Despite being a fairly short work, Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Coming of Arthur" takes place over a huge stretch of time. Tennyson constantly makes use of the Bakhtinian chronotrope throughout the poem, dedicating whole stanzas to some events while only mentioning others in passing. King Leodogran's dream, for example, takes up eighteen lines, while in another place Tennyson squeezes an entire military campaign into just "And he drave | The heathen, and he slew the beast, and fell'd | The forest."
Every event that receives attention in excess of just a line or two, then, has a special significance that it might not have in the context of a less selectively epic poem. When Tennyson slows down the action, his detailed descriptions serve as a pointer, indicating an important undercurrent or turning point. For Leodogran's dream, arguably the climax of the poem, the slowdown clearly makes sense, but for some earlier scenes the reasons behind the extra attention might not be so immediately obvious. In one such scene, Arthur receives his legendary sword from the Lady of the Lake:
'And near him stood the Lady of the Lake,
Who knows a subtler magic than his own —
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful.
She gave the king his huge cross-hilted sword,
Whereby to drive the heathen out: a mist
Of incense curl'd about her, and her face
Wellnigh was hidden in the minster gloom;
But there was heard among the holy hymns
A voice as of the waters, for she dwells
Down in a deep, calm, whatsoever storms
May shake the world, and when the surface rolls,
Hath power to walk the waters like our Lord.
1. Would the scene with the Lady of the Lake feel more or less significant if it were a poem all by itself?
2. It can be argued, reasonably, that Tennyson grants the scene its own stanza because it tells how Arthur came to wield Excalibur — a very important, iconic weapon. But then does it seem peculiar at all that the passage focuses so much on the Lady and not the sword?
3. Tennyson devotes a wealth of adjectives to describing the Lady's clothing and the mist surrounding her, but he never actually describes her body. Why might he have chosen to neglect or even obscure the female form in this scene? What might the decision say about Tennyson's personality as a writer, or about attitudes regarding women and holiness in his era?
4. It has been pointed out that Tennyson's Lady of the Lake has traits in common with the sea monster described in "The Kraken." Besides the obviously similar habitats, the characters both appear wrapped in shadow or mist, both rise out of the water only in times of great crisis, and both have some connection to the Bible. Might Tennyson have deliberately hinted at such parallels, or are they likely just coincidental? The Kraken rises out of the ocean during the Apocalypse, and the Lady of the Lake rises when war rages in Britain — could this have any symbolic significance?
5. Tennyson makes a somewhat peculiar decision by describing Excalibur — the sword with which Arthur will "drive the heathen out" — as "cross-hilted." At first glance, the description feels like an entirely natural, obvious link to Christian imagery, but there's a problem: in that era, in that region of the world, most swords had cross hilts. Based only on Tennyson's description, then, Excalibur has no physical uniqueness — and yet it still feels somehow holy. Tennyson makes a clever move by saying "cross-hilted," drawing attention to an otherwise normal trait in lieu of an actual metaphor, but might Excalibur's righteous connotations actually stem from text outside Tennyson, from how iconic the sword has become over centuries of lore? If an author attempted to write a reimagining of Arthur today, how much would he or she have to battle with the audience's preconceived notions of the tale?
6. When used to describe the Lady of the Lake, the phrase "a voice as of the waters" obviously makes sense, but it doesn't necessarily bring to mind a concrete image. Does it hinder a piece if its imagery cannot easily be imagined?
Modified 9 March 2009