The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Coming of Arthur. Gorlois and Ygerne bear one daughter, Bellicent. King Uther overcomes Gorlois in battle and forces the widow to marry him immediately. Shortly afterward King Uther dies. Ygerne’s son, Arthur, is born at a time when he could have been the son of Gorlois or the son of Uther. The birth of Arthur is shrouded in great mystery. Merlin the magician rears the prince until it is time for him to take over Uther’s kingdom and to receive from the Lady of the Lake the magic sword, Excalibur. After the marriage of Arthur and Guinevere, the king and his loyal members of the Round Table, in twelve battles, drive the enemy out of the kingdom.

Gareth and Lynette. Bellicent, Arthur’s sister, allows her youngest son to join his two brothers at King Arthur’s court on the condition that Gareth serve as a kitchen knave under the surly directions of Sir Kay the seneschal. When the young boy presents himself to King Arthur, Gareth makes the king promise to give him the first quest that comes along. One day Lynette comes to the court asking for Sir Lancelot to save her sister from wicked knights who hold her captive. King Arthur sends Gareth with Lynette, who grumbles disdainfully at the kitchen knave ordered to serve her.

The first knight Gareth overcomes is the Morning Star. Lynette still sneers at the knave. After Gareth defeats another knight, Lynette begins to relent. When he conquers a third strong knight, she allows him to ride at her side. Next Gareth encounters a terrible knight, Death, who proves to be a mere boy forced by his brothers to assume a fierce appearance. Gareth returns to the Round Table victorious and marries Lynette.

The Marriage of Geraint and Enid. Geraint, on a quest for Guinevere, comes to the impoverished castle of Earl Yniol and his daughter Enid, a woman whose faded brocades speak of former wealth and family pride. There Geraint learns that the rejected suitor of Enid caused the ruin of Yniol. The earl gives Geraint Enid for his wife.

Geraint, fearing that the sin of the queen’s love for Lancelot will taint Enid’s love, goes to his own castle and there idles away the hours in company with his wife until neighbors begin to gossip that Geraint has lost his courage. Enid fears to tell her lord about the gossip, and Geraint, observing her strange attitude, decides that she has fallen in love with some knight of the Round Table. One morning, bidding Enid to don her faded brocade gown, Geraint sets out with his wife after ordering her not to speak to him. Riding ahead of Geraint, Enid encounters men who would attack her husband, and each time she breaks his command by warning him of his danger. After a while Enid is able to prove her love to her suspicious husband. They return to Camelot, where Guinevere warmly welcomes Enid to the court.

Balin and Balan. Balan leaves Balin, his mad brother, and goes on a mission to quell King Pellam, who refuses to pay his yearly tribute to King Arthur. With his brother gone, Balin is left alone in his gloomy moods. He worships the purity of Lancelot and the faithfulness of Guinevere until one day he sees his two idols speaking familiarly in the garden. Disillusioned, Balin flees to the woods. There he meets Vivien, a wanton woman of the court, who poisons his mind against Lancelot and Guinevere. He leaves hanging on a tree the shield Guinevere gave him years before. Hearing Balin’s mad shrieks among the trees, Balan rushes out to seek Balin. In the ensuing struggle Balin kills Balan and then is crushed by his own horse.

Merlin and Vivien. Vain and coquettish Vivien sets out to ensnare the most chivalric man in all the kingdom, King Arthur, but her wiles fail to win the attention of a king whose mind can harbor no evil thoughts. Vivien then turns to Merlin, who she knows possesses a magic spell. She tries to charm the magician with her beauty, pretending to love the ancient, bearded man, but he knows that she is not to be trusted. When she asks him to teach her the spell, he refuses. Vivien will not be denied. At last, tricked by her beauty, Merlin teaches her his magic...

(The entire section is 1696 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Camelot. Castle where King Arthur has his seat of government. As in most accounts of the Arthurian legend, Camelot is the place where Arthur and his knights meet at the Round Table, where they are ostensibly equals in upholding the chivalric virtues that lead to the practice of justice and mercy in the kingdom. In Tennyson’s version, the knights are also committed to upholding a strict moral code. Tennyson’s Camelot is a physical symbol of the perfect society, in which the will of the individual is subordinate to the grand plan of a benevolent and wise ruler. That association is made manifest in the second tale, “Gareth and Lynette.” When the young knight first makes his way to Arthur’s court, he sees the spires of the city emerging from the clouds and hears strange music. Meeting Merlin, the wizard who is the king’s confidant and mentor, Gareth learns that, if he hears music, it is because “they are building still.” As Merlin explains, “the City is built to music,/ Therefore never built at all,/ And therefore built for ever.” Metaphorically, the city is like a symphony: It is built or sustained in existence only so long as each individual participant continues to play his or her role. The suggestion that there is a hierarchy of roles and a subordination of the individual will to the common good is a major theme of Idylls of the King. Tennyson’s description of the construction of the city of Camelot is a metaphor for the way a perfect society should be constructed.

Forests and plains

Forests and plains. Areas outside Camelot and the other dwelling places of the knights throughout the kingdom. Using a time-honored...

(The entire section is 696 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.