Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 895
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 the mysterious parentage of Arthur, Lancelot, and Galahad. Sometimes, characters are shown in sharp contrast, for example in the image of the treacherous Vivien sitting on Merlin’s knee, combing his long gray beard with her fingers, and the steadfast Elaine likewise sitting on her father’s knee playing with his beard. Both women are being coquettish in an attempt to get what they want, but Vivien’s purpose is evil, whereas Elaine’s is good. Most important, the serene presence of Arthur pervades the lives of all the characters and is always in the background of the narrative.
Tennyson’s poem is concerned with much more than the events it narrates. It is also an exploration of humanity’s inner nature, and it paints a picture of virtues and spirituality constantly battling with baser instincts. There is a clear expression of this theme in the story of Balin, who struggles with his melancholia, attempting in vain to suppress his potential for violence that is always threatening to reemerge. A similar dual nature is found in Lancelot. Lancelot seems to be particularly blessed with virtues and is consequently held in the greatest esteem, not only for his valor but also for his attractive personality. He, too, however, has an inner conflict between his sinful love for the queen and his virtuous love for the king. Elaine sees the legacy of his guilt in his “marr’d” face.
Arthur embodies virtues such as piety, purity, justice, and valor. He is wise in all areas except one: the conduct of his marriage. He seems almost willfully blind in his refusal to address the relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere, of which everyone else is aware. Guinevere falls in love with Lancelot because she finds Arthur to be cold and colorless. She recoils from his perfection: “He is all fault who hath no fault at all.” Indeed, Tennyson’s Arthur does seem dull and flat. He is more easily understood in symbolic rather than psychological terms.
Tennyson resisted a strictly allegorical reading of Idylls of the King. Although he may not have intended his readers to assign a system of consistent symbolic meanings to his characters, institutions, and landscapes, the poem is rich in a symbolism that conveys meaning. In simplified terms, Arthur represents the soul, and he symbolizes humanity’s highest aspirations of spirituality, faith, and grace. He is the founder, leader, and harmonizing element of the Round Table, which represents humankind’s other capacities. Guinevere is the body, or the senses, and she is unable to keep faith with the soul. Ultimately, the soul is deserted by all other elements, which are unwilling or unable to live up to its perfection. The wasteland that is the world outside Camelot is largely unknown and potentially evil. Tennyson’s symbolic meanings tend to be broad, not allegorical, and are inclusive of a range of suggestions.
Very popular when first published, Idylls of the King has in many cases not been acclaimed by critics. It has been suggested that the moral message is heavy-handed and that it is unacceptably anachronistic to apply Victorian values, as it seems the poem does, to Arthur’s time. These Victorian values are often unappealing to later critics. Other critics, however, find the poem to be an important work, the mature flowering of the poetic genius of a major poet.
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