Idylls of the King "The Greater The Man The Greater Courtesy"

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

"The Greater The Man The Greater Courtesy"

Context: "The Last Tournament" is the transitional poem of the Idylls, depicting the degeneration of a great civilization. Here is seen the passing of honor, loyalty, and purity. The Tournament of Dead Innocence, the last tournament held at Arthur's court, occurs on a wet and windy autumn day. The weary, disillusioned Lancelot presides. Tristram, just returned from his marriage in Brittany, wins the prize of innocence, a ruby carcanet. Instead of taking the prize to his wife, Iseult of the White Hands, Tristram carries it to his paramour, Queen Iseult, the wife of Mark of Cornwall. Tristram finds Queen Iseult alone at Tintagel castle. She warns him that her husband plans to kill him by guile, perhaps by an ambush or poison. Iseult accuses Tristram of infidelity to her in his marriage to Iseult of Brittany. His lack of honor would stir her hate, she tells him, if she were not married to Mark, compared to whom all men seem noble. Tristram seeks to mollify her, claiming that he loved only the name of his new bride, not her person: "patient, and prayerful, meek,/ Pale blooded, she will yield herself to God." In the give and take of the argument, Tristram angers Queen Iseult. She strikes back, comparing Tristram unfavorably with Lancelot, his old companion in knightly deeds of purity and honor, who has himself fallen into adulterous ways of late:

Then Tristram, ever dallying with her hand,
"May God be with thee, sweet, when old and gray,
And past desire!" a saying that anger'd her.
" 'May God be with thee sweet when thou art old
And sweet no more to me!' I need Him now.
For when had Lancelot utter'd aught so gross
Even to the swineherd's malkin in the mast?
The greater the man the greater courtesy."