Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1037
Idylls of the King is the culmination of Tennyson’s lifelong fascination with the Arthurian legend. At an early age, the poet became taken with the story of the king who had united his country and made a perfect society, only to see it fall into ruins because of the illicit affair between his queen and his greatest knight. In several poems written when he was young, Tennyson did what may be called character sketches of Arthurian figures: the Maid of Astolat, Galahad, Guinevere, and Lancelot. Shortly after the untimely death of his friend Arthur Hallam, he composed a long narrative on the death of King Arthur; the poem was incorporated as the last of the twelve idylls that now constitute Idylls of the King.
Idylls of the King was published in parts between 1859 and 1885, so there has always been a question concerning the unity of the work: Should it be read as a consistent whole, considered a nineteenth century epic? Or is it a collection, in the vein of In Memoriam, in which individual poems suggest a thematic whole but are not intended to present a coherent story? Most critics have seen sufficient unity in the assemblage to judge that Tennyson intended his work to be taken as a single long poem, and that he consciously used various epic devices to suggest parallels with works such as Vergil’s the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e., English translation, 1553). The blank verse line, the epic similes, and other devices of phrasing and description recall John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), unquestionably the most ambitious epic in English.
From his own writings about the poem, as well as from internal evidence, it is clear that Tennyson intended Idylls of the King to be both a commentary on contemporary society and a kind of allegory about the human spirit warring against the fleshly side of humanity’s nature. Arthur is described in the epilogue of the poem as a perfect Victorian gentleman—with clear parallels to Victoria’s dead husband, Prince Albert, who is celebrated by name in the dedication to Idylls of the King added by Tennyson after the Albert’s death in 1861. Throughout the Arthurian story, the poet celebrates Victorian virtues of fidelity to one’s spouse—a concept not at all in keeping with the medieval concept of courtly love, wherein a knight might be in service to (and on occasion have an illicit affair with) a woman other than his wife. Further, Idylls of the King celebrates the importance of work over fame. In a revealing passage in the sixth idyll, “Merlin and Vivien,” the aging magician, Merlin, tells the temptress that it is better to work than to seek glory, that one should revere those who perform the common duties of life. The theme is echoed by the king at the end of the eighth idyll, “The Holy Grail.” When only a few of his knights return from their quest for the cup that was supposedly used by Christ at the last supper, Arthur lectures them about the devastating impact that their vain pursuit has had on the kingdom. While they were away, many necessary chores were left unattended; the king excuses his own unwillingness to seek the Grail by noting that it has been his duty to remain at home governing the land, handling the everyday tasks that befit his position. Such an attitude would have been foreign to the medieval audiences that first heard tales of Arthur and his knights, but this sentiment would have struck a sympathetic chord with Victorian readers.
In the epilogue, Tennyson also describes his hero as “Ideal manhood closed in real man” and mentions that the poem is intended to show the struggle of “sense at war with soul.” The highly allegorical nature of Idylls of the King may be best seen in the second section, “Gareth and Lynette,” in which a young hero, imbued with the ideals that Arthur preaches, fights and defeats four challengers who represent (according to an explanation provided within the poem itself) the various stages of a person’s life. The message is clear: Those who live by the high ideals that Arthur promotes will rise above even death itself. The fairy tale quality of “Gareth and Lynette” is not sustained, however, as one by one even the greatest knights and ladies fail to uphold these high standards. Some, such as the villainous Tristan, openly scoff at the King’s naïveté; others, such as Lancelot and Guinevere, struggle to reconcile their commitment to those ideals with the very real, physical love that they feel for each other but that they know is wrong because it violates the moral code of the kingdom.
The central theme of the poem is that devotion to such high ideals is nearly impossible in a world beset with materialism. As critic James Kincaid notes in Tennyson’s Major Poems, the Comic and Ironic Patterns (1975), no outside force causes the downfall of Arthur’s perfect society; rather, it falls from within, collapsing because the knights and ladies of the realm are unable to abide by the king’s ideals. Tennyson captures the tenuous nature of Arthur’s experiment with utopian living in his image of the capital city of Camelot. Gareth, on his way to meet the king for the first time, meets Merlin outside the city and asks if the spires that he sees in the mist are those of the king’s capital. From them, he hears sweet music coming forth, and Merlin says that this is indeed Camelot, which is still being built: “the city is built/ To music,” the seer remarks, “therefore never built at all,/ And therefore built for ever” (“Gareth and Lynette”). Like a musical composition, Arthur’s kingdom relies on the harmony achieved when every player is working under the direction of a wise composer; when one chooses to play his or her own tune, the harmony is broken, and the music becomes discordant. That image, repeated throughout the remainder of the Idylls of the King, captures Tennyson’s idea about society: Unless all work in concert with one another and follow high moral standards, civilization itself is doomed to fail.