Cornish Wonders and the Romance of Tristan and Iseult
My trip to Cornwall was not accidental. For long I knew that Virginia Woolf’s novels made random references to it, as Cornwall was the place where she used to enjoy summer holydays in family until the age of thirteen, when dates the premature death of her mother.
Through the eyes of Virginia, Cornwall was not strange to me and neither it was to my heart, that during the journey would discover some wonders which already belonged to its own reliquary.
I remember my childhood passion for the Arthurian legends, which made me devour the four volumes of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s saga – The Mists of Avalon – during a boat trip.
Every evening, after sailing and swimming since the dawn, I used to place my air pillow on the upper deck of our sailboat and, feeling that pleasurable weariness of being immersed in nature, I drank with insatiable thirst the tales of that distant island covered in mist, partially hidden from ordinary sight, and only revealed to the mystical eye.
I remember watching the fiery ocean sunset, and wondering if I could be named Morgaine (Morgan le Fay) in my next earthly adventure and how that sorceress half-moon tattoo engraved on her front, dedicated to the Goddess, could be my dearest object of spiritual desire.
And years later, my obsession with ‘The Quest del Saint Graal’. I read absolutely everything about the topic, from acknowledged historians, to BBC files and Dan Brown; to the point they almost convinced me that Saint Graal was a pun to the true words and meaning – San-greal – the quest for the royal blood.
But Dad… When I told my loyal squire and confidant about the unthinkable discovery I had made, he replied me in a serious tone, ‘I am absolutely convinced that the flies that visit us during daytime are Carolingian and the mosquitoes that assault us by night are Merovingian.’, and we all exploded in an great cosmic laughter, one of those that lead us to tears and pain in the tummy, because honestly, everyone was SO fed up of hearing me talking about that, and Dad brilliantly managed to put all my shit together and give us the missing link to our reality.
My connection to the Cornwall, thus, seems to come from a mysterious site in between the mystical and the mythical in me, and it is exactly in this intersection that wonders happen.
The air of Cornwall is different and so are the buildings. The air is fresher in the woods and more humid at the shore. The houses are made of large blocks of stone, so the external walls are much thicker. When you are inside, the noises do not reach you.
Everything has a vibe of fishermen village in the towns, and the presence of the sea in the life of Cornish people is economically, artistically and culturally determinant. They have marine and maritime museums, paintings, books, tales.
There is a fisherman mourning and sorrow in the atmosphere and only who had contact with fisherman culture understands what I mean. They are attached to the sea, who is their lover, but also their torturer. It can bring them abundance or misery, happiness or disgrace, life or death.
Furthermore, the weather in Cornwall is unpredictable, volatile and oftenly rough. We can have a windy storm, a heavy rain and sunny sky in less than 6 hours, which is only one fourth of the day. How can anyone who depends on the sea and the weather for a living not grieve?
Good food is understandably a relish and in spite of almost killing myself with a “full English”, kindly summoned by my generous hostess every morning, I must declare that the local cuisine is not exactly my thing, since it all seems to fall into bread and pasties, with exception to the crab soup and the scotch broth, which were magnificent.
But I tried the Cornish pasty, in its traditional form, filled with beef skirt, potato, turnip and onion, slightly seasoned with salt and pepper. This recipe apparently haunts Cornish homes since the time of Henri III, in the 13th century, or even earlier. There is always some sort of ghostly or devilish tale associated with the pasties in Cornwall – those creepy little superstitions that make the sin of eating in secrecy more appealing.
Actually, there is something adorably naïve, amiable and familiar in the Cornish way.
Nevertheless, it was in the mountain villages and specially at the steep slope, overlooking the rocky shoreline of the Penwith peninsula, that I found the Celtic heritage of the land and the inherent strength of the people.
The natural seascape is exuberant, inspiring, the land emanates energy in its original quality of spiritual life force and healing power.
This is Celtic land, once inhabited by the druids. I felt like a pilgrim again. My witchery was throbbing, I could turn into the wind, into the sea, conjured by an ancient language, forgotten long ago, lost in time’s mist.
An lavar coth yu lavar gwyr –
Byth dorn re ver dhe’n tavas re hyr,
Mes den hep tavas a-gollas y dyr.
Still true the ancient saw will stand –
Too long a tongue, too short a hand,
A tongueless man, though, lost his hand.
The Cornish language vanished as a spoken language at the end of the eighteenth century and was only revived by pundits who produced a vast material on it in a attempt to not lose it completely.
It was the folk’s language, spoken by fishermen, miners and farmers, despised in schools and by the high society.
Almost no written material was created after the Saxon invasion and it was only passed through oral tradition.
I remembered my Avalon adventures and the legends of King Arthur and the knights of the round table, the political disputes, the palatial intrigues, the territories conquered and plundered by the sword, the famine and misery of the peasants, the hardships of life, the devastating plagues, the religious martyrdom, the struggles for honour and love.
I started to read anything I found from local sources, because it is something so distant from the mainstream culture we have access to, and I cried, I bemoaned the short time I had to learn such a vast history, knowledge and wisdom.
I recalled how the romance of Tristan and Iseult had bewitched my imagination in the past, and as an avid reader and researcher of myths and legends, I surprised myself with the fact that only in Cornish lands, those doomed lovers’ momentum had happened to me.
It was with wonder and reverence that I experienced this synchronicity, the same as watching a herd of horses randomly galloping at the shore, when rain was shortly withheld in a stormy day.
Cornish wonders, indeed.
The Romance of Tristan and Iseult
“One of the earliest manuscripts of the Tristan and Iseult romance was written by Florence of Worcester (d. 1118 A.D.), but Professor J. Loth in his famous study of the romance claimed the original version in Cornish went to France via Brittany and there French poets adapted the story. These versions were written in the later half of the twelfth century. Strangely enough it was from France that the romance made its way back into Cornish literature. It was this romance that inspired the composers Franz Liszt to write his celebrated Cornish Rhapsody and Wagner to write the opera Tristan und Iseult.”
There are some variations in the details of the narrative but the plot is unequivocal and remains intact. There are evidences of the existence of King Mark and Tristan as historical figures of Cornwall.
“Perhaps the most romantic of these memorials stands at a cross roads near Fowey, not far from the earthworks of Castle Dore, the fortress of King Mark, whose bride Iseult was escorted from Ireland by Tristan, later to become her lover. The inscription reads ‘DRUSTANUS IC IACIT CUNMORI FILIUS’. In the ancient manuscript, The Life of St. Pol de Leon, we are told that Mark, who ruled Cornwall between 570 A.D. and 585 A.D., was named Marcus Quonomorus. Tristan could be a corruption of the Celtic name Drustan. This then, could be the actual memorial to Tristan, son (not nephew) of King Mark of Cornwall.”
Regardless the possibility of Tristan being King Mark’s son and not his nephew, the whole story unrolls in a way that makes us remember that royal weddings were political arrangements and not love relationships and that the existence of lovers was common from both sides and socially well accepted between courtiers.
The great problem, actually, would be the love between a noble and a peasant – this was definitely not tolerated; so while reading the romance I asked myself which tragedy it really was, and under careful consideration it became very clear what is also explicit in the plot – the tragedy was politically motivated and forged.
“My lords, there were in the court of King Mark four barons the basest of men, who hated Tristan with a hard hate, for his greatness and for the tender love the King bore him. They knew that the King had intent to grow old childless and to leave his land to Tristan; and their envy swelled and by lies they angered the chief man of Cornwall against Tristan.”
“There have been too many marvels in this man’s life. It was marvel enough that he beat the Morholt, but by what sorcery did he try the sea alone at the point of death, or which of us, my lords, could voyage without mast or sail? They say that warlocks can. It was sure a warlock feat, and that is a warlock harp of his pours poison daily into the King’s heart. See how he has bent that heart by power and chain of sorcery! He will be king yet, my lords, and you will hold your lands of a wizard.”
These lieges held the King and the whole story their hostages. These true villains articulated the tragedy, as the closest royal counsellors.
Tristan was King Mark’s natural heir, and as he was also the King of Lyonesse, he would become immensely powerful after Mark’s death, practically nullifying any attempt of the barons to control the new ruler.
Initially they forced the King to marry, what would neutralize Tristan for a while, but fate wanted that Iseult the Fair, the chosen wife, and Tristan fell in love, thus becoming the Queen Tristan’s most loyal ally. With Iseult, Tristan would still be the heir by blood and by right, no matter if any conceived child was Mark’s son, daughter, grandson or granddaughter.
The inevitability of their love, represented by the philtre they had together on the high seas, also symbolizes the strength of this heritage. By blood, by right, by love, Tristan was the future King of Cornwall – a righteous, brave and honourable one.
King Mark needed so much the counselling of Machiavelli and could not have it. His counsel would have avoided the tragedy.
“A prince, therefore, ought always to take counsel, but only when he wishes and not when others wish; he ought rather to discourage every one from offering advice unless he asks it; but, however, he ought to be a constant inquirer, and afterwards a patient listener concerning the things of which he inquired; also, on learning that anyone, on any consideration, has not told him the truth, he should let his anger be felt.”
“Good counsels, whencesoever they come, are born of the wisdom of the prince, and not the wisdom of the prince from good counsels.”
Machiavelli – The Prince
The association of Tristan and Iseult also represents the Celtic heritage and spirituality. Both were endowed with mystical powers, spiritual vision, intuition and a natural connection to the sea, to the land, to the animals and that amiability, that naivete inherent to loving beings.
How not to love Tristan and Iseult? How not to cry their tragedy?
“Then, being with the Queen for the last time, he held her in his arms and said:
‘Friend, I must fly, for they are wondering. I must fly, and perhaps shall never see you more. My death is near, and far from you my death will come of desire.’
‘Oh, friend,’ she said, ‘fold your arms round me close and strain me so that our hearts may break and our souls go free at last. Take me to that happy place of which you told me long ago. The fields whence none return, but where great singers sing their songs for ever. Take me now.’
‘I will take you to the Happy Palace of the living, Queen! The time is near. We have drunk all joy and sorrow. The time is near. When it is finished, if I call you, will you come, my friend?’
‘Friend,’ said she, ‘call me and you know that I shall come.’
Their passing symbolizes the loss of purity, of innocence, and also the annihilation of the pagan culture under the Christianity that would take its place.
The legend is permeated with archetypes, myths and symbols and we can recognize some of them. In slaughtering the dragon to conquer Iseult, Tristan repeats the deed of Perseus in saving Andromeda. The lepers of the Leviticus are also there, execrating lifelong shame for sins. We also have an early mention to King Arthur, Lord Gawain, the knights of the round table, the mystical island of Avalon, and much more.
The importance of the court jester is particularly highlighted in this piece. Pretending madness, Tristan launches himself into the palace and spits out the naked truth without being taken seriously; that was the social role of the fool, who could speak freely, give bad news to the king no one else dared deliver, and dispense frank observations.
Tristan and Iseult’s tombs bring indelible meaning and beauty. We can also find some reference to the love of Ovid’s Baucis and Philemon, transformed into an intertwining pair of trees, one not living without the other.
“And he took their beloved bodies away with him upon his ship to Tintagel, and by a chantry to the left and right of the apse he had their tombs built round. But in one night there sprang from the tomb of Tristan a green and leafy briar, strong in its branches and in the scent of its flowers. It climbed the chantry and fell to root again by Iseult’s tomb. Thrice did the peasants cut it down, but thrice it grew again as flowered and as strong. They told the marvel to King Mark, and he forbade to cut the briar any more.”
1 – The Romance of Tristan and Iseult – M. Joseph Bedier – translated by Hilaire Belloc – Kindle edition.
2 – The Story of the Cornish Language – P. Berresford Ellis – Tor Mark Press, Cornwall.
3 – The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli – translated by Marriott, W.K. – Kindle edition.