Will Coleman writes about the origins of this ancient love story
Stories are maps.
Storytellers are cartographers.
With every retelling, every tweak of plot or adjustment of character, storytellers are saying, “Here’s how I see the world. Here’s a route plan through my cosmography.”
The land we call ‘Kernow’ (the Horn of Britain) and the English call ‘Cornwall’ (the Horn of Strangers) is placed smack in the centre of the ancient Atlantic seaways. Our maps have always looked outward. From Celtic Saints through Mining Diaspora and Worldwide Cables, Cornwall has always been connected.
But whose map of the universe are we exploring with a story as old as Tristan? Even the earliest surviving written versions are merely medieval reinterpretations of something far older. Through the dark glass of these romances we catch traces of truly ancient mystery.
To find the roots of Tristan we need to go back to when the ancient British language (the early ancestor of Cornish, Welsh and Breton) was first spoken here: 5000 years in fact, to Neolithic times.
For our tribal forebears, religion was entirely bound into the fabric of daily life, reverence for the natural world and the turning seasons. Across Europe the same elements emerge in annual rituals; the Old Year dies, the Young Sun is reborn, the Goddess is wed. Traces of these rites, suppressed, secretly passed on, strangely altered, still work their seasonal magic through our Mummer’s Plays, ’Obby ’Oss and other calendar customs.
This sacred information of the Old Religion also became encoded in memorable storylines; the Old King succumbs to the Young Hero who wins the Beautiful Maiden. In Tristan, such motifs as the battle on the island, the sword between the sleepers and the severed head point to specific details of how the original rites were actually performed.
Now, we enter the realm of the earliest storytellers, plotting and shaping their tales for audience impact. Inevitably, the retellings develop around ‘archetypal figures’; collectively constructed icons that represent real facets, not of the external world, but of the human psyche itself.
So, all those seeking an historical Tristan are unfortunately turning the wrong stones. The famous Tristan Stone and place names such as Tredrustan (Cornwall), Chapelizod (Ireland) and Penmarc’h (Ireland) are all evidence of the early, and widespread, importance of the story but not of historical characters.
At the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasion 1500 years ago, thousands left these islands for Armorica to form a ‘Little Britain’ or ‘Brittany’ (hence ‘Great Britain’ was also coined). They took with them their language, their saints, their place-names and their stories.
From across the ‘Celtic’ world came a mass of lore, myth and legend (known as the ‘Matière de Bretagne’) including a whole sweep of Tristan stories, local variants and unrelated incidents. Breton bards stitched the mess of fragments into one epic narrative and sang it out across Europe (this compilation process accounts for the strangely repetitive nature of the plot, including two Yseults). Once the medieval romancers had a hold of the tale it swept through the courts of Europe igniting the chivalric fancy of the age. ‘Thomas of Britain’ (c.1160), Eilhart von Oberge (c.1170) and Gottfried von Strasbourg (1210) all produced early epic poems as France, Germany, Italy and England all caught Tristan fever.
Some of the cultural treasure of the Matière de Bretagne was to make its way home to Cornwall again by a roundabout route. The Norman Conquest is known in Cornwall as the Armorican Return. Many of the Bretons in William’s following were granted lands and lordships back in the country of their ancestors, where they still spoke the same language. Plausibly, it was Robert de Cardinham (builder of Restormel Castle) who commissioned Beroul (c.1200) to plot the tale back into recognisably Cornish territory centred on the Fowey valley below his castle.
Over the next few centuries, the English nearly completed the suppression of language, religious practice and identity in Cornwall, assimilating the ‘strangers’ into the centralised Tudor state. The Cornish almost lost touch with their own history, language and stories. So the Englishman Malory (1485) drew his tales of high chivalry not directly from Cornish sources but from various trans-European versions.
The European flirtation with Tristan perhaps reached its zenith with Wagner’s famous opera. Still theoretically set in Cornwall, Tristan and Isolde (1865) charted Wagner’s own unconsummated passion (for a patron’s wife) and changed the harmonic rule-book for ever.
Meanwhile, inspired by Malory, the Victorians Arnold, Tennyson and Swinburne were all able to retell Tristan as a quintessentially ‘English’ moral tale with varying degrees of judgement or sympathy for the lovers. Into the twentieth century Thomas Hardy, John Masefield, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, John Erskine, John Updike (and many others) took up the theme, each adding in their own way to the construct of Cornwall as somewhere ‘romantic’ and ‘strange’.
Today, a Cornish backdrop is still used to explore ‘otherness’. We now live with TV’s Wild West and Doc Martin, complete with imported writer, cast and crew, and the usual stereotypes. As ‘maps of Cornwall’ these series are of no more use than Jamaica Inn or Straw Dogs. However, something is stirring in Kernow. – a palpable resurgence of indigenous theatre, film, music and dance is emerging. We need distinctive, diverse, homegrown, multicultural, inspired storytellers to help us chart our course.
Here, in Tristan and Yseult we have an archetypal epic with an ancient Cornish provenance. Who better to make a new map and reclaim this venerable territory than our own champion cartographers of the Cornish cosmography, Kneehigh Theatre?
Lanlivery, Kernow, 2005
Will Coleman was a member of Kneehigh Theatre in the 1980s and 90s. He now works as a storyteller, film-maker and educational consultant in Cornwall.