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MELIADUS was king of Leonois, or Lyonesse, 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 Iguerne. 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 country.
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,* 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
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.
* A musical instrument.
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 health.
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* 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.
* "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 of Sir Tristram.
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 jousts; 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 of 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 for 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 forever 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
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 Audret, 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
"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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