Tristan and Iseult
First edition cover






Young adult


Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (1972), Carnegie Medal commendation (1971)

Tristan and Iseult is a retelling of the Celtic legend, published in 1971 by the Bodley Head. It won the 1972 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award,[1] and was Sutcliff's sixth and last book to be shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.[2]

Background Edit

Sutcliff's foreword explains her decision to make one major alteration to the traditional Arthurian story:

"In its far-back beginnings, Tristan is a Celtic legend, a tale woven by harpers round the peat fire in the timber halls of Irish or Welsh or Cornish chieftains, long before the time of chivalrous knights and fair ladies and turreted castles in which it is generally set. The medieval troubadours took it and enriched it, and dressed it in medieval clothes, but if you look, you can still see the Celtic story, fiercer and darker, and (despite the changes) more real, underneath. In this retelling I have tried to get back to the Celtic original as much as possible, and in doing this I have made one big change in the story.

"In all the versions that we know, Tristan and Iseult fall in love because they accidentally drink together a love potion which was meant for Iseult and her husband King Marc on their wedding night. Now the story of Tristan and Iseult is Diarmid and Grania, and Deirdre and the sons of Usna, and in neither of them is there any suggestion of a love potion. I am sure in my own mind that the medieval storytellers added it to make an excuse for Tristan and Iseult for being in love with each other when Iseult was married to somebody else. And for me, this turns something that was real and living and part of themselves into something artificial, the result of drinking a sort of magic drug.

"So I have left out the love potion.

"Because everybody else who has retold the tale in the past eight hundred years has kept it in, it is only fair to tell you this. I can only tell the story in the way which feels right to me in my own heart of hearts."

Plot Edit

In the time King Arthur Pendragon rules Britain, King Marc of Cornwall and King Rivalin of Lothian join spears against the raiders of Ireland. Rivalin and Marc's sister fall in love and marry, but she dies giving birth to their son Tristan. At the age of sixteen, having grown into an unmatched warrior and harper, Tristan and his young followers leave Lothian to see Cornwall and join his uncle Marc's household warriors incognito, as Tristan wishes to make his name by his deeds (1).

Two years later, an Irish champion called the Morholt leads a fleet to Cornwall to collect fifteen years' tribute owing – every third child in Cornwall, unless the Cornish can defeat the Irish or their champion can best the Morholt in single combat. Tristan convinces Marc to accept any champion who offers, before revealing his parentage and volunteering himself. Upon landing at the appointed island, he sets his boat adrift and refuses the Morholt's offer of friendship. They face off on horseback with spears, then swords, and the Morholt wounds Tristan badly before Tristan gives him the death wound with which he flees to his ship (2). The Princess Iseult, the greatest healer in Ireland, arrives only in time to remove a piece of Tristan's sword blade from her dead kinsman's head. Meanwhile Tristan's poisoned wound festers appallingly until he begs to be removed from Tintagel palace to a cottage on the shore, and then to be set adrift on the sea with only his harp and a few days' food. He washes ashore in Ireland (where Cornishmen are under pain of death), and his harping moves the locals and the King to send for Princess Iseult's physic, which cures the infection Tristan is dying from. He recovers and leaves Ireland without ever meeting Iseult or revealing his real name (3).

Upon Tristan's unexpected return to Cornwall, King Marc wishes to name him his heir, to the displeasure of his nobles and Tristan himself, who urge him to marry. The unwilling King, finding a long red hair dropped by a swallow, declares that he will marry only the woman to whom it belongs, a challenge Tristan immediately accepts. Blown off-course to Ireland, he hears that the Princess Iseult is being offered in return for killing a troublesome fire-drake, and, more interested in the adventure than the princess, dispatches it, but has to crawl into the river to relieve his burns (4). The King's Steward, a coward wishing to marry Iseult, discover the dragon's corpse and claims the reward. Iseult, loathing the Steward and suspecting a fraud, rides out to the battleground where she and her attendants find Tristan and carry him home. Tristan, waking, realises that she must be the Princess of he Swallow's Hair. She, examining his sword, realises that he killed the Morholt and briefly considers avenging him, but instead decides to expose the Steward and heal Tristan for their trial (5). Three days later, after Tristan's companions nearly give him up for dead, he proves his claim by producing the tongue of the dragon's head displayed by the Steward. He reveals himself as the slayer of the King's kinsman the Morholt, but points out that it was on the Morholt's own terms. He also explains his quest for King's Marc's bride, and argues that marrying Iseult to Marc would bring peace between Ireland and Cornwall. The King agrees, though Iseult is not pleased (6). On the voyage to Cornwall, bad weather forces them to land for a day, and Tristan and Iseult have a charged moment when he carries her ashore. Iseult reveals to Tristan that she knew all along who he was and spared his life. That evening she tells him that she did it because she loved him and did not realise it until earlier that day, and forces him to admit that he loves her in return. They pass the night together and sail for Cornwall in the morning (7).

King Marc falls in love with Iseult at first sight, and Tristan and Iseult avoid each other before resuming their affair the next year. A rival courtier exposes them to the King and Tristan is banished from the court, but continues to meet Iseult in secret, which is again discovered. The King spies on a meeting in which they, forewarned, pretend to be merely friends with no interest but to regain the King's trust, and he begs Iseult's forgiveness and recalls Tristan (8). Again Tristan and Iseult are caught, and this time sentenced to death. On the day of their execution, Tristan climbs out of the chapel window while making confession and leaps into the sea. Returning to Tintagel to save Iseult or die with her, he joins a party of lepers and begs Marc to give Iseult over to them, as a slower and more dreadful death than burning at the stake, and carries her away (9). With Tristan's best friend Gorvenal, they flee into a remote part of Cornwall, and spend three happy years in the wilderness. Then the King comes there to hunt, and discovering them asleep and defenseless, he cannot bring himself to kill the two he had most loved in the world, but leaves a message: his glove for Iseult and his sword for Tristan (10). They conclude that they are meant either to accept Marc's conditional mercy or be hunted down, and return to court, where Iseult must remain as Marc wife while Tristan is banished. At their parting, Iseult gives Tristan a ring with which to summon her at any time, and lays on him a Geis that he must perform any task he is asked to do in her name (11).

Tristan and Gorvenal wander about having adventures until finally they ride through a wartorn part of Brittany to the stronghold of King Hoel, who is besieged by Duke Jovelin, a rejected suitor for the King's daughter. Tristan offers their services, defeats Jovelin in a duel, and helps to defeat him in battle and end the rebellion. The King offers his daughter Iseult of the White Hands to Tristan instead, and seeing that the princess likes him, Tristan accepts it as a second chance (12). Tristan does not fall in love with Iseult White-hands, annd confesses to her brother Karherdin that he still longs for Iseult of Cornwall. Karherdin helps him to return there and meet Iseult once more. Upon his departure, a friend sees Karherdin's armour-bearer from a distance with Gorvenal and mistaking him for Tristan bids him wait in the Queen's name, and enrages Iseult by telling her they refused to do so. She rejects Tristan's message of explanation and has Tristan driven off when he returns in disguise as a leper. Tristan goes home to his wife and Iseult's doubts turn into years of regret and hope (14).

Tristan and Karherdin become Kings of Lothian and Brittany respectively, and Tristan offers to help Karherdin see his lost beloved Gargeolain one last time before he marries. Her jealous husband notices the telltale sign of their presence, forces the truth out of his wife, and rides after them, killing Karherdin and nearly Tristan (15). Dying of infection, Tristan sends to Iseult of Cornwall to come to his aid, his messenger returning under a white sail if she comes with him, a black sail if not. His wife Iseult of the White Hands, in a moment of bitter jealousy, tells him the sail is black, and he dies of despair. Iseult of Cornwall lands to find him laid out in the chapel, where she lies down on the bief and dies with him. Iseult White-Hands has them entombed together, before allowing King Marc to bury them in Cornwall, where a hazel and a honeysuckle entwine upon their grave (16).

Timeline Edit

In Marc's early reign (1):

  • Kings Marc and Rivalin go to war against the Irish
  • Rivalin marries Marc's sister
  • A year later: the Queen dies giving birth to Tristan
  • "A few years later" (2): war resumes, Cornwall pays annual tribute to Ireland for "a year or two"
  • Tristan is 7: Tristan is given to Gorvenal to train

Tristan is 16:

  • Winter: Tristan decides to travel
  • Spring: they sail to Cornwall
  • 3 days later: they arrive at Tintagel (1)

"Upwards of two years later", summer (2, 3):

  • the Morholt claims 15 years' tribute owing
  • Tristan kills the Morholt
  • Days: Tristan is ill in Tintagel
  • Days: Tristan is iller in a beach hut
  • Days: Tristan drifts over the sea to Ireland
  • Days: Tristan lies recovering in Wexford

Two years later (6), summer (4):

  • Tristan returns to Ireland
  • Next day: slays dragon
  • Next day: Iseult rescues him
  • 3 days later: Tristan proves his claim
  • Days: They prepare to sail (7)
  • Day 1: bad seas
  • Day 2: They land in Wales
  • Day 3: Iseult and Tristan confess their love
  • Day 4: they come to Cornwall (8)
  • 18 days later: Iseult marries Marc

Spring: Tristan and Iseult resume relations

Summer: Tristan banished and recalled

Spring: Tristan and Iseult resume relations again (9)

Summer: They are sentenced to death and escape to the wilderness (10)

3 years later: they are discovered in Lyoness (10)

Later (12): Tristan and Gorvenal come to Brittany

  • 3 days across King Hoel's lands
  • Day 4: they join Hoe, duel Jovelin, meet Iseult
  • Day 5: news of reinforcements
  • Day 6: the battle and betrothal

A year later (13): Karherdin helps Tristan meet Iseult

5 years later (15, 16): Karherdin, Tristan, and Iseult die

Characters Edit


  • King Marc of Cornwall (1), "a big man with grey eyes and grey feathering in the dark of his hair, with a great hooked nose and a mouth like iron" (1).
  • the Cornish Princess (1), Marc's beautiful sister, Rivalin's Queen, who died at Tristan's birth
  • The Queen's old nurse (1), who raises Tristan until he is 7
  • Dynas of Lidan (1), the Lord High Steward, a friend to Tristan (1), who argued against executing him and Iseult (9), and helps them to meet for the last time (13).
  • Marc's Court (1)
  • Andret (8), another nephew of Marc's jealous of Tristan since his arrival, who spies him with Iseult
  • a dwarf about court (8), "a man who possessed ancient skills and could read the answer to all questions in the stars"
  • The Captain of the Guard (9), loses Tristan
  • A band of lepers (9), Tristan trades cloaks with their leader
  • Bran (10), Tristan's favourite hound, who follows him to Lyoness
  • Gelert (10), one of Marc's favourite hounds
  • Beri (14), a noble and "a friend to the Queen, though a somewhat foolish one."


  • King Rivalin of Lothian (1), Marc's friend and brother-in-law, Tristan's father, a grieving widower
  • Tristan (1), son of Rivalin and the Queen. Foremost young warrior in Lothian and inimitable harper. "a stripling with grey eyes, straight hair as black as a chough's wing" (1).
    • Alias "Pro of Demester", a wandering minstrel from Brittany, on his first sojourn in Ireland (3).
    • Alias "Tantris of Brittany, a merchant, on his second visit to Ireland (4)
  • Gorvenal (1), young man who trains Tristan from 7 to 16, and "loved him from the first as though he were a much younger brother" (1). "Was there ever a time when I could not count on Gorvenal in my need?" (9). Left to govern Lothian when Tristan returns to Brittany and dies there (15).
  • Caerdin (1), one of Tristan's band
  • Garhault (1), one of Tristan's band
  • 17 other companions (6)


  • the Morholt (2), "a mighty champion had arisen in Ireland; tree-tall and thunder-fierce with the strength in him of four men; and he married to the King of Ireland's sister."
  • The King of Ireland (3)
  • Princess Iseult (3), daughter of the King of Ireland. "in all the land there was none that had her healing skill." (3). A redhead (4). Not happy about her engagement to Marc (6). "The Princess's eyes were deeply blue, the colour of wild wood-columbines" (7)
  • the Dagda (3), a legendary harper
  • The Chief Falconer, his wife and daughters (3), Tristan's hosts and nurses in Ireland
  • the Coast Marshal (4), the official who meets "Tantris of Brittany's" ship. "he is one who can be bought, but will keep his half of the bargain."
  • a fire-drake (4), annoying Wexford. "It was long as a troop of horse, sinuous as a cat, and wicked as sin. Green bale light blazed from its eyes, fire and smoke and deadly fumes came and went, playing over it with the heat from its nostrils"
  • the King's Steward (5), an opportunist and suitor of Iseult, whom she loathes
  • Brangian (5), Iseult's chief maiden, with "hair as black as the deepest moonless midnight", "gentlehearted", helps find Tristan (5), goes with Iseult to Cornwall (7).
  • Perenis (5), Iseult's cupbearer, helps find Tristan (5), goes with Iseult to Cornwall (7)
  • Conor MacNessa (6), ancient king of Ireland
  • the Shipmaster (7), of Iseult's ship
  • Iseult's other maidens (7), seasick


  • a hermit (12), providing shelter and exposition
  • King Hoel (12), besieged in Carhaix
  • Duke Jovelin of Nantes (12), a rebel, rejected suitor of the King's daughter
  • Prince Karherdin (12), Hoel's son, "a tall ugly young man with sandy hair and a big nose and a laughing mouth" (12). "he had laughed at most things in his life" (15).
  • Iseult of the White Hands (12), Hoel's daughter, "her hands...were white and almost transparent as the point-petalled windflowers of the woods." (12). "she was always good at keeping secrets, much better than Iseult of Cornwall had ever been." (13)
  • Ginna (13), a notably unattractive beggar
  • Gargeolain (13), Karherdin's lost love, ignorant of his parentage
  • Bedenis (13), her jealous husband, a rebel
  • Bryn (14), Karherdin's armour-bearer, a slight dark man mistaken for Tristan (14). He fetches Iseult from Cornwall to Tristan's deathbed (16).


  • King Arthur Pendragon of Britain (1), currently reigning
  • Manannan the Sea God (7)

Places Edit


  • Cornwall:
    • Tintagel (1), the Royal Stronghold on the north coast, "a great turf and timber fortress standing high on a headland, with many long thatched halls and byres and barns huddled among sheltered orchards on the landward side of it" (1).
  • the Western Sea (1), between Cornwall and Ireland
  • Lothian (1), Rivalin's kingdom
  • Wales (3), Tristan's stop-over from Ireland to Cornwall
  • Lyoness (4), shore from which "Tantris of Brittany" was allegedly blown to Ireland (4). Moors three days west of Tintagel, where Tristan, Iseult, and Gorvenal spend three years (10).
  • the White Lands (13), a forest of hawthorns where Tristan summons Iseult

Ireland (1) raids Cornwall, defeated by Marc and Rivalin (1)

  • A river mouth (3), Tristan's landing-place
  • Wexford (3), where Tristan meets the King of Ireland
    • the Chief Falconer's house, where Tristan recovers from his wound
    • the Hall (7), "built on a mound in the middle of the town, where the King held the great three-yearly gatherings of his clan chieftains, and gave justice, and feasted the embassies of foreign lands."
  • dragon country (4), advisable not to stop here

Brittany (3, 12)

  • a wilderness three days wide, abandoned
  • the hermit's cell beside a hilltop chapel, two miles from Carhaix
  • Carhaix, King Hoel's last stronghold
  • Nantes, Jovelin's turf
  • Bedenis's stronghold (15)


  • Spain (3), "Pro of Demester"'s last port of call

Adaptations Edit

"Tristan and Isolde", ad. Marilyn Fox, Jackanory, BBC One London, 1974

  • Part 1: (BBC One London, 4 March 1974)
  • Part 2: A Bride for King Mark (BBC One London, 5 March 1974)[3]
  • Part 3: The Hidden Valley (BBC One London, 6 March 1974)[4]
  • Part 4: Isolde's Laughter (BBC One London, 7 March 1974)[5]
  • Part 5: The White Sail (BBC One London, 8 March 1974)[6]

Publication history Edit

In English:

  • The Bodley Head. London, 1971, 1974.
  • Puffin. London, 1971, 1974, 1979.
  • Dutton. New York, 1971, 1991.
  • Red Fox. 1991, 2014.
  • Farrar, Strauss, Giroux. 1991, 1996, 1998
  • RHCP Digital, 2014.

In translation:

  • Tristan und Iseult. Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1998. German by Bettine Braun.
    • Reissued as: Tristans Liebe. Verlag Freies Geistesleben, 2017.
  • トリスタンとイズー (Torisutan to Izū). Chūsekisha, 2005. Japanese by Akemi Itsuji.

References Edit