Tristram, the prince of Lyonesse, nephew to King Mark of Cornwall. An attractive and talented youth, blessed by fortune in every way, Tristram heedlessly enjoys life until the moment that he realizes he is in love with Isolt of Ireland, the bride whom he had fought to bring back for his uncle. He has a chivalric sense of the demands of honor, from which the only escape is death. His healthy instinct to live means accepting extreme mental anguish, with physical suffering seen as a welcome relief. He is a Hamlet-like figure in his willingness to see the tragedy of his situation and to blame himself.
King Mark, who is calculating, selfish, and ignoble, the opposite of his nephew Tristram. Mark can detect the nobility and generosity of others, and he does not hesitate to take unfair advantage of them. After a lifetime of dissipation, his face is marked by a “sad craftiness” rather than the wisdom that should come with his years. He is loved by no one, except for his creature, Andred, a subhuman flunky whose joy is to anticipate Mark’s wishes.
Isolt of Ireland
Isolt of Ireland, the princess taken away to Cornwall. She is a proud and fiery beauty, as uncompromising as Tristram. Her fate is to endure years of mental and physical agony, as the king’s “shuddering toy,” rather than to escape through suicide. Strong by nature, she is resigned to a long life of misery. She is broken only after being reunited with Tristram, then snatched away from him again.
Isolt of the White Hands
Isolt of the White Hands, the princess of Brittany, a gentle soul who provides a foil to the fiery passions of the other Isolt and of Tristram. Her eyes are gray and always looking to the gray sea and the white birds above it. She represents faithful, undemanding, childlike love. She becomes Tristram’s wife after he decides that the other Isolt is lost forever. Since childhood, she had lived for Tristram, and she would gladly have healed him even after losing him to Isolt of Ireland a second time. When Tristram is treacherously slain by Andred, the gentle survivor, Isolt of Brittany, is the one hurt most of all.
Howel, the king of Brittany. He is fond of Tristram, his son-in-law. He cherishes his only child, Isolt, and shares with her a quiet, intuitive wisdom. Howel’s misgivings about whether his quiet child can hold Tristram must be put aside, as he recognizes that despite all gentle advice and persuasion, she cannot be brought to love anyone else.
Andred, King Mark’s reptilian flunky, reminiscent of dead creatures spewed up from the sea after storms. A perpetual spy and slanderer, his supreme moment comes when he sneaks up on the grieving Tristram and murders him, in ultimate homage to his master. Even then, Mark views his flunky absentmindedly and only mumbles that perhaps Andred has done right, after all, in giving Tristram peace.
Gouvernail, Tristram’s attendant and friend, worldly and well-meaning. He shows Tristram fatherly kindness and support but has no authority over him. A brave knight himself, he helped to rear Tristram and developed his chivalrous qualities and ideals. Tristram compliments him for not having more of a dark side.
Queen Morgan, a sorceress and temptress who recurs throughout the Arthurian legends. Ever the consummate opportunist, she tries to tempt Tristram on the night of King Mark’s wedding to Isolt. After the banished Tristram is found delirious in a forest, she tries more wittily to seduce him, quoting him worldly wisdom while caring for him in her castle.
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