aving successfully passed their very different trials, Arthur and Bedivere receive their appropriate rewards: the three Queens and their mysterious host convey the King to Avilion, while the knight, who must remain behind, is granted first the sight of the magical vessel, then the comfort of Arthur's words, and finally the vision with which Tennyson ends the poem. Lifting the wounded Arthur to his shoulders, Bedivere makes his way through the darkened wasteland until they reach the shore when suddenly they see the moon flashing upon the sea and the strange vessel whose "decks were dense with stately forms,/ Blackstoled, black-hooded, like a dream" (364-5). Giving his last command as an earthly ruler, Arthur has his vassal place him in the ship. The Queens come forward to receive him, taking off his helmet, and he lies among them "like a shattered column" (389) in a scene that resembles a pieta. Having obeyed his lord, the good Sir Bedivere, who realizes his coming loneliness in this new, now lessened world, asks "my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?" (395). He sees, too, that "the true old times are dead" (397), and for him the chance to do great and noble deeds has vanished from the earth. Such an opportunity had not existed, says Bedivere, "since the light that led/ The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh" (400-1) to the Christ-child, and one may have to wait an equally long time for such a magnificent era to come again. Bedivere, who rightly feels himself the last survivor of an heroic age, wants to be assured that life has still meaning. Like the speaker in the Anglo-Saxon "Wanderer," like Tennyson after the death of Hallam, Bedivere is looking for a centre to life.
Arthur's reply makes two important points that once again emphasize the main themes of The Idylls of the King. First, he tells his knight to have faith that God is present in history, and that history, even the destruction of the Round Table, has meaning and purpose. In a particularly poignant and courageous assertion of his own faith, Arthur expands upon his words to the Roman lords come for tribute in "The Coming of Arthur," telling Bedivere: "The old order changeth, yielding place to new,/And God fulfils himself in many ways,/ Lest one good custom should corrupt the world" (408- 10). Earlier, the assertion that since the "old order changeth," he would not render tribute to now impotent Rome, acts to demonstrate that the young Arthur well knows in whom to place faith, and he will not do so in those too weak to keep it. Now in this darkened, lessened time, Arthur's recognition that his own time has passed is his final demonstration of faith in God and His ways. He thus tells Bedivere to comfort himself, bidding him to pray for his king's soul.
More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend? [415-21]
In this most explicit emphasis of the poem's theme of faith, Arthur overtly defines man as the being who is able to pray, as the one being whose nature permits him to have faith. This problem of having and keeping faith which Tennyson investigates continuously throughout the poem is, then, more than a matter of Arthurian times, more than something which concerns man in relation to his religious, personal, and political existence alone: faith, the ability to have and keep it, defines the essence of the human.
At this point, Arthur bids farewell to his vassal, telling him he believes he is going to the "island valley of Avilion" (427) where he will heal his grievous wound. When he finishes speaking, the boat departs, leaving Bedivere lost in thought. As the ship withdraws into the distance, becoming a "black dot against the verge of dawn" (439), the moan of the mysterious crew dies away as the world becomes deadly still. Thinking "The King is gone" (443), Bedivere suddenly remembers "the weird rhyme" (444) which Merlin had pronounced at Arthur's birth: "From the great deep to the great deep he goes" (445). This, then, is Bedivere's first reward for obeying his king, and Tennyson uses it to point out the intimate relation that obtains between moral action and belief: by keeping faith with Arthur, his knight becomes able to receive faith. Having loyally obeyed his king at last, Bedivere finds that both the words and that higher faith which he had never before been able to comprehend now spontaneously come to him bringing comfort. Turning from the mere, the good knight slowly climbs the "iron crag" (447), which Tennyson transforms into a veritable mountain of vision, to catch a last glance of the black hull. As he climbs, this knight, who had once so easily discounted tales of Arthur's miraculous origin, cries out: "He passes to be King among the dead,/ And after healing of his grievous wound/ He comes again" (449-51). Though mixed with doubt, which is the condition of all human faith, this belief comes as a reward for Bedivere. Building to a climax of vision," Tennyson next permits the last member of the Round Table to have two more experiences that will support his faith in the difficult times to come. First,
from the dawn it seemed there came, but faint
As from beyond the limit of the world
Like the last echo born of a great cry,
Sounds, as if some fair city were one voice
Around a king returning from his wars. [457-61]
Thereupon he climbs once more, as Tennyson ends The Idylls of the King with a vision of the rising sun.
Thereat once more he moved about, and clomb
Even to the highest he could climb, and saw,
Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand,
Or thought he saw, the speck that bare the King,
Down that long water opening on the deep
Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go
From less to less and vanish into light.
And the new sun rose bringing the new year. [462-69]
Like Tennyson's own mystical experience in In Memoriam, the sight of Arthur moving toward Avilion, Heaven, or wherever he ands is stricken through with doubt even as it occurs; and yet it still suffices to provide faith for life. Good Sir Bedivere, the first made and last left of Arthur's men, has managed to keep faith with his lord after great trials, and as a reward he becomes aware of mystical and magical dimensions of existence which before were beyond his ken. Most important, his experiences on the mountain crag, however mysterious they may be to him, yet give him the faith and strength to live in a faithless age.
- Test, Trial, and Subjectivity of Faith
- Passing the Test: Bedivere Keeps Faith with Arthur
- Having Faith and Keeping Faith
[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