Sunday, February 21, 2010

Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle by Rosalind Miles

When it came time for me to pick a Fantasy novel for this class, I knew I was going to read an Arthurian fantasy.  I love Camelot in all its many variations, but my favorite legend is that of Tristan and Isolde.  Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle by Rosalind Miles is the first in the Tristan and Isolde Novels series.

Tristan and Isolde is a star-crossed lovers tragedy.  As the most recent film adaptation tagline read: “Before Romeo and Juliet, there was Tristan and Isolde.”  This book is a feminist retelling of the classic legend.  Miles uses Morte D’Arthur as the source material for this series and stays remarkably close to the original text, but also infusing it with the matriarchal culture of pre-Christian Britain.

The novel opens as the Queen of Ireland, Isolde’s mother, is urged into attacking Cornwall by her lover, Sir Marhaus.  Marhaus challenges King Mark of Cornwall to single combat. Knowing Cornwall has no knight that can best Marhaus, Merlin goes in search of Sir Tristan of Lyonesse, who is the nephew of King Mark. 

Led to Cornwall by the Lady of the Sea, Tristan arrives in time to answer the challenge.  In the duel, Marhaus is killed, but Tristan is wounded by a poisoned dagger.  Feeling responsible for his injury, Merlin takes it upon himself to protect Tristan.  He boards a boat to Ireland in search of the best healer in the British Isles, Isolde.

As Tristan recovers, he and Isolde fall in love, but circumstances are against them.  Tristan cannot stay in Ireland while the Queen seeks revenge for the death of her lover, and soon Isolde finds herself betrothed to King Mark in order to make peace.  On the voyage from Ireland to Cornwall, Tristan and Isolde admit their love for each other and begin a secret romance. 

Miles adds layers to Tristan and Isolde that most of the older classic legends are lacking.  She also includes a great deal of Irish and Cornish history and culture into the story.  Although this book is a fantasy, the legend of Camelot is founded in British history, and Miles expands the worldview appropriately.  I am curious to know if the subplots that don’t seem at all related to Tristan and Isolde will come to mean something more in later novels in this series or if they are Miles’s way of broadening the setting.

I don’t like to judge a series by the ending of the first installment.  They often have ‘conclusions’ that I don’t particularly care for, but I love the overall story. Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle has one of those endings.  I feel like the hopeful finish betrays the essential theme in this legend.  Considering how closely Miles stayed with the source material, however, I can only assume the last novel will end according to the legend.

This book is high on my recommended list for anyone who loves Arthurian legend.

Book Information:
Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle by Rosalind Miles.
Three Rivers Press, 2003. 368 pages.

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