Monday, 8 August 2011

The King of Cornwall's House

This is the King of Cornwall's House. Really! Well, according to the map and guidebook. It is just a farmhouse now, and if you walk the Saint's Way in Cornwall up the Fowey Estuary you go past the front gate. It is rather run down, but when you walk round there are more and more outbuildings, and some look very old indeed. The house is near Lostwithiel, the ancient capital of Cornwall, and looks out over the estuary.

According to the guidebook, the farmhouse was once the home of King Mark, of the Tristan and Iseault story. It is certainly a romantic spot, and you can imagine all kinds of things going on there. I love the story of Tristan and Iseault, which is probably the original Arthur and Guinevere story, before it got Frenchified by the Normans. Bloody Normans, coming over here, messing with our myths.

Anyway, Tristan and Iseault probably isn't a real story but a story from Britain's pre-christian Pagan religion. In ancient Irish mythology (Cornwall, as you can tell from the story, once had a much closer link to Ireland) the Queen would have a consort, and the consort would have to fight to be the Queen's mate. Usually for a seven-year term. Bit like a prime minister and a head of state, I guess. I think it's a brilliant idea, and we should bring it back. (Mainly because neither Dave Cameron nor Ed Miliband would have a hope in hell in a proper man-fight, and it would be much funnier than a general election.)

If you like stories, Tristan and Iseault is one of the important ones, it is a template, a master-pattern, like the first aircraft or the first plane. Like the Odyssey, or the one where a guy gets killed and comes back to life again. It gets re-invented so many times.
Top US totty James Franco in the 2006 film
The first version of the story I read was, I am sure, by Henry Treece. There are also lots of versions in any set of Arthurian stories you can get.  I was a bit lukewarm about the 2006 film version, in which top US totty James Franco fought top English totty Rufus Sewell for the affections of a rather drippy Iseault. It looked nice, but  too pre-Raphealite for my tastes. 

Kneehigh Version
I loved the stage version produced by Cornish theatre company Kneehigh in 2005, featuring authentic Cornish totty Tristan Sturrock. (Met him in the pub once, seemed like a Lovely Man, and probably the last person in the universe who'd stab anyone with a broken sword.) The whole production had an incredibly timeless feel and yet still kept a whiff of the dark ages about it.

Didn't reall need all those photos, I just thought you'd like to see some quality totty. Anyway, I have never seen the opera, but if anyone wants to give me a ticket to say what I think of that, I will! I am always interested to see how stories reinvent themselves, so if anyone knows other interesting versions, I'd love to know them.

As well as being a love story, Tristan and Iseault is also a story about a war over tin, which was once a very valuable resource, and made Cornwall a place worth fighting over. Nobody gets to fight about anything much in Cornwall these days, unless it's after pub-closing time, so looking at the Kings House is a bit of an Ozymandias moment. All that sturm and drang, and two thousand years later you're just a run-down farmhouse with some nice pillars outside. We should send a few politicians down to look, I think.

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