Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Coming of Arthur" is filled with spiritual mysticism that has apocalyptic undertones. He uses interactions between heaven and earth frequently in The Idylls of the King, and we see two of those instances here, when King Leodogran is contemplating the authenticity of Arthur's kingship. These mystical instances are the ones that win him over to Arthur's side, and not the other more objective accounts of his family history.
In an effort to find out about Arthur's ancestry, he questions several people. His chamberlain says that only Merlin and Bleys know the secret, which is written in a great annal-book. The three knights whom Arthur had sent concur that he is the son of King Uther; Bevidere tells a story that ties all of Arthur's rumored fathers together while maintaining that Arthur is the rightful heir to the throne. King Leodogran also speaks with the daughter of Gorlois who according to Bevidere's story is Arthur's half sister. She tells of Arthur's bravery, authority and charisma in a description of his crowning, where his glory has a physical effect on his knights when knighted; some were "pale as at the passing of a ghost", some "flush'd", some "dazed, as one who wakes half-blinded at the coming of a light".
She then tells a strange story of Arthur's birth, where mysticism is heightened by the fact that these were the last words of a dying man:
Shrunk like a fairy changeling lay the mage,
And when I enter'd told me that himself
And Merlin ever served about the king,
Uther, before he died, and on the night
When Uther in Tintagil past away
Moaning and wailing for an heir, the two
Left the still king, and passing forth to breathe,
Then from the castle gateway by the chasm
Descending thro' the dismal night Ñ a night
In which the bounds of heaven and earth were lost Ñ
Beheld, so high upon the dreary deeps
It seem'd in heaven, a ship, the shape thereof
A dragon wing'd, 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 watch'd 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!
Here is an heir for Uther !', And the fringe
Of that great breaker, sweeping up the strand,
Lash'd at the wizard as he spake the word,
And all at once all round him rose in fire,
So that the child and he were clothed in fire.
And presently thereafter follow'd calm,
Free sky and stars: "And this same child," he said,
"Is he who reigns; nor could I part in peace
Till this were told.,'And saying this the seer
Went thro' the strait and dreadful pass of death,
Not ever to be question'd any more
Instead of being more skeptical after hearing this story, King Leodogran is further convinced that Arthur is the true heir to the throne. However, he is not ready to say yes. The final experience that fully convinces him of Arthur's pedigree is a dream:
Doubted, and drowsed, nodded and slept, and saw,
Dreaming, a slope of land that ever grew,
Field after field, up to a height, the peak
Haze-hidden, and thereon a phantom king,
Now looming, and now lost; and on the slope
The sword rose, the hind fell, the herd was driven,
Fire glimpsed; and all the land from roof and rick,
In drifts of smoke before a rolling wind,
Stream'd to the peak, and mingled with the haze
And made it thicker; while the phantom king
Sent out at times a voice; and here or there
Stood one who pointed toward the voice, the rest
Slew on and burnt, crying, 'No king of ours,
No son of Uther, and no king of ours';
Till with a wink his dream was changed, the haze
Descended, and the solid earth became
As nothing, and the king stood out in heaven,
Crown'd. And Leodogran awoke, and sent
Ulfius, and Brastias and Bedivere,
Back to the court of Arthur answering yea
1. Arthur is portrayed here as a mystical hero, a god-like figure, who is able to command his men with strength and righteousness. Why does Tennyson use folkloric stories and dreams to appeal to King Leodogran, instead of a more objective look into Bleys annals?
2. How does Tennyson's use of nature here with the powerful elements like 'wave', 'flame', 'wind' differ from the way he uses nature in In Memoriam?
3. Tennyson's description of heaven here differs from "The Holy Grail" where Galahad enters the heavenly kingdom. What is Tennyson's objective of using two different images?
4. The voice is mentioned several times in the above passages. Whose voices are they and what role do they play?
- Diving Deep to Uncover Additional Meaning
- "The Coming of Arthur": a Tale of Two Unions
- Guinevere's Role in "The Coming of Arthur"
Last modified 5 February 2009