Remaking Romance: Tristan and Isolde

A common complaint lodged against Hollywood is that it has no new stories. This is understandable, but it neglects to consider that certain narratives are timeless. They can appear with different external details but will always keep that impact on audiences which can be lasting. A story that is particularly effective at this is the romantic tragedy, and one such tale is about Tristan and Isolde. The different versions of Tristan and Isolde shows how reinterpretation can manifest itself across various mediums.

The original story of Tristan and Isolde has its basis in the life of a real Pictish king which became the basis of a Celtic legend and then a medieval love ballad. The general plot concerns young Tristan winning the hand of Irish princess Isolde for his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, but they fall in love with each other on the journey back. Mark learns of their forbidden affair and separates the lovers. When a poisoned weapon wounds Tristan, he asks for Isolde, who is the only one who can heal him, but she arrives too late to save him and she also dies. The legend ends with two trees growing out of their graves, and their branches intertwine and cannot be parted. During the 13th century, the story was subsumed into the larger Arthurian saga.


A film version of the legend, Tristan + Isolde, directed by Kevin Reynolds and starred James Franco, Sophia Myles, and Rufus Sewell, came out in 2006. This sturdy and well-produced film is much more of an equal blend of medieval action and romantic drama than the original legend. Isolde is the Irish princess. The character of Mark (here spelled Marke) is not the villain; instead, Isolde’s father and a British lord under Mark, Wictred, share the duties of a villain in the story. Plus, Tristan is not Mark’s nephew, but Mark’s sister raised him after his own parents died. Perhaps the biggest difference in this iteration is that Isolde does not die. A title card that ends the film reveals that she plants the two trees that grow to intertwine then she “disappears”. The film makes no mention of the Arthurian narrative.

The 2009 novel Twilight of Avalon, however, places its version of the tale within the realm of King Arthur. Written by Anna Elliott, this is the first book in a trilogy, and here Isolde is the daughter of Guinevere and Mordred. Also, Mark (here spelled Marche) is the clear and reprehensible villain. Tristan turns out to be Mark’s illegitimate son, and not his nephew. Much drama forms from the interior strife in Britain in this book. I have only read this first installment so far but the narrative hints at the love between Isolde and Tristan by the end and I look forward to reading the results in the next two novels.

Different mediums can lead to different interpretations of the same story, and the tale of Tristan and Isolde is a notable example. And films and novels aren’t the only outlet for this saga—Richard Wagner’s 1865 opera Tristan und Isolde also tackles this romantic tragedy. Because it is a love story with a sad ending, Tristan and Isolde has the potential for affecting audiences no matter what type of medium they choose to experience the journey.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton is from Ohio. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. She has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life. Her hobby is editing fan videos.

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