In Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem Idylls of the King, what are some of the main themes in the section VIII -- the section about the holy grail?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem Idylls of the King, the section dealing with the holy grail deals with a number of important themes.  Some of these are suggested early in this segment of the Idylls, when Percivale, a one-time knight of King Arthur’s roundtable (although now a religious hermit) is asked by an elderly priest (Ambrosius) why he left the round table:

‘Tell me, what drove thee from the Table Round,
My brother? was it earthly passion crost?'

'Nay,' said the knight; 'for no such passion mine.
But the sweet vision of the Holy Grail
Drove me from all vainglories, rivalries,
And earthly heats that spring and sparkle out
Among us in the jousts, while women watch
Who wins, who falls; and waste the spiritual strength
Within us, better offered up to Heaven.'

In this response, Percivale suggests many of the themes of the section as a whole.  These include the following:

  • the need to control earthly passions if one hopes to be a worthy follower of Christ and if one hopes to lead a worthy earthly life.
  • the need to fix one’s attention on Christ (represented by the Holy Grail) if one hopes to be one of Christ’s worthy followers and if one hopes to lead a life truly worth living.
  • the need to fix one’s attention on lofty goals and elevated purposes if one hopes to achieve a spiritually satisfying existence that will also be useful to others.
  • the need to make sure that one’s ambitions and goals are truly elevated and worthwhile and that they are not rooted in selfishness and pride, the root of all sin.
  • the need for true humility if one hopes to accomplish anything of genuine value and to be worthy of Christ.
  • the real difficulty of attaining the spiritual and practical goals already enumerated.
  • the alluring attractiveness of earthly temptations, which can distract one from goals that are truly worthwhile.
  • the need to resist sexual temptations in particular, or at least the temptation to want to “show off” before members of the opposite sex.
  • the need to employ wisely the spiritual potential that God grants to all human beings and to use this gift to the glory of God.
  • the need to focus, ultimately, on the afterlife rather than on mere earthly existence. Everything we do on earth should be motivated by sublime, lofty ideals.

Elsewhere in “The Holy Grail” section of Idylls (particularly near the end), the point is made that not all human beings can attain the kind of spiritual purity attained by Galahad. Yet one can still live a life useful to others if one focuses on more limited but still valuable goals.