William Morris Archive

Morris's Translation from the Prose Tristan

Peter Wright


B.L. Add. MS 45329 (References to folios (f., ff.) are to the folios, written only on the recto, of Morris's manuscript.)

The Romance of Tristan in prose, of which Morris's translation of the initial portions is here presented, is a product of the development of Arthurian romance in France in the early 13th century.The first such romances, composed in the late 12th century by such authors as Chretien of Troyes, treat mainly, in octosyllabic verse of the quests and adventures, within an Arthurian ambience, of individual knights, such as Erec, Lancelot, and Gawain. Soon after 1200 those stories began to be told instead in the supposedly more reliable medium of prose and to cover a wider range of the chivalric world. A pioneer of such practices was Robert de Boron who, probably in the 1190s, produced in verse, soon converted to prose versions, an account in three parts of the rise and fall of Arthurian society.2 It was Robert who made the crucial identification of the mysterious vessel borne through the Fisher King's hall in Chretien's romance of Perceval with the Cup used by Christ al the Last Supper and shortly after employed by Joseph of Arimathea to gather Christ's blood.3 Thereafter, given the widespread enthusiasm for the doctrine, confirmed by the Church in 1215, of the definite change of the Sacramental elements into Christ's body and blood, no full-scale portrayal of the Arthurian world could be reckoned complete without some reference to Joseph's activities and the transfer of the Grail from the east to Britain, and the knightly quest for it in Arthur's time. One idiosyncratic early prose version of those stories was the Perlesvaus, written soon after 1200, which interweaves Perlesvaus's (i.e. Perceval's) struggle to achieve the Grail with the politics of Arthur's court and the deeds of his knights, especially Lancelot and Gawain. In the 1890s it was translated as The High History of the Holy Grail by Morris's acquaintance Sebastian Evans.; Burne-Jones provided illustrations depicting the pillared shrine around the Grail.4

But the classic account of the matter in French was that styled by modern scholars the 'Vulgate Cycle', built up about 1215--30 around a then recently composed romance about Lancelot of the Lake, describing his origins and knightly exploits, and culminating in his friendship with Galeholt and love for Guinevere.5 To it, enlarged to three times its original length, were added under monastic influence a Queste del Seint Graal, revealing the failure of worldly knighthood in that quest in comparison with the purity of a few knights, such as Galahad, and a Mort le Roi Artu, relating the decline and downfall of Arthur's kingdom and Round Table.6 Prefixed to the Cyclic Lancelot were an Estoire del Seint Graal, describing Joseph's guardianship of that Cup, his evangelical work in a fabulous East, and the eventual bringing of the Holy Vessel to a legendary Britain; and a Merlin with its sequels, telling of the establishment with that enchanter's aid of Arthur's kingdom. Modern English readers will know the substance of that Cycle best from Malory's somewhat re-organised late 15th - century Book of King Arthur,7 which combines a version of the last two parts of the Cycle with one of the Merlin. But, making only excerpts from the Lancelot, Malory chose to present the perhaps over­ ripe summer of Arthurian chivalry in four books drawn from the Prose Tristan.

In the 12th century the developments of Tristan's story on the continent had been largely independent of the main stem of Arthurian narrative, although King Arthur may appear briefly and incidentally in episodes in that story. An early poem about King Mark and Iseult8 by Chretien does not survive, but fragments have been preserved of other mid- to late-12th century French poems on the subject by Beroul,9 and in a more courtly manner by Thomas 'of England', besides a German adaptation by Eilhart. The full version of the Tristan story, as then current, can be learnt from the early 13th century versions based on Thomas's poem, in German by Gottfried of Strasburg,10 and in Norse in the Icelandic Tristrans Saga, which omits some of Thomas's psychological subtleties.11

The Prose Tristan romance,12 which definitively incorporated the story of Tristan and Iseult into the world of Arthur's Round Table, was probably originally produced in the middle of the 13th century.13 Its author, 'Luce' (for Morris 'Lucius'), pseudonymous like most of those who compiled Arthurian prose romances in French,14 seems to have intended to create a panoramic presentation of Arthurian chivalry, centered on the exploits of Sir Tristan, and leading into it from the love of Tristan and lseult, as the Vulgate version was developed around the relation of Lancelot and Guinevere. Tristan himself is depicted as a friend and compeer of Sir Lancelot in love and valour. The author shows much originality in his telling of the story: among his inventions are such notable characters as the noble Saracen knight Sir Palomides, Tristan's unsuccessful rival for lseult's love. (Morris in the 1850s produced an unfinished poem in which Palomides hopes that his capture of the Questing Beast will win him fame, and with it lseult's favour.) The author even produced in the mocking Sir Dinadan an ironical critic of the extravagances of knightly conduct. Among the continuing themes within his story is the feud between the family of King Pellinore and Sir Gawain and his brothers, caused by the amour of Sir Lamorak de Gales (invented as the fourth best knight) with their mother Queen Morgause.15 So, despite the author's customary claim to be following an earlier book in Latin,16 he was clearly perfectly capable of producing without any source the greater part of the romance, apart from the basic structure of the original Tristan legend, including the characters and their actions in this initial section which Morris has translated. Much of the extended tale, covered in Malory's Books IX to XI, is drawn from the common stock of chivalrous adventure: knights wandering through forests and jousting when they meet, or gathering for great tournaments; delivering harassed damsels, or suppressing the evil customs of tyrannical lords of castles. The romance even includes a version of the Grail quest. The institutions and manners of the kingdoms described in this opening section are essentially those of the 12th century feudal northern France, although the author has occasionally allowed himself some imaginative license, as in his account (ff. 27--30) of the way the death penalty was inflicted in his Lyonesse.

For his opening episodes, here translated, 'Luce' apparently decided to produce a narrative (omitting the type of stories concerned directly with the Grail), which should furnish a parallel to the Estoire that begins the Vulgate cycle, in which formerly heathen kings converted and baptized by Joseph and his followers are at odds with other still pagan rulers.17 His new version was to be set, however, not in fabulous eastern realms, but in others closer to Arthurian Britain, and ruled by predecessors of Mark and Tristan. He chose to compose his own account of their conversion: hence the strong emphasis in this section on the pagan worship of these early peoples of Cornwall and Lyonesse, with frequent mention of temples and burial places dedicated to pagan gods. He describes a fierce antagonism between pagans and the few Christians: thus passing pagan shipping may provide the Christian Sadoc with food, but will not help him quit the rock where he has found refuge with a hermit (f. 13). A by then pagan queen demands the burning of a Christian preacher (ff. 66--69). while the people of Cornwall insist on going to war with their newly baptized neighbors of Lyonesse, solely because of their conversion. (f. 70). The conversion of each kingdom is assisted by a suitable accompaniment of miracles (e.g. ff. 65, 69, 71 -- 2) and symbolical visions of Christian doctrines (e.g. ff. 67, 72).

Early readers of this part of the romance would not have been surprised that the relations between those two kingdoms were largely determined by the personal loves, fears, and ambitions of their rulers. But the paganism of most of the characters in it probably explains their often unchivalrous conduct, as when a king, lusting after the wife of another king, his host, readily seizes an opportunity to murder him and ravish his queen (ff.14--15) and, when the other king has escaped drowning, long holds him secretly a prisoner, while invading his land. (ff. 17--19). Even the originally Christian Sadoc, whose misfortunes are perhaps assumed to result from his refusing like his brothers to receive a bride at Joseph's hand, and preferring a shipwrecked pagan princess (ff. 2--3), eventually comes to resemble his pagan neighbours: he easily agrees to help the king who has given him refuge in abducting through an ambush another king's wife (ff 34--7), and by the time he accepts the heritage of a wizard lord has 'forgotten the law of Christ' (ff. 48- 9). There are, however, occasional instances of more idealistic behaviour, as when a king's son risks his life to save that of a knight whom he admires. (ff. 30--32). The narrator also shows awareness of universal moral obligations based simply on human nature ('the law of kind') rather than any religious system (e.g. ff. 13, 66), perhaps having heard of the revived interest of the 12th century philosophers in the natural law discussed by their classical predecessors.

The narrative is filled out with elements of folklore, including the numerous appearances of the riddle-setting giant,18 who haunts the forests of Brittany. King Arthur himself famously, from Geoffrey or Monmouth (Bk. VII, ch. iii) to Malory (Bk. V, ch. v) fights at Mont St. Michel a cannibalistic giant who had seized the daughter of a Breton duke, while Tristan in his Breton exile, in the version by Thomas, subdues and sets to work a giant from those forests.19 The giant in this romance serves chiefly to take its leading characters successively out of circulation, and despite his reputation for ferocity (e.g. ff. 32-- 3, 39) seems mostly concerned to obtain companionship (and a son- in-law) (e.g. If. 33, 41--2) from his captives. He is also rash enough to reveal indirectly his incestuous and cannibalistic depravities in the riddles he puts to them.20 Having exhausted the narrative of warfare and conversion, the author continues with two tales (ff. 74--87), the first in the tone of the French fabliaux, of contrasting sister queens, one, faithless, who tricks her husband into falling from a tower to his death, the other who rather than be unfaithful to her dying husband leaps to her own death. Tristan's own upbringing is varied with more motifs from narrative convention; in the final leaves of Morris's translation (ff. 95--7) he is provided with a poisoning wicked stepmother, and, just after, when he is sent for education to the court of the Frankish king Pharamond (another legendary Merovingian ancestor) he is entangled in a version of the tale of Joseph and Potiphar's wife.21

Readers of this translation may be surprised to find such Merovingians as Meroveus and Clovis presented as overlords of kings of Cornwall and Lyonesse. (Morris probably assumed, with his contemporaries, that Lyonesse here was the supposedly sunken land off the Land's End of Cornwall.) That Britain in the legendary pre-Arthurian period was in vassalage to Rome from Julius Caesar' s time onwards was taken for granted in the tradition of medieval romance, following Geoffrey of Monmouth's 'history'. His fourth and fifth books made Britain not a conquered and directly ruled province, but a vassal kingdom with its own line of rulers, subject to occasional incursions by Roman armies (which he elaborated mainly from Bede's Ecclesiastical History), to enforce suzerainty and the payment of tribute. From Geoffrey to Malory, too, Arthur's career of conquest culminated in his defiance and defeat of the Roman emperor. But it is more unexpected that the previous line of subordination of Cornwall and its neighbour to Rome should pass not through any British monarch, but through a Frankish one seated in Gaul. (See ff. 20--1) The explanation may be that 'Luce', despite his alleged English origin, had heard of those under-kingdoms chiefly as portions of Brittany, at whose western extremity there were once adjoining lordships named 'Leon' or 'Leonois' to the north and 'Cornouaille' to the south.22 Their portrayal by 'Luce' as virtually independent kingdoms quarrelling and fighting with only occasional deference, as in the trial by battle before King ‘Maroneus' on ff. 20-25, to their supposed overlord in Gaul, is probably a reflection of the attitude in the 11th and 12th centuries of the feudal principalities of northern France to the weak Capetian kings at Paris. 'Luce's' invocation of such Frankish overlords has, however, led him, through carelessness or ignorance, into chronological confusion. Even medieval writers would have known that Clovis, his father, and St. Remy who baptised him. flourished in the late 5th century, at the actual period when King Arthur, if he existed, was reigning and fighting. As it is 'Luce' has assigned (see f. 59) a period of only 200 years between the time of his pairs of fictitious kings, supposed contemporaries of Clovis in an early Christian age, and that of Mark and Tristan, of Arthur's time.23

It is not clear how far the Prose Tristan's author(s) were aware of, or concerned to copy, the details of the then recent verse accounts of Tristan's life and love, as distinct from the traditional features common to all versions of that story. If they were, they considered themselves free to make substantial alterations to many aspects of the narrative. Thus, in the tale derived from Thomas, Tristan is the son of a Breton lord Rivalin and Blanchefleur, sister of King Mark, and, left an orphan by the death of both his parents in the guardianship of his father's steward, is kidnapped by Norwegian merchants (perhaps a reminiscence of Viking raiding on the French coast) and after long voyaging is set ashore on the coast of his uncle Mark's kingdom as on a strange land.24 The Prose romance gives as his parents Meliadus King of Lyonesse and King Mark's sister Isabel, and invents the story of his mother's death in childbirth in the woods while his father, who perishes later, is held captive by a lady magician (ff. 89-- 92). The boy is taken to the French court by his guardian Governail for his education, and to escape danger from his stepmother, and then brought intentionally to King Mark's court.25

There follows in substance the traditional narrative of the cause and course of Tristan's love for lseult, though 'Luce' has, for instance, altered the reason for her father the Irish king consenting to her marriage to Mark from Tristan's slaying a fearsome dragon to the more chivalrous one of his defending the king in a trial by battle.26 He even interpolates, in the voyage back to Cornwall on which the fatal love potion is drunk, a visit to an isle where Tristan must protect his new love from its lord's murderous customs.27

The hero's life is also given a very different conclusion: for the fierce jealousy which in the old tale makes his Breton spouse lseult Whitehands conceal her Cornish namesake's near arrival to heal him on his deathbed, the Romance substitutes his stabbing by the villainous King Mark as he plays to the queen. 28 It was this version, known to Victorian readers from two brief references in Malory,29 which was commonly used by Victorian poets30 and artists: thus Tennyson in "The Last Tournament" (line 748) kills Tristram with: "''Mark's way', said Mark, and clove him through the brain." It was this version too which appeared in the Firm's windows about the Tristram story, made in 1862, now at Bradford Art Gallery: Madox Brown's design shows lseult collapsing over her lover' s astonished-looking corpse, as Mark brandishes his glaive.31

Morris probably composed his translation in the early I87os from one of the seven early printed editions (of which he owned two), which the then popular Prose Tristan received between 1486 and the 1550s.32 (The medieval manuscripts of the romance in the national library, then at the British Museum, not in any case all complete,33 would have been less convenient to work from.) His experience of late medieval English literature, particularly of Malory, enabled him to keep both in an archaic vocabulary, excluding post-Renaissance Latinate words, and in syntax, close to the style of his source, so retaining the flavour which he enjoyed of the medieval French.34 Morris may have ceased translating at the point where he did, when he recognised a part of the story that was already covered at the beginning of Malory's eighth book, even though Malory's version is considerably abbreviated, all mention of Merlin's intervention at Tristrarn's birth being for instance omitted, in comparison with the text which Morris was working from. Presumably Morris did not think it worthwhile to push on through the almost interminable remainder of the romance to produce an English version of a story whose substance, though not all the details, was already available in Malory's appropriate language. We may be grateful to have the beginning of this romance in a style that matches its content.



1. The composition of such romances is treated in e.g. The Arthur of the French, ed. G. S. Burgess & K. Pratt (Cardiff, 2006), of which Chs. Ill & VIII deal with those about Tristan, respectively in verse and prose.

2. Translated as Merlin and the Grail. Nigel Bryant (D.S. Brewer, 2001) .

3. Joseph' s persecution by the Jews and his deliverance by the Roman emperor Vespasian were already told in apocryphal writings: see M. R. James, The New Testament Apocrypha (Oxford, 1924), pp. 105--11, 159--61. But Robert was the first writer to connect him with the Grail.

4. Published, Temple Classics, 2 vols. 1897--8, frontispieces.

5. For that Cycle, see The Arthur of the French, Ch. VII; also Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot and the Grail (Oxford, 1986).

6. Translated in Penguin Classics as The Quest of the Holy Grail, by P. M. Matarasso (1969) and Death of King Arthur, by J. Cable (1971).

7. References to Malory in what follows will be made by the Books and chapters into which Caxton divided his work for his edition of 1484, which are indicated in most modem reprints.

8. See his Cliges, line 5.

9. Translated in Penguin Classics by A.S Fedrick, Beroul, The Romance of Tristan (1970).

10. Tr. Penguin Classics, by A.T. Hatto (1960).

11. Ed. and tr. R. S. Loomis, The Romance of Tristan and Ysolt (Columbia U. P. 1931) ; including all fragments of Thomas.

12. The English translation by E. L. Curtis (Oxford U. P., World's Classics, 1994), covers in full only the original love story, with simply excerpts from the much longer later part.

13. He wrote after Sir Galahad had become in the 'Vulgate' the principal hero of the Grail quest, as appears from the mention near the start and end of Morris's excerpt, on ff. 1, 92--3, of Galahad along with Lancelot as one of the three greatest knights, of whom Tristan is to be the third.

14. See Tristan, tr. Curtis, pp. xvii-- xviii.

15. See e.g. Malory, Bk. IX, ch . xiii; Bk. X, chs. viii, xxi, xxiv, lviii; Bk. XI, ch. x.

16. Tristan, tr. Curtis, p.3.

17. Readers of Malory will find these stories echoed in retrospective narratives in his books on the Grail quest: e.g. Bk. XIII, chs. x-xi; Bk. XV II., c h. iii seqq.

18. Discussed, by F. Dubost, in Le Moyen Age, 7, 57--72. [I have not seen this.]

19. Tristan, tr. Hatto, p. 315; cf. Tristan, tr. Loomis, pp. 208--14.

20. Cf. the riddle half-concealing his incest with his daughter, which in the Latin romance of Apollonius of Tyre (the source of Shakespeare's Pericles) King Antiochus sets to deter her suitors.

21. See Tristan, tr. Curtis, pp. 2 1—27.

22. Cornouaille may have received its name as a result of emigration from southwest Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries. Its name, and that of Pays de Leon, still appear on maps of France.

23. The ' Vulgate ' tradition, as represented e.g. in Malory, Bk. XVIII , ch. xviii , put 354 years between Joseph of Arimathea's activities, from 40 years after Christ's Passion, and a miracle worked by Sir Galahad in Arthur's time, plausibly well into the 5th century.

24. See e.g. Tristan, tr. Loomis, pp. 9---26.

25. See Tristan, r. Curtis, pp. 19--20, 27—9

26. Compare, e.g. Tristan, tr. Hatto, pp. 158--73; Malory, Bk. VIII , chs. xxi-- xiv.

27. See Tristan, tr. Curtis, pp. 89--91.

28. Ibid. pp. 3I5--24.

29. See Malory, Bk. XIX, ch. xi; Bk. XX, ch. vi.

30. Only Swinburne in his now underrated Tristram of Lyonesse kept to the more imaginative older version, at the end of his Book IX, with the jealous wife misdescribing her approaching namesake's white sail as black.

31. A.C. Sewter, The Stained Glass of William Morris, (Yale U .P. 1974), Illus. Vol. nos. 78--85.

32. See British Library, Catalogue of French Books, 1470-1606, p. 426.

33. Catalogue of Romances in the British Museum, ed. H.C.A. Ward, vol. I, pp. 365--64.

34. Compare the account of the attempted poisoning of Tristan on ff. 95--6 with Curtis's in modern idiom ( pp. 11--14), w