We have updated our Privacy Policy Please take a moment to review it. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the terms of our updated Privacy Policy.

The Story Behind the Story: Isolde and Tristan

In case you didn’t know, I live for a good medieval romance. Sure, they’re a little outdated, but for whatever reason Arthurian romances spoke to my thirteen-year-old soul and never stopped. And the only thing that gets me more excited than the original tale is a re-imagining of the courtly romances that so captured my young heart!

The story of Tristan and Isolde was always one of my favorites. A forbidden (duh) romance between the Cornish knight Tristan and the Irish princess Isolde, with written accounts dating as early as the 1100’s. But as much as I love the original tale, it is definitely a product of its time and could use a little refreshing.

Which is why I’m pleased to say that Izzy + Tristan is the reimagining I’ve been waiting for! To my knowledge, it is the only re-telling bringing the myth into the modern era, and the way Shannon Dunlap took the original story and changed it for our current time surprised and enchanted me. And while you can totally enjoy the book without knowing the original story, sometimes that knowledge can make a re-telling all the more powerful.

But even I, a stalwart connoisseur of the courtly romance of early English history, must admit that a refresher on the original tale is sometimes due. We can’t all be expected to remember the plots to every romance EVER. So if you need a refresher (or have never heard the story and are curious), I give you my humble primer for Tristan and Isolde. And when you’re done here, go check out Izzy + Tristan, and let yourself be swept away by beautiful prose and a timeless romance.

Note: several different versions of the story exist because the Middle Ages. Here I will tell one version of many, though I will try to note common differences.


The Irish knight Morholt demands tribute from King Mark of Cornwall. When he travels to Cornwall to collect payment, Tristan agrees to do battle to help free his people from the debt.

Though he defeats Morholt, Tristan is injured in the battle and travels to Ireland to be healed by Isolde. In some versions, he is found by Isolde after washing up on the shore, in others he hides his identity to seek her aid because she is a renowned healer. Either way he recovers and when his identity is revealed as Morholt’s killer, he flees back to Cornwall.

Later Tristan returns to bring the beautiful Isolde back for his uncle, King Mark, to marry. On their return to Cornwall, Tristan and Isolde drink a love potion, which causes them to fall madly in love. In some versions they take it accidentally, while in others the maker tells Isolde to drink it with Mark, but she decides to drink it with Tristan so their love might survive even when she is promised to another.

Though Isolde marries Mark, she and Tristan are bound to seek each other out by the potion. And while the pair are careful to hide their trysts, there are whispers among the court of potential infidelity.

In a true twist of irony, they all love each other for different reasons. Isolde and Tristan love each other romantically (obviously), Mark loves Isolde as his wife and Tristan as his adopted son, Tristan loves Mark as a father-figure, and Isolde is grateful to Mark for his kindness to her.

Mark eventually finds out, and sentences both Isolde and Tristan to painful deaths. Tristan escapes, rescuing Isolde, and the pair flee to the woods until discovered by Mark.

The pair make peace with Mark under the agreement that Isolde return with Mark and Tristan be banished from the country. Tristan then travels to Brittany, where he marries another Isolde (so weird!), Isolde of the White Hands.

Tristan is eventually hit with a poisoned lance. The story of how this happens varies; in some tales Mark did it, in others it was a casualty incurred when rescuing a maiden from a group of vicious knights. Either way, Tristan sends his friend for Isolde, the only person who could heal such a wound. He asks his friend to sail white flags if he returns with her, black if he does not. The sails fly white, but a jealous Isolde of the White Hands lies and says the flags are black. Tristan believes Isolde has betrayed him and dies of grief. Isolde dies of a broken heart over his corpse.

And that is the tale of Tristan and Isolde. It’s not a happy tale, but romances from the 12th century rarely are. The question is: how will Izzy + Tristan pan out? You’ll just have to read it and discover for yourself!