Driving Modred's forces through the "blind haze" (76), Arthur traps them between barren coast and sea. Then, at the winter solstice, "that day when the great light of heaven/ Burned at his lowest in the rolling year, On the waste sand by the waste sea they closed" (90-92). "A deathwhite mist" (95) covers all,
and even on Arthur fell
Confusion, since he saw not whom he fought.
For friend and foe were shadows in the mist
And friend slew friend not knowing whom he slew. [98-101]
Both the wasteland setting of the final battle and the mist which makes it a nightmare of confusion are Tennyson's additions to Malory. Here as throughout the Idylls this master of expressionist landscape surrounds his figures with an external nature symbolizing their inner condition.
The poet himself pointed out that "This grim battle in the mist contrasts with Arthur's glorious battle in the Coming of Arthur, fought on a bright day when ' he saw the smallest rock far on the faintest hill'" (Ricks, 1745). The harmony, the faith, the community with which Arthur and his men act in the first battle raises them above the levels human nature usually reaches: the perception of the senses approaches that of the soul as vision approaches the visionary. When Tennyson implicitly contrasts the preternatural clarity of Arthur's vision in the opening section with his confusion in the last, he is making a statement not only about the way political disorder and death necessarily follow loss of faith, but also about the way an ordering faith, which creates harmony of sense and soul, makes man whole, complete, a being of perfect health. Like Milton who believed in a time of physical joy and health before the Fall, Tennyson traces the very limitation of our perceptions to breaking faith. Considered from this point of view, The Idylls of the King is seen to be another tale of paradise lost.
At last, however, the mist vanishes, revealing the completely stark setting of Arthur's personal combat with Modred. In these magnificient lines Tennyson uses all his characteristic skill at word and sound painting to describe how
over all that shore,
Save for some whisper of the seething seas,
A dead hush fell; but when the dolorous day
Grew drearier toward twilight falling, came
A bitter wind, clear from the North, and blew
The mist aside, and with that wind the tide
Rose, and the pale King glanced across the field
Of battle: but no man was moving there;
Nor any cry of Christian heard thereon,
Nor yet of heathen; only the wan wave
Brake in among dead faces, to and fro
Swaying the helpless hands, and up and down
Tumbling the hollow helmets of the fallen,
And shivered brands that once had fought with Rome,
And rolling far along the gloomy shores
The voice of days of old and days to be. (120-35)
Clearly, the opposition between Arthur and Modred is so sharp that no ambiguity, no confusion is possible. But before the King notices his enemy he looks about the dead men in a dead world and wonders if he himself be "but King among the dead" (146). Bedivere, whose loyalty is most important at this point, swears that Arthur would be his monarch everywhere — even among the dead. When this loyal servant points out Modred, "the traitor of thine house" (153), Arthur denies that his enemy was ever so:
My house are rather they who sware my vows,
Yea, even while they brake them, owned me King.
And well for thee, saying in my dark hour,
When all the purport of my throne hath failed
That quick or dead thou holdest me for King. (157-61)
Modred, in other words, has not broken faith like the other traitor knights, for he is incapable of having faith, of keeping it, of believing in anything. With the strength renewed by Bedivere's faith in him, Arthur then does "one last act of kinghood" (163), slaying Modred with Excalibur's "last stroke" (168), and is himself mortally wounded.
- Test, Trial, and Subjectivity of Faith
- Having Faith and Keeping Faith
- Faithlessness and the Destruction of Community
[This lexia has been adapted from George P. Landow, "Closing the Frame: Having Faith and Keeping Faith in Tennyson's 'The Passing of Arthur.'" Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 56 (1974), 423 — 42.]
Last modified 30 November 2004