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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Age Of Chivalry - A. KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS - Chapter XII. Tristram and Isoude
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The Age Of Chivalry - A. KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS - Chapter XII. Tristram and Isoude Post by :calvin_thompson Category :Nonfictions Author :Thomas Bulfinch Date :January 2011 Read :1446

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The Age Of Chivalry - A. KING ARTHUR AND HIS KNIGHTS - Chapter XII. Tristram and Isoude

Meliadus was king of Leonois, or Lionesse, a country famous in the
annals of romance, which adjoined the kingdom of Cornwall, but has
now disappeared from the map, having been, it is said, overwhelmed
by the ocean. Meliadus was married to Isabella, sister of Mark,
king of Cornwall. A fairy fell in love with him, and drew him away
by enchantment while he was engaged in hunting. His queen set out
in quest of him, but was taken ill on her journey, and died,
leaving an infant son, whom, from the melancholy circumstances of
his birth, she called Tristram.

Gouvernail, the queen's squire, who had accompanied her, took
charge of the child, and restored him to his father, who had at
length burst the enchantments of the fairy, and returned home.

Meliadus after seven years married again, and the new queen, being
jealous of the influence of Tristram with his father, laid plots
for his life, which were discovered by Gouvernail, who in
consequence fled with the boy to the court of the king of France,
where Tristram was kindly received, and grew up improving in every
gallant and knightly accomplishment, adding to his skill in arms
the arts of music and of chess. In particular, he devoted himself
to the chase and to all woodland sports, so that he became
distinguished above all other chevaliers of the court for his
knowledge of all that relates to hunting. No wonder that Belinda,
the king's daughter, fell in love with him; but as he did not
return her passion, she, in a sudden impulse of anger, excited her
father against him, and he was banished the kingdom. The princess
soon repented of her act, and in despair destroyed herself, having
first written a most tender letter to Tristram, sending him at the
same time a beautiful and sagacious dog, of which she was very
fond, desiring him to keep it as a memorial of her. Meliadus was
now dead, and as his queen, Tristram's stepmother, held the
throne, Gouvernail was afraid to carry his pupil to his native
country, and took him to Cornwall, to his uncle Mark, who gave him
a kind reception.

King Mark resided at the castle of Tintadel, already mentioned in
the history of Uther and Igerne. In this court Tristram became
distinguished in all the exercises incumbent on a knight; nor was
it long before he had an opportunity of practically employing his
valor and skill. Moraunt, a celebrated champion, brother to the
queen of Ireland, arrived at the court, to demand tribute of King
Mark. The knights of Cornwall are in ill repute in romance for
their cowardice, and they exhibited it on this occasion. King Mark
could find no champion who dared to encounter the Irish knight,
till his nephew Tristram, who had not yet received the honors of
knighthood, craved to be admitted to the order, offering at the
same time to fight the battle of Cornwall against the Irish
champion. King Mark assented with reluctance; Tristram received
the accolade, which conferred knighthood upon him, and the place
and time were assigned for the encounter.

Without attempting to give the details of this famous combat, the
first and one of the most glorious of Tristram's exploits, we
shall only say that the young knight, though severely wounded,
cleft the head of Moraunt, leaving a portion of his sword in the
wound. Moraunt, half dead with his wound and the disgrace of his
defeat, hastened to hide himself in his ship, sailed away with all
speed for Ireland, and died soon after arriving in his own

The kingdom of Cornwall was thus delivered from its tribute.
Tristram, weakened by loss of blood, fell senseless. His friends
flew to his assistance. They dressed his wounds, which in general
healed readily; but the lance of Moraunt was poisoned, and one
wound which it made yielded to no remedies, but grew worse day by
day. The surgeons could do no more. Tristram asked permission of
his uncle to depart, and seek for aid in the kingdom of Loegria
(England). With his consent he embarked, and after tossing for
many days on the sea, was driven by the winds to the coast of
Ireland. He landed, full of joy and gratitude that he had escaped
the peril of the sea; took his rote,(Footnote: A musical
instrument.) and began to play. It was a summer evening, and the
king of Ireland and his daughter, the beautiful Isoude, were at a
window which overlooked the sea. The strange harper was sent for,
and conveyed to the palace, where, finding that he was in Ireland,
whose champion he had lately slain, he concealed his name, and
called himself Tramtris. The queen undertook his cure, and by a
medicated bath gradually restored him to health. His skill in
music and in games occasioned his being frequently called to
court, and he became the instructor of the princess Isoude in
minstrelsy and poetry, who profited so well under his care, that
she soon had no equal in the kingdom, except her instructor.

At this time a tournament was held, at which many knights of the
Round Table, and others, were present. On the first day a Saracen
prince, named Palamedes, obtained the advantage over all. They
brought him to the court, and gave him a feast, at which Tristram,
just recovering from his wound, was present. The fair Isoude
appeared on this occasion in all her charms. Palamedes could not
behold them without emotion, and made no effort to conceal his
love. Tristram perceived it, and the pain he felt from jealousy
taught him how dear the fair Isoude had already become to him.

Next day the tournament was renewed. Tristram, still feeble from
his wound, rose during the night, took his arms, and concealed
them in a forest near the place of the contest, and, after it had
begun, mingled with the combatants. He overthrew all that
encountered him, in particular Palamedes, whom he brought to the
ground with a stroke of his lance, and then fought him hand to
hand, bearing off the prize of the tourney. But his exertions
caused his wound to reopen; he bled fast, and in this sad state,
yet in triumph, they bore him to the palace. The fair Isoude
devoted herself to his relief with an interest which grew more
vivid day by day; and her skilful care soon restored him to

It happened one day that a damsel of the court, entering the
closet where Tristram's arms were deposited, perceived that a part
of the sword had been broken off. It occurred to her that the
missing portion was like that which was left in the skull of
Moraunt, the Irish champion. She imparted her thought to the
queen, who compared the fragment taken from her brother's wound
with the sword of Tristram, and was satisfied that it was part of
the same, and that the weapon of Tristram was that which reft her
brother's life. She laid her griefs and resentment before the
king, who satisfied himself with his own eyes of the truth of her
suspicions. Tristram was cited before the whole court, and
reproached with having dared to present himself before them after
having slain their kinsman. He acknowledged that he had fought
with Moraunt to settle the claim for tribute, and said that it was
by force of winds and waves alone that he was thrown on their
coast. The queen demanded vengeance for the death of her brother;
the fair Isoude trembled and grew pale, but a murmur rose from all
the assembly that the life of one so handsome and so brave should
not be taken for such a cause, and generosity finally triumphed
over resentment in the mind of the king. Tristram was dismissed in
safety, but commanded to leave the kingdom without delay, and
never to return thither under pain of death Tristram went back,
with restored health, to Cornwall.

King Mark made his nephew give him a minute recital of his
adventures. Tristram told him all minutely; but when he came to
speak of the fair Isoude he described her charms with a warmth and
energy such as none but a lover could display. King Mark was
fascinated with the description, and, choosing a favorable time,
demanded a boon(Footnote: "Good faith was the very corner-stone of
chivalry. Whenever a knight's word was pledged (it mattered not
how rashly) it was to be redeemed at any price. Hence the sacred
obligation of the boon granted by a knight to his suppliant.
Instances without number occur in romance, in which a knight, by
rashly granting an indefinite boon, was obliged to do or suffer
something extremely to his prejudice. But it is not in romance
alone that we find such singular instances of adherence to an
indefinite promise. The history of the times presents authentic
transactions equally embarrassing and absurd"--SCOTT, note to Sir
Tristram.) of his nephew, who readily granted it. The king made
him swear upon the holy reliques that he would fulfil his
commands. Then Mark directed him to go to Ireland, and obtain for
him the fair Isoude to be queen of Cornwall.

Tristram believed it was certain death for him to return to
Ireland; and how could he act as ambassador for his uncle in such
a cause? Yet, bound by his oath, he hesitated not for an instant.
He only took the precaution to change his armor. He embarked for
Ireland; but a tempest drove him to the coast of England, near
Camelot, where King Arthur was holding his court, attended by the
knights of the Round Table, and many others, the most illustrious
in the world.

Tristram kept himself unknown. He took part in many justs; he
fought many combats, in which he covered himself with glory. One
day he saw among those recently arrived the king of Ireland,
father of the fair Isoude. This prince, accused of treason against
his liege sovereign, Arthur, came to Camelot to free himself from
the charge. Blaanor, one of the most redoubtable warriors of the
Round Table, was his accuser, and Argius, the king, had neither
youthful vigor nor strength to encounter him. He must therefore
seek a champion to sustain his innocence. But the knights of the
Round Table were not at liberty to fight against one another,
unless in a quarrel of their own. Argius heard of the great renown
of the unknown knight; he also was witness of his exploits. He
sought him, and conjured him to adopt his defence, and on his oath
declared that he was innocent of the crime of which he was
accused. Tristram readily consented, and made himself known to the
king, who on his part promised to reward his exertions, if
successful, with whatever gift he might ask.

Tristram fought with Blaanor, and overthrew him, and held his life
in his power. The fallen warrior called on him to use his right of
conquest, and strike the fatal blow. "God forbid," said Tristram,
"that I should take the life of so brave a knight!" He raised him
up and restored him to his friends. The judges of the field
decided that the king of Ireland was acquitted of the charge
against him, and they led Tristram in triumph to his tent. King
Argius, full of gratitude, conjured Tristram to accompany him to
his kingdom. They departed together, and arrived in Ireland; and
the queen, forgetting her resentment for her brother's death,
exhibited to the preserver of her husband's life nothing but
gratitude and good-will.

How happy a moment for Isoude, who knew that her father had
promised his deliverer whatever boon he might ask! But the unhappy
Tristram gazed on her with despair, at the thought of the cruel
oath which bound him. His magnanimous soul subdued the force of
his love. He revealed the oath which he had taken, and with
trembling voice demanded the fair Isoude for his uncle.

Argius consented, and soon all was prepared for the departure of
Isoude. Brengwain, her favorite maid of honor, was to accompany
her. On the day of departure the queen took aside this devoted
attendant, and told her that she had observed that her daughter
and Tristram were attached to one another, and that to avert the
bad effects of this inclination she had procured from a powerful
fairy a potent philter (love-draught), which she directed
Brengwain to administer to Isoude and to King Mark on the evening
of their marriage.

Isoude and Tristram embarked together. A favorable wind filled the
sails, and promised them a fortunate voyage. The lovers gazed upon
one another, and could not repress their sighs. Love seemed to
light up all his fires on their lips, as in their hearts. The day
was warm; they suffered from thirst. Isoude first complained.
Tristram descried the bottle containing the love-draught, which
Brengwain had been so imprudent as to leave in sight. He took it,
gave some of it to the charming Isoude, and drank the remainder
himself. The dog Houdain licked the cup. The ship arrived in
Cornwall, and Isoude was married to King Mark, The old monarch was
delighted with his bride, and his gratitude to Tristram was
unbounded. He loaded him with honors, and made him chamberlain of
his palace, thus giving him access to the queen at all times.

In the midst of the festivities of the court which followed the
royal marriage, an unknown minstrel one day presented himself,
bearing a harp of peculiar construction. He excited the curiosity
of King Mark by refusing to play upon it till he should grant him
a boon. The king having promised to grant his request, the
minstrel, who was none other than the Saracen knight, Sir
Palamedes, the lover of the fair Isoude, sung to the harp a lay,
in which he demanded Isoude as the promised gift. King Mark could
not by the laws of knighthood withhold the boon. The lady was
mounted on her horse, and led away by her triumphant lover.
Tristram, it is needless to say, was absent at the time, and did
not return until their departure. When he heard what had taken
place he seized his rote, and hastened to the shore, where Isoude
and her new master had already embarked. Tristram played upon his
rote, and the sound reached the ears of Isoude, who became so
deeply affected, that Sir Palamedes was induced to return with her
to land, that they might see the unknown musician. Tristram
watched his opportunity, seized the lady's horse by the bridle,
and plunged with her into the forest, tauntingly informing his
rival that "what he had got by the harp he had lost by the rote."
Palamedes pursued, and a combat was about to commence, the result
of which must have been fatal to one or other of these gallant
knights; but Isoude stepped between them, and, addressing
Palamedes, said, "You tell me that you love me; you will not then
deny me the request I am about to make?" "Lady," he replied, "I
will perform your bidding." "Leave, then," said she, "this
contest, and repair to King Arthur's court, and salute Queen
Guenever from me; tell her that there are in the world but two
ladies, herself and I, and two lovers, hers and mine; and come
thou not in future in any place where I am." Palamedes burst into
tears. "Ah, lady," said he, "I will obey you; but I beseech you
that you will not for ever steel your heart against me."
"Palamedes," she replied, "may I never taste of joy again if I
ever quit my first love." Palamedes then went his way. The lovers
remained a week in concealment, after which Tristram restored
Isoude to her husband, advising him in future to reward minstrels
in some other way.

The king showed much gratitude to Tristram, but in the bottom of
his heart he cherished bitter jealousy of him. One day Tristram
and Isoude were alone together in her private chamber. A base and
cowardly knight of the court, named Andret, spied them through a
keyhole. They sat at a table of chess, but were not attending to
the game. Andret brought the king, having first raised his
suspicions, and placed him so as to watch their motions. The king
saw enough to confirm his suspicions, and he burst into the
apartment with his sword drawn, and had nearly slain Tristram
before he was put on his guard. But Tristram avoided the blow,
drew his sword, and drove before him the cowardly monarch, chasing
him through all the apartments of the palace, giving him frequent
blows with the flat of his sword, while he cried in vain to his
knights to save him. They were not inclined, or did not dare, to
interpose in his behalf.

A proof of the great popularity of the tale of Sir Tristram is the
fact that the Italian poets, Boiardo and Ariosto, have founded
upon it the idea of the two enchanted fountains, which produced
the opposite effects of love and hatred. Boiardo thus describes
the fountain of hatred:

"Fair was that fountain, sculptured all of gold,
With alabaster sculptured, rich and rare;
And in its basin clear thou might'st behold
The flowery marge reflected fresh and fair.
Sage Merlin framed the font,--so legends bear,--
When on fair Isoude doated Tristram brave,
That the good errant knight, arriving there,
Might quaff oblivion in the enchanted wave,
And leave his luckless love, and 'scape his timeless grave.

'But ne'er the warrior's evil fate allowed
His steps that fountain's charmed verge to gain.
Though restless, roving on adventure proud,
He traversed oft the land and oft the main."

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