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.
- Tristan is barred from court.
- Brangwen gives her counsel.
- The trysts in Mark’s absence.
- Melot seeks to entrap Tristan.
- The assignation by the stream.
- Tristan’s and Iseult’s words hold hidden meaning.
- Mark regrets his suspicions.
- Tristan warns Iseult against the steward and the dwarf.
- King Mark and Melot set another trap.
- Blood on the sheets.
- The trial held in London.
- The Queen’s defence.
- Iseult’s ruse: Tristan the pilgrim..
- Ordeal and acquittal.
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’
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.
‘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
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.
End of Part IX of Gottfried’s Tristan