As Robert Hill notes in his introduction to Idylls of the King, Tennyson "initially wished his poem to be" an epic, even if he could ultimately "not sustain the larger purpose" of his narrative. Given his intention to create an epic poem for his time, there are several aspects of Idylls that are interesting in comparison to the original English epic — Beowulf.
In this passage, from the last full poem, "The Passing of Arthur," the dying Arthur commands Bedivere to dispose of Excalibur. The figure of the sword is important in both Idylls and Beowulf, as discussed below.
There drew he forth the brand Excalibur,
And o'er him, drawing it, the winter moon,
Brightening the skirts of a long cloud, ran forth
And sparkled keen with frost againts the hilt;
For all the haft twinkled with diamond sparks,
Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work
Of subtlest jewellery. He gazed so long
That both his eyes were dazzled as he stood,
This way and that dividing the swift mind,
In act to throw; but at the last it seem'd
Better to leave Excalibur conceal'd
There in the many-knotted water-flags,
That whistled stiff and dry about the marge.
So strode he back slow to the wounded King. (220-33)
1. On a strictly technical level, there are several similarities between Idylls and Beowulf. For one, Tennyson imitates Beowulf's use of combined words — "water-flags" and "topaz-lights" here echo the "Ring-Danes" and "hero-bands" of Beowulf. Are there any other structural similarities between the two texts (i.e., how does Tennyson construct a modern epic?) From a structural perspective, why would Tennyson attempt to position his Idylls as an epic poem?
2. There are thematic elements present in both Idylls and Beowulf as well. Beowulf takes the hilt of the sword he uses to kill Grendel's mother as his trophy from that battle, which opens the poem. Arthur's Excalibur is the sword that symbolizes his greatness, and he obtains it in the first poem of Idylls. Although Beowulf does not keep that sword throughout the poem as Arthur does with Excalibur, swords play important roles in his final battle and death. Beowulf's sword breaks when he fights the dragon that kills him, and Wiglaf (who parallels Bedivere) brings up a sword from the dragon's treasure hoard for Beowulf to see as he dies. The biggest difference here is in what Bedivere and Wiglaf do. Bedivere is commanded to dispose of Excalibur, but saves it instead. Wiglaf is commanded to retrieve a treasure (the sword), and does so. As noted by Hill in a footnote on page 382, in the concluding poems of Idylls, "Arthur's commands go unheeded. One of the themes throughout...is the growing failure of communication and its consequences." Keeping in mind this theme, are there any other repeated elements in the poems? What are purposes do these repetitions serve?
Last modified 9 April 2003