Idylls of The King: by Alfred Tennyson - Summary & Analysis

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      Idylls of The King, Tennyson's most ambitious work, occupied his attention at intervals from the writing of the Morte d'Arthur in 1833 till the final ordering of the twelve parts, fifty-five years later. Four Idylls (the word so spelled to distinguish the poem from the 'English Idylls') appeared in 1859 centered on the theme of true love and false: Enid (finally divided as 'The Marriage of Geraint and Geraint and Enid). Vivien (later Merlin and Vivien) Elaine (Lancelot and Elaine), and Guinevere. Except for Enid, drawn from the Welsh Mabinogian, all of these pieces and the seven other Idylls were derived primarily from Malory's Morte D' Arthur, though Tennyson felt free to supplement Malory with other sources, to make original additions, and in general to adapt his materials to his own designs. His central purpose became apparent with the publication in 1869 of The Coming of Arthur, Pelleas and Ettarre. The Holy Grail, and The Passing of Arthur (this last incorporating his early Morte D' Arthur); he would trace through narrative and description the rise and decline of a goodly fellowship and suggest through symbol and allegory the values on which the health of any good society must depend. To complete this pattern he wrote Gareth and Lynette (1872), a study of innocence and young idealism, to stand near the beginning of the sequence; Balin and Balan (1885), a tale of evil comingling with good, to come near the middle; and The Last Tournament (1871), a dark and bitter parallel to the tragedy of Lancelot and Guinevere, to be placed near the end. Both The Coming of Arthur and the epilogue To the Queen (1872) intimate the moral intention of the whole and its relevance to the modern world.


      In Gareth and Lynette the golden age of Arthur's reign is depicted, before the taint of moral poison in the sin of Lancelot and Guinevere has begun to be felt. The vows of utter hardihood, utter gentleness, utter faithfulness in love, and uttermost obedience to the king are loyally kept by the whole order, and true chivalry flourishes in all its splendour. Gareth himself is full of the enthusiasm of youth and of eagerness to serve the true king, willing to accept the humblest duty for the sake of glory. His achievement, the deliverance of the captive of Castle Perilous, is something more than a specimen of the work of the Round Table in redressing human wrong: it is also an image in miniature of the 'boundless purpose of the king', the deliverance of the soul from bondage to the flesh.

      In The Marriage of Geraint and Geraint and Enid, which were originally printed as one Idyll, the taint of impurity first shows itself suspicions of his wife's honour are bred in Geraint's mind by rumours of the queen's unfaithfulness.

      In Balin and Balan, these rumours have gained greater currency and strength and the final catastrophe, the death of the two brothers, is due to the shattering of their faith in Guinevere's purity.

      The taint comes into clearer light in Merlin and Vivien. The 'vast wit and hundred winters' of the great Enchanter, shrewdness and knowledge and long experience, unsupported by moral strength, are powerless to withstand the seductions of fleshly lusts. In these four Idylls the seeds of sin are sown.

      In the next, Lancelot and Elaine, the bitter fruit ripens: the death of Elaine, the "simple heart and sweet", is directly due to Lancelot's false truth, to his guilty passion for the queen.

      In the The Holy Grail, a new element of failure is introduced: the knights, misled by vague dreams and mystic enthusiasm, desert the plain and practical duties of common life to follow "wandering fires", and true faith is lost in the delusions of superstition.

      Pelleas and Etarre shows us the pure and loyal trust of a young life turned to bitterness and despair by the sad experience of the prevailing corruption.

      The triumph of the senses is complete in The Last Tournament. Tristram, the victor in The Tournament of the Dead Innocence, openly scoffs at the king and his vows and the glory of the Round Table is no more: one faithful follower is left to Arthur, and he is the court fool.

      In Guinevere, we see that sin has done its work, and the smouldering scandal breaks and blazes before the people: the order is splintered into feuds, the realm falls to ruin, and Arthur goes forth to meet his mysterious doom.

      The concluding Idyll, The Passing of Arthur tells of the last battle and the end of Arthur's earthly life. The king's sensuous frame is racked with pangs that conquer trust but there is no lessening of fortitude, no weakening of will—

'Nay, God, my Christ, I pass but cannot die.

      In the conflict that precedes the last dread hour, confusion and 'formless fear' may fall upon the soul when it stands forlorn amid the wrecks of its lofty purposes, and prepares to face the unknown future. But though Arthur sees full well the failure of all the purposes of his throne, his faith is not shaken; he enn still say:

"King am I, whatsoever be their cry"

      And the last stroke with Excalibur, which slays a traitor, fitly crowns a life of kingly and knightly achievement. The lines which follow, from down to-

So all day long the noise of battle roll'd
And on the mere the wailing died away...

      Formed the original fragment, Morte D' Arthur. The symbolism in this portion of the Idyll is less prominent and the story is told with Homeric simplicity and directness. Excalibur, when no use remains for it on earth, is reclaimed by the Lady of the Lake, that it may equip the king in other regions; for the life and energy of the soul do not end when it passes from earth. Arthur's earthly realm may 'reel back into the beast' and his Round Table may be dissolved; but his purity is untarnished, his honour is without stain, and the ideal which he has striven to realise has lost none of its inward vitality and significance. As he passes from earth to 'vanish into light' he already gives a forecast of his return as the representative of the new chivalry, when he shall come with all good things, and war shall be no more.


      The Idylls of the King published in 1859, and augmented, revised and arranged over the years until 1888, carried Tennyson's public fame to its highest peak. But in the attacks levelled against the poem by George Meredith, Swinburne and others began the total reaction from Tennyson's poetry which continued into the early twentieth century. Yet the Idylls taken singly repay close analysis and as a sequence they represent the most sustained effort of any Victorian poet to deal with the moral problem of a society in crisis. It is mistaken, says Buckley, to object either that Tennyson has deserted his own time or that he has misrepresented the Middle Ages. For the Idylls, conceived as romance and developed with allegory and symbol, are not to be judged in terms of epic realism. Despite derivations from Malory and other medieval sources and despite parallels to Victorian culture, they create a world which never was, and is not now, and yet remains as an ideal beyond all the social betrayals that would destroy it; they depict the enchanted city described by Merlin to Gareth:

the city...built
To music, therefore never built at all
And therefore built for ever.

      In origin and end a supernatural figure ("From the great deep to the great deep he goes") King Arthur is less a man than a symbol; he is the soul of the city, the right that must be accepted on faith and cannot be fully proved or "known", the voice of civic duty to be ignored only at the peril of the civilisation itself. Guinevere, on the contrary, who lives the life of passion, is essentially a human being, both in her pride and beauty and in her tragic remorse; but she is also the Queen whose conduct must be exemplary, and her guilty love for Lancelot, the more demoralising because concealed, thus sanctions the perfidy that at last in grosser forms undermines the fellowship and common trust of the whole Arthurian order. Across the later Idylls, particularly The Holy Grail of 1869, and The Last Tournament of 1871, falls the shadow of social doom and the implicit judgment of Tennyson’s more and more insistent idealism. Except to a very few, the Grail quest proves to be no sacred enterprise but rather a retreat from responsibility, an effort to achieve the consolations of religion without transcending the creed and practice of self-interest. And the story of Tristram, reworked with new cogency, is no longer a hymn to love eternal but the tale of a selfish opportunist explaining the confusion of a decadent society. To the dismay of some readers, Tennyson has drastically reconstituted his materials, has im-posed on old legends what he liked to call a "modern frame". But only by doing so could he give poetic form to his vision. The Idylls gain their force and continued relevance from the intensity of the poet's growing disillusion with the course of an atomistic modern world.

      Tennyson designed the Idylls to form a great epic; he considered the Arthurian legend, as found in Malory, the "greatest of all poetical subjects"; Arthur was to be his Agamemnon, the "great and complete man". We are told by his son that he had a more or less perfected scheme in his head over thirty years. He failed in the attempt to carry it out. The Idylls were received with popular applause but subsequent opinion has been more and more unfavourable for various reasons. S.G. Dunn analyses these in detail, considering how the Idylls fell short of epic requirements.

      The essential to an epic is the story. In the legend of Arthur, Tennyson started with a good story, but he tried to make it better. He was not content with telling how the king of a rugged people lived a life of noble service, endeavouring with his glorious company of the "Round Table' to civilise the world before its time, and won by the splendid failure of his end a place in the hearts of men for ever; he wished to point a moral and adorn his tale; he followed the lure of allegory, and wandered into all sorts of by-paths in the pursuit of it. What die allegory in the Idylls exactly is no-body seems to know. We are told that Arthur is the soul of man at war with the senses; 'from the great deep to the great deep he goes'. Tennyson himself wavered in his conception; at one time it was the Protestant religion, or the Church of England; at another, it was the British constitution; at yet another, the court of the good Queen Victoria. Whatever it was, it spoiled the story; the gusto of the adventure was gone.

      Another important element in epic is character. If we consider the men of the Iliad or the Odyssey, we shall find that we know them; they are real men for us; they hunger and thirst before us, as the men we meet today. But the men of the Idylls are not real to us; they are embodiments of this or that virtue, of this or that vice; they are generosity, jealousy, chastity, greed; they are the puppets of a 'morality' play. They move in a mist of unreality and shame. The fault is not that Tennyson fails to reproduce the mediaeval atmosphere; in a work of art, anachronism never matters. Nor is it that Tennyson introduces modern ideas into his picture of chivalry; Shakespeare makes Henry V talk unadulterated Elizabethan, and the theatre applauds all the same. The fault lies deeper. We feel that the events of the Idylls could never happen, its men and women could never exist.

      The result is that we are affected quite otherwise than Tennyson intended. He meant to show up adultery as the ugly thing it is; but, in the result, Lancelot and Guinevere are the two people in the story that capture our sympathies. He covers it all up too prettily, instead of saying roundly that the man was treacherously deceiving his friend and king, he turns a phrase:

His honour rooted in dishonour stood,
And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true,

      The outlines are blurred lines where they should be bold; the colours are toned down where they should be crude. If we compare Vivien, for example, as the study of a clever and unscrupulous woman, as she is meant to be with Becky Sharp, in Thackeray's Vanity Fair, we shall realise the extent and the cause of the failure. The Arthurian lyrics and the earlier Morte D' Arthur show what Tennyson could do when he was free from the burden of an allegory or a moral: these attain the right effect. That battle among the mountains by the winter sea, and weirdness of it all, takes hold of us; we hear the sea-wind singing and the waters lapping on the crag, and when Arthur, in the wrath of a dying King, exclaims —

But, if thou spare to fling Excalibur
I will arise and slay thee with my hands...

      We know that this is exactly what an old warrior would say. But the Arthur of the later Idylls does not convince in the same manner.

      To sum up, in the remarks of Cazamian: "As for the Idylls of the King, intended by the poet to be his most spacious effort they only remain a typical product of Victorian art. The choice of the episode, the quality of the images, the hieratic attitude of the figures, the ecstatic simplicity of the outline, the restrained ardour of the feelings, the rich light as from a stained-glass window which suffuses the whole work, all suggest the contemporary paintings of Rossetti and Burne Jones. During this phase of his career, Tennyson fell a victim to the fascination of the Pre-Raphaelite ideal to which he had already been drawn by his partiality for precise detail and minute observation. By a sheer miracle he fulfilled his intention, and gave a genuine human interest to the cycle of the tales in which, around the magic name of Arthur, he wove symbolic and modern allegories. Some of his characters are living, and it must be admitted that the touch of the writer, the artist, or the musician in language, has never been more exquisite. But at the same time one cannot forget the essential artificiality of this imaginative epic, at once mystical and moralising. It destroys the original character which the poetic instinct of generation after generation had given those legends".

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