Decorative Initial Gawain's appearance in Arthur's dream serves to emphasize the Tennysonian concern with the human need to have faith and keep it. Clearly, Gawain, who had been blown along by the wandering wind of his passions during his life, in Dantesque fashion repeats this action after death; whereas the King, who had remained true to himself, his people, and his God, is promised a place of rest and peace.

There came on Arthur sleeping, Gawain killed
In Lancelot's war, the ghost of Gawain blown
Along a wandering wind, and past his ear
Went shrilling, "Hollow, hollow all delight !
Hail, King! Tomorrow thou shalt pass away.
Farewell! there is an isle of rest for thee.

And I am blown along a wandering wind,
And hollow, hollow, hollow all delight." [30-37]

Tennyson here alludes to the fifth canto of the Inferno where the great lovers — Helen, Cleopatra, Paris, Tristram, and, of course, Paolo and Francesca — are similarly blown about through eternity because, subjecting reason to passion, they allowed themselves to be carried away by physical love. That Dante's Paolo and Francesca fell through reading about Lancelot's adulterous love for Guinevere further enforces Tennyson's point about the tragic results of human inability to keep faith. It is particularly fitting that Gawain, the warrior light of faith, should be the figure thus to come to Arthur in his dream, for again in the manner of Dante, Tennyson seems to be using those damned by their own actions both to prophesy and to teach the reader the nature of the sin that all must shun.

Throughout the Idylls this knight represents those who try neither to believe nor to act loyally. In "The Coming of Arthur," where the reader first encounters Gawain, he acts characteristically when Bellicent sends him from the throne room while she and Leodogran confer; for whereas Modred characteristically eavesdrops, ear against door, Gawain carelessly "breaking into song/ Sprang out, and followed by his flying hair/ Ran like a colt, and leapt at all he saw" (319-21). But by "Lancelot and Elaine" his pleasant lightness, perhaps fitting for a young boy, has become rank in manhood: Gawain is neither obedient to his king "Nor often loyal to his word" (557). He disobeys Arthur by giving the jewels won at the disastrous tourney to Elaine, rather than seeking out the victorious knight, and Arthur angrily tells him he has acted with false courtesy to the young maid: "Ye shall go no more/ On quest of mine, seeing that ye forget/ Obedience is the courtesy due to kings" (711-13). In "The Holy Grail" this knight who had so lightly broken his vows to Arthur to seek the holy vessel, equally easily abandons the search when it begins to bore:

For I was much awearied of the Quest:
But found a silk pavilion in a field,
And merry maidens in it; and then this gale
Tore my pavilion from the tenting-pin
And blew my merry maidens all about
With all discomfort; yea, and but for this,
My twelvemonth and a day were pleasant to me. [741-47]

The lightness with which Gawain treats matters of faith, such as the Grail, and that faith which must be kept, such as his oath to the King, is seen more darkly in "Pelleas and Ettarre" where he promises to win the heart of the cruel woman for the young knight by lying that he has killed him, thus supposedly provoking her to remorse and wakening love. But after pledging both his own word and the honour of the entire Round Table, he betrays Pelleas — and hence himself, his king, and the other members of the fellowship. The material effect of this faithlessness appears in the servant whom Pelleas savagely disfigures and sends to Camelot in "The Last Tournament."

Thus, it is most appropriate for Tennyson to use Gawain to represent those who break faith in the hierarchy he creates in "The Passing of Arthur." The King, of course, has attained the highest level men can reach, for he has firm faith and keeps faith with all. Below him in the hierarchy stands Bedivere, the loyal, if limited knight who represents natural man at his best — man, in other words, who can only rise above himself when under the influence of someone like Arthur. Gawain then epitomizes those without faith, those too intellectually lazy, too morally lax to concern themselves overmuch with thinking or acting in any way which limits their pleasures. Modred, who like Mark and Vivien has a pathological inability to believe in anything or anybody, takes his place at the very bottom of this hierarchy of human nature as the embodiment of unfaith. If Arthur is very frequently described in terms that remind one of Christ, then Modred's obvious analogue is Satan. Since he, Gawain, and Gareth, who appears in an earlier idyll, are brothers, one is tempted to believe that Tennyson intentionally imitated Dante, whose practice it is to apportion three members of the same family in different realms of the afterlife, placing one each in Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Even within "The Passing of Arthur" itself, this analogy to Dante holds to some extent, since the King is reputed to be related to Gawain and Modred — though, of course, this is not the case.

Related Material


[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.]

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Last modified 30 November 2004