. . . till the loathsome opposite
Of all my heart had destined did obtain.
["Guinevere,” ll. 488-89]

decorative initial 'T' he Arthurian Romance has every recommendation that should win its way to the homage of a great poet. It is national: it is Christian” (Gladstone, p. 468). It is also ironic, and that, one gathers, meant a great deal more to Tennyson than the patriotic and religious possibilities Gladstone was publicly urging on him. The ostensible purpose of Gladstone's exhortation was to persuade the Laureate to continue his Arthurian work beyond the four idylls published in 1859. To that extent Tennyson followed his political friend's advice, though the finished Idylls is hardly the sort of pious article Gladstone seems to have had in mind.

What exactly it is forms the subject of a lively controversy these days. It is no longer possible to call Idylls of the King a neglected masterpiece. Nor can one now set about the pleasant and easy task of defending the poem from its well-meaning friends-like Bradley: “Let us take the Idylls of the King. They swarm with beautiful passages” (Bradley, p. 12) The best Tennyson criticism in recent years has been devoted to this poem, which has more and more come to be recognized as his major work and one of the two or three most important poems of the century.

The critical controversy over the Idylls bears out E. D. Hirsch's contention that “every disagreement about an interpretation is usually a disagreement about genre” (Hirsch, p. 98). Arguments about the theme of the poem, about whether the prevailing ethic is absolutist, relativistic, or existential, and especially about the role and function [150/51] of Arthur, all derive from varying assumptions about the poem's genre. Those who assume that the Idylls is or should be tragic are prone to see Arthur as a redeemer who fails; those who assume a comic form likely see him as a defective human being. Tennyson clearly insists that Arthur is both hero and human, ideal and real, thus suggesting the inability of either comic or tragic conceptions to give a full explanation. In fact, these classic forms appear in the Idylls only in parody. The poem is the most complete expression of ironic art in Tennyson, perhaps in his time. It manages to attack the substance of each of the other three mythoi: its narrative structure parodies romance; its tone parodies comedy; its characters, particularly its central hero, parody tragedy,

There are, of course, several different kinds of generic questions connected with the Idylls, and I should make it clear that I am not primarily concerned here with the important issue of the poem's relation to epic or the even more important issue of Tennyson's use of the term “idyll.” 4For my purposes it is sufficient to note that the obvious epic analogy heightens the irony by suggesting a coherence, a positive scale of values, and conceptions of grandeur which are now absent. Similarly, the term “idyll” brings into view a different order entirely from the one that is present. The “little picture” and its emphasis on leisurely contemplation support very well the parody of romance and its lazy, easy development. We are given, in romance, the illusion of a movement that occurs only in space and thus occupies no time. In the foreground of romance and the Idylls is furious action, but the form itself assures us that there is no real development at all.

The narrative discontinuity in the Idylls, as in romance, is itself an important virtue, in that it gives a sense of being in an art gallery, glancing slowly from one “little picture” to another. Even the overlaid seasonal progress in the Idylls suggests not so much objective, physical time as the spatial representations of time in medieval tapestry or triptychs. This emphasis on space seems to imply the absence of time, which in turn implies the conquest of [151/152] time. In romance, the passage of time is only apparent; there is always room for more adventures. Even the fact that adventures resemble one another and are cast in what appears to be no necessary order supports the illusion of infinite leisure: the reader, it is almost suggested, can go ahead and add some more tales if he likes. The world of romance is the world of the wish-fulfillment dream, where there is motion without destruction, recurrent rather than climactic development.

Tennyson's poem supports all these characteristics of romance, of course, only to belie them: beneath the placid surface is an inexorable and ever more restricting progress. The poem advances one of its most crucial parodies in relation to the timeless “idyll.” A strong negative climax is created through a form that is meant to protect us from conclusions; there is no real freedom from the laws of time, especially from the principles of decay and dissolution. Arthur tries to establish a world in which past, present, and future cooperate “as if Time / Were nothing” (“Gareth and Lynette,” ll. 222-23), but, despite Arthur, despite even the idyll form, time wins.

Time and a great many other forces conspire to destroy the city that “is built / To music, therefore never built at all, / And therefore built for ever” (“Gareth and Lynette,” ll. 272-74). These central lines occur in the midst of a speech by Merlin, wherein he mocks the rationalistic and empirical assumptions of Gareth and his companions. Merlin is no relativist, but he realizes that there are some who will be satisfied only with the deceptive truths of materialism: “And here is truth; but an it please thee not, / Take thou the truth as thou hast told it me” (ll. 252-53). If they are not “pleased” with the one central truth, the only and single truth, they are welcome to the “truth” they already possess, such as it is. Tennyson was so anxious to avoid misunderstanding of this passage and its apparent endorsement of relativism that he added a footnote explaining that Merlin's use of the term truth to describe the youth's rationalistic perceptions is “Ironical” (Ricks, p. 1490)

Indeed it is. Merlin is defending the absolute validity and reality of the city built to music that pipes “to the spirit ditties of no tone.” The city houses the spiritual and the imaginative, but it is a city and it is built. There is no denial of the senses but an incorporation of them into the full harmony of creative life. Camelot is never built at all, Merlin says (partly in jest), only in the eyes of those who insist on the truths (ironical) of rationalism. The secrets of Camelot [152/153] are not available to those who lack the capacity for exercising the creative imagination; it has no meaning at all for those who have only the tools of logic and the evidence of the senses. Arthur's world is based on Romantic, especially Coleridgean dualisms, but Arthur is no simple transcendentalist, He insists on a dynamic interplay between ideal and real, reason and imagination, a resolution of apparently hostile forces into an extremely difficult balance. The use of the senses is not part of the danger; only a total reliance on the senses is damaging. An absolute denial of the senses is, in the end, exactly as harmful to Camelot's balanced world as is a dependence on them. This is not an absolutist world defeated by relativism, but a poised and complex world defeated by simplicities.

Arthur is attempting to control rather than to deny change. Above all, Camelot is a dynamic conception whose permanence, like that of music, is fluid, resilient, and unfixed. Almost no one perceives this; even the slippery and cynical Gawain views loyalty merely as stasis: Lancelot's defection seems surprising to him only because it suggests that the presumably constant (which to Gawain means “stationary”) knight has changed: “Must our true man change like a leaf at last?” (“Lancelot and Elaine,” l. 682). To rationalists, all change is evidence of the defeat of Camelot. It is the worldlings, the relativists of Camelot who are, in the end, its rigid absolutists. At the center of Arthur's genuine promise is the figure of the converted Edyrn: “[I] kept myself aloof till I was changed; / And fear not, cousin; I am changed indeed” (“Geraint and Enid,” ll. 871-72). The city of music is not built at all, in the sense of being static and unchanging; it is built forever in the sense that it partakes of the growth and variety of the best part of human life.

But in order to realize that best part of life, men must be human; they must ensure a basic coherence so that a dynamic order may be built. The vows bind them only in the way Lancelot is originally bound, to keep the word that is “God in man” (“The Coming of Arthur,” l. 132). The purpose of this complete trust in words is not the enforcement of mere restrictive honesty but the creation of a bond between word and deed, between past (promise) and future (action), between God and man, that is at the heart of a genuine society. The vows are enemies of chaos only, not of variability and growth. Far from asking for a sacrifice of individuality, they provide a social and personal solidity out of which genuine personality can develop. The direct result of the maintenance of these vows is [153/154] courtesy, an unforced and natural outward expression of the grace developed within. There is no particular code of conduct, legislated or otherwise, because none should be necessary. Behavior is linked inextricably to being; deception, thus, is impossible and need not be guarded against.

The basis of Camelot's hope is very clearly the basis for its destruction. The kingdom can exist only on the validity of the word ' which means that man's best hope can be sabotaged by something as superficial as a lie. As soon as the word is broken, God, who is thus denied, withdraws from the world and human beings cease to be human. Arthur's scheme seems a remarkably simple means for bringing Eden back to man; and it is, but men throw away the only hope they had. Merlin knows that the vows are both necessary and fruitless, that they make almost no demand at all and yet an impossible one; “for the King / Will bind thee by such vows, as is a shame / A man should not be bound by, yet the which / No man can keep” (“Gareth and Lynette,” ll. 265-68). The vows will guarantee our humanity; for that reason they will be broken. There have been a few attempts to dissolve the tension of Merlin's ironic paradox. The most ingenious is by Condé Benoist Pallen. According to him, Merlin is talking about "vows which it is a shame for a man not to swear, but vows which no man, simply as man, can keep; for he can fulfill them only by becoming spiritualized" (p. 46).

The most terrible irony in all the Idylls is that there is no real cause for this loss of humanity. As Northrop Frye says, “Tragedy's 'this must be' becomes irony's 'this at least is' “ (p. 285). Jacob Korg also argues that there is no real cause, that the kingdom "unaccountably" (p. 10) dissolves. He goes on, however, to ascribe this causelessness to an overriding "fatalism," a tragic principle, I would suggest, that is unrelated to ironic action. Instead of the convincing reasons given in tragedy we have a multiplicity of reasons, all inadequate. There are no resounding causes for the fall and no important forces at work against Arthur; he is defeated by triviality. His greatest enemy, in fact, is the natural process of oversimplification, The balance he tries to maintain between the physical and the spiritual, for instance, is destroyed on one side by Tristram and the naturalists, and on the other by the well-meaning search for the Grail. The failure is not one of morality but a pathetic failure of understanding; the world is lost not because it is evil but because it is stupid. [154/155]

Arthur is magnificently heroic, but there is about him the ironic shadow of the relentless and ludicrously ineffective pedagogue whose star pupils misunderstand: the king's grandest and simplest words are presented by a good-hearted reporter, Percivale, whose only comment is, “So spake the King: I knew not all he meant” (“The Holy Grail,” l. 916). The entire poem mixes the heroic and the preposterous, the grand and the trivial. The final effect is not to deny the importance of Arthur and Camelot, but rather to insist on both the greatness and the impossibility-even the absurdity-of this dream. The dream is shattered for no particular, or at least no important, reason; most men did not even realize what it was: “the wholesome madness of an hour,” according to Tristram (“The Last Tournament,” l. 670).

But it is not individuals, finally, who fail Arthur. It makes some sense to say, “Arthur gave the opportunity; only the individual can fulfill the idea presented to him,” (Reed, p. 157) but in fact no one finds the task that easy. Genuine liberation and growth in Camelot are simple matters only at the very beginning; the world soon closes in arid becomes restrictive, very much as it does in Middlemarch or The Trial, where everyone is caught in complex entanglements he can neither control nor understand. Later, innocent characters like Pelleas and Elaine have no chance at all; they are slaughtered not because they fail to believe in Arthur but because their belief is so pure. Camelot's fall cannot, thus, be traced to people; it is caused by something both larger and more paltry-the very nature of things.

In other words, insofar as Arthur could fight against social bias, immorality, sin, and prejudice, he could win great victories, but he could not win against the natural current of dim sloth and stupidity. The fact that he could, for a time, defeat all natural forces defines his heroism; it also defines the basis of his defeat by the mounting pressure of trivia. The faith in nature or natural impulses is thus bitterly transformed. In comedy, the forces of natural instinct and order overcome rigid and artificial efforts to thwart them, In the ironic form of the Idylls, natural forces also win and overcome the king who has tried to impose unnatural virtue, unnatural humanness.

However, the Idylls are most often read, or misread, in terms of blame, fault, and causes for decline. The poem itself certainly [155/156] refuses to provide a perspective for finding fault; it engages enthusiastically in denying us this perspective. Despite this fact, it is both natural and common for critics to locate some position anyhow-either inside the poem, with Tristram and the relativists or Percivale's sister and pure spirituality, or outside the poem, usually in some theory of tragic action.

The naturalistic objections to Arthur, stated at various times in the poem by Guinevere, Tristram, and Vivien, are given extremely witty form by a great many commentators. The most colorful is Swinburne's complaint that Tennyson has reduced “Arthur to the level of a wittol.” The king's “besotted blindness . . . is nothing more or less than pitiful and ridiculous.” Swinburne does at least recognize that he has predecessors in his views and he offers an indirect acknowledgment to his major source: Vivien. He maintains that she is right; “such a man as this king is indeed hardly 'man at all.' “ (Swinburne, 16: 405-06)

One must admire Swinburne's heroic consistency; once he finds these realistic grounds for objection, nothing, not even Vivien, will dislodge him. His views are later repeated by G. K. Chesterton (p. 167) and, in modern criticism, most pointedly by Clyde deL. Ryals. Ryals picks up some different points from the poem's rationalists, namely, Tristram's objections to the unreal rigor Of the vows (“The Last Tournament,” ll. 651-57) and to Arthur's unnatural infringement on his liberties (ll. 678-90). For Ryals, Arthur is “a monomaniac” whose knights are “emotionally exploited” by him. (Ryals, p. 81)

It is difficult now to escape from this contention that Arthur is somehow at fault. It is a novelistic world in which we (or at least readers of nineteenth-century literature) live, one that is dominated by realistic and pragmatic notions of probable behavior. Tennyson's poem makes very few appeals to that particular set of assumptions, and then only in order to parody them. It is true, of course, that Arthur can never be successful. Merlin says so. To suppose, however, that this means he should have done something different seems to me to reduce greatly the effect of the poem. [156/157]

The alternative tendency to read the poem in terms of tragic imitation is not reductive, of course, but it is artificially elevating. Some of the most interesting discussions of the Idylls are filled with talk of “an unfathomable pattern of universal justice,” a purging and cleansing of the world (Kozicki, pp. 16, 20), or the necessity of making Apollonian illusions stand in the face of the Dionysiac beast. (Brashear, Vitalism, pp. 29-49, Living Will, passim). There are strong tragic overtones in Arthur's story, but I think they are there, finally, to burlesque genuine tragedy. The death of Arthur confirms no justice, universal or local; the poem ends where In Memoriam began: in darkness and uncertainty, without heroism, even without meaning.

The basic form of Idylls of the King is very much like that of In Memoriam reversed: instead of irony yielding naturally to comedy, here irony subverts comedy. The Idylls of the King carefully builds a comic world and then destroys it from within. It is a poem which, at its opposite ends, asserts the alternating visions of comedy and irony. In the middle sections we see the two together, the acidic properties of irony working to dissolve comic values. The three-part structure of the poem corresponds to this division: first, the affirmation of comedy in “The Coming of Arthur,” “ Gareth and Lynette,” “The Marriage of Geraint,” and “Geraint and Enid"; next, the parody and dissolution of comedy in “Balin and Balan,” “Merlin and Vivien,” “Lancelot and Elaine,” and “The Holy Grail"; finally, the confirmation of irony in “Pelleas and Ettarre,” “The Last Tournament,” “Guinevere,” and “The Passing of Arthur.”

Web version created March 2001

Last modified 8 August 2016