by Patricia Monaghan
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
Samhain is a time of hauntings, and this season I find myself haunted by a legendary heroine, not quite a goddess, not quite a woman. I have known this heroine since college. I still have the yellowish-green paperback(1) in whose pages I first met her, together with her kingly husband and her fated lover. I'm holding it now, that small volume, remembering how as a teenager I first read that "incomparable tale," that "thing of beauty," as the back-cover blurbs announce. I remember my literature professor assuring us in ringing tones that nothing in our lives would move us as much as the romance related within that little book.
I remember being baffled by his enthusiasm. I struggled valiantly to appreciate the love triangle involving Tristan, Iseult and king Mark, but it repelled me. I felt like a failure. Why did this thing of beauty leave me cold?
Here's the tale: Iseult was an Irish princess, a single hair of whose golden tresses drifted to Cornwall, causing king Mark to fall in love. Dispatching his nephew Tristan to negotiate for the woman who possessed the beautiful hair, Mark settled down to await his golden prize. Tristan did his job well, killing a monster to win the princess. But when he announced that he would bring the prize home to another man, Iseult the Fair trembled for shame and anguish realizing she had been pledged to marry a stranger twice her age in another country.
Fearing her daughter's
unhappiness in an arranged marriage, Iseult's herbalist mother crafted
a brew that, when shared, created an unchanging magical passion between
the drinkers. Alas for Iseult, the boat was becalmed before reaching Cornwall
and, thirsty, she and Tristan unwittingly downed the herbal potion. Instantly
they fell into a doomed love; the more they tried to repress it, the stronger
it grew. Scandal spread in the court where Iseult became queen, scandal
spread by felons who hated Mark as much as they hated the secret lovers.
Tribulations and separations followed. Once, to prove her innocence, Iseult
was forced to endure a trial by water: She had to cross a stream where,
had she been false to Mark, she would drown. At the last minute Tristan
appeared, dressed as a beggar, to carry her across, so that Iseult could
honestly say that only her husband and the shabby beggar had ever touched
From this point, the
story lurches forward, with Tristan and Iseult joined and parted, joined
and parted, until Tristan finally marries a princess named Iseult of the
White Hands, with whom he refuses to sleep, for he never stops loving
the original Iseult. Finally, like Romeo and Juliet, the fated lovers
die beside each other without ever speaking again.
This was the story over which my literature professor waxed so poetic and which I studiously attempted to appreciate. In recent years I have come to recognize the story's source in the central Celtic mystery: The earth goddess marries a king, who ultimately loses his place to a younger, more vital man while she remains unchangingly young. Remember Camelot, where aging Arthur loses Guinevere to the strong knight Lancelot? Even more exciting is the Irish version, where wild Gráinne goes to wed Fionn mac Cumhaill, a man well past his sell-by date; there she meets the handsome Diarmait, whom she recognizes as much more likely to satisfy her desires, whereupon Gráinne drugs the wedding party and escapes with her chosen lover.
is the Cornish version of the story. In their different ways, the tales
humanize a mystery: that the earth chooses human rulers by endowing or
withholding her beneficence.
what the goddess would do to present leadership? Anyone else thinking
of sporting a bumper sticker reading "It's the ecology, stupid"?)
If now I recognize the mystery behind the legends, my literature professor
offered the story as merely human. As such, Iseult was a role model for
any young woman aspiring to passivity unto death. Nonetheless I found
the story irritatingly potent. My other teachers were forcing classics
of men's lit like Moby-Dick down our throats; I got through my
first masters degree without reading a single woman writer in class. At
least Iseult, however disguised and degraded, had the goddesss energy
about her still. If I did not weep at her story, yet it rested in me,
redolent with feminine imagery and potential power.
This fall, I went to Cornwall, looking for megaliths, holy wells and the incomparable Cornish goddess scholar Cheryl Straffon. I found them all, but I also found, to my surprise -- for I had not consciously remembered her connection to that rocky peninsula -- Iseult the Fair. A week later in Ireland, I learned that Ridley Scott had spent the summer there filming a new version of Tristan and Iseult. My friend's children worked as extras in the barbarian crowd scenes, but no one knew what approach Scott was taking with the story. We'll have to wait and see if his Iseult is a goddess or a victim.
Much mythology has been written down and interpreted by men, who naturally find in the stories reflections of their own lives' struggles. Once, Iseult's story was part of a great ritual cycle, told by religious leaders as they instructed their people in proper behavior to sustain the goddess's good will towards humanity. With the coming of literacy to Celtic lands (a craft that arrived with Christianity), the stories were written down by monks with no interest in keeping competing religious traditions alive. One of the great goddess mysteries, then, becomes the story of a man's struggle between duty and desire, with the residual deity merely an occasion for the story, not its center.
What happens when we shift the center back to Iseult? Much literature shifts point of view to retell a familiar story from a new perspective; Marion Zimmer Bradleys Mists of Avalon recasts Camelot as a woman's tale. When I look at the romance from Iseult's point of view, the story transforms itself.
Departing for Cornwall, Iseult has taken her companion's measure: he is not to be trusted. It is only after she drinks the magical potion that she becomes Tristan's passionate lover; the brew overpowers her consciousness of his faults, which include deceitfulness and reckless disregard of others. Because the story is typically told from Tristan's point of view, we hear only his own self-serving interpretations of his behavior. But if I I imagine Tristan today, what do I see? A man who seduces the young, attractive wife of an older relative, tearing apart her marriage. Then, rather than waiting for her to be free (as she would likely be, given the age difference between Iseult and Mark), he leaves when she reaches middle-age and pursues a younger woman. Even that woman, however, does not get his full attention, for he withholds love on the grounds that he pines for the first Iseult. This Tristan seems not a romantic hero but a hardened commitophobe.
any myth, in any story, there are unarticulated possibilities.
Part of the work of women today is to examine the stories we have inherited,
to turn them over and over like beads on a beautiful necklace. Sometimes
the variant stories hidden within a familiar one reveal themselves quickly,
but often the process of deconstruction is slow. It is decades since I
first read the romance of Iseult and puzzled over why it had inspired
Matthew Arnold to poetry, Thomas Hardy to drama, Richard Wagner to opera,
and John Updike to fiction (and now, Ridley Scott to cinema). Whether
such men are thrilled by the disempowerment of the goddess or the hero's
closeness to her is theirs' to question, not mine. For me, encountering
Iseult in Cornwall's lovely stern landscape reminded me, once again, how
we must look deeply into our cultures' stories in order to uncover their
value for us as women.
Monaghan, author of The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog: The Landscape
of Celtic Myth and Spirit (New World Library, 2003) and the forthcoming
Encylopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore (Facts on File, April,
2004), is finishing a collection of poems about the effects of war on
children; you can see a sample at the website www.fourthorder.org.