Tennyson’s Arthurian Legend: Idylls of the King

For many, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur forms the quintessential retelling of the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It is thought that earlier medieval writers, both nameless and named—men like Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes, Layamon and Wolfram von Eschenbach—offered worthy contributions in their own way; but none may be said to compare with the comprehensive treatment that Malory, an English knight, accorded to one of the greatest popular tales in the history of Western Civilization.

I hardly presume to disagree with the wisdom of such sentiments. Yet there is, I think, a version of the Arthurian legends which pales all modern variations on the theme of Camelot, and at times exceeds even the marvelous imagination of Malory himself. Crafted by the creative genius of Alfred, Lord Tennyson—a man who thrived in the models of classical poetry, and could be named in the venerable company of masters like Virgil and Dante—this celebrated work has been consistently known to readers in every corner of the English-speaking world as Idylls of the King.

Born in 1809, Tennyson was to become one of Victorian Britain’s finest Poet Laureates, recognized even today for popular verses from such works as Ulysses, In Memoriam, and The Charge of the Light Brigade. But it is in the glory of Idylls of the King that Tennyson’s majestic voice strikes its deepest notes, incorporating themes of Christian beauty and chivalry from a host of age-old sources, in a manner which would distinctly mark the Gothic Revival in nineteenth-century Europe. Written, amended, and successively published across a period of more than twenty years, Tennyson’s Arthurian poetry takes shape in a series of stories, or idylls, as he called them, each following a specific event or character in the memory of Camelot. Taken together, Idylls recounts the birth and accession of King Arthur, his mission to drive all heathendom from Britain’s shores, the precarious fate and tragedy of a miscellany of his knights, the Round Table’s assiduous quest for the Holy Grail, the sin of Lancelot and Guinevere, and the final collapse of this fleeting, but glorious kingdom.

TennysonNow, anyone who has read modernist literary criticism of Tennyson’s Idylls, or else has had the distinct misfortune to hear a professor of literature perform such a postmortem, might have been told that this volume is properly interpreted as an allegory for Victorian society. The genteel roles of gentlemen and ladies, the experience of war and empire, are all said to be elaborately bound up in Tennyson’s retelling of these vast stories. And while there may be some marginal measure of truth to the assertion, the unfortunate consequence of this pedantic hammering has often been to make a reader’s appraisal of Idylls correspond with his own admiration or dislike for the Victorians. But he who reads Tennyson’s beautiful adaptation through such a narrow and jaundiced eye misses so much of the truth which the poem pours out; he is, as it were, inoculated to the real splendor of Tennyson’s dancing phrases, and the manner in which the author illumines a bygone vision of life:

When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.

My own copy of Idylls of the King stands marked and re-marked from repeated readings and annotations—so much so, that it is almost inconceivable for me to choose just a few passages for your delectation. Nonetheless, I hope you will see—as I have seen—what jewels of verse, passion, and even faith, Tennyson has assembled in this masterwork.

It should be understood from the first, that Tennyson not only possessed the keen appreciation of tone and rhythm which is found in the best of poets, but also a talent for making profoundly abstract thoughts startlingly clear. I have in mind a particular excerpt from Idylls in which the young Sir Gareth, arguing for the validity of Arthur’s royal right, exclaims: “Who should be King save him who makes us free?” A book could be written on this one line alone! How it bleeds with the conviction of the Christian! How it defies the petty notions of the world! For Arthur, in making men free, does not indulge the whims of sinful hedonists and fools. Freedom—that great Old English word—comes with the rule of faith and law; it comes as Camelot crushes the anarchy of degenerate lands, and purges the wealds of all banditry and evil. As Tennyson tells elsewhere in the poem, the knights of the Round Table are exhorted:

To reverence the King, as if he were
Their conscience, and their conscience as their King,
To break the heathen and uphold the Christ,
To ride abroad redressing human wrongs.
To speak no slander, no, nor listen to it,
To honour his own word as if his God’s,
To lead sweet lives in purest chastity,
To love one maiden only, cleave to her,
And worship her by years of noble deeds…

In speaking thus, Tennyson’s Idylls encapsulates a moral code that is seemingly passing from the memory of Christendom, if it has not already passed. And yet, we are reminded, it is a worldview that cannot wholly die; for it shall be born again and again to vanquish the depravity of the abyss, as with the inexorable coming of the Once and Future King.

Then there is the scene wherein Merlin, the wisest of counselors, becomes ensnared by the stratagems of his wicked protégée, Vivien. How masterfully does Tennyson render this drama, in which a well-meaning man, perceiving acutely the threat of evil, still succumbs to it by weakness of will! How familiar does it sound, that Merlin should fail with a knowing look upon his face:

And smiling as a master smiles at one
That is not of his school, nor any school
But that where blind and naked Ignorance
Delivers brawling judgments, unashamed,
On all things all day long…

I suspect many readers feel they have encountered that classroom, or the pupils thereof, who live not by the rule of reason, but by the application of sophistry and power.

And what of the death of Arthur?—O the most piercing chapter in the tale! How many have known something like the sadness of stalwart Sir Bedivere, the truest of knights, who in looking upon the demise of Camelot, and of all that he holds dear, exclaims:

And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.

It is the ascendance of other minds, indeed—not better ones. But, so I am told, in the time when good literature was still taught in high schools, and teenagers read poetry that was not filled with rage, there was hardly a commencement speech or moment of parting which did not quote King Arthur’s meaningful reply:

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world….
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?

Whatever Tennyson intended—whatever he believed—this is the language of heroes and legends; these are the words of stout Christian souls.

I will therefore reveal little more of this marvelous work than I have already done, but leave it in your power to explore Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, learning all the while the beauty of this superb retelling of the Arthurian story. Only know that it is poetry intended for the strong of heart and strong of mind—for those who long to say with the King, in the twilight of a courageous and righteous life: “Nay—God my Christ—I pass but shall not die.”

By

James P. Bernens graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 2008. He also holds a J.D. from the William & Mary School of Law, and is completing an M.A. in philosophy at Boston College.

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