Fundamentals of Forbidden Love with Tristan & Isolde

Literature Reviews, Mythology, Poetry, Psychology, Thoughts

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The themes of romance, love, and other aspects of medieval culture are found in the story of Tristan and Isolde. These themes that are historic yet contemporary fill the ancient tale of Tristan & Isolde. This epic story of forbidden love is perhaps one of my favorite love stories ever. Themes of romance, love, loyalty - and even betrayal, have carried over into contemporary media through generations and thousands of years. This media is given to us by the dozens in the form of books, operas, plays, comics, and movies. Tristan & Isolde, the 2006 film directed by Reynolds which features James Franco and Sophia Myles is a direct adaptation of the classic Celtic love story that features two beloved characters (Tristan and Isolde, 2006).
Tristan & Isolde, 2006 film

The themes of romance, love, and other aspects of medieval culture are found in the story of Tristan and Isolde. These themes that are historic yet contemporary fill the ancient tale of Tristan & Isolde. This epic story of forbidden love is perhaps one of my favorite love stories ever. Themes of romance, love, loyalty – and even betrayal, have carried over into contemporary media through generations and thousands of years. This media is given to us by the dozens in the form of books, operas, plays, comics, and movies. Tristan & Isolde, the 2006 film directed by Reynolds which features James Franco and Sophia Myles is a direct adaptation of the classic Celtic love story that features two beloved characters (Tristan and Isolde, 2006). The movie was inspired by the medieval literature version of the tale that was first popularized in the 12th century (Greenblatt, 2018). In this lesson on the Fundamentals of Forbidden Love, we will go over why forbidden love is just so extremely delicious and tempting, as well as how this timeless theme has survived over hundreds and thousands of years.

Tristan and Isolde. Schloss Nueschwanstein, August Spiess, 1881
Tristan and Isolde. Schloss Nueschwanstein, August Spiess, 1881

Picture this: The Roman Empire is in pieces, and chaos is in charge of the British Isles. Angles, Saxons, and Jutes live on the east side, while Irish King Donnchadh rules the west side. Tristan becomes an orphan at a very young age due to his village being attacked by the Irish. His parents were murdered in front of him, and at the same moment – Isolde was mourning the death of her mother, the Irish Queen of King Donnchadh. As time goes on, the orphan Tristan becomes a man and fights many battles. In a mysterious way, he finds himself swept up on the shores of Ireland all alone; that is until Princess Isolde finds him. Isolde nurses Tristan back to good health until he is well enough to set sail again. Isolde the Irish princess can’t escape her fate that she is to wed Lord Mark, the very man who brought up Tristan after his parents were murdered in cold blood during battle (Tristan and Isolde, 2006). Though this summary is of the 2006 film, I highly recommend all to read the original and much older versions of Tristan and Isolde.

“If things were different; if we lived in a place without duty, would you be with me?” Tristan says, “That place does not exist.”

In an instant, both of their hearts shatter as Isolde tells him, “I’ll pretend it’s you…” just before she disappears behind the royal chamber doors with her new King.

Tristan and Isolde, 2006
La Belle Dame Sans Merci, exh.1902 by Sir Frank Dicksee
La Belle Dame Sans Merci, exh.1902 by Sir Frank Dicksee

Tristan would be the one who would earn her hand in marriage during a tournament set up by Isolde’s father, King Donnchadh. Tristan would win her not for himself, but for his master and leader: the future King Mark of Cornwall. Without knowing who she truly is, Isolde was won by Tristan for Mark. Isolde hid her royalty from Tristan from the moment she found him on the shores. She never told him that she was the princess (Tristan and Isolde, 2006).  However, their romantic passion and love for each other would cause a schism that has devastating consequences as a highlighted case of forbidden love. Tristan and Isolde were subject to torture in the form of not legally being able to stay together. Since Isolde now belonged to the King, Tristan was devastated and the amount of pain and psychological suffering that he endured was enough for him to be completely broken and shattered. For Isolde, the feeling was of course the same. Imagine, you are forced to marry another with zero way out when your heart belongs to someone else. Long before Romeo and Juliet, there existed this sad and beautiful story based on legends from Cornwall, Ireland, and various characters from the British Isles. Some tales say Tristan was one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table (Hodges, 1993), (Stevens 1973).

The young fairy-tale characters that are prohibited from being in love are only a small fraction of the romantic elements found in the 2006 movie, Tristan and Isolde. Ancient manuscript-based tales and contemporary films both incorporate the valiant hero and other more conventional components of chivalry-style romances. Forbidden love often walks hand in hand with “courtly love”. If you are unfamiliar, allow me to explain. What separates courtly love from romantic love? The majority of us associate romance and attraction with love. Romantic love may be frequently made public when there is a marriage or other public agreement. On the other hand, courtly love had nothing to do with getting married.

Courtly love, a highly conventionalized medieval tradition of love between a knight and a married noblewoman that was commonly employed in medieval European literature, was created by the troubadours (French medieval lyric poets) of southern France. Because love was regarded as an ennobling passion, the knight and his lady frequently did not marry. According to some academics, the term “courtly love” now refers to an idea of love that first appeared in the Middle Ages and caused a revolution in thought and emotion that reverberated throughout Western culture.

The courtly lord’s main goal was to please his lady, even though marriage was never an option. Courtly love was characterized by a series of stylized rites between a knight and a married, high-status lady in Europe during the Middle Ages. These idealized customs were based on the established codes of decency, courtesy, and valor associated with knights. So, though courtly love was and is a well-established concept, that does not mean it is widely accepted. Thus, we have Forbidden Love.

H. WESTON TAYLOR oil painting, TRISTAN & ISOLDE.

A forbidden love story’s famous characteristics and core components include romance, heroism, adultery, and doomed lovers who are categorically prohibited from being together (Stevens, 1973). Tristan, a valiant hero, confronts the adversary and kills him, but he subsequently sustains his own wounds. The fatal couple keeps their relationship a secret from their Kings and kingdoms (Tristan and Isolde, 2006). Romeo and Juliet have the same concepts. The notion of forbidden love—love that is outright banned by individuals, nations, or kingdoms—remains present not only in Romeo and Juliet but also in Spielberg’s most recent West Side Story film.

Both the medieval texts and the movie of Tristan and Isolde make extensive use of literary tropes and aspects. The story has a love-centered tone and mood, yet it also unfolds as a tragic drama. There are many parts of living in a royal environment that are quite pertinent, such as how Princess Isolde is compelled to hide the fact that she met Tristan; and the fact that she is made to marry against her will twice in the film (Tristan and Isolde, 2006). In the movie Tristan and Isolde, foreshadowing is a literary element that plays a key role. The philosophical underpinning of the entire movie is the foreshadowing of love and death. The film emphasizes how these two ideas are intertwined and can certainly be viewed as a single entity or concept. Due to his adoration, love, and respect for Tristan, King Mark downplayed the relationship between his wife Isolde, and his long-time companion Tristan. King Mark couldn’t accept the relationship and betrayal of the both of them, despite them having been in love long before Isolde was forced to marry him. This downplaying by King Mark is a prime example of an understatement being used and developed as a literary device within the movie (Tristan and Isolde, 2006).

Because it emphasizes an unbreakable love even when it leads to catastrophe, the Tristan and Isolde story has inspired artists since the middle ages. In addition to the surviving texts and film, Tristan and Isolde are portrayed in literature, music, paintings, and other various media. The medieval romance theme continues to be told today in all forms of storytelling and media (Stevens, 1973).
Rogelio de Egusquiza, Tristan and Isolde

Because it emphasizes an unbreakable love even when it leads to catastrophe, the Tristan and Isolde story has inspired artists since the middle ages. In addition to the surviving texts and film, Tristan and Isolde are portrayed in literature, music, paintings, and other various media. The medieval romance theme continues to be told today in all forms of storytelling and media (Stevens, 1973). Plays, poems, and operas have all been readapted with several different versions of this classic medieval tale. “Tristan and Isolde seem to have been drawn into the Arthurian orbit in the second half of the twelfth century. Marie de France wrote a lai (Chevrefoil) about them; another Anglo-Norman poet, Thomas, a long romance of which only fragments survive. From Thomas’s romance derives the greatest Tristan poem, Gottfried von Strassburg’s (c. 1210); and incidentally, a Norse version, Tristrams Saga (1226) (Stevens, 1973). Several great poems were composed during the 1800s and were based on the story. Matthew Arnold’s Tristram and Iseult; are one of them (Encyclopedia of World Mythology, 2022). The archetypes, motifs, and symbols of heroes, romance, forbidden love, and betrayal found within the movie have been repeated for as long as stories and poems have been written.

Tristan and Isolde, Death Rogelio de Egusquiza y Barrena (1845-1915) was a Spanish painter, known for his friendship with the German composer Richard Wagner, whose works he helped make familiar in Spain. Tristan and Isolde, Death (Oil on Canvas), by Rogelio de Egusquiza
Tristan and Isolde, Death Rogelio de Egusquiza y Barrena (1845-1915) was a Spanish painter, known for his friendship with the German composer Richard Wagner, whose works he helped make familiar in Spain. Tristan and Isolde, Death (Oil on Canvas), by Rogelio de Egusquiza

More often than not, Hollywood is criticized for its lack of creative movie plots. This is an understandable statement, yet one that overlooks the ageless nature of certain stories. Regardless of their distinct outward traits, these forbidden love stories will always have a lasting impression on audiences. Romantic dramas, such as the tale of Tristan and Isolde, are especially effective in this regard. The numerous versions and adaptations of Tristan and Isolde demonstrate how reinterpretation may manifest itself in diverse media. Heroes and damsels in distress are one of the oldest and most repetitive character archetypes of all time; both of which can be seen in the 2006 movie, manuscripts, and even contemporary fiction novels. Although Isolde is a princess, nothing can save her from the torture that she experiences internally through forced marriages to men that she doesn’t love. Her heart belongs to Tristan, and the both of them know it and as the movie goes on the devastation becomes clear (Tristan and Isolde, 2006).

“Yesterday at the market, I saw a couple holding hands and I realized we’ll never do that. Never anything like it; no picnics or unguarded smiles. No rings. Just stolen moments that leave too quickly”

Tristan and Isolde, 2006

“Yesterday at the market, I saw a couple holding hands and I realized we’ll never do that. Never anything like it; no picnics or unguarded smiles. No rings. Just stolen moments that leave too quickly” (Tristan and Isolde, 2006). This line takes place in a scene where Tristan and Isolde are talking in a common market and manage to exchange a few words while they hope and pray they aren’t being watched.

There are plenty of gut-wrenching and heartbreaking lines within the film that display aspects of medieval culture and even courtly love on top of the forbidden love theme. On the wedding night of Isolde and King Mark, Isolde manages to whisper to Tristan on the way to consummate the marriage, “If things were different; if we lived in a place without duty, would you be with me?” Tristan proceeds to tell her, “That place does not exist.” In an instant, both of their hearts shatter as she tells him, “I’ll pretend it’s you…” just before she disappears behind the royal chamber doors with her new King.

Herbert James Draper,(1864-1920), (Tristan and Isolde 1901)
Herbert James Draper,(1864-1920), (Tristan and Isolde 1901)

The 2006 movie which derives from medieval literature has made a large impact on contemporary Western culture. It is amazing to experience how the narrative has changed throughout time. The story even served as inspiration for Shakespeare, in which some versions of Tristan and Isolde utilize drinkable poison as an element of the story. We can directly relate various other love stories to Romeo and Juliet. If you’ve ever seen West Side Story, you know that William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet served as the basis for the musical.

Humanity can always relate to love, which is the one part of life that unites all living things. Until the end of time, stories of love, including those about unrequited love, lost love, and desire for such love will be told.

Humanity can always relate to love, which is the one part of life that unites all living things. Until the end of time, stories of love, including those about unrequited love, lost love, and desire for such love will be told.

A more recent adaptation of this particular story is set in the world of King Arthur in the 2009 book Twilight of Avalon. Isolde is the daughter of Guinevere and Mordred in this trilogy’s first book, which was written by Anna Elliott. In this version, Mark is the obvious and repugnant villain. Tristan is revealed to be Mark’s son—not his nephew—by a different woman. The internal conflict in Britain is a major source of drama in this book, as it was in the film. The story of Tristan and Isolde is a noteworthy example of how diverse media in Western culture can result in various interpretations of the same subject.

Photo by Pixabay

Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde from 1865 also addresses this tragic love story, thus movies and books aren’t the only media for this narrative. Tristan and Isolde have the capacity to move viewers because it is a love story with a tragic and dramatic finish, regardless of the platform used to follow the adventure.

“But since I could not come in time and did not hear what had happened and have come and found you dead, I shall console myself by drinking of the same cup. You have forfeited your life on my account, and I shall do as a true lover: I will die for you in return!”

– Isolde on Tristan’s death. Tristan with the ‘Tristran’ of Thomas
Gottfried von Strassburg

“But since I could not come in time and did not hear what had happened and have come and found you dead, I shall console myself by drinking of the same cup. You have forfeited your life on my account, and I shall do as a true lover: I will die for you in return!” (Greenblatt, 2018). There’s just something that will forever be incredibly powerful about love that is so strong and so real that one would rather die than live without their lover – especially a forbidden love.

How on earth could someone say something like that? Would you rather die than live without your lover? Have you ever recalled feeling that way once, or more? What is it about this forbidden love that makes it so unique? The answer is that a forbidden romance offers you a sense of excitement. Forbidden love provides an adrenaline rush and a thrill that makes it highly appealing.

medieval mirror case depicting Lancelot and Guinevere
medieval mirror case depicting Lancelot and Guinevere

Think back to a time when someone warned you not to do something, but all it did was make you more eager to go ahead and do it anyway. We look for things that are risky and sworn as forbidden in the hope that doing so would make us happier and give us more power than the other people in our sphere of influence. Behavioral scientists make use of a concept known as the “forbidden fruit effect,” which describes the tendency to focus greater attention on topics that one has been told specifically not to think about.

Today, a popular motif in films is a love that is banned and forbidden. These stories are commonly used in literature and films for a very specific reason: it is because they are rife with melodrama and give audiences the opportunity to experience powerful feelings. The overall impact of Tristan & Isolde on contemporary ideas and Western culture is still relevant today and going strong. From von Strassburg’s Tristan and Isolt as well Joseph Bédier’s modern adaptation, all the way up to the University of Chicago presenting a live-stream concert series based on the Tristan saga (Rantala, 2021) – it is clear that this story (and the archetypes and themes found within) will be part of human history until the end of time. Themes of romance, love, devotion, and even betrayal have penetrated modern society and will continue to be found in a wide variety of literary works, including operas, plays, comic books, and movies.

And now, I will leave you with this beautiful poem that was recited in the movie titled “The Good-Morrow”.

The Good-Morrow

By John Donne

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.

Works Cited:

Greenblatt, Stephen, and James Simpson. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. W.W. Norton, 2018. 

Shakespeare, William, et al. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet: Folger Edition. Demco Media, 2004.

Reynolds, Kevin, director. Tristan And Isolde. 2006.

Encyclopedia.com, Encyclopedia of World Mythology. 2022.

Stevens, John. Medieval Romance: Themes and Approaches by John Stevens. Hutchinson, 1973.

Elliot, Anna. Twilight of Avalon: A Novel of Trystan & Isolde. Touchstone Books, 2009.

Hodges, Margaret, et al. Of Swords and Sorcerers: The Adventures of King Arthur and His Knights. Scribner, 1993.

Wagner, Richard, 1813-1883. Tristan Und Isolde. Leipzig :Druck und Verlag von Breitkopf und Härtel, 1859.

Spielberg, Steven, director. West Side Story. 2021.

Rantala, M.L. “Quince Bears Fruit with Tristan and Isolde Adaptation.” Hyde Park Herald, 27 May 2021

Donne, John. “The Good-Morrow by John Donne.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44104/the-good-morrow.

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