Why has the story of Tristan and Iseult endured for more than a thousand years? Kristina Pérez introduces her own brilliant retelling, Sweet Black Waves, a fantasy built on the foundations of history, and in the process shows us why romance is still so popular.
Tristan and Iseult is probably Western Europe’s most popular traditional romance. Countless poems, books and films feature the doomed lovers. Why did you decide to retell their story?
What drew me to retelling the legend was actually the figure of Branwen, Iseult’s lady’s maid. In the original legends she plays a minor but pivotal role at several crucial junctures. It’s her mishandling of the love potion that results in Tristan and Iseult’s forbidden romance, and it’s also Branwen who has to sleep with King Marc on Iseult’s wedding night since the princess is no longer a virgin. I wanted to tell Branwen’s story because she’s never given a voice of her own in the medieval material, like so many other female characters, but I imagined her to have a rich interior world. I also thought she provided a new lens through which to deconstruct the patriarchal underpinnings of the societies in which these legends developed, as well as our own.
At the end of your book, you talk about the difference between historical fiction and fantasy, noting that medieval poets were not particularly concerned with accuracy in their Tristan retellings. What draws you to fantasy, and why did you choose to tell your own version of the myth using a fantastical framework?
My mother’s family is from Norway and one of the first books I remember reading was a collection of tales from Norse mythology. From there I started reading both fantasy novels and folklore and I’ve always seen them as part of the same continuum. My early passion for fantasy led me to pursue my degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic studies and eventually write my PhD on Morgan la Fey. The Arthurian sorceress par excellence has her roots in Celtic war and Sovereignty goddesses and so to me it also made sense to tell Branwen’s story in a secondary fantasy world setting where I could draw on both historical aspects of Britain and Ireland in the 5th and 6th centuries, as well as the magic and gods that populate those early myths and legends. Also, the Arthurian corpus as we most popularly know it was composed between the 11th-13th centuries and reflects the political and cultural concerns of that era––despite the tales purportedly taking place in post-Roman Britain. Creating a secondary fantasy world therefore allowed me to incorporate elements from both the early and later Middle Ages.
Your book is full of memorable female characters. I particularly like the relationship between Eseult and Branwen – we need more complex female friendships in our fantasy! In your notes, you mention that the strong Celtic protagonists of the original Tristan tales were in stark contrast to the dis-empowered medieval ladies who consumed said tales. Was getting back to the Celtic roots of the story an important aspect of your female characterisation?
Thank you! The heroines of early Irish and Welsh tales are fabulously fierce and are actually given speaking roles more often than their later medieval counterparts. In my academic work on Morgan la Fey, I traced the process of euhemerization whereby a goddess gradually falls in status to become the wicked witch figure presented in Malory. Likewise, it was my aim to scratch beneath the surface of the courtly lady versions of Iseult and Branwen and unearth their more forthright incarnations.
You point out that medieval romances were read voraciously by aristocratic women likely as a means of escape from a powerless life. Do you think this element of escapism is why romance is still as popular today?
Wish fulfilment is always a powerful motivator. I think that romance as well as most other categories provide the reader with escapism of different kinds. In the Middle Ages, the songs of the troubadours allowed aristocratic women to indulge in the fantasy of adultery with a handsome lover, for instance, but by placing the courtly lady on a pedestal she was actually objectified and so any semblance of power was always illusory. The medieval romances arguably helped uphold the patriarchal framework of society whereby women were traded between fathers and husbands because it lauded romantic love between a man and a woman as the pinnacle of what women should desire. Still today, the romance category is predominately heteronormative––although it’s starting to change––and the romantic/sexual wish fulfilment provided by these stories, in effect, continues to uphold the overall Western narrative that a woman’s greatest achievement and greatest desire should be landing a man.
Why should a reader pick up your book?
If you like feminist retellings, complex female characters and relationships, old gods, warring kingdoms and dark magic, then this will be your cup of tea!
Kristina Pérez is a half-Argentine/half-Norwegian native New Yorker. She has spent the past two decades working as a journalist and academic in Europe and Asia.
She is the author of The Myth of Morgan la Fey (Palgrave Macmillan) and holds a PhD in Medieval Literature from the University of Cambridge. Sweet Black Waves is her debut young adult novel.
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