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Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle

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The First of the Tristan and Isolde Novels

Written by Rosalind MilesAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Rosalind Miles


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 368 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42112-8
Published by : Broadway Books Crown/Archetype
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In the golden time of Arthur and Guenevere, the Island of the West shines like an emerald in the sea—one of the last strongholds of Goddess-worship and Mother-right. Isolde is the only daughter and heiress of Ireland’s great ruling queen, a lady as passionate in battle as she is in love. La Belle Isolde, like her mother, is famed for her beauty, but she is a healer instead of a warrior, “of all surgeons, the best among the isles.” A natural peacemaker, Isolde is struggling to save Ireland from a war waged by her dangerously reckless mother. The Queen is influenced by her lover, Sir Marhaus, who urges her to invade neighboring Cornwall and claim it for her own, a foolhardy move Isolde is determined to prevent. But she is unable to stop them. King Mark of Cornwall sends forth his own champion to do battle with the Irish—Sir Tristan of Lyonesse—a young, untested knight with a mysterious past. A member of the Round Table, Tristan has returned to the land of his birth after many years in exile, only to face Ireland’s fiercest champion in combat. When he lies victorious but near death on the field of battle, Tristan knows that his only hope of survival lies to the West. He must be taken to Ireland to be healed, but he must go in disguise—for if the Queen finds out who killed her beloved, he will follow Marhaus into the spirit world. His men smuggle him into the Queen’s fort at Dubh Lein, and beg the princess to save him.

From this first meeting of star-crossed lovers, an epic story unfolds. Isolde’s skill and beauty impress Tristan’s uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, and—knowing nothing of her love for Tristan—he decides to make her his queen, a match her mother encourages as a way to bind their lands under one rule. Tristan and Isolde find themselves caught in the crosscurrents of fate, as Isolde is forced to marry a man she does not love. Taking pity on her daughter, the Queen gives her an elixir that will create in her a passion for King Mark and ensure that their love will last until death. But on the voyage to Ireland, Tristan and Isolde drink the love potion by accident, sealing their already perilous love forever.

So begins the first book of the Tristan and Isolde trilogy, another stunning example of the storyteller’s craft from Rosalind Miles, author of the beloved and bestselling Guenevere trilogy.

From the Hardcover edition.



Night fell across the forest, tree by tree. A rising moon shone through the tangled branches, and one by one the creatures of the day slipped to their silent beds. In the shadows, the mounted figure waited, brooding on what was to come. His cloudy robes and long gray hair blended with the night, and his hooded eyes never left the road ahead. Any rider coming from Ireland had to pass this way. And the messenger was coming, he knew it. There was nothing to do but wait.

Leaning forward, he stroked the neck of his patient mule, and a crooked smile played over his ancient face. All his life, Merlin mused, he had known how to wait. Through all his lives, as Druid, seer, and magic child, he had watched and endured as the world went by. He drew in the rich smell of the woodland, sensing the pulse of the living earth. Beneath the moldering leaves of winter, he could feel the approach of spring. This, too, he had long awaited, through a hard season racked with storms and snow. All winters in the end gave way to spring.

But now--

Merlin's heart groaned in his breast. "Gods, give us peace!" he prayed. "Or if not peace, grant me a little time!"

Peaccce--tiiime--a mocking night wind whisked his words away. The old enchanter ground his yellow teeth. "I know, I know!" he moaned to the empty air. "You warned me, and I did not hear!"

For the signs had come, there was no doubt of that. Even in Camelot, joyfully ensconced with Arthur and Guenevere, he was always Merlin, and Merlin never slept. First of all, a month and more ago, wandering in the wilds, he had been enveloped by a soft wind from the west, full of sad murmurs and foreboding cries. Then a week or so afterward, alone in his chamber when all the court slept, he had heard the sound of women's voices raised in grief, keening over a battleground as women did in the distant isles. With it came a seeing such as only a Druid can bear. The same trembling in the wind had brought him the sight of women washing their warriors' bloodstained garments at a ford, and the stark glimpse of a green hillside darkened by gaping graves.

After that had come the saddest sign of all. On the first day of spring, all the court had turned out to greet the newborn sun, reveling in the pale beams warming the earth. Merlin had lagged behind as the short day ended and the crowd turned back to Camelot. On the outskirts of the forest, before the approach to the great palace with its white towers and golden roofs, he saw a windblown sea bird, miles from any shore. Bravely she battled over the darkling plain, and came to rest at last in his open arms.

She held a bright green trefoil in her beak. With infinite gentleness he took it from her and wrapped the small spent body in his cloak, cradling her in the bosom of his gown. She raised her long white neck and fixed him with an angry, tender eye. D'you hear, Merlin? she asked him without words.

"I hear," he replied softly in the Old Tongue, and blessed her head. Then she tucked her head under her wing, and breathed her last.

He touched the shamrock then, and knowledge came. The word was coming from the Western Isle--the plant with three leaves had no other home. Ireland, the Island of the West--he closed his eyes and memories sharp as knives stabbed him to the quick. Suddenly he was a love-crazed youth again, studying on the Druids' own sacred island, pursuing the Goddess in the place She called home, the land so beloved by the Old Ones that they had made it the sweetest spot on earth.

Gods above, how he had loved Her then! And any woman in Her shape or form. And in return, many women had loved him. At the height of his love for the Great One, he had found his power. Afterward he returned to Ireland whenever his spirit failed, and always found there the succor that he sought. Indeed, on one such visit, many lives later, the Queen of the Western Isle herself had come to him, and taken him for her own.

"The Queen," he breathed in delight, "ah, yes, the Queen." Gods, what a woman, born to have her way with any man! A warmth pulsed through him and he brought his crabbed hand to his lips in a phantom kiss. Fine days, they were, and even rarer nights. He would not forget.

But for days now he had felt the coming of another messenger. All day at court he had heard the Great Ones whispering in his ear, and at the end of the dinner hour, he had slipped away. His white mule had come at once to his call, and as soon as he was out of the palace, his spirit had soared. Whatever was coming, he would meet it here in the forest under the stars, and wherever it led him, he was ready for the task.

The mists of night were rising from the ground. All around him the creatures that loved darkness were venturing from their holes. A hunting vixen slipped past him through the grass, and soon he heard her victim's dying cries. A life had ended, but her young would live: life and death were all one in the end. Whatever came, it was only a new beginning to that age-old dance, a dance he had been treading since time began.

The old man eased his skinny haunches in the saddle and waited on. At last the mule pricked up its ears and raised its heavy head.

The old man cackled. "You hear it too, my dear?"

Soon the earth throbbed with the distant drumming of a horse's hooves. Merlin eased forward to greet the rider as he came.

And here he was, a cloaked figure flying furiously through the dark. Merlin broke his progress with a hail. "Ho there, traveler!"

"Lord Merlin?"

In the pale moonlight Merlin saw a youth, thin-faced and tense with purpose, his dark hair standing on end. He wore a rich woollen wrap of deep sea-green, fine breeches, and a pair of well-made boots. Gold jangled at his wrists and round his neck, and a band of gold held back his long black hair. He had the look of a young priest, a holy dreamer who had given his life to a Great One he worshipped and adored. Now he was fighting to hold down his panting horse as recognition spread across his face.

"Sir, it is you I seek!" he cried with relief. "I am sent to tell you that there will be war within the month!"

"I knew it!" Merlin gnashed his teeth. "Where, boy, where?"

"Cornwall will be attacked, the Druids say."

"Cornwall?" Merlin gasped. "But the Queen of Cornwall has no enemies. She rules for King Arthur, and she will protect the kingdom with her life."

"All the more reason for an enemy to strike at the King through her."

"Arthur installed King Mark there as her vassal," the old man cried, "to keep the old Queen safe."

The boy shook his head. "The danger now is more than King Mark can withstand."

Merlin gripped the reins in a trembling hand. "Danger--from where?"

"From the Island of the West."

"Ireland!" Merlin struck his head. "As the seabird warned me!"

Black thoughts rained down like thunderbolts on his head. A long-suffering land, ruled by an unruly queen. A people who relished warfare as much as they cherished love and laughter and the joy the Goddess gives. And Cornwall, a fine prize for any invader--a rich and fertile land, as green as Ireland and as beautiful, a mere step across the water for the skillful sailors of the Western Isle.

So--Ireland striking at Cornwall.

There was no time to lose. He turned to the messenger. "You have done good service, boy. What is your name?"

The young man's head went up with unconscious pride. "My name is nothing. I serve the Lady, and the Great One who made us all."

"But yourself--?" Merlin probed.

A rare smile made the boy's face beautiful. "Set me down as one who loves Ireland and her Queen."

Merlin frowned, his thoughts darkened by memories of a face ravaged by the misery of beauty, a body racked by passions beyond her control. "The Queen of the Western Isle?"

"Herself." The boy let out an ecstatic breath. "And her daughter, the Queen who is to be."

"Isolde, yes," Merlin agreed fervently. "Well, boy, to Cornwall it is!" He raised a hand in farewell. "First I must speak to the King. After that I shall follow you down the Great West Way."

He stood and watched the messenger gallop off. Then a gentle laugh behind him warmed his soul.

"No need to tell Arthur, Merlin, he is here." There was another chuckle. "But you knew that." Merlin turned. The cloaked figure in the shadows made a courteous bow, steadying his horse in firm but quiet hands. "I did not mean to intrude on your meeting here. But Guenevere saw you leave the hall and urged me after you."

"You are welcome, Arthur." Merlin's gaze roved over the newcomer's lofty frame and strong-featured face, clear gaze, and thick fair hair, and he sighed with delight. Not even his old lord and master, Uther Pendragon, had gripped his heart like this. Hastily he recollected himself and arranged his features into a forbidding scowl. "You have not come too soon."

Arthur's gray eyes were troubled. "War in Cornwall, then? When we still face the invaders on the Saxon shore?"

"And trouble within Ireland, too," Merlin said grimly. "But not as we think."

Arthur stared. "How so?"

Merlin closed his eyes and allowed his thoughts to gather around his head like moths. "Ireland is at peace. Her people have no reason to seek war. But if her Queen is nursing some dream--some desire--"

As she always did, he added to himself. Half woman, half goddess, the Queen's dreams were her desires. Especially when she was under the sway of a man. And when was she ever without one man in the shadow of another, treading hungrily on his rival's heels?

"She must want to extend her kingdom," he mused on. "And she has many good knights who adore her, men who would fulfill her every desire--" He broke off, his eyes opaque.

"But why attack Cornwall? What does the Irish Queen want?" Arthur wondered, his eyes never leaving the hawk-like face.

Merlin gave a sharp bark of laughter. "If only she knew! She is a creature of the lightest whim. Her passions rule her life."

"Then they must rule her country, too, since the Western Isle still keeps the Mother-right."

Merlin grinned savagely. "With a vengeance, boy! Queens have ruled there from the time before time. In her own eyes, the present Queen is as good as the Goddess Herself. She takes the best of her knights as her lovers, not caring that they get younger every year, and changes her consort whenever she likes."

"But she has a daughter, the maid they call La Belle Isolde?" Arthur demanded.

"True." Merlin paused. "And there's hope in that. Isolde will never support her mother's scheme. Young as she is, she has the best interests of her country at heart."

"But can she convince her mother not to make war?"

Merlin looked past Arthur with an impenetrable stare. "We shall see. I must ride to King Mark in Cornwall, and bid him prepare."

Arthur leaned forward urgently. "Tell him to make all speed to Tintagel to defend my mother. Guenevere and I will follow you with a force of men."

Merlin cackled to himself. "Oh, sir," he said softly, "think how often the Queen your mother has defended herself."

A hunter's moon broke through the watery cloud. The woodland track lay before him, as bright as day. Merlin lifted his eyes, and reached for the mule's silken reins. He felt the open road calling him like a lover, and itched to be gone. The Queen of the Western Isle, eh? he pondered with an inward smile. Out of the darkness of time, a vivid figure came striding toward him across the astral plane, her flame-colored silks hissing around her heels. Then the bright vision faded and he saw a broken bird beating her wings in pain, turning on the male beside her with the fury of the damned.


Arthur's voice came to him through a mist. "What ails you, sir?" the young King asked in concern.

Merlin's sight cleared and he straightened up. "Nothing," he said brusquely. "A secret lost in a dark forest, long ago." The gaze he turned on Arthur was full of pain. "Let me go now. And may the Gods grant that I get there in time!"

From the Hardcover edition.
Rosalind Miles|Author Desktop

About Rosalind Miles

Rosalind Miles - Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle

Photo © Carolyn Djanogly

Rosalind Miles is a well-known and critically acclaimed English novelist, essayist, and broadcaster. Her novels, including Guenevere, Queen of the Summer Country and The Knight of the Sacred Lake, the preceding volumes of the Guenevere Trilogy, have been international bestsellers. Visit her online at www.rosalind.net

Author Q&A

ROSALIND MILES is a well-known and critically acclaimed English novelist, essayist, and broadcaster. Her novels, including the Guenevere trilogy, have been international bestsellers. Rosalind divides her time between homes in California and England.

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

Tristan and Isolde, star-crossed lovers in the time of King Arthur, have been celebrated in poems and legends throughout the ages. Now, gifted storyteller Rosalind Miles—bestselling author of the stunning Guenevere trilogy—sets the fated duo in a dynamic, freshly imagined epic of conquest, betrayal, and desire. The first volume of a new trilogy, this lavish retelling infuses the well-loved Tristan and Isolde story with intimate details and heartstopping political intrigue—and introduces us to the intoxicating Isolde, as we've never seen her before, healer and princess, torn between an earth-shattering love and her obligation to a queenly lineage. This guide is designed to help direct your reading group's discussion of Rosalind Miles's breathtaking Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle.

About the Guide

In the golden time of Arthur and Guenevere, the Island of the West shines like an emerald in the sea, one of the last strongholds of Goddess worship and Mother-right in the British Isles. Isolde, renowned for her beauty and her gift in the healing arts, stands to inherit the throne of Ireland from her tempestuous mother. But when a mysterious visitor arrives on the island seeking help for a deadly wound, Isolde's world turns upside down and her fate shifts in a new direction. The stranger is Tristan, heir to the Cornish throne and Ireland's enemy thanks to the reckless war waging between the two nations. As the world around them spirals into mayhem and Isolde is forced into a political marriage to Tristan's uncle, the King of Cornwall, Tristan and Isolde are drawn inextricably together by a powerful love that must remain hidden or destroy them both.

Meanwhile, Isolde enters the world of international statecraft determined to bring peace to both Ireland and Cornwall and to defend the ways of the Goddess from hostile new elements. But she is an inexperienced queen and danger lurks around every corner of her new home. An ambitious Christian priest infiltrates the Cornish court, plotting the demise of the ancient, hallowed ways of life; Tristan's cousin Andred connives to overtake the Cornish throne; the King's mistress conspires to ruin Isolde by revealing her affair with Tristan; and the Queen of Ireland continues to put the sacred island's future in jeopardy with her irrational behavior. Only the guidance of the Lady of the Sea and the intervention of the mischievous, shape-shifting Merlin will enable both Isolde and Tristan to survive the cross-currents of fate.

About the Author

Rosalind Miles, Ph.D., is the author of sixteen books, including the bestselling Guenevere trilogy and the pop feminist classic, Who Cooked the Last Supper? Dr. Miles holds degrees from Cambridge University and the Universities of Leicester and Birmingham, and is a sought-after lecturer, essayist,and broadcaster. She lives in Kent, England, and Los Angeles, California.

From the Hardcover edition.

Discussion Guides

1. Merlin is a mysterious character throughout the novel, orchestrating key events in everyone's lives and often saving the day with his otherworldly powers—yet he's sometimes hampered by the limitations of his magic. When do you see his powers failing him? In what ways does he directly or indirectly affect Isolde and Tristan? Who is the "broken bird" in his vision at the end of chapter one? Why do you think Merlin is cruel to Guenevere and unwilling to help in the issue of Arthur's paternity?

2. We first encounter Isolde as she seeks Sir Gilhan's counsel about the state of international affairs. She struggles to comprehend that her beloved Ireland has enemies, and that leading a war may be among her future responsibilities. How has Isolde's understanding of statecraft evolved by the end of the novel? Do you think it's significant that Miles reveals Isolde as a political character first, and a romantic one later? Does this order change by the end?

3. At the root of the rocky political situation between Ireland and Cornwall lies the reckless, fickle Irish Queen. Is she truly power-hungry, or is she just wildly impressionable? When do we see her invoking the Old Ways to justify her behavior, and when do we see her betraying those same Old Ways? What do you think she really wants from Isolde?

4. When do we see Isolde experiencing the Sight? Which other characters have it? What kind of information does Miles convey with these visions?

5. When the Queen secures the love potion intended to bind Isolde to Mark, we read, "And overhead all the demons of death and destruction came to life and danced with delight at the feast of evil ahead." Then as Andred plots to expose Tristan and Isolde, we read, "All the spirits of evil awoke in their slimy lairs, yawned, stretched, laughed, and prepared to act." How do these reminders of unseen, dark forces at work affect your reading of Isolde and Tristan's affair? Is their love powerful enough to withstand such deadly forces, or is the couple destined to be ruined by them in the end?

6. What does the Lady of the Sea mean when she tells Isolde that the Hallows of the Sea are her "fate" and her "task"? How do you interpret her command to Isolde: "Watch the bubble rising in the foam. When it breaks, follow its path to the sea"?

7. How does Isolde manage to remain perfectly honest with Mark, even when Andred publicly accuses her of improper conduct with Tristan? Does Tristan manage the same degree of honesty with Isolde when he's recuperating in Ireland and attempting to explain who he is?

8. Throughout the novel, we see Isolde being incredibly gracious in trying situations—whispering encouragement and forgiveness to the guard who binds her hands for the ordeal by water; sending Palomides off with blessings and kindness despite his attempts to manipulate her; maintaining a loving devotion to her outrageous mother; etc. Does Isolde have any shortcomings? Is there anyone she cannot forgive?

9. Jerome's take on Christianity offers a stark counterpoint to Dominian's crush-and-conquer approach. What is the function of their brief conversation in relation to the rest of the novel? Is Isolde fully aware that Dominian's agenda involves full-scale destruction of the Mother-right?

10. When Tristan first presents himself at Mark's court, he enters a chamber that the narrator describes as "dank with fear," its occupants too desperate, resentful, nervous, and ashamed to even touch the food. Yet Tristan walks in and sees sunlight "pouring through the windows," a "rosy fire on the hearth," "rich furnishings," and "tables laden with welcoming food and wine." How does this glimpse into Tristan's mind color your reading of his character? Is he utterly naive, or just a cockeyed optimist? In either case, does this trait damage him at any point in the story? What is his first hint that Mark may not be all he had hoped for in a kinsman?

11. Does the Lienore episode serve as mere comic relief in the novel, or do we learn something vital about Tristan, Arthur, and/or the rules of chivalry through it?

12. The love cordial that the Queen obtains for Isolde is presented as a perversion: "When the power of nature was harnessed to pervert true love, the very voice of nature would protest. The Nain had indeed torn the elements apart as she made them release their secrets in her quest to counterfeit true desire." But since Isolde and Tristan share a real love and desire already, what affect does the potion have on them? Does their love transform the unnatural intent of the elixirs? Do you think their love would survive without the supernatural boost of the potion?

13. After the ordeal by water, Mark makes a show of recognizing his own weakness, admitting his wrongs, and repairing his relationships with both Isolde and Tristan. Do you believe him? Does the episode herald any change for Andred? For Dominian?

14. Do you think Brangwain purposely leaves the potion lying around for Tristan and Isolde to find?

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