Hyde Park Corner

Medieval Arthurian Legend

Gottfried von Strassburg | Thomas of Britain: Tristan, Tristran, Tristrem

12th century, Anglo-Norman French, Thomas of Britain | 13th century, Middle High German, Gottfried von Strassburg | 14th century Middle English, anonymous.

Tristrem asked the king for a ship. ‘Uncle,’ he said, ‘I’m dying. I’m no longer for this world. Take me to a ship.'

Tristan loses his royal parents as a baby and is brought up in the household of his father’s former steward in Brittany, according to a poem by Gottfried von Strassburg, written in c. 1210 and based very firmly upon a work by Thomas of Britain, written in about 1160. Whilst still a child, Tristan is abducted and taken by ship to England, where, having suffered shipwreck, he assumes a new identity in the guise of the son of a merchant, and stays under this disguise at the court of King Mark of Cornwall.

Many years later, King Mark refuses to pay extortion to the King of Ireland. In true Celtic Iron Age fashion, the matter is to be settled by single combat. Tristan, who it has by now been revealed is none other than King Mark’s nephew, his sister’s son, fights this ‘justice’ for King Mark and kills his adversary, but receives a wound himself. The lance had poison on it and the wound festers for three years; and at last, at death’s door, Tristan sails to Ireland in search of a homeopathic cure, having arranged for it to be known to all but a select few that he has died.

A Middle English version of the story describes it thus (translated into Modern English):

Soon, no one wanted to go near him, his wound stank so much. At last, everyone abandoned him, except for Governail, his servant.

Tristrem lay like this for three years. He was a pitiful sight to behold. The nights were the worst. Nobody attended to him anymore. They had done all that they could, they couldn’t do any more.

One day, Tristrem poured his complaints out at King Mark, and soon, the following exchange occurred:

‘It seems as though I’ve been in pain forever,’ Tristrem said.

‘Alas, that I should live to see this,’ replied King Mark.

Tristrem asked the king for a ship. ‘Uncle,’ he said, ‘I’m dying. I’m no longer for this world. My time on land is over. Take me to a ship, put my harp there for me to play, and enough provisions to keep me going. As soon as you like.’

King Mark was very upset to hear this, but they took Tristrem to a ship nonetheless.

The ship was made ready and Tristrem asked for King Mark’s blessing. Then he sailed out of the harbour, with only his servant Governail for company. It was Caerleon. For nine weeks and more he hobbled up and down on the ship as the wind drove him towards the place where he was bound, not far away. The town was called Dublin, a port in Ireland.

Story fragment retold in Modern English from: Lupack, Alan, 1994. Lancelot of the Laik and Sir Tristrem. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University for TEAMS. Middle English text of Sir Tristrem from National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.2.1, the Auchinleck Manuscript. Translation of lines 1117–66

Arriving in Ireland, Tristan again assumes a new identity, that of a court minstrel who has been set upon by pirates. He assumes the new name Tantris.

His wound is healed by Queen Isolde, whose brother inflicted it upon Tristan, and Tantris is appointed tutor to young Isolde, Queen Isolde’s daughter, and becomes her constant companion. But after the passage of a year Tantris, now fully recovered, returns to Cornwall. Tristan resumed his old life, with a joyful heart, Gottfried von Strassburg tells us. A second life had been given to him, he was a man newborn.

Story fragment recounted from: Hatto, A T, 1960, reprinted with revisions, 1967, 2004. Gottfried von Strassburg: Tristan. With the surviving fragments of the Tristran of Thomas. Translated from Medieval German and Old French with an introduction. Penguin Books Limited. 10. Tantris and 11. The Wooing Expedition, pp 138–58.

See for yourself

Sir Tristrem – TEAMS Middle English texts

Thomas of Britain – Wikipedia

Tristan and Iseult – Wikipedia

Gottfried von Strassburg – Wikipedia

Mark of Cornwall – Wikipedia

Thomas the Rhymer – Wikipedia

Medieval Institute Publications – Alan Lupack (Ed), 1994. Lancelot of the Laik and Sir Tristrem. Middle English text with an introduction.

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