The story of Tristan and Isolde was originally an old Celtic romance, established separately from Arthurian legend. However throughout time it became loosely associated with King Arthur’s Britain and Camelot’s court until Prose Tristan was written after the Vulgate Cycle, which fully establishes Tristan as one of the knights of the Round Table. Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur did the same.
Both characters have variations of their names: Tristan is also called Tristram or Drystan, and Isolde is often called Iseult or Yseult or Isoude. Although there are many small variations of the plot, the basics proceed as follows:
Tristan, one of Arthur’s knights of the round table, sails to Ireland to bring back a bride for his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. This is done politically to help make peace between Ireland and Cornwall. The chosen bride happens to be the fair Isolde. On the way back to Cornwall, they both drink a love potion that causes them to fall desperately in love. In some versions they do so on purpose, in some by accident. Of course, Isolde must still marry Mark, so the two lovers progress into an adulterous relationship. Their fate has many variations. In some versions they both die by various circumstances, while in others they move on with their lives. However, in no version do they end up together or happy. Overall, it is a very tragic story.
Their tale is especially important to Arthurian legend because it mirrors so well the Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot love triangle. Many scholars think that it actually inspired it. In each case, each of the three characters loves each of the other, but their actions cause their relationships to fall apart. It is very possible that the doomed fates of both adulterous couples was a moral commentary in medieval Britain, warning of the follies and heartache caused by unfaithfulness. The tragedy of Tristan and Isolde has also inspired a proliferation of artwork, much more so than even Guinevere and Lancelot’s affair has.
“Tristram and Isolde” by John William Waterhouse. This piece, as well as the following, depict Tristan and Isolde drinking the love potion. They are on the ship, sailing from Ireland back to Cornwall. Considering the looks on their faces and purposeful poses, it seems that they drank the potion very much on purpose.
“Tristan and Isolde” by John Duncan.
“Tristan and Isolde” by Herbert James Draper. In this scene they are also on the ship back and it seems they have just finished drinking the potion, as is implied by the empty goblet Tristan holds.
“Tristram and Iseult” by Sidney Meteyard.
“Tristan and Isolde” by Edmund Blair Leighton. In Prose Tristan, King Mark kills Tristan with a poisoned lance while Tristan is playing the harp for Isolde. This painting foreshadows this action, with King Mark suspiciously watching the lovers, as Tristan most likely prepares to play the harp.
“Tristan and Isolde” by Hughes Merle.
“Iseult” by Sir Frank Dicksee. This piece masterfully captures the frustration and heartbreak Isolde must endure, loving someone who is not her husband. She looks off across the sea, implying that she longs for her life back in Ireland, before she met either Tristan or Mark.
“La Belle Isolde” by Frederick Sandys.