n Tennyson's "Passing of Arthur" learning how to keep faith despite a lack of knowledge how to do so provides the central theme. Tennyson looks to the past, using nostalgia to create a mythic world in which faith existed in attempt to inspire faith in the present. He presents Sir Bedivere as someone who had faith but has lost it, making him a symbol for nineteenth-century English society. After being mortally wounded, King Arthur tells Sir Bedivere to "take Excalibur,/ And fling him far into the middle mere:/ Watch what thou seest, and lightly bring me word" (Tennyson, 48). For Bedivere, Excalibur not only represents power, but embodies a way of life. When he takes the sword to the water's edge the first time, he cannot bring himself to throw it in because of the Excalibur's blinding beauty. Tennyson describes the Excalibur as "brightening," "sparkled," "twinkled with diamond sparks,/ Myriads of topaz-lights..." Bedivere "gazed so long/ That both eyes were dazzled" (Tennyson, 48). He returns to Arthur, who sends him back to complete his mission.
The second time, Bedivere determines that if he throws the Excalibur into the water, "a precious thing, one worthy of note,/ Should thus be lost for ever from the earth... What good should follow this, if this were done?" (Tennyson, 49). He wants to keep the Excalibur so that he can have material proof of all that has taken place under Arthur's reign. Bedivere's inability to let go of the Excalibur indicates his lack of faith in Arthur. He will not take the leap of faith and trust that Arthur and the Roundtable were more than just a fantasy. He fears that his whole life has been spent defending an illusion, defending something which does not, and did not, really exist. Later in the poem Bedivere cries out, " Ah my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?... For now I see the true old times are dead,/ When every morning brought a noble chance,/ And every chance brought a noble knight... But now the whole ROUND TABLE is dissolved/ Which was an image of the mighty world" (Tennyson, 54). The world that Bedivere knows is falling apart. He is frightened of a world which has none of the stability to which he is used. Bedivere does not know how to believe in a world without Arthur, for Arthur has been his faith. For the people living in the nineteenth century, Arthur was the embodiment of Christ and Christianity, of human beings and humanity. As the world around them became more and more foreign and confusing, their whole framework began to crumble, as Bedivere's did with the passing of Arthur.
Yet there is hope that faith can be restored and maintained. In the following excerpt from "Morte D' Arthur," that hope is clear. The third time Bedivere goes to the water's edge, he returns to the King and tells him
Sir King, I closed mine eyelids, lest the gems
Should blind my purpose, for I never saw,
Nor shall see, here or elsewhere, till I die,
Not though I live three lives of mortal men,
So great a miracle as yonder hilt.
Then with both hands I flung him, wheeling him;
But when I looked again, behold an arm,
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
That caught him by the hilt, and brandished him
Three times, and drew him under in the mere. (Tennyson, 51)
Thus Bedivere takes the leap of faith, trusting in Arthur and the Round Table, by throwing Excalibur into the water. For Tennyson and many others, this leap becomes the essential mental and emotional action needed to regain and keep a sense of faith.
Last modified 1996