The Arthurian legends fascinated Alfred, Lord Tennyson throughout his life. The main source for Idylls of the King is Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, but Tennyson also studied other versions. The composition of the various parts of the poem took place over a period of four decades. Tennyson began in 1833 with the drafting of a poem inspired by an event that had a fundamental impact on Tennyson’s work, the death of his beloved friend, Arthur Hallam. The poem was ultimately developed into “The Passing of Arthur,” the last section of Idylls of the King.
The title itself, Idylls of the King, suggests that the component poems are separate. The narrative is not continuous but rather consists of a number of individual stories. There are, however, several unifying elements that bind the poem into a cohesive structure. The overall movement of the narrative traces the reign of the king, including discussion of his ancestry, the building of the society of the Round Table, its existence, its disintegration, and ultimately the mysterious passing of Arthur. There is also a similar movement in time. Idylls of the King is generally considered an epic poem. It consists of twelve parts, or books, the pattern established by Vergil’s epic poem The Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), and there are other shared characteristics. As Vergil does, Tennyson writes about heroism, conflict, the supernatural, all in relationship to a nation, with the intention of considering such matters as nobility and human achievement.
The individual idylls focus on different characters, but certain ones receive steady attention. Sir Modred, for example, is briefly mentioned and characterized as “sullen” early on, foreshadowing his later importance. Gawain is seen in several idylls, becoming progressively more cynical. Lancelot and Guinevere and their disloyal love are frequently referred to as being a part of the consciousness of most of the other characters. Readers observe the increasing self-destructiveness of their guilt throughout the idylls. Characters are sometimes linked by shared attributes such as...
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