Many of you will be familiar with the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde from the Wagnerian opera (1865). You may not be aware that the story is one of the oldest legends from Welsh folktales and is one of those which has contributed to the Arthurian legend.
While researching for my family saga, Pendyffryn, I read several interpretations of The Mabinogi – including Gwyn Jones and Elizabeth Walton. My 1955 copy of Welsh Legend and Folk-Tales is tattered and spent but gave me a fresh look at this story I thought I knew until I read the source legend. I included this story in my contribution to Celtic Queens, Donna Goode and Lisa Campbell’s blog in June 2010.
In the first book of Pendyffryn: The Conquerors, Gwennan tells this story at her wedding feast. How her new husband interprets this tale forms the substance of their first year of marriage.
The source legend is Welsh and forms part of the tales of Arthur. The story of Trystan and Esyllt is life-affirming and perfect for a wedding feast. My inspiration for my interpretation of this love story is from Welsh Legend and Folk-Tales, by Gwyn Jones, (1955, Oxford University Press):
News reached Arthur that Trystan and Esyllt were wandering together as outlaws in the oakwoods. Esyllt’s husband, March, Arthur’s nephew, came to the court to demand vengeance, claiming that his kinship to Arthur made his case of higher merit. Trystan was only the son of one of Arthur’s cousins. Arthur agreed that he would hear the case.
March and his warband surrounded the oakwoods. Esyllt was frightened but Trystan hid her in the hollow of an oak, concealed by ivy, holly and a nearby yew tree, telling her that his destiny would prevent harm to him. March knew that any man who drew blood from Trystan would die so he sent his men to bring Trystan out, but the men refused to do what their war-lord would not.
March complained again to Arthur who sent harpists and poets to placate Trystan so that he could be drawn into discussion. Both men refused to give up Esyllt and Arthur pronounced that she would be shared: with one when the leaves were full on the trees and with the other when the trees were bare. Her husband was given the first choice and claimed his wife when the winter nights seemed longer than all the days of summer.
Arthur went with his war band to tell Esyllt of the decision. She interpreted the pronouncement as best suited her and rejoiced in his judgment, singing:
“Three trees there are, all good and true:
Holly and ivy and yew are they:
They keep their leaves the whole year through,
And Trystan shall have me for ever and aye.”
This is the original Welsh legend of how Trystan won Esyllt and they lived happily ever after. The tale was rewritten as a tragedy in the Romantic Period of the mid-19th Century to satisfy the dictates of society and the hunger for moral retribution. Unfortunately, this erroneous interpretation is the one best remembered, in the same way that Mallory’s and T.H. White’s English-biased interpretation of the Arthurian myth has dominated our culture for centuries.
Gwennan likens her new husband to the yew (one of the trees that sheltered Esyllt), powerful but poisonous. Whether Gwennan and Jehan-Emíl’s love story will have a similar happy outcome is revealed in the first book of Pendyffryn: The Conquerors, my series about Cymru/Wales during the turbulent 9th Century. Invasion is available as an ebook on the ibookstore, kobo, amazon, sony, all romance ebooks and through Eres at smashwords.
Invasion is now also available in print, published this month!