Tell me the truth about love stories

Ah yes, our poor, barnacled hearts.

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We might as well start with Cinderella

Cinderella has been loved and retold all over the world for over 3000 years among humans of all kinds and genders. In Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen gave it a makeover during the Napoleonic Wars (taking a comic side-swipe at some lazy romance stories around her at the time). The film Pretty Woman (1990) rebooted it, Bridget Jones gave it another contemporary twist in 1997 (having started as a newspaper column) and since 1999 the play and film Mamma Mia has been showing that it can work for middle-aged people too. Any good plot structure can stand another version.

The genius of the Cinderella story is most explicit in Pretty Woman. No, I don’t mean the scene where the snooty shop assistants are obliged to grovel to her, though that’s part of it. It’s when the Richard Gere character arrives at her flat (top storey of course, like a fairy tale tower), he climbs up her fire escape with flowers and jokes that he’s come to rescue her. She skips out of the window and down the steps to hug and kiss him. ‘Your white knight is here to rescue you,’ he goes, ‘what happens next?’ Julia Roberts gives him a level look and says, ‘She rescues him right back’.

In this Cinderella it not just that she is rescued from the kitchens (or in her case street life) by all his princely money. It’s that they rescue each other, and are right for each other, regardless of their places in society.

But love stories have not always taken that shape. The Ancient Greeks had a strict formula for their romantic stories: a heterosexual young couple, both equally beautiful and aristocratic, fall in love. Before they can marry, each of them must face a series of tough tests of mind, body and spirit (equally tough regardless of their gender). Only when they’ve been tested enough and are seen to deserve each other does the genre allow them to marry. Happy ending.

The Three Drinks

In an Irish folk tale called The Three Drinks (Sinead De Valera, Irish Fairy Tales, 1973) a mother of three sons hears that a rich, local beauty called Ina the Fair has launched a singing competition to find a husband. An old woman turns up at their home asking for hospitality and offers a magic potion as her thanks, saying that the potion will guarantee success with Ina the Fair. She makes it clear though that the potion only works if the person who takes it works hard.

The sons line up to try the potion and have a crack at the singing competition. With the potion each one is left a list of chores to do.

The eldest is idle: having taken the potion, he just laughs at the list of chores. Off he goes to sing for Ina and everybody laughs back at him. The next son is distracted by all and everything; he downs the potion and off he goes. But on the way, he sees a rugby match and can’t help joining in. Next he’s off helping somebody else. Nice lad but it doesn’t get the chores done, does it?

The youngest son faithfully does his work before he goes to sing for Ina the Fair. Happy ending? You’d think so but … He does indeed sing like a lark and everybody’s impressed, but Ina won’t have him. Why? He’s too poor! (And maybe he should have had a wash after doing all those chores.) Away he goes heart-scalded, and decides to better himself. In no time he’s a rich man, doing well.

The old woman turns up at his door again. She has some important news for him, that Ina the Fair rues the day she sent him away and is miserable without him. He thinks for a moment what to do, then he takes off his brocade jacket with gold buttons and his finely tailored breeches, puts on some old rags and off he goes to sing to her again. This time she’s dying to marry him, rags and all. He’s chuffed to bits and agrees. She’s even happier of course when she discovers that he’s a rich man now; money always helps. But the point is this: it’s not until they’ve both survived their troubles that they deserve each other.

Tristan and Iseult

Many of these ancient stories took form long before they were written down. The love story credited with being Western literature’s first is Tristan and Iseult.

It is a remarkably complex story with too many shafts of painful reality to be rooted purely in ‘legend’. Like all the oldest tales, there are several versions that blend in and out of each other. Its origin is generally credited to two French poets in the twelfth century but early echoes have been discovered all over the place from Ireland to Spain to Belarus. I’m a great fan of Rosemary Sutcliff’s version written with enormous tenderness for children in 1971.

In brief, the ‘courtly’ version is as follows:

A war between Ireland and Cornwall is settled when Tristan kills the Irish champion, the Morholt, in single combat. He is healed of his near-fatal wound by an Irish princess he doesn’t get to see. We readers know that her name is Iseult. Back home in Cornwall, Tristan’s uncle King Mark is set to marry Princess Iseult to seal the new peace and, now that Tristan is well, he is sent to collect her. Among her wedding gifts is a magic potion to drink with her new husband to seal their love and marriage. During their voyage, a storm threatens them all. Tristan and Iseult drink the potion together (who wouldn’t?) and fall in love …

Brimming with new love they may be, but Iseult has no choice but to go ahead with her arranged marriage to King Mark and tries to forget Tristan. But there he is at court, large as life and ever so handsome, and in time they can’t help but start an affair. Mark’s knights find out and the lovers are sentenced to death.

Tristan is locked in a tower before his execution and, hero that he is, manages to escape. Iseult’s sentence is more revolting: she is to be thrown among lepers and then burnt at the stake. Just in time, Tristan (disguised as a leper) saves her and they run off into the woods together.

There they live together for four years. This is an odd section of the story – they live on berries in a non-world of their own making – until King Mark passes by on a hunting trip. He visits their hut while it’s empty and leaves a trace to show Iseult that she’s been discovered. She decides she has no choice but to go back to Mark and be his wife again.

Tristan is married off by arrangement to a Breton Princess. She is another Iseult, known as Iseult of the Fair Hands, and Tristan starts life in Brittany. The lovers stick with their marriages, although we learn that Tristan is unable to make love to his wife.

There are several versions of Tristan’s death. It’s clear that he was one of the bravest warriors and was never going to make old bones. My favourite is that Tristan joins in sword play with his brother-in-law and is mortally wounded. No-one but Irish Iseult (Mark’s queen) can save him as her healing skills are unmatched, and she is sent for. On its return, her ship is to show a white sail if she is on board, a black sail if she has refused to come.

Tristan lies dying. His wife Iseult of the Fair Hands keeps watch on the horizon. A ship appears. Tristan asks what colour the sails are. She tells him they are black.

It’s a lie. Iseult arrives with her bag of herbs and potions but Tristan has already died broken-hearted without her. Iseult throws herself on his corpse and breathes her last. They are together at last in death and are buried together where, tradition has it, columbine grows from her grave and honeysuckle from his (or vice versa, or it might be hazel) entwining for the rest of time.

What traditional elements of Western love stories are established here?

  • The couple falls instantly and helplessly in love and remain in love with each other all their lives – the coup de foudre is an over-powering, once in a lifetime event;
  • Their love faces a series of obstacles, in this case the lovers’ duties to their arranged treaty marriages and their communities. They try to do the honourable thing and stay away from each other;
  • Life is incomplete for each of them without the other and always will be (‘Ni moi sans vous, ni vous sans moi’);
  • Only in death can they find perfection together.

Mark and Iseult of the Fair Hands are innocent victims in this story but lose our affection when they commit appallingly callous acts: Mark’s sentence on Iseult for her adultery and Breton Iseult’s black sail lie.

Prepare for a shock:

In most of the world’s communities even today, falling suddenly in love – the coup de foudre – is not seen as the route to happiness at all. On the contrary, it’s reckoned to be a temporary madness which can threaten everything the community holds dear. The fundamental question for Tristan and Iseult is whether they should serve the needs of their communities or of their own hearts. That is why their period of isolation in the forest is so important: without your community, life is fundamentally arid. The difficulty is that without love, life is arid too. 

Tristan and Iseult don’t need to earn each other’s respect: for them, being slave to the potion is enough. It’s our respect they must earn before they can unite in death.

If you have characters who are in love, try inviting them – separately, in turn – for a scribble-chat. That’s where you get together like old friends and you let the character chat loosely with you while you write it all down, as deep, free and wide as a river without editing at all. Let yourself be surprised by what comes.

Your character is in love with X. Ask:

  • Why did you first notice X? What was it about X that made you linger?
  • How did you first make contact?
  • How did X behave during your first meeting?
  • List the things you love most about X, in order of importance to you.
  • Is there a place that’s special to you both? Real or made up? Describe it please.
  • Do you have any code words or nicknames just for the two of you?
  • Do you own anything belonging to X? Describe it.
  • Write X a love letter. It’s entirely private and may never be sent: what would you really like to say?
  • How would you like your future together to be?
  • How do you see things really panning out?
  • Have you been in love before? If so, how does this time compare? If not, is love how you thought it would be? What’s different?
  • How do you think other people see you? Your parents? Your friends? X’s friends? Strangers in the street?

You can have a scribble-chat like this with your lovers at many stages of their love. One of the dynamics of story-telling is dramatic irony, where the reader knows more than the characters, and you can play with your characters’ and readers’ expectations to roll your storyline around. In One Day, David Nicholls uses missed opportunities and timing to break our hearts. The Rhett and Scarlett storyline in Gone with the Wind does the same. There are countless examples.

In today’s Western world, love stories have come to be seen as ‘chicklit’ or female fodder but that is a late twentieth century development. Throughout the centuries there has been no shortage of smitten male protagonists ready to die for love, from Tristan and Lancelot through Sidney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame to of course Romeo himself. This corner of the fiction playground is not just for the girls.

More about Romeo and Juliet next week. Happy writing!

One thought on “Tell me the truth about love stories

  1. petexa says:

    It’s odd that Tristan and Iseult only fall in love because of the potion, so in a sense none of it is real. I think I can see a reason for having them spend four years together, though. Their tragic deaths have more impact because they were happy before, and so had something to lose. I don’t think I would have given them four years, though, because that’s not tragic enough! Four months would have done.

    Liked by 1 person

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