Explorations in Arthurian Legends

A Literature Review

Part 7: Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The giant of the Victorian era was Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whose Idylls of the King constitute an epic in poem form. As such, Tennyson is hearkening back to the beginnings of Arthurian literature.

Tennyson himself began with The Lady of Shalott, about a woman who loves Sir Lancelot but cannot have him. He would later revisit this story in Lancelot and Elaine. The tale itself was based on a medival Italian novelette, Donna di Scalotta. He moved to Sir Galahad and then Morte d'Arthur in completing his early phase of exploring the Matter of Britain.

Idylls of the King was written a little at a time but can be taken as a whole.

Balan and Balin presents us with the tale of Balin's madness taken full form: When Balan sets out on a quest to kill a woods demon, Balin stays behind to better himself at court. His fits of madness disappear, but a chance observation of Lancelot and Guinevere being unfaithful sends him into a mad fit of rage. He endures one fit after another, against Garlon at the castle Pellam and against Vivien in the surrounding woods. His final fit sends him into a frenzy that renders him unrecognizable to his own brother and vice versa. The two wound each other mortally and realize their mistake just before they die.

Merlin and Vivien begin their story in Broceliande Forest. Vivien is here presented as the paramour of King Mark of Cornwall, who sent her to Camelot so she could uncover Lancelot's and Guinevere's affair and expose its spreading effects on the morality of the Round Table knights. Her initial strategy, that of being made a lady-in-waiting to Guinevere, is successful; but she fails to convince Arthur of how much he needs her. She sets her sights on Merlin. The old man, depressed, sails away in a boat and lands in Brittany, in the Broceliande Forest. Vivien has followed him there and now is trying to get him to reveal her the secret of the locking-away charm. She tries all manner of tricks, including appealing to his paternal instincts and his hedonistic instincts, but nothing works. Finally, exhausted, Merlin relents and falls asleep. The charm secret hers, Vivien locks Merlin away.

Lancelot and Elaine introduces the idea of the nine valuable jewels, one of which Arthur would give to the winner of the annual tournament. Lancelot, of course, won all nine, although the last took a little longer to deliver. It seems that Lancelot had disguised himself in the last battle, wearing unfamiliar attire and sporting the favor of the young Elaine of Astolat, at whose father's castle he had stayed while on his way to the tournament. Despite the disguise, Lancelot wins, although he is cast out for being a pretender. Arthur charges Gawain with delivering the diamond to the winner; he finds his way to Astolat, sees Lancelot's shield with Elaine, and leaves the diamond with her. He returns to Camelot and tells everyone he can find that Lancelot really loves Elaine. She, meanwhile, has found Lancelot, who was wounded in a skirmish after the tournament, and is nursing him back to health. He cannot shake his love for the queen,, however, and leaves Elaine alone. Despondent, she soon dies. Lancelot presents the nine diamonds to Guinevere (for Elaine had given him the last one), but she accuses him of infidelity to her and throws the diamonds out the window. Lancelot looks down at the river below and sees the barge bearing Elaine's body. In it is a note that blames Lancelot for her death. This poem ends very sadly, with the twin images of Elaine's barge and Lancelot's self-pity.

The Holy Grail opens with a very old Percivale recounting the Grail tale to a monk named Ambrosius. The tale tells of Galahad's sitting in the Siege Perilous, which revealed a vision of the Grail. Most of the knights took an oath to seek the Grail; Arthur was not there, so he did not take such a vow, and he chastised his knights for binding themselves so. The tale takes the familiar turn of having Bors, Percivale, and Galahad see the Grail, the latter two sharing a vision in a chapel. Bors returns to Camelot, in this tale accompanied by Percivale, to find a broken court: Lancelot is consumed by his vision, which availed him an out-of-focus glimpse; Arthur is beside himself with woe for the loss of so many knights. The poem ends abruptly and sadly.

Picking up where the Grail tale left off, Pelleas and Etarre focuses on the young knight Pelleas, who falls in love with the false Etarre and wins her the prize at Arthur's "Tournament of Youth." Continually fooled, Pelleas pursued Etarre haplessly back to her castle, where he is locked out. He is captured, brought before Etarre, and thrown out twice. Gawain appears both times and offers his help, but Pelleas refuses. Three days after the second episode, he returns to the castle, sneaks in, and finds Gawain in bed with Etarre. He goes crazy and ends up in the company of Percivale, who tells him of the unfaithfulness of Guinevere and Lancelot. Pelleas rushes to Camelot and attacks Lancelot; the older knight emerges victorious, but the stage is set for the Red Knight.

The Last Tournament sees Arthur fighting the Red Knight while Lancelot is presiding over a knightly tournament at Camelot. All rules of chivalric fighting are broken, and Lancelot overlooks all transgressions. Tristram wins the prize. He has a long converation with Dagonet, the court fool, and then returns to Tintagil. He and Isolt talk for hours and are in the midst of happy revelry when Mark bursts in and stabs the defenseless Tristram in the back, killing him. Arthur returns from his victory over the Red Knight, who had set up his own Round Table in the north, and finds only Dagonet, whose sadness reflects the greater gloom of the court.

Guinevere sees the evil plans of Modred and Vivien come to fruition. Modred attempts to catch Lancelot and Guinevere in the act of adultery. In a flash, Lancelot escapes and flees to France and Guinevere takes refuge in the nunnery at Almesbury. She remains there and hears the news that Arthur is making war on Lancelot while leaving Modred behind as regent and that Modred has seized the crown and is preparing for Arthur's attack. Arthur himself comes to Guinevere in the abbey, saying "I did not come to curse thee." Nonetheless, she feels remorse at what she has done. When he leaves, she realizes that she still loves him. She hears of his passing and grieves heavily.

The story of The Passing of Arthur is told by Bedivere, the last survivor of the Round Table. He speaks of Arthur's wondering whether God has forsaken him and of his conversation with the ghost of Gawain and of his determination to follow the path fate had ordained for him. The last battle takes place in a veiling mist, in which one could easily believe that the knight right next to you was your enemy, not your friend. The fateful combat of Arthur and Modred comes after the battle is over. Bedivere takes Arthur to a nearby chapel, and the king instructs his faithful follower to throw Excalibur into the lake outside. The sword lands in the hand of an outstretched that soon disappears beneath the surface. Arthur is carried onto a barge, to carry him to Avilion, "Where I will heal me of my grievous wound." The poem (and the saga) ends with a new spring morning, a symbol of great things to come.

The Idylls can be interpreted as a series of allegories on the theme of unrepentant sin's bringing down an ideal. Fidelity, be it marital or martial, is on high trial throughout these poems. Arthur's failure to confront the adultery of his queen and his favorite knight result in a gradual meltdown of moral code and chivalric code. In the end, even Lancelot is made to be the enemy.

This theme is obvious in The Holy Grail, a tale that lends itself to such matters. But the idea of an evil festering slowly to a terrible end plays a major part in the madness of Balin and the actions of Pelleas. The intenseness with which Geraint questions Enid's fidelity begs the question of whether Arthur is doing the same with his wife. And the happiness that Gareth and Lynette share is what Lancelot and Guinevere can only aspire to have.

In the end, Arthur is not dead. We don't see a grave, and the sun comes up again. Bedivere survives to tell the story, much as young Tom survives to tell the story in Malory.

Tennyson, in bringing the Matter of Britain back to verse, has come full circle, as it were. As we enter the 20th century in our examination of Arthurian literature, we see the themes of sadness and unavoidable fate ruling supreme. One author who would both embrace these themes and rail against them was T.H. White.

More on Idylls of the King

The full text

The full text illustrated

More about the Idylls

More about Tennyson

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