‘Isoud of the White Hands’
Iseult, Iseut aux Blances Mains, Isolde of the Fair Hands, Isolde of Brittany, Isolt, Yseult, Yseut, and so on
She was the daughter – apparently the younger daughter – of Howell of Brittany, presumably by that wife who was to brutally slain by the Giant of Saint Michael’s Mount, which would have cast a tragic shadow on her childhood and on that of her brother Kehydius.
As La Beale Isoud had cured Tristram of the wound of Marhaus’ envenomed spear, so Isoud of the White Hands met him when Bragwaine and Gouvernail had him conveyed to Brittany expressly so that she, also a good surgeon, could heal him of the wound of a poisonous arrow. Tristram became infatuated with his newest nurse and married her as much, it appears, because her name was the same as that of his real love as for any other reason. It was a virginal marriage.
And so when they were abed both Sir Tristram remembered him of his old lady La Beale Isoud. And then he took such a thought suddenly that he was all dismayed, and other cheer made he none but with clipping [hugging] and kissing; as for other fleshly lusts Sir Tristram never thought nor had ado with her ... the lady weened there had been no pleasure but kissing and clipping.
La Blanche Mains sailed with Tristram on at least one occasion, when their barget was blown ashore on the coast of Wales, where La Beale Isoud learned of Tristram’s marriage and invited both him and his wife to Cornwall. Tristram left La Blanche Mains behind. Apparently he never saw her again. In Cornwall, he spoke of his denying his wife her conjugal rights as a praiseworthy deed:
But as for thee, Sir Kehydis... I wedded thy sister Isoud la Blanche Mains for the goodness she did unto me. And yet, as I am tru knight, she is a clean maiden for me...
When Tristan was fatally wounded he sent for Iseult, believing that she could heal him, making the captain of the ship that was to fetch her agree to hoist black sails if she were not on board. When the ship returned, it was showing white sails, but Iseult of the White Hands lied to her husband, saying the sails were black, and he died before Iseult arrived. Some sources say Iseult did refuse to come, and so Tristan died, while others say that the jealous King Mark killed Tristan. Classical influences obviously play a very important part here, particularly the story concerning Aegeus and his son Theseus with regard to the white and black sails.
An Icelandic version of the Tristan story says that this Iseult was Spanish, being given to Tristan when he defeated the King of Spain. Malory is silent on the later life of Isoud La Blanche Mains of Brittany. Robinson gives a sympathetic picture of her in his ‘Tristram’.
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