Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Coming of Arthur” addresses the circumstances surrounding King Arthur’s birth and his subsequent rise to power within the context of Leodogran’s quest to prove the king worthy of his daughter’s hand. Despite his seeming determination to ensure his daughter’s happiness, Guinevere’s wishes are not even mentioned. The future queen has absolutely no voice or presence in the poem aside from being a figure of great beauty and virtue:

. . .Guinevere
Stood by the castle walls to watch him pass;
But since he neither wore on helm or shield
The golden symbol of his kinglihood,
But rode a simple knight among his knights,
And many of these in richer arms than he,
She saw him not, or marked not, if she saw,
One among many, though his face was bare.

This passage further illustrates her passivity. Tennyson depicts Guinevere as a character who simply allows life to happen. Prior to their marriage, she does not even know what Arthur looks like as a result of his lack of adornment. Guinevere plays a comparatively active role in only one other stanza of the poem:

There is only one other stanza in which Guinevere plays a comparatively active role in the poem:

Chief of the church in Britain, and before
The stateliest of her altar-shrines, the King
That morn was married, while in stainless white,
The fair beginners of a nobler time,
And glorying in their vows and him, his knights
Stood round him, and rejoicing in his joy.
Far shone the fields of May through open door,
The sacred altar blossomed white with May,
The Sun of May descended on their King,
They gazed on all earth's beauty in their Queen,
Rolled incense, and there past along the hymns
A voice as of the waters, while the two
Sware at the shrine of Christ a deathless love:
And Arthur said, "Behold, thy doom is mine.
Let chance what will, I love thee to the death!"
To whom the Queen replied with drooping eyes,
"King and my lord, I love thee to the death!"

The pleasure that Arthur shares with his knights dominates this passage with no mention of Guinevere’s emotions. The only description attributed to her has an ambiguous nature. "Drooping eyes" could imply tears of joy or they might indicate her sorrow over her lack of choice and loss of autonomy. Tennyson also chose to pen their vows in negative terms, including “doom” and “death”. The poet generally seems to focus on the atmosphere surrounding the scenes rather than on the development of the characters themselves.

Questions

1. Why do you think Tennyson frames this piece as a story within a story?

2. Leodogran does not appear to take people at their word. Over the course of the story, he receives several seemingly reliable accounts of Arthur's birth; however, it is not until he dreams of Arthur being crowned in heaven that he decides to give Guinevere to the King. What do you think was Tennyson's intended message?

3. How does the incorporation of magic into this story differ from that in Jane Eyre?

4. Often, authors use prose and verse to distinguish the voices of certain characters. Why do you think Merlin speaks in verse?

5. Why do you think Tennyson chooses to grant Guinevere such a minor role in Arthur's story?

6. Why do you think Tennyson chose to make their wedding vows so dreary?

Related Material


Victorian Website Overview Alfred Lord Tennyson Idylls of the King

Last modified 5 February 2009