Idylls of the King

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585

Young Arthur establishes his kingdom, marries Guinevere, and prospers for a time in Camelot. Sir Gareth, inspired by his King, is able to overcome significant odds to secure a maiden’s release and win the hand of his beloved.

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Soon, however, suspicion begins to divide the realm. Sir Geraint removes his bride Enid from Camelot to wander through the land and almost dies before he is convinced of his wife’s fidelity. Twins Balin and Balan kill each other because the former fails to recognize his brother, who has been driven to madness by his knowledge of the Queen’s infidelity with Lancelot. Merlin gives in to the wishes of the temptress Vivien, who imprisons him in an oak tree. Lancelot’s refusal to put aside his adulterous relationship with the Queen to marry Elaine leads to her suicide.

The knights engage in a futile quest for the Holy Grail; the Round Table is decimated. Knights admitted to the fellowship to fill the void prove incapable, as the story of Pelleas illustrates. Finally, Camelot is turned upside down at the Last Tournament, where Tristram wins the prize for his paramour Isolt.

Open rebellion breaks out, causing Guinevere to flee to a convent, where she confronts her King and finally admits her mistake. Events have proceeded too far, however, and Arthur falls to Mordred in a final battle. His faithful knight Bedivere sees him taken away, but whether he dies or is removed to heaven remains a mystery.

The resurgence of popularity for the Arthurian Legend in 19th century England allowed Tennyson to use the story for his own purposes. This tale highlights specific Victorian virtues and vices. Spotless character is doomed to failure, as those less virtuous fail to recognize their duty to follow men like King Arthur. Adultery is the root cause of the failure of Arthur’s kingdom, although one might argue that Arthur asks his followers to do more than is humanly possible in following the strict commands he places on them.

Though some of the character portraits are wooden, this exciting work provides excellent insight into the Victorian temperament, and is one of the finest examples of narrative poetry from the period.

Bibliography:

Kissane, James. Alfred Tennyson. New York: Twayne, 1970. Introduces Tennyson’s work. Discusses symbolic meanings and moral themes in Idylls of the King. Bibliography.

Priestley, F. E. L. “Tennyson’s Idylls.” In Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson, edited by John Killham. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1960. Helps the student begin to evaluate Tennyson’s stature. Stresses Tennyson’s serious purpose in Idylls of the King in asserting the primacy of idealism and spiritual values over materialism.

Reed, John R. Perception and Design in Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King.” Athens: Ohio University Press, 1969. Analyzes individual idylls in depth to trace the artistic strategy and moral design of the poem. Emphasis on the tension between the physical and the spiritual.

Rosenberg, John D. The Fall of Camelot: A Study of Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King.” Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973. Defends the poem against negative criticism, claiming that in the poem Tennyson invents a new form, the originality of which has caused critics to misunderstand it. Emphasis on symbolism of poem.

Ryalls, Clyde de L. From the Great Deep: Essays on “Idylls of the King.” Athens: Ohio University Press, 1967. Asserts that Idylls of the King is a philosophical poem concerned with the nature of human existence. Contains useful sections about the publication history of individual idylls.

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Idylls of the King Alfred, Lord Tennyson