Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Margaret Moser, Fri., April 25, 2003
Isolde: Queen of the Western Isleby Rosalind Miles
Crown, 351 pp., $22.95
It's among the most famous love stories in the Western world, that of Tristan and Isolde, dating at least as far back as Thomas the Rhymer's 12th-century version. So famous that it's a safe bet more people recognize the names than know the story. A poem by Gottfried von Strassburg, a part of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur epic, an opera by Richard Wagner, the story has undergone tinkering each time it is told, and author Rosalind Miles has done her share of revising.
Miles is no stranger to legends, Arthurian and otherwise. She is the distinguished author of nearly two dozen nonfiction and fiction titles, including I, Elizabeth: The Word of a Queen, and recently completed her Guenevere trilogy (The Queen of the Summer Country, The Knight of the Sacred Lake, The Child of the Holy Grail). Isolde: Queen of the Western Isle is the second trilogy in a series of nine books pertaining to the characters of Camelot.
And as a legend, there is no fact to work from, freeing Miles to interpret and re-envision the characters as she pleases, just as writers from Thomas Hardy to Sir Walter Scott to John Updike have done. In Miles' version, Isolde is the sole daughter of the queen of the Western Isle -- Ireland -- and therefore in line to rule. A practitioner of the healing arts, she bides her time until then, a task made difficult by Sir Marhaus, the warmongering lover of her mother, the queen. Marhaus wishes to make war on Cornwall, across the sea, and succeeds despite Isolde's efforts otherwise.
Enter Cornwall's champion, Sir Tristan of Lyonesse, knight of the Round Table, who falls for Isolde. Enter the antagonist, King Mark of Cornwall, who likewise falls for Isolde and exercises his royal rights by marrying her. That Tristan is the son of King Mark's sister only adds to the tension within. In a taut battle of the emotions that goes from Ireland to Cornwall to Camelot, magic and mayhem rule. Miles leaves the two lovers with a happy ending for this part of the trilogy, as Tristan is now king of Lyonesse and Isolde queen of Cornwall and Ireland.
Miles espouses a currently fashionable form of feminist paganism, not unlike Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. It's an appealing interpretation, one that allows for Christianity's presence and emphasizes respect for the natural (and supernatural) world. Her expert storytelling weaves together all the necessary threads for a rich, modern, and colorful tapestry of this ancient and beloved romance.