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Idylls of the King

Idylls of the King, published between 1856 and 1885, is a cycle of twelve narrative poems by the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892; Poet Laureate from 1850) which retells the legend of King Arthur, his knights, his love for Guinevere and her tragic betrayal of him, following the rise and fall of Arthur and his kingdom. The whole work recounts Arthur's attempt and failure to lift up mankind and create a perfect kingdom, from his coming to power to his death at the hands of the traitor Mordred. Individual poems detail the deeds of various knights, including Lancelot, Geraint, Galahad, and Balin and Balan, and also Merlin and the Lady of the Lake. There is little transition between Idylls, but the central figure of Arthur links all the stories. The poems were dedicated to the late Albert, Prince Consort.

Tennyson based his retelling primarily on Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur and the Mabinogion, but with many expansions, additions, and several adaptions, a notable example of which is the fate of Guinevere. In Malory she is sentenced to be burnt at the stake but is rescued by Lancelot; in the Idylls Guinevere flees to a convent, is forgiven by Arthur, repents, and serves in the convent until she dies. Tennyson amended the traditional spellings of several names to fit the meter.

The Idylls are written in blank verse (except for the last verse of the last idyll, which happens to be an alexandrine). Tennyson's descriptions of nature are derived from observations of his own surroundings, collected over the course of many years.

Part of the work was written in the Hanbury Arms in Caerleon, where a plaque commemorates the event. The dramatic narratives are not an epic either in structure or tone, but derive elegiac sadness from the idylls of Theocritus. Idylls of the King is often read as an allegory of the societal conflicts in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland during the mid-Victorian era.

Publishing chronology

The first set of Idylls, "Enid", "Vivien", "Elaine", and "Guinevere", was published in 1859. "Enid" was later divided into "The Marriage of Geraint" and "Geraint and Enid", and "Guinevere" was expanded. The Holy Grail and Other Poems appeared ten years later. "The Last Tournament" was published in Contemporary Review in 1871. "Gareth and Lynette" was published the following year. The final idyll, "Balin and Balan", was published in Tiresias and Other Poems in 1885. The Dedication was published in 1862, a year after the Prince Consort had died; the epilogue, "To the Queen," was published in 1873.

The Idylls

The Coming of Arthur

The first of the Idylls covers the period following Arthur's coronation, his ascension, and marriage. The besieged Leodogran, King of Cameliard, appeals to Arthur for help against the beasts and heathen hordes. Arthur vanquishes these and then the Barons who challenge his legitimacy. Afterwards he requests the hand of Leodogran's daughter, Guinevere, whom he loves. Leodogran, grateful but also doubtful of Arthur’s lineage, questions his chamberlain, Arthur’s emissaries, and Arthur’s half sister Bellicent (the character known as Anna or Morgause in other versions), receiving a different account from each. He is persuaded at last by a dream of Arthur crowned in heaven. Lancelot is sent to bring Guinevere, and she and Arthur wed in May. At the wedding feast, Arthur refuses to pay the customary tribute to the Lords from Rome, declaring, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new.”

Gareth and Lynette

Tennyson based "Gareth and Lynette" on the fourth book of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. No version of the story earlier than Malory's is known; it is possible that Malory created the tale himself, though he may have relied on an older work that is now lost.

Of all the Idylls, “Gareth and Lynette” is sweetest and most innocent. Gareth, Bellicent and Lot's last son, dreams of knighthood but is frustrated by his mother. After a lengthy argument she clinches the matter, or so she thinks, by ordering him to serve as an anonymous scullion in Arthur’s kitchens for a year and a day. To her chagrin, he agrees. Upon his arrival incognito at Camelot, Gareth is greeted by a disguised Merlin, who tells him the city is never built at all, and therefore built forever, and warns him that Arthur will bind him by vows no man can keep. Gareth is angered by his apparent tomfoolery, but is himself rebuked for going disguised to the truthful Arthur.

Arthur consents to the boy’s petition for kitchen service. After Gareth has served nobly and well for a month, Bellicent repents and frees him from his vow. Gareth is secretly knighted by Arthur, who orders Lancelot to keep a discreet eye on him. Gareth’s first quest comes in the form of the cantankerous Lynette, who begs Arthur for Lancelot’s help in freeing her sister Lyonors. Rather than Lancelot, she is given Gareth, still seemingly a kitchen servant. Indignant, she flees, and abuses Gareth sorely when he catches up. On their journey he proves himself again and again, but she continues to call him knave and scullion. Gareth remains courteous and gentle throughout. At the Castle Perilous, he overthrows the soi-disant knight of the Morning Star, knight of the Noonday Sun, knight of the Evening Star, and finally the most terrible knight of Death, who is revealed as a boy coerced into his role by his older brothers. Tennyson concludes: “And he [Malory] that told the tale in older times / Says that Sir Gareth wedded Lyonors, / But he, that told it later [Tennyson], says Lynette.”

The Marriage of Geraint

Tennyson's two poems about Geraint are based on the tale Geraint and Enid, one of the Welsh Romances associated with the Mabinogion. This tale tells the same story as Chrétien de Troyes' 12th century French romance Erec and Enide, but the details of the relationship between the two works are not clear. Tennyson relied on the Welsh version, which had been translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest in 1838. Tennyson's two Geraint poems were originally published as the single poem "Enid."

"The Marriage of Geraint" begins as rumors of Guinevere’s treacherous love reach Sir Geraint. His wife Enid is too closely associated with the Queen for his comfort. Geraint and Enid return to his princedom. There, forgetting his duties and reputation, he lavishes love on his wife. Enid hears and is saddened by accusations of his uxoriousness. One summer morning, she mourns that she has caused Geraint’s name to tarnish, and drops tears that wake Geraint in time to hear, “O me, I fear that I am no true wife.” He immediately suspects her of infidelity. He summons their horses, refuses to answer her questions, and orders her to wear her meanest dress. As she takes it out she remembers their marriage, and the Idyll lapses into a flashback:

While Geraint and the Queen wait for the hunt, one day long ago, a knight, lady, and dwarf ride by. The dwarf whips one of the Queen’s maidens and then strikes Geraint, who promises to revenge the insult to the Queen. He comes to a town preparing for a tourney and is offered shelter in Earl Yniol’s decayed castle, where the Earl and his daughter Enid reside. The Earl explains that the dwarf’s master is his nephew Edyrn, the “sparrow-hawk,” the host of the tourney and Enid’s suitor, who has usurped his earldom. Geraint overthrows Edyrn in the tourney and wins Enid. He orders Edyrn to ask the Queen’s forgiveness; in Camelot, Edyrn repents and reforms. Enid’s mother prepares her a rich dress for the trip, but Geraint orders her to wear her meanest, in which he first saw her, so that the Queen herself might dress her. This is supposedly a test, which Enid passes, and the two are wed.

Geraint and Enid

In "Geraint and Enid", the story has returned to the present. Geraint and his wife set out on their horses, she in her ancient dress and riding before him. He orders her to keep her silence, but several times she disobeys to warn him of ambushes ahead. He answers her angrily and vanquishes all of them. He forces Enid to drive a growing herd of the bandits’ horses. They come to the castle of Earl Limours, a former suitor of Enid, who entertains them. Limours appeals to Enid for her love, but she, remaining faithful, deceives him and manages their escape. Limours rides after them. Geraint knocks him from his saddle, but sustains a serious wound. A little later, he faints. The Earl Doorm comes across the two and has Geraint carried to his castle, a place more bestial than human. Doorm offers to marry Enid and strikes her when she refuses. Her cry rouses Geraint, who kills Doorm. Geraint is at last convinced of her virtue and apologizes for doubting. As they ride away they are nearly attacked by what they believe to be another bandit, but it is Edyrn, who recognizes Enid's voice. He has changed himself, becoming a knight of the Round Table. He had come to cleanse the lands of Doorm and his men with Arthur. Arthur welcomes Geraint and Enid back into the fold. They come back to the kingdom, and it is revealed that he eventually dies fighting for Arthur against "the heathen of the Northern Sea."

Balin and Balan

"Balin and Balan" is based on the tale of Sir Balin in Book II of Le Morte d'Arthur. Malory's source was the Old French Post-Vulgate Cycle, specifically the text known as the Suite du Merlin.

The brothers Sir Balin “the Savage” and Balan return to Arthur’s hall after three years of exile, and are welcomed warmly. When Arthur’s envoys return, they report the death of one of Arthur’s knights from a demon in the woods. Balan offers to hunt the demon, and before he departs warns Balin against his terrible rages, which were the cause of their exile. Balin tries to learn gentleness from Lancelot, but despairs and concludes that Lancelot’s perfect courtesy is beyond his reach. Instead, he takes the Queen’s crown for his shield. Several times it reminds him to restrain his temper.

Then, one summer morning, Balin beholds an ambiguous exchange between Lancelot and the Queen that fills him with confusion. He leaves Camelot and eventually arrives at the castle of Pellam and Garlon. When Garlon casts aspersions on the Queen, Balin kills him and flees. Ashamed of his temper, he hangs his crowned shield in a tree, where Vivien and her squire discover it, and then Balin himself. She spins lies to Balin that confirm his suspicions about Guinevere. He shrieks, tears down his shield, and tramples it. In that same wood, Balan hears the cry and believes he has found his demon. The brothers clash and only too late recognize each other. Dying, Balan assures Balin that their Queen is pure and good.

Merlin and Vivien

Having boasted to King Mark that she will return with the hearts of Arthur’s knights in her hand, Vivien begs and receives shelter in Guinevere’s retinue. While in Camelot, she sows rumors of the Queen’s affair. She fails to seduce the King, for which she is ridiculed, and turns her attentions to Merlin. She follows him when he wanders out of Arthur's court, troubled by visions of impending doom. She intends to coax out of Merlin a spell that will trap him forever, believing his defeat would be her glory. She protests her love to Merlin, declaring he cannot love her if he doubts her. When he mentions Arthur’s knights' gossip about her, she slanders every one of them. Merlin meets every accusation but one: that of Lancelot's illicit love, which he admits is true. Worn down, he allows himself to be seduced, and tells Vivien how to work the charm. She immediately uses it on him, and so he is imprisoned forever, as if dead to anyone but her, in a hollow, nearby oak tree.

Lancelot and Elaine

"Lancelot and Elaine" is based upon the story of Elaine of Astolat, found in Le Morte d'Arthur, the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, and the Post-Vulgate Cycle. Tennyson had previously treated a similar subject in "The Lady of Shalott," published in 1833 and revised in 1842; however that poem was based on the thirteenth century Italian novella Donna do Scalotta, and thus has little in common with Malory's version.

Long ago, Arthur happened upon a skeleton wearing a crown of nine diamonds. At eight annual tourneys, Arthur has awarded the diamonds one by one to Lancelot, who plans to give all nine to Guinevere. Guinevere chooses to stay back from the ninth tournament, and Lancelot tells Arthur he will stay with her. Once the others have left, she berates him for giving grounds for slander. She says she cannot love the too-perfect Arthur. Lancelot decides to go disguised to the tournament. He borrows armor and arms from the Lord of Astolat, and as a finishing touch, agrees to wear his daughter Elaine’s favor, which he has never done for any woman. Elaine has fallen in love with him. Here the Idyll repeats Malory’s account of the tournament and its aftermath.

Lancelot has lead Elaine on, and tells her that their love can never be, so she commits suicide and requests that her father and brothers put her on a barge with a note to Lancelot and Guinevere. Lancelot returns to Camelot to present the nine diamonds to Guinevere. In a jealous fury she hurls them out the window into the river, just as Elaine’s funeral barge passes below. This is fulfilling of a dream Elaine spoke of in which she held the ninth diamond, but it was too slippery to hold and fell into a body of water. Elaine’s body is brought into the hall and her letter read, at which the lords and ladies weep. Guinevere privately asks Lancelot’s forgiveness. The knight muses that Elaine loved him more than the Queen, wonders if all the Queen’s love has rotted to jealousy, and wishes he was never born.

The Holy Grail

This Idyll is told in flashback by Sir Percivale, who had become a monk and died one summer before the account, to his fellow monk Ambrosius. His pious sister had beheld the Grail and named Galahad her “knight of heaven,” declaring that he, too, would behold it. One summer night in Arthur's absence, Galahad sits in the Siege Perilous. The hall is shaken with thunder, and a vision the covered Grail passes the knights. Percivale swears that he will quest for it a year and a day, a vow echoed by all the knights. When Arthur returns, he hears the news with horror. Galahad, he says, will see the Grail, and perhaps Percivale and Lancelot also, but the other knights are better suited to physical service than spiritual. The Round Table disperses. Percivale travels through a surreal, allegorical landscape until he meets Galahad in a hermitage. They continue together until Percivale can no longer follow, and he watches Galahad depart to a heavenly city in a boat like a silver star. Percival sees the grail, far away, not as close or real an image as Galahad saw, above Galahad's head. After the period of questing, only a remnant of the Round Table returns to Camelot. Some tell stories of their quests. Gawain decided to give up and spent pleasant times relaxing with women, until they were all blown over by a great wind, and he figured it was time to go home. Lancelot found a great, winding staircase, and climbed it until he found a room which was hot as fire and very surreal, and saw a veiled version of the grail wrapped in samite, a heavy silk popular in the Middle Ages, which is mentioned several times throughout the Idylls. "The Holy Grail" is symbolic of the Round Table being broken apart, a key reason for the doom of Camelot.

Pelleas and Ettare

Tennyson's source for "Pelleas and Ettare" was again Malory, who had himself adapted the story from the Post-Vulgate Cycle.

In an ironic echo of “Gareth and Lynette”, the young, idealistic Pelleas meets and falls in love with the lady Ettare. She thinks him a fool, but treats him well at first because she wishes to hear herself proclaimed the “Queen of Beauty” at the tournament. For Pelleas' sake, Arthur declares it a “Tournament of Youth”, barring his veteran warriors. Pelleas wins the title and circlet for Ettare, who immediately ends her kindness to him. He follows her to her castle, where for a sight of her he docilely allows himself to be bound and maltreated by her knights, although he can and does overthrow them all. Gawain observes this one day with outrage. He offers to court Ettare for Pelleas, and for this purpose borrows his arms and shield. When admitted to the castle, he announces that he has killed Pelleas.

Three nights later, Pelleas enters the castle in search of Gawain. He passes a pavilion of Ettare’s knights, asleep, and then a pavilion of her maidens, and then comes to a pavilion where he finds Ettare in Gawain’s arms. He leaves his sword across their throats. When Ettare wakes, she curses Gawain. Her love turns to Pelleas, and she pines away. Disillusioned with Arthur’s court, Pelleas leaves Camelot to become the Red King in the North.

The Last Tournament

Guinevere had once fostered an infant found in an eagle’s nest, who had a ruby necklace wrapped around its neck. After the child died, Guinevere gave the jewels to Arthur to make a tournament prize. However, before the tournament, a mutilated peasant stumbles into the hall. He was tortured by the Red Knight in the North, who has set up a parody of the Round Table with lawless knights and harlots. Arthur delegates the judging of the Tournament to Lancelot and takes a company to purge the evil. “The Tournament of the Dead Innocence” becomes a farce, full of discourtesies, broken rules, and insults. Sir Tristram wins the rubies. Breaking tradition, he rudely declares to the ladies that the “Queen of Beauty” is not present. Arthur’s fool, Dagonet, mocks Tristram. In the north, meanwhile, Arthur’s knights, too full of rage and disgust to heed their King, trample the Red Knight, massacre his men and women, and set his tower ablaze. Tristram gives the rubies to Queen Isolt, Mark’s wife, who is furious that he has married Isolt of Brittany. They taunt each other, but at the last he puts the necklace about her neck and bends to kiss her. At that moment Mark rises up behind him and splits his skull.

Guinevere

Guinevere has fled to the convent at Almesbury. On the night that she and Lancelot had determined to part forever, Modred, tipped off by Vivien, watched and listened with witnesses to their farewells. Guinevere rejects Lancelot's offer of sanctuary in his castle overseas, choosing instead to take anonymous shelter in the convent. She is befriended by a little novice. But when rumors of war between Arthur and Lancelot and Modred's usurption reach the convent, the novice's careless chatter pricks the Queen's conscience. She describes to Guinevere the glorious kingdom in her father's day, "before the coming of the sinful Queen."

The King comes. She hears his steps and falls on her face. He stands over her and grieves over her, himself, and his kingdom, reproaches her, and forgives her. She watches him leave and repents, hoping they will be reunited in heaven. She serves in the abbey, is later chosen Abbess, and dies three years later.

The Passing of Arthur

This section of the Idylls is a much expanded and altered version of Tennyson's earlier poem Morte d'Arthur.

In the disastrous last battle, Arthur kills Modred and in turn receives a mortal wound. The entire Round Table has been killed with the exception of Sir Bedivere, who carries the King to a lake on the borders of Avalon where Arthur first received Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. Arthur orders Bedivere to throw the sword into the lake in order to fulfill a prophecy written on the blade. Sir Bedivere resists twice, but on the third time obeys and is rewarded by the sight of a arm "Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful" rising from the water to catch the sword. The wounded Arthur is finally carried away on a magical ship with three queens and sails away to Avalon, with Sir Bedivere watching, as the new sun rises on a new year.

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