The Inklings- Mythological Voyagers: Part 3

Continued from Part 2:

Part 3

Tristan and Iseult as depicted by Edmund Blair Leighton (1853–1922)

We know of course, the story of how Tristan won Iseult. I recently spoke to chef Rick Stein about it following Van Morrison’s superlative concert on Cyprus Avenue. The tale is the essence of Cornish culture, although the story is essentially British and ancient Pictish or Pretanic in origin. Tristan (Trystan, Drystan, Drustanus) is almost certainly taken from the legendary Pictish Chronicle. Drest or Drust  frequently appears as the name of several ancient Pictish kings far to the northwest of Britain (modern “Scotland”). Drustanus is merely Drust rendered into Latin. It may have originated from an ancient legend regarding a Pictish king who slew a giant in the distant past, which had spread throughout the British Isles, or the name may also come from a sixth-century Pictish saint who bore another form of the name – or it may have migrated upwards from the southwest due to the fame of the legends of King Arthur.

Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson has translated from the old Welsh as follows: “At that time Trystan ap Tralluch and Esyllt the wife of March ap Meirchion went wandering as outlaws in the wood of Celyddon, with Golwg-Hafddydd as her handmaid, and Y Bach Bychan as his page carrying pasties and wine, together with them; and a bed of leaves was made for them. And March ap Meirchion went to Arthur to complain of Trystan and to entreat him to avenge the insult against him, since he was more nearly related to Arthur than Trystan was; for March ap Meirchion was cousin to Arthur, ‘to seek for you either satisfaction or its refusal.’ And then they surrounded the wood of Celyddon.

Now it was a magic property in Trystan that whoever drew blood from him died, and whoever he drew blood from died. And when Esyllt heard the noise and the talking on all sides of the wood, she trembled in Trystan’s arms, and Trystan asked her why she trembled, and she said it was through fear for him…And then Trystan rose up and took his sword in his hand, and made for the fight as fast as he could, til he met March ap Meirchion, and March ap Meirchion said, ‘Even though I kill him, it would cause my own death.’ And at that the other men said, ‘Shame on us if we bestir ourselves for him.’ And then Trystan went through the three armies unharmed.

Then March ap Meirchion went to Arthur again, and complained to him that he got neither compensation for his wife nor its refusal. ‘I know no council for you but this,’ said Arthur, ‘to send harpers to play for him from far off; and after that to send poets and eulogists to praise him and turn him from his anger and his wrath..’ And this they did. And after that Trystan called the minstrels to him and gave them handfuls of gold and silver; and then the chief peacemaker was sent to him, that is, Gwalchmai ap Gwyar….

And then Trystan and Gwalchmai went to Arthur, and there Arthur made peace between him and March ap Meirchion. And Arthur spoke with the two of them in turn, but neither of them was willing to be without Esyllt; and then Arthur awarded her to the one of them while the leaves should be on the trees and the other while the leaves should not be on the trees, the married man should choose. And he chose when the leaves should not be on the trees, because the nights would be the longest at that time, and Arthur told that to Esyllt. And she said, ‘Blessed be the judgement and he who gave it;’ and Esyllt sang this song:

‘There are three trees that are good,

Holly and ivy and yew;

They put forth leaves while they last,

And Trystan shall have me as long as he lives.’

And so March ap Meirchion lost Esyllt for good.”

And then there were the linkage between the Arthurian tales and the story of Suibhne Geilt, one of a series of sagas engendered by the Great Battle of Moira 637AD. Nikolai Tolstoy in The Quest for Merlin writes “fortunately, it is not necessary to rely solely on deductive analysis to show that Geoffrey of Monmouth did not invent the Merlin stories, since there is evidence that much of it was already in existence well before his time.” Tolstoy names three other bodies of work as providing such evidence.

“Thus the four distinct versions of the Prophet’s career have survived; the Vita Merlini of Geoffrey of Monmouth, the Welsh Myrddin poems, the Lailoken episodes, and the story of Sweeney’s frenzy. That they all ultimately represent the same saga (though obviously with accretions and distortions acquired along the way) is abundantly clear and is accepted by the best authorities.

In his own translation of Buile Suibhne, Seamus Heaney says “It is possible….to dwell upon Sweeney’s easy sense of cultural affinity with both Western Scotland and Southern Ireland as exemplary for all men and women in contemporary Ulster, or to ponder the thought that the Irish invention may well have been the development of a British original, residually present in the tale of the madman called Alan”.

I myself believe that if the citizens of Northern Ireland could become more fully aware of the extent of their inter-related characteristics, not just with each other, but with other peoples of these islands then a symbiosis of their respective identities could be established which would provide a solid foundation for the peace they so richly deserve.


Part 1

Part 2

To be continued

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