The High Renaissance




Arturian Legend

Pre-Raphaelite's Vision



Tristan and Isolde

Tristan also called Tristram or Tristrem, Isolde also called Iseult, Isolt, or Yseult, principal charactersof a famous medieval love-romance, based on a Celtic legend (itself based on an actual Pictish king). Though the archetypal poem from which all extantforms of the legend are derived has not been preserved, a comparison of the early versions yields an idea of its content.

The central plot of the archetype must have been roughly as follows:

The young Tristan ventures to Ireland to ask the hand of the princess Isolde for his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, and, having slain a dragon that is devastating the country, succeeds in his mission. On the homeward journey Tristan and Isolde, by misadventure, drink the love potion prepared by the queen for her daughter and King Mark. Henceforward, the two are bound to each other by an imperishable love thatdares all dangers and makes light of hardships but does not destroy their loyalty to the king.

The greater part of the romance is occupied by plot and counterplot: Mark and the courtiers seeking to entrap the lovers, who escape the snares laid for them until finally Markgets what seems proof of their guilt and resolves to punish them. Tristan, on his way to the stake, escapes by a miraculous leap from a chapel on the cliffs and rescues Isolde, whom Mark has given to a band of lepers. The lovers flee into the forest of Morrois and remain there until one day Mark discovers them asleep with a naked sword between them. Soon afterward they make peace with Mark, and Tristan agrees to restore Isolde to Mark and leave the country. Coming to Brittany, Tristan marries Isolde of the White Hands, daughter of the duke, “for her name and her beauty,” but makes her his wife only in name. Wounded by a poisoned weapon, he sends for the other Isolde, who alone can heal him. If she agrees to come, the ship on which she embarks is to have a white sail; if she refuses, a black. His jealous wife, who has discovered his secret, seeing the ship approach on which Isolde is hastening to her lover's aid, tellshim that it carries a black sail. Tristan, turning his face to the wall, dies, and Isolde, arriving too late to save her love, yields up her life in a final embrace. A miracle follows their deaths: two trees grow out of their graves and intertwine their branches so that they can not be parted by any means.

The archetypal poem, which has not survived, seems to havebeen a grim and violent work containing episodes of a coarseand even farcical character. Two adaptations, made in the late 12th century, preserved something of its barbarity. About 1170, however, the Anglo-Norman poet Thomas, who was probably associated with the court of Henry II of England, produced an adaptation in which the harshness of the archetype was considerably softened. A mellifluous German version of Thomas' adaptation, by Gottfried von Strassburg, is considered the jewel of medieval German poetry. Short episodic poems telling of Tristan's surreptitiousvisits to Isolde at King Mark's court appeared in the late 12th century. Of these, the most important are two versions of theFolie Tristan, in which Tristan is disguised as a fool, and the Luite Tris tan, in which he appears as a minstrel. During the 13th century the story—like Arthurian legend—was embodied in a voluminous prose romance. In this, Tristan figured as the noblest of knights, and King Mark as a base villain, the whole being grafted onto Arthurian legend and bringing Tristan and King Arthur's knight Sir Lancelot into rivalry. This version, which recounts innumerable chivalric adventures of a conventional type, had superseded all other French versions by the end of the European Middle Ages, andit was in this form that Sir Thomas Malory knew the legend in the late 15th century, making it part of his Le Morte Darthur. A popular romance in English, Sir Tristrem, dates from approximately 1300 and is one of the first poems written in the vernacular.

Renewed interest in the legend during the 19th century followed upon discovery of the old poems. Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde (first performed in 1865) was inspired by the German poem of Gottfried von Strassburg.

Encyclopedia Britannica


John William Waterhouse
Tristan and Iseult


The Story of Tristan and Iseult

designed by
Dante Gabriel Rossetti





When Tristan arrived at his uncle's court he did not reveal his identity, but waited for an opportunity to prove himself. When King Mark refused to pay the Irish their customary tribute, they sent their champion Morholt to exact it, but Tristan fought and defeated him.

After Tristan won Iseult's hand for King Mark, they set sail for Kornwall. Iseult's mother prepared a love potion for Iseult and Mark, and entrusted it to Iseult's maid, Brangain, who mistakenly served it to Tristan. He, unwittingly, shared it with Iseult.




Tristan and Iseult's love affair continued under the influence of the love potion, despite King Mark's jealous suspicions.Tristan returned briefly to Cornwall disguised as a minstrel, Tantris. By pretending to be mad, he was able to see Iseult and remind her of their love.

King Mark has just slain Tristan. Mark is an ambiguous figure in the Tristan legend - a loving husband, but also a jealous and at times vindictive one.
An enemy of Knig Arthur , he murders Tristan as he plays his harp to Iseult, and she also perishes.



A fine knight, with great integrity, Lancelot was bittelry ashamed of his love to Guinevere and fought against it. But their love was preordinated and could not be resisted. After Lancelot's rescue of Guinevere, Arthur's knights split into warring parties. After the battle of Camlann, Lancelot went back to England and saw Guinevere once more. She told him she was   resolved to enter a convent. Lancelot entered a hermitage, only leaving it when he learned in a vision that Guinevere was dying.


Lancelot and Guinevere


William Morris
Queen Guinevere

This detail from a French manuscript,
L'ystorie Lancelot du Lac
Lancelot and Guinevere
and dates from c. 1470
The illicit love of Lancelot and Guinevere is one of the strongest threads in Arthurian literature. A fine kniygt, with great integrity, Lancelot was bitterly ashamed of his love and fought against it; even, at one point, going mad. But their love was preordained and could not be resisted. As a result, Lancelot could not approach the Holy Grailand after his rescue of Guinevere, Arthur's knights split into warring parties, giving Mordred the opportunity to betray and kill his father. After the battle of Camlann, Lancelot went back to England and saw Guinevere once more. She told him she was resolved to enter a convent, "for through our love that we have loved together is my most noble lord slain" (Le Morte d'Aithur, Thomas Malory). Lancelot entered a hermitage, only leaving it when he learned in a vision that Guinevere was dying. By embracing the religious life, Lancelot finally redeemed himself.



wife of Arthur, legendary king of  Britain, best known in Arthurian romance through the love that his knight Sir Lancelot bore for her. In early Welsh literature, one Gwenhwyvar was “the first lady of thisisland”; in Geoffrey of Monmouth's inventive Historia regum Britanniae (early 12th century), she was named Guanhumara and was presented as a Roman lady. In some accounts it was suggested that she was Arthur's second wife.

An early tradition of abduction (and infidelity) surrounded the figure of Guinevere. According to the late 11th- or early 12th-century Vita Gildae, she was carried off by Melwas, kingof Aestiva Regio (literally, “Summer Region”), to be rescued by Arthur and his army. In Chrétien de Troyes's late 12th-century romance of Le Chevalier de la charette, she was rescued by Lancelot (a character whom Chrétien had earlier named as one of Arthur's knights) from the land of Gorre, to which she had been taken by Meleagant (a version of the story that was incorporated in the 13th-century prose Vulgate cycle). Chrétien presented her as one receiving or refusing love in the manner of ladies celebrated in courtly love lyrics. There and in the early part of the Vulgate cycle, courtly love was exalted through the passion of Lancelot andGuinevere; but, in the austerely spiritual part of the Vulgate cycle, the Queste del Saint Graal, their adulterous love stoodcondemned, and Lancelot was unable to look directly at the Holy Grail because of it.

In the early chronicles and later in prose Arthurian romances,Guinevere was abducted by Mordred, Arthur's nephew (or, in some versions, his son), and this action was closely bound up with the death of Arthur and the end of the knightly fellowship of the Round Table. In the early accounts Guinevere was not unwilling; but, in Sir Thomas Malory's late15th-century prose Le Morte Darthur, she became an unhappy victim as far as Mordred was concerned, though she was given her share of responsibility for the final disasters because her love for Lancelot had caused such bitter dissension.

Encyclopedia Britannica




also spelled Launcelot, also called Lancelot Of The Lake, French Lancelot Du Lac, one of the greatest knights in Arthurian romance;he was the lover of Arthur's queen, Guinevere, and was the father of the pure knight Sir Galahad.

Lancelot's name first appeared as one of Arthur's knights in Chrétien de Troyes's 12th-century romance of Erec, and the same author later made him one of the heroes in Le Chevalier de la charette, which retold an existing legend about Guinevere's abduction, making Lancelot her rescuer and lover. It also mentioned Lancelot's upbringing bya fairy in a lake, a story that received fuller treatment in the German poem Lanzelet. These two themes were developed further in the great 13th-century Vulgate cycle, or Prose Lancelot. According to this, after the death of his father, King Ban of Benoic, Lancelot was carried off by the enchantress Vivien, the Lady of the Lake, who in time sent him to Arthur's court. Her careful education of Lancelot, combined with the inspiring force of his love for Guinevere, produced a knight who was the very model of chivalry.

In later branches of the cycle, in which worldly chivalry was set against chivalry inspired by spiritual love, Lancelot's son,Sir Galahad, whom he fathered by Elaine, daughter of the Grail keeper King Pelleas, displaced him as the perfect knight. Lancelot's adulterous love for the queen, moreover, caused him to fail in the quest for the Holy Grail and set in motion the fatal chain of events that brought about the destruction of the knightly fellowship of the Round Table.

In medieval English romance, Lancelot played a leading role in the late 14th-century Le Morte Arthur, which told of a fatal passion for Lancelot conceived by Elaine the Fair of Astolat and which described the tragic end of Lancelot's love for Guinevere. He also played a central role in Malory's 15th-century prose work Le Morte Darthur, in which it was essentially the conflict between Lancelot's love for Guinevere and his loyalty to his lord that led to Arthur's “dolorous death and departing out of this world.”

Encyclopedia Britannica

J. W. Waterhouse
"I am half sick of shadows"
Lady of Shalott

John William Waterhouse
Lady of Shalott


Death of
King Arthur

James Archer
Le Morte D'Arthur

This picture shows Arthur's last moments before he is taken to the isle of Avalon.

It is based on the poem The Passing of Arthur by Tennyson.
The four women directed by
Morgan Le Fay, Arthur's half-sister, are tending to him and other important elements of Arthur's life, such as Merlin and the Holy Grail, are also included.

Frederick Sandys
Morgan le Fay

Weeping queens
The dying king was attended by three weeping queens, who accompanied him to the isle of Avalon. Only Morgan le Fay is named but they must all have been at home in the fairy realm as well as the human one, as the name "le Fay" suggests.

Morgan le Fay
The enchantress Morgan le Fay was a daughter of Igraine of Cornwall and, therefore, Arthur's half-sister. Morgan le Fay is depicted as Arthur's implacable enemy, but she is also identified as one of the three queens who came to take him to the fairy realm of Avalon. Her sister Morgause was married to King Lot of Orkney, by whom she had four sons, all of whom became knights of the Round Table: Gawain, Agravain, Gaheris, and Gareth. When Arthur was declared king, King Lot declared war on him, and Morgause seduced him, giving birth to her son Mordredas a result.


Syr Thomas Malore

Le Morte D'Arthur

flourished c. 1470

English writer whose identity remains uncertain but whose name is famous as that of the author of Le Morte Darthur (q.v.), the first prose account in English of the rise and fall of King Arthur and the fellowship of the RoundTable.

Even in the 16th century Malory's identity was unknown, although there was a tradition that he was a Welshman. In the colophon to Le Morte Darthur the author, calling himself “Syr Thomas Malore knyght,” says that he finished the workin the ninth year of the reign of Edward IV (i.e., March 4, 1469–March 3, 1470) and adds a prayer for “good delyueraunce” from prison. The only known knight at this time with a name like Maleore was Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell in the parish of Monks Kirby, Warwickshire. This Malory, like the author, was imprisoned, but it was on various occasions during the period from 1450 to 1460, rather than about 1470. A “Thomas Malorie (or Malarie), knight” was excluded from four general pardons granted by Edward IV to the Lancastrians in 1468 and 1470. This person is tentatively accepted as the author.

According to Sir William Dugdale's Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656), this Sir Thomas Malory served in the train of Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, at the siege of Calais (presumably 1436, but possibly 1414); was knight of the shire in 1445; and died on March 14, 1471. He was buried in the Chapel of St. Francis at Grey Friars, near Newgate. (He had been imprisoned in Newgate in 1460.)

Encyclopedia Britannica

the first account of the Arthurian legend in modern English prose, completed by Sir Thomas Malory about 1470 and printed by William Caxton in 1485. The only extant manuscript that predates Caxton's edition is in the British Library, London. It retells the adventures of the knights of the Round Table in chronological sequence from the birth of Arthur. Based on French romances, Malory's account differs from his models in its emphasis on the brotherhood of the knights rather than on courtly love, and on the conflicts of loyalty (brought about by the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere) that finally destroy the fellowship.

Encyclopedia Britannica

 Edward Burne Jones
The last sleep of Arthur in Avalon


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