Title: Tristan & Iseult
Author: Rosemary Sutcliff
Spoiler-free Synopsis: In the days of King Arthur, Tristan defeats Ireland’s champion and gains the friendship of his uncle, King Marc of Cornwall, who entrusts him with a mission: to sail the seas in search of a flame-haired queen. But a troublesome fate descends when Tristan and Iseult fall in love, and their passion for each other wars with their love and respect for Marc.
Reason for Beginning: Sutcliff. Arthurian historical fiction. Retelling of a medieval legend. BAM, said the lady.
Reason for Finishing: Sutcliff. Arthurian historical fiction. Retelling of a medieval legend. You get the picture.
Story Re-readability: Fairly high, I should think. It’s very short for a novel, and moves quickly. The story, legend that it is, has more inherent drama than is usual for Sutcliff’s laid-back novels, so every chapter you read will tell you something interesting and important that is happening. And you’ll like these characters enough to revisit them.
Author Re-readability: It’s no secret that I love Sutcliff and find her the most endlessly re-readable author in my library. For me to reread her novels is like reminiscing about the good times with an old friend. Maybe not everyone will feel as strongly as I do, but if you read a book of hers once and like it, I highly recommend you reread it again after a year or so. She always rewards her readers with more subtle depth in her stories than we initially expect. After two, three, four, or even five rereads, many of her characters will be counted among your dear friends.
Recommendation: Most certainly, for everyone. In fact, this is probably a good introduction: 1) to Sutcliff, if you’re wary of committing the time of a longer, slower novel for an author you’ve never read, or 2) to Arthurian romance, if you’re intimidated by the medieval tellings themselves but want to get some of their feel and texture through a modern lens. Established fans of Sutcliff or this subject matter will be completely satisfied with her treatment.
In most of her novels, Sutcliff’s prose evokes deep, earthy textures that seep into you as you read; sometimes you have to slow down a bit and breathe a bit slower as her sentences curl their roots around your imagination, intending to stay and grow there. In Tristan & Iseult, her prose is quicker, livelier, but still uniquely hers, like a thickly woven tapestry which is not as immersive as, say, a sculpture, but is not as two-dimensional as a painting. At least, that is how I think of it. It’s the perfect style for this story, hovering as it does between historical fiction and legend. We watch it unfold in a fairly accurately-described Wales, Ireland, and Brittany, but on the edges of the tale are King Arthur and a dragon, and at its center is the tragic love triangle that gave birth to the intrigues of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.
What makes it especially tragic is that there is no villain. We love all three of them, and they all love each other: Tristan, Iseult, and King Marc. They are all good people, who desire justice and admire it in others. When Marc discovers the affair, neither of the lovers can blame him for his anger and pain, because they know in their hearts they have wronged him. But they are too weak to the temptations of the flesh to stop themselves, and King Marc too hurt by the betrayal of his two dearest companions, that we feel the threads of a black fate tightening around them all, bringing inevitable doom and heartbreak to the end.
And when he made no reply, she said, ‘Shall I tell you the true reason that I did not kill you when I found the splinter lacking from your sword blade?’
‘I am thinking,’ said Tristan, ‘that it is best you do not tell me.’
‘It was because I loved you,’ said the Princess. ‘I was not knowing it then. I was not knowing why it was like a sword turning in my heart when you stood before my father and claimed me for the King of Cornwall when I had thought to hear you claim me for yourself. I was not knowing until you lifted me in your arms to carry me ashore in this place. Tristan, whoever takes me for his wife, whether you will or no, and God help me, you are my Lord as long as I live.’
And Tristan bent his head into his hands and groaned.
Although these are the characters and landscape of legend, Sutcliff writes them with tender dignity and a sort of restrained realism, the kind that takes note that the trees overhanging the lovers’ hideout are not just any trees, but hazel and hawthorn and thick-set oak. They are flesh and blood and tears; whereas some medieval versions of the story invoked a love potion to force Tristan and Iseult into adultery, here it is just their passion and their loneliness. There is some room for epic heroism, though. Tristan’s worries and passions are recognizably human, but his feats are just larger enough than life to inject the somber tale with some good, old-fashioned thrill and excitement.
The gulls wove their white curves of flight across the face of the cliffs below him; the jump would have been death to any other man, but Tristan had learned well from his masters in his Lothian boyhood, and had not forgotten how to make the Hero Leap. He filled himself with air until he felt as light as the wheeling sea-birds, and drew himself together and sprang out and down.
If I have one criticism of the book, it is that Sutcliff makes Tristan so good, honest, and self-controlled that I can hardly believe he would actually betray his uncle and best friend with Iseult. Both he and Iseult know it is wrong, and Tristan at least is very principled. I didn’t quite believe that they would give into their passions, when Marc himself is so good and worthy a friend to them both. But this is legend, and their fates are sealed. I think I can detect, from Sutcliff’s telling, a loneliness to both Tristan and Iseult. They each are greatly loved by many people and have many friends, but no true spiritual companions except each other. Maybe that’s why Sutcliff thinks they fell into each others’ arms so desperately, so often, despite the harm they knew they were doing to a good man.