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A Dragon in Medieval Dublin

A medieval version of the story of Tristan and Iseult has the knight battle a dragon for the hand of his love.

Caoimhe Whelan | Published 09 November 2015

Detail of a miniature of the dragon constellation ('Draco'), in tables from Ptolemy's Almagest.Ireland is not usually associated with dragons, but one medieval folktale presents its hero, Sir Tristrem, battling with a dragon who is terrorising Dublin. The story of the tragic love affair between the knight Tristrem (Tristen) and the Irish princess Ysolte (Isolte) was extremely popular in the Middle Ages, circulating across medieval Europe in various versions and languages. A modern audience is probably most familiar with later versions of the story which place Tristrem at the court of King Arthur and show him participating in the quest for the Holy Grail. However, the Tristrem story dates back to the 12th century and the story’s entangled love story between King Mark, Ysolte and Tristrem may have been the inspiration for the mythical Arthur-Guinevere-Launcelot love triangle. We do not have the original tale, but it is clear that the story of Tristrem is indebted to Pictish, Irish and Breton traditions. 

Sir Tristrem’s adventures appear in the English language in the late-14th century in a romance text called Sir Tristrem, a single copy of which remains in a manuscript from the c.1330s known as the Auchinleck manuscript (now held in the National Library of Scotland). This is the earliest surviving manuscript to contain only Middle English-language texts, and the contents offer a glimpse of pre-Chaucerian literature across various genres. The Auchinleck manuscript, probably produced in London for a London audience, has 44 texts. Eighteen of these are in the romance genre, and eight of the romances – including Sir Tristrem – are unique to this manuscript, which makes it a wonderful treasure trove of English romance narratives. Tristrem’s adventures as a knight involve numerous heroic quests which include avenging his father’s death and killing an Irish half-giant who is demanding tribute for the king of Ireland from King Mark of England. Sir Tristrem is a parody presenting Sir Tristrem as a medieval English hero and a Don Quixote whose sucesses and failures owe much to chance and timing. The Tristrem of the Middle English romance is vastly different in character to the serious, diligent knight who appears in other versions of the narrative, and his dramatic dragon-fight in Dublin presents a grandiose set-piece to exemplify Sir Tristrem’s tragi-comic status.  

The King of Ireland has offered the hand of his beautiful daughter, Ysolte, to whoever can defeat the dragon, and Tristrem has been instructed to secure a marriage between Ysolte and King Mark of England. Thus the dragon presents an irresistible opportunity for the hero to achieve his goals while partaking in a suitable heroic exercise. The poet relishes the dragon-episode, vividly depicting terrified Dubliners fleeing the city:

Out of Deuelin toun 
Þe folk wel fast ran 
In a water to droun 
So ferd were þai þan. 
For doute of o dragoun, 
Þai seyd, to schip þai wan 
To hauen þat were boun (1407-1415)

Out of Dublin town
The folk so fast ran
Into the water to drown 
So scared were they then 
For fear of a dragon 
They said they were going to a ship 
To the port they were bound.

The text lingers over the description of Tristrem readying himself for battle and presenting himself as a great English hero. He faces danger ‘for Ingland’ and he imagines the dragon breathes hell-fire:

Helle-fere, him thought, 
Fram that dragoun fleighe (1438-40).

Hell-fire, he thought, 
From that dragon flew.

But Sir Tristrem’s actions are seldom straightforward. He is a tragi-comic figure par excellance, and his attack on the dragon prompts a response which leaves not just his weapon broken but his horse dead. Unsaddled knights are vulnerable but Tristrem seems particularly terrified. Ever the hero, he scampers under a tree, and beseeches God not to let him die. 

Stirt under a tre 
Al stille 
And seyd, “God in Trinitè, 
No lat thou me noght spille.” (1460-4)

[he] fled under a tree 
All still 
And said, ‘God in Trinity, 
Do not let me die.’

Perhaps evoking God aided his cause, as his next attack draws blood from the dragon. But instead of achieving a resounding victory, he simply lobs off the dragon’s jaw. The dragon, understandably, unleashes a mouthful of burning flames and, the narrator explains, with a raconteur’s relish, it completely engulfs the hero, disfiguring his armour. The dishevelled knight refuses to give up. He resumes his attack, and – with relief – slays the dragon:

Now lith his stede yslain, 
His armes brent ichon. 
Tristrem raught his brain 
And brak his ne bon. 
No was he never so fain 
As than that batail was don. (1477-82)

Now with his horse slain 
His armour burnt and split 
Tristrem pierced his brain 
And broke his neck bone. 
Never was he so happy 
As when that battle was done.

Even in victory, however, Tristrem’s comic failures are not over. As well as breaking the dragon’s neck bone, he cuts off the dragon’s tongue:

To bote, 
His tong hat he ton 
And schorn of bi the rote. (1483-5)

In addition,
His tongue he had seized 
And ripped off by the root.

Bizarrely choosing to claim the tongue as his prize, he tucks it into his hose and prepares to return to the court:

In his hose next the hide 
The tong oway he bar. 
No yede he bot ten stride 
His speche les he thar. 
Nedes he most abide 
That he no may ferther far. (1486-91)

In his hose next to the skin 
The tongue away he bore 
He hadn’t walked ten strides 
When he lost his speech. 
By necessity he must halt 
He can go no further.

He is forced to come to an ignoble halt as the poison in the dragon’s tongue against his skin renders him speechless and causes him to pass out. His ill-luck continues as a passing steward then treacherously steals the dragon’s head to present to the king as proof of his defeat of the dragon in order to claim Ysolte as his prize. 

The royal party hears that the dragon is dead; Dublin is safe, and the steward who stole the dragon’s head presents himself at court to collect his prize, Ysolte. Thankfully for Tristrem, Princess Ysolte looks at the lowely steward, her royal snobbery kicks in, and (based on an appraisal of the rich apparel of the charred horse) she refuses to believe that the steward is responsible for killing the dragon:

“Dede the steward this dede?”
“Certes,” quath Ysonde, “nay. 
This ich brende stede 
No aught he never a day, 
No this riche wede
Nas never his, sothe to say.” (1508-13)

“Did the steward do this deed?”
“Certainly,” said Ysonde, “Nay.
This very burnt steed
He never owned a day, 
No, this rich apparel 
Never was his, true to say.”

Given that the dragon-slaying hero will determine Ysolte’s future, she investigates further and discovers another more promising-looking hero – Tristrem – lying near the dead dragon. Powerful Irish medicine revives him, and the truth about who killed the dragon is revealed; Dublin’s debt to Tristrem is acknowledged, and it looks like he will get the girl. Of course, in the romance world, nothing is quite so simple. It will take the hero considerably longer to achieve his prize once the feisty Irish princess discovers that Tristrem is responsible for killing her uncle, the giant, but that is another story.   

Caoimhe Whelan is IRC Daniel O'Connell Scholar in Irish History at Trinity College Dublin.

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