Book Review: “Tristan & Iseult” by Rosemary Sutcliff

Title: Tristan & Iseult
Author: Rosemary Sutcliff
Pages: 150
Published: 1971
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.

Key Thoughts

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.


12 thoughts on “Book Review: “Tristan & Iseult” by Rosemary Sutcliff

  1. I have to admit that I avoid the retellings of the Tristan/Isolde/Mark or Lancelot/Guinevere/Arthur stories even more than the originals (which I dutifully read for the purposes of education and such). I avidly dislike the tragic conclusion that the stories inevitably reach, since, especially with Arthur, it means the end of Camelot and Arthur himself. I don’t want to read about that. It is too real to me and makes me sad.

    But if a book does render the story well, I am cautiously open to reading a retelling. I do respect authors who are able to retain the original themes and spirit of a story even as they rework it into their own creative imaginings. That’s what the Welsh bards of old would have done, I like to think.

    As for how a character as good as Tristan being able to fail so epically, I think that is very well within keeping with the old and original stories. The heroes, villains, and many other characters of Welsh Arthurian legend are rarely described in nuances. They are the best, the bravest, the strongest, the wisest, and bloodiest, the cruelest, the fairest. I lose track of how many heroes were taller and stronger than any man ever born or how many women were the fairest in the land.

    And yet, these best and bravest and strongest make the most tragic and foolish mistakes. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but I think it was a means of heightening both the drama and tragedy of the event. He was the best and noblest, and yet he failed, and yet he was still the best and noblest. Our stories today would not allow such a thing, but the Arthurian legends did quite often. Or at least, as I recall. My brain is a bit muddled in a haze of Scots Gaelic and Medieval Welsh and I don’t quite know which way is up or down at the moment.

    1. Oh I agree, on both accounts. I’ve realized recently that I don’t really like the central Arthurian legend — the adultery of Guinevere and Lancelot. I like Camelot, I love the Sword in the Stone and Merlin and all that, and I love the Grail Quest and all the intervening quests and adventures that the knights go on. But whenever anyone retells “the legend of King Arthur,” it’s always the adultery plot that brings everything crashing down, and while it’s always tragic, it’s never really satisfying. So while I do read retellings, I never love them as much as I sort of hope to.

      I like Tristan and Iseult more, though. The characters are more appealing, the setting less cluttered. And so far, Sutcliff’s is probably my favorite retelling of this early British love triangle.

  2. This one, along with _Song for a Dark Queen_ about Boudicca, has been on my shelf for a long time, and I’ve never gotten around to reading it. *sigh* So many books, and not enough time.

    1. Aye. I’ve a copy of Warrior Scarlet that’s sat on my shelf for at least two years or so, unread. Hope to get to it soon, but with all the other unread books waiting for me, I can’t promise it. And those are just the ones I already own — I’ve a long list of books marked “for later” at the library, including more Sutcliffs.

      1. Speaking of those books you’ve been meaning to get around to, I restarted the Riddlemaster trilogy today (I made it only 90 pages last time), which was an act of supreme insanity because the semester officially starts TOMORROW, but I really want to read it. And I’ve gotta have something to balance those modern authors like Joyce and Woolf, right?

        1. Absolutely! I remember thinking Woolf was whiny, and I view Joyce with arched eyebrows and some trepidation at the thought of trying to read him. Good luck with that. But yay! Let me know what you think of The Riddlemaster. I’m almost finished with Valente’s Habitation of the Blessed (which is almost as prettily written as it is vehemently anti-Christian) and need to decide what to read next: I’m leaning towards either The Bell at Sealey Head, or another Stephen Lawhead book (his Robin Hood trilogy, mayhap?), or The Mabinogion. Feel free to push me in any particular direction (or introduce another one).

          1. Duh, you had to ask? Bell at Sealey Head, of course!!!!! *you may imagine me jumping up and down excitedly–may I have been watching too much My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic lately, you wonder?*

            That’s too bad about the Valente. I do love her Orphan’s Tales so much, and was hoping for more stories from her that I could get behind so completely. Please read those soon, okay? (Incidentally, I think of those books every day when I cook breakfast because my mom and sister gave me a gorgeous apron with birds and foliage in rich reds, oranges, golds, and pinks which looks like a Russian fairytale or a Scheherazade story, both key elements of the Orphan’s Tales.)

            So I guess that’s two choices, but maybe you should wait on the Valente because you are just finishing one of her books. Come at the OT fresh. 😀

            P.S. Speaking of Sutcliff, have you read her last novel, Sword Song? I really liked it.

            1. No I haven’t read that one yet, though I did read The Shining Company, which I think was the last one published before she died in 1992. That one was pretty good too — I remember thinking it not quite as great as Eagle of the Ninth and Lantern Bearers, partly on account of the main characters being teenagers (and I guess I don’t like teenagers), but it still was very good. The next Sutcliffs I plan on reading are Warrior Scarlet (because I have a beautiful first edition hardback), and Mark of the Horse Lord, since that’s supposed to be one of her greats.

              Haha, I should have guessed. +) Well I already started The Mabinogi, but I think it will go quickly. I just wanted to get a quick background in Welsh myth.Then I think I’ll go on to The Bell at Sealey Head.

              I’ll be starting the review of Habitation soon. There’s a lot of good stuff in it, but she really takes time out to slam Christianity, even going so far as to rewrite the gospels and have pagan creatures tell off her “Christian” characters for being factually wrong and morally deficient (which she writes them to be). But more on that later. I will read The Orphan’s Tales with high hopes. What I do love about Valente is that she is bursting with stories to tell, both little and big ones, and she fills the corners of the book with them. In fact, most of the littler stories I liked far more than her main one!

  3. Thanks for the information. I did not know Sutcliff had written about Tristan and Iseult. I’m afraid I’m less fond of her style than you are–her sentence structures come off as sounding stilted to me, but I am also a much more impatient reader than I was. Someday when I have time and don’t feel distracted, I will get this book and curl up with it and try to read it slowly.

    1. If it helps, this book is much shorter and faster-paced than her other novels. If you read concentratedly, you could easily finish it in a day or two. But I’m also in favor of curling up and reading slowly.

  4. Well, after what you said you like about Valente, you should really enjoy the Orphan’s Tales.

    As I understand, Sutcliff was writing Sword Song when she died. She had written the rough draft and was partially through editing it. I couldn’t tell where her own editing stopped, though I wasn’t intentionally looking for the transition.

What are your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.