Gottfried von Strassburg
Tristan: Part VI - Tristan Revealed
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2020 All Rights Reserved
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Last Modified 6th January 2020
- Iseult the Elder divines the truth.
- The queen and her daughter seek the dead dragon.
- Iseult the Fair finds the unconscious Tristan.
- Tristan is recognised, as ‘Tantris’.
- ‘Tantris’ tells his tale and makes a promise.
- Curvenal finds the remains of Tristan’s steed.
- Tristan’s company agree to delay their departure.
- The steward’s claim is heard.
- The steward agrees to a duel.
- Tristan regains his strength.
- Iseult views the splintered sword.
- Iseult unmasks Tristan.
- The queen remembers her pledge.
- Tristan seeks reconciliation.
- Tristan pursues his mission.
- Gurmun agrees that Iseult the Fair should wed King Mark.
- Queen Iseult presents her case against the steward.
- Tristan reveals the proof.
Iseult the Elder divines the truth
NOW, when all the court ladies knew
Of this matter, and realised who
Had slain the dragon, you ne’er saw
Such pain and anguish e’er before.
That lovely maid, Iseult the Fair,
Her heart was filled with despair.
She had ne’er known so vile a day.
And yet she heard her mother say:
‘No, fair daughter, suffer this thing,
For naught so ill the day shall bring.
Whether there’s truth in it or lies,
Show no distress, quell your sighs,
For we shall see it comes to naught.
God will protect us at this court.
Weep not, fair daughter of mine,
Those eyes that so brightly shine
Shall ne’er be reddened, I pray,
By small ills that come their way.’
‘Ah, mother,’ cried the girl, ‘tis woe
To dishonour birth and person so.
Ere he shall have me, I shall find
Some blade and, with fixed mind,
Pierce thus my heart, so lose my life.
He shall find nor woman nor wife
In Iseult, for he’ll see me dead.’
‘No, fair daughter, fear not, I said,
Whate’er the other shall demand
You shall not be at his command;
He’ll not wed you, never mourn,
Not if all the world had so sworn.
Your husband he shall never be.’
The wise queen, as the daylight died,
Skilled in her secret arts, applied
Herself to her fair daughter’s plight,
And saw, in a vision, in the night,
That all had happened differently.
And so, in the dawn light, did she
Swiftly, arising with the day,
Seek out Iseult the Fair, and say:
‘Fair daughter, are you wide awake?’
‘Yes, my gracious mother.’ ‘Then take
Heart now; forgo all grief and fear;
I bring good news that you shall hear.
Twas not the steward slew the dragon,
But some stranger, some other man,
Brought here, by hopes of adventure;
Twas he against the beast did venture.
Up now, for we must hasten there,
And seek the truth of this affair.
Brangwen, arise, and quietly
Have Paranis saddle four steeds,
And tell him we all four must ride,
You and he, my daughter and I,
Forth from out the hidden postern
Where the orchard and the garden
Overlook the fields below;
And quickly now, for we must go!’
The queen and her daughter seek the dead dragon
AS soon as ever this was done
They mounted and rode, as one,
Towards the place where, it was said,
The dragon was slain, and lay dead.
Finding the half-ruined charger,
They looked closely, to discover
The nature of its tack; the trappings
Seemed quite unfamiliar things;
They’d never seen, they were sure,
Such gear in Ireland before;
Yet they assumed that whoe’er
The rider was the steed bore there,
It was he had slain the creature.
Then they rode on a little further,
Finding its carcase too, at last.
Now, this devil’s spawn was vast
So hideous that the three women
The instant they came upon him,
Turned pale as death at the sight.
‘And now I’m certain I was right,’
Said the wise queen to her daughter,
‘Whoever’s steel did this slaughter,
The steward would ne’er have dared;
Against this thing he’d not have fared!
We may now rid ourselves of fear;
And yet the man must still be here,
Iseult, my daughter, whether dead,
Or living and but wounded instead,
Something tells me he is nearby.
If you grant it, then let us try
The wilds about and by God’s grace
We may find him in this place,
And with his help we can end
This heartfelt pain, and defend
Ourselves from all, in a breath,
That weighs on the heart, like death.’
The four agreed, and so took action;
Each rode in a separate direction,
One here, another there did ride,
Searching the place, on every side.
Iseult the Fair finds the unconscious Tristan
NOW it happened, as if twas meant,
As if twas destiny’s intent,
That Fair Iseult, the young princess,
Her eyes the first were to address
A sight that would steal her breath,
Prove her life, and prove her death,
Prove her joy, and prove her sorrow.
A gleam from his helm, that morrow,
Betrayed the presence of the man.
She saw the helm, she saw the man,
And then to her mother she cried:
‘My lady, look, upon this side!
I see it shining, I know not what;
A helm, if I but doubt it not,
If I see truly what glimmers there.’
Her mother, to Iseult the Fair,
Replied: ‘Indeed, I see it too,
God favours us now, I and you,
I think we’ve found the one we sought.’
The cry they gave the others brought,
And all four rode towards the place.
As towards him they drew apace,
They saw an armed man lying there,
And judged him lost beyond all care.
‘He’s dead!’ cried Iseult, one and both,
‘Such is the end of all our hopes.
The steward he has murdered him,
And into the mere then rolled him.’
They dismounted though, and all
Dragged him out, armour and all.
Now Iseult the wise, she felt then
That he still lived, though, yet again,
His life was hanging by a thread.
‘No, no, the man lives still,’ she said,
‘Remove the breastplate let me see
For I yet may find a remedy,
If this be not a mortal wound,
If the knight has merely swooned.’
The three women, each a beauty,
The fair and radiant company,
Unlacing now his body armour,
Disarming the hapless stranger
With hands as white as is the snow.
Revealed the dragon’s tongue below.
‘What have we here?’ cried the queen,
‘This object, what then may it mean?
Brangwen, fair niece, now, what think you?
‘The creature’s tongue, and cut anew
It doth appear.’ ‘Brangwen is right!
The dragon’s tongue, and in plain sight.
Fortune now wakes, may God yet keep
Us in His favour, this man doth sleep,
This knight; Fair Iseult, sweet daughter,
I swear to death that he’ll recover;
This dragon’s tongue has nonetheless
Robbed him of strength and consciousness.’
They raised the visor an inch, and she
Then poured a true potion, gently
Between the man’s lips: ‘As I said,
The man who lies here is not dead,
The fumes the tongue gives off, I vow,
Are swiftly fleeing from him now,
He may soon speak, and ope his eyes.’
So they took the helm, and did prise
It from his brow, he oped them then,
And looked about, once and again.
Tristan is recognised, as ‘Tantris’
WHEN first that heavenly company
He saw about him, those fair three,
He thought: ‘Ah, gracious Lord, I see
That Thou has ne’er forgotten me.
Three lights encompass me, no less,
The brightest this world doth possess,
The joy and life of many an eye,
The reason too for many a sigh,
Comfort and aid to many a one;
Iseult the Fair, the shining sun,
Iseult her mother, the glowing dawn,
And then Brangwen, the nobly born,
Clear as is the bright full moon.’
With this he rallied, and quite soon,
Though faintly, spoke, by and by:
‘Oh, who are you, and where am I?’
Iseult the Fair gazed at his face:
‘If ever such features I might place,
Then Tantris the minstrel lies here!’
The others spoke then: ‘Yes, tis clear;
For so it seems to us also.’
‘Knight, if you can speak, now, do so,’
Said Iseult, ‘to your aid we’ve come.’
‘Ah yes, sweet lady, heavenly one,
I know not why I’m weakened so,
Or why from me my strength did flow.’
‘Are you not Tantris? asked the queen.
‘I am, my lady.’ ‘Then by what means
Did you come here, and whence indeed,
And then, how came about this deed?’
‘Oh, most blessed among women, I
Am yet weak, and my mind thereby
Lacks the power to speak at length
Of all you ask, nor is my strength
Of body equal to such a claim.
Have me conveyed, in God’s name,
To some quiet place where I might
Be granted care, this day and night.
As soon as I own strength and leisure,
I will speak of it, at your pleasure.’
‘Tantris’ tells his tale and makes a promise
SO, the four took hold of Tristan,
Raising him with their own hands,
And set him upon a palfrey,
And led them both away slowly.
Returning by the postern gate,
So none saw him or his state,
Or learnt of their expedition,
The care now and close attention,
That he required for his ease,
They saw to now, ere they did cease.
As for the tongue, of which I spoke,
His armour, and his sword and cloak,
They had gathered up everything,
To the very last strap and ring,
So they had the whole in hand,
Both the harness and the man.
When the following day arrived,
The wise queen sat down beside
Tristan, took his hand, and said:
‘Tantris, who lay there as one dead,
Tell me, by all I’ve done for you,
Now and before (for, it is true,
Twice thus have I saved your life)
And by your faith in your true wife,
When came you here to Ireland?
And how did you slay the dragon?’
‘My lady, I will tell you plain,
But recently it was I came,
Three days ago, it was, today
That we merchants found our way,
Aboard ship, to this fair harbour.
But then a band of men in armour
Came from the town, I know not why;
Yet these men I did pacify,
By making them a gift, or they
Had taken all our goods away,
And our lives, no doubt, as well.
Now we are such men as must dwell
In foreign places, you understand,
And live and trade in every land,
Without our knowing whom to trust,
For our treatment is oft unjust.
Thus I’ve learned that if he can
Do so, it benefits a man,
To be known throughout a place.
Every man should know my face,
For to be known by every man,
Puts profit in a merchant’s hand.
Such then, my lady, was my thought,
I had long known wise folk’s report
Of this dragon, which I might slay,
And gain a wider fame that way,
And so more readily find favour
Among the people, for my labour.’
‘Grace and favour,’ the queen replied.
‘May you receive, while life abide,
And honour too, till your dying day;
Good fortune be it for you, I pray,
And us, that you sailed to our coast.
Now think of what you wish the most,
Whate’er it may be, yet, by and by,
We shall grant it, my lord and I.’
‘Thank you, my lady, then will I
Seek protection for myself, my
Crew, and vessel, and trust that we
Find not our lives and property
Threatened, some day, by doing so.’
‘No, Tantris you shall not; have no
Fear for your life or company,
Think not on that, but trust in me.
On my honour I swear, my hand
I extend to you; for in Ireland
No ill shall befall you, I give
You my solemn word, while I live.
But now grant a request of mine,
For my daughter doth grieve and pine,
Help me in a matter that, I find,
Affects my honour, and ease my mind.’
And then she told him, as I’ve told you,
Of the steward’s arrogance anew,
Concerning the deed, and how he
Had sought Iseult, persistently;
And how he would defend his cause,
According to the kingdom’s laws,
By single combat, if any man
Challenged his lies out of hand.
‘Gracious lady,’ Tristan replied,
‘What you ask shall ne’er be denied.
Twice now have you, with God’s good aid,
Saved my life; all must be repaid;
It is but right I serve you now;
In combat, as in all else, I vow,
While I live, I’m at your service.’
‘May God reward you, dear Tantris:
Gladly I’d have your help in all;
For if events should ere befall
As he wishes, then, in a breath,
Iseult, and I, face living death.’
‘No, my lady, forgo such talk,
Now your protection I have sought,
And have entrusted my property
My life, and my security,
In all respects, to your honour,
Take heart; help me to recover,
And I shall end this; tell me though,
My dear lady, whether you know
If the dragon’s tongue is left to me,
Or, if not, where now it may be?’
‘Indeed I do, for we have it here,
Together with your own war-gear;
I, with Iseult, my fair daughter,
Returned with the thing, together.’
‘That we shall need;’ said Tristan,
‘Yet gracious queen, all our plan
For now is that you cease from care,
Help me regain my strength, for there
Is the means for me to end the matter.’
The two Iseults, one with another,
Queen and princess, saw to his care;
Whate’er might bring him comfort there,
Whate’er might ease and strengthen him,
Those two now lavished upon him,
Seeking to heal the weakened knight.
Meanwhile in sore and wretched plight
Were those of his ship’s company.
A deep despair had gripped full many
For they, not hoping to survive,
Knew not if Tristan were alive,
Having, these two days, heard naught.
Yet others had the rumour brought
Of the dragon’s death, and of a knight,
Who’d surely perished in the fight,
And of his steed there half-consumed.
What else would any have assumed,
When speaking now one with another:
‘Is this not Tristan? There’s no other
It could be; only death, I vow,
Would hinder his return ere now.’
Curvenal finds the remains of Tristan’s steed
THEY argued it amongst them all,
And then they sent out Curvenal
To find the steed, and learn its state,
And this he did, and viewed its fate;
Then Curvenal rode further on,
And, as he did so, came upon
The monstrous carcase, yet he found
No sign in all the wastes around
Of Tristan, nor clothes nor armour,
And thus, uncertain of the rumour,
‘Ah,’ he cried, ‘my lord Tristan,
Do you live yet in this vile land,
Or are you lost? Alas and woe,
Iseult, that ever your beauty so
Was lauded there in our Cornwall!
Alas that your fame and glory all
Was destined, all your loveliness,
To bring the ruin of one, the best,
Before whom many a warrior fell,
One that you pleased all too well!’
Tristan’s company agree to delay their departure
WITH this, he returned, lamenting
To the harbour, and told everything
That he’d found there, to the rest.
The news he brought caused unrest,
For most were saddened but not all;
Some were pleased by Tristan’s fall,
Thus their feelings, and their intent
Were varied and brought discontent.
Plagued by such lack of unity,
The now-divided company
Was prone to whispered enmity.
Undismayed despite uncertainty,
The twenty barons swiftly made
Plans to secure their departure,
Demanding that they wait no longer,
For they, the false twenty I mean,
Proposed to sail that night, unseen
From shore, yet the rest would stay,
And linger there till it was day,
In hopes of learning Tristan’s fate.
Thus were they in a fractious state,
Some would leave, and some remain,
But since the truth was less than plain,
As to whether the man was dead,
It was agreed, once all was said,
That they would wait for two days yet,
Much to the barons’ sore regret.
The steward’s claim is heard
AND, meanwhile, the day had come
Which Gurmun had decided on
To seek true judgment at Wexford,
Of the claim brought by the steward,
Concerning Iseult his daughter.
Gurmun’s nobles, and his neighbours,
His kinsmen, and all at his court,
All those whom he had sought
To gather to him thus to render
Their advice in all this matter,
Were now assembled together.
He met them, and then sought to know
Their views about the claim, for though
It seemed his judgement to make,
Yet his whole honour was at stake.
Indeed, he had requested, as well,
That his dear wife grant her counsel,
And well might Iseult prove his dear,
Since twin gifts did in her appear,
Those of wisdom and of beauty,
And rich in both was she, truly.
And so his most gracious queen
At the gathering now was seen.
Her royal spouse took her aside,
Uncertain how he might decide.
‘What is your counsel? Speak!’ said he,
‘Like death this thing doth weigh on me.’
‘Be well!’ said she, ‘All shall be well,
For I have now good news to tell,
I’ve fathomed its depths, utterly.’
‘What, dear lady, then tell it me,
Speak, for we have little leisure,
Speak what will grant me pleasure.’
‘Our steward, he who claims he slew
The dragon, speaks what is untrue,
For I know who performed the deed,
And I shall prove it, by the Creed,
At the right time; quell your fears;
At the council now you’ll appear.
Say to them that when you’ve seen
And proved the claim you’ll redeem
The oath you swore to all the realm,
Tell them (and thus grasp the helm),
To take their seats. And have no fear,
But command the steward to appear,
And say whate’er he desires to say.
Iseult and I will make our way
To your side, when the time is right,
And all, I swear, shall see the light;
If you allow me, I’ll speak for you,
And for Iseult, and my own self too.
Let that be all for now, I go
To fetch my daughter here, and lo,
We both shall soon return again.’
The queen departed to explain
All to her daughter, while the king
Returned to the palace, pondering.
He took the judgement seat and there,
Gathered around for this affair,
Stood many a lord now on hand,
All the noblemen of that land;
There too many a handsome knight,
Of knights a host, a splendid sight,
Not so much to honour the king,
But curious to view this thing,
For what might come of the rumour,
Every man was led to wonder.
Now when the queen and her daughter
Entered the palace hall together,
They greeted each great lord in turn,
And high praise they both did earn,
In speech and thought, from many
Concerning their grace and beauty,
Though more was sung to the tune
Of the steward’s excellent fortune.
‘Behold!’ they said, and thought the same,
‘Without one true deed to his name,
Till now, this most wretched steward
Is set to gain a fine reward,
This fair maid; for, in the woman
He’ll be granted more than any man
Could hope to look for in a bride;
And then the king’s favour beside.’
The ladies went to meet the king,
Who rose to greet them, assisting
Them, fondly, to seats at his side.
‘Now, steward, speak, ere I decide,
Concerning your request and plea!’
‘My lord the king, most willingly!
I ask, sire, that you follow custom,
And do no wrong to our kingdom.
You swore an oath that he might claim
Your daughter Iseult, upon this same
Deed, whate’er knight in this land
Killed the dragon with his own hand.
This oath has cost full many a life,
Yet, seeking this girl as my wife,
I cared not, and sought the danger
More recklessly than any other,
And so slew the beast, on a day.
Here lies the proof of what I say;
Here is the dragon’s head, behold!
I seized it there, to have and hold.
Come now, sire, redeem your promise.
For a king’s word and oath, in this,
Firm and true must stand, I deem.’
The steward agrees to a duel
‘STEWARD, replied the courteous queen,
‘One who seeks to wed hereafter
As great a prize as is my daughter,
Without deserving it, I say
Doth overstep his mark, this day.’
‘How?’ said the steward, ‘My lady,
You wrong me, to speak so to me.
My lord, who doth decide the case,
Speaks for himself, in all this place.
Let him speak then and reply to me!’
The king answered: ‘Now, my lady,
Speak for yourself, Iseult, and I.’
‘Thank you, my lord, and that shall I.’
The queen said: ‘Steward, your love
Both noble and honest doth prove;
And you, owning a valiant spirit,
Deserve some woman worthy of it.
Yet if one claims the highest prize
Without earning it, in all eyes,
Surely, he doth commit a wrong.
That which to you doth scarce belong,
You have assumed, or so I hear:
The deed’s not yours, it doth appear;
Nor the exploit, nor the manliness;
Or so the rumours would suggest.’
‘You err, my lady, for I have clear
Proof of all that I claim; tis here.’
‘You brought away its head with you,
And that many a man could do,
If he sought to win Iseult thereby,
But she will not be won, say I,
By so insignificant a deed.’
Iseult the Fair spoke: ‘No, indeed!
By no means may I be bought,
Nor my hand gained by less than naught!’
The steward cried: ‘Alas, princess,
How, when I love, can you profess
Such indifference to all I’ve faced
For you, a task by fortune graced?’
‘Your love for me will win you naught,’
Said Iseult, ‘Such I never sought,
And nor shall I return it ever.’
‘Ah yes,’ cried he, ‘tis the nature,
As I well know, of all you women,
Such hearts and minds are you given,
You e’er mistake the bad for good,
Your whole sex; and the good for bad,
That vein runs in you all; tis sad;
You prove contrary in every way,
The foolish are wise men you say,
And lo, the wisest men are fools;
The straight you tangle like the schools,
And what is tangled call that straight;
Whate’er loves you, that you hate,
And what hates you, that you love,
The thread is knotted, as you prove;
Oh, how you love to contradict;
The one who seeks you, you reject,
And yet you’ll seek one who loathes you.
Of all the games one can pursue
Yours is the most perverse of all.
The man who dares to risk his all,
For a woman, must be mad indeed,
Unless the thing is guaranteed.
And yet, I swear, this very day,
Despite all you, and my lady, say,
The game must end quite differently,
Or someone breaks his oath to me.’
To this tirade, the queen replied:
‘Steward, this shall not be denied,
You take a harsh but shrewd view;
To those who judge shrewdly too,
Those attributes that you summon
Are ones woman grants to woman,
And you have expressed them well,
As a ladies’ man, yet I can tell
You know your subject too deeply,
You are drowned in it completely,
Of your manhood it has robbed you,
For, of contrariness, you too
Are far too fond, for it marks you.
So are you knotted, in my view,
And hold likewise to woman’s ways;
You love that which, all its days,
Will love you not, yet you pursue
That which will ne’er pursue you.
Yet such is but our woman’s game,
Then why do you seek out the same?
You are a man, so, God be praised,
Leave us to our womanish ways,
For little good they’ll bring to you.
Keep to the manly way to woo,
And to the lover that loves you,
And pursues you, as you pursue;
That is where profit may be won
When everything is said and done.
Yet you keep telling us, in this,
That it’s Iseult for whom you wish,
Though she herself wants none of it;
Tis her nature, who can change it?
Many a thing she doth deny
She could receive, lets it go by.
Some men she cares for not a whit,
You’re the prime example of it,
Who yet would delight to have her.
But then, like mother like daughter,
I like you little myself, tis true,
Nor, I find, doth Iseult like you,
In this the girl takes after me;
You but waste your love you see.
A lovely girl, a lovely queen,
What value in her were seen,
Were she to welcome any man,
Who desired to seek her hand?
Now, steward, as you have said,
My lord must be prepared to wed
His daughter to you, keep his oath,
But take care that in seeking both,
You justify all that you claim
And neglect naught of that same,
But pursue your case strongly.
I heard one say, perchance wrongly,
That another killed the dragon.
How will you answer such a one?
‘And who might that be?’ ‘I know,
And I, in time, the knight will show.’
‘My lady, there is no such knight!
He who deprives me of my right,
Seeks to rob me of my honour,
By deceit, then in full armour,
He must grant me my redress,
For hand to hand I will address
This story, as the court decree,
Ere I shall go on bended knee!’
‘I swear, and am your surety,’
Said the queen, ‘that he shall be
Revealed to all, the brave man who
This monster of a dragon slew,
And fight you, in single combat,
Three days from now for, as to that,
I cannot as yet present him here.’
The king said: ‘He shall so appear.’
And all the lords gave their consent.
‘Steward, as such is our intent,
And then, tis but a short delay,
Accept fair combat on that day.
Come! Pledge to defend your claim,
And my lady will do the same.’
And thereupon the king did he
Accept from them their surety,
Both parties pledging that the duel
Would take place, a fair battle,
Without fail, on the third day.
And, with this, all went their way.
Tristan regains his strength
THE two women withdrew, and then
Returned to their caring task again,
Of restoring the minstrel’ strength,
By every means, until, at length,
Given their conscientiousness,
Their gentle and tender kindness,
He seemed well and altogether
Of a good and healthy colour.
Iseult gazed upon him closely,
Examining his state, quietly,
Stealing many a hidden glance,
At his body and countenance.
She saw that his limbs revealed
Openly that which he concealed,
His princely self, and whate’er
A maid loves in a man was there,
So she praised it in her thoughts.
And so too her heart was caught,
Viewing his magnificent form,
And he as to the manner born,
And noble in every feature,
Such that it spoke within her:
‘God of Wonders, if there is aught
In which your deeds e’er fell short,
Then it was in this wondrous man,
To whom you granted, as you can,
Such great perfection, and yet he
Must spend his life perilously
Wandering from place to place.
He should rule some noble race,
A kingdom worthy of his deed.
For tis the strangest world indeed,
Yet one Lord that you have willed,
Where so many thrones are filled
By lesser men, yet he holds none.
Surely so fine and true a person,
Should be born to wealth and honour?
Great wrong indeed he doth suffer,
When his rank and situation
Are so ill-matched to his person.’
The girl repeated all this often.
And her mother she spoke then
To her husband about this man,
Telling him of the merchant and,
In all the detail you have heard,
Of his affairs and, in a word,
That he wished for protection,
On each and every occasion
When he might enter Ireland.
All this the king did understand.
Iseult views the splintered sword
MEANWHILE, Iseult told Paranis,
Her page, to make good and polish,
All Tantris’ armour, and attend
To the rest, or replace or mend.
When this had been swiftly done,
And all was laid out in the room,
Bright and shining, and fit for use,
The girl came quietly to amuse
Herself, by gazing at each piece,
Or handling them in pure caprice.
Now it befell Iseult once more,
That she was the first, as before,
To find the torment of her heart,
Ere any other, and by no art
But the workings of destiny,
That come upon folk secretly.
It was her heart that turned her eye
On where his weapon chanced to lie.
Why she should do so I know not,
But in her hands the sword she got,
As children and young maidens do,
And, God knows, many a man too.
The naked blade she then did bare,
And gazed upon it everywhere.
Finding that a fragment was lost,
Inspecting the place, to her cost,
Closely and carefully, she saw
The blade had splintered long before.
‘Heaven,’ she cried, ‘aid and bless!
The broken fragment I possess
May match this very blade; then I
Its edge against the blade must try.’
She fetched the splinter, and did so,
Matching the two, to make a whole,
The steel blade and fragment joining
As if they formed one perfect thing,
As they had done, two years before.
Her heart felt then the icy claw
Of past injury, and her colour
Was altered to a deathly pallor;
Then a flame of pain and anger
Suffused with fire every feature.
‘Alas, Iseult the wretched! Woe
On the blade that dealt a grievous blow.
With it my dear uncle was slain,
Tristan was his enemy’s name.
Who, from Cornwall, carried this?
Who gave it to this man, Tantris?’
She began to muse on the names,
Sounding them to herself, again.
‘Dear Lord,’ she cried, ‘they disturb
Me so, these like-sounding words.
Why could that be?’ and she began
Saying aloud: ‘Tantris, Tristan.’
Trying them over on her tongue
The form of each she thought upon,
Noting the letters were the same,
And by re-ordering each name,
She came on the key to all this.
Forwards she spoke it as ‘Tan-tris’,
Backwards she spoke it as ‘Tris-tan’.
And now was certain of the man.
‘Yes, yes, I see!’ the girl did cry,
‘If this is what the names imply,
My heart divined, some time ago,
All his deception, and told me so.
How clearly thus the truth I saw,
When I admired all that I saw,
Of his behaviour and his person,
And in my heart sought the reason:
It seems he is a nobleman!
And who then but this same Tristan
Would dare to sail, as he has done,
From Cornwall, come seeking welcome,
Here, from his sworn enemies?
Twice have we saved him, foolishly.
Saved him! Naught will do so now,
His blade shall slay the man, I vow!
Come, Iseult, take thus your revenge,
For if the same sword should avenge
You uncle, twere right and fitting!’
Iseult unmasks Tristan
NOW, as Tristan was yet sitting
In his bath, she grasped the blade,
And standing over him displayed
Her weapon: ‘So, Tristan,’ she said
Is that not your name?’ With dread
He answered: ‘No, Tantris, I am,
My lady.’ ‘Tantris and Tristan
You are, I know it, and the two
Prove evil; as Tantris, must you
Pay now for what Tristan has done,
My uncle’s death and yours make one!’
‘No, no, sweet lady,’ Tristan cried,
In God’s good name, forgo your pride;
Think of who you are, and spare me,
If you, who now seek to slay me,
Should earn the name of murderess,
A maid, known for her gentleness,
Iseult the Fair, you are no longer,
Forever dead to trust and honour.
The sun that shines from Ireland
That many a heart has gladdened,
Ah, that sun will rise no more,
Nor shed its light as heretofore!
Woe to those bright hands, see how
Ill that sword becomes them now!’
At this point, the queen did enter:
‘Now, now, what means this, daughter?
She demanded, ‘Do young and fair
Maidens behave as you do there?
Have you forgone all common sense?
Is this true anger, or mere pretence?
Why is the sword there in your hand?’
‘Refresh your grief, this is Tristan!
Ah, mother, here sits the murderer
The very man who slew your brother.
We can avenge the wrong he wrought,
And drive the very blade he brought
Into his breast; tis destiny;
Fate grants this opportunity.’
This is Tristan? How can you know?’
‘I know for certain the thing is so.
This is his sword, look carefully,
And at this fragment, then tell me
He’s not the man; a moment ago
I inserted the steel splinter so
Edge to wretched edge, and oh,
I saw they made one tale of woe.’
‘Ah!’ cried her mother, instantly,
‘You stir so painful a memory;
Alas, that ever my life began!
For if this is indeed Tristan,
How utterly was I deceived
That in the minstrel I believed!’
And now Iseult advanced toward
Tristan, with the upraised sword.
‘Halt, no, Iseult!’ her mother cried,
My own pledge cannot be denied.
You know not what I swore to him.’
‘I care not, this brings death on him.’
‘Mercy, fair Iseult!’ cried Tristan.
‘Oh, you wicked and shameless man,
Replied Iseult, ‘do you seek mercy?
Mercy, indeed, means naught to you.
Here shall I wrest the life from you!’
‘No, daughter!’ the mother spoke again,
‘The matter stands not thus, for then,
By taking vengeance, in this manner,
We break a pledge, incur dishonour.
Be not so swift, for he is here,
And in my own home, not by mere
Chance, for his life and property,
Are in my protection, as you see.
Howe’er the promise came about,
His life is sacred, have no doubt.’
‘Thank you, my lady,’ said Tristan,
Remember, that as an honest man,
Relying thus upon your honour,
I entrusted life and all, forever,
To you, and you did so accept.’
‘You lie!’ the girl cried, and leapt
Towards him, ‘For I know, in this,
To another she made that promise;
Offered no sanctuary to ‘Tristan’,
Not for his goods, nor yet the man!’
Then she flourished the sword again,
And sought that she might prove his bane,
While Tristan cried out, fearfully:
‘Â bêle Iseult, mercî, mercî!’
But her mother was by her side;
The queen did by her pledge abide,
And he had naught at all to fear
From her daughter it doth appear.
Had he been bound in this affair,
Tied to the bath, and Iseult there
Alone with him, yet he would still
Not have died, for she could not kill;
That good, sweet maid, who’d never
Known bitterness or mortal anger,
In her tender heart, how should she
Slaughter a man, mercilessly?
It was because her grief had stirred
Her tongue, to utter an angry word,
That she appeared, outwardly,
As if she would enact the deed,
And would have done so, had she
The heart to act so ruthlessly.
And yet her heart was not so pure
That her acquiescence was assured,
For she yet saw and heard the cause
Of her grief, though she did pause.
She heard her enemy and saw him,
And yet she could not destroy him.
Her tender feelings, as a woman,
Had thwarted her true intention.
They struggled now within her, these
Two oft-conflicting qualities,
Tenderness, and righteous anger,
Which seem to go so ill together.
Thus when fierce anger in her heart
Sought now to tear her foe apart,
Womanly tenderness again
Whispered gently: ‘No, refrain!’
Thus was her own heart torn in two,
The one heart harsh yet tender too.
And so she’d fling the sword aside,
And yet her heart could not decide,
And so she’d take the sword again,
Faced with her anger, then refrain.
She wished to slay, and yet did not,
She wished to act and yet could not.
So within her those two clashed,
Till womanly tenderness, at last,
Overcame the weight of anger,
Despite its strength within her,
Such that her enemy went free;
And Morolt? Unavenged was he.
The queen remembers her pledge
THUS Iseult flung the sword aside,
As, weeping angry tears, she cried:
‘Alas, that I live to see this day!’
Yet her wise mother had her say:
‘My dearest daughter, I too bear
Pain such as weighs on your heart there,
Yet mine is, sadly, crueller still;
God afflicts me, as is His will,
With deeper grief than troubles you.
My brother is dead, that is true,
And that has been my greatest woe,
But now I must fear for you also;
And truly daughter, far deeper
Is this sorrow than the former,
For I love naught as I love you.
Rather than ill come from this duel,
I would renounce it, and so bear
More readily that single care.
Yet because of that wretched man,
Who would wed you, and my plan
To challenge him, we soon must face
Endless dishonour, and disgrace,
You, your father the king, and I,
Unless some champion we espy,
Who may retrieve our happiness.’
Tristan seeks reconciliation
‘I have caused you sorrow, I confess,’
Tristan, from his bath, now cried,
‘And yet, in this, my hands were tied,
For if, as you ought to, you recall
All that did happen in Cornwall,
There was no other choice to make,
For then my own life was at stake;
And no man gladly suffers death,
But fights on to his dying breath.
Yet, be that as it may, and howe’er
Matters stand with the steward there,
Be not concerned, for I will bring
A right true end to everything;
That is if you will let me live,
And death a breathing-space doth give.
Iseult the wise, Iseult the Fair,
I know you both, in this affair,
As good, true, and considerate;
There is a matter I would state,
Of benefit, if you’d forego
Past hostile feelings, and so
Dispel the hatred that you bear
Towards Tristan, for I declare
I have news that may surprise.’
Iseult’s mother, Iseult the wise,
Gazed upon him, flushed with anger,
While her glittering eyes shed bitter
Tears: ‘Ah!’ she said, ‘At last I hear,
And know, that we have Tristan here;
I was unsure till you spoke; though
Now, unasked, you have told me so.
Alas and woe, my lord Tristan,
That I hold your life in my hand,
As I do now, and yet this day
Gain naught from it, in any way!
Yet power is multifarious;
I think I may employ it thus
To triumph o’er an enemy,
Despite my former pledge, for see
It is against a wicked man.
Lord, shall I slay this Tristan?
In truth, I think tis my intent.’
Behold, her niece, the fair Brangwen,
Noble, discerning, with a smile,
Had entered, silently, meanwhile,
And she, all beautifully arrayed,
Now gazed toward the naked blade
And now toward the woeful ladies.
‘How now!’ she cried, ‘what words are these?
Why are you gathered in this way?
What game is it that you three play?
Why do you shed many a tear?
And why should a drawn sword lie here?’
‘See, dear cousin, how we have been
Deceived, but see!’ cried the queen.
‘Brangwen, it was no nightingale
We saved, a serpent we unveiled;
The corn we ground for the dove
Doth nurture for the raven prove;
Dear Lord, our efforts in the end
But healed a foe and not a friend;
Twice have we, with our own hands
Rescued from death this same Tristan!
For it is Tristan who sits there;
Then let him for his death prepare,
Shall I avenge Morholt? Advise
Me, cousin; you are ever wise.’
‘No, my lady; no, do not so!
Your mind and heart both tell you no.
You are too good to consider
Such a deed; the crime of murder
Is beyond you; and to this one,
You extended your protection.
Dear God, tis never your intent!
You should dwell on what he meant,
And do what concerns your honour.
Honour then would you surrender
For vengeance on some enemy?’
‘What shall I do then? Counsel me.’
‘Reflect, my lady; meanwhile allow
The man to leave his bath for now,
Let’s seek what course may prove best.’
And so the three retired to rest,
In private, and discuss the matter.
‘Listen,’ said Iseult the Elder,
‘Tell me what news he might bring.
He claims if we prove forgiving,
And forgo our old hatreds, he
Will tell all. What could that be?’
‘Since we know not, then my advice,’
Said Brangwen, ‘is that we think twice
Ere we display hostility,
Or treat him as an enemy.
And wait to know what he intends.
Some good to you it may portend,
Honour to both of you may bring.
Set your sails as blows the wind.
Who knows? His coming to Ireland
May yield advantage to this land.
Spare him for now, for he shall be,
Thanks be to God, the means we see
Whereby this false steward’s lies
May be revealed to all men’s eyes.
God helped us in our search, indeed,
For did not his true guidance lead
Us to Tristan? And had He not,
Death had proved the minstrel’s lot.
And then, young Iseult, this affair
Had left a greater weight of care
Upon your shoulders; so be kind,
For if doubt should grip his mind
He will take flight, and who indeed
Could blame him, in time of need?
Be careful in your choice of words,
And treat him well, as he deserves.
Thus I counsel; do as I’ll do:
For Tristan’s as noble as you,
His is both well-bred and courtly,
Owns to every fine quality,
So, whate’er your thoughts may be,
Treat him well, and courteously.
And, whate’er his intentions are,
None would have journeyed so far
Without some serious aim in mind,
A mission of some weight, you’ll find.’
The ladies rose to seek their man,
And came to where they found Tristan
Sitting on a couch, from which he
Leapt to meet them, courteously,
Then threw himself at their feet.
Kneeling there, in that complete
State of humble supplication,
Yet, in accord with his station,
He then addressed them, all three;
‘Mercy, dear ladies, grant mercy!
Let me be spared for journeying
To your land, since news I bring,
To your honour, and benefit!’
At this, the radiant trio saw fit
To look away, and with each other
Exchange glances. Thus, together,
Stood the ladies, and thus knelt he.
Till Brangwen spoke out: ‘My lady,
The knight has knelt there too long.’
The queen’s reply was swift and strong:
‘What would you have me do with him?
For my heart, in regard to him,
Is not inclined to call him friend;
How can the matter rightly end?’
‘Well, dear lady,’ Brangwen replied,
‘If you both would have me decide,
Though I know that you scarce can find
A way to forgive, in heart or mind,
Past injury, yet let him live,
And so his news the man may give,
Perchance to your benefit and his.’
‘Be it so,’ they replied, to this,
And told him to rise to his feet.
Tristan pursues his mission
THEN they all four took their seat.
Once pledges had been duly given,
Tristan now disclosed his mission.
‘My lady,’ he said, ‘if you will be,
Hereafter, a good friend to me,
Within two days, I can ensure,
Straightforwardly what is more,
Your daughter’s marriage to a king,
One most pleasing in everything,
Well-fitted, thus, to be her lord,
Handsome, his manners unflawed,
A knight illustrious in the field,
Skilled in the use of lance and shield,
Born to a line of noble kings,
And I’ll say, among other things,
A king far wealthier than her father.
‘Indeed,’ said the queen, ‘whatever
Was asked, I would willingly do,
If all that you speak here is true.’
‘My lady’ continued Tristan,
‘Firm guarantees are here to hand,
If, after true reconciliation,
You have them not, withdraw protection
From me and mine, and work my death.’
‘Brangwen, now tell me, in a breath,
What you advise,’ said the wise queen.
‘His offer seems good to me; be seen
To act accordingly, this I’d counsel.
All the doubts that you had dispel,
Rise now and kiss him, both of you.
And I must play peacemaker too,
Though a queen I may not be, yet
Morolt was kin, do not forget.’
And so they kissed him then, all three,
Though there was some uncertainty
In the daughter’s mind, and she
Delayed long ere she would agree.
Now that these four had made their peace,
Tristan once more addressed the ladies:
‘God in his goodness knows that I
Ne’er felt such joy; behind me lie
The dangers I divined, that might
Have undone a far braver knight,
While hoping to win your favour;
Now more than mere hope I savour;
I’ll banish care, do you the same.
From Cornwall to Ireland I came,
On your behalf, as you now hear,
For after my first voyage here,
When you brought about my healing,
Your praise I never ceased to sing
To my lord Mark, and so I brought
The king to turn his every thought,
Towards Iseult the Fair, until
To marry her is all his will;
Though he was in two minds at first,
For then he feared the very worst,
Your anger and your enmity,
And then it was his wish that he
Should e’er remain without a wife,
That when he parted from this life,
I might prove his only heir.
Yet I said that was not my care,
And so in the end he relented,
And, more than that, he consented
To my leading here an expedition;
And that is why I killed the dragon,
And now that you have healed me,
Shown me kindness and courtesy,
Iseult the Fair shall be the queen,
Of Cornwall and England I mean.
And now you know why I am here.
And yet, lest I have aught to fear,
From this thrice-blessed company,
More than blessed indeed by all three,
Let all this be our secret still!’
‘Yet tell me Tristan, if you will,
May I tell the king, and occasion
A public reconciliation?’
‘Indeed, my lady,’ cried Tristan,
‘He’s every right to know our plan,
But let me take no harm thereby.’
‘Fear not my lord, for this say I,
That all such dangers now are past.’
The ladies then withdrew, at last,
And hastened to a private chamber,
There to welcome and consider
His good fortune and cleverness,
All that had led to his success,
In every measure of this affair,
And praised him, the mother there,
In one way, Brangwen in another.
Said the daughter to her mother:
‘Now hear, how I found out the man
Was, without a doubt, Tristan.
Once I had puzzled out the sword,
I turned all my thoughts toward
The two names, ‘Tantris’ and Tristan,
Examining them close at hand,
And, as I uttered both of them,
Realised what they had in common,
The letters in them were the same.
No more there were, I say again,
Than those in ‘Tantris’ and Tristan,
For both names own to a like plan.
Now, mother, come divide ‘Tantris’
Into a tan and then a tris,
Then say the tris before the tan
And you will speak the name Tristan.
Next say the tan before the tris
And you will say, again, ‘Tantris’.
‘God bless me,’ the queen exclaimed,
‘What set you thinking of that same?’
Gurmun agrees that Iseult the Fair should wed King Mark
WHILE the three women, together,
Were in discussion on this matter,
Queen Iseult summoned the king
And once she knew he was listening,
Said: My lord, we three require
Something that is our joint desire,
And if you see fit to comply
We shall all benefit, say I.’
‘Whate’er you wish, that too I wish,
And you shall have your way in this.’
‘Is the matter wholly in my hands?’
Asked the queen. ‘As you command.’
‘Thank you, my lord, I’m satisfied.
I have Tristan here, who defied
And slew my brother, yet I wish
That you receive him and, in this
Do grant to him your true favour,
For his mission is one of honour,
Tis that of reconciliation,
Binding our nation to his nation.’
‘Truly, I leave this thing to you,
For such would be my desire too,
And without the least hesitation,
For Morolt was your close relation,
And this concerns you more than I.
Morolt was your brother, whereby
The matter is your affair not mine.
If you the injury would consign
To the past, likewise I shall too.’
Iseult now told the tale anew,
As Tristan had relayed it all,
And the king was pleased to call
The offer good, all he had heard:
‘Ensure now that he keeps his word!’
Queen Iseult did, at once, command
Brangwen to bring my lord Tristan,
Who came at once and, on entering,
Threw himself down before the king.
‘Mercy, your Majesty! cried he.
‘Rise up, lord Tristan, come, kiss me.’
Said the king: ‘Loth though I may be
To renounce the feud, since these three
Ladies wish it, then so do I.’
‘And shall this truce of ours, thereby
Include my king, and both his lands?’
‘Indeed it shall, my lord Tristan.’
Now, as their mutual truce began,
The queen took Tristan by the hand,
And seated him beside her daughter,
And bid him tell of his adventure.
So the tale he told, before the king,
From start to end, how everything
Had fallen out, of King Mark’s suit,
His voyage, the dragon, its pursuit.
Then the king asked: ‘My lord Tristan,
What guarantees have you to hand?
How may I be sure of this matter?’
‘Easily, sire, with me my master
Sent his barons; whate’er you wish
That we can confirm, shall seal this.’
The king departed, while the four,
The ladies and Tristan, once more
Conversed together, then Tristan
Turned to Paranis, the queen’s man:
‘My friend,’ said he, ‘to the harbour;
There you’ll find my ship at anchor,
Then seek, but do so covertly,
Curvenal, among my company,
And tell him, but in a whisper,
That he must come to his master.
To any other man, say naught;
Bring here, to me, the one you sought.’
The page performed his mission, so
Quietly that none else did know.
When Paranis brought Curvenal,
To the chamber, to meet them all,
Only the queen inclined her head
In greeting, for the page had led
Before them one who, to their sight,
Was not dressed as befits a knight.
Now Curvenal, on seeing Tristan
Safe in these fair ladies’ hands,
All talking pleasantly together,
Addressed him in the French manner,
Courteously: ‘Â beau douce sire,
My fair sweet lord, in God’s name,
What do you here, in this same
Heavenly paradise, while we
Are given to sore anxiety?
We all thought that we were lost,
And you, my lord, had paid the cost
Of your enterprise; how sorry
And fearful and how melancholy
You’ve made us! This very morn
The crew were grieving, forlorn,
Mourning you, thinking you dead,
Wishing to leave an ill roadstead,
And are resolved to sail this eve!’
‘Yet here he is, both safe and happy,
Said the queen, ‘and they were wrong.’
Tristan addressed him in Breton:
‘Go, Curvenal, and tell them there
That all goes well in this affair,
And I’ll succeed in the mission
That they and I were sent upon.’
And then, as fully as he could,
He told him how the matter stood.
Now once the story he had told
Of his efforts, and the whole
Tale of his good-fortune, he said:
Go swiftly now to the roadstead
And tell the knights and barons
They must be ready every one
Tomorrow morn, neatly dressed
In the finest clothes they possess
And then await my messenger.
Once he reaches them however
They must ride here to the court;
And by then let me be brought
My small chest of valuables,
If you would but take the trouble,
To send it with my clothes, the best,
And dress yourself, with the rest,
As befits a true knight in his pride.’
Curvenal bowed, then left his side.
Brangwen asked: ‘Who is that man?
For he truly seemed, when he began,
To think this a paradise outright:
Is he your man then, or a knight?’
‘Howe’er he may seem to your sight,
He is both my man, and a knight.
Yet let there be doubt that never
Has the sun shone on any better,
Nor a truer friend has there been.’
‘Then blessed be he,’ said the queen,
And the princess, and then Brangwen,
That courteous well-bred girl. Now, when
Curvenal arrived at the harbour
And Tristan’s message did deliver,
As he had been instructed to,
He relayed the tale to the crew,
And spoke of Tristan’s success;
And all were filled with happiness,
Like wretches, condemned to death,
Who are yet reprieved in a breath;
But many were happier with peace,
Than with this Tristan’s victories,
While the barons turned once more
To envious slanders as before,
Calling his acts of bravery
The products of mere sorcery;
And thus they murmured together:
‘Is it really any wonder
That he such wonders can achieve?
Lord, how else can one believe,
In the success that he doth make
Of all he seeks to undertake!’
Queen Iseult presents her case against the steward
NOW the day of the duel had come,
And many nobles did thus assume
Their rightful place before the king
In his hall, with a deal of talking,
Among the young, as to who might
Defend Iseult’s cause, in the fight.
The question was tossed to and fro,
But the truth of it no man did know.
Meanwhile Tristan had received
His chest of valuables, and retrieved
A handsome belt from it for each lady,
As fine as any that there might be,
Such that no queen or empress saw
So pleasing a gift, or ever wore
A finer, and this chest was filled
To the lid, so that there spilled
From it fair coronets and rings,
Clasps and purses, pretty things,
Such that in your wildest fancy
You’d ne’er dream aught so lovely.
Yet from it all no more was taken,
Except that Tristan, as a token,
Seized a chaplet, clasp and belt,
That suited him, or so he felt.
‘Fair ladies, all the lovely three,
Accept this as a gift from me;
This chest, and all within, review,
Then do with it as it pleases you.’
He departed, to change his clothes,
And dress himself, for now he chose
To present himself as a proud knight
Should do, in all that, to men’s sight,
Showed his superiority,
All that enhanced him perfectly.
And then he re-joined the ladies,
Who gazed at him and, secretly
Considered him, handsome and blessed.
To themselves, the three confessed
‘Truly, here’s a manly creature;
For his clothes, and then his figure,
Between them they declare the man;
Indeed the two go hand in hand.
He courts good-fortune certainly.’
Tristan had summoned his company;
They took their places in the hall,
One by one, and observed by all,
The whole gathering inspecting
The fine clothes they were wearing.
And some said that ne’er so many
Had shown in such brave finery.
Yet the barons said not a word,
And naught that any of them heard
Was understood, for none among
Them but Tristan spoke the tongue.
Then the king sent a messenger
For the queen and her daughter.
‘Iseult,’ she said, ‘now, we must go!
Lord Tristan, I shall let you know
When to enter, and then do so;
Walk in a stately manner though,
Let Brangwen here take your hand,
Then follow us, you understand.’
‘Indeed I do, and will, fair queen.’
For thus he intended to be seen.
So Queen Iseult, the bright dawn
Led in her sun, the light of morn,
The wonder of all Ireland,
Iseult the Fair as, hand in hand,
They glided through the hall together,
The fair sun keeping pace ever
With the dawn; the fair daughter
In step with that of her mother;
The girl so pleasing overall,
So well-formed, slender, tall,
As if Love formed her alway
To act as Love’s bird of prey,
Shaped her like a young falcon
The crown of bodily perfection.
She wore a robe and a mantle
Of samite, dyed a royal purple,
Cut in the French fashion so
That where the brocade did flow
Down her sides towards the waist
It was gathered, held in place,
By a tasselled belt that hung
As it should, on one so young.
The robe clung to her intimately,
Fitting closely to her body,
Nowhere loose, falling smoothly
Throughout its length, and gently
Flowing, free, about the knees,
In a way that doth ever please.
Her mantle it was lined within,
Heraldically, with white ermine,
Patterned with black-tipped tails,
A perfect length, and the details:
It was edged in front with sable,
Finely trimmed, but serviceable,
Not too narrow and not too wide,
A perfect measure on either side,
The black sable blended with grey,
Grey and black mixed in such a way
As to be indistinguishable.
And all along the seam, the sable
Curved above the ermine there;
They, as ever, a well-matched pair.
A tiny loop of fine white pearls
Served as a clasp, the lovely girl
Placing her left thumb in the string;
With her right hand, she did bring
The mantle together, as you know
One does, to keep a mantle close,
Holding it with but two fingers;
From here where the last fold lingers
It hung freely, and fell, revealing,
This or that; I mean the lining
Or the mantle, outside or in;
The two concealed there, within,
That which Love had formed so finely,
Both in spirit and in body.
Needle and fabric, ne’er did see
So sweetly woven a tapestry,
As this living form did provide.
Hawk-like glances from either side
Flew thick as snow towards her,
And yet I think Iseult, the daughter,
Seized many a man’s heart as prey.
Upon her head, a coronet
Of gold was elegantly set,
Slender, wrought with art and skill,
Encrusted with rare gems, at will,
Wondrous stones, highly-prized,
Despite their being small in size,
Emeralds, hyacinths, and rubies,
Sapphires, and chalcedonies,
The finest gems in all the land,
So finely set no goldsmith’s hand,
Has worked with greater artistry;
Gold on gold gleamed dazzlingly,
The circlet and her golden hair,
Vying with one another there.
Never was eyesight so discerning,
Except it saw the gems glittering,
As to perceive the circlet there,
So indistinguishable the hair
From the circlet’s gleaming gold,
For both a glowing light did hold.
So Iseult with Iseult did enter,
The daughter following the mother,
And rid of all anxiety.
Her pace was regal and yet free,
Her steps neither short nor long,
As she moved amongst the throng,
But twixt the two, in even measure.
A confident and pleasing figure,
Erect as a sparrow-hawk, and sleek
As is a well-preened parakeet;
And then she gazed about her now,
As a falcon might upon the bough,
Keeping a calm lookout, its eyes
Not desperate to seek a prize,
But rather sweeping steadily,
Smoothly, yet perceptively,
Gazing gently, yet so firmly,
That not a one there who did see
Those two mirrors fair and bright
Felt aught but wonder and delight.
The light of this joy-giving sun
Shed its brightness on everyone;
Gliding past, beside her mother,
Gladdening the hall about her.
Thus the pair extended greeting,
The daughter’s bow completing
The mother’s words of salutation,
And in this pleasing occupation,
The role of each was crystal clear.
One spoke, the other bowing here,
After her mother’s words, and so
They courteously about did go.
Now, when the two Iseults, the one
The dawn, and the other the sun,
Took their seats beside the king,
The steward, eager in everything,
Sought for the ladies’ champion;
Who might the fellow be, the man
Here as their legal defender?
And yet he received no answer.
So he gathered his kinsmen who
Supported him, no small few,
And went to stand before the king,
He who was to decide this thing.
‘Sire, behold,’ he said, ‘here am I,
Judicial contest I claim, and I
Would view now the goodly knight
Who mars my honour and my right.
I have kinsmen here and friends,
To call upon; if the case depends
On clear proof, then I have it here,
So strong that, since the law is clear,
Justice must now uphold my plea,
And so deliver the prize to me.
I fear no force, or arms, I own,
Unless it be your power alone.’
Tristan reveals the proof
‘STEWARD,’ if you seek this duel yet,
Said Queen Iseult, ‘then I regret,
Your desire, for I assure you,
Uncertain as to what to do,
If you would let the matter rest,
Iseult, my daughter, be blessed
By your renouncing this affair,
It will benefit you, I swear,
As much as it will my daughter.’
‘Renounce the thing?’ cried the other,
‘I think you’d ne’er do that same,
Abandoning a winning game,
My lady for, despite your offer,
I shall pass the trial with honour.
I’d prove a fool, it seems to me,
If I were, after all this, freely,
To cease my efforts in the matter.
My lady, I would win your daughter,
That is my whole desire in this;
If you believe I’ve done amiss,
And twas your man slew the dragon,
Then summon him now, and have done!’
‘Indeed, I hear you,’ said the queen,
‘It shall be so, as will be seen,
For I now turn to my own side.’
Then she drew Paranis aside:
‘Go now!’ she said, ‘Bring me the man.’
At this the barons, on either hand,
Gazed at each other, and a murmur
Rose, as they questioned in a whisper
As to who her champion might be,
Though none knew of a certainty.
And now the noble Brangwen,
The lovely full moon, once again
Made an entrance, with Tristan,
Leading him gently by the hand.
The well-bred girl there did glide,
Keeping a calm pace, by his side,
In person, and in composure,
Delightful beyond all measure;
In spirit noble, proud, and free.
He escorted her with dignity,
Tristan, marvellously blessed
With every quality possessed
By a chivalrous man, whate’er
Did a true knight thus declare;
His figure, and then his finery,
Were both in perfect harmony,
Proclaiming the courtly spirit,
For he wore, as was his habit,
Exotic clothes, of fine brocade,
Rarely, and wondrously made,
Unlike those handed out at court,
And then gold-thread, of the sort
To richly enhance a garment,
Was more than commonly present,
Such that you could barely trace
The silk beneath, it did so efface
The cloth, with gold wrought so fair,
So deeply sunk in gold thread there,
And there again, and thus throughout,
You could scarce make the fabric out.
Over all this there lay a net
Of tiny pearls, its meshes set
A hand’s breadth apart, through which
Glowed the workings, gold-enriched.
The lining was of silk, dyed yet
More purple than the violet,
And quite as purple as the iris.
This gold brocade yet fitted his
Form as smoothly as tis thought,
Amongst all those to be sought,
The finest cloth should ever do.
This handsome man it suited too,
Most handsomely and had won
His approval, for this occasion.
On his head a chaplet he wore,
A wondrous piece of skill, and more,
One that shone like candle-glow
From which the light of gems did flow,
And topazes, and bright rubies,
All shining there like fair stars.
Bright and clear, this work of art
Cast a ring of brightness there,
Around his head, above his hair.
So he paced through the crowd,
Richly arrayed, erect and proud.
His bearing masterful and princely,
His whole array splendid in every
Little detail, so that the nobles all
Made way as he came through the hall.
Now those from Cornwall saw him,
And gathered, in joy, as Brangwen
And Tristan advanced, hand in hand,
Welcoming them, maiden and man,
And leading him, in full splendour
To do the king appropriate honour;
The king and the royal ladies
Showing Tristan honour equally,
Rising to greet him, courteously,
While he bowed low to the three.
They welcomed his company too,
In sovereign style, as was their due.
Then all the knights gathered about,
And welcomed these guests, without
Yet knowing aught of their mission,
While many a Cornish baron
Now recognised his kith or kin,
Sent to Ireland for they had been
Part of the tribute; many a man
Gratefully to some relative ran,
While shedding tears of happiness,
Of pain and gratitude in excess,
Joy mixed with sorrow, I avow,
Though I’ll say naught of it now.
The king took Tristan and Brangwen
And as they arrived, seated them,
On one side, the former nearer,
The two Iseults upon the other,
While all Tristan’s companions
And the many knights and barons
Took their seats before and below
The tribune, in the great hall, so
The judge and others were in view,
And they could see what might ensue.
Now on the subject of Tristan
There came from many a man
Comments, and questions also,
For, as to that, you must know,
Founts of praise began to well
And flow; I know, and will tell,
How they lauded all they saw
Extolling his figure and more,
Paying him many a compliment,
Gracious in detail and extent.
They spoke indeed in this manner:
‘When did God form, or any see,
A man more suited to chivalry?
How well-endowed for a fight,
He is, how easily this knight
Shall enter lists and take the prize!
How rich his garments, to our eyes,
And how beautifully planned!
You ne’er saw such here in Ireland,
Clothes fit for an emperor to wear,
And his company so princely there.
Whoe’er he is this lord must be,
Of wealth and spirit, full and free.
Much of such talk filled the place,
While the steward pulled a sour face.
Silence was ordered in the hall,
And this was now obeyed by all.
None spoke a word or e’en a part,
‘Steward,’ said the king, ‘stand apart,
And say what deed it is you claim.’
‘I slew the dragon,’ said that same,
‘Tis true, Sire.’ The stranger rose:
‘Sir, you did not. ‘I did, sir; so
Shall I prove, and in this place.’
‘What evidence shall prove your case?
Asked Tristan.’ ‘The dragon’s head,
That I have brought here in its stead.’
‘Your Majesty,’ Tristan replied,
‘Have the thing examined inside,
Since he would by it prove a lie;
And if the tongue is there, say I,
Then I’ll renounce my position,
And so withdraw my opposition.’
So the dragon’s head was opened,
But naught such being present, then
Tristan sent men to bring the tongue.
My lords; he cried ‘from the dragon
I took the tongue; now, come see.’
That it was so all did agree,
Except the steward who, as before,
Denied it, but could show no more
Proof, and so began to stammer,
And tremble in his limbs, and totter,
Unable to speak a word, or stay
Silent, for he had naught to say,
And yet knew not how to behave.
‘Lords, one and all,’ declared Tristan,
‘Consider the deeds of this man,
For when I had killed the dragon
And afterwards cut out the tongue,
And had carried it away, he came,
And slew the monster once again!’
Replied the lords: ‘Little honour
Can a man gain in that manner!
For howe’er any man might boast,
Tis clear that he hath done the most
Who came before; to take the tongue,
He’d first of all to slay the dragon!’
This was agreed amongst them all.
Now, once the verdict so did fall,
And the steward’s case was lost,
Tristan said: ‘Now, Your Majesty,
Recall your pledge, and honour me,
I have a claim upon your daughter.’
The king replied, ‘I seek no other,
Than that to which we have agreed.’
‘The steward cried: ‘My lord, give heed;
Say not so, for some deception
Lies behind this explanation,
Some cunning or some trickery.
Ere I am robbed thus, unjustly,
Of my honour, by this knight,
I first must lose it in the fight;
A duel, and one fairly fought,
I demand; grant what I sought!’
‘Now truly,’ said Iseult the wise,
Steward your quarrel is unwise.
With whom now do you mean to fight?
This gentleman is in the right,
And to Iseult he now has claim,
Only a child would fight again
When there is naught here left to win.’
‘Why naught, my lady?’ asked Tristan,
‘For I would rather fight the man
Than have him claim that we won
By cunning, as he might have done.
My lord, my lady, if you proclaim
That he must arm, I’ll do the same.’
Now as soon as the steward saw
That this thing would lead to war,
He gathered to him kith and kin
And asked them to counsel him;
Yet they, appalled by the affair,
Offered him but scant help there.
‘Steward, they were prompt to say,
You brought here an ill suit this day;
Behold, it has not ended well.
What then could be our counsel?
What is this duel you would fight?
If you choose to oppose the right,
Your very life you well may lose.
No honour’s here if you thus choose.
Lose your honour, and lose your life,
Where is the reason in such strife?
Our counsel is that this knight here,
And in this we are more than clear,
Would prove your mortal enemy;
And if you sought this victory
Instead twould be the death of you.
Twas the devil’s counsel robbed you
Of your honour, yet keep your life,
And ask not Iseult for your wife,
But seek instead to end the case.’
‘What would you do in my place?’
Asked the steward. ‘Here’s our advice,
Return within and, if you are wise,
Declare that concerning your claim
Your friends suggest you drop that same.
And you agree, and tis your wish.’
The steward now accepted this.
He returned, and then conceded
That his followers had pleaded
For him to end the suit, and he
Wished rid of it, and did agree.
‘Steward, said the queen, ‘for one,
I ne’er thought the day would come,
When you would concede the game
Ere you’d contested it; for shame!’
Through the palace there was laughter
At this ending to the matter;
On the steward they all played
As though he were a fiddle; they made
Game of him, as he were a ball,
Tossed, to and fro, about the hall;
The shame indeed was hard to bear,
The mockery amongst all there,
But so that tale its way did wend
To ridicule, and there did end.
End of Part VI of Gottfried’s Tristan