

The eve of the following day,

Once the courtiers were away,

And Mark to his bed did fare,

There were but five others there,

In the great bed-chamber; Tristan,

Iseult, Brangwen, Melot, as planned,

With one young lady-in-waiting,

While the candlesticks were sitting,

Behind some hanging tapestries,

To dim their light; so as to please.

When the Matins bell did sound,

Mark swiftly dressed; he was bound

For Mass. Melot then, cautiously,

He summoned to his company;

And now that Mark had left his bed,

Melot took some flour, and spread

It all about upon the floor.

If any stepped there, twould ensure

Their footprints would be plain to see.

They left for church then, silently,

Where their prayers of devotion,

Were tainted by less pure emotion.

Now Brangwen, even at that hour

Awake, saw Melot spread the flour,

And went, noiselessly, to Tristan,

And warned him of the evil plan;

Then went again to her own bed.

The trap, thus laid, discomforted

Tristan; his longing there, within,

For the woman to whom he’d win,

Was great, but how to achieve her?

He acted as tis said a lover,

Must, for desire is ever blind,

And love is ne’er by fear confined,

When it is true, and in earnest.

Blood on the sheets

‘ALAS, now what is for the best,

Dear Lord, how to defeat this snare?

The stakes are high in this affair.’

He stood up on his bed to see

How he might gain his love scot-free.

Twas light enough to see the flour,

But then to leap across, his powers

Weakened so by the blood-letting!

And yet there could be no walking!

He was forced to choose the better

Of the two; stood, his feet together,

And launched himself at the target.

Twas far beyond his strength as yet,

Though Tristan made a brave attempt.

Onto the royal bed he went,

But lost the wager, his vein burst

And thus it brought about the worst,

No end of trouble for him there;

Blood soiled the linen everywhere.

As is its nature, blood will stain,

It dyed the sheets and counterpane;

And though he lay with her not long,

Twas long enough to see him wrong.

Of royal silks and gold brocade,

Linen, bed; a fine mess he made.

Then he leapt back the way he’d come,

And lay there till light filled the room,

His mind full of disturbing thoughts.

Now Mark returned and quickly sought

For footprints on the sprinkled floor.

He gazed, yet not a trace he saw,

Yet when he looked upon the bed,

He found blood all about, instead,

And more blood; it gave him pain:

‘How now, my queen?’ ‘Twas but my vein,

That opened, it has barely ceased,’

She answered. Then, pretending ease,

The king he turned towards Tristan:

‘Come, come my lord, rise up young man!’

And throwing back the coverlet,

He found more blood there, and still wet.

Not another word did Mark say,

But left Tristan there where he lay.


ALL this weighed upon Mark’s mind,

He mused like a man who doth find

The day that’s dawned is an ill day.

Indeed he’d chased, upon the way,

The deadly sorrow he had sought,

The anguish he had well-nigh caught,

Yet he’d not exposed their secret;

For he had no more proof, as yet,

Than could be seen from the blood.

His doubts were again at the flood,

Yet the truth was obscured again,

The evidence was not yet plain.

He was yoked to that suspicion

He’d renounced, this his position:

That having found the chamber floor

Untrodden, all floured as before,

He had thought his nephew free

Of rampant criminality;

Yet finding the queen blood-stained,

And their bed, his mind was claimed

Once again by gloomy musing,

As with all who yield to wavering.

Midst this confusion he knew not

What to credit, or this or that,

What he wished could not conceive,

Nor who it was he should believe.

He’d found the blood, but no trace

Before the bed, or about the place,

At head or foot, or on either side;

The truth was proffered then denied.

By truth and falsehood confounded,

By confusing thoughts surrounded,

He saw the claims made by either,

And yet was convinced by neither.

He could not prove their ill-intent,

Nor could he prove them innocent,

A waverer, now filled with grief,

Caught twixt belief and unbelief.

King Mark in his confusion then,

Burdened with doubt, once again,

Considered how he might go about

Throwing off this weight of doubt,

Ending those suspicions the court

Had regarding his wife, or sought

To level against her and Tristan.

He summoned his nobles, every man,

On whose wise counsel he relied,

And by whose judgement he’d abide,

Telling them he knew the rumour,

A threat to marriage and honour.

While doubting the accusation,

He said, that troubled the nation,

He’d not grant the queen his favour,

Nor would be intimate with her,

Till she had proven, and publicly,

Her innocence and her loyalty

To himself; he sought their counsel,

On how his doubts they might quell,

As to the claims of her wrong-doing,

In a manner that might prove fitting

With regard to his rank and honour;

A judgement, one way or the other.

The trial held in London

HIS friends and his kin together

Advised him that he should gather

A Council, and should then demand

That it meet in London, in England,

And to the Church submit the case,

The learned clergy, and in that place

Resolve the matter by God’s laws.

The Council that would try the cause,

And hear the case on either side,

Was summoned, after Whitsuntide,

Before the month of May was out.

Clergy and laity, gathered about

The king, with his queen, Iseult, near;

Both were burdened by grief and fear,

Iseult was there, in fear for her life,

And honour, he grieved lest his wife

Might harm his name, and happiness;

Thus they came, in fear and sadness.

Once King Mark had taken his seat

And the preparations were complete,

He told the barons of the anger

Caused him by this dreadful slander;

And, for God’s sake, on their honour,

Bade them exact justice upon her;

If they could do so, find some way

Whereby he might, that very day,

Resolve the matter altogether,

In one direction, or the other;

And many a man in speech replied,

Some well, some ill, on either side.

Then the Bishop of the Thames arose,

A learned man the king oft chose,

Grey-haired, commanding, to advise;

Though he was old, he was full wise.

Leaning now on his staff, he said:

‘My lord King, being here, I’m led

To give my advice, if you approve,

For you have summoned us to prove

This case, being in need of counsel,

And I being one of your great nobles,

And of an age to speak my mind,

Will speak about all this, as I find;

And for himself so speak each man.

My lady Iseult and Lord Tristan,

Have met with grave accusation,

Yet not with proof, mere suspicion.

How shall you meet evil with evil,

Given that the balance is level,

Sentence your nephew and your wife

To forfeit both their honour and life,

When they have not been discovered

In any wrong, nor may be so ever?

Someone speaks thus about Tristan,

Yet where’s the proof against the man?

Someone gainst Iseult spreads rumour,

Without evidence, upon my honour!

Yet since the court doth trial afford,

You must deny her bed and board,

Till she can muster her defence,

And prove to you her innocence,

And to the realm, which hears report

And murmurs of it, as doth the court.

For, alas, tis as true as ever,

True or false, folk love a rumour.

Whate’er it be, whether false or true,

Whoe’er is slandered, me or you;

It rouses everyone’s worst nature.

Howe’er that be, in this sad matter

You are angered, the court appalled.

So this is my counsel: that you call

The queen, since she is so accused,

And fair trial should not be refused,

So that your charge may here be brought,

And she reply as doth please the court.’

The king answered: ‘My lord, I shall.

What you have said proves acceptable.’

She took her seat before the Council,

And, when all the chamber was still,

The Bishop of the Thames, grey and wise,

His own fair counsel did realise.

He rose and said: ‘My noble Queen,

Lady Iseult, if ought should seem

To give offence, forgive; the King

Commands me now, as in everything;

I swear before God, if there is aught

That doth come now before this court

That impinges on your honour,

Or harms your good name further,

I bring it to light, reluctantly.

I would be spared this, most truly!

Most blessed and most noble queen,

Your lord and master here doth deem

It right to lodge an accusation,

Publicly. Whence this imputation

Of misconduct doth now arise,

Neither he nor I can surmise,

But in the court, throughout the land,

There’s talk of you and Lord Tristan.

If God wills it so, my lady,

You shall of all such fault go free,

Yet the king’s doubts were stirred,

Because of all the court has heard.

My lord finds naught but good in you.

The suspicion that now falls on you,

Arises from the court, sans proof,

And he, that all might find the truth,

Indicts you, so that lord and kin,

Might view the case, and thus begin

Perchance to counteract this slander.

And now I think it would be better

Were you to speak, not I, and bring

Your own thoughts to this gathering.’

The Queen’s defence

ISEULT, that most clear-witted queen,

Rose now, so that she might be seen,

And said, clearly: ‘My lord the king,

Bishop, lords, now know this thing:

If I am summoned to answer

Aught to do with my lord’s honour,

Or my own, then answer I will,

Now as ever; then hear me still,

All you here gathered; well I know

That rumours have gone to and fro,

Concerning me and my behaviour,

This year, at court and wherever.

But there is none who is so blest

As not to suffer with all the rest,

Man’s dislike, false accusation,

Attacks upon their reputation;

So tis no great surprise to me,

If none grants me immunity.

I am bound to be so accused,

If none from that is e’er excused;

For I am come to a foreign land

And have but few kin near at hand.

Scant few here will stand by me,

Sorrowing for my sorrow; I see

Rich or poor, you would believe

Whatever slander men conceive.

If I but knew a means to clear

My name, find some remedy here

That would act in my defence,

And prove to you my innocence,

And uphold my lord’s honour too,

Then that, willingly, would I do.

What then, my lords, do you advise?

Whatever trial you may devise,

That I, right gladly, will undergo,

If your doubts may be scotched so,

And so maintain my lord’s honour,

And my own good name recover.’

‘My lady, the queen,’ said the king,

‘I am content, tis the very thing

That is needed; for your suggestion

Is just; and twill grant satisfaction.

I shall swear you, step forward, so,

And bind yourself to undergo,

On a given day, trial by ordeal,

Laying hold of the red-hot steel’

The queen agreed, and she swore

That in six weeks’ time, no more,

She would submit to it, indeed,

At Caerleon, as the court decreed.

Then the council was dismissed,

And the king and barons left the lists.

Iseult’s ruse: Tristan the pilgrim

ISEULT, left alone with her fears

And sorrows, found there naught but tears;

Sorrow and fear brought little peace,

She feared for her good name, nor ceased

To fret, her sorrow ill-concealed,

Lest the hidden truth be revealed.

Harassed now, between the two,

She felt she knew not what to do,

So she confided them to Christ,

The Merciful, whose aid sufficed;

For she, with fasting and prayer,

Placing herself in his good care,

Commending to him her distress,

Thought of a true untruthfulness,

Which relied on God’s courtesy.

To Tristan she wrote, speedily,

Asking him to be on the strand

At Caerleon, where she must land,

Right early on the given day,

And whate’er she ordered then, obey.

This was done, and Lord Tristan,

In pilgrim’s robes, did to the strand

Repair and, with face marked and stained,

In body and dress, a poor man feigned.

Now, ere Mark and Iseult landed,

The Queen saw him, and commanded

That when the ship came near the shore,

She’d prefer it if that pilgrim bore

Her to land, if he had the strength,

Not some profane knight; so, at length,

In God’s name, they asked him to bear

Her from the ship to the landing there;

A score of them called to Tristan:

‘Come to my lady, holy man,

And carry her gently to the shore!’

He did as they asked, and so once more

Held his lady in his strong hands.

He carried her safely to the land,

But Iseult whispered that once there

He was to stumble, and take care

To fall, with her, on the hard ground,

And whate’er happened, make no sound.

As she commanded, so twas done,

When dry land he had stepped upon,

The pilgrim stumbled, as if by chance,

And landed, a strange circumstance,

Such that he rested in her embrace.

They lay but briefly in that place,

For a crowd of attendants ran

With sticks and staves to beat the man.

‘No, no, away!’ Iseult now cried,

‘Twas pure mischance, and beside,

The pilgrim is weak and infirm,

Twas not his fault, I do confirm.’

They began to praise and honour

Queen Iseult, and to commend her,

For not punishing the poor man.

Iseult said, smiling: ‘Tis more than

A thing of wonder, I must deem,

If e’en a pilgrim must now seem

To lie with me; think you not?’

Further praise of her these words brought,

For her virtue and courtesy,

And she was extolled by many.

King Mark had seen the incident,

And heard also the queen’s comment,

And the various things said then.

‘Now I know not what will happen,’

 Cried Iseult, ‘for you all can see

That I can no longer, truthfully,

Hold that no other man ever

Embraced me, or that I never

Held any but Mark in my lap.’

There was much amusement at that;

Of the pilgrim’s boldness they made

A jest, as they the queen conveyed

On to Caerleon, where they found

Barons, priests, knights did abound,

And a great crowd of common folk.

Yet there was no time to now joke,

For the bishops and clergy there,

Read the Mass to bless this affair,

And then went about their office;

While the steel in the fire did hiss.

The pious Queen had, ere that day,

Given her gold and silver away,

Her gems, her dresses, her palfreys,

So that her God she might please,

So that He might her sins ignore

And her lost honour now restore.

Now to the church she had come,

Showed, at the Mass, her devotion,

A humble reverence did display,

Wearing a woollen robe that lay

Over the hair-shirt next her skin,

While her robe it fell to within

A hand’s breadth of her ankles, lo

Its sleeves rolled up to the elbow;

Her arms, her feet they were bare.

Now, many a heart and eye there,

Absorbed the sight, and felt pity;

Her aspect quelled all enmity,

The coarse garment she did wear;

And now she was about to swear

On the reliquary they’d brought.

For she was adjured to report

Her sins to God and all mankind.

She had life and honour resigned,

To God indeed, and His mercy,

Yielding herself to Him, utterly,

As she stretched forth her hand to take

Her oath upon the relic, and make

True declaration, with fearful heart,

As well it might be, and that heart

And hand render up to God’s grace,

That he might aid her in that place.

Ordeal and acquittal

NOW there were a fair number there

So hostile they would have her swear

In a manner aimed at her downfall.

Marjodoc, the steward, full of gall,

Had sought her ruin in many ways;

Yet there were others who did praise

Her courteously and showed favour,

And sought to maintain her honour,

And thus they argued to and fro

That the oath be worded just so,

One wishing her well, another ill,

As folk do in such matters still.

‘My lord the King,’ said the Queen,

‘This oath must satisfy you, I ween,

Whatever these other folk may say.

So judge now, for yourself, I pray,

Whether, in all that I say and do,

I yield an oath that satisfies you.

These folk do too much counsel dare.

Hear the oath that I mean to swear:

That no man has known my body

Or lain in my arms, or beside me,

But yourself ever, except, I say,

The man who did that same today,

Whom you saw with your own eyes,

That pilgrim fate took by surprise.

So help me God, and all the Saints,

To answer here all your complaints,

And bring about a fortunate end

To my ordeal, and truth defend!

Now if that be not fitting, Sire,

Then I’ll amend it as you desire.’

‘Madam, as far as I can see,

Said the king, ‘tis as it should be. 

But take the hot steel in your hand

And let the oath you’ve sworn stand,

And God aid you in your ordeal!’

‘Amen,’ cried Iseult, took the steel

And carried it, and was not burned.

Thus to the world it was confirmed

That Christ the Lord, the virtuous,

Conforms to us in our dealings thus,

Clings to us, like a windblown sleeve,

Though we may labour to deceive,

Closely, as ever a sleeve should do.

He serves thus every heart in true

And honest acts and false the same,

Whether in earnest, or a game;

And thus He is as one doth will!

And this was shown in Iseult still,

For she was saved by her deception,

The oath loosed in God’s direction,

Such that her honour was redeemed,

She by Mark loved and esteemed,

Once more, and praised and lauded,

And in that land respect afforded.

Whenever the king saw that aught

Captured her heart, then it was sought,

He brought to her gifts and honour,

His heart and mind fixed upon her.

And all without a sign of doubt.

The fire of his suspicion was out.

The ordeal of the red hot iron

‘The ordeal of the red hot iron’
The Story of Tristan and Iseult, Vol II - Jessie L Weston and Caroline Watts (p71, 1907)
Internet Archive Book Images

End of Part IX of Gottfried’s Tristan