Gottfried von Strassburg

Tristan: Part XII - Iseult of the White Hands

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

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Last Modified 6th January 2020


Tristan wins martial honour at Arundel

THERE was a duchy, next the sea,

Called Arundel, twixt Brittany

And England, its duke old and grey,

Yet brave and courtly. The tales say

That his neighbours had occupied

His land and his forces had defied.

At sea, and throughout the country,

He’d sought to curb this enemy,

Yet with scant means so to do.

He had a son, a daughter too,

Flawless, in body and mind,

Perfect among humankind.

The son was a perfect knight,

Experienced in many a fight,

Who gave himself to chivalry,

And had, with many a victory,

Won honour amongst his peers,

Throughout nigh-on three years.

His sister was most beautiful,

Unwed, and known to the people

As Iseult of the White Hands,

Iseult, that is, als blansche mains.

The son was Kaedin li frains,

Breaker of Lances, and their father

Duke Jovelin, Karsie their mother.

When Tristan heard, in Parmenie,

Of the warfare in that fair country

Of Arundel, he thought, once more,

To ease his woes as he had before,

So went forth to fight in Arundel,

And, landing, made for their castle

Of Karke, where, as he knew,

Lay the Duke, whom he would view.

The lord and his men greeted Tristan

As one does a most welcome man

Of warlike worth, for he was known

The story says, as one who’d shown

His prowess throughout all the isles,

Against which the wide Ocean piles,

And pleased they were at his coming.

The Duke knew of his skill and learning,

Accepting his advice and counsel,

Placing him in command as well

Of both his forces and his honour,

And granting Tristan all his favour.

Now the Duke’s fair son, Kaedin,

Had soon become attached to him,

And thought of everything he could

That might do Tristan great good,

Redound to his credit, and so all

He owned to, was at Tristan’s call,

While these two now vied together

To serve and thus outdo each other.

They swore to be dear friends for life,

And to stay loyal midst the strife,

And kept that oath, friend to friend,

As true companions, to the end.

Tristan, who was the stranger there,

Took Kaedin with him to confer

With Jovelin, and questioned how

Their enemies were ordered now,

And from which quarter came the first

Incursion, and from whence the worst.

Once he knew their dispositions,

All the foe’s secure positions,

Tristan, with his friend Kaedin,

Planted a small force within

A strong castle the Duke possessed,

Which they thought might serve them best,

For in the enemy’s path it lay.

Their strength was not so great that they

Might give battle in open country,

Though they harried the enemy

Threatening some camp or village,

Harming the foe, by fire and pillage,

Attacking by night, most stealthily.

Thus Tristan sent to Parmenie,

To his dear retainers, while he fought,

Telling Rual’s sons that he sought

Aid in battle, as ne’er before,

And asking that they now assure

Him of their great worth and honour,

By adding to his present power.

Five hundred splendid knights they brought,

As fine as any that might be sought,

Fully armed, with much-needed stores.

Once Tristan heard how his new cause

Was to be bolstered, he rode outright

To meet the force and then, by night,

Escort their company through that land,

All secretly, you must understand,

Only those of his army knowing,

That helped in this undertaking.

Then at Karke he left half the men,

Commanding them to bar it again,

Ignore those who offered battle,

But to occupy the place, until

They knew that he and Kaedin,

Had called for a battle to begin,

When they must swiftly take the field,

And, once the enemy were revealed,

Attack, and chance their fortune there.

With the rest he did then repair

To his chosen castle and, by night,

Concealed this fresh force out of sight

Within its walls, ordering the men

To avoid showing themselves again,

Like those at Karke, night or morn.

Tristan set out to choose, by dawn

A force of but a hundred men,

The rest to stay behind; he then

Asked Kaedin to tell each knight,

Remaining, to prepare to fight

If he were pursued to the wall;

And then, whatever might befall,

Join those of Karke, and bring them aid;

Then led his men on an armed raid.

He entered enemy country,

Plundering, burning openly,

Attacking every settlement

And every stronghold as he went.

Before nightfall the news had sped,

Throughout, that Kaedin had led

A bold incursion into their land,

Striking swiftly on every hand,

Rousing their leaders and advisors,

These being, Rugier of Doleise,

Alongside Nautenis of Hante,

And also Rigolin of Nantes,

To gather their forces by night,

And ready the ranks for a fight.

Thus, before noon, on the next day,

The massed knights were on their way,

Headed for Karke, four hundred men,

Preparing to lay it siege again,

As they had often done before.

But Tristan and Kaedin now bore

Down on them, and, despite the foe

Thinking themselves secure and no

Attacker likely to come near,

Their enemies did soon appear,

Driving at them from every side,

Eager to see their lances tried.

As soon as the four hundred found

Their enemies close, and all around,

They swiftly turned about to fight;

Bright lance flew at lance outright,

Steed against steed, then man on man

They clashed, struggling hand to hand.

Here raged Tristan and Kaedin,

There Rugier and Rigolin,

And whate’er a fighting man desired,

To whate’er his sword or lance aspired,

He found it there. The war cries rose.

Karke and Arundel!’ from those,

From these, ‘Schevelier Hante,

Doleise, e Nantes!

Those in the castle, seeing the fight,

Now galloped forth, a welcome sight,

To strike the enemy on the flanks,

And, pressing deep into their ranks,

Drove them here and there, each knight

Engaged in a most bitter fight.

They raged through the enemy then,

Like fierce wolves in a sheep’s pen.

Tristan and Kaedin drove harder,

Heading for the leaders’ banner.

Soon Rugier, and Rigolin,

And Nautenis were gathered in;

And indeed there were not a few

Lost to them, from their retinue.

Kaedin and my lord Tristan,

Now ending it as they began,

Struck, felled, or captured the foe,

Dealing death, wounds, and woe.

When those few who resisted saw

That they could fight on no more,

They saved themselves, as best they might

By some ruse, or by sudden flight;

Flight, capture, death; twas all one

To their foe, with their battle won.

With scant resistance on that side,

And the prisoners lodged inside

The stronghold, Tristan and Kaedin

Reeled their remaining forces in,

And returned to the enemy lands.

All of these fell into their hands;

Goods, and towns, and fortresses,

Were forfeit, and, once possessed,

The spoils back to Karke were sent.

Now they’d achieved their intent,

Taken vengeance, and occupied

The whole land, newly pacified,

Tristan sent all his countrymen

Back to Parmenie, once again

Thanking them for all their aid,

And the courage they’d displayed,

And for the honour, to excess,

They’d granted him, with this success.

Wise Tristan then gave good counsel

That the noble captives in the castle

Once returned to Jovelin’s favour,

Should accept from him whichever

Of their fiefdoms he might choose,

And be pardoned, whate’er their views.

This they welcomed, and so swore,

On oath, that they would feud no more,

Nor seek redress, in enmity;

After which oath they all went free.

Tristan admires Iseult of the White Hands

FOLLOWING his campaign, Tristan,

Who had pacified the enemy land,

Praised and honoured at the castle

Of Karke and throughout Arundel,

Was acclaimed at the court as well,

And all men heeded his commands.

Now, Iseult of the White Hands,

Kaedin’s sister, the fairest prize

Of that duchy, noble and wise,

Had so conquered the folk there,

That she was lauded everywhere,

So that none could speak of aught

But the reputation she had wrought.

When Tristan gazed at her beauty,

It added to his melancholy;

His old heartache was renewed,

As woeful memories he pursued

Of that bright sun of Ireland,

Iseult the Fair; and so Tristan

Grew despondent at the name,

Both women sharing the same,

Such that the people in that place,

Could read his heart’s pain in his face.

And yet that pain he held most dear;

He clasped it to him, kept it near;

He found it sweet, he found it good.

It eased him, be it understood,

Because he liked to see her there,

Because his longing for the Fair

Iseult comforted him far more

Than any ease known heretofore.

‘Iseult’ was his joy and sorrow.

Yes, truly ‘Iseult’ dealt him woe,

Yet the distraction brought him ease.

More deeply this Iseult did please

The more that ‘Iseult’ broke his heart,

That name that yet tore him apart.

‘How many times,’ he would say

To himself, ‘am I sent astray

By that name, â dê benîe,

God bless us now, it troubles me.

It confuses both mind and sense,

Proves true and false, and my defence:

“Iseult” laughs and plays in my ear,

Yet I know not where she is, I fear;

My eyes, that gaze on Iseult, she

They see not; Iseult’s far from me,

Yet nevertheless is by my side.

I am anxious lest this doth betide

My succumbing a second time,

As if fair Cornwall has, meantime,

Turned itself into Arundel,

And Karke is now fair Tintagel,

And Iseult, Iseult has become.

For whene’er I hear anyone

Call this girl by the name Iseult

I seem to think I’ve found Iseult;

Yet I’m far from the truth in this.

How strange all this business is!

I have long wished Iseult to see,

And now I find her near to me;

And yet am not a whit closer,

Howe’er near I may suppose her.

I see not Iseult with this eye,

And yet I see her, with a sigh.

Iseult indeed I now have found,

But not the Fair, to whom I’m bound,

The one who grants such tender pain.

It is Iseult who stirs, again,

All these sad thoughts, Arundel’s maid,

Yet not Iseult the Fair, arrayed

In light, alas, whom I see not.

And yet my eyes have ever sought

Whate’er is marked by her name;

And thus I must cherish that same,

And the sweet sound upon my ear

That doth ever delight me here.’

Tristan oft pondered in this guise,

Whene’er he chose to turn his eyes

Upon Iseult of the White Hands,

His tender hurt, als blansche mains.

She stoked the fire of his passion

From the embers, in this fashion,

The fire that smouldered in his heart,

Night and day, while they were apart.

He shunned war, and the tournament,

His heart and mind were solely bent

On love, and this distracting passion;

Yet he sought it in strange fashion,

For he had fixed all his intent,

On a forced love of this innocent,

This maid, Iseult of the White Hands,

Yielding himself to love’s demands

Despite himself, and wildly hoping

Through her to assuage his longing.

Towards her he made soft advances,

Often despatching tender glances,

Such that she realised his affection;

She too had thoughts in that direction;

He had given her reason to ponder,

Her heart had turned to him ever

For she’d heard him spoken of,

With high regard, often enough.

And when his eyes did, now and then,

Rest on her, then her eyes again

Would look on him most tenderly.

Such that he sought despondency

To banish, and found many a way

Of meeting, whate’er the time of day,

As opportunity arose.

Tristan labours to curb his affection

TWAS not long, I would suppose,

Ere Kaedin saw Tristan’s plan,

Taking the measure of the man,

And the glances both exchanged,

And further meetings he arranged,

Thinking if she won Tristan’s heart,

He might wed her, and not depart,

Thus meeting Kaedin’s desire.

He told his sister she might aspire,

To engage Tristan in conversation,

As he suggested, yet forego action

Without his knowing, or her seeking

Her father’s advice and his consent.

Iseult the Maid was quite content

To do what suited her own wish.

And so encouraged Tristan in this,

Doubly favouring him withal,

With conversation, glances, all

Those things that snare a lover’s mind,

And rouse love in the heart, we find,

At every time, in every place,

Till his desire kindled apace,

Such that her name fell on his ears,

Soothingly, and calmed his fears,

And ‘Iseult’, he now saw and heard

More gladly than he had; the word

Distressed him less than he wished.

Iseult the Maid conspired in this,

She was ever pleased to greet him,

And felt a deep affection for him.

She filled his thoughts, as he did hers,

With all the blessings that confers.

Pledging love and companionship,

They sought to meet in friendship,

Whene’er it was fitting so to do.

One day when Tristan made review

Of his old woes, seated at leisure,

And his fate, with little pleasure,

His heart prompted him to recall

His many sufferings, and then all

The sorrows that Iseult the Fair,

His other life, was forced to bear,

She the queen who ruled his love,

For his sake, yet did ever prove

Loyal and true through every trial.

He saw that he but sought denial;

It pierced the depths of his heart,

That he had granted there a part

Of that heart to any other

Than Iseult the Fair, his lover,

And another’s love now sought,

Or e’er harboured such a thought.

‘Ah, traitor, what is this you do?’

He asked himself, and then, anew,

In woe, ‘I know as sure as death,

Iseult the Fair, at every breath

Thinks of me; amidst the strife,

She, who is all my heart and life,

Loves and treasures naught but me,

Yet I treat her most cruelly;

For I, bereft of all reason,

Committing the basest treason,

Grant my love to a life not hers.

I know not why such madness stirs.

Disloyal man, what work you here!

For twin Iseults you now hold dear,

And you love both, and yet vile man, 

That other self loves but Tristan.

That other longs for no Tristan

But you, and seeks no other man,

While a second Iseult you desire.

Ah, Tristan, senseless in the mire,

Lost Tristan; away blind madness!

Rid yourself of all that’s monstrous!’

Iseult of the White Hands falls in love with Tristan

WITH this he quelled love’s unreason,

His passion for Iseult the Maiden

He now curbed, yet, nonetheless,

He showed such signs of tenderness,

She thought she saw love in his face,

True love, but such was not the case,

And things took their rightful course.

Iseult had robbed Iseult, perforce,

Of her Tristan, through his longing,

Yet now all his thoughts were turning,

Once more, to his firstborn love;

The old woes his heart did move.

Yet he was courteous as ever,

And seeing that the maid’s fever

Grew, he tried hard to distract her;

Thus, he sang and played to her,

He told her tales, wrote and read,

And whiled away the hours instead

By keeping her good company,

Singing and playing skilfully.

Tristan composed many a lay,

On each stringed instrument would play

A wealth of pleasant music, set

Such treasures as are well-loved yet.

And it was then he did invent,

The girl’s distraction his intent,

The noble lay now called ‘Tristan’

One which is known in every land,

And will be thought a thing of worth,

As long as songs are sung on Earth.

It often would fall out that he,

(When they were all in company,

Iseult the Maid, he, Kaedin,

Karise, and her duke Jovelin,

And all the lords and ladies)

Singing his chansons, sweetly,

Rondels, and courtly airs, again,

Ended ever with this refrain:

Iseult ma drûe, Iseult m’amie

En vûs ma mort, en vûs ma vie:

Iseult my love, Iseult my breath,

In you my life, in you my death!’

And since he ever sang it so,

They thought the words did ever flow

For their Iseult, and were pleased

To think so when the music ceased;

None more than his friend Kaedin,

Who led him out, and led him in,

And seated him beside his sister,

Who was happy beside him ever.

In greeting him, I might mention

She gave him her full attention,

Her every thought, and her bright eyes,

Were upon him; twas no surprise

The tender thing that people name

Maidenhood forsook modesty

Or shame, as she, quite openly,

And often, laid her hands in his,

Delighting Kaedin in this.

But whate’er Kaedin believed,

For her own pleasure twas conceived.

She made herself so alluring

To the man, by smiling, laughing,

Questioning him, and chattering,

Teasing him, and flattering,

The sweet girl stirred the flames again,

She roused the longing, and its pain,

Such that in his need to love her,

His firm resolve began to waver.

He was unsure whether he wished

This lovely maid, Iseult, were his

Or not, twas all a mystery:

‘Can I want her, as she wants me?’

He asked himself: ‘I think I may,

And then think not, another day.’

While Constancy cried: ‘No Tristan,

Think of Iseult the Fair, and stand

By the pledge you made to your true

Iseult, who ne’er swerved from you.’

From such thoughts, he would move

To mourning for Fair Iseult’s love,

She his heart’s queen, such that he

Doing himself a discourtesy,

With altered looks and manner, pined

Where’er he was; and the maid did find,

Whene’er he joined her in her walk,

Whene’er he met with her to talk,

He fell into a reverie,

And sighed beside her, endlessly.

The signs of his hidden sorrow,

So plain to see, night and morrow,

Led the whole court to declare

That his suffering and despair

Was all due to Iseult the Maid.

Twas the truth they conveyed.

‘Iseult’ was the source no less

Of his desire than his distress,

‘Iseult’ his fate, so they conceived,

Yet not the one that they believed;

Twas not her, of the white hands, there,

The true source was Iseult the Fair,

For it was she who cast the spell,

And not this maid of Arundel.

But they all thought the thing was so,

And then Iseult the Maid, also,

Was misled by him completely,

For not for a moment was she

Free of her longing for Tristan,

Greater than the ache of the man

For his Iseult, and so these two

Passed the hours, in woes anew,

In which the other had no part.

They were filled with woe at heart,

Longing and grief on either side,

Yet naught in them did coincide;

Love and affection went unshared.

For Tristan and the maid, impaired

By facing in opposite directions,

Kept not step in their affections.

The source of suffering for Tristan,

Was the other Iseult, while no man

Other than Tristan she desired,

By him alone the maid was fired,

She of the white hands; no thought

Had she but for the man; she sought

Tristan with heart and mind; no less

Indeed was his sorrow her distress.

Whene’er she saw his face grow pale,

And when his sadness did prevail,

And when he sighed most tenderly,

She sighed to keep him company,

And looked on him most tenderly,

And of friendship bore his sorrow,

Though her woe was not his woe.

His sad moods hurt her so badly,

That he was troubled far more deeply

On her account, than on his own.

The kindness with which he was met

Could not but fill him with regret;

He pitied her that she loved so,

And yet in vain she did bestow

Her heart on him all uselessly;

Yet he forever showed courtesy,

Seeking to divert and free her,

From her sorrow, as he ever

Wished, with fair conversation,

And charming tales on occasion;

But she was far too deep in love,

And the more he tried to prove

His friendship, the more the fire,

From hour to hour, of her desire

Burned higher, till Love did conquer,

She granting him such a number

Of gestures, words, and glances, all

So sweet and tender, he must fall

Again into indecision,

Those doubts as to his position,

Such that his heart was, as before,

Like a vessel, adrift once more,

On the ocean of uncertainty.

And small wonder, it seems to me,

For, God knows, when beauty lies

Smiling forever, before one’s eyes,

It blinds them and, with subtle art,

Binds the senses, mind, and heart.

True lovers all, you now may see

From this tale, that the misery

Of sorrow for an absent love,

Now afar, may yet well prove

Easier to bear than that provoked

By love close friendship has invoked.

Truly, I think, one may endure

Love at a distance, longing for

That love afar, than this nearby,

While seeking this love to deny;

And may forgo that absent love,

More easily than this remove.

Tristan in this tangle was caught,

His absent love he ever sought,

And suffered deeper anguish for

One whom he neither heard nor saw,

While denying she who was near,

Who did full oft to him appear.

Iseult of Ireland he longed for

The bright, the fair, and so the more

He fled from her of the white hands,

The maid of Karke and all its lands.

He denied himself the nearer,

Suffered anguish for the farther,

And so was cheated of them both.

Longed, and yet to long was loth

For Iseult and Iseult, those twain;

Fled one, sought the other again;

While the girl, Iseult the Maid,

Who this willing tribute paid

Of faith and longing, willingly,

Of love, and true integrity,

Desired the man who denied her,

Pursued the man who yet fled her.

His was the fault; she was deceived,

Mistaken in all that she believed.

Tristan, with that double deceit

Of eyes and tongue, so complete

That she thought that with her art

She had won his mind and heart,

Had lied to her, yet of all he did

The final deed, in which he hid

His great duplicity that made

Her love him, was that he played

The tune he ever liked to sing,

That sweet and that tender thing:

Iseult ma drûe, Iseult m’amie

En vûs ma mort, en vûs ma vie:

Iseult my love, Iseult my breath,

In you my life, in you my death!’

It lured her in his direction,

This it was stirred her affection.

She made those words all her own,

Devoted to that man, alone,

Who fled from her, her love denied,

Until at Love’s fourth, final stride,

She caught her lover as he fled,

And drew him back to her instead,

Such that he favoured her again,

And yet brooded, fraught with pain,

Fearful, anxious, night and day,

On life, himself, and longing’s sway.

‘My God,’ he mused, ‘how tis that I

Am gone astray at love’s least sigh?

And yet that love that so afflicts me,

Stealing mind and sense completely,

If that which to my woe gave birth,

Is e’er to be lightened on this earth,

It must be through another love.

I have read, and many do prove

That one attachment will at length

Dissipate another’s strength.

The current of the Rhine, its flow,

Is powerful, and yet even so

If channelled through lesser streams,

Its waters can be drawn, it seems,

So that it slackens in its course,

Flowing then with lesser force.

So the mighty Rhine may yet

Be turned to some slight rivulet.

Again there is no fire so great,

One cannot seek to dissipate

Its burning by reducing it

To separate fires barely lit.

So with a lover; he, likewise,

Can treat love in similar guise,

For he can draw his passion so,

To lesser channels turn the flow,

Share out the fuel that fires his heart,

Until its flames are split apart,

Such that it does him little harm,

And causes him but scant alarm.

And I may now the like achieve,

If I divide love, I believe,

And share it among more than one,

And then the thing is swiftly done;

If I direct my thoughts to more

Than the one love I knew before,

I might thereby become a man

Devoid of woe, carefree Tristan.’

Tristan reproaches Iseult the Fair

‘SO now I should attempt the thing.

For if good fortune it might bring,

It seems high time that I began

To execute just such a plan.

The love and loyalty I harbour,

For my lady, has no power

To help me, yet I waste my life

For her, and win naught from the strife

To support this life I’m living.

I endure an endless longing,

Yet a dearth of expectation.

Too long, too great a separation

Is all the life, Iseult, we share.

Ah sweet Iseult, Iseult the Fair,

Things are not now as once they were,

When you and I did suffer, there,

One love, one ill, one weal, one woe,

Alas, such is no longer so.

For pain I know, you happiness;

My thought are filled to excess

With longing for you, while yours

I think take now a different course;

The pleasures I forgo for you,

Alas, alas, you now pursue,

As it doth please you, and not me,

All as you wish, in his company;

You have a king for your master.

You are at home, and are forever

Inseparable companions now,

While I, alone, recall our vow,

In exile, in a strange country.

I shall have naught, it seems to me,

From you that might bring me ease.

And yet my heart finds no release.

Why of myself have you robbed me,

When you long so little for me,

Yet, in that, fare so well, I ween?

Ah, Iseult, my fair sweet queen,

With how many a heartache my

Life, without you, now passes by!

While you care so little for me

That not one messenger do I see,

Sent to search for me, any day.

A messenger? What’s this I say?

Where should she send, and how enquire?

I am driven, further, and higher,

On the winds of uncertainty;

How should a messenger find me?

I know not how. If a man sought here,

I’d in some other place appear;

If he sought there, then here I’d be.

How shall any that seek find me?

How find me, then? Why, here today;

For countries never soar away,

And I am here in this fair land;

So seek you here to find Tristan;

Yes, let a man cover this ground,

Search hard enough I will be found.

For who would seek a traveller,

Has no fixed goal set him or her,

But they must seek, for good or ill,

Until their task they shall fulfil.

My lady, on whom my life depends,

Ought to have searched to the ends

Of Cornwall, and England, covertly,

Normandy, France, and Parmenie,

Long ago, or where’er her friend

Was said to be, and, in the end,

She would have found me if she cared.

But she for whom my heart I bared,

Dearer to me than soul or body,

Cares but little it seems for me.

All other women for her sake

I forgo, yet must her forsake,

Since I cannot ask of her now

That which would of joy allow,

And so in this world grant to me

Happiness, love, and sovereignty.’

(Sadly, Gottfried’s unfinished text ends here. The following four parts are translations of Thomas of England’s Anglo-French ‘Tristan’, which served as Gottfried’s main source. Use of the historic present tense has been replaced by the simple past tense, throughout, for consistency with Gottfried’s version.)

End of Part XII of Gottfried’s Tristan