Song Of Isolde – Lyrics by Eliza Gilkyson
Wake up, wake up Tristan,
Our bed of leaves and sand is cold,
I fell asleep here in your arms,
More than a thousand years ago.
The tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde has been told and retold many different ways. In my version of the story, the love potion and the poisoned wine remind us that love and fate are two faces of the same universal force.
This story began in England during the reign of King Arthur, when a prince by the name of Drust was born in Ireland. During his birth, his mother died, and so Drust became known as Tristan, from the word tristesse, meaning sorrow.
Tristan stayed at the court of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, training to become a knight. When Tristan had proved himself worthy, he challenged the knight Morold to battle. Morold was a hulking knight who appeared every seven years at the court of Cornwall demanding a tribute of young men and girls. The tribute was always paid, since no champion had ever dared to face Morold. On the day of reckoning, a long battle raged, ending when Tristan vanquished Morold with a blow to the skull. Worn nearly to death from the battle, Tristan sought help in the nearby kingdom of Queen Isolde, who ruled the land after her husband King Angwish was killed. Fearing that Queen Isolde might be related to Morold, Tristan masqeraded as a minstrel, calling himself Tantris.
Tristan was nursed back to health by the Queen’s daughter, Princess Isolde, who had the magical ability to heal the sick and wounded. As Tristan’s vigor returned, the Princess became enamored of him. But the Queen was concerned that this was not in her daughter’s best interest.
Meanwhile, Tristan sent word back to King Mark informing his uncle of his whereabouts. Inspired by the unsurpassed beauty of Isolde, Tristan elaborated his message with lyrical verses in her honor. So moved was King Mark by Tristan’s poetry that he sent word to Princess Isolde that he wanted to marry her and make her his queen. If her mother the Queen agreed to the arrangement, she should send the princess back on the ship with Tristan.
Indeed, the Queen was exhilarated by the prospect of her daughter’s marriage to a powerful king and she resolved to allow the marriage. But the Queen kept this to herself, until the time came to surprise her daughter with the good news that a ship was ready to take her to King Mark.
During the burial preparations of Morold, Princess Isolde discovered a broken fragment of metal in his skull. She removed it with the thought that it might lead to his killer. Later, while doting on the Minstrel Tantris, she noticed a there was a piece of missing from his sword. Matching the fragment with the sword, she was horrified to realize that her friend the minstrel was the killer of Morold.
Princess Isolde reasoned that her only choice was to kill Tristan. But she could not bare the thought of losing this man she had grown so fond of. She determined to first kill Tristan and then herself, using poisoned wine as the instrument of death. She sent her servant Brangraine to bring her a flask of wine laced with a lethal poison.
But at that moment, a herald rushed into the princess’ chambers to inform her that a ship had come to take her to be wed to the King of Cornwall. Her plans were set aside.
Isolde let it show that she was very unhappy about this revelation of her nuptial engagement with the elderly Mark. But her mother had a solution. She gave a bottle containing a love potion to Brangraine, with strict instructions to keep it hidden until they reached Cornwall, to give to Isolde on her wedding night.
The next morning, Isolde left Ireland for Cornwall, with Tristan at the helm of the ship. On the ship, Isolde heard a young sailor singing a poignant song. A passage in the song stirred her passions with promises of love and possibilities.
Fresh blows the wind,
To the homeland,
My Irish child,
Where do you wait?
This inflamed ill feelings toward Tristan/Tantris, the man responsible for taking her to Mark and killing her previous lover. She resolved right there to put an end to Tristan.
Isolde ordered Brangraine to bring the poisoned wine and have Tristan sent to her cabin. When he arrived, Isolde beguiled him with her love, but she was still fully intent on killing him and herself. With his spirits soaring, she offered him the drink of wine.
“Why so somber, Princess?” Tristan asked, gazing into her soul.
All she had to say was, “To the winds of fate.” And they lifted their cups and drank.
But Brangraine, whose duty would have been to commit suicide along with her mistress, considered love preferable to death and switched the poisoned wine for the love potion.
Their fate was now inextricably woven together. Tristan and Isolde became engulfed in a love of unrelenting passion, a love so sweeping that the two gave no heed to the consequences. The two lovers spent the remainder of their journey embraced and swearing eternal love.
But when they arrived in Cornwall, King Mark fell deeply in love with Isolde and they were wed as planned. But despite the pageantry and adoration, her secret love for Tristan could not be repressed. After the marriage ceremony, Isolde and Mark retired to their bedchamber where the darkness hid deception. Brangraine and Isolde switched places before the consuming act. Isolde found her lover and spent the night with him instead, secretly returning to her bridal bed before daylight.
The love affair between Tristan and Isolde continued for months until King Mark finally learned of it. He forgave Isolde, but banned his nephew Tristan from Cornwall.
Tristan joined the Round Table of Arthur where he engaged in battles and knightly adventures, making a name for himself at the court in Camelot. On one of his quests, he journeyed to Brittany where he met Iseult of the White Hands. He was intrigued by her partly because of the similarity of her name to his own true love. Word of this eventually got around to the King, and on his command, he had Tristan married to Iseult. But the marriage was without love or children.
Tristan continued to do knightly deeds of high renown. His prowess grew so strong that one day he set off to destroy a deadly dragon that was ravaging the countryside. Armed with only bravery and his sword, Tristan faced the dragon in a fiery battle to the death. Although the serpent attacked him with fire and claw, Tristan was the ultimate victor. But during the battle, he too received a mortal wound. A brush with the serpent’s tongue had poisoned him. Exhausted, Tristan was barely able to return to Brittany.
Sick and dying, Tristan sent for Isolde, in the hope that she would be able to cure him. In his message, he asked that if she agreed to come, to have the returning ship set its sails in white, but if she refused, to set sails of black. He suffered in his bedchamber, hovering on the brink of life and death, praying that he might once more be graced by the presence of his true love.
The ship returned carrying Isolde, Queen of Cornwall, its full sails white against the sky. But it was Iseult who first spied the ship from the highest tower of the Castle. Iseult went to Tristan’s bedside and in her jealousy she told him, “The sails are black.”
At that, Tristan turned his head to the wall in sorrow and his life drained away.
Isolde, arrived and seeing she was too late, fell down upon Tristan, stricken down with a broken heart.
This had a profound impact on Iseult. Upon seeing the deep love that the two held for each other, Iseult regretted her action. She arranged that the two would be buried side by side. From Tristan’s grave there grew a great vine, and from Isolde’s grave sprung a rose. The two plants intertwined, and they are still a source of musical inspiration and poetry to this day.
Wake up, wake up Tristan
The wind breathes dark words through the forest
There is sorrow on the land
Love must have cast a spell upon us
The path lies open there before us
Wake up, wake up Tristan
- Eliza Gilkyson