The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1696

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.

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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 powers. She enchants him and causes him to disappear forever, a prisoner in a hollow tree.

Lancelot and Elaine. Lancelot in disguise goes to Astolat, where he leaves his shield with Elaine and rides off with her brother Lavaine to the tournaments. Lancelot wins the jousts: then, wounded, he flees before anyone can discover who he is. King Arthur sends Gawain to search for the winner of the tournament. Gawain rides to Astolat, where he lingers because he has fallen in love with Elaine. She tells him that she loves the knight who left his shield with her. When Gawain sees the shield, he identifies it as that of Lancelot.

Elaine nurses Lancelot back to health in the hope that he will return her love. Recovered, he sadly tells her that he can never marry any woman. After he leaves, Elaine becomes ill and finally dies of grief. Her dying wish is to be put into a boat and sent to Camelot, in her hand a letter to Lancelot.

In Camelot Guinevere coldly rejects Lancelot, for Gawain tells of the affair between Lancelot and Elaine. When the body of Elaine floats to Camelot, King Arthur and Lancelot find the beautiful maiden in her boat, the letter in her hand. Lancelot authorizes a fitting burial for the lily maid. He unhappily laments his hopeless love for the queen.

The Holy Grail. One day while Sir Galahad, the youngest and purest of all the knights, sits in Merlin’s chair, the Holy Grail descends upon the Round Table in a flash and then is gone. When the knights swear to go on a quest for the Holy Grail, King Arthur gloomily predicts that the search will end in disaster for many of his knights because none is pure enough, save Galahad or Percivale, to see the holy vessel.

To Galahad the Grail appears in all its splendor. Percivale, who follows him, also sees the holy sign. Sir Bors returns to King Arthur to report that he viewed the Grail; but Lancelot saw only a sign of it. Some of the other knights never return to the Round Table from their perilous quest.

Pelleas and Ettarre. Pelleas gives Ettarre a trophy he won in a tournament, but she, scorning the young knight, bars him from her court. Gawain, meeting Pelleas in his despair, offers to help him. After telling the knight to hide in the forest, Gawain goes to Ettarre and tells her he killed Pelleas. As the days pass, Pelleas becomes impatient. One night, stealing into the castle, he finds Gawain and Ettarre sleeping together and places his naked sword across the throats of the sleeping lovers. Then in a mad rage he rides through the forest until he meets Percivale, who accidentally reveals to Pelleas the scandal about Lancelot and Guinevere. Disillusioned, the young knight returns to the Round Table, where his rude manner to the queen foreshadows evil to Lancelot and Guinevere. Sir Modred sees that the ruin of the Round Table is near at hand.

The Last Tournament. To a tournament at Camelot comes Tristram, who left his bride, Isolt of the white hands. Her name is the same as that of his beloved, Isolt, the wife of King Mark of Cornwall. Lancelot, laboring under the guilt of his sinful love for Guinevere, decides to fight with the similarly guilty Tristram, who wins the tournament. Tristram then goes to Isolt of Cornwall. King Mark is away on a hunting trip. He returns unexpectedly, finds the lovers together, and kills Tristram.

In the north a knight rebels against King Arthur’s rule and charges that the Round Table is a thing of falseness and guilt where harlots and adulterers live disguised as ladies and knights. King Arthur rides to quell the revolt and the guilty man is killed, but King Arthur is heavy in heart when he returns to Camelot.

Guinevere. Fearing exposure of her love for Lancelot, Guinevere asks him to leave Camelot. On the night of their farewell Modred traps the lovers together, and Guinevere, feeling that she is shamed forever, goes to Almesbury and takes refuge in a nunnery. There she recalls how Lancelot brought her from her father’s home to marry Arthur, how she thought Arthur cold, and how she fell in love with the courtly, outgoing Lancelot.

King Arthur goes to Almesbury. To Guinevere he speaks of his pride in the marvelous ideals that the Round Table upheld and that Guinevere inspired. Now all is lost, but he forgives Guinevere before he goes off to fight against Modred and his traitor knights.

Filled with remorse, Guinevere asks the nuns to accept her in their order. There she gives her services until they make her abbess. After three years in that rank she dies.

The Passing of Arthur. In Modred’s revolt King Arthur is mortally wounded. As he lies dying he tells Sir Bedivere to cast the sword Excalibur into the lake. When Bedivere finally brings to King Arthur the tale that amid flashing and strange sights an arm reached out from the lake to receive the sword, King Arthur knows that Bedivere has truly sent Excalibur back to the Lady of the Lake. Next, King Arthur tells Bedivere to carry him to the shore. There, three maidens come in a barge to take King Arthur away. As Bedivere stands weeping, King Arthur assures him that the old order of the Round Table must pass to give way to something new.

King Arthur passes, in the manner of his legendary beginning, back across the waters to Avalon, but many men believe that someday he will return to his people in their need. Bedivere watches on the shore until the wintry dawn breaks, bringing a new year.

Places Discussed

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Camelot

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 comparison, Tennyson contrasts the city and castle with the countryside. In Camelot, men and women exhibit both knightly and Christian virtues; in the natural world, however, men and women often resort to practices that demonstrate their kinship with the beasts. Far from being idyllic, the woods and fields of Arthur’s kingdom are often places where danger lurks, principally because these regions are inhabited by outcasts from Camelot or people who choose to live by values contrary to the ones the king espouses.

Wastelands

Wastelands. Location where many of King Arthur’s knights search for the Holy Grail. Like other writers of Arthurian legend, Tennyson creates vivid descriptions of the filth, squalor, and aridity of a land clearly in need of tending. In traditional versions of the legend, the discovery of the Grail was to lead to restoration of the land’s fertility. For the knights in Idylls of the King the search for the Grail proves fruitless, and the land remains barren. The ill-fated quest provides Arthur an opportunity to explain to his subjects that it is not in seeking remote conquests that the kingdom is served, but rather in staying close to home and handling the domestic, social, and political tasks that are part of everyday living.

Red Knight’s castle

Red Knight’s castle. Home of the knight Pelleas, who becomes disillusioned with Arthur’s court after discovering that the woman he loves is unfaithful. Though mentioned in only one scene, the castle’s importance to the theme of the poem is significant. After Pelleas leaves Camelot, he sets up an alternative order of knights, who behave openly as brigands, lechers, and moral degenerates. When Arthur sends a force to wipe out this rogue order, Pelleas tells the invaders from Camelot that his castle houses knights who, though immoral, are actually better than those in Arthur’s city. They are not hypocrites like those at Camelot who publicly espouse high virtue but in fact act basely.

Battlefields

Battlefields. Locations of Arthur’s initial struggles to unite the petty kingdoms of the country and of his last fight to preserve his kingdom against his nephew Mordred. In Tennyson’s poem, battlefields are not only places of destruction, they are locales shrouded in mist and fog, places where friend and enemy are indistinguishable. Tennyson contrasts the mayhem of the battlefield with the civility of the court to demonstrate the precarious nature of the civilization Arthur establishes at Camelot.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 218

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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