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.
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.”
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" 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.