Friday, April 13, 2007

Tennyson and the Idylls of the King

Title: The Idylls of the King

Author: Alfred, Lord Tennyson (some background information). The image shown to the right is a painting of his wife.

Copyright: This work is in the public domain; I used both the Signet Classic Edition and the lovely Heritage Press collector's edition. (Links go to LibraryThing records).

Length: 286 pages

Genre: Poetry

Summary: One doesn't "summarize" poetry but for those unfamiliar with this particular work, told in twelve segments, it encompasses the rise and fall of Arthur's Round Table, largely due to the failure of Guenevere and Lancelot to live up to the ideals of the kingdom. The earliest segments of the work centered around four female characters (Enid, Guenevere, Elaine and Vivien) but these were later set into context with the other narratives of various knights. The Idylls, as currently published, reach a high point with the quest for the Holy Grail but as we see Lancelot admit obliquely his unfitness to continue in that quest because of his love for Guenevere and the subsequent confession of guilt by the Queen as she hides in an abbey, the ideal falters, ending in war and the passing of Arthur.

Based on the most cursory of background research, it appears that Tennyson was worried about the decline of cultural values in his society when he created the Idylls. His message therefore was that men should strive always to achieve the highest possible ideal. Women, by extension, should strive to prevent any occasion for failure by constantly living virtuously and always in the highest interests of the man who honors her with his love. Time and again, the stories illustrate the difficulty men have meeting this obligation and how a woman (even the ideal of a particular woman) may contribute to that failure or success. It is unmistakably laid at Guenevere's door that Lancelot fails in his quest and that Arthur's kingdom is destroyed. The stories selected in this work constantly underscore the need to control selfish desires in order to gain the higher good. The pity is that none are adequate to the task; even Arthur cannot entirely live up to the ideal as we see when he and Guenevere meet for the last time. And so the vision of harmonious dominion fails.

Also relevant: Poetry is an inefficient means for telling a story, even if it is a pure form through which to deliver the essential meaning. Whether due to the language or the form, it takes time to read and mentally process poetic narrative. If the language does not pick you up and carry you forward, it is laborious to work your way through.

There are magical images that stick in the mind, such as the delivery of Arthur as a baby to the wizard, Merlin.

It seemed in heaven, a ship, the shape thereof
A dragon winged, and all from stem to stern
Bright with a shining people on the decks,
And gone as soon as seen. And then the two
Dropt to the cove, and watched the great sea fall,
Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,
Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep
And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged
Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame:
And down the wave and in the flame was borne
A naked babe, and rode to Merlin's feet,
Who stoopt and caught the babe, and cried, 'The King!

There are moments of clarity when you suddenly grasp that Gareth and Lynette is really about the ordinary battles of life that all individuals must face, the knights called Morning Star, Noon, Evening Star, and ultimately Night (or Death) being the stages of life with which a young man must engage and conquer. But Gareth's cry is constantly "Lead and I follow!" as he draws upon personal strength and courteous forbearance in making his way. He's a splendid example of knighthood, as Tennyson intended him to be, composing the segment for his son before he was sent to school as a young man.

There are moments of eye-rolling (as in the story of the Marriage of Geraint) when the knight imposes all sorts of tests on his lady-love, the poor young noblewoman being raised up to new status if he marries her. How can one possibly forgive a Prince who forbids his young bride, Enid, to be married in the gown that her poor mother has brought to her as a surprise so that she need not be ashamed when meeting the Queen for the first time? Enid is, of course, perfect in her love for Geraint; Tennyson has deliberately provided her as literary contrast with Guenevere. (It's unfair as neither character is a particularly realistic portrayal of the female.)

Each segment, as I read it, seemed to provoke different reactions. One can't help rooting for Sir Balin who is making an honest attempt to conquer his personal flaw of intemperate anger by thinking of the goodness of Guenevere. Unfortunately that falls flat when he discovers that she's been untrue to the King by falling in love with Lancelot. He loses his temper and tragedy results.

Everyone is irritating in the instance of Lancelot and Elaine. Guenevere is a wretched and uncaring woman in her scenes. It is she who is shown to be the cause of Elaine's unhappiness and languid death over Sir Lancelot's indifference. He ultimately comes to understand that Elaine might have loved him and had his best interests at heart more truly than the Queen.

Finally, there is the guilt ultimately carried by Guinevere in her abbey; she sobs piteously at the window, seeing Arthur leave her to go to his Last Battle. (I suspect one is expected to weep at Tennyson's account of his passing.)

This isn't perhaps poetry that I would ever memorize and quote at will and the philosophical approach of the author is --at best-- dated. But the myth of Arthur has passed into Western civilization with both positive and negative effects. This is just one of its manifestations and one has to know Idylls of the King in order to understand some of our culture's twists and turns historically.