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Star-crossed lovers in classic literature part 2

Two stories from classic literature of lovers separated by forces outside of their control.

Jolan Wuyts (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

In part 1 of this blog series we highlighted two stories from classic literature, and depictions of those stories in art, of lovers separated by forces outside of their control.

Here are two more stories of classic star-crossed lovers, with beautiful illustrations found in Europeana. Read the first two stories in Part 1

Hero and Leander

Greek mythology is filled to the brim with tragic tales of love.

The myth of Hero and Leander has them not separated by differences in social status or pre-existing marriages, but simply by physical distance. Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, lives in Sestos at one side of the Hellespont. Leander lives in Abydos, at the other side of the strait of water.

Madly in love with each other but not able to meet, Leander's desire to see Hero was so strong that he would swim across the Hellespont every night. Hero would shine a light in the darkness from atop her tower to guide Leander across the waters. 

Hero ventende sin elsker Leander &  Hero ventende Leander. C.F. Høyer, 1808. Statens Museum for Kunst, Denmark, CC0

On a blustery winter night, the wind blew out Hero's light, and Leander was tossed by the waves, disoriented. Leander drowned in the Hellespont, and upon seeing his body Leander threw herself off of her tower to join Hero in the sweet embrace of death.

EXPLORE MORE Discover more tales of romance in our Love Across Borders blog series

Tristan and Isolde

The final star-crossed couple we're highlighting in this blog series are Tristan and Isolde.

In some version, their story ends in a happy ending instead of in mutual suicide, as in others. The original legend of Tristan and Isolde (their names have a lot of different spellings: Tristram, Iseult amongst others) has both of them surviving, marrying, and living a happy life together. 

The story of Tristan and Isolde has many different versions in different languages and time periods. The Arthurian legends of Lancelot and Guinevere were most likely influenced by Tristan and Isolde.

Tristan and Isolde as told by Wagner in his opera of the same name casts both lovers back into tragedy. Depictions of Tristan and Isolde after 1865 often reference Wagner's play or at least show Wagnerian influences.

In Wagner's retelling of Tristan and Isolde, Tristan is transporting Isolde to Cornwall where she has been promised in marriage to king Marke. Isolde despises Tristan, for he is the murderer of her former fiancée, Morold. Her hate for Tristan runs so deep that she orders her handmaid to create a poisoned drink that she can give to Tristan.

Accepting that he should die because of what he did to Morold, Tristan drinks the poison. Isolde, not seeing any future in her forced marriage with the king of Cornwall, drinks the other half of the poisoned drink. It is then that they discover that the handmaiden had given them not poison, but a love potion.

Isolde is married to king Marke as planned, but the love potion drives Tristan and Isolde to meet in secret.

When the king is hunting at nightfall, Isolde calls Tristan to the castle where they declare their love for each other. Their passions continue throughout the night, both of them ignoring the cries of the handmaiden warning them of daybreak. King Marke catches Tristan and Isolde red-handed, entwined in embrace.

Tristan-Sage. Universität Osnabrück | Historische Bildpostkarten, Germany. CC BY-NC-SA. 

In medieval versions of Tristan and Isolde, at this point both are sentenced to death - but the lovers manage to escape together. They are once again discovered hiding in the forest together by the king, but succeed in making peace with the king. Tristan and Isolde travel to Brittany, where they marry and live on happily ever after. 

Wagner's version is much more tragic. After a swordfight with the king's entourage Tristan escapes, alone, to Brittany, waiting for his lover to arrive by ship. Just as Isolde's ship arrives in the harbour, Tristan succumbs to the wounds he sustained in the swordfight. Isolde collapses next to her true love, and dies.

EXPLORE MORE: Medieval love stories in the Romance of the Rose or the tale of Heloise and Abelard.

By Jolan Wuyts, Europeana

Feature Image: Rien sans toy; (Hero und Leander). Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, Germany, CC BY-NC-SA