Assessing the Arthurian in Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’

In this essay undergraduate Judith Jacob writes about the problems with the moral outlook of Tennyson's Arthurian poems The Idylls. At times they seem too clear in judging good and evil, and too committed to portraying Arthur as virtuous. Elsewhere, though, they offer interesting doubts and ambiguities.


Let's take a look at the ways in which Tennyson uses Arthurian romance in his poetry. One of the best places to begin is with his long poem series, The Idylls. Though Tennyson draws on several sources, including the poetry of Edmund Spenser, the sixteenth century Poet Laureate and author of The Faerie Queene, as well as the Mabinogion, a collection of eleven prose stories from medieval Welsh manuscripts, his main source for The Idylls is Thomas Malory's , and on the whole he keeps the backbone of Malory's narrative, embellishing and reshaping the text as he goes along.

There is some truth in the generalisation that the Victorian age was an age beset by doubt and uncertainty. Other essays in this section discuss how this relates to rapid scientific advances, modes of thought such as rationalism, and the increasingly changeable landscape of modern life (see for example Claire Wilkinson's essay on 'Tennyson and Science'). In this world of rapid change and uncertainty, it was not at all uncommon for Victorian poets to look to the past, whether through history or mythology, as an ideal and secure moral landscape. At its weakest, the recreation of visions of the past in poetry seems nothing more than escapism, but at its best it is a vehicle through which poets like Tennyson were able to explore and come to terms with issues of their own day more fully and more objectively.

Tennyson's Idylls are often criticised as being overtly moralising and poetically weak. The nineteenth century English writer and theologian Richard Holt Hutton describes Tennyson's writing somewhat aptly when he writes . The main characters in The Idylls sometimes lack credibility, appearing within his poetry as stereotypes or simple embodiments of good and evil. This is most apparent in Tennyson's idealised characterisation of King Arthur, which we will return to later. However, there are many powerful and interesting facets within Tennyson's interpretation of Arthurian romance, so although we will have a brief look at the weak points and problems within The Idylls, we will be focusing on the parts that are most successful.

Arthur: Good Versus Evil

At the beginning of The Idylls, in 'The Coming of Arthur', the first thing we notice is the explicit and perhaps somewhat simplistic struggle between good and evil. Arthur and his knights are described as those 'that fight for our fair father Christ' (line 509) and the poem moves between war song and calm iambic pentameter. It finally comes to a close with a recapitulation of the following lines:

And through the puissance of his Table Round,
Drew all their petty princedoms under him.
Their king and head, and made a realm, and reigned. (lines 17-9)

The passage ends on an oddly peaceful cadence, the repetition of the early lines reflecting the sense of secure enclosure created by the king's creation and protection of the kingdom.

And Arthur and his knighthood for a space
Were all one will, and through that strength the King
Drew in the petty princedoms under him,
Fought, and in twelve great battles overcame
The heathen hordes, and made a realm and reigned. (lines 514-8)

The wars themselves are quickly passed over and resolved into the perfection of Arthur's reign. Tennyson appears to explicitly avoid the messiness of Arthur's conception, an event which Malory clearly describes as the outcome of murder, deceit and rape:

So after the deth of the duke, kynge Uther lay with Igrayne more than thre houres after his deth, and begat on her that nyghte Arthur... But whan the lady herd telle of the duke her husband, and by all record he was dede or ever kynge Uther came to her, thenne she merveilled who that myghte be that laye with her in lykenes of her lord. So she mourned pryvely and held hir pees. (These lines are quoted from the Norton Critical Edition of Malory's Le Morte Darthur, ed. Stephen H. A. Shepherd, 2004.)

(This gives an idea of what Malory's text looks like. Although the spelling might seem offputting, modern readers can quickly get used to it. This passage in a modern version would be: 'So after the death of the duke, King Uther lay with Igrayne more than three hours (i.e., for more than three hours) after his death, and begat on her (i.e., conceived) that night Arthur... But when the lady heard tell of the Duke her husband, and by all record (i.e., that all reports agreed) he was dead or ever King Uther came to her (i.e., before King Uther ever came to her), then she marvelled who that might be that lay with her in likeness of her lord. So she mourned privily (i.e. privately) and held her peace.')

A strong point of Tennyson's poem, however, is that it attends to multiple theories of Arthur's birth. Some call him 'baseborn' (line 179), while others say he is either the son of his mother's first husband Gorlois or of his foster-father Anton, rather than a son of Uther Pendragon, the mightiest of English kings. However, Tennyson's best addition to the story is his suggestion of a supernatural interpretation of Arthur's birth, which he describes dramatically: 'And down the wave and in the flame was borne / A naked babe' (lines 382-3). Thus the godly King is both borne by and born from the elements, in a supernatural act that brings unity to the kingdom.

Although the character of Arthur begins well (albeit without the difficult morality created through the doubt and confusion surrounding Arthur's conception in Malory's narrative), the character that becomes less and less realistic as The Idylls progress. He is at his least realistic in 'Guinevere' whereas Richard Hutton Holt puts it, . Tennyson pushes the sinless saviour version of Arthur forward to such a degree that he is in no way realistic or human. Arthur expresses his regret over the loss of the golden days, a time when he made his knights swear

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 purist chastity. (lines 465-71)

It might be argued that Tennyson, in attempting to pander to contemporary ideals and morals, diverges from Malory's more human characters and upholds a vision of purity and chastity so icily good that it becomes unbearable.

This fits with the moral outlook of many Victorians, so it is not hard to understand why Tennyson omits and simplifies parts of the Malory version, such as the incestuous union of Arthur and Lot's wife of Orkeney that leads to the birth of Mordred:

Wherefore the kynge caste grete love unto hir and desired to ly by her. And so they were agreed, and he begate uppon hir Sir Mordred. And she was syster on the modirs side, Igrayne, unto Arthure. (From the Norton edition of Malory, p. 30.)

('Wherefore the king cast great love unto her and desired to lie by her. And so they were agreed, and he begat upon her (i.e., they conceived) Sir Mordred. And she was sister on the mother's side, Igrayne, unto Arthur (i.e. they shared the same mother, Igrayne).')

However, the pure chastity of Tennyson's reinvented characters is hard to identify with, and as readers we find ourselves repeatedly drawn towards the human element in the form of sinning and fallen characters such as Guinevere and Lancelot.

Guinevere and 'Doubleness'

In The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry the critic Joseph Bristow explains the idea of 'doubleness' in the book Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics by the British academic Isobel Armstrong. He writes that she sees 'doubleness' as 'the defining characteristic of Victorian poetry, where a single poem may be thought almost always to contain two different and contradictory poems' (p. 32). Thus, on the one hand we can read the poem as a celebration of Arthur's goodness and an indictment of the frailty of women, but it is simultaneously very easy to sympathise with Guinevere and agree with her opinion of Arthur as emotionally inferior to Lancelot, for example when Tennyson beautifully writes:

Her journey done, [she] glanced at him, thought him cold,
High, self-contained, and passionless, not like him,
'Not like my Lancelot'. ('Guinevere' lines 402-4)

In 'Guinevere' Arthur's speech and judgement of his wife feel artificial and prove difficult to read. When he tells her 'And all is past, the sin is sinned, and I, / Lo! I forgive thee, as Eternal God / Forgives...' (lines 540-2) it is hard to accept Arthur as a godlike figure, and his golden words can be seen to double up as arrogance. It is even harder to accept Tennyson's gloss on the Arthur that Malory describes as having several relationships as well as one incestuous liaison, when he says to his wife in 'Guinevere', 'For I was ever virgin save for thee' (line 554). Through the overt characterisation of Arthur as a redeeming Christ-like patriarch and Lancelot as a damned sinner, Lancelot emerges as the hero who claims all the reader's sympathy. We cannot react with anything other than pity and approval when Lancelot and the Queen 'rode to the divided way, / There kissed, and parted weeping: for he past, / Love-loyal to the least wish of the Queen' (lines 123-5).

'Merlin and Vivien'

The Idylls aren't all as overtly moralising as 'Guinevere', however, and Tennyson is at his best when he closely engages with complex issues, for example gender, power and rhetoric, which he explores in poems such as 'Merlin and Vivien'. 'Merlin and Vivien' is based on a very short paragraph in Malory's Le Morte D'arthur which describes Merlin's infatuation with, and failure to seduce, the lake damsel Nimue. The passage ends with Merlin's imprisonment at the hands of the maiden. Tennyson skilfully adapts this short passage into the long poem which is arguably one of the finest in The Idylls. The briefly sketched Nimue becomes the finely delineated Vivien, and the simple game of failed male seduction becomes an infinitely complex power struggle between two equally menacing characters. In the poem the melancholy Merlin sees 'the high purpose broken by the worm' (line 194). This suggests that wherever there is truth and goodness, there is simultaneously hidden corruption which creeps, wormlike, into even the highest point of human virtue.

The idea of good and evil in Tennyson refuses to resolve simply into Victorian dichotomies: good and evil cannot easily be unpacked and unloaded onto separate characters. With Merlin and Vivien it is impossible to locate either character as either vice or virtue. Instead, the winding persuasions and seductions serve to show that good and evil are inextricably intertwined. This is illustrated perfectly when Tennyson describes both Vivien's beauty and her evil intent when she speaks to Merlin:

'Great Master, do ye love me?' he was mute.
And lissome Vivien, holding by his heel,
Writhed toward him, slided up his knee and sat,
Behind his ankle twined her hollow feet
Together, curved an arm about his neck,
Clung like a snake... (lines 235-40)

This kind of idea reappears at different moments in The Idylls, for example in Lancelot's speech in 'The Holy Grail' when he says:

. . . in me lived a sin
So strange, of such a kind, that all of pure,
Noble, and knightly in me twined and clung
Round that one sin, until the wholesome flower
And poisonous grew together, each as each. (lines 769-73).

Instead of looking to the past for an idealised landscape of simple oppositions such as good/evil, Christian/heathen, male/female, Tennyson uses Arthurian romance as a means to explore the overarching complexity of human morality.

A Doubtful Ending

Finally, rather than ending The Idylls with an easy refutation of contemporary religious doubt and a confirmation of the truth of Christianity, Tennyson allows his poem to close with a sense of mystery and uncertainty. Although Arthur kills Mordred, he is left 'all but slain himself' (line 169), while Lancelot disappears entirely from the narrative. There are no longer any good or evil leaders left to guide the people. At the very end of 'The Passing of Arthur' Tennyson describes Arthur's last moments in Camelot: a scene emerges not unlike the biblical as Bedivere betrays Arthur twice before carrying out his demand. Though the passage is full of biblical resonances nothing is simplified.

There is no obvious answer to Arthur's role as saviour or guardian; perhaps Arthur here becomes a Christ-like saviour who must be sacrificed before he can 'come again / To rule once more' (lines 191-2). If so, the confusion and obscurity in this poem is partly Tennyson's recognition of Victorian uncertainty and doubt. However, he harnesses this doubt to reaffirm faith and morality by using it as in indication of something larger than we can see. Tennyson draws together Christianity with other mythologies and ends the myth in the way he begins it, with the elements. Born of water and fire, Arthur boards a boat and 'Somewhere far off, [he is seen to] pass on and on, and go / From less to less and vanish into light' (lines 467-8). Though there is no certainty, the poems present a reassuring circularity. This is comforting because it suggests renewal and hope.

Though Tennyson's words and the age of the knights errant both come to an end in The Idylls, we are left with a promise of new beginnings, new eras and hope that overcomes religious doubt. Tennyson crafts a beautiful sense of melancholy which is encapsulated perfectly by Bedivere when he says '... the days darken round me, and the years, / Among new men, strange faces, other minds' (lines 405-6). Through the medium of medieval literature Tennyson skilfully addresses the doubt and insecurity which is often described as typical of the Victorian age. He challenges, reassures, and simultaneously reaffirms the impossibility of knowing 'even as also I am known'. Though we cannot know in full, we are shown that we can do and know in part. The poem ends with a celebration of human , and it promises new life and new prospects, by finishing with a beautiful new beginning: 'And the new sun rose bringing the new year' (line 469).

Further Thinking

Do you think King Arthur is, or could be, such an important story for us today as it was for Tennyson? How might it be used to address the big problems of today?

Do you agree that when Tennyson's characters (or characters in general) are too good they become less engaging?

Sir Thomas Malory's compilation and rewriting of the Arthurian legends (the title means 'The Death of Arthur'), was written between around 1450 and 1470, and was first printed by William Caxton in 1485.
See 'The Genius of Tennyson', in A Victorian Spectator : Uncollected Writings of R.H. Hutton, ed. Robert H. Tener and Malcolm Woodfield, p. 259; and see the essay about Tennyson and Hutton in this website.
In 'The Genius of Tennyson' again, p. 257. The 'one who was more than man' means Jesus.
All four Gospels in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) tell this story. Jesus predicts that Peter will deny that he knows him three times that night; this duly happens, to Peter's great regret.
One of the words used in the English New Testament to translate the Greek word agape, which means generous rather than erotic love. Its most famous appearance is in 1 Corinthians 13: in the King James version verse 13 reads 'And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

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