Idylls of the King

For the Victorian challenge, I wanted to finally get around to reading Tennyson's Idylls of the King, which inspired so many romantic girls to name their children Gareth, Geraint, Lancelot, and Elaine. I've had a copy for years and never gotten around to picking it up, because long narrative poems are not really my thing. The Idylls are separate long poems, each telling one of the stories of King Arthur. It looks to me like Tennyson uses Malory as his main source, though he changes some things around. He makes the whole thing into an allegory of the human soul as well (though I found that to be clearest at the beginning) and as the poems progress, there is more and more doom hanging over the Round Table.

I liked the poems well enough and was interested to see some of the changes Tennyson makes to the stories. One of the most striking Idylls was "Merlin and Vivien,"--though I can't quite say that I liked it. Vivien (sometimes known as Nimue) is never portrayed as a particularly wonderful girl, but Tennyson really went to town on making her as sly, treacherous, and malicious as possible. I was interested by a little detail, though, that no one else will care about--in one of my favorite mystery series, the detective is fond of quoting Tennyson, especially "trust me not at all or all in all" and "It is the little rift within the lute, That by and by will make the music mute, And ever widening slowly silence all." Both of these turn out to be from Vivien, quoting a song from Lancelot--which is interesting. And within the poem itself, it's Lancelot and Guinevere who are the little rift within Camelot's lute, who cause the eventual demise of the Round Table. Vivien comes back to play her part in that, too.

The later idylls get quite dark--and more difficult to understand--as the Round Table falls apart. Courtesy and chivalry wane after so many knights are lost on the Quest of the Holy Grail, and newer knights are not as civilized. Then Guinevere's and Lancelot's adultery becomes more and more known, undermining the ideals that Arthur has worked to set in place. Arthur himself is portrayed as too idealistic, demanding super-human perfection and purity from his knights while blind to the disloyalty of his wife and best friend. Tennyson dedicated most of the Idylls to Prince Albert (though posthumously) and explicitly compared Albert to Arthur, which must have made Victoria happy.

My copy of the Idylls suggested some other poems by Tennyson to compare to the text, so I also read The Lady of Shalott and St. Simeon of Stylites. I tried to read The Two Voices, but it was just too much for me; it's very long and despairing. I'm also supposed to read Gray's Elegy--maybe tomorrow?


  1. Wow, this sounds really interesting. I didn't evne know about this. So thanks for the review!

  2. +JMJ+

    I heard of this a few years ago (but never read it), when I pursued a personal fascination for the Round Table and Camelot. I confess that Guinevere and Lancelot's adultery always totally killed the story for me. I don't know how they could stand betraying Arthur that way. It's interesting that Tennyson lets Arthur share a bit of the culpability, too. Is he wilfully blind, like someone in denial, or is it just his fatal flaw, so to speak?

  3. I think Tennyson just makes him so *good* that he's not quite human. He has a hard time recognizing that people can't live up to his ideals, they're just people. Guinevere sees him as so far above her that she can't be close to him--but on the other hand she never tries, because she fell in love with Lancelot at the start, and she uses Arthur's perfection as an excuse. She even scorns him for it, until the end when she realizes what she has really done.

    I'm always kind of fascinated by Lancelot and Guinevere--it's such a rotten thing to do, and they manage to be so blind about it. And then it ends up destroying Camelot. But as I'm sure you know from your own reading, the storyline was originally a way to make things more interesting and Guinevere less bad--the first Arthur stories have her betraying Arthur with Mordred. And I always like to read about the changes to an old story over time.

  4. +JMJ+

    I had forgotten about the Mordred versions! Thanks for reminding me.

    But now that I have them side by side in my mind . . . Oh, I don't know whether it is worse for a woman to betray a man with his worst enemy or with his friend. =S

    And then I have to remind myself that of course there is more to Camelot than Guinevere behaving badly . . .

  5. I've had a copy for years and never read it. After reading your review, I'm interesting in it!

    (Found your review via the Victorian Reading Challenge.)

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Gypsi--and Enbrethiliel too!

    Heh, good point about which is worse. And there is more to the story--but I think that's kind of the core of it, how you have this ideal society set up and it's wrecked by treachery--whether romantic or revengeful.


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