Tristan’s Queen’s Gambit

It is often said that if the captain of a seaworthy vessel invites you aboard for a game of chess while said vessel is tied up at the quayside, you should politely but firmly decline.

I’m not entirely sure I concur unreservedly with this precept.

Take, as a specimen case study, Tristan’s tale. He and his adoptive family are aboard an unnamed merchantman to check out the wares for sale – jewels, silk, rich clothes and fine hunting birds. Several pre-emptive deals having been done, Tristan and his entourage are about to bid adieu, when…

… it so happened that Tristan caught sight of a chess-board hanging in the ship, with its field and fence very marvellously decorated. Beside it hung a set of men superbly carved in noble ivory. Tristan, accomplished boy, regarded it attentively. “Oh,” he said, “noble merchants, in Heaven’s name, don’t tell me you play chess?” and said it in their language. Hearing them use their speech, which none in those parts knew, they looked at the boy with mounting interest and took stock of him minutely. And to their minds no youth was so blessed with looks or had such beautiful manners. “Yes,” answered one of them, “quite a few of us here are versed in the game. You can easily put it to the test if you like. Come, I will take you on!” “Done!” answered Tristan. And they two sat down over the board…

And so, Tristan’s companions leave him to it and disembark. The game commences; Tristan conducts himself rather elegantly.

cornish_fingerpostEvery now and then this polished young courtier interposed with fashionable small-talk and exotic terms of chess. These he pronounced well – he knew a great many of them – and with them he adorned his game. Then he also sang most excellently subtle airs, “chansons,” “refloits,” and “estampies.” He persevered with these and other polite acquirements to such a point that the traders resolved that if, by some ruse, they could get him away they would reap great profit and honour from him. So they promptly bade their rowers stand by while they themselves weighed anchor as if they attached no importance to it. They put to sea and got under way so gently that Tristan was unaware of it until they had carried him well on a league from the landing place. For the two players were so absorbed in their game that they thought for nothing else. But when they had finished it with Tristan as the winner, and the latter began to look about him, he saw only too well what course events had taken. You never saw mortal man so thoroughly woe-begone as he. He leaped to his feet and, standing among them, cried: “Oh noble merchants, in God’s name, what are you going to do with me? Tell me, where are you taking me?”

And thereby, as it happens, hangs a tale. (The version excerpted above is told by Gottfried von Strassburg.)

And there’s a moral here too, if you care to chase it out. Some of us are unapologetically anxious to step ashore. Others (as mischievous historians never tire of pointing out), passive adventurers that we are, seek eternally for a ship at quayside, a band of unscrupulous merchants and a field of ivory men.

Still, I can’t help feeling there are probably easier ways of getting to Cornwall.


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