ARThurian: Tristan and Isolde

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.

Tristram and Isolde

“Tristan and Isolde” by John Duncan.

Tristan and Isolde

“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.

Tristan and Isolde

“Tristram and Iseult” by Sidney Meteyard.

Tristram and Iseult

“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

“Tristan and Isolde” by Hughes Merle.

Tristan and Isolde

“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.

Iseult

“La Belle Isolde” by Frederick Sandys. 

La Belle Isolde

New book about King Arthur…by Tolkien?

The Fall of Arthur

My mind has just been blown.  A new epic poem about the last stage of King Arthur’s reign is being published this May.  The author?  J. R. R. TOLKIEN.  Only the greatest fantasy writer of all time… and no longer living, unfortunately.  So how is a book of his being published, you may ask.  Apparently he wrote it before he even wrote The Hobbit, but it was never published.  His son, Christopher Tolkien, has taken on the job of editing and publishing it.  How amazingly fantastic is that?

There are many other eccentricities about this publication.  It is written in narrative poem, 200 pages of it.   And unlike most Arthurian literature, it is centered on the end of Arthur’s reign and his ultimate downfall.  Here is the official synopsis:

The Fall of Arthur recounts in verse the last campaign of King Arthur who, even as he stands at the threshold of Mirkwood is summoned back to Britain by news of the treachery of Mordred. Already weakened in spirit by Guinevere’s infidelity with the now-exiled Lancelot, Arthur must rouse his knights to battle one last time against Mordred’s rebels and foreign mercenaries.

Powerful, passionate and filled with vivid imagery, The Fall of Arthur reveals Tolkien’s gift for storytelling at its brilliant best. Originally composed by J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1930s, this work was set aside for The Hobbit and has lain untouched for 80 years.

Now it has been edited for publication by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who contributes three illuminating essays that explore the literary world of King Arthur, reveal the deeper meaning of the verses and the painstaking work that his father applied to bring it to a finished form, and the intriguing links between The Fall of Arthur and his greatest creation, Middle-earth.

Note of clarification: the Mirkwood referred to is the real Mirkwood in Germany, not in Middle-Earth.  Although it would be extremely interesting to see King Arthur alongside Aragorn and Gandalf…

I don’t know how enthusiastic other fans are about reading this, but I know I certainly am.  I will be waiting with anticipation until this is finally released, come the 23rd of May.  Here is a very informative article for those who want more information: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/oct/09/jrr-tolkien-new-poem-king-arthur.

Tolkien

ARThurian: Guinevere

Guinevere, Guennuvar, Gwenhwyfar, Ginovar, Wenhaver, Wennevaria.  Her character is about as widely interpreted as the spellings of her name.  Damsel in distress, cunning adulteress, noble queen.  Every version of the legend (and need I repeat that there are hundreds) seems to have interpreted her differently.  Her portrayal in art is no less varied and complex.  All in all, she is a very multifaceted and real character.  Her actions are not difficult for us imperfect humans to understand, especially given her situation, caught between duty and passion.

“Guenevere” or “La Belle Iseult” by William Morris.  Though this painting is generally thought to depict Guinevere, some think that it may actually portray Isolde.  Nevertheless, the situation is applicable to either.  The rumpled sheets, unfastened belt, and preoccupied expression on her face hint at the sexual guilt of an adulterous queen.  However, it doesn’t necessarily portray her as wicked.  Her expression implies remorse and deep sadness.  This painting is a masterpiece in that it combines multiple sides of Guinevere’s character into a believable portrait.

Guenevere or La Belle Iseult

“Queen Guinevere Maying” by John Collier.  This beautifully executed scene portrays Guinevere Maying with her servants and subjects.  According to many legends, she is separated from the group kidnapped by Melwas while Maying.  However, this scene does not necessarily imply impending doom.  Rather it depicts her regal, almost aloof bearing.  No one could mistake her for being anything less than a queen.  She is an object of wonder, outshining the blossoms held in her hand.

Queen Guinevere Maying

“Lancelot and Guinevere” by Herbert James Draper.  In this whimsical, romantic depiction of Lancelot and Guinevere’s first meeting, Guinevere is preparing for her wedding.  The celebration tents can be seen in the background, as well as the flowers adorning everything.  Their eyes meet as Lancelot passes by on his horse.  This painting portrays Guinevere as beautiful and noble, but also foreshadows her coming betrayal when she chooses her heart over her duty.

Lancelot and Guinevere

“Queen Guinevere” by James Archer.  This is perhaps one of the only artistic portrayals of the burdens of being Arthur’s queen.  It is not clear whether the departing ship is Arthur leaving to fight the Saxons, or is Arthur’s death boat.  Either way, Guinevere must bear the burden of a soldier’s wife, as well as a king’s wife.  She must watch him go off to war, not knowing if and when he will return, left lonely and filled with anxiety.

Queen Guinevere

“Guinevere in her Golden Days” by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale.  Ms. Brickdale illustrated a version of Tennyson’s Idylls of a King.  These include many different stages of Guinevere’s life, from an innocent maiden, to a radiant young queen, to a guilt-ridden lover, to a penitent nun.  This one is my personal favorite, depicting Guinevere shortly after becoming queen, but before her affair with Lancelot.  The peace, leisure, and sumptuousness of being queen are well portrayed, as well as her natural beauty and grace.

Guinevere in her Golden Days

ARThurian: The Lady of Shalott

The Lady of Shalott, also known as Elaine of Astolat, is one of the most common subjects in Arthurian-inspired artwork.  To understand most interpretations of her, it is important to be familiar with Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott.”  In the poem, the Lady of Shalott is for an unknown reason imprisoned in a castle on the island of Shalott, adjacent to Camelot.  She is cursed to weave a tapestry and only see the world through a circular mirror that reflects the real world from the window opposite.  She knows there will be consequences if she looks into the real world, but she knows not what the consequence is.  One day she sees Lancelot through the window and she gives in and looks out her window at his real image, immediately falling in love with him.  Her tapestry unravels from the loom and the mirror cracks.  She leaves the tower and lies in a boat with her name carved in the side, floating down the river to Camelot as she dies.  Most likely it is her watery death and inescapable curse that draws people to her situation most strongly.

Her character in more traditional Arthurian legends is much different.  Many versions exist, including her being manipulated by her father, who convinces her to seduce Lancelot and bind her to him, she ends up falling in love with Lancelot.  Another version consists of her falling in love with Lancelot at a joust and asking him to wear her favor.  Most versions agree that she dies of a broken heart when Lancelot rejects her in favor of Guinevere, and her corpse floats to Camelot in a boat.  She is a flawed character, yet realistic and intriguing.  Maybe this is why artists love to interpret her character, appearance, and demise.

The first set of paintings are clearly depicting Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott, while the rest are most likely referring to Elaine of Astolat, whose fate inspired Tennyson’s character.

The Lady of Shalott

“‘I am Half-Sick of Shadows,’ Said the Lady of Shalott” by John William Waterhouse.  The title line of this piece is from Tennyson’s poem.  She can only view the real world through a circular mirror, and so is only experiencing shadows of reality.  She sees young lovers through the mirror and wishes she could take part in that world; this moment is expressing her awakened desire for love.

“‘I am Half-Sick of Shadows,’ Said the Lady of Shalott” by Sidney Meteyard.  This is also the line from Tennyson’s poem, like Waterhouse’s piece.  The circular mirror can be seen casting a dim reflection of the young lovers in the background.  The darker colors of this piece, as well as her pose, suggest a darker, more sensual tone.

“The Lady of Shalott” by William Maw Egley.  This is also portraying the moment when she glimpses Lancelot in reality, though the curse has yet to wreak its havoc.  Lancelot can be seen through the mirror on the opposite side of the room, and Camelot is visible through the widow at the back.

“The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot” by John William Waterhouse.  This is depicting the moment when she gives in and looks at Lancelot through the window.  We already see the curse is unfolding, as the mirror behind her cracks and the threads from the tapestry entangle her.  Lancelot’s armored head can be seen in the mirror.

“The Lady of Shalott” by William Holman Hunt.  This is also the moment of the curse bearing down upon her, with the cracked mirror, entangling threads, and her hair blowing wildly in some unearthly wind.  Lancelot is also visible through this mirror.  This piece is heavy in symbolism, from the numerous random objects scattered across the floor to the frescoes on the wall.

“The Lady of Shalott” by John William Waterhouse.  This is probably the most well-known paintings of the Lady of Shalott, and is perhaps the only one to depict her still alive in her death boat.  This particular piece is also interesting because the woman pictured looks completely different from the other two paintings in which Waterhouse depicts the Lady of Shalott.  She takes with her the tapestry she has been weaving in her tower for who knows how long, and her name is carved in the prow.  The raw emotion in her face is also evident; the viewer can clearly see the anguish and heartbreak she is experiencing.

“The Lady of Shalott” by Arthur Hughes.  This piece displays the reaction of peasant women, presumably collecting herbs by the river, to the tragic corpse of the lady.  Her paleness, along with her white gown, make her stand out and compare her to the graceful swan swimming alongside her.

“Lady of Shalott” by G. E. Robertson.  This painting depicts the moment her boat reaches Camelot.  The man leaning over her is most likely Lancelot, for he was the first to see her when she reaches Camelot and remarks that she had a lovely face.  In this piece, the Lady of Shalott is also lying on her woven tapestry and is displayed magnificently and tragically in her boat.

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Elaine of Astolat

“Elaine, or the Lily Maid of Astolat” by Sophie Anderson.  Most images of Elaine focus directly on her death and not on her predicament with Lancelot.  The bargeman is also a common figure in Elaine’s death and is portrayed mourning in this piece.  Elaine’s paleness is perhaps the most striking component, emphasizing both her fairness and her death.

“Elaine Floats Down to Camelot” by Briton Riviere.  This piece is much more peaceful, with a hint of a smile on Elaine’s porcelain-like face, as if she finally found peace and relief to her anguish through death.  The sunrise or sunset also suggests hope or a new beginning.  The bargeman’s contemplative pose also adds to the tone.

“Elaine” by Pollie Clarke.  This is a very romantic depiction of Elaine, adorned with lilles and arriving at the lush river bank.  The knight surveying her is most likely Lancelot.

“Elaine” by John Atkinson Grimshaw.  This piece is very somber and even spooky.  The red light makes the water look red, like blood, and hints at violence and/or chaos.  This contrasts to Elaine’s peaceful expression and white gown, implying she was the victim of a corrupt world.

ARThurian: Intro

Forgive the pun.  I couldn’t help myself.

Anyways, I have decided to use artistic interpretations to illustrate the many themes, characters, and events of Arthurian legends.

The topic Arthurian art is so expansive I have a hard time knowing where to start.  Really there are three main components:  Medieval art, which would consist of illuminations of the manuscripts that first developed Arthurian legends; the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which abounded in paintings of Camelot; and illustrations of more modern retellings of King Arthur’s story.  The Medieval illuminations are much harder to find, especially on the internet, as they are contained in very old, very valuable manuscripts inaccessible to the average person.  However, more modern interpretations of Arthurian legends come in copious amounts.

The Pre-Raphaelites are my personal favorites.  They literally dominate the scope of Arthurian-inspired art.  This was an art movement in the 19th century that sought to return to the classical style and content of art, especially like the Italian artists preceding Raphael.  Their inspiration was mainly derived from mythology, the Bible, and the Middle Ages.  Naturally, Arthurian legends were large components of this.

In the next few posts I will separate pieces by subject matter so it is easier to compare styles and interpretations of different characters and events in the legends.  Most paintings I will show are from the 19th century and early 20th century, as this is when the Arthurian revival was at its strongest.  They will also be mostly stand-alone, as in not commissioned to illustrate a book of Arthurian legends.  This allows the artist more freedom, and therefore opens up a wider variety of interpretations.

Untangling the Web

What do I think when I hear “Arthurian?”  Round table, witchcraft, sword in stone, adultery, knights, Camelot.  Sometimes I think of Monty Python, or the Disney cartoon, or Julia Ormond and Sean Connery.  I feel relatively familiar with the subject, but there is always an element of confusion that goes along with these thoughts.  I know the basic characters: Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, Morgan le Fay.  But there are always those more obscure individuals that pop up every so often that throw the standard plot into chaos: Elaine, Morgause, Igraine, Pellinore, Isolde, Mordred.  Where exactly do they fit?  What exactly happens in these legends that have been added to, embellished, and passed down through centuries upon centuries?

These are questions that led to me choose this topic for a research project.  I realize that some of these questions may not have answers.  That’s the problem with legends: there is no one right answer.  But that is also the intriguing thing about legends.  I want to explore all the different possibilities of these stories and how they actually relate to real events from history.

Examining these legends should also give me a good amount of insight into British culture and tradition.  These legends played a large role in and continue to contribute to British literature, art, and film.  Being able to take all of this in together will not just be exceedingly interesting, but also enlightening.

Lancelot and Guinevere by Herbert James Draper.  Did I mention there is bucketloads of beautiful Arthurian artwork out there, especially from my personal favorite, John William Waterhouse.  And Dante Gabriel Rossetti.  I will definitely be having multiple posts to come with some of their lovely art.